‘A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces’ is a collection of 39 short stories by Indian writers from the 19th century to the present, written in English or translated from regional languages. The book is edited by David Davidar, a novelist himself and as the introduction says ‘an attentive reader of Indian fiction for nearly forty years’, which is evident from the stories that he has compiled.
The book had me hooked with the cover itself. A half open, old wooden door, freshly painted in blue, with nimbu-mirchi [when strung together they cease to be lemon and chillies, isn’t it?] hanging down. It can’t get more Indian than that, can it? It is almost symbolic of the quintessential Indian pride. We might live behind a dilapidated door, but you will be surprised or even envious of the resilience, courage, hope… in short the Life you will see inside. And that is exactly what this book is all about.
And if you aren’t impressed with the cover, all you need to do it turn to the back and run through the list of writers!!
The stories are well chosen, the collection starts with‘Hunger of the stones’ by Rabindranath Tagore [titled ‘Khudito Pashaan’ in Bengali], written in 1895, a ghost story. Tagore weaves the story so beautifully that you get lost in the world of the Arabic Belles, just like the protagonist [try reading it late in the night, with only the reading light on].Its more magical than scary.
The book has some famous stories like The ‘Shroud’ by Premchand [Titled ‘Kafan’ in Hindi], ‘A Horse and two goats’ by R.K Narayanan, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Sadat Hassan Manto, ‘The portrait of a Lady’ by Khushwant Singh, ‘Quilt’ by Ismat Chughtai [Titled Lihaaf in Urdu] and the ‘Blue Umbrella’ by Ruskin Bond. This is balanced with stories by authors such as ‘Elephant at sea’ by Kanishk Tharoor, ‘Stolen’ by Amrita Narayanan and Shahnaz Bashir’s ‘The Gravestone’. I particularly liked ‘The Gravestone’, so heartfelt and sardonic, you become the protagonist in the graveyard on a dark rainy night.
The highpoint of the book is of course the translations. There are Malayalam, Oriya, Telugu, Tamil and Kannad, Urdu, Marathi and Bengali stories. Stories I would have never read, given my ignorance of regional literature and authors. The translations I quite liked are ‘The Blue Light’ by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer [Horror was never so feel good], ‘A Life’ by Buddhadev Bose [ Inspiring] ‘The Somersault’ by Gopinath Mohanty [How fickle is fame], ‘Countless Hitlers’ by Vijaydan Detha [The shocking reality of the merciless times we live in], ‘Reflowering’ by Sundara Ramaswamy [the most entertaining story here, a machine cant outwit a man, can it?] ‘ In a forest, a deer’ by Ambai [the parting image of the protagonist, Thangam Athai, has stayed with me, heart wrenching], ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasweta Devi [Oh the last line haunts me ‘and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid’]
So was there any method to the madness? While this is an amalgamation of different genres, horror, romance, crime, fantasy, satire, the thread that binds them together is the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, pain, death and separation. However as I progressed from the 19th century to the present, what struck me was the how story telling had changed from brave to safe. On one hand you have ‘Quilt’ written in 1942, that tears through the quilt to tell you a story of longing , passion, and rebellion, ‘Stolen’ on the other hand is just an erotic story, just that. While stories like ‘Toba Tek Singh’, or ‘Crossing the Ravi’ by Gulzar, or “One horse and 2 goats” have a such a strong underlying message, stories like the ‘Kama’ by Vikram Chandra or ‘Desolation, Lust’ by Upamanyu Chatterjee, or ‘Trying to discover India’ by Shashi Tharoor despite being engaging stories fade away when compared to the sheer brilliance of the aforementioned authors.
So which are the stories that will stay with me forever? – ‘Crossing the Ravi’, ‘Quilt’, ‘A Life’, ‘A Blue Umbrella’ and ‘The Gravestone’. Resilient, Brave, Inspiring, Compassionate, these stories encompass everything we are, everything this country of ours stands for.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, I insist you read it, to embark upon an extraordinary journey into the soul of this ever surprising nation of ours!!
Have you read any of the aforementioned stories? Which are your favourites?