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Semeen Ali
‘Hindi Short Stories – Editor’s Choice’
Semeen Ali

Hindi Short Stories: Editor’s Choice
Translator & Editor: Girdhar Rathi
Thornbird, an Imprint of Niyogi Books, 2018
ISBN: 978-93-86906-61-8
Pp 218 | 395

Alternative Realities

“Every day she would leave some invisible dangerous trap, and when, for all my caution. I put my foot into it, she would emerge from nowhere screaming madly. I was caught, released, caught again…” – Nirmal Verma (The World Elsewhere)

This short story collection makes for an interesting read not because it contains works by writers from the Nayi Kahani era in Hindi literature but the selection brings forth myriad experiences and perspectives on how one deals with the world and with one’s self. Navigating through time and space to grasp realities, these stories will take the reader back in time when the Nayi Kahani movement dealt with multiple realities- anxiety, melancholy, the disintegration of middle class values. The opening story – Empty Canvas by one of India’s foremost painters, Ram Kumar touches upon unsaid emotions that cannot be defined or given a name as per the expectations of a society. As long as it remains nameless, the bond continues to be a strong one and not fragile. It is when a name is suggested that be given to such a relationship, is when the first signs of disintegration show up. Raghuvir Sahay’s A Chant shows a kind of complacency of the mind that sets in when an individual makes peace with his/her surroundings but such kind of a feeling is a dangerous one as it leads one to question one’s own sanity. The crumbling of one’s sense of self is a slow one but has been captured well. Another story by Sahay, startles the reader, given the time in which it has been written, an attempt to abort the unborn child by couple – a powerful short story and in the end the child is born despite the efforts to abort. A sense of guilt of trying to snuff out a life, a sense of a loss of one’s original space and at the same time a sense that sometimes we are not in control of how life steers us – Vijeta (the story’s original title) is one of those rare finds that should be admired for the subject that it chose and the way it has been handled.

Stories by Nirmal Verma find their way in this collection. Thematically, existentialism comes forth and his story- The World Elsewhere – shows a little girl create a world of her own filled with characters invisible to the human eye. The divide between the real and the unreal remains blurred in this story.  Where Verma in one story deals with this divide, there is another kind of a divide that still exists – based on one’s race and that sets the tone for – A Night in London.

“‘I was sincere and insincere at the same time’, I reasoned. Perhaps, all three of us had both been sincere and insincere at the same time.” – Gyan Prakash’s story reveals what lies beneath all the relationships as well as the branching out of it to hold on to other hidden aspects of the self. The story at a surface level would be that of an extra-marital affair but there is more to this story than meets the eye. Prakash’s in depth analysis of the whys and the hows behind it – the uncertainties of everything, that no institution – no relationship is a permanent one. The search continues and it does not end on one. The emotional index rises and falls depending partially on the way a society functions and how it expects one to fall into place. As Mahendra Bhalla’s story describes a Coffee House in Delhi and picks up a narrative thread on two people who frequent that place. Whether one is being taken for a ride or accepts that this is how the world works- the dichotomy that remains within – the questioning of other’s intentions as well as riddled with self-doubt, the characters in Bhalla’s story walk between the dark alleys and a sun soaked road trying to find parts of themselves – “There is a sky above us, but we can’t see it because there is a lamp burning over our heads.”

It is not just one’s existence that has been questioned by these writers; Ramnarayan Shukla brings the readers to another dimension – of desperate times leading to desperate measures like suicide. A realistic portrayal of how a man’s death can affect others leading to an obsession regarding one’s own struggle to live- to be recognized. Mahendra ka bhai (the original title) is a story where the reader is introduced to a set of characters but none of them is Mahendra. It is in the last paragraph that the writer introduces the shock element that I strongly recommend one should read the whole story to find out. The build-up and the final disassembling of that build up is something that needs to be read. The instability that a world has to offer and the everyday struggle to fit in finds a mention in Govind Mishra’s short story The Beginning, about a small boy who is removed from a familiar environment to one- where he learns at a small age to adapt as well as to survive is a story that will find a resonance in one’s heart. One does not need to physically relocate to a new place to fight their way for a space in an ever changing environment. The fluidity that is beyond one’s grasp has been neatly put forward in this story. Towards the end of the collection are two writers – Gyan Ranjan and Prayag Shukla who through their respective narrative voices bring out the angst that lives within one’s heart that hollers to come out and speak to the world as it sees it but at the same time suffocates that desire to be oneself and depends on other voices for support.

These seventeen stories written by nine writers in the 1960s – a decade rife with power struggles, even at the level of languages. These stories were translated in Tihar jail and Jaipur jails during the internal Emergency that had been imposed in June 1975, as the translator of these stories, Girdhar Rathi informs the readers. Such stories breathe life into an era that seems like a lost one to the current generation and in making an effort to bring a translation in English of a collection of stories from that age helps in bridging the every widening gap between Hindi literature and an English language reading audience. It brings up voices that would otherwise not be read if they remained in their original language. That is not to reduce the value of the language in which these stories have been originally written but for a wider dissemination of these stories – it is a commendable work that has been done by the translator.


Issue 83 (Jan-Feb 2019)

Book Reviews
  • Ambika Ananth: ‘When Seeing Is Believing’
  • Bhanumati Mishra: ‘The Forest of Enchantments’
  • Bhumida Sharma: ‘Sita Returns – Modern India through Her Eyes’
  • GSP Rao: ‘The History of India for Children’
  • Malsawmi Jacob: ‘Heightened Senses’
  • Mamta Joshi: ‘A Map Called Home’
  • Purabi Bhattacharya: ‘The Island of the Day Before’
  • Revathi Raj Iyer: ‘A Pitch for Love’
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Hindi Short Stories – Editor’s Choice’
  • Semeen Ali: ‘Country Drive’
  • Sapna Dogra: ‘Preeto & Other Stories – The Male Gaze in Urdu’
  • Sunaina Jain: ‘Left from the Nameless Shop’
  • U Atreya Sarma: ‘A Basketful of Lies’