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The Short Stories

Contents

Preface  

1. The Short Story   

  • A General Introduction   
  • Offshoots  
    • The Sketch   
    • The Yarn and the Tale  
    • Marchen   
    • Parable and Fable  
    • Mixed Modes  
  •     What then is a Short Story?  
  •     Things to Look for When Reading a Story  
    • Point of View    
      • Omniscient Point of View    
      • The Direct Observer’s Point of View    
      • The First Person Point of View    
    • Tone  
    • Plot  
    • Setting  
    • Dialogue  
    • Character  
    • Symbol 
    • Theme  

2. The Short Story in the Indian Context  

  • The Beginnings  
  • The Old and the New    
  • The Urban - Rural Reality  
  • New Subjects and New Issues  
  • The Woman Theme  
  • The Political Theme  
  • Experiments With New Techniques  

3. The Holy Panchayat    Premchand   

  • The Author and his Milieu   
  • The Holy Panchayat  
    •  Introduction   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      • A Build-up to the Panchayat Proceedings  
      • The Basic Structure  
      • The Realistic Setting in Minute Details  
      • The Panchayat as an Alternative System of Governance  
      • An Idealistic View of Justice  
      • A Doubling of Events  
      • The Role of Conscience  
    • Additional Comments  
      • Element of Chance  
      •  A ‘Change of Heart’Story  
      •  Erosion of Traditional Values  
      •  Forward Looking  
      •  Title and Techniques  
      •  Theme of Friendship and Communal Harmony  

4. The M. C. C.    R K Narayan   

  • Indian - English Writing  
  • The Author and his Milieu   
  • A Word about Swami and Friends  
  • The M.C.C   
    • An Introduction   
    • Detailed Analysis  
      • Events brought Up-to-Date  
      • Disparity between Style and Subject  
      • A Peep into the World of Children   
      •  Undercurrents  
      • Child Psychology  
      •  Naming of a Cricket Team is no Easy Task  
      • Innocence Located in Ignorance  
      •  Humour from Difference in Perspectives  
      •  The Two Letters  
      •  The World from a Child’s Perspective  
      •  A Sudden Inversion   
      •  The Story Deceptively Simple  
      •  Strong Nationalist Overtones  
      •  Narrative Technique  

5. The Card Sharper’s Daughter    Basheer   

  • The Author and his Milieu   
  •  The Sthalam Stories  
  •  The Card Sharper’s Daughter  
    • An Introduction   
    • Detailed Analysis  
      • The First Person Narrator  
      • Characterisation   
      •  The Event as History  
      • Laying the Ground for the Narrative to Unfold   
      • The Plot  

6. Toba Tek Singh    Saadat Hasan Manto   

  • The Author and his Milieu   
  • The New Story  
  • Toba Tek Singh   
    •  An Introduction   
    •  The Theme of Partition   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      •  Narrative Style  
      •   Madness as Metaphor  
      •   Insane or Sane?  
      •   A Parody of the World Outside  
      •   Breakdown of Language  
      •   The Sense of Place in One’s Identity  
      •   The Trauma of Dislocation   
      •   Arbitrariness of Political Decisions  
      •   Identity of a Person Linked to Place  
      •   The Person Becomes the Place  
      •   The Unresolved Questions  

7. The Quilt    Ismat Chughtai 

  • The Author and her Milieu   
  • The Quilt  
    •  An Introduction   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      •   Narrative Style  
      •   Position of Women   
      •   Visual Details  
      •   Suggestive Nature of the Details  
      •   The Child Narrator  
      •   The Ending  
      •   The Lihaaf as Metaphor and Symbol 
      •   The Theme of Female Sexuality  
      •   Characters and Style  

8. Squirrel  Ambai 85

  •     The Author and her Milieu   
  •     The Short Story in the Tamil Literary Scene  
  •     Ambai’s Writings  
  •     Squirrel 
    •  An Introduction   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      •   The Literal Level 
      •   The Metaphorical Level 
      •   Imagery  
      •   The Narrator  
      •   A Retelling of Mythical Allusions  
      •   The Squirrel’s Entry into the Literal and Metaphorical Worlds 
      •   The Past Resurrected/Surreal Techniques  
      •   Plurality of Perspectives  
      •   Role of the Squirrel 
      •   Feminist Concerns  
      •   Resurrection vs Annhilation  
      •   Themes and Style  
      •   Autobiographical Relevance  
      •   What ‘Writing’ Should Involve  

Appendices

 

Appendix I        Some Questions  

Appendix II       Suggested Further Reading  

 

 

 

Prepared by: 
Dr. Neeta Gupta


Site: School of Open Learning
Course: (Paper-2) 20th Century Indian Writing
Book: The Short Stories
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Wednesday, 14 November 2018, 12:33 PM

1 Contents

Contents

Preface  

1. The Short Story   

  • A General Introduction   
  • Offshoots  
    • The Sketch   
    • The Yarn and the Tale  
    • Marchen   
    • Parable and Fable  
    • Mixed Modes  
  •     What then is a Short Story?  
  •     Things to Look for When Reading a Story  
    • Point of View    
      • Omniscient Point of View    
      • The Direct Observer’s Point of View    
      • The First Person Point of View    
    • Tone  
    • Plot  
    • Setting  
    • Dialogue  
    • Character  
    • Symbol 
    • Theme  

2. The Short Story in the Indian Context  

  • The Beginnings  
  • The Old and the New    
  • The Urban - Rural Reality  
  • New Subjects and New Issues  
  • The Woman Theme  
  • The Political Theme  
  • Experiments With New Techniques  

3. The Holy Panchayat    Premchand   

  • The Author and his Milieu   
  • The Holy Panchayat  
    •  Introduction   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      • A Build-up to the Panchayat Proceedings  
      • The Basic Structure  
      • The Realistic Setting in Minute Details  
      • The Panchayat as an Alternative System of Governance  
      • An Idealistic View of Justice  
      • A Doubling of Events  
      • The Role of Conscience  
    • Additional Comments  
      • Element of Chance  
      •  A ‘Change of Heart’Story  
      •  Erosion of Traditional Values  
      •  Forward Looking  
      •  Title and Techniques  
      •  Theme of Friendship and Communal Harmony  

4. The M. C. C.    R K Narayan   

  • Indian - English Writing  
  • The Author and his Milieu   
  • A Word about Swami and Friends  
  • The M.C.C   
    • An Introduction   
    • Detailed Analysis  
      • Events brought Up-to-Date  
      • Disparity between Style and Subject  
      • A Peep into the World of Children   
      •  Undercurrents  
      • Child Psychology  
      •  Naming of a Cricket Team is no Easy Task  
      • Innocence Located in Ignorance  
      •  Humour from Difference in Perspectives  
      •  The Two Letters  
      •  The World from a Child’s Perspective  
      •  A Sudden Inversion   
      •  The Story Deceptively Simple  
      •  Strong Nationalist Overtones  
      •  Narrative Technique  

5. The Card Sharper’s Daughter    Basheer   

  • The Author and his Milieu   
  •  The Sthalam Stories  
  •  The Card Sharper’s Daughter  
    • An Introduction   
    • Detailed Analysis  
      • The First Person Narrator  
      • Characterisation   
      •  The Event as History  
      • Laying the Ground for the Narrative to Unfold   
      • The Plot  

6. Toba Tek Singh    Saadat Hasan Manto   

  • The Author and his Milieu   
  • The New Story  
  • Toba Tek Singh   
    •  An Introduction   
    •  The Theme of Partition   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      •  Narrative Style  
      •   Madness as Metaphor  
      •   Insane or Sane?  
      •   A Parody of the World Outside  
      •   Breakdown of Language  
      •   The Sense of Place in One’s Identity  
      •   The Trauma of Dislocation   
      •   Arbitrariness of Political Decisions  
      •   Identity of a Person Linked to Place  
      •   The Person Becomes the Place  
      •   The Unresolved Questions  

7. The Quilt    Ismat Chughtai 

  • The Author and her Milieu   
  • The Quilt  
    •  An Introduction   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      •   Narrative Style  
      •   Position of Women   
      •   Visual Details  
      •   Suggestive Nature of the Details  
      •   The Child Narrator  
      •   The Ending  
      •   The Lihaaf as Metaphor and Symbol 
      •   The Theme of Female Sexuality  
      •   Characters and Style  

8. Squirrel  Ambai 85

  •     The Author and her Milieu   
  •     The Short Story in the Tamil Literary Scene  
  •     Ambai’s Writings  
  •     Squirrel 
    •  An Introduction   
    •  Detailed Analysis  
      •   The Literal Level 
      •   The Metaphorical Level 
      •   Imagery  
      •   The Narrator  
      •   A Retelling of Mythical Allusions  
      •   The Squirrel’s Entry into the Literal and Metaphorical Worlds 
      •   The Past Resurrected/Surreal Techniques  
      •   Plurality of Perspectives  
      •   Role of the Squirrel 
      •   Feminist Concerns  
      •   Resurrection vs Annhilation  
      •   Themes and Style  
      •   Autobiographical Relevance  
      •   What ‘Writing’ Should Involve  

Appendices

 

Appendix I        Some Questions  

Appendix II       Suggested Further Reading  

 

 

 

Prepared by: 
Dr. Neeta Gupta


2 Preface

Preface

The uniqueness of Indian Literature lies in the fact that while we may talk of it as one single entity yet it comprises of a myriad literatures coming from different geographical regions and written in different languages. At the same time they all belong to the same country. Diversity and oneness thus go hand in hand. To make an attempt to read and understand this vast literature poses a unique problem therefore, since one is not necessarily well versed in all Indian languages. An exercise in translation however, can make that body of literature available to us. The six Indian short story writers whose works have been selected for your course this year also come from various regions of India and excepting R K Narayan they all write in different Indian languages. The stories therefore come to you as translated versions of the original.Beginning with Premchand, the great stalwart of Hindi literature, going on to R K Narayan, Basheer Manto,Ismat Chughtai and Ambai these writers and their stories make apparent the wide range of themes, style, form, technique and character of this unique literature. Various scholars and critics have written on these writers and you will find their ideas included in the ensuing analysis of the prescribed stories.

The first chapter of this study material introduces you to the genre of the short story and traces its growth from the beginnings in the oral tradition to its present popular form. An important section of this chapter highlights the things we have to look for in a short story and thus introduces you to various techniques at play. The second chapter focuses on the short story in the Indian context and attempts a broad overview of how the short story developed in the various regions of India and what were the major concerns and how these underwent a change with the passage of time to include new themes and issues being generated by political, social and historical changes. The chapters subsequent to the first two bring you a detailed analysis of the individual stories along with an introduction to the writer and his/her milieu.

There are any numbers of books and articles available which provide information on the genre of the short story, on the story in the Indian context and also on the individual writers and their works.Those that proved helpful in the preparation of this study material, however, are either mentioned in the course of the writing or are included in Appendix II with a detailed bibliographical listing. If you are interested in reading further in this area then this list of suggested books would facilitate your efforts.

As you have to read a translated version of these stories it would be advisable if you use a reliable translation. The one recommended for your course is the Anthology brought out by the Oxford University Press titled Modern Indian Literature: Poems and Short Stories. This Anthology includes all the prescribed poems and short stories and the same come to you with useful annotations.

Dr. Neeta Gupta

Department of English


3 The Short Story

The Short Story

A General Introduction

It would be impossible to find someone in this world who at some point in life has not heard a story. The ubiquitous story has made its way into all cultures and traditions cutting across all geographical boundaries. Stories have been told and passed down from time immemorial, from generation to generation, from place to place from century to century. The tradition is probably as old as language itself. The beginnings can be traced to the need in humans to share their experiences. Hence a necessity was felt to relate one’s experiences and give them a narrative form. The same takes the shape of story telling. In all primitive cultures this is how myths and legends too were passed down from one generation to another. As the stories were transmitted orally they inevitably carried a strong sense of the teller with them and all successive narratives were embellished with the mark of the teller’s personality and his history. When these myths and legends, this folklore was developed, sophisticated and written down, it took the form of the earliest known written narratives like The Old Testament, the Greek and Roman myths, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata and the Gilameshepic.

Stories might have been present in our cultures since pre-historic days yet the short story as a distinctive genre is as recent a phenomenon as to have the Oxford English Dictionary include a formal definition of it only in 1933. The last hundred and fifty years or so have witnessed a steadily growing popularity of this genre in several countries all over the world. The growth of the story in its written form has been undoubtedly facilitated by a phenomenal increase in the publication of periodicals, journals and magazines. A genre as popular as the short story, should have been able to attract enough critical attention to keep pace with its popularity. Yet it was not so. As mentioned earlier, no formal definition of it existed in the OED before the year 1933. Discussions pertaining to the form of the story and about its distinctive features had begun in Europe almost a century before the OED’s formal definition. A need was felt to address such questions as to what is a short story. Is it any story that is short or does it have some distinguishing qualities? How is it different from a novel? Only in terms of its length and breadth or are there other differences as well? Does the genre have rigid specifications or does it allow an overlapping with other genres? How long is short and when is a story not a story? Such were the questions that gradually began drawing the attention of writers, readers and critics alike. More so because a need was felt to distinguish it from other kinds of prose narratives that also told stories but could not be fitted into the category of the short story. 


3.1 Offshoots

Offshoots

The tale telling impulse is too potent and fecund in human beings and cannot be confined to any fixed narrative pattern. Thus the history of the modern short story embraces a number of narrative categories which show similarities and affinities with the story but are in fact distinct genres in themselves. At times, one single story may display one or more of them operational within it. Ian Reid lists a number of these tributary forms which have contributed to the growth and evolution of the short story proper. Let us take a brief look at these.

    The Sketch

A sketch is predominantly descriptive and the emphasis falls on what some thing, person or place is like. It does not show any temporal movement and is virtually static. American writers in the early 1820, 1830s produced sketches especially regional vignettes of local scenery, customs and the like.

In England too sketch like pieces were produced by eighteenth century periodical writers while depicting fictitious personages and the most memorable of them was ‘Sir Roger Coverley’ in The Spectator essays of Addison and Steele. This was different from the seventeenth century portrayal of abstract human categories like ‘The Malcontent’ or ‘A Puritan’.

While a mere pen portrait or a landscape essay can hardly be called a story yet both can figure in a story and thus make for an overlapping of the two. A sketch without a plot on the other hand is too deficient in human action to be called a story.

    The Yarn and the Tale

Anecdotes are fragmentary episodes, often about something supposed to have happened to a famous personage e.g. Sir Isaac Newton and the falling of the apple. A yarn is an elaborated anecdote or series of anecdotes and is narrated in a colloquial and casual tone associated with the oral tradition of tale telling. The word derives its meaning from the sailor’s slang in which rope making became a metaphor for story spinning and thus the yarn. The telling is matter of fact and the setting naturalistic or even a narration of actual events. Usually it designates a fairly straight forward, loose knit account of strange happenings.

Anecdotes verge on the modern short story when amplified as tales. A tale is a loose and imprecise term, which can be applied to any kind of fictitious narrative. Among the several specific sorts of tales are the gest (from Latin gesta, deeds), relating to adventurous exploits; the ballad, a popular romantic tale in verse form; the fairy story and the yarn.

    Marchen

While the yarn used naturalistic and realistic settings, the Marchen appeals to our sense of the marvelous. Supernatural elements dominate here but Marchens are different from myths in that the point of focus is not religious matters or aristocratic heroism but familiar daydreams and nightmares of ordinary folk. These were the ‘stories about fairies, the realm or state in which fairies, elves, dwarfs, witches and trolls etc. exist along with the sun, the sea, the sky, the moon, the earth ... and ourselves, mortal men when we are enchanted.’ Marchens in that sense are different from children’s ‘fairy stories’. Such tales found their way into the mainstream of literatures of several countries across the globe.

    Parable and Fable

Both parable and fable were quite similar in their pre-modern form when each was geared towards using an analogy between the main narrative elements and aspects of general human behaviour. The most obvious difference however is that the fable endows animals (or sometimes vegetables and mineral objects) with human capabilities while the characters in a parable are generally human beings and certain details in setting and character may be symbolic. Both are didactic and instructive but unlike the fable, the parable need not be cynical or ironical and its meaning need not be instantly apparent. It is when they no longer insist on a narrowly didactic point that these two forms can enter the realm of the short story.

    Mixed Modes

As evident from the title itself, these are stories, which play off one set of narrative conditions against the other. We may find in such stories the sketch, the yarn, the ballad, the fairy tale, the comic hyperbole or the tall tale and the parable. The mixed mode stories are thus a compounding of various narrative types into one but we must not make the mistake of supposing that an amalgamation of all these narrative conventions goes to make a short story. As discussed earlier, the genre of the short story does not have only ‘monotypic purity’ and can thus embrace many forms of narrative conventions. Yet a certain formal poise, a cohesiveness or psychological cogency can distinguish a short story from other kinds of brief prose writings.

Just as there is a tendency to consider any piece of brief prose narrative as a short story so also there is a tendency to locate a short story in all kinds of extended prose narratives which are shorter than novels. In fact these types of writings lie between the short story and the novel but once again are distinguishable from the short story proper. Among these extended prose narratives are namely, the Novella which is ‘an individual narrative of medium length and breadth’; the Cycles which are “collections of stories unified by interconnecting themes, motifs and characters and the Framed Miscellany which are collections of stories unified within a framing device. All these extended prose narratives have stories to tell but cannot be categorized under the genre of the short story. 


3.2 What then is a Short Story?

The Short Story

What then is a Short Story?

While the short story was still in its initial stages of development as a distinctive genre it was Edgar Allan Poe who in 1842 gave one of the most constructive answers to the question. For Poe ‘the unity of effect or impression’ was of prime importance in a short story. According to him it was not its shortness that defined a short story but ‘the unity of effect and the intensity of impact that came with it.’ He went a step further to point out that this unity requires the work to be ‘read at one sitting’ thereby making a case even for the short length of the story as compared to the expansiveness of the novel. Poe’s views on singleness and brevity were shared by many and justifiable comparisons were made between the lyric and the short story, both of which require a certain concentration in the reader’s mind. Each detail needs an attention because there is nothing in the lyric or the short story that can be wasted. There can be no digressions and no summarization. The story and the lyric depend on ‘concreteness, on sensual impressions that deliver their meaning without waste.’ In a short story ‘the action is compressed within a short (usually continuous) time frame and space. The characters, few in number are revealed not developed. The background and setting are implied not rendered. The action begins in media res and the story gets on as quickly as possible.’

Brevity and intensity are therefore two major requirements of the genre of the short story. Somehow the effort of short story writers has been towards increasingly compressing their works. This in turn has posed a problem for them too because conciseness and compression can lessen the depth of the human experience, chip away at its richness and take away from its complexity. How can a short story writer be ‘succinct without being shallow’ or how can he create ‘a single effect without creating a merely transitory one?’ In other words, how can a story achieve its depth or the feeling of depth?

When Hemingway observed that the story reveals ‘the tip of the iceberg’ he inadvertently answered all the above questions. Just as the tip suggests that the rest of the iceberg is there too, in a short story there is a lot that is suggested and the readers have to be alert to infer it all. The setting will be intimated, characters insinuated, complexity implied and rather than summarization there will be suggestion.

When compression and suggestion work together it creates what Sean O’Faolin calls ‘the point of illumination’ and Joyce terms it as ‘epiphany’. What happens at this epiphanic moment? You will notice that at this point in a short story all things come together — characters are revealed, plot reaches its climax, we arrive at a moment of understanding and the deeper implication of the story in the human context too is made evident.

The distinctiveness of the short story then was located in three different but related qualities:

  • It makes a single impression on the reader.
  • It does so by concentrating on a single crisis.
  • It makes that crisis pivotal in a controlled plot so that there is symmetry of design and economy of movement making them a matter of ‘deliberate ease’ in Poe’s words.

Having said that we realize that the modern short story has been moving away from this kind of classification too and at times some of these points when looked at from the point of view of certain modern short stories do not stand scrutiny. For example, some modern short stories (e.g. those of Kafka) are hardly works of ‘deliberate ease’ in fact they seem to be spontaneous outpourings or fanciful dreams like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Then there are some stories whose appeal stems mainly from their lack of a single effect and there may be interplay of several modes in them. Then the point of crisis or of revelation, though common is by and large not at all necessary. Some stories may not achieve this point of crisis, some may only hint at it and then others may totally subvert the idea making the point of crisis deliberately anti-climatic. Even where the symmetry of design is concerned, making a sequential Plot an essential requirement of a short story, the movement has been away from a plot having a beginning, middle and end. In fact Chekov’s stories have been called ‘all middle like a tortoise.’ Chekov too himself remarked once ‘I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end.’ In fact in the hands of the modern writer the short story is moving towards being a virtually plot-less narration. Yet it shares with the other sequential stories the salient quality which was recognized by William James even in the elaborate tales written by his brother Henry James. These stories gave, he said ‘an impression like that we often get of people in life: their orbits come out of space and lay themselves for a short time along ours and then off they whirl again into the unknown leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of their being.’

Present short story writers then are moving away from the earlier affirmations about the essential qualities of a short story but only time will tell whether their works will represent a new convention or a blind alley leading us nowhere. For all facts and purposes it will be good to remember that the popular form of the short story concentrates on unity of impression, a single moment of crisis and gives it all in a controlled plot when characters are revealed not developed and descriptions are compressed if not implied. 


3.3 Things to Look for When Reading a Story

Things to Look for When Reading a Story

There are certain literary techniques at work when a story is written. One should be alert to recognize these while reading a story in order to understand and appreciate it better. For example we should be able to locate the vantagepoint from which the author chooses to tell his story. This is called the point of view. The other things to notice are the tone in which the story is told, how the plot is orchestrated, how the characters are revealed, what the setting is and how is the dialogue delivered and whether there is any use of symbols and ultimately we should be able to recognize thetheme of the story. Packer, Hoopes and Stone in their excellent book The Short Story: An Introduction, have elucidated these various features in detail and I have relied on their explanation in the following listing.

    Point of View

This is a literary term that refers to the relationship between the storyteller, the story and the reader. It ‘signifies the way a story is told -- the perspective or perspectives established by the author through which the reader is presented with characters, actions, setting and events which constitute the narrative in a work of fiction.’ We must notice whether the story comes directly to the reader or is it being filtered through the mind of another character or more than one character who are the narrators of the story. The narrator may or may not be a participant in the action.It all depends on which window or which key-hole you get to see the action from. There may be just one key-hole which may limit what we see or there may be many which give us diverse perspectives on the action, on the characters and on the theme of the story.  

Thus a story can be presented in many different ways and at times a single piece of narration (especially extended narration) can employ various means within the same narrative. If we attempt a simplified classification then Point of View can be broadly divided into two categories -- the Third Person Narrative and the First Person Narrative that can have further divisions or subclasses. In the Third Person Point of View the narrator is someone outside the story who refers to all the characters in the story proper by name or as ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’. In a First Person Narrative, the narrator speaks as ‘I’ and is himself a character in the story. The Third Person Narrative can be further divided into the Omniscient Point of View and the Limited Point View or the Direct Observer’s Point of View.  Let us see how these two operate.

  •     Omniscient Point of View

This point of view works on the assumption that the narrator is an all knowing, all seeing person, free to move from place to place, from character to character, having access to their thoughts and feelings and motives as well as to their obvious speech and actions. The omniscient narrator chooses and reports whatever he wants the reader to know. If the narrator is intrusive then he comments freely on the characters, evaluates their actions and motives and philosophizes about human life in general. These comments and reports of an omniscient narrator are to be taken as authoritative. If on the other hand the omniscient narrator is non-intrusive or impersonal then he describes, reports or ‘shows’ the action in dramatic scenes without introducing his own comments or judgements. The Omniscient Point of View allows philosophical depth but requires distance thus making close identification difficult. There is a loss in intensity resulting from this distancing.

  •     The Direct Observer’s Point of View

The Direct Observer’s Point of View, also known as the Limited Point of View, is almost the exact opposite of the Omniscient Point of View. The narrative is still in third person but the narrator is little more than ‘a fly on the wall recording a scene’, or ‘he confines himself to what is experienced, thought and felt by a single character or at most by a very limited number of characters within the story. Of all Points of View, the Direct Observer’s allows for maximum amount of dramatic intensity and compactness. We are made to feel as though we ourselves are present in the midst of the action going on. The narrator is the ‘centre of consciousness’ and all the events are filtered through his consciousness to the reader. This technique was developed by later writers as the stream of consciousness technique in which ‘we are presented with outer observations only as they impinge on the current of thought, memory and feeling which constitute the observer’s total awareness.’ While in the impersonal omniscient narrative we remain aware of an outside voice telling us about what is going on, in the Direct Observer’s Point of View we remain under the illusion that we ourselves are participating in and experiencing the events unfolding before our eyes. In that sense it is more dramatic. This method however has its limitations. Because of its dramatic nature it is difficult to describe the delicately changing mental or emotional positions of the characters or to give a wide range of understanding of the issues. As against the expansive view of the omniscient narrator, the direct observer gives a narrow perspective.

  •     The First Person Point of View

This mode limits the Point of View to what the first person narrator experiences, knows, infers or can find out by talking to other characters. The first person ‘I’ may be merely a witness of the events he relates or he may be a minor or peripheral character in the story or he may also be the central protagonist. This kind of narrative avoids the rambling quality of Omniscience and also the restriction of the Direct Observer.

The narrator, however, may at times be a self-conscious narrator when he is aware that he is composing a work of art and will therefore take the reader into his confidence about various problems involved — either seriously or for comic purposes. At other times he may be an unreliable or infallible narrator when we find that his interpretation of events and evaluation of the matters he relates does not coincide with the beliefs and values held by the author. These beliefs and values may not albays be stated but are nevertheless implied in the narrative and the author expects the reader to share the same with him. This narrator’s excessive innocence, moral obtuseness or lack of sophistication makes him a distorted ‘centre of consciousness’ which in turn creates irony within the narrative because there would always be much more implied than is being obviously stated.

    Tone

The Tone of a story is the ‘voice’ in which it comes to us and the attitude that voice expresses. It is not necessary for a story to have an obvious storyteller or narrator in order to have a voice or tone. Every story has a voice, a tone which conveys the author’s attitude and his intentions and shapes the reader’s responses. To put it differently, often the true meaning of words emerges not from what is said but how it is said. This is what Tone is.  The way words are conveyed, the way they are arranged, the rhythm they carry, the pace they create — all contributes to give them a certain tone, which goes a long way in determining the reader’s reaction.

Thre is an extensive variety of possible Tones because it depends directly on the vast range of human thoughts, feelings emotions, approaches and attitudes. The tone may be formal or informal, intimate or detached, outspoken or reticent, serious, ironic, simple or obscure, condescending, angry, loving and so on but of all these one tone needs to be paid special attention. Irony, which should not be confused with sarcasm or invective, is a subtle tone, which can be registered in the voice of the story as well as in the plot. It comes into play when there is a difference between what is being stated on the surface and what is being implied underneath. It therefore exposes the difference between appearance and reality and subtly lays bare the variance between what is true and what isn’t, between fact and fiction, between what one expects to happen and what actually happens.

    Plot

To put it very simply, the Plot of any dramatic or narrative work is the sequence of its events, the way things happen, the structure of its actions and how they are arranged and ordered to move towards a certain emotional and artistic effect. But a Plot is not merely a working of what happens but also why it happens and so it becomes not just consecutive but consequential as well.

‘Plot’ is directly related to ‘Character’ because the actions are performed by characters and are geared towards revealing their intrinsic qualities, their moral leanings, and their attitudes towards various things, people, and situations. As Henry James has said, ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’

The movement of the plot is usually from a given situation to a certain complication of events and finally to a resolution in the end. If, however, the focus of a narrative is on the inner workings of the mind of a character then at times this movement is exhibited not through external events but through their interiorization.

    Setting 

Setting is the ‘place’ where the action is located. Events have to take place somewhere and that locale is the Setting of the narrative which involves not only the particular physical location but also the historical time in which the action occurs. The Setting is important because it arouses expectations in the reader and creates an atmosphere of the narrative. Early short stories generally began with a lengthy description of the physical and historical scene and also the personal backgrounds of the characters. Over the years, however, due to movement of the story being towards a compactness of description this practice is being discarded in favour of an impressionistic rendering when the details of the scene are either suggested or unobtrusively added to the progressing narrative rather than being separately detailed.

    Dialogue

In a dramatic or narrative work there are characters that do and say things which express their ‘moral and dispositional qualities’. What the characters say is Dialogue and what they do is Action. Generally Dialogue occurs in almost all short stories but it is not used only as a medium for exposition. Dialogue means that the characters are interacting and it is this interaction that pushes the story towards its conclusion. There are other forms where speech or dialogue is employed such as letters, monologues, dreams, confessions and these have a similar effect in the narrative. Dialogue is one thing that gives the narrative a dramatic quality.

    Character

Characters in a dramatic or narrative work are the persons with a given set of qualities around whom the action revolves and who are participants in the action. We have already seen how Plot and Character are interdependent. Other points discussed so far are also related to character. For example, Point of View influences character because the way a character is presented directly determines the way we respond to a character. This also brings into play the tone which too can create or influence character in particular ways. If the author’s tone while presenting a character is disdainful or mocking or condescending or funny then we as readers are likely to see the character in a similar light.

E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel (1927) made a broad distinction between various types of characters and classified those under two headings— flat and round. A flat character (also called a ‘type’ or ‘two dimensional’), Forster says, is built around ‘a single idea or quality’ and is presented in outline without much individualizing detail and so can be fairly adequately described in a single phrase or sentence. A round character is complex in temperament and observation and is revealed with subtlety. He is difficult to describe with any adequacy just as a person in real life and like most people he is capable of surprising us.

Even in methods of characterization a broad distinction has been made. Two alternative methods -- that of showing andtelling are available to the authors for this purpose. ‘Showing’ is the dramatic method in which the author merely shows the characters in action and the reader is left to infer on his own about the motives and dispositions behind their actions. In ‘Telling’ the author intervenes deliberately in order to describe and evaluate the motives and temperament of his characters. The two methods can often be combined.

    Symbol

‘A Symbol is a sign standing for a meaning.’ In other words its meaning is not limited to the literal but extends beyond that to have a range of significance and reference. Some symbols have a permanent significance in particular cultures such as ‘the Cross.’ These are conventional symbols. Some symbols have a fixed and specific meaning for example a nation deciding what the colours of the flag would mean or a political party deciding what the image they use will stand for. As explained by Packer, Hoopes and Stone, more often than not symbols have a derived meaning –‘a meaning that is born from the history and experience of a culture as the blindfolds on our statue of Justice stand for the impartiality of the law which is rooted in our western tradition.’ Sometimes the significance of a symbol is generated from within the narrative itself and these are the ones that can pose problems of interpretation for the reader. At times symbol hunting can lead to an unnecessary significance being attached where none in fact exists. So we have to be on our guard against this over indulgence and remember that sometimes what we are being shown is just that and nothing more. Packer, Hoopes and Stone remind us rightly of Freud’s words who said that sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.

    Theme

This word is applied to ‘a thesis or doctrine, which an imaginative work is designed to incorporate and make persuasive to the reader.’ Underlying the working of character and events in any dramatic or narrative work are the values which the writer is trying to express and also his understanding of the human predicament. These values and this understanding become the Theme of the narrative. It is implicit and emerges in the act of writing.


4 The Short Story in the Indian Context

The Short Story in the Indian Context

The short story in the Indian sub-continent followed a more or less similar pattern of growth as it did in Europe and America, before it could evolve into its present modern literary form. The earliest beginnings were again in the oral tradition when at first it was the various Myths and Legends which were thus circulated and these were followed by Tales, Fables and Parables. In the pre-printing era, the stories of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas though, were most popular when being transmitted orally and became a common feature of the various regions of India. In a medium that remained largely oral what followed next were the chained stories of the Panchtantra, the Hitopadesa andVikram and Betal.Gradually tales from the Middle East filtered in and were also absorbed into the literary tradition. In the nineteenth century when the printing press was introduced in India and when publication of journals and periodicals was undertaken, the Character-sketch and Reportage of incidents saw an emergence, which was soon followed by publication of short fiction in the form of Novellas. The Indian short story in its modern literary form evolved after going through these various mutations and its development was directly linked to the widespread popularity and circulation of magazines and journals. It was also in part a result of the demand created by the reading public who preferred a complete short story to parts of novels previously being serialized in these literary magazines. As you can see, the situation has a strong similarity with the one in Europe and America where the journals played a very important role in the development of the short story as a literary genre.

If we try to trace the development of the Indian short story chronologically and while doing so make attempts to locate when exactly it made its first appearance, we are faced with a problem that is unique to Indian literature. Here we have not one literature but many literatures that are collectively called Indian as they come from the same country. No single language dominates and therefore there cannot be any single dominant literature but rather literatures (in the plural) in the many diverse languages of India. Each having its own regional peculiarities and complexities, each distinct and unique, each having been enriched by the experiences shared by the people of that particular region while all sharing collectively the experiences, the joys, the sorrows, the difficulties, the upheavals (political, economic, social) of one nation, one country. There is therefore a Malayalam literature, a Marathi literature, Telegu, Kannada, Tamil, Sindhi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and Hindi and several others. Though each of these literatures is distinct and unique yet there are interrelations—at times due to geographical proximity of certain regions at other times due to the shared history of the same nation. Thus while on the one hand Indian literature can be seen as a unified whole, on the other each of its parts can be viewed as a disparate entity capable of holding its own ground. Each of these can boast of having produced literary masterpieces, some later than others, but none merit a condescending treatment of being less advanced than the rest in literary matters.

    The Beginnings

To locate the earliest appearance of the Indian short story in its established literary form one has to look at not just the literature in Hindi (being the national language of India) but other regional literatures as well. In Hindi, the short story did not make its debut till the early decades of the twentieth century while in Bengali the form had already been firmly established by the last decades of the nineteenth century by Rabindranath Tagore. Fakir Mohan Senapati, the Oriya writer, however, was probably the first Indian to write a short story in the modern sense with the publication of his ‘Lachmania’ in 1868. On the other hand, in languages like Dogri, Rajasthani, Manipuri, Maithili, Nepali, Konkani and Kashmiri—the form made an appearance only in the twentieth century between 1925 and 1940.

    The Old and the New

In its modern sense the Indian short story was distinct from the earlier forms of Anecdotes, Tales, Sketches, Reportage and Novellas even though it shared with them some of its features. The distinction between the old and the new and the desire to make the distinction known was reflected in the new terminology for the short story that emerged in the various regions of India. While at first it was referred to variously as Kathaakhyan, upakhyanafsana and dastaan, the new story, because of its difference and distinctness from the old form used new terms. These were, for example, Chotagulpa in Bengali, Cutigalpa in Assamese, Turiki Varta in Gujarati, Sanna Katha in Kannada, Cerukatha in Malayalam,Laghukatha in Marathi, Kundra Galpa in Oriya, Nikkikahani in Punjabi, Shirukatai in Tamil, Kathanika in Telegu andKahani in Hindi.

As mentioned before, this new form of the short story was distinctly different from the old. Emphasis was now placed along lines similar to those found in the short stories of the West. There was a conscious attempt towards a compact narrative structure, focus on a particular incident, a moment of crisis or emotional intensity and there was a unifying thread of events and emotions leading up to that moment. Brevity and intensity, however, were not the only dominant features. There was a remarkable shift in focus too. Rather than placing kings and queens or other aristocratic figures at the centre of action, the short story now made the common man its protagonist and his everyday experiences its subject. Commensurate with this shift in focus, was the movement away from the marvelous, the fantastic and the implausible to the real and the factual. The Indian short story became firmly grounded in reality and talked about the mundane everyday experiences of ordinary men and through these experiences it tried to uncover the relationship that exists between individual and society. At times the purpose was reformist and didactic as in the stories of Premchand. At other times it was geared towards creating a certain emotional effect through characters and situations with which the ordinary reader could identify for example the early stories of Rabindranath Tagore where he made ‘the ordinary men and the extraordinary moments of their lives’ his subject and his theme. Gradually these stories emerged from being narratives of simple moments or simple problems and matured into delineations of the complexities of human life. Nasta Nid by Tagore, Kafanby Premchand and Koneya Giraki (The Last Customer) by Niranjan (Kannada) are fine examples.

    The Urban - Rural Reality

Most of the Indian short stories were set in the rural space since the village rather than the city dominated the Indian landscape. Characters and situations, problems and issues ere drawn from the village: the wealthy landowners, the poor peasants, the artisans, the moneylenders, the village priests were all firmly rooted in the rural scene. Gradually, however, the city too began to make an appearance. In the early days it was almost always projected as an undesirable contrast to the village and was seen as something that had been foisted on to the Indian scene by the British Imperial powers hence a metaphor for the subjugation of the Indian people. It was seen as a place where traditional values and customs, simplicity and innocence were all sacrificed in the name of progress. The lure and the power of this new, upcoming feature of the Indian setting was however too strong to resist and there was a consequent increase in the flux of population from villages to these towns and cities. This led to a phenomenal increase in the middle classes which kept growing in number as these cities expanded to subsume more and more villages with the passing time.

Despite its attraction the city was always viewed as a hostile counterpart to the serenity and simplicity of the villages and the steadily increasing middle classes living according to the norms of the city were seen to be moving away from traditional human values.  In Professor Hiren Gohain’s words, ‘.... the ethics of the new middle classes was considered a threat to decent human values.’

Consequently we find that nostalgia for the rural life is very poignant in the works of these short story writers like Premchand and Tagore. Yet most of these writers were not divorced from reality. The rural centres might be repositories of certain moral qualities and traditions yet at the same time they were reeling under poverty and exploitation and struggling with ravages of nature. This harsh reality was the other face of the romantic image of the Indian village and most of the pre-Independence writers portrayed it truthfully and vividly. Premchand, Manik Bandopadhyay (Bengali), Kalindi Charan (Oriya), Jhaverchand Meghani (Gujarati), Pannalal Patel (Gujarati) or Kuvempu (Kannada) all tried to deconstruct the myth about the village being the most beautiful manifestation of nature. The village and the city were often juxtaposed in the works of these writers and this in turn underlined the urban-rural reality of modern India. This was a reality that could not be wished away.

    New Subjects and New Issues

The advent of the city in the literary world expanded the space for the writer and brought in the urban locations such as the office, the railway platform, the post office, the hospitals, the courts, the colleges, etc. It also brought in new subject groups like the lawyers, the doctors, the traders, the office workers, the factory worker, the teachers, politicians, students and so on. Increasingly, however, the city came to stand for individualism and alienation. The traditional Indian concept of a community culture that existed in rural India gradually began declining and led to a break up of the conventional social structure. Important new issues clamoured to be addressed. The socially and economically underprivileged sections of the society demanded representation, as they became a forceful, disturbing and persistent feature of the new socio-economic set up. Thus the theme of the marginalized emerged as a major preoccupation of the writers of the mid-twentieth century. We have Muhammed Basheer and Saadat Hasan Manto (among others) writing about these slighted, insignificant, down trodden and borderline groups of people -- the coal miners, the factory workers, the scavengers, the pimps, the prostitutes, the beggars and so on. The writers attempted an exploration into the rapidly changing face of the Indian social reality and through their works sought to problematize the issues of poverty, justice and exploitation.

Along with the strong influence of the continuously changing socio-economic set up of the Indian scene, there were other shaping forces to which the Indian writers were exposed. One of these was the influence of the Western World. The developments and changes that went on in the literary area in the West percolated to the Indian writers and brought about corresponding changes in their writings. For example, by the end of the third decade of the twentieth century, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1913) and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) had come out and a little later Havlock Ellis’ Studies in Psychology of Sex (1933) made its appearance. These works revolutionized the interpretation and analysis of every aspect of human life and opened up immense possibilities for new subjects and themes in the West and for the Indian writers as well. Depiction of a man-woman relationship was not merely an exercise in eroticism now but became instead a vehicle for explorations into the relationship between individual and society as well as an exploration into the individual’s psyche.

The representation of sex was not a new phenomenon in Indian literature and an ample erotic component can be located in the classical Indian literature as well as in the pre-colonial literature in various Indian languages. Yet from nineteenth century onwards sex had become taboo in Indian literature and any representation of it was considered a direct outcome of the western literary influence.

Several major writers—Tagore and Sarat Chandra, to give two important examples—were condemned by different groups for their portrayal of man-woman relationship and the power of sex in human life. The publication of Angare (1932), a collection of ten stories written by four different writers proved to be a watershed in this context. Angare included five stories by Sajjad Zaheer, two by Ahmed Ali, two by Rashid Jahan and one by Mahmudduzzafar. These stories were bold explorations into those frontiers of human relations and behaviour that had been long considered forbidden. The candid treatment of sex by these writers opened up a new world of experience yet many of them had to face disgust and anger of the reading public. Manto and Chughtai—two bold and provocative writers on the theme were persecuted for their scandalous portrayals and yet succeeded in inextricably linking together the issue of sex, of man-woman relationship with larger issues like morality and individual and political freedom. These were writers belonging to the Progressive Movement and in their works the treatment of sex became an indicator of modernity in Indian short story.

    The Woman Theme

The woman question was the next to emerge as a natural outcome of these explorations into man-woman relationships. Women had always featured in Indian literature but their depiction and treatment had been from the liberal humanist point of view that ‘criticized the parochial, authoritarian structure but never questioned either the institution of marriage itself or the assigned roles of man and woman in areas clearly demarcated as the public and the domestic.’ In the twentieth century there was a strong shift from a liberal humanism towards a feminism that was rooted not in any given theories but in definite ideological premises. Writers like Tagore, Sarat Chandra and Chalam and later many women writers began portraying the women as individuals with their own likes and dislikes and personal feelings rather than as repositories and upholders of all our social and moral values. The gender question thus was foregrounded in the first half of the twentieth century. Ismat Chughtai became the pioneer of the modern feminist movement in India with the publication of ‘Lihaaf’ or ‘The Quilt’ which was a landmark in making female homosexuality its theme.

The range, complexity and variety of the Indian short story thus grew continuously to make it the most powerful narrative medium. The thematic component was as varied as the country’s geographical and social realities. The village and the city, the traditional and the modern, the middle classes, the working classes, the exploited, the marginalized, the gender question, all occupied the attention of the short story writers at various points of time in the history of the country as well as at the various stages of development in the evolution of the story as such.

    The Political Theme

Twentieth century Indian literature was, till the first five decades, the literature of a colonized people. The simmering desire for independence found expression in the works of many writers of the time who sought to address the political tensions in the country. The short story too became a vehicle for creating awareness among the masses and aiding the various socio-political movements in the country. Premchand launched the true political story with the publication of Soz-e-Vatan in 1908 under his pseudonym Nawab Rai. His work was considered seditious by the British government and all copies were seized with instructions to censor all further works of the author. Many other writers expressed their disquietude through patriotic outbursts and wrote stories on political themes. Tagore’s allegorical work Totakahani (1918) too had a political theme and so did works of Jitubhai Mehta and Pannalal Patel. Two events that rocked the country and changed the course of future literature were the Partition and Independence of India. The political freedom that the Indians had been demanding and desiring came with a heavy price of human life along with an irrevocable and unprecedented situation namely the division of the country. The horror of the Partition scarred the people deeply and various writers expressed their anguish and trauma through their works. Saadat Hasan Manto wrote extensively on this theme even when he had migrated to Pakistan after Independence. These changes in the political history of India disrupted the course of the literature of many Indian languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, Bengali and Urdu for now they faced an internal division brought about by political circumstances. Now there existed an Indian Urdu or Sindhi literature as well as Pakistani Urdu or Sindhi literature. Writers like Manto felt torn into two and led an agonized existence, which was reflected in their works. The erosion of the traditional social culture further exacerbated this sense of fragmentation and both found a suitable expression in the short story of the times.

    Experiments With New Techniques

As far as the form and structure of the short story is concerned, Indian writers continuously experimented with both the old and the new. For example, Trailokyanath Mukherji (one of Tagore’s contemporaries) used the model of the indigenous oral narrative and the linked stories. In most of his stories there is the sense of the storyteller and a group of attentive listeners. Writers like T.R. Subba Rao introduced the stream of consciousness technique while some like Balaichand Mukhopadhyay (Bengali) experimented with the ‘shortness’ of the short story and at times limited a story to just one printed page.

However much one may write it can never be sufficient to give one a complete picture of the short story in Indian literature. The above is just a broad overview of the same and if you feel motivated enough to read further in this area then do take a look at some of the books suggested for further reading. Of special interest would be Sisir Kumar Das’s A History of Indian Literature in two volumes and Modern Indian Literature: An Anthology, vol.1 edited by K M George, both of which proved of immense help to me while preparing this study material. You can see from the above introduction that the canvas of Indian Literature is too vast and varied. The six stories that have been selected for your course of study will give you a fair taste of that variety. What follows in the ensuing pages is an attempt to introduce you to the writer and his/her milieu of each of these stories individually and to guide you to a critical appreciation of the story itself by giving a detailed analysis of the same.


5 Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

An Analysis

           The Author and his Milieu

Premchand has been rightly credited with salvaging the Urdu and Hindi short story from the quagmire of fantastic and romantic tales totally aimless and totally divorced from reality. He was the one who created the genre of the serious short story, grounded it in reality and made the common man his hero rather than concentrating on just kings and queens.

Premchand was born on July 31, 1880 in Lamhi, a village near Benaras. His real name was Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav and he was the son of Munshi Ajayab Rai who worked as a clerk in the village post office. Obviously Premchand’s family subsisted on modest means and his life in the village brought him face to face with the daily trials and tribulations of the peasantry. Though brought up in humble circumstances, Premchand had access to good education and he became well versed in Persian and Urdu letters under the guidance of a Muslim teacher who was a tailor by profession but took to tutoring some students too. Premchand’s mother passed away when he was eight and his father married again. The stepmother was a difficult person to get on with and made Premchand’s life miserable. His father dealt him a second blow by marrying him off to an ugly, illiterate and ill-tempered girl at the age of sixteen. Premchand could not get along with her at all and his share of miseries increased manifold when his father died suddenly the following year after suffering a brief bout of illness. The responsibility of looking after the family fell on the tender shoulders of young Premchand and he had to put all his dreams of becoming a lawyer on the backburner.

His passion for studies however, took him to Benaras where he began coaching a lawyer’s sons and used the money to keep body and soul together. He earned five rupees, of which he kept two for himself and sent home the remaining three. Subsequently he took up various jobs beginning with being a teacher at a school in Chunar—then a government teacher in Bahriach. Later he was sent for a two-year training course to Allahabad. After the successful completion of this course in 1904 he was appointed teacher in Pratapgarh from where he was transferred to Kanpur.

Two important events took place during Premchand’s four-year stay in Kanpur. Firstly, he met Munshi Daya Narain Nigam, the editor of a well-known Urdu magazine Zamana (Time) and who became a friend, philosopher and guide. Secondly, in 1906 he married Shivrani Devi, a young widow whom he had met earlier and who proved a worthy companion for the remaining years of his life.

Premchand was subsequently appointed a sub-deputy inspector of schools -- a job that involved excessive travelling, irregular hours and equally irregular food habits.This resulted in severe stomach ulcers, which troubled him for the rest of his life. Under the influence of Gandhi’s teachings Premchand resigned from his government job in 1921 and started his own press called the Saraswati Press, in 1923. He lacked the required business acumen however, and the Press became a drain on his already modest finances. He even started his own paper Hans in March 1930 where he expected to express himself fearlessly and freely.

By 1932 Premchand was facing serious financial difficulties because of his inability to manage his Press and was in debt. Under these circumstances he accepted an offer from a film company Ajanta Cinetone, and agreed to work for them on a handsome salary. But things in Bombay were not as he expected them to be. He wanted to reach a wider audience through the medium of films and felt cheated and disillusioned when he saw that the producers were not interested in truth but in making money. So he resigned and returned to Benaras in 1935. His old stomach ulcers flared up again and his health deteriorated rapidly. On October 8, 1936, aged 56 he passed away quietly.

Though Premchand stands almost unchallenged in the world of Hindi literature yet we must not forget that he began writing initially in Urdu under the pseudonym of Nawab Rai. His first short story ‘The Most Precious Jewel in the World’ was published in Zamana in 1907. In 1908 a collection of five stories was published under the title Soz-e-Vatan (‘Sufferings of the Motherland’). This volume of stories was confiscated by the British government and labelled seditious. All subsequent works by the author were required to be censored. It was on the advice of his friend Daya Narain Nigam that Nawab Rai switched over to the penname of Premchand in order to get around the prohibition imposed by the British Government.

From the time that he began writing, Premchand turned out an astonishing number of novels, short stories, letters, essays and plays. When he died in 1936, he had to his credit twelve published novels, about three hundred short stories, innumerable letters, essays and editorials and also several plays, translations and adaptations. All this is doubly amazing if we remember that he suffered from poor health throughout his life. He was a widely read author and was influenced at various stages of his life by Dickens, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Marx and soon directed his fiction towards social reform. His domain was the Indian village, which remained the ‘richest inspiration for his work’. Here he found life in all its varied colours. He identified with the misery of the poor, exploited peasant; he was anguished at the appalling condition of the untouchables and was saddened by the wretched plight of women in Indian households. The caste snobbery, the struggle for basic survival, the widow’s predicament, the gap between the rich and the poor, the burden of traditional social value system like the joint family are just some of the recurrent themes in the multifarious world of Premchand. 

His forte lies in his rare ability to portray the life of the village in its minutest of details. He could do this because he had been a part of it all his life and had a keen eye and ear. Due to his authentic portrayal of the village Premchand has often been labeled a realist. But as P. Lal observes: ‘Premchand’s realism is a backdrop against which he can build a character.’ Uppermost in his mind, however, was the reformist aspect of literature. Literature according to Premchand, ‘must give us a goal, it must make us alive, it must make us think.’ When asked to define literature he prefers the definition, which describes it as ‘a criticism of life.’ It should present ‘the heart of truth.’ Premchand was a sincere, serious writer with a purpose and in almost all his writings we find the reformist’s zeal evident.


5.1 Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

Premchand: The Holy Panchayat

The Holy Panchayat

    Introduction

‘The Holy Panchayat’ or ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ as it was titled in Hindi carries the distinction of being Premchand’s first story to be published in Hindi. Originally it had been written in Urdu and was titled ‘Panchayat’ but Premchand’s desire to reach a wider readership led him to switch over to writing in Hindi and he translated this story himself. It was published in 1916 in the May-June issue of the periodical Saraswati. ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ belongs to the early group of short stories by Premchand, which were written between 1916 and 1920. Other stories included in this group are ‘Namak ka Daroga’, ‘Bade Ghar ki Beti’, ‘Rani Sarandha’, ‘Mamta’, ‘Saut’, ‘Amavasya ki Raat’ etc. Most of these stories share a common purpose and exhibit a similar flow of ideas. They are narrative / descriptive in nature and are based on an idealistic view of things. The sense of the teller and the tale comes through quite strongly and the stance of the author is of the omniscient narrator. He reveals all, knows the characters’ background, can take a peep into their hearts and minds and can philosophize on the prevailing state of affairs. Most of these stories carry within them Premchand’s early beliefs and convictions. When he bases the resolution of these stories on a ‘change of heart’ he actually believed it to be possible. In fact, these stories have often been referred to as the ‘change of heart’ stories since they mostly end with the events getting resolved through a ‘change of heart’ in the concerned characters.

The element of chance plays an important role, both in the development of the plot as well as in the resolution of events towards the end. Because the resolution of the stories depends to a large extent on an idealistic premise, there seems to be a corresponding lack of the element of believable probability, which in turn takes the story away from being entirely realistic in nature.

    Detailed Analysis

‘The Holy Panchayat’ or ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ is set in a village and begins quite characteristically with Premchand at first introducing the reader to the physical as well as the emotional backdrops of the story. Jumman Sheikh and Algu Chaudhary show a deep bond of friendship, which goes back to their childhood days. The two belonging to different faiths shared nothing, not even food or religion. There was nothing to bind them except their mental and emotional affinity. The omniscient narrator intervenes at this point to tell us that this of course is the basic rule of friendship. Then he proceeds to describe how if Jumman had to go to Haj he would entrust Algu with the responsibility of looking after his house. Algu did the same if he had to be away anytime.

We are given a glimpse of the beginnings of this friendship in the boyhood days of these men when both used to be students of Jumman’s father Jumrati. In a short paragraph Premchand sketches a vivid picture of the method of imparting and receiving education in a village. Algu is ever willing to run odd errands for his teacher and to get his hubble-bubble ready for him. We may recall how Premchand too received a similar coaching in the Persian and Urdu letters from a Muslim teacher and was ever trying to please his teacher though at times for reasons other than the apparent ones. Despite Algu’s numerous odd jobs for his teacher, he could never succeed in studies and consoled himself by saying that education was not in his kismet. Premchand is here giving us a peep into the mind of an average Indian who is always ready to blame hiskismet for his own failures.  Jumman on the other hand did well and became known for his learning in the surrounding villages. Algu was known and respected for his wealth.

Having set the story against this backdrop of a village scene and against this background of friendship and harmony, Premchand proceeds to develop it further and introduces a new character - Jumman’s old aunt. At this point we may stop to take note of a few things. Two things are important here. Firstly the rural background of the story, which is going to necessitate the calling of the Panchayat. The Panchayat used to bring justice to remote areas of the country especially to people who could either not afford the city courts or simply could not reach them. Equally important is the strong bond of friendship that existed between the two friends because it is this bond which will be dealt a severely damaging blow during the proceedings of the Panchayat. At the same time it will be used for making a very important point as far as meeting out justice to the accused is concerned. Thus in a very skillful manner Premchand is going to connect the opening of his story with the events that follow.

  •     A Build-up to the Panchayat Proceedings 

We are given another peep into the past and are acquainted with events that have brought matters to their present state. Jumman’s old aunt had handed over her whole property to Jumman on the assurance that in return she would be looked after and provided for till she lives. For some time things went off well but as it usually happens, the old aunt and Jumman’s wife Kariman began having daily skirmishes over minor matters like the quality of food being given to the aunt not being good, the dal being given without any ghee and so on. The aunt complained to Jumman, but he just turned a deaf ear. He, along with his wife, was of the view that they had agreed to look after the old lady thinking that she did not have much time left. But now it seems she will live forever and already the amount they had fed her would have been enough to buy them the land she had handed over to them. Such was the talk that the old aunt had to listen to. She tolerated it for some time but then having failed to make Jumman listen to her complaints, the old aunt now demands that she be given some money so she can cook her food separately. The short exchange that follows between the aunt and Jumman is packed with suppressed emotions. On being told that money doesn’t grow on trees, the aunt replies in an apparently polite manner that though her needs are very little she has to somehow make both ends meet. The politeness carries with it a sense of simmering anger in the original, which threatens to burst any moment. Jumman’s cruelly insensitive comment ‘I had no idea, that you were determined to live for ever.’ puts a question mark on all his learning and wisdom which ought to have made him more humane but seems to have succeeded in making him just more materialistic and insensitive.

When Jumman refuses to give her money, the aunt demands that her land be returned to her so she can live off it for the rest of her remaining days. Jumman refuses. She threatens to call the Panchayat. At this Jumman smiles to himself and readily agrees. After all, who would dare to speak against him? People of this village as well as other surrounding area were all indebted to him in some form or the other. Nobody would dare make him his enemy.

  •     The Basic Structure

From the point of view of the structure of the story notice that after having introduced us to the main characters and after having placed them against a certain physical and emotional backdrop, a problem has now been presented. As is often the case with Premchand’s stories, he takes up some problem or the other in almost all of them and works towards a resolution. This is what is going to happen in ‘The Holy Panchayat’ as well. A problem has been presented and now the rest of the story will work towards a resolution of the same.

Two important observations are being made at this point. On the one hand, Premchand has brought in the Panchayat after preparing the ground by describing in detail the circumstances that have given rise to the need for holding the Panchayat. The old, infirm, poor aunt strongly believes that she will find justice in the village council. From her point of view the Panchayat seems to be a fair minded authority which would look at the matter objectively and see the injustice of Jumman’s behaviour. Premchand thus seems to be presenting the Panchayat as a viable alternative system of governance for people in the remote corners of the country. But in Jumman’s reaction Premchand is at once hinting at the cracks and fissures that are already threatening a smooth, objective and fair working of this system because Jumman is quite confident that he would be able to sway the Panchayat’s judgement in his favour.

The old aunt begins to garner support for her case by going and pouring out her story to all who were willing to listen to her. Premchand being a keen observer of people and their behaviour gives us a wide range of the reactions to the old woman’s lament. Some console her, some blame it on the times but there are even some who have fun at her expense and laugh at her bent back, sunken cheeks and white hair. Some go even as far as to admonish her for still having a desire for material things despite having one foot in the grave. Premchand hints here at the streak of cruelty that is present in human beings. The question whether the aged and the infirm should give up all their desire for peace and happiness just because they are old is implied in his observations.

The old aunt is a determined soul and she persists in going from one person to the other, inviting them to the Panchayat and to see that justice is done. In the end she reaches the house of Algu Chaudhary. Because of his friendship with Jumman, Algu wants to stay away from the whole affair. The aunt, however, very cleverly appeals to his conscience and his sense of justice and challenges him by asking ‘Will your turn your back to justice for fear of ruining your friendship.’ This is the key sentence of the whole story. As pointed out in the annotations to your text, the original version carries the word imaanrather than a Hindi equivalent of justice. The word imaan should carry with it a sense of conscience too and probably integrity would have been a better word to use. At this point Premchand enters the narration to make a brief analysis of the struggle going on in Algu’s mind and bases his argument on a psychological insight into the subtle workings of the human consciousness. In a normal course of events we often let our conscience and our sense of justice persist in a state of convenient slumber but once challenged it becomes alert and is on its guard. Had the old aunt not challenged him, Algu would have turned a blind eye towards justice. Once challenged, however, his conscience rears up its head and now refuses to be put to sleep. He does not have the courage to say ‘no’ to the aunt now. Structurally this exchange between Algu and the aunt has been strategically placed in order to prepare a convincing ground for Algu’s fair judgement in the Panchayat.

  •     The Realistic Setting in Minute Details

There is a break in time and scene and from the mind of Algu Chaudhary, Premchand next moves on to describe the physical setting of the Panchayat. Attention is drawn to the fact that Jumman had taken care to provide for the comfort of the Panchayat members, having covered the earthen floor and also having arranged for pan, ilaichi, hukka and tobacco. A realistic and detailed description of the scene follows, complete with the barber filling the chillums, the village boys running around here and there, the smoke arising from the smouldering dung cakes, the birds chirping noisily in the trees and also the village dogs who too had started gathering around, anticipating a village feast and who were contributing to the general din. Premchand being a master of such descriptions has in a few sentences created the whole scene for us and we can almost visualize the same. The smoke from the chillums and from the fire that has been lit is dense enough to be used as an image to convey how Jumman was going to try and obscure reality here.

  •    The Panchayat as an Alternative System of Governance

The proceedings of the Panchayat begin. The aunt puts the case before the members. She is an old and poor woman, a widow, unable to fight ‘in a court or durbar’ and so has come to the village Panchayat with a hope for getting some justice. As explained in your textual notes, the aunt’s use of the word ‘durbar’ lends irony to the situation because in colloquial terms a durbar is ‘a large assembly of favour seeking individuals at an important person’s place’. Since Jumman is an influential person in the village, the aunt is afraid that this Panchayat may turn out to be his ‘durbar.’ All the same, she appeals to the sense of justice of all who are present and puts her case before them.

Premchand, while following the events of the story and also the proceedings of the Panchayat step by step, at the same time gives us an insight into the workings of the Panchayat as a social organization which makes an alternative system of governance available to the people. In the rural Indian set-up the village Panchayat had an important role to play in reaching justice to the poor and downtrodden people who could not afford the expenses of the city law courts. Premchand in his heart was partial to this system of justice at the local level just as he had a preference for the joint family system. With time and due to various socio-political reasons, both these systems perished but in this story Premchand makes the Panchayat system work despite all the negative forces trying to corrupt it. There is an element of wishful thinking on Premchand’s part. In the unpleasantness between the aunt and the nephew, however, he could not deny the breakdown of the joint family system.

  •     An Idealistic View of Justice

When Algu Chaudhary is named the Sarpanch, Jumman feels overjoyed and is sure that the judgement will be in his favour as Algu was his childhood friend. Yet, Premchand shows a very strong sense of conscience prevailing upon the whole proceeding and Algu pronounces his decision in favour of the aunt, ordering Jumman to return her lands. Jumman is stunned! For him it is almost as though his friend had stabbed him in the back. But Premchand is writing of the times when people’s faith in the Panchayat system was firm and they abided by its decision whatever may be the case. So Jumman neither opposes the decision nor poses any hurdle in the smooth carrying out of the sentence though from that day onwards the bond between the two friends ceases to exist. They behave as strangers with Jumman believing that Algu had proved to be treacherous while Algu believed he had merely performed his duty. Premchand uses an appropriate simile to describe the relationship between the two friends when he compares their meeting to the meeting of a sword and a shield emphasizing on the coldness associated with steel.

  •     A Doubling of Events

Another time lapse occurs and Premchand takes us a month ahead from the old aunt’s Panchayat to a build up of events which give Jumman an opportunity to take his revenge on Algu when he gets a chance to act as Panch between Algu Chaudhary and Samjhu Sahu. Premchand brings us up to date with the situation by first giving us the background to it. It so happens that Algu had bought a pair of oxen from the village fair the previous year and within a month of the Panchayat’s decision one ox dies. He suspects Jumman Sheikh for poisoning it but cannot prove it. Since Algu is unable to put a single ox to use in the fields he decides to sell it off.  Samjhu Sahu the typical village merchant comes as a prospective buyer as he needs the ox to ferry his merchandise to and fro between the farm and the village. Promising to pay the money in a month’s time he takes the ox away. In that one month Samjhu Sahu extracts the maximum amount of work from the ox in addition to not feeding him properly and also not giving him any opportunity to rest and beating him cruelly according to his whim and fancies. The ox finally gives up and one evening on a return journey from the town market he collapses on the road while the village is still a considerable distance away. The cart is loaded with goods and Samjhu Sahu is also carrying all the cash earned from his business during the day. He tries to keep awake so the thieves would stay away but is unable to. When he wakes up in the morning, most of the goods are stolen as well as the money which he had with him. The Sahu reaches home an angry man and along with his wife puts the entire blame on Algu Chaudhary for having sold him a good-for-nothing ox. He refuses to make any payment for the ox now. After a long wait the matter comes to the Panchayat. Once again the village gathers under the same tree to witness the case proceedings. This time it is Jumman Sheikh’s turn to be made Sarpanch.

  •     The Role of Conscience

At this point Premchand once again stops to take a look at the subtle workings of the human consciousness. It is, according to him, a position of responsibility that brings a man’s seriousness and sense of duty to the fore. He supports his arguments with a few examples as that of the newspaper editor who had been making scathing attacks on the politician only till the day he enters politics himself. Then his style of understanding undergoes a remarkable change and he becomes ‘impartial’, discriminate and objective’. Similar is the case of the high strung young people who learn to be patient once they have to shoulder the responsibility of their own families. In a like manner, Jumman Sheikh too feels a similar sense of responsibility for his high position the moment he is made Sarpanch. Till that moment he had been unable to understand the reason behind Algu’s decision in favour of the aunt. Now, being faced with a similar dilemma, Jumman could have given vent to his anger by deciding the case against his friend Algu though that would have meant going against his own conscience and against justice too. The moment he sits on the seat of the Sarpanch the sense of responsibility for his position comes to the fore and he knows, that while pronouncing judgement he has to be objective and not let any personal feelings influence what he has to say. He cannot deviate from the truth at all. It is almost as though God Himself speaks through the mouth of the Sarpanch.

Algu, who had been dreading Jumman’s verdict, is overjoyed when he listens to the case being decided against the Sahu. He, along with the other villagers, is all praise for Jumman’s sense of justice and truth which never gets swayed or coloured by his personal feeling. This, observes Premchand, is true justice. Such a fair decision prompts us to believe that God resides in the Panch and speaks through him.

The withered tree of friendship is given a new lease of life after this Panchayat. All misunderstandings are removed and the point is reiterated that in pronouncing a just and fair sentence at their respective Panchayats both friends had remained true to their conscience and their sense of Justice. Both now believe that it was almost as though God Himself was speaking through them while they were holding that high position of authority. They cry on one another’s shoulder and all is forgiven and understood and their friendship is revived once again.

    Additional Comments

  •     Element of Chance

The structure of the story is similar to that of Premchand’s other stories. In an entirely credible manner Premchand begins by talking about mundane, day to day affairs. While developing the plot, however, he relies not just on logic and argument but a great deal on chance as well.  In fact, most of the important events that take place in the story happen due to chance — it is by chance that Algu is made the Sarpanch, it is by chance that his ox dies, it is by chance that he sells the other ox to a man like Samjhu Sahu, it is also by chance that the other ox dies on the village road at night and the Sahu is robbed and so on. Yet, all these incidents have a strong sense of believable probability and they have all been woven together intricately and skillfully which makes it a realistic story on one level while an idealistic one on the other. The events can happen the way they do in the story but can such a change of heart occur the moment a person is made the Sarpanch? This is a point that invites critical speculation. What if Samjhu Sahu had been named the Panch in the first case? Would he have been as objective and as fair-minded as Algu? Surely all the preparations that Jumman had made for the benefit of the members of the Panchayat would have had an influence and helped in deciding the case in favour of Jumman rather than the old aunt.

  •     A ‘Change of Heart’Story

‘Panch Parmeshwar’ or ‘The Holy Panchayat’ is a simple story, which is built around the seemingly unimportant, day- to- day events in the lives of the people of an Indian village. Yet in its ordinariness we are given a taste of the greatness of Premchand’s art as a storyteller. He is able to create the atmosphere of an Indian village quite effortlessly and equally effortlessly is he able to convey the importance of the alternative system of justice and governance that we see in operation here. Yet there is more to it than just a description of how a village Panchayat solved the cases of Jumman and Algu. On one occasion Premchand had himself outlined his methods and his intentions for writing a story. He said, ‘I never write a story for the sake of describing an incident and event. I write for only one reason.... to present a human truth, or to show a new angle of looking at common and obvious things... I believe, very strongly, that no story can depend totally on a clear scene or a dramatic incident; the story’s sap is a psychological insight.’ In ‘The Holy Panchayat’ too we are given that psychological insight when he describes a change of heart occurring in the cases of both Jumman and Algu the moment they are made Sarpanch. Lest we may remain unconvinced about it in the first instance when Algu gives his decision against Jumman, Premchand has given us a doubling of the same occurrence when Jumman too experiences a similar sense of responsibility and change of heart when he is made Sarpanch. Structurally therefore we have two separate incidents proving the same point that a village Panchayat is a viable alternative to the colonial system of governance. Premchand’s awareness, however, is not limited or constricted to seeing just the benefits of the system. He is sensitive to the dangers surrounding it too. Already forces of power, capitalism and flattery are laying siege to a fair and objective working of the Panchayat. It is another situation altogether that Jumman’s various preparations are unable to sway the Panchayat members and they give whatever decision they have to. But we cannot deny the fact that this fair judgement hinges very precariously on the Sarpanch’s conscience and sense of responsibility. It is all very well to think that a man becomes aware of his duties the moment he is placed in a position of responsibility but we know that such a process of thought, while indicating faith in humanity on the one hand, is also suggestive of a certain wishful-thinking on the part of the writer. In both cases of the holding of the Panchayat the problems are resolved through the suggestion that God Himself was operating as a spirit in the whole proceeding. But would God have still spoken had Samjhu Sahu been made the Sarpanch? So the resolution of the problem is based on an idealistic premise which leaves many questions unanswered.

  •     Erosion of Traditional Values

After forty years of Premchand’s ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ came a story by Rangey Raghav with the same title. In his story however the village Panchayat has lost its sanctity and its authenticity completely. While in Premchand’s story Jumman is unable to influence the decision of the Panch even though he tries, in Raghav’s story we find that with the steady advancements of capitalism, a man’s worth is measured by his material gains. Not only can a rich man sway a decision in his favour by bribing the Panch but in fact decisions are made keeping the status of the involved people in mind. Justice here is fickle and has lost its meaning. It is not God now who speaks through the Panch but money. In such a world truth and justice have become the inevitable casualties of the system.

  •     Forward Looking

Premchand too was aware of the issues that were already present in the social landscape. There is the clash of interests between Jumman and his clients, which hints at the friction present between various social classes. There is the lure and power of money which makes a man resort to dishonest means, as in the case of Jumman’s injustice to his old and helpless aunt. The story carries the dark hint of a possibility that things might have gone in the opposite direction with the old woman being robbed of everything. The vile and cunning of the village merchant, Algu’s hopeless endeavours to get his payment from the Sahu—are all indicative of the cracks and fissures already present in the apparently idealized village community. In fact when Premchand brings in an element of the fable at this point when the second Panchayat is to be held, he is being quite sarcastic when he shows, that even the birds do not find anything worth emulating in the behaviour of human beings. Thus a story which looks deceptively simple carries within it a hint of things to come. Specific questions may have been resolved—the old aunt gets her land and Algu gets his money —but what about the larger questions? The position of the old and infirm in our society, the power of money which can corrupt easily, the fate of shy and simple people like Algu who more often than not would end up being exploited, the clash of interests between rival groups which is only hinted at mildly in the story but which has assumed alarming proportions in the present day villages in India. Premchand was therefore a forward-looking writer who was aware of the gradual breakdown of traditional values taking place in our society. At the same time at this stage of his writing career the reformist’s zeal prompts him to present solutions to these problems too and in ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ that solution is presented in an idealized view of man which is romantic and visionary.

  •     Title and Techniques

‘Panch Parmeshwar’ is therefore a very suitable title for the story and translated as ‘The Holy Panchayat’ it carries within it the mythic dimension of the justice we see in operation here. The word ‘Panchayat’ makes it obvious that the story is going to be about a village Panchayat but by the time we come to the end of the story we also understand why the word ‘Parmeshwar’ or ‘Holy’ has been used in the title. We understand why the word of the Panch has been likened to the word of God and the title justifies its relevance completely.

Characterization in the story is effected through description as well as dialogue and at times through direct authorial interventions that occur from time to time. For example, when the writer takes a peep into the mind of Algu while he is torn between being true to his friend or being true to the larger call of justice. The tone of the story varies from being mildly ironic to entirely serious; at times merely observing and at other times being critical and sarcastic about what is being observed. Since the omniscient author technique is employed the point of view remains that of the narrator. This third person omniscient narrator has the freedom to look into the minds of his characters and he acquaints us with their points of view too at different stages of the narrative.

  •     Theme of Friendship and Communal Harmony

In ‘Panch Parmeshwar’, Premchand gives us an insight into one other aspect of India’s social reality. This has a bearing on the relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities which existed side by side through most of the social fabric of India, whether towns or villages. By showing a strong bond of friendship between a Hindu and a Muslim who share nothing except like-mindedness, mental and emotional affinities, Premchand is hinting at the vast possibilities that exist for such friendships to occur despite the many religious, cultural and social barriers between the two communities. What Premchand seems to be saying is that Peace is a joint responsibility of both groups. However, it is a well known fact that the two communities did exist in complete harmony, side by side but once again there were forces that threatened this peaceful coexistence from all sides. Misunderstanding can be one big hurdle. The same is removed in the story though in a highly sentimentalized manner. Yet the need for a mutual understanding is what Premchand seems to be stressing on towards the end of the story.


6 R K Narayan: The M. C. C.

R K Narayan: The M. C. C.

An Analysis

           Indian - English Writing

Having been under British rule for more than three centuries, India faced a peculiar situation regarding its exposure to the English language. For a number of years English had become the number one language to be taught in schools and educated Indians had been reading and writing in English much before the study of English language had been made a necessary part of the school curriculum. Lord William Bentick endorsed Macaulay’s Minute as government policy only in 1835 stating: ‘ . . . the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India, and all funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on Indian education alone.’

Two things prompted the British rulers to promote English in India. Firstly, there was a pressing demand for Indian clerks, translators and lower administrative officials and for all of them knowledge of English was essential in order to effectively carry out their official duties. Secondly, as M.K.Naik points out, ‘with the rise of the Evangelical movement in Britain the idea of spreading the word of Christ among the natives assumed vital importance for some Englishmen.’ (M.K.Naik: A History of Indian-English Literature). Mission Schools came up at first in the South and then later in Bengal and Bombay and English language was taught with great fervour at these schools. In addition to this it was also felt that a spread of English education would also lead to ‘an assimilation of Western culture by the Indians and that this would make for the stability of the empire....’

Whatever may be the reasons, this spread of English language was quick and reactions to it were at first mixed. A strong prejudice against western education was felt in the conservation circles. There were protests and there were fears of indigenous cultures and languages being swamped by this onslaught of western thought now made available through the study of the English Language. But by and large the language was eagerly and enthusiastically accepted by the more ‘forward looking’ Indians as it opened up whole new worlds for them and made available the treasures of its literatures and its sciences. There is ample evidence to suggest the fact that Indians had already started writing in English even as early as two decades prior to Macaulay’s Minute of 1835. (You can refer to M.K.Naik’s A History of Indian English Literature for details). Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekanand and a little later Aurobindo and Nirad C. Chaudhury were all excellent exponents of the English language and staunch supporters of it too. It was not until 1930s, however, that a number of novelists began to write in English. The famous trio also known as the ‘Big Three’, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao burst on the literary scene between the years 1935 and 1938. Each was different than the other though each was writing in English, being himself an Indian. The differences in their writings hinted at the vast possibilities that were waiting to be tapped in Indian English literature. Mulk Raj Anand, with his novel The Untouchables, emerged as ‘the novelist as reformer’ while Raja Rao with his Kanthapura was ‘the novelist as metaphysical poet.’ Narayan, with his Swami and Friends, was completely different from these two in being simply ‘the novelist as novelist’ not lending himself to any ism in particular. He had a firm grounding in reality and a keen eye for detail with an intimate knowledge of the importance of the apparently trivial or commonplace things. From the gamut of R.K. Narayan’s writings, ‘the ‘M.C.C’’, which forms a chapter of his debut novel Swami and Friends has been included in your course of study as an example of Indian English Writing. It is always interesting to know the writer in addition to his works in order to understand the influences in his life which might have shaped his writings and also to understand his circumstances and his milieu which too might have had played a similar role. Before moving on to a discussion of ‘the ‘M.C.C.’’ therefore let us take a brief look at R.K. Narayan’s life and his works.

           The Author and his Milieu

Rasipuram Krishnaswami, Narayanswami Iyer was an imposing name for a writer who later came to be known as simply R.K. Narayan. He was born in 1907 in a Brahmin family which hailed originally from a village called Rasipuram but had since long moved away and established itself in the city of Madras. Narayan’s father was in the Government Education Service, a headmaster, after being transferred from school to school and moved from place to place, which at times involved travelling great distances. Tamil was the language spoken at home as it was the language of the province of Madras. Narayan’s childhood was spent in Madras where he lived with his grandmother and a young uncle in the old rambling house, No1. Vellala Street. This was thought necessary in order to leave his delicate mother to care for his younger siblings. Life with grandmother was also a settled existence and as far as Narayan was concerned it was also ‘a much to be preferred arrangement.’ His uncle was an ardent photographer and often made the young Kunjuppa (Narayan’s name at home) the subject for his hobby. He was also fond of pets and the young Narayan had a string of them in quick succession. He got an early taste of the local streets too as he walked down them hand in hand with his uncle. Later he was often there on his own when he sneaked out to roam at will, rapt with the boundless variety of life offered by the streets, observing each minute detail and storing it away to be unearthed later when required. The streets aroused his curiosity, gave free play to his imagination, enriched a multitude of feelings and instinctively led him towards a desire to express what he saw and noticed.

The uncle may take the credit of introducing Narayan to the local streets but it was granny who was the closest influence on his life. A denoted gardener, a repository of home remedies, doctor for people with scorpion bites, snake bites, whooping cough, paralysis and convulsions; a match-maker, an adviser, a horoscope reader —Narayan’s grandmother was all of then rolled into one. It was through her that Narayan received his firm grounding in traditions and customs. Herself an orthodox Brahmin she imparted to her grandson the values she herself believed in. Though she enjoyed her various roles immensely and performed them sincerely, what she liked and fancied most was to be her grandson’s teacher. It was she who taught Narayan to multiply, to recite the tables, who taught him the Tamil alphabets, the Sanskrit hymns and classical melodies. She was a very strict teacher, much to Narayan’s discomfort who was not allowed to have dinner till he had finished his lessons.

At an appropriate age Narayan was put into a school — the Lutheran Mission school where he was the only Brahmin boy in his class, there being very few non-Christians on the whole. From there he went next to the C.R.C. High School. The Christian College High School came next, which was at some distance and Narayan had to take the tramcar. Once every year, for eight weeks, Narayan undertook the laborious train journey to wherever his parents would be posted, and spent his vacations with them. He missed the teeming, vibrant streets of Madras on these vacations but when he returned from them it was always with a feeling of sadness at leaving the warmth of the family behind.

At the time when Narayan had taken admission in the Christian College High School, his father had been transferred as headmaster to the Maharaja’s Collegiate High School in Mysore. He insisted on Narayan coming to Mysore and study there. Thus ended one phase in Narayan’s life when he bade farewell to the Madras streets and turned his face towards Mysore --- the place which enchanted him so that many of its features appeared later in the fictitious town of Malgudi where all that happens in Narayan’s fictional world takes place.

Narayan was never much of a scholar and he failed his University Entrance Examination. He spent that whole year reading whatever he wanted to from the vast expanse of books at his disposal in the school library as well as his father’s library. Around this time he began writing too mostly about events happening around him. Usually these pieces were neither poetry, nor prose nor fiction but a curious mixture of all. He sent his works to various publishers with a lot of hope but was always met with a rejection slip.

In 1926, Narayan passed the University Entrance Examination and began his studies at Maharaja College. It took him four years to graduate, which he did in 1930 at the age of twenty-four. He toyed with the idea of returning to college for his MA but then decided against it on the advice of a friend. He then tried his hand at teaching but ‘...Narayan’s first experience as a teacher soured him on that profession for life....’.

He then made a very unconventional but momentous decision in his life. He decided to write novels for a living --- something in which he was helped by the joint family system where no one was really on one’s own and had the support of other members of the family all the time. His decision was honoured and respected by his family and as he writes in his memoirs:

‘On a certain day in September, selected by my grandmother for its auspiciousness, I bought an exercise book and wrote the first line of a novel…,’ (My Days).

Narayan wrote in English, a language in which he was completely at ease, but was aware that he had to express the Indian sensibility. It was therefore Indian material expressed through western technologies. But Narayan had no misgivings about the task at hand. He was very sure that he would be able to express the essential Indianness of his characters, his milieu, his world so to say, through English because his English is markedly different from the Anglo Saxon English. As he puts it: ‘The English Language, through sheer resilience and mobility, is now undergoing a process of Indianization in the same manner as it adopted US citizenship over a century ago, with the difference that it is the major language there but here one of the fifteen listed in the Indian Constitution’ (R.K. Narayan, ‘English in India’, Commonwealth Literature, ed. John Press, London, 1965, p123).

The sad fact however was that he could not make a living by his writing alone. His first year’s income was about nine rupees and twelve annas. In the second year there was a slight improvement as The Hindu took a story and sent him eighteen rupees (less money order charges). In the following year a children’s story brought him thirty rupees. But Narayan continued with dogged determination and no one in the family opposed his wishes.

Narayan met his future wife Rajam in July 1933 in Coimbatore when he was staying with his sister. He saw her drawing water from a street tap and promptly fell in love. He crashed through all conventions by outrageously declaring directly to her father that he wanted to marry Rajam. More than his economic prospects, it was the non-compatible horoscopes that proved a hindrance. Objections were however brushed aside and the marriage took place with traditional pomp and gaiety. The two were blissfully happy.

Narayan took up the job of a reporter for Madras paper The Justice. This job not only brought him some more money but gave him an opportunity to meet a variety of people and encounter a myriad of different situations. All was fertile ground for prospective material for fiction and details were observed, noticed and stored away in the writer’s imagination. His reportorial skills were put to good use in his writings.

Swami and Friends, Narayan’s first novel was ready and he sent it to his friend Purna who was now at Oxford. Purna approached Graham Greene and showed him the manuscript. Greene recommended it to Hamish Hamilton who agreed to publish it and Narayan’s career as a novelist began. The reviews were good but there were hardly any sales. Hamish Hamilton consequently rejected the second novel The Bachelor of Arts, which was later published by Nelson.

Narayan’s father died in Feb 1937 and the family now had to scrape together a living minus the father’s pension. Narayan’s elder brother opened a grocery shop and Narayan forced himself to write weekly humorous pieces at ten rupees a piece for the Merry Magazine. By now, Narayan had become the father of a little daughter, Hema. He needed to augment his income and was forced to seek a commission from the government of Mysore and wrote a travel book. But bureaucracy saw to it that he received no payment.

1939 was a shattering year for Narayan as he lost his beloved wife after a bout of brief illness. He didn’t write for a very long time after that but gradually his life fell into a pattern when a major portion of his time was taken up by his writing. He even began a journal Indian Thought but was unable to sustain it. In The English Teacher he wrote about the deepest sorrow of his life - about the events surrounding his wife’s death and the subsequent happenings too.

In 1948 after receiving a notice to quit from the landlord, he decided to build his house. It took five years to be completed and he used it mostly as a studio for writing. His daughter married in 1956 and went away. Visiting her became Narayan’s favourite occupation. But the same year he began his travels. In fact The Guide was written in The United States while he was travelling. His daughter too passed away early in 1994.

Throughout his literary career till date, Narayan has penned about twelve novels and more than two hundred short stories set in the imaginary town of Malgudi. The Guide won him the Sahitya Akademi award. In addition he has published his own version of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata and his memoirs My Days and A Dateless Diary.

What strikes one while reading Narayan’s fiction is the absolute simplicity of it all. The nihilism and the rootlessness that characterizes much of the modern literature are absolutely missing from Narayan’s work. In fact in a world of literary anguish he emerges as a refreshing contrast, as a point of stability of completeness, of wholesomeness and as one who still has values and conviction which give a distinct stability to his characters and to his work on the whole. ‘To be a good writer anywhere, you must have roots, both in religion and in family... I have these things,’ said Narayan to Ved Mehta in New York. But even out of these two family takes precedence. Human relationships are of prime importance for this simple writer. He realized their value early in life when as a child, Kunjuppa, he was fortunate to be surrounded by happy family relationships from all sides. This is what gave him his rootedness and this is what later helped him to feel completely at ease anyplace in the world despite this rootedness in a particular place and milieu.

Narayan’s fiction as well as his humorous, self-mocking memoir My Days written with characteristic detachment can mislead us into making light of the extremely difficult and uphill task he faced when he decided to make his mark as a writer at a time when such a thing as professional writing was not too common. He had more than his share of troubles with money being scarce and income being fitful. Loosing a wife he loved to distraction so early in life and raising a small daughter without a wife’s help was enough to have thrown any other person into the depths of depression. But Narayan emerged from all his troubles a sane man who kept his faith in himself and in those around him. There was ample material in his life to make for ‘literary anguish’ in his works yet Narayan chose to stay away. As Ranga Rao has observed, Narayan was ‘temperamentally incapable’ of such a thing. It was not for him to rank and fume against the injustice of it all. In fact, on one occasion when he was asked whether he would like to live his life differently he said: ‘If I had to live again, I would want nothing different. I live from moment to moment ... Nothing has gone wrong with me. I am deeply interested in life as a writer. That is perhaps why I have not gone mad’ (The Hindustan Times, 1973).

           A Word about Swami and Friends

‘The M.C.C.’ is the ‘short story’ chosen for study in your courses and yet it is not a short story but in fact forms a chapter in a larger work Swami and Friends which was Narayan’s first novel to be published in 1935, in England. ‘The M.C.C.’ thus has a dual status. It can be read as a short story on its own merit and it can be placed in its context in the novel Swami and Friends and be read in continuation with other events which surround this chapter, events which lead up to it and events which follow from it. But even if you take this chapter out of its context you will notice that not much is lost because the novel is episodic in nature, with each chapter concentrating on one particular episode which need not have very strong links with the chapter which follows. A word about Swami and Friends however would help our understanding.

Swami and Friends, Narayan’s first novel was published in 1935 in England with Graham Green acting as Godfather for the young writer and recommending his work to Hamish Hamilton who published it. Greene’s views about India, which he had acquired from his reading of Kipling and Forster, underwent a remarkable modification through Narayan’s first novel itself. As Green says: ‘It was Mr. Narayan with his Swami and Friends who first brought India, in the sense of the Indian population and the Indian way of life, alive to me....’ (William Walsh, R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation).

Narayan wanted to call it Swami the Tate but Green changed it to Swami and Friends -- a title more understandable and acceptable to the Indian reading public and having similarities with Kipling’s Stalky and Company.

Swami and Friends is a story about the events in a boy’s life. It is episodic in nature and has a young boy of about ten or eleven years as the central consciousness of the novel through whose eyes we see his world. The novel is set in the small town of Malgudi that forms the locale of not just Swami and Friends but of all Narayan’s subsequent novels and most of his short stories. Malgudi is a small provincial South Indian town peopled by Indians who are neither too well-off nor too poor, has a river running through it on one side while a forest on the other. The time being of pre-independence years, the town’s identity is formed of a curious blend of Indian and British which is witnessed not only in its physical features that depict the same but also in the Indian-English sensibilities of some of the inhabitants. For example, we have on the one hand the river Sarayu where Swami plays with his friends while on the other there is the Albert Mission School, an obviously anglicized school where they all study. There is the ‘M.C.C.’ which stands both for the original Marylebone Cricket Club in England and the more plebian Malgudi Cricket Club back home. There is the Lord Tirupathy on the one hand and the slick little model railway engine on the Rajam’s toy cupboard on the other and so on. Thus the curious blending of Indian and British, Eastern and Western, Ancient and Modern forms the backdrop to the lives of the people of Malgudi in novel after novel and story after story. But as you will notice in Swami and Friends too, Narayan rarely gives his readers any static description of the place. In fact as William Walsh has put it : ‘The physical geography of Malgudi is never dealt with as a set piece but allowed to reveal itself beneath and between the events.’ With each novel it grows and new features are added so that it itself becomes almost a real living presence which keeps developing from novel to novel. Yet, however strong the impact of westernization and modernization may be, the town retains its traditional values that govern and shape the lives of most of its older inhabitants while the younger generation is shown to be forward looking and believing in the western notions of progress. Thus a mingling of the old and the new is very much evident in the Malgudi landscape. It is felt to be in its nascent stages in the first novel i.e. Swami and Friends though there is a steady progress from innocence to experience from novel after novel subsequently.

Although Malgudi is an imaginary place like Hardy’s Wessex yet Narayan’s realistic presentation of it has led various critics to attempt to locate it geographically on the map of India. K.K. Srinivasa Iyengar conjectures that it might be Lalgudi on the River Cauvery or Yadavagiri in Mysore. Some others speculate that Narayan’s Malgudi shares many of its features with the city of Coimbatore that also has a river on one side and forests on the other, the Mission school and College and several other features. M.K. Naik has even attempted to sketch a map of the imaginary town. Yet all efforts have been in vain, for Narayan’s Malgudi shares some of its features with all of these places but not all its features with one place. It is ‘a country of the mind’, a town which took its shape not on any geographical map of India but in the mental landscape of the writer. In his memoir’s Narayan recounts how the idea came to him:

‘...as I sat in a room nibbling my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi with its little railway station swam into view, all ready-made, with a character called Swaminathan running down the platform peering into the faces of passengers, and grimacing at a bearded face; this seemed to take me on the right track of writing, as day by day pages grew out of it linked to each other. (In the final draft the only change was that the Malgudi station came at the end of the story.)’ (My Days)

The place remained an imaginary town, which included in it various physical features of the places known to Narayan, mostly his beloved Mysore. What makes this place come alive are the men, women and children who people it. Narayan’s prime interest was not in the depiction of a place but in the delineation of human lives. His interest, was more in human beings and relationships as he himself explained on one occasion, ‘I seek life wherever I go. I seek people, their interests, their aspirations and predicaments’ (Suresh Kohli, ‘Views of an Indian Novelist: An Interview with R.K. Narayan,’ Indian and Foreign Review, May 1975, pp. 13-20).

Swami and Friends too is remarkable not for the completely realistic and entirely credible depiction of life in Malgudi but more for its ‘insight into the rhythms of the young consciousness.’ Narayan is able to enter a child’s world on the child’s terms and is able to look at this world through the child’s eye. No mean feat for a keenly sensitive and observant man having an adult perspective in things. To portray a child’s world without sentimentalizing it and to make the readers sensitive to a child’s perspective requires the writer to have retained some of the child in him. This is what comes through very effectively in Swami and Friends as we read the account of Swami’s life. It is an account that is sensitive but at the same time objective; humorous but not without indications of sad possibilities in a child’s life. Narayan is able to capture with complete psychological veracity the various shades of Swami’s behaviour. For example, his fleeting attention as he attempts to solve the dry arithmetical problem set by his father, his slight deception as he sees the spider and pockets it as a pet rather than throwing it out, his imagination which wanders at will as he imagines himself the Tate of his cricket club or his fears when he is lost in the forest. At every step we enter into the child’s mind along with Narayan and see things from the child’s perspective. Our adult consciousness through which all the events are being filtered enriches this simple tale with comedy and the humour grows on us, as we remain riveted to the pages.

Although you have just one chapter of this novel in course yet it would be a good idea to read the complete novel. Read it not because it would help in placing ‘The M.C.C.’ in its context but more because it makes for delightful reading and is an excellent introduction to the world of R.K. Narayan.


6.1 V M Basheer: The Card Sharper’s Daughter

V M Basheer: The Card Sharper’s Daughter

An Analysis

           The Author and his Milieu

Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, who did not publish much in his literary career spanning three decades, managed to revolutionize the Malayalam literary scene, especially the art of story telling, by bringing in radical themes and subjects and also by rejecting Sanskritised Malayalam in favour of the colloquial and the vernacular. His literary vocabulary consisted of words drawn from the daily life of common people and the same was absolutely necessary if he wanted to make his stories work and give them the flavour of pulsating reality. His characters were the poor and the marginalized and in his view their experiences were as worthy of literary treatment as were the experiences of kings and queens.He saw no difference in the language that articulated their experiences and the so-called literary language or the language of literature.

Basheer was born probably on January 20, 1908 at a small village in Vaikom in Kerala. He was the eldest of six children of Kayi Abdu Rahiman, a prosperous timber merchant, and Kunchachumma. Born in a God-fearing Muslim family, Basheer had already completed his study of the Quran by the age of eight He attended a primary Malayalam School in his village for some time but because his parents were slightly progressive in their attitude, he was sent next to the Vaikom English School, though he continued to learn Arabic from a Muslim tutor at home.

Basheer was at an impressionable age when Mahatma Gandhi came to visit Vaikom in March 1924 as part of the Satyagrah movement Already drawn towards the freedom struggle and towards leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and others, Gandhi’s visit proved a watershed for Basheer’s nationalist leanings. He ran away from home to participate in the freedom struggle and reached Calicut which was the hub of nationalist activities in Kerala. Here he joined the Al-Amin newspaper and took part in the Salt Satyagrah on the Calicut beaches. His arrest was inevitable and along with the other freedom fighters he too was incarcerated and sent to the Cannanore Central Jail.

Basheer’s experiences at the jail were painful and tortuous. He was subjected to a number of atrocities which in turn wrought a dramatic change in him. From one extreme he went to another. Abandoning the Gandhian doctrines of Ahimsa he turned towards terrorism and saw in it an answer to curb foreign domination. Now he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sardar Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev. From Al-Amin he moved to Ujjevanam (The Revival) newspaper which catered to the spread of the terrorist movement. Needless to say, once again the police came into action. The paper was banned, all subversive material was confiscated and Basheer, along with his other mates, had to go under-ground in order to evade arrest.

From then on it was a constant struggle for Basheer, to somehow dodge the hawk eyes of the law enforcers and this in turn set him on his extensive travels. For the next seven years he travelled all over India, reaching as far as the shores of Arabia. In all his years of wandering he had to resort to the use of various disguises in order to avoid recognition. At times he posed as a beggar, at other times as a palmist, an astrologer. He worked as a magician’s assistant, as a private tutor, and also at a tea shop In addition to these few he took up many other odd jobs during his various sojourns. At one point in time he even tried to join the Bombay film industry but failed because he did not know Marathi. While posing as an Astrologer, Basheer met a Beedi merchant named Gajanan, who was immensely impressed by his fluency in three languages, namely Malayalam, English and Hindustani. He engaged Basheer as a private tutor for his children to teach them English. So far so good, but when Gajanan wanted him to teach them arithmetic as well, Basheer left the job and moved to Bombay. .

In Bombay too Basheer encashed his ability to speak fluent English and ran a night school in Bhindi Bazaar, teaching the basics of the English language to his students. He stayed for some time in Kamattipura which was a notorious haunt of prostitutes, eunuchs and thieves. He came in close contact with these people while living there and learnt of the rhythms of the lives of these marginalized beings. After some time had passed the desire to travel struck once again and Basheer joined as a Khalasi on the ship S.S. Rizvani which was taking Haj pilgrims from Bombay to Jeddah. Rather than reaching Jeddah, however, Basheer reached Pakistan. To make a living, he worked first at a hotel in Karachi and later got a job at the Civil and Military Gazette as the proof reader’s copy-holder. He spent some time in Hyderabad (Sindh), Lahore and Peshawar too and always spoke nostalgically of the time before India was partitioned and held the British totally responsible for it. But the wanderlust overtook him once again and he set out on his travels yet again and this time he reached Delhi. He travelled extensively in the Northern part of India and visited almost all the sacred pilgrimages of Hindus, Muslims as well as Christians. At Ajmer he stayed in a Dharamshala, posing as a Hindu. For three and a half years he lived as a Sanyasi with other Sanyasis and he then went on to spend as much time with the Sufis. For Basheer there was no conflict between the Hindu belief “Aham Brahmasmi” and the Sufi notion “Anal Huq” both of which carry the same meaning, “I am the truth.” His mind was open to all religions and he found his experiences with the Hindu Sanyasis and the Sufi brothers very fulfilling. Yet asceticism was not the path he could follow for long. Being basically a man of action he chose to return and get involved with the work-a-day world once again. He moved to Peshawar then Kashmir and subsequently to Calcutta. Here he met a manufacturer of sports goods from Sialkot who offered him an agency in Kerala. Basheer accepted his offer and finally returned home.

Back home his father’s business had gone bankrupt and his family was poised on the brink of poverty. Basheer worked hard to run the agency of sports goods but lost the same when he met with an accident and was unable to look after the business. Once again at a loose end Basheer began writing stories for a paper called Jayakesari. His first story ‘Ente Thankam’ (My thankness) was published in this paper sometime between 1937 and 1941. This story had an immediate impact on the Malayalam literary scene as it broke away from the traditional concepts of romantic fiction. Basheer’s heroine was not a slim, fair, beautiful, maiden but a dark complexioned hunchback. He marked his difference from others in this departure from tradition. His later works proved the point further when not only were his subjects and themes different but their treatment too was markedly different from the Malayalam literary conventions.

Meanwhile Basheer came under Police surveillance once again due to his criticism of the Dewan of Travancore. The weeklyPauranadam, which he had launched with a purpose of finding a platform for his satirical writings, was banned and Basheer was once again on the ‘wanted’ list of the Police. For some time he lived in hiding with K.C. George, a Communist leader, but ultimately surrendered to the police and was put in the Kollam Kasba Police Station lock-up. Basheer’s experiences at this prison featured in many of his short stories like ‘Tiger’, ‘Itiyan Panikker’ and ‘Mathilukal’ (Walls). It is said that he even wrote stories on request from the prisoners who were sick of reading the Ramayana and the Bible. A hilarious love story ‘Prerna Lekhanam” was the outcome of such a request.

Basheer’s career as a writer and journalist witnessed a boost when he moved to Madras. He wrote extensively for the weekly Jayakevlam. When he returned to Ernakulam he opened a tiny book store which began as Circle Book House but was later renamed as Basheer’s Book Stall. His columns ‘The True and the False’ appeared regularly in Narmada, a paper run by Raghavan Nair. In Basheer’s literary pursuits, M.P. Paul, a teacher and literary critic, proved to be his guide and mentor. Paul urged him to devote more time to his writing after reviewing his novel Balyakalasakhi (Childhood Friend), which had appeared in 1944.

At a young age Basheer had fallen in love with a Hindu Nair girl and had almost got married to her. The girl’s name was Saraswati Devi and she was all set to face strong opposition from her family and from the conservative Kerala Society too in order to marry Basheer. Inter Community marriages were not approved of in this society and Devi’s parents threatened to take their own lives in case she married a Muslim. When Basheer learned of her parents’ threat he appealed to Devi to forget him and marry someone of her parents’ choice. He could not envisage a love life with the threat of death looming large over it. He decided to let go, yet, this experience of thwarted love took its toll on the mental health of the sensitive Basheer and in later life led to fits of depression and bouts of insanity. Only in his fiftieth year could his friends persuade him to marry Fatima Bi- a girl half his age but who proved to be a stabilizing force in Basheer’s life from the moment she set foot in it. Basheer married her in 1958 and fondly called her Fabi. They moved to Beypore in 1962 and from that day till the day Basheer breathed his last, he lived in Beypore. Vanajan Ravindran records an interesting fact in this context when she informs us that Basheer came to be known as ‘the Beypore Sultan’ from the day he referred to himself as “the Sultan of his two acre land”. (From ‘Introduction,’ Vanajam Ravindran ed., Vaikom Mohammad Basheer: Short Stories, New Delhi: Katha / Rupa, 1996). The last three decades of Basheer’s life were marked by frail health and he did not write. Instead, he spent his time listening to music and talking to his visitors.

It was in early 1930s, that the Progressive Writer’s Movement made its impact on Malayalam Literature. Writers like Karur Nilkanta Pillai (1858--1975), Kesav Dev (1904--j983), Ponkunnam Varki (1908 - ), Lalithambika Antharajanam (1909-1987), Thakazi Sivasankara Pillai (1912- ) S.K. Pottekkat (1913-1982) and P.C. Kuttikrishnan (1915-1979), were contemporaries of Basheer and out of this group of writers it was Thakazi, Dev and Varki who wrote consciously about socialist themes, about poverty, unemployment and hunger. Basheer too wrote on these subjects but drew upon his personal experiences of sordidness and poverty. He had seen it all at first hand yet he chose to be objective rather than sentimental, while recording his experiences. In fact, his ‘picaresque’ life provided him.with ample material for his creative work. As M.N. Vijayan puts it, ‘Politics and prison, asceticism, pick-pocketing, homosexaulity, all were grist to his mill’ (from ‘Introduction’ in Vanajam Ravindran ed. Vaikom Mohammad Basheer: Short Stories). So varied were his experiences that no two stories of his shared any similarities. He forged his own style and his ignorance about literary conventions became a reason for his uniqueness. In his own words ‘agonizing experiences and a pen’ were all the material he had when he ventured into the literary world. The conventions of Sanskritised Malayalam were challenged by his colloquial style and by his unconventional subjects. The rogues, the dimwits, the prostitutes, the eunuchs, the pickpockets and the wicked as well as the innocent all made an appearance in his works and all were treated with the same ironic humour and subjected to the same satirical gaze of the first person narrator called ‘the humble historican’ by Basheer himself. His seminal work ‘Sabdangal’ (Voices), which appeared in 1947 was almost a microcosm of the surrounding world and dealt with issues like poverty, unemployment, death and destruction. His three novellas, BalyakalasakhiN ‘te Uppooppakkoru Anadarnuand Pathummayute Adu, for which he is well known, depicted the life of the Kera1a Muslims. But his writings are not limited to any particular community. In fact, it is the human community which interests him and of particular interest are the issues which are of concern to the present generation. Thus he could sensitively express the despair and anger of a modern man in ‘The Invaluable Moment’ and ‘An Evening Prayer’ as well as express his  concern for the environment in a story like ‘The Rightful Inheritors of The Earth.’

Basheer was the first Malayalam writer to treat writing as any other paid profession and to demand remuneration. In his play (the only play he wrote) Kathabeejum he deals with this issue and draws upon his personal experiences as a writer. An altercation occurs in the play between an impoverished and starving writer and his publisher. When the Writer demands to be paid for his work the editor tells him that he should be satisfied with fame. What does he need money for? At this the writer replies “People spend money on films, the theatre, cigarettes. But when it cames to reading, which is also a form of entertainment, they expect to get it free. The writer needs sustenance and space for writing. I am not talking about myself, but on behalf of writers, men and women like me”. The Editor however, characteristically retorts “I don intend to make the sacred temple of Literature into a whorehouse!” Basheer struggled against such a mindset and such double standards throughout his life. Though his views were pragmatic and he did not believe in art for art’s sake yet, he did believe that “the ultimate end of life and art was ‘Nanma’ (goodness) -- the betterment of the self and humanity.”

Basheer passed away on July 5, 1994, leaving behind his wife Fabi, daughter Shahina and son Anees. He also left behind his works that amazed readers because of the sheer variety contained in them and also the manner in which he ‘transformed the biographical into historical, the transient into the perennial and the trivial into the sublime,’ (M.N. Vijayan). Forging a style-which was the exigency of his subjects and themes, he introduced the Malayalam readers to a new-way of looking at things. His racy humour, pungent satire, tendency to debunk rhetoric rather than be enslaved by it, all was refreshingly different from the convention-ridden works of his contemporaries. Basheer drew upon -his everyday experiences and yet could delineate equally well the sublime and the infernal. As M.N. Vijayan observes ‘whether it be the crook or the nitwit, the wicked or the innocent, the “I” of his tales gazes at “god’s plenty” spread out before him and presents this to us, distilled in the alembic of his rich humour.’ For Basheer, life provided a model for art. Whatever he wrote and whoever he wrote about, compassion and acceptance remained the key to his humour.It was seldom malicious.

           The Sthalam Stories

‘The Card Sharper’s Daughter’ was originally published as Mucheettukalikkarante Makal in the year 1957 and forms a part of a series of stories written by Basheer in the 1950s.What was different in these stories was that they all were centered around a new place and used a new literary device. The new place was the Sthalam, an imaginary village in Kerala and the new literary device on which the stories were modelled was that of historical writing. The first person narrator who narrates all these stories even introduces himself as ‘the humble historian.’ The difference however is that while these stories are consciously written as histories and employ the whole textual apparatus of historical writing, yet the aim is to debunk and undermine this narrativization of histories as well as to undercut the rhetoric that often accompanies it.

On the one hand the Sthalam is a small imaginary village in Kerala and on the other it stands for the political realm in general -- the polity. This polity houses an anti-world. It is a world which is not integrated with rest of the country but exists on its own. In fact, the national state apparatus, always present beyond the fringes of this world, is seen here as the ‘foreign reactionary regime’ and the two-policeman in the Sthalam, become representatives of this regime. Normal standards do not apply to this anti-world of pickpockets and criminals. Yet, Basheer converts this anti-world into a normal world by the sensitiveness and indulgence in his characterization. He never condemns or sits in judgement. Instead, he shows us the humane aspeet of this anti-world where romance doesflourish and generosity appears alongside thefts and misadventures.

As mentioned earlier, while these stories employ the literary device of historical writing and are written as Histories, yet, the aim is not to narrate actual histories but to parody the structuring of these historical narratives. What we find in these stories therefore, is a parodic representation of polity. The same is achieved by the deft use of a few rhetorical devices where the choice of subject and theme along with the tone in which the narrative is presented, which in turn employs the terminology of political discourse -- all together create the desired effect of burlesque at its best. There are basically the following three rhetorical devices at play here:-

  1. First of all, the choice of subject is ingenious, Basheer selects a small event, con cerned with the prosaic, day to day lives of the inhabitants of the Sthalam.It may be a domestic conflict or some wrangle over a petty theft or anything else equally trivial.
  2. Having chosen a banal theme and puny subjects, Basheer then proceeds to narrate the event in a grand inflated tone, using rhetoric drawn from the ‘discourses of national and international politics, particularly the Marxist discourse which was extremely popular at the time in Kerala. So we find words and phrases like ‘reactionary,’ ‘foreign regime,’ ‘comrade-in-arms,’ ‘politically conscious,’ ‘bourgeois’ and so on, liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative.
  3. The third rhetorical device is the conscious attempt at writing. Thus we have the whole parapheranalia of historical writing put to use here and made evident at once in the manner in which the first person narrator introduces himself as “the humble historian” or “the humble chronicler." Not only does he do that but he even proceeds to make it very clear that he is writing this piece of narrative for ‘the benefit of the students of history.’ In keeping with the textual implements of any historical writing “the humble historian” includes foot notes and also cross references to other ‘histories’. He alludes to ‘interviews’ or ‘empirical data’ collected by him. There is also the conversion and updation of information, for example the conversion of annas to paisa. This is exactly how academic historiography works, entering into a process of validation and authentication. This is it how histories are written. The method is fool proof but the irony lies in the fact that this method is being applied to a subject and event which is of no historical interest whatsoever. The whole regalia of historical writing are at once debunked and deflated. The undercutting of the discourse of analysis runs parallel to the debunking of historical writing. When the grand inflated political discourse is applied to insignificant themes and ordinary subjects, it serves to expose the emptiness of political rhetoric rather than just the triviality of the subject and theme. The constant process of inflation and deflation is carried on throughout the narrative and the mock-grandiose tone creates humour because of its burlesque. It also creates satire because of the implied criticism of the rhetoric driven historical and political discourses.

Tbe process of inflation or exaggeration is carried forward into Basheer’s art of characterization as well. In fact the characters who are neither ‘realistic figures’ nor ‘types,’ are presented as ‘stylized exaggerations of representative specimens.’ As Uday Kumar rightly, points out, they appear more like cartoons or animated figures rather than real life figures. This in turn transforms them from being life-size figures to miniatures. There is a reduction in stature which ‘evokes indulgent 1aughter precisely because they appear exaggerated -- but miniaturised -- imitations, of human gestures,’ (Uday Kumar, ‘Basheer’s Humble Historian’ in Sharmishtha Panja ed., Many Indias Many Literatures: New Critical Essays. New Delhi: Woridview Publications, 1999).

Alongside this process of exaggeration and miniaturization there is a dilution of the moral implications of the actions of these characters. Rather than sitting in judgement on them we look at them with indulgence and sympathy, with a smile instead of a frown.

In the context of Basheer’s development as a writer, these Sthalam stories come midway in the three stages of his career according to Uday Kumar. In his early stories e.g. ‘Walls’.or ‘Voices’, the first person narrator presents his view of the world in terms of fragmented images. There is a constant search for meaning in these stories and the tone is that of despair and anger because the narrator is unable to find that meaning. He is himself a victim in many of these early stories.

The Sthalam stories move away from the above stance and the victim figure disappears even though the victimizers do not. The search for meaning is abandoned. Attention is instead drawn towards the ways of living, a celebration of life, of the very energy of life. Every thing in these stories is geared towards ‘performance.’ What is important is not what is true but that which carries the narative forward. There is no explanation and no meaning, only an ‘energetic ethos’ where it is not important for statements to be true or events to be real. Even lies and non-events are seen as a ‘celebration of life and its endless performance.’

The third stage of Basheer’s writing career witnesses a movement away from the fictitious location of the Sthalam stories. His fiction turns inwards and becomes insistently autobiographical for e.g.: ‘Puthumma’s Goat.’ The narrative format does not change and the performance of story telling goes on but the story itself, in terms of a meaningful organization of events with one thing logically leading to another, disappears. Thus it becomes a non-narrative performance which undertakes an exploration into the sources of values and religious sentiments. The Sthalam stories indicate a middle period in Basheer’s work prior to the development of this ‘domestic non-story’.


7 V M Basheer: The Card Sharper’s Daughter

V M Basheer: The Card Sharper’s Daughter

The Card Sharper’s Daughter

An Introduction

As mentioned earlier, ‘The Card Sharper’s Daughter’ belongs to the group of stories known as the Sthalam stories. All the features of a Sthalam story discussed above are therefore quite evident in this story too. The ‘humble historian’ makes an early appearance in the story and states in a mock serious tone that he is going to relate the history of how the arch card sharper Pokker was done in by the slow-witted Muthapa and how the latter thus succeeded in winning the hand of Zainaba who is Pokker’s daughter There is the same exaggeration of a small event which lays bare its triviality when considered against the grandiose style used for narrating the same. We witness the use of the whole rigmarole of historical writing in the narrativization of this small event and we are also consistently exposed to a parody of political discourse throughout the narrative The narrator remains an amused observer merely recording objectively the ‘essential facts’ concerning the debunking of Pokker by Muthapa. Yet the emphasis placed on ‘essential facts’ springs from the desire to give a semblence of history to the narrative. In a tongue-in-cheek manner Basheer has a dig at Marxist learnings when he describes Zainaba and Muthapa’s love affair as a people’s movement and makes a liberal use of the Marxist terminology in describitig people and situations so that the small village, the Sthalam becomes a microcosm of a polity. Irony, satire and humour are all present in a deliberate parodying of not only historical fiction but also romantic conventions and political discourse. Let us look at the story in detail to see how this is achieved.

    Detailed Analysis

  •     The First Person Narrator

The sense of the teller and the tale is created right from the first sentence itself and the ‘performance’ of the story begins. From the manner in which an emphasis is placed on ‘the moral’ of the story the teller’s apparent aim seems to be didactic. A sense of curiosity is aroused by placing hints that the story may go against the fair sex since ‘girls will find it neither amusing nor enlightening.’ Sweeping statements however, put the reader on guard — why murder all daughters in cold blood? We might well ask ourselves this question.

The first person narrator, who has set the ball rolling, now makes his appearance as the ‘I’ of the story and indicates that what he has just said is not a matter of personal opinion. He implies that he is the narrator as well as the writer here for he mentions his lady readers who might get incensed by his ‘blatantly misogynist observations’ and he hopes they would not condemn him ‘to eternal damnation’. The sense of the teller and the tale is going to be present throughout. The point of view is going to be that of this narrator who is will observe the action and the characters and present the same to us. The story proper has not been launched yet. Till now the narrator has merely laid the ground for the narrative to unfold and has succeeded in implying that the subject of the story is a serious one. Yet you cannot fail to notice that the tone he adopts is a mock serious one and in the same mock serious tone he introduces the main characters of the story in one go.

  •     Characterisation

Ottakkannan Pokker is introduced as the ‘tragic protagonist’ and the narrator tells us that all ire of his lady readers should be directed at this figure rather than him for it is Pokker who had made the misogynist observation mentioned earlier. The other characters are Mandan Muthapa and Zainaba who is Pokker’s daughter. Muthapa begins as a villain in the story but attains a heroic stature as the story progresses and ends up a chivalrous knight where he takes up arms against Pokker. Zainaba proves to be his ‘comrade in arms’. Once again the manner in which these charac ters have been introduced, builds up expectations for a serious story, grand in ‘theme and heroic in statutre. There is talk about a ‘battle’ about ‘comrades in arms’ about ‘chivalry’ about ‘tragedy’. A steady elevation of an event is being effected through a deliberate use of these terms that are drawn from romantic literature about knights and ladies when according to conventions battles are fought by these chivalrous knights for the love of their ladies. Yet a sudden deflation occurs when it turns out to be not a grand tale about knights and ladies but an amusing story about a few simple people in a small village in Kerala. The prosaic fact is mentioned soon after the gradiose introduction of the three main characters. This device of inflation and then deflation creates the mock serious tone in the story. The style is akin to the mock-epic style where grand themes are applied to puny subjects and the disparity makes for humour.

Other characters in this Saga are next introduced and we have the two police constables who are called ‘Stooges of the Tyrannical regime’. These are Thorappan Avaran and Driver Pappunni, the two master rogues. Then Anavari Raman Nair and Ponkurissu Thoma, who are referred to as ‘the bigwigs of the local criminal fraternity’ and then there is Ettukali Mammoonhu who is their protege. Apart from these there are about 2200 other villagers and they are all ‘peace lovers’ and have nothing to do with ‘war-mongering reactionaries’.

Notice that the main characters all have sobriquets prefixed to their names which in turn describe either some physical feature, a character trait or links them with a past event Thus Ottakkannan means one-eyed; Mandan means slow-witted, Thorapan is the mole, Anawari is the elephant-grabber and Ettukali is the spider. Prefixing desscriptive sobriquets to a person’s name is a regional specificity as it is a common practice in Kerala. These sobriqüets however, also link these characters to other stories in the group because at times they refer to the events that have already occurred in an earlier story e.g.; Anawari Raman Nair is called. Anawari, the elephant-grabber, because he had once mistaken a dung heap for an elephant and had stealthily tried to grab it. Similarly Thoma is known as Ponkurissu Thoma because Ponkurissu is a cross made of gold and the sobriquet got attached to Thoma’s name because he had once stolen a gold cross from the Church. Some of these sobriquets work as visual aids and help us imagine what a character may look like eg: Ettukali who is called a spider because of his small head and long drooping moustache. At other times a prefixed sobriquet determines our opinion about a character even before we are given a chance to form one eg: Muthappa is called Mandan, the slow-witted and we begin by precluding that he is a fool. The whole story however is directed at proving that he is no fool after all for he succeeds in outwitting the arch card sharper Pokker whose sobriquet Ottakkannan simply informs us that he is one-eyed.

You must have noticed that the world we have just been introduced to is an anti-world peopled by characters who are the dregsof society being rogues and criminals all. They are the marginalised beings and Basheer’s technqiue of characterization is such that not even for a moment are we made to feel that he is criticizing them or moralizing through them. In fact his attitude towards them is an indulgent one which accepts them along with all their failings. You may recall at this point that Basheer had himself come in close contact with such people on innumerable occasions, especially while being incarcerated along with their likes. He had had the chance to observe them with a humane eye rather than a judgemental one. He had looked at them just as human beings and consequently when he included these characters in his stories, he delineated them with the same indulgence and acceptance.

  •     The Event as History

Having introduced the main characters and laid the ground for the story to unfold, the narrator comes to the verge of beginning the narrative but not before he has made it clear that what we are about to read is the narrativization of a historical event. Thus the narrator refers to himself as ‘the humble chronicler’ and uses the textual apparatus of historical writing. This is the reason why he draws our attention to procedure. Like a historian he has given us ‘the essential facts’ and again like a historian he is going to base his narrative on these facts as well as whatever other data he has collected from ‘interviewing major characters’. Ultimately he concludes by saying that he is now going to record the whole event for the ‘benefit of students of history’ thus driving the point further. The whole procedure of modern academic historiography will therefore be mobilized in this narrativization of a historical event. Yet the idea itself is undermined and debunked by the fact that the event is of no historical importance at all. It is in fact at best a small event having just local reverberations rather than national or international ones. The triviality of the event exposes and thus parodies the structuring of historical narrative. This parodic debunking of historical writing and also historical explanation is carried on throughout the story.

Notice that the narrator makes a very clever use of political rhetoric and leans towards Marxist terminology for describing people and situations. By doing so, while he is depicting the popularity of Marxist ideology, he is also presenting a critique of it by applying it to trivial matters like a domestic conflict. Thus the two constables are described as representatives of the ‘tyrannical regime’ meaning the government, the village big-wigs are also named but it is pointed out that they are all peace lovers and have nothing to do with ‘war reactionaries.’ Phrases like ‘tyrannical regime’ and ‘reactionary’ are lifted straight from Marxist terminology. By applying the same to people and situations that have no grandeur or no importance to merit such treatment, Basheer succeeds in making a travesty of the politically charged atmosphere of Kerala which at the time was reeling under the influence of a lot of slogan shouting and political happenings.

 

  •     Laying the Ground for the Narrative to Unfold

Having introduced the characters by name, Basheer moves on to now describe them and begin with Ottakkannan Pokker and then proceeds with the descriptions of Zainaba and Muthapa. It is made evident that these three are going to be the main protagonists of the story. In these descriptions a lot of emphasis is placed on the visual, so, while Pokker’s complexion is fair Muthapa is jet black in comparison. If Pokker is ‘one-eyed’ Muthapa ‘is ‘cross-eyed’. Pokker’s teeth are stained red since he is a voracious betel chewer whereas Muthapa’s smile is always charming. Both are therefore almost opposites of each other. Both are known by their respective professions, so, Pokker is called ‘Ottakhannan Pokker, the card-sharper’ while Muthapa is called ‘Mandan Muthapa, the pick pocket’. Pokker’s wife is dead whereas Muthapa’s parents too have both passed away. Zainaba, Pokker’s daughter is the village beauty- and being nineteen years of age is all set to be married off ‘to some hard working young man.’ Pokker is working very hard to collect the money needed for marrying off his daughter. In a racy colloquial style Basheer continues to bring us up to date with the situation and we are next informed of how the one hundred and twenty rupees that Pokker had collected over the years, are already lost. But nobody had stolen it so where had the money gone? In a chatty tone, where the narrator enters the narrative in first person, refreshing the sense of the teller and the tale, he asks the reader to be patient. Thus suspense and curiosity, two important ingredients of a short story, are both brought into play.

The build up to the main narrative is however not over yet. It is not sufficient for Basheer to simply mention the respective professions of the arch rivals Pokker and Muthapa. He gives us an indepth look at how card-sharping or pick pocketing works. As mentioned earlier Basheer had modelled many of the characters in his Sthalam stories on the various ‘jail-birds’ he had met while incarcerated along with them. His behind-the-scenes knowledge about card-sharping and pick- pocketing, could very well spring from the same source. Like any other profession, Basheer gives due respect to these too and in a style which is typically Basheerian, he proceeds to give us an objective description of them. He is not a conscious social reformer, therefore, while he tells us about professions which run against the law, he neither condemns them nor valorizes them in any way. He remains objective as well as slightly amused, using his device of inflation and deflation to create irony, satire as well as humour. Thus, while on the one hand he tells us that card sharping requires brains as well as capital, in the next breath we are told what that ‘capital’ is — ‘pack of cards, an old issue of Malayala Manorama and a handful of small stones.’ Any inflated expectations that might have sprung up from the imposing word ‘capital’ are imediately punctured in a manner where the tone remains dead-pan and there is no obvious laughter. An amused smile however, cannot be pushed away. Basheer’s humour therefore is not the raucus kind. In fact, it is very subtle.

With Pokker’s cry of ‘Hai Raja ....,’ Basheer makes the card-sharping language come alive for his readers. At this point you must remember that Basheer was writing at a time and place when the literary scene was riddled with conventions of Sanskritized Malayalam writings. In such a milieu he intrudes with not only the colloquial everyday speech of the villagers, but also the language of card sharpers and pickpockets. Basheer believed that each profesaion creates its own language and the same is very evident in Pokker’s speech as he entices customers to come and play his game. The cry rings in our ears and we can almost visualize him shouting at the top of his voice “Hai Raja.... Come on everybody.... Double your money folks . . .  two for one, four for two, the joker makes your fortune. Never mind if you place your money on the numbered cards. It’s your alms for a poor man... hai raja!”

The translation can capture the rawness of this language only partially. It would deliver its crispy effects better in the original. As pointed out in the annotations to your text, Basheer used the Mappila dialect of the Malayalee Muslims which was interspersed with-Arabic words. The dialect cannot be reproduced in an English translation exactly but we have come as close as possible in capturing the briskness of the card-shaper’s language. Both Pokker and Muthapa are called artists and Basheer describes in detail how they practice their art. There is a lot of emphasis on the visual and minute observations go in to make up the descriptions of both. The humour is sardomic, tongue- in-check and can be glimpsed in the way Basheer first describes in detail how Pokker cheats his clients and then ends by saying ‘There was no fraud in it really!’ and finds nothing ‘demeaning’ in the profession of a pickpocket. Basheer treats pickpoeketing as he would treat any other profession -- in his world there seems to be no disrespect attached with cheats and swindlers and the lies they indulge in. The tone of righteous indignation is entirely missing in Basheer’s narrative for the simple reason that he is not here to sit in any moral judgement on his characters. He is merely an amused observer, a humble chronicler. While the tone is ironic in this sense, at the same time it is mischievous. He seems to take delight in the fast-paced human drama that he records for us here.

The sheer energy of life and its celebration by the inhabitants of this village affect our detached observer too and it seems difficult for him to remain detached for long. He is irresistibly drawn towards the ups and downs, the small domestic conflicts the rumours, the gossip, the exaggerations, the posturings of these people. In the process of noting these various things Basheer manages to recreate for us a very realistic picture of an Indian village in Kerala complete with its bustling market day; the mounds of tapioca, coconuts, bananas, and vegetables waiting to be unloaded from the boats at the landing; the obscure little coffee shop which serves coffee with jaggery; restaurants which serve tea with boiled black gram, appam, vada and bananas; buyers and sellers who jostle with one another for best bargains and villagers who feel it their duty to be involved with the issue of Zainaba’s marriage to Muthapa. Visual details, like the ancient silk cotton tree under which Pokker conducts his daily business, also make up the realistic dimension of the village picture we get in this story.

In a manner similar to his description of the profession of card-sharping, Basheer describes-for us the modus operandi of a pick-pocket. Having thus generated a suitable interest in both the protagonists he next fans our curiousity further by mentioning that the tale he is now about to unfold describes how ‘Mandan Muthapa, the nitwit, vanquished his nimble witted adversary and won the hand of’ and he leaves us teetering on the edge of suspense.

Till this point in the story Basheer has just managed to introduce his characters and set the stage for the action to begin. Unlike the modem short story where character and scene are revealed or implied through dialogue Basheer, like Premchand’s ‘Holy Panchayat’, has devoted a lot of time and space for giving us detailed descriptions regarding both. Can you guess the reason for this? Well, the reason lies in the fact that in telling the story Basheer is following the oral tradition He is writing this story as it would have been narrated by a story teller to his audience. That is why the sense of the teller and the tale was created right in the beginning from the first sentence itself. The conventions of the oral tradition demand that listeners be told about the characters and the setting. They fall in line with the tradition of stories which begins ‘Once upon a time there lived a king. ’The modem element in Basheer’s story however is, that instead of kings and queens or princes and princesses or knights and ladies he talks here about the marginalized sections of society, the thieves, the pickpockets, criminals and so on. And. he talks about them, not with a sense to reform but with sympathy and acceptance.

  •     The Plot

Having enlightened his readers about the characters and the situation, Basheer is now ready to unfold the main narrative which is about the debunking of the arch card-sharper by the dimwitted Muthapa. At the same time however, the narrative is also about the rornantic involvement of Zainaba and Muthapa and about their struggle to get married. The two are linked because it is Zainaba, who helps Muthapa to out-wit her father Pokker and Muthapa in turn does so because he wants to marry Zainaba. Keeping true to the parodic mode of the narrative Basheer uses the love affair of Zainaba and Muthapa to make a deliberate mockery of the romantic conventions and the tragic conventions of romantic love stories. He raises their struggle to mock epic heights. With characteristic irony he presents here a love between two riff-raff of society — a pick-pocket and the daughter of a swindler who is caught in the act of stealing a bunch of bananas herself by her lover. Once again her modus operandi is described with interesting details and without any admonition or indignation on the part of the narrator. In this world of criminals and cheats, it is entirely possible to have your lady-love too indluging in such nefarious activities. Yet quite characteristically, the event is recorded objectively rather than it being used as a moral platform.

The romantic conventions which talk of perfection in their lovers are thus made to stand on their head by the realist Basheer. He seems to be saying here that the love between these two crooks yields as well to romantic treatment as any grand and lofty passion between the knights and ladies of conventional romances. He raises the affair to mock-epic heights and presents it as a people’s movement with the whole village getting involved in Muthapa’s struggle-to win Zainaba’s hand, despite opposition from her father. In such a scenario Pokker comes to represent a reactionary force while Muthapa’s supporters are the radicals. The evet is presented as the narrativization of history and ‘the humble chronicler’ intrudes into the narrative with a reminder that he is narrating a history here. The implements used in historical writing are mobilized once again and it is implied that whatever is being recounted here has emerged from the fact-finding mission of the humble historian. This mission included his interviews of the main characters Muthapa and Zainaba. So he writes: ‘Muthapa testifies to all these facts — Zainaba however, refused to reply when she was con- fronted by this chronicler and asked whether she loved Muthapa. But she was quite certain that Muthapa was not a mandan ‘“Bapa says that out of spite,” she said.’

The rhetorical devices of the grandiose Tone on the one hand and of the undercutting of that grandeur by the triviality of the event at the centre on the other are both at play in this narrativization. The insignificant and the trivial are elevated to the significant and grand heights. A pompous tone is developed and the event becomes a battle for Zainaba’s heart. Yet at the centre of it all, the event is a small event, not one to have any far reaching ramifications. The whole rhetoric therefore serves to expose the triviality of the event which is at the centre of the narrative. Thus the narativization becomes a deliberate travesty of the process of historicization of events.

Linked to this factor of academic historiography is the use of elements from the discourse of political analysis of historical events. The same is a very common practice in academic historiography and more often than not political ideologies and political rhetoric are a part of the textual apparatus of the historicization of events. In the case of Zainaba and Muthapa, their struggle is presented as a people’s movement with the whole village becoming involved. Muthapa becomes ‘the universally acclaimed leader of the masses’ while Pokker is denounced as a hoarder, a black- marketer and above all ‘a bourgeois reactionary.’ There is a lot of slogan shouting in keeping with the politically charged atmosphere in the village. Basheer is having a dig at the Marxist leanings of the people of Kerala and in a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek manner presents burlesque at its best by applying these grand terms to insignificant and unimposing subjects.

With Zainaba’s help Muthapa is able to connive and beat Pokker at his own game. The secret however, is not revealed till the end and Basheer’s talent as a raconteur par excellence is evident in the manner in which he is able to keep his readers and his listeners riveted to the narrative in order to find out how Muthapa could win each time he placed a coin on one of Pokker’s cards. The involvement of the onlookers catches on to the readers too as they witness the undoing of the clever Pokker by the slow witted Muthapa. While the crowd applauds Muthapa’s luck, we have an ironic comment from our humble chronicler: ‘There was absolutely no connection between card sharping and luck. Pokker knows this too and is at his wit’s end. Zainaba’s connivance in the game is complete for she offers a lame explanation that probably by now every one has caught on to the trick. But what this trick is Basheer still withholds from us, whipping our curiosity further and thus maintaining our interest in the narrative till the end. Quite ingeniously Muthapa has hit upon the best method in making Pokker concede to his demand “let me marry Zainaba and I’ll quit card shaping for good.” The ‘valiant villagers’ were firm on this compromise formula.

Ultimately Pokker isleft with no option and the lovers win. Yet the mystery rankles in Pokker’s flesh like a thorn. He is almost driven mad thinking how Muthapa could beat him at his own game. Eventually, Muthapa reveals the secret and we have a perfect epiphanic moment in the story when everything falls into place. It was Zainaba’s brain-wave and Pokker understands everything in a flash. It.was Zainaba who had revealed her father’s secret to Muthapa so the latter could adopt the same strategy at cardsharping and drive her father up against the wall. Ultimately Pokker would have to relent and agree to their marriage. Thus the battle for Zainaba’s heart is won not by any knights in shining armour but by wiles and deceit. Once again there is a deliberate parody of romantic conventions and the humble chronicler has no answer for Pokker when he asks ‘Can you ever trust your daughter?’ The wheel has come full circle and the gets connected to the beginning where the narrator had begun by stating a generality that all daughters ought to be murdered in cold blood! Step by Step he has brought us to the point where we now understand why, such anger against daughters. Being familiar by now with the style and tone we can take the comment with a pinch of salt.

While Basheer has presented a parody of romantic conventions in his delineation of the romance between Muthapa and Zainaba, he has at the same time also presented a burlesque of the tragic conventions as well. We witness here not the conventional fall of a prince or king but the fall of the clever card sharper who is beaten at his own game.


8 Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh

Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh

An Analysis

           The Author and his Milieu

In the world of Urdu Short Stories, one name that stands towering above all others is that of Saadat Hasan Manto.The sheer intensity of his stories, particularly those on the Partition of India., leaves one almost gasping for breath as it were. Manto lived through the experiences of the Partition and like many other writers who belonged to that period of time, re-lived the horror and the incomprehensible violence and brutality of that year through his writings on the theme. What was different about Manto’s stories was that he wrote dispassionately and objectively, taking no sides and pronouncing no judgements. He was deeply wounded by the sudden savagery leashed upon man by man, upon brother by brother, on neighbour by neighbour, upon one community by the other. He delineated this insanity and this incomprehensibility in an extremely effective manner but at the same time he tried to salvage some hope by hinting at the humanism which could still be located in characters like Toba Tek Singh or Mozail.

Manto belonged to a middle-class Kashmiri family of Amritsar. He was born in Sambrala (which is some miles from Amritsar) on the eleventh of May 1912. His short life span saw him migrate to Pakistan after the partition, where he died in Lahore in 1955 at the age of forty three.

The name ‘Manto’ at once creates an interest in Saadat Hasan’s life and raises our curiosity as to what the word means. Various reasons have been attributed to the use of the name ‘Manto’ by his forefathers as well as himself. Manto commented on it once and explained that the name goes back to his roots being in Kashmir. He pointed out that ‘Mant’was a measure of weight used by his forefathers to weigh the gold and silver that they possessed and hence the name ‘Manto’. Dr Brij Premi, who has done extensive research on the life and works of Manto, has pointed out that the name ‘Manto’ indicates links with the Saraswat Brahmins of Kashmir. According to him Mant and Manwati are two branches of the Saraswat Brahmins. Those who embraced Islam were called Mant’and those who remained Hindus were called Manwatis. These two castes can be located till today m present day Kashmir. Yet another source of this name has been pointed out by Manto’s wife. According to her ‘Mant’ is a particular measure amounting to 1.5 seer. Since the members of the ‘Mant’ tribes used to demand 1.5 seer as tax, they were called ‘Mantos’ Safia Begum’s claim, however, has not been authenticated by any other information. The famous Kashmiri historian, Muhammuddin ‘Fauk’, in his book TarikhAkkawam-e-Kashmir, points to yet another reason.. According to him, Manto’s father had once placed a bet to eat 1.5 seer or Manvati of rice at one time and had won that bet. Since that time the family came to be known as Mantos. Whatever be the reasons for the curious appendage, ‘Manto’ was the name Saadat Hasan was known by in the literary world and is still known today.

Manto’s father, Maulvi Ghulam Hasan, was a well educated man and worked as a government official in Sambrala. Soon after Manto’s birth he shifted to Amritsar and set up residence in Kucha Vakilan. He retired as Additional Sessions Judge.Though originally hailing from Kashmir Manto could never actually visit the place in his life time excepting the three months he spent at Bataut, a place near Kashmir when he was recovering allegedly from tuberculosis. Yet he was, like his father, very proud of being a Kashmiri and was always eager to meet people from there to whom he used to introduce himself as being a Kashmiri as well as an Amritsari!

As far as formal education is concerned, Manto failed to make his mark. He could clear his school leaving examination only in the third attempt and it is highly ironical that one of the subjects which he was unable to pass was Urdu, only to emerge as one of its major exponents. He entered The Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar in 1931 but failed in the first year itself and so dropped out.  A few years later, in l934, following the advice of a school friend in Amritsar, he took admission in the famous Aligarh Muslim University. But the story got repeated all over again and Manto did not do well. This time however, he was asked to leave the University because of being diagnosed as having contracted tuberculosis and was advised a change of place. He went towards Kashmir but the alarm proved to be a false one and he returned soon.

Those were times of political turmoil. The Jalianwallah Bagh massacre was not too distant in the past. Manto had been just seven years old at the time yet the horrifying memories plagued him all through his life and he was to write one of his very well known stones about it ‘It Happened in 1919’. Manto was rebellious by nature and the turbulent times only fanned his restlessness further. Along with his friends he began dreaming of bringing about a revolution. One of Manto’s favourite heroes was the young and daring revolutionary Bhagat Singh. It was around this time that he met Bari Alig, the man who put him on the path of becoming a writer. Bari was himself a writer and journalist and immediately sensed Manto’s bent of mind, his talent and his fascination with the idea of bringing about a revolution. He introduced Manto to Russian and French literature and set for him the task of translating Victor Hugo’s play The Last Days of a Condemned Man into Urdu. Manto finished it in an incredibly short time of two weeks! This translation was published and was followed by a translation of Oscar Wilde’s Vera. Having successfully completed these tasks Manto was easily persuaded to tiy his hand at creative writing, writing original stories in Urdu. Here too Manto proved to be a man truly gifted with the power of creative expression. He could write out his stories in an incredibly short span of time and rarely needed to revise his drafts. How much the massacre at Jalianwallah Bagh had impressed upon the mind of the seven year old Manto is evident from the fact that one of his first short stories to be published in a magazine was about the tragic incident and he returned to the bloody memories in a later story written almost in the last years of his life when he wrote ‘It Happened in 1919’.

Around 1935 Manto spent about three months at a hill station in Batauàt to recover from tuberculosis. When it was found that he was suffering from no such ailment, he returned to Amritsar and then moved to Lahore where he took up his first regular job with a magazine called Paras. Disillusionment soon followed and he gave up the job and moved to Bombay in 1935 itself, this time to work as editor for a flim magazine Mussawar, at forty rupees per month. Manto stayed in Bombay from 1935 to 1947, only to leave it for one and a half year in between when he went to Delhi to work with All India Radio.

These were the best years of Manto’s life. He was in his element. The life of a metropolis suited his temperament which was basically radical, liberal and modern. In Manto’s literary world there was no place for beautiful descriptions of Nature or of the ideal villages which were thought to be the epitome of simplicity or for nostalgia for a golden.past. Instead, in his world we find the cold, ruthless and harsh reality of the world of criminals, prostitutes, pimps and other marginalized sections of society. His was a world of cruel reality rather than one of sentimental indulgence in romance. When he came to Bombay he had almost no money on him and for a long time he lived in a tiny room infested with bed bugs. It is small wonder that his particular bent of mind resulted partly from his circumstances. Despite his financial difficulties and failing health Manto loved Bombay intensely and always regretted having left it after the Partition of India. All along Manto continued writing stories, plays and essays. The first collection of his stories appeared in 1940 and was followed by a volume of essays in 1942. In his one and a half year stint with All-India Radio, he wote more than a hundred plays. Not being very happy in Delhi, Manto moved back to Bombay to take up his old job at Mussawar. He soon branched off into free-lancing for various film companies as their screenplay writer. He worked for Saroj, Movietone, Hindustan Cinetone and Imperial Film Company. In 1943 he joined Filmistan for which he wrote a number of films most notable among which wasEight Days where Manto himself played a small part. He even wrote the story of the famous film Mirza Ghalib but unfortunately this film was made after Manto had left fbr Pakistan. The screenplay for the film was written by Rajinder Singh Bedi and it was directed by Sohrab Modi. From Filmistan Manto moved to join Bombay Talkies.

Manto met his future wife Safia Begum in Bombay. It was an arranged match and he was taken aback when he was accepted by Safia’s family despite his irregular income, ad-hoc nature of job and his habit of drinking. But Manto’s life with Safia was a happy one and together they tried to combat their difficult financial circumstances. The couple had four children—a son Arif (who passed away tragically at the tender age of one and a half years) and three daughters Nikhat, Nuzhat and Nusrat.

Manto’s family was on the other siide of the border the day India was partitioned. He was literally torn between the two countries, unable to decide whether to stay or go. All around him was chaos and anarchy unleashed on the world with a sudden ferocity and with so much of barbarity that it was impossible to make any sense of it. How could man stoop to the level of something worse than a beast? How could such frenzy overtake so many people suddenly? How could a man turn on his neighbour with whom he had shared his life’s joys and sorrows, and kill him in cold blood only because he belonged to.a different community and practised a different religion? These questions were driving many people insane as they traumatized Manto too. His family was in Pakistan and he was in the land where his roots were. Should he cross over the line or not was the question that constantly plagued his mind. Emotionally he could never accept the fact of the Partition but an incident which suddenly put things in perspective is recounted by Manto in a memoir devoted to his lifelong friend, the popular screen actor Shyam. Manto writes:

‘It seems such a long time ago.The Muslims and Hindus were engaged in a bloody fratricidal war. Thousands died each day from both sides. One day, Shyam and I were with a newly arrived Sikh refugee family from Rawalpindi [Shyam came from Rawalpindi which was now apart of Pakistan] and listening in shocked silence to their horrifying account of what had happened. I could see that Shyam was deeply moved. I could well understand what was passing through his mind. When we left I said to him: “I am a Muslim. Don’t you want to kill me?” “Not now,” he replied gravely, “but while I was listening to them and learning of the atrocities committed by the Muslims, I could have killed you.” His remark shocked me deeply. Perhaps I could have killed him too when he made it. When I thought about it later, I suddenly understood the psychological background of India’s communal bloodbath. Shyam had said that he could have killed me “then” but not “now.” Therein lay the key to the communal holocaust of Partition.’

Manto was tormented by innumerable questions when he saw the merciless killings and unprecedented violence all around him. Both India and Pakistan were free but, as he observes, ‘man was a slave in both countries, of prejudices, of religious fanaticism of bestiality of cruelty’. He was unable to decide which of the two countries he would now call his homeland. He stopped going to Bombay Talkies and kept mostly to his room. He began to drink heavily and would lie on his sofa all day ‘in a sort of daze.’ Then all of a sudden he decided to leave. He packed his bags and boarded the ship to Karanchi. Shyam was the only friend who waved him good bye.

Manto lived for seven years in Pakistan in Lahore and died from his drink induced liver ailment on l8 Jan. 1955. These seven years were strife-torn years for a sensive writer who was uprooted from the land he loved and that he carried with him in his mind till his last breath. He faced extreme poverty and deprivation as he had no steady source of income. In his last days he was reduced to a state of virtual penury and had to take refuge at his in-law’s place. But these seven years were very profitable from the point of view of Manto the writer as he wrote one hundred and twenty seven short stories during this time apart from various essays, sketches and memoirs. The nightmarish reality of the horrific division of the subcontinent was transformed into great literature as Manto wrote one story after another on the theme. Siyah Hashiye, a collection of short sketches on the Partition, is notable for its grim humour and utterly detached tone that becomes a powerful tool for recreating the horror without any sentimentality or perverse, obsessive indulgence in violence. The book was termed objectionable by the custodians of public morality and was banned. Some of his stories too were found to be ‘obscene, anti-state and degrading.’ Notable among them was the short story titled ‘Khol do’ or ‘Open it’ in which a young and beautiful Muslim girl is first abducted and raped by the Hindus and Sikhs during the partition of Punjab and then recovered, rescued and brought to Pakistan and again raped and left dead by some of her new Muslim countrymen. None of the details are gone into. In fact the whole story evokes the horror through suggestiveness. Yet Manto had to face a charge of obscenity for this story in 1918. He had faced a similar charge in 1940 tco and on both occasions he was acquitted. But the events emphasize the radical path breaking nature of Manto’s writings in which he defies and rejects the hypocrisy of the apparently respectable people and exposes the seamy reality behind the mask.

           The New Story

The New Story or the Nai Kahani in Hindi and the Naya Afsana in Urdu was a direct outcome of basically two major influences. On the one hand the Western influences of Marxist and Freudian ideas prompted these writers to look at familiar subjects with a new insight and it also propelled them towards subjects which had hitherto been considered forbidden. On the other hand there was the experience of the Partition of the subcontinent which had shattered traditionally held ideas and beliefs and had thrown up a horrifying and completely incomprehensible aspect of man’s bestial nature. As put by Sukrita Paul Kumar, the Partition ‘did not merely mean two new geographical dominions but as the examination of imaginative literature on it proves, it gave birth to a new psychic dominion as well.’ In Manto’s writings both influences are seen to be at work. The movement towards realism had been initiated by Premchand, who takes the credit for salvaging the Urdu short story from the realms of romance and fantasy and placing it firmly on realistic ground. Manto, along with his contemporaries like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and Ahmed Qasami, contributed effectively in taking the Urdu short story towards stark realism and exploring human relationships and experiences with a psychologically analytical eye. Manto even rejected the realistic, though bordering on the ideal, representation of Indian villages seen in Premchand’s stories and brought the Urdu short story to the city. Even in the city he preferred to write about the marginalized sections of society—the criminals, pimps, prostitutes and other profligates. The influence of French literature, particularly of Guy de Maupassant is evident in the careful structuring of Manto’s stories, especially the ending where no words are wasted.


9 Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh

Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh

Toba Tek Singh

       An Introduction

‘Toba Tek Singh’ first published in 1953 in an Urdu magazine Savera, was written at a time ‘when Manto’s energies were at their lowest ebb’ in more ways than one. He had migrated to Pakistan in 1948 and since then had been leading an agonized existence. Constantly plagued by memories of the past, Manto could never bring himself to feel that he really belonged to Pakistan. In addition to this, his increasing poverty and failing health drove him to alcoholism and there came a time in his life when he almost got himself admitted to a mental asylum because his circumstances coupled with his attitude to life had pushed him into a deep depression.

Manto locates his story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ in a lunatic asylum and thus takes the theme of Partition to the world of the insane highlighting the political absurdity of the Partition itself and at the same time lodges a note of protest against the powers that be, who take such momentous decisions as splitting a country into two, without ever thinking of the consequences.

       The Theme of Partition

Partition of the subcontinent into two separate geographical entities was that calamitous event in its history that changed not only its physical boundaries forever but also altered the lives of its people in an irrevocable manner. The horror, the madness, the bestiality, the violence, arson, looting and rape that followed in the wake of the political decision was unprecedented. Suddenly, overnight, all those secure walls of a shared tradition, shared culture, shared history came crumbling down. People of different communities, who till then had led a harmonious and peaceful co-existence, now turned into enemies. Reason was the first casualty and fear and then rage were its first.outcome. Neighbours who till yesterday would have died for each other now thirsted for one another’s blood simply because they belonged to different communities. Scenes of senseless carnage were witnessed everywhere. A communal frenzy, a hypnotic obsession with violence overtook the people on both sides of the dividing line. It was ironical that the people of the same country who had set an example of winning a struggle in a non-violent manner, following the ideals of Gandhi and had thrown off the yoke of British subjugation, would now turn against each other. Certainly these were demented times when people had no consideration for either young or old, child or woman and all suffered a horrifying fate. If any managed to escape physical violence or torture, the memory of what they witnessed scarred their minds forever and none emerged unscathed from the holocaust.

For writers who wrote around that time it became almost an inward compulsion to write about the Partition of the country. For most of them the memory of what they had suffered or witnessed was too recent to allow for objectivity in their writings about it. There was an obsessive preoccupation with violence as they had been sufferers, eye-witnesses and tragic participants in the horrendous events. The horrors suffered and witnessed had become a part of their experiential world. They were too near and too much involved in the holocaust. The stories that were written immediately after the Partition therefore, tend to recreate the horror in all its details without many attempts at objectivity or an imaginative rendering of the events being described. These stories could not even offer any historical explanation nor see any political necessity for the suffering. They are marked by a sense of rage and helplessness and also a sense of incomprehensibility of it all due to its utter meaninglessness.  Writers like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Bhishm Sahni, Ibne lnsha, Kamleshwar, Umm-e-Ummara, Kulwant Singh Virk, Sant Singh Sikhon, Khushwant Singh, Ibrahim Jalees, S.K. Vatsayan and many more; all gave expression to their tormented souls through the medium of fiction. History thus entered the realm of Fiction but a rendering of the same event brought into focus the human face of the tragedy.  What were merely some figures and statistics in the historical chronicles of the time now assumed human identities through the works of these creative writers. Instead of just numbers --- so many dead, so many wounded, so many raped, so many homeless—these fictional historical narratives tried to show the actual suffering that lay behind each face, each number. For a historian the holocaust of 1947 can perhaps be covered in two volumes of objective recording. For the fiction writer, however, the sad event threw up unlimited possibilities of delineation and treatment as there were innumerable faces of grief and an equally limitless number of questions that erupted from the sudden barbarism and bestiality of man to man. The writers tried to grapple with their fractured psyches with the basic question ‘why’? Why did the shared social, cultural, traditional and historical fabric collapse? Why did we turn killers and violators? Why did we forget the past? Why did we give in to rage rather than reason—the questions are endless. The fictional writings took up these questions in one story after another, in one novel after another, looking for answers but failing to find any.

Fictional historical narratives about the Partition developed basically on two lines. There were those who re-evoked the senseless carnage, the horrifying brutalities and the numbing meaningless violence that the different communities perpetrated on each other. Then there were those narratives that focused on the fear, the agony, the insanity which resulted from the sudden dislocation of people, uprooting them cruelly from places which had been home to them for generations, only to be thrown into a strange alien land and told that henceforth this was their home. The suffering and anguish that resulted from being wrenched away from familiar surroundings forever, is sensitively delivered in these stories.

Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ also falls into this category of stories that deal with the theme of Partition concentrating on the tragedy of dislocation and exile. The madman Bishan Singh who hails from a small village in Punjab, Toba Tek Singh, is unable to take in the fact that the division of the subcontinent requires him to cross the border line and forget his homeland forever. In the story, we shall see shortly, how the man becomes the place and Bishan Singh refuses to comply with the orders, preferring to give up his life instead.

All these writers who wrote about the tragic uprooting of people emphasized the same point over and over again. What emerges from a reading of these stories is the realization that geographical divisions are possible but how can one divide a shared history, a shared memory and a shared consciousness? It is obvious that the decision makers never took the ordinary man into account and what the Partition would do to him. Thus they could never anticipate the great human tragedy that followed in the wake of their political decision.

Manto has written extensively on the theme of Partition with stark realism and powerful evocation of the shocking horror of those times. As Alok Bhatia observes, these stories ‘are written by a man who knows that after such ruination there can neither be forgiveness nor any forgetting.’ Stories like ‘Thanda Gosht’ (‘Cold Meat’), ‘KhoI Do’ (Open It)J ‘1919 Ki Baat’ (‘It happened in 1919’), ‘TobaTek Singh’ and ‘Titwal Ka Kutta’ (‘The Dog of Titwal’) are just a few of the nerve shattering stories which recreate the honor of the Partition. What is remarkable in these stories is the completely detached tone of the narrator as well as an evocation of the event through suggestiveness rather than details. We are just given a tip of the iceberg, as it were and left to imagine the rest. This mode of working through suggestiveness increases the horror of the stories manifold and at the same time saves them from being merely a perverse indulgence in violence on the one hand and sentimentalization and thereby dilution of the real human tragedy on the other. Siyah Hashiye or Black Margins was a full length work on the Partition theme, brought out by Manto. This book consists of short fragments, sketches on the events of the Partition. It is notable for its black humour and also for Manto’s determination not to name the religion of any of the perpetrators described in these brief sketches. For him all were equally responsible. It was not just a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh who was the question but man who had turned into a beast having lost all his tolerance.

       Detailed Analysis

The story begins in the manner of a historical narration and the opening line itself places it in its historical context: ‘A couple of years after Partition it strikes the government of Pakistan and Hindustan that even as they had exchanged ordinary prisoners, so they should also have an exchange of madmen as well.’ The style is that of newspaper reportage but the tone is mock-serious, dispassionate and somewhere along the line a hint has been placed about the absurdity of it all when Manto takes the theme of Partition to the madhouse.  Whether it was right to exchange madmen or not, no one knew, but the decision made by ‘those who know best,’ after some high level meetings had been held on both sides. No one thought of asking the madmen what they wanted. Probably because lunatics cannot make out what is right for them. Only madmen who still had their families living in Hindustan were allowed to stay and the rest had their fate sealed. As for Hindus and Sikh madmen, the question of staying did not arise as there were no Hindu families living in Pakistan so all would have to be dispatched.

  •     Narrative Style

Thus in two short paragraphs, Manto sets the tone of the story and displays the scene of action with a strong suggestion that the madhouse we are about to enter is in fact going to be a mirror of the world outside. The omniscient narrator remains distanced from the scene and records objectively the events subsequent to the pronouncement of the decision. Though grounded in a particular historical context and begun in a deceptive style of reportage, we must notice the difference that will gradually emerge between the rendering of history through a chronicling of facts and through a fictionalization of the same. The irony and satire at play become effective devices for exposing the horrible reality of the historical situation.

  •     Madness as Metaphor

In ‘Toba Tek Singh’ the lunatic asylum becomes a microcosm of the  world outside and Manto focuses on the anguish of one man to bring out the trauma and tragedy of dislocation and exile faced by those innumerable others who were forced out of their hearths and homes. Even in the world of these madmen the realization of a division of their country has gradually percolated through. This small world is peopled by men belonging to the various communities of the subcontinent and the narrator gives us short, though vivid, descriptions of the same. Thus, there is a Muslim madman who has been religiously reading the Urdu daily Zamidar, there is the Sikh madman who wants to know why they are being sent to Hindustan when they cannot even speak their language and there is again that Muslim madman who is overtaken by a nationalist zeal while bathing and shouts ‘Pakistan zindabad’ only to slip and fall and pass out. The madman who climbs a tree to deliver a two- hour lecture on ‘the most ticklish matter of Pakistan and Hindustan’ lends poignancy to the plight of those who were now forced to make a choice. Thus he declares ‘I want to live neither in Hindustan nor in Pakistan. I had rather live on this tree.’ The fact that he is a Muslim is revealed only when he is persuaded to come down and hugs his Hindu and Sikh friends because they would soon be going away. This implies that he must be a Muslim for he will stay back.

  •     Insane or Sane?

Two things are happening here simultaneously. On the one hand there is a note of protest in this madman’s declaration that he would rather live on a tree than be forced to make a choice between two parts of the same country. This protest simmered in the breasts of most common people who were driven out from their homes when sudden political decisions were thrust on them. Thus gradually we see the madhouse becoming a microcosm of the outside world. We have a similar situation here as that in the world outside A political decision has been made without consulting the people concerned and it has been thrust upon them leaving them with no choice but to comply This note of protest appears again when the young Hindu lawyer from Lahore ‘heartily abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had got together to have Hindustan divided’

The second noteworthy fact which emerges from the protest of the madman whe prefers to live on the tree, is located in the manner in which he embraces his Hindu and Sikh friends and begins to cry. At this point Manto writes: ‘his heart grew heavy at the very thought that they would leave him and go away to Hindustan.’ For him they are still his friends and it does not matter that they are not Muslims. We might well ask ourselves who in fact is mad here -- the madmen in the asylum or the sane men outside the madhouse? Humanity seems to be still intact in this madhouse, in these madmen. Ironically the mad seem to be saner than the so called sane predators prowling the streets in the world beyond the confines of the asyIum. The ‘madmen’ in the madhouse still value friendship despite differences of religion or community.It is the apparently sane people who have gone berserk and are killing their friends and neighbours. It is they who are saying that the place that has been your home since birth is no longer your home.

Confusion about their status is now rampant in the madhouse. The suddenness of the change is  underlined because even those madmen who were not completely mad were perplexed as to where they actually were at that moment They knew that a person called Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was known as Qaide Azam, the great leader, had created a separate nation for Muslims and had named it Pakistan. But where it was and what its geographical dimensions, no one had any idea. Manto is highlighting here a very important aspect about the gap between decision makers and the affected people. For the political leaders it was easy to run a dividing line through the country and have clear cut physical boundaries drawn between Hindustan and Pakistan. But for the common people the words remained mere territorial abstractions. For them home was where they had been born, lived and would havc died had history not played such a cruel trick. For them it did not matter whether that home was in Pakistan or Hindustan but if in the name of division of the country they were driven out of that home then they would rather they did not belong to any of those countries as long as they were allowed to live there. This hopelessness and this despair is evoked in the mild protest of the madman who would prefer to live in the tree rather than in Hindustan or Pakistan and be separated from family and friends in the process.

  •     A Parody of the World Outside

A travesty of the political struggle in the outside world occurs when a Muslim madman from Chiniot declares himself to be the Qaid e Azam only to have a Sikh madman promptly turn into Master Tara Singh and challenge him. Both, writes the narrator, are removed to solitary cells as bloodshed seemed imminent. If only it were possible to have done the same in the real world, a lot of bloodshed could have been avoided which resulted from real life political confrontation. This seems to be the implied comment.

  •     Breakdown of Language

Having set the scene of his story, the narrator then shifts his focus to the central character Bishan Singh, who has been in the asylum for fifteen years. We are told that in those fifteen years he has never laid down to rest and had never slept a wink. He stood on his feet all the time because of which his calves were distended and his feet swollen. The first noticeable thing about him, however, is the gibberish he speaks all the time: ‘Opar di rumble tumble di annexe of the thoughtless of the green lentils of the lantern.’ As the story progresses, you will notice that new words are added to this gibberish which seems to be a curious mixture of sense and nonsense. What could be Manto’s intention here apart from the obvious fact that this gibberish is coming out of a madman’s mouth? In the utter nonsense that Bishan Singh speaks, Manto seems to be commenting on the breakdown of all communication in these times of sheer devastation. Language which should enable people to connect, often betrayed. Those who migrated and came to their new home felt that they could neither understand the language there nor make themselves understood. (This point is effectively brought out in Umme-Ummara’s story ‘More Sinned against than Sinning’ and Ibrahim Jaleez’s ‘Grave Turned Inside Out’). Thus the language was reduced to gibberish as it failed to communicate. In addition to this Manto seems to be implying that division of the country had led to a fracturing of the language too. Till the Partition happened, the various languages of the subcontinent had a common repository of tradition and culture to draw upon from. What would happen to language now when such a shared repository was also divided? Would it not lead to language being reduced to unintelligible gibberish? Bishan Singh voices this apprehension in his constant, apparently meaningless speech.

  •     The Sense of Place in One’s Identity

Manto next gives us some information from Bishan Singh’s past and informs us how he came to be there in the mental asylum. This ferocious looking though mild mannered and harmless Sikh had been a wealthy landlord in Toba Tek Singh, a small town in Pakistan about 150 kilometers South-West of Lahore. We are told that his brain had tripped suddenly and his family had brought him to the asylum, all tied up in chains and had him locked up in the madhouse. Now he listens attentively whenever there is a discussion about the formation of Hindustan and Pakistan and about ‘their imminent transfer from one to the other.’ When asked for his opinion he replies in the same meaningless gibberish but gradually ‘the green lentils of the lantern’ get replaced at first by ‘the green lentils of the government of Pakistan and subsequently by ‘of the government of Toba Tek Singh.’ It is at that moment that the other madmen start asking him where this Toba Tek Singh was. How could one be certain where it was now for such were the times that one moment Sialkot was in Pakistan and the next instant it was in Hindustan? How could anyone tell where a place was when the next instant it could be transferred like a plastic block. The chaos and confusion evident in the actions of these madmen is merely a reflection of what was actually happening in the larger world outside.

Manto takes the credit fbr recreating the chaos, the bewilderness and the pathos of the situation outside through his short and deep strokes of the events in the madhouse subsequent to the news of the Partition. Narrating the reaction of the madmen, in a tone laced with black humour, brings out the absurdity of the state highlighting the underlying irony.

  •     The Trauma of Dislocation

The omniscient narrator then proceeds to give us a short glimpse into the past telling us about the only times when Bishan Singh would almost as if wake up from his general stupor to prepare for his ‘visitors’ i.e. his family members and friends who would come once a month to inquire about his well being, bringing him sweets and fruits from home. This was the only time when this ‘frightful looking’ Sikh would clean and scrub himself, oil and comb his hair nicely and would wait for his visitors all dressed up. If at any time of the year he was asked what day it was he would have been unable to tell. But ‘he always knew unprompted and exactly when it was time for his family to come and visit.’ With the Partition of the country, however, their visits had come to an end and the narrator tells us that ‘now it was as if the voice of his heart which had earlier signalled their visits to him had fallen silent.’ From the general, the focus has now shifted to the particular and individual. Manto is now going to work towards highlighting the trauma of dislocation and exile through the anguish of this one man and he moves towards it step by step. He begins by first creating a basic desire to know which side of the dividing line one’s place of origin now existed. So the need to know where Toba Tek Singh was intensifies in the heart and mind of the mad Bishan Singh. He now waits for his visitors especially because he is certain that they would be able to tell him where Toba Tek Singh was for he was sure they themselves hailed from that place.

Gradually this need to know drives Bishan Singh to a madman in the madhouse who calls himself ‘Khuda’ or ‘God.’ Bishan Singh’s question only makes the ‘Khuda’ laugh with a loud guffaw and say that Toba Tek Singh is neither in Pakistan nor in Hindustan, ‘for we haven’t passed our orders yet!’

  •     Arbitrariness of Political Decisions

Notice how in this short exchange Manto has highlighted the unpredictability of political decisions which affect millions of lives. For the decision makers who remain unaffected, it is simply a matter of saying a few words. But these few words can turn the lives of some people completely upside down making them vagabonds and aliens in the land which till then had been their home. Manto is being intensely ironical when he makes this madman call himself ‘khuda’. There is a similar appropriation by the political decision makers, the self styled godmen,  who hold the strings of millions of lives in their hands -- those lives whose fate hinges so precariously on one word from the lips of these arbitrary Gods of the strife torn world.

 When Bishan Singh is not answered by this ‘khuda’ about where Toba Tek Singh was he immediately launches into his gibberish which interestingly includes few new words in it. This time he says ‘Opar di rumble tumble di annexe of the thoughtless of the green lentils of Wahe Guruji da khalsa and Wahe Guruji di Fateh and God Bless him who says Sat Sri Akal!’ The narrator tells us that what he probably meant to say was that ‘this God was the God of the Musalmans and would surely have heeded him had he been the God of the Sikhs instead.’ The significance of this apparent nonsense lies in the fact that even in the madman’s consciousness the realization of new boundaries is filtering in. The God who refuses to answer must be from the enemy camp of the Musalmans according to Bishan Singh.

Lest we may think that Manto is beginning to get judgemental and critical of particular communities here we are immediately told in the paragraph that follows, about a Musalman friend of Bishan Smgh, who now comes to meet him and bring him favourable news of his family having safely, crossed the border. This man is Fazaldin, who also lives in Toba Tek Singh and had been Bishan Singh’s friend for years. He now tells the latter how he had done whatever he could to help his family to escape. All had crossed over but the slight hesitation before taking the name of Roop Kaur, Bishan Singh’s daughter, speaks volumes for what the girl might have endured. It is in suggestive strokes like these that Manto avoids definitiveness and limitation and also the perverse indulgence in violence so evident in writings about the Partition. Here it is all left to the imagination of the readers. The writer merely leaves it at the level of suggestion rather than imposing a limitation on feelings and response. This device opens the floodgates as it were for the readers to imagine the horrors that the innocent girl might have faced. When Fazaldin haltingly adds ‘... she too... is very well’ the words ring hollow for they are immediately followed by the information that ‘she too had gone with them.’ Speaking of her in past tense can only mean one thing that the girl is probably lost to her family now either through abduction or death or both combined.

The manner in which Fazaldin refers to Bishan Smgh’s brothers and wife, calling them ‘bretherens’ (‘Bhai’ in the original) and ‘sister’ (‘Behan’ in the original) respectively, points to a crucial fact of shared community life and kinship amongst people of various communities. This fact was overlooked conveniently by a handful of political decision makers. Fazaldin feels a closeness towards his Hindu friends This voice from the outside world which had intruded into the world of the madhouse only reinforces the same closeness we had witnessed earlier in an apparently ridiculous but actually poignant scenes when a Muslim madman had embraced his Hindu friend and had cried because of the knowledge that they will be separated from him soon. The same peacefiul co-existence is shared in the world of the mad and the world of the sane as well. Fazaldin too, however, is thrown into confusion when Bishan Singh asks him the same question ‘where is Toba Tek Singh?’ This time Manto points out the similarity of confusion shared by the mad as well as the sane for Fazaldin too is unable to answer his friend. At first he says with some surprise that Toba Tek Singh is ‘right where it always was.’ But when asked whether it was in-Pakistan or Hindustan, he can only stammer. ‘In Hindustan—no, no, I mean in Pakistan,’- as if out of his wits.

What we see emerging from this short exchange is different perceptions about the same place. For Fazaldin, Toba Tek Singh is right where it always was because being a Muslim he will not be thrown out of his home. He will continue to live in Toba Tek Singh where he always has. Thus the question whether it is in Pakistan or Hindustan has probably not occurred to him. The situation however, changes drastically for the person who will be driven out of his home on the basis of his different faith, different religion. Therefore it is crucial for Bishan Singh to know which side of the dividing line is Toba Tek Singh now, for if it is in Pakistan then he will lose his home for ever, to be thrown into the oblivion of uncertain and unfamiliar surroundings

Fazaldin is unable to answer his friend and calls upon him the latter’s wrath who leaves muttering, ‘Opar di rumble-tumble di annexe of the thoughtless of the green lentils of Pakistan and Hindustan and shame on the lot of you.’ Bishan Singh’s apparent gibberish seems to be getting increasingly politically conscious. Not only have the two difficult boundaries of Hindustan and Pakistan interjected into his perception but he is holding both equally responsible for the fate of people like him. Thus his angry mutterings about ‘shame on the lot of you’ are almost akin to an authorial intervention where Manto seems to be speaking through this mad character that is much wiser than the sane.

  •     Identity of a Person Linked to Place

The last section of the stoiy is a logical progression of the plot. Having familiarised us with the situation Manto is now going to work towards a climax and then a resolution. In the preceding sections Manto has been able to bring out the intensity of feelings that a man can have towards the place where he belongs and comes from. Even though Bishan Singh has been locked up in the asylum for the past fifteen years, yet it is crucial for him to know where TobaTek Singh lies now; here or there, in Pakistan or Hindustan and he asks the same question to the concerned official when the Hindu and Sikh madmen are taken to Wagah, the border between the two countries for an exchange with those Muslim madmen who wait on the other side to be transferred to Pakistan.This time, however, Bishan Singh gets a definite answer and the official laughs and says that Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan. The description that follows is almost heart rending even though the narrative tone remains dispassionate and detached. Like a trapped animal Bishan Singh refuses to go to the other side and runs back to where his friends were. When the Pakistani policeman catches hold of him and tries to lead him back to the other side he starts shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Opar di rumble-tumble di annexe of the thoughtless of the green lentils of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.’ As Aiok Bhalla rightly observes: ‘in this last incantation are encoded all the slogans which were used to beguile and befool a people into believing that they had religious identities which were also national identities.’ The two however are divided here because though Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan yet Bishan Singh cannot be a Pakistani since he is a Sikh, notwithstanding the fact that all his life he has lived in Toba Tek Singh. For some Muslims their reIigious identities did become their national identities but what about those countless millions like Bishan Singh for whom the same didn’t happen?This is the very crucial question being implicitly asked in the apparent gibberish of the mad Bishan Singh.

  •     The Person Becomes the Place

Notice also the very skillful and inobtrusive manner in which Manto has succeeded in investing the identity of a person with the identity of a place. Bishan Singh and Toba Tek Singh have almost become synonymous and interchangeable by the time we come to the last two paragraphs of the story The plot is gradually moving towards its climax whereinafter should also lie a resolution The climax does take place but the resolution which should have followed inevitably in its footsteps evades the dialectic of the story. Bishan Singh refuses to be coaxed into believing that Toba Tek Singh will be moved where he wants it to be moved. He runs and stands firmly at a spot in the middle of the two countries refusing to be stirred. The narrator observes that since he was a harmless enough fellow, the officials let him remain where he was and carry on with the rest of the proceedings. It is just before dawn that everyone hears a piercing cry coming out of Bishan Singh. The man, who had stood on his legs day and night for all of fifteen years spent in the asylum, now lies face down on the ground. On one side of him lay Hindustan and on the other lay Pakistan. ‘In the middle on a strip of no man’s land lay Toba Tek Singh.’

In his death Bishan Singh succeeds in avoiding the exile that stares him in the face. In his death too he is able to determine where Toba Tek Singh lay for him. The person and the place merge into one.

  •     The Unresolved Questions

The person ultimately becomes the place! But does anything get resolved in the larger contest of things? Can everyone have the freedom of making a choice and a decision as that available to Bishan Singh? Is he the one who is mad in choosing death over uprootment and humiliation and a severance from all that was familiar or are those mad who choose to flee to a strange land to turn into refugees just to escape the slaughter. As Sukrita Paul Kumar observes, ‘Toba Tek Singh offers a fine perception of the thin line between what’s regarded as lunacy and sanity. Is the ultimate resolution only death? If that is so then what kind of a resolution is it for people who are anyway leading a death like existence or for those who choose life but are forced into a terrorised and death like existence in a strange land which remains theirs only in name.’ These are the questions that the ending of the story leaves unanswered. Partition itself is rejected completely in the protest lodged in the physical death of Bishan Singh. Madness thus becomes a metaphor for sanity in one sense and for Partition itself in the other because the incomprehensibility that attends dementia is the same as the one that was ubiquitous in the division of the two countries. The whole Partition was an act of insanity which undoubtedly undoubtedly damaged the psyche of the people driving some to despair while others to rage which blinded them to all feeIings of compassion and kinship. A severance from ones roots, a sudden displacement from familiar surroundings was enough to drive a man insane because a place was not just physical surroundings of the four walls of one’s house or the lanes and bylanes of ones’ neighbourhood. It was much more than that. It was the security of the known and the familiar, it was the deep roots of tradition and culture that one carried wherever one might go. It was impossible to sever these ties overnight. Such a severance can only lead to madness. Manto himself went through this experience when he migrated to Pakistan against his will. Recounting his experience in a memoir he writes: ‘I lived in Bombay for twelve years. And what I am, I am because of those years. Today I find myself living in Pakistan. It is possible that tomorrow I may go to live elsewhere. But whereverI go I will remain what Bombay made me. Wherever I live, I will carry Bombay with me.’


10 Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

An Analysis

           The Author and her Milieu

Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai are rightly considered to be the four stalwarts of Urdu Literature. Of these, Chughtai’s name stands out as being of the author who led her readers into the secret world of women and scratched the surface of respectability to lay bare the agonies, the frustration, the longings, the exploitation of the women especially in Muslim households. Radical in her views, outrageously bold in her choice of themes Chughtai talked about subjects which had been forbidden hitherto. She brought into sharp focus the sexual exploitation of women that was going on in almost every household. Though it could be the topic of conversation even amongst women, yet it was not anything that one could write about. Especially if a woman wrote about these things it would be further transgressing the bounds of morality and respectability. Chughtai was appalled by the state of things and in choosing to write about these forbidden topics she took up the cudgels against the oppressive, stifling and exploitative patriarchal structure which for centuries had determined social patterns and behaviour. 

A woman's voice now expressed a woman's point of view about women issues -- not timorously or hesitatingly but with boldness and with full faith in her endeavour. She wrote about a young girl who is sexually teased by her cousin during the summer vacations in ‘Fhasaadi’ (The Laggard). Then in ‘Gainda’ she wrote about the servant girl who becomes pregnant by her employer's son but when the fact is discovered she is punished and badly beaten up while the son who is responsible and guilty sent away to Delhi. She wrote about a middle class girl whose mother’s efforts to get her married reduce the family to absolute penury while the prospective suitor merely enjoys the hospitality and finally leaves to marry another girl. The wedding garment ultimately turns into a shroud for the unfortunate girl in ‘Chauthi ka Jora.’ While stories like ‘Badan ki khushboo’ exposed the sham respectability of Nawabi families and the sexual exploitation of servant girls in these families, those like ‘Til’ focused attention on female sexuality and the sexual needs of a woman. Choosing to write about such subjects and such themes Chughtai understandably called upon herself the wrath of the so-called custodians of public morality. She was dismissed as a sex crazed writer and declared indecent. But Chughtai fought against this censure and doggedly pursued her efforts to expose the seamy reality beneath the mask of apparent respectability. Her personal circumstances right from the childhood days when she had to fight in order to be educated was enough of a preparation to take the world head-on when the need arose.

Born in Badayun, a small tour in western Uttar Pradesh, Ismat Chughtai was the ninth child of her parents Mirza Qasim Baig Chughtai and Nusrat Khanam. The date of her birth is placed at August 21, 1911 but as pointed out by Asaduddin. There is some controversy about the year of her birth. She always gave it as 1915. But all other evidence almost conclusively suggests that it was 1911. One possible reason for this quite uncharacteristic action on her part could be that she wanted to make people believe that she was really younger to Shahid Latif, her husband who was born in 1913. Ismat's family name was Ismat Khanam Chughtai and her siblings and other family members called her Chunni. Later she came to be known as the Ladies Chengiz Khan in the literary circles, not only because of her martial-like aspect of her confrontation with the oppressive patriarchal world but also because she traced her lineage to the legendary Mongol conqueror, Chengiz Khan. As she revealed in an interview: ‘among my forefathers were the two sons of Chengiz Khan i.e. Halaku Khan and Chughtai Khan. My people, especially those from my mother’s side, used to say that Halaku Khan was a great swordsman whereas Chughtai Khan’s strength lay in his pen.’ Asaduddin rightly observes that ‘she was the worthy inheritor of this composite heritage of martial courage and literary sensibility.’ It was only Chughtai Khan's eighth or ninth generation that moved to India during the Mughal rule.

Mirza Qasim Baig Chughtai was a well-off man being a judicial magistrate who served in various capacities in places like Agra, Bahraich, Jaipur, Kanpur, Lucknow and later Jodhpur. It was a teeming household with a number of aunts and uncles and cousins making up the number in addition to Qasim Baig's immediate family. Ismat had six brother and three sisters. Since her sisters were all much older than her, Ismat’s grudging playmates were often her brothers and their friends. Thus her past-time was never playing with dolls or doing embroidery but riding bicycles, playing football or gilli-danda, climbing trees and so on. At times when she was left to her own she tiptoed to the servant quarters in the compound of her rambling bungalow. This is how she came in close contact with women from the lower strata and her friends became 'the washerwoman's daughter, the sweeper’s daughter, and the watchman's daughter. Obviously her family didn’t approve and taunted her saying that she has been born into an aristocratic family by mistake. Ismat’s fiery spirit was quick to respond and agree with them rather than be cowed down by their censure. Her close acquaintance with the servant girls, however, opened her eyes to a different world that existed alongside her own world with all its trappings of tradition, religion and respectability. Yet, listening to the experiences of these servant women she realised how sham the professed respectability of their polite society was and she was to draw upon her memories and her experiences later to write about them in her stories, and peal the mask off.

Right from her childhood Ismat learnt to demand her right and fight for them too. She hatched up an ingenious plan with a cousin to avoid being married off at the age of fourteen to a boy whom the family declared suitable from all accounts. She wrote to her cousin Jugnu, informing him about her dilemma and imploring him to write to her father about his wish to marry her. Jugnu complied, Ismat’s other engagement was broken off as Jugnu seemed a better choice being the son of Nusrat Khanam’s brother and so Ismat was able to ward off an early marriage. The next step too was another battle for being allowed to study. When her parents refused to send her to a hostel, she threatened to run away and convert to Christianity and enter a mission school. Her father saw that she was capable of doing that and thus relented and sent her to Aligarh where she studied till F.A.  Muslim’s in general were not in favour of educating their women and as against five thousand boys in the university there were just six girls. It was here that Ismat read the path-breaking, radical, almost scandalous stories of the thin volume book, Angare that shook these girls out of their complacency and forced them to rethink and relocate their notions about sexuality and obscenity. It was a hard-hitting book exposing things one would want to wish away. Ismat knew from her early conversations with her friends from the servant quarters and from her recollection of gossips she heard in the women's quarters, that events that occurred in the stories were actually happening in households. They could neither be denied, nor be wished away. They could only be brushed under the carpet as had been done for so many years. These radical writers had been courageous enough to challenge the taboos and talk about forbidden things with brutal frankness and unnerving honesty making people squirm in their sham respectability. Rashid Jahan, who was one of the four writers of Angare, was to become Ismat’s role model for writing.

After Aligarh, Ismat moved to Lucknow to Isabella Thornton College to complete her Bachelors degree. Ultimately however, she could obtain her degree from only the Aligarh Muslim University. Having worked briefly as a teacher in Bareilly she went again to the Aligarh Muslim University to train as a teacher. Even here she found she had to face gender discrimination. She and six other girls had to persuade the principal to let them do the B.T. course. The course had no provision for girls but seeing their determination the principal agreed only on condition that they attend classes behind the purdah. Thus Ismat, along with six other girls sat behind a curtain at the back of the class. Ismat completed her B.T. in 1939 and joined the Raj Mahal Girl's School at Jodhpur where she taught for two years. In 1941 she moved to Bombay as the inspector of municipal schools and the same year she married Shahid Latif whom she had known from Aligarh. He was a short story writer who wrote stories and dialogues for films. He introduced Ismat to the film world. The couple had two daughters Seema and Sabrina. Around this time Ismat had taken up her writing once again. She wrote the story 'Lihaf' two months before she married Shahid Latif. Her play Fasaadi and her short stories ‘Gainda’ and ‘Neera’ had already been published some time before. As she got increasingly involved with her writing and with her growing family, Ismat gave up her job as inspector of schools and made writing a full time career. She even wrote stories and dialogues for some films like Ziddi, Buzdil, Arzoo, Fareb, Soney ki Chiriya and the famous Garam Hawa on the theme of partition.

Ismat belonged to The Progressive Writers Movement and considered herself a part of that group. The movement was formally launched in 1936 and aimed at being non-conventional and reactionary focussing on issues of immediate relevance. Of the group of these writers it was Rasheed Jahan who proved to have a lasting influence on Ismat and who is Ismat’s words ‘shattered all the marble images’ that she had idolized thus far and ‘made life stand before her in its stark nakedness.’ A doctor by profession, Rasheed Jahan was immensely interested in writing about women from the woman's point of view and was equally critical of husbands who treated their wives either as glorified servants or as child-bearing machines and also of those women who adhered blindly to traditions and allowed men to swamp their personalities in the name of religion or superstition. She always made time for her writing from her demanding schedule and wrote a number of short stories and plays. Ismat remained under her influence throughout her writing career.

Though Rasheed Jahan was a member of the Progressive Writers Movement, Ismat was soon disillusioned and disenchanted by it when she saw that the same patriarchal oppression of female sensibilities sought to stifle her point of view and her manner of expression. At a conference which declared that only those who wrote about farmers and workers were the real writers, Ismat had the temerity to ask whether she was not a writer because she did not write about this class? She was told in an off- hand manner that she was not a writer any way! The movement had become too uncompromising and rigid for Ismat's liking and being by nature a spontaneous and uninhibited person she refused to be dictated to and carved her own path. She drew her themes from middle class family life and explored its oppressions and the workings of sexuality in common homes. She foregrounded the issue of female sexuality in most of her stories and highlighted women's oppression and exploitation related to it. She recreated a whole way of life of Muslim households complete with its customs, its religiosity its superstitions in all their minute details so much so that she has been called ‘an ethnographer's delight.’ At the same time however, in story after story she exposed the hypocrisy of this apparently respectable society and revealed its cruelty, its inhuman treatment, and its unjustified suppression of the female sex. All this she did with a razor sharp wit and an unmatched aggressiveness. Ismat was even hauled off to the courts for obscenity in her writings but she fought her battles to the finish and won. The end came for her on October 24, 1991. She remained controversial even after death because she had wanted to be cremated rather than being buried according to Muslim Customs. Her family honoured her last wish and she was quietly cremated.


11 Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

The Quilt

       An Introduction

‘Lihaaf’ or the ‘Quilt’ was written in 1941 and published some time later in 1942 in Adab-e-Latif. The story brought immediate notoriety to Ismat because the theme around which the whole narrative revolved was not just taboo but something that was never even acknowledged an existence, never mentioned in polite society. Not only did it focus sharply on female sexuality foregrounding the sexual needs of a woman, it went many steps further in making a deliberate and conscious choice of an alternative sexuality rather than a conventional heterosexual behaviour. To write of such matters at a time when sex was discussed among women only in whispers was Ismat's expression of the revulsion she felt for those women who suppressed their sexuality and meekly submitted to the oppressive male. Commenting on this particular aspect of her writing Ismat once wrote: ‘“I detest the wailing, spineless women giving birth to bastards and detest the faithful, sentimental and cringing wives with exemplary eastern values. Girls committing suicide, crying their hearts out, or begging for love from their lovers are taboo in my books!”’ ‘Lihaf’ was a courageous exploration of the alternatives available to women in a sexually repressive patriarchal world. It was a frontal attack on that world which in turn was understandably shocked out of its self-absorption.

Ismat was summoned to the court on charges of obscenity. The case dragged on for two years in Lahore. While attending the case proceedings Ismat met Saadat Hasan Manto who was facing a similar charge for his story ‘Bu.’ Ismat recalls how the judge expressed a grudging administration for her work she writes:

The judge called me into the ante-room attached to the court and said quite informally: “I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is ‘Lihaaf.’ But Manto’s writings are often littered with filth.”

 "The world is also littered with faith,” I said in a feeble voice.

“Is it necessary to rake it up then?”

“If it is raked up, it becomes visible and people feel the need of clean it up.” I replied.

It was Ismat’s desire to bring out into the open the unspeakable realities of the hypocritical society. Such things did exist even though people turned a conveniently blind eye to them. In fact, Ismat had drawn on autobiographical material (as she did for most of her stories) for ‘Lihaaf’ and based it on a real life experience. She recalls how as children, she and her brother often used to hear women gossiping about a certain woman and her affair with a maidservant.  As soon as the children were caught eavesdropping they were shooed off, making them aware that this was a forbidden topic. She recalls that the narrative is about the wife of Nawab Swale Khan of Aligarh who himself was a homosexual. So it wasn’t as though the theme was merely a figment of Ismat’s over active imagination. It was a sensitive rendering of a childhood experience whose correct import was understood by Ismat only after she matured into a woman herself. When questioned about the obscenity in her stories and in 'Lihaf' in particular, Ismat said in an interview:

In my stories I’ve put down everything with objectivity.  Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell.  It's my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life.  These people think that there is nothing wrong if they can do things behind the curtains…. All of them are halfwits.

I wrote about a woman's loneliness who had all worldly comforts but who was deprived of her husband's company I wanted to portray her tension and desperation.

People with filth in their minds saw it reflected in the story but missed the essential point that Ismat was making.  After a two-year trial Ismat was acquitted because her lawyer argued that only those people who know that lesbianism exists can recognize its presence in the story.

       Detailed Analysis

‘Lihaf’ is a story about Begum Jan, the beautiful wife of the Nawab who though surrounded by all material comforts, fawning relatives and hordes of servants, nevertheless leads a lonely existence as her husband remains preoccupied with ‘fair complexioned, slender-waisted young boy students.’  She yearns for her husband’s love and attention but getting none withers and wilts away like a neglected plant till she finds solace in the arms of her maidservant Rabbu and blossoms once again.  Narrated through the eyes of a young precocious girl of nine, this story about sexual bonding between two women, in other words about Lesbianism, achieves a remarkable balance between ‘reticence and suggestiveness.’  The choice of a young narrator who sees a lot but understands nothing, gives Chughtai an opportunity to deal with a theme that was even forbidden a mention in any social circle.  But to consider the story as being just about lesbianism would be an incomplete understanding of the author's purpose.  It is a woman-centric story narrated from the woman's point of view and despite the child narrator it sensitively and very skillfully portrays the sheer loneliness and desperation of the frustrated wife on the one hand and locates the reason for that frustration in her sexual deprivation.  By doing so, Chughtai boldly foregrounds the issue of female sexuality in the story, forcing people to recognize and acknowledge that such a thing also exists.  That a woman could have sexual desires was a far cry for a society that believed only in male desires and woman’s submission to them.  But as Asaduddin puts it ‘Chughtai was the first significant writer in Urdu … to acknowledge female sexuality and to portray it in a courageous and convincing way.’ Her endeavour is ‘directed towards illustrating that it is one of the most important and potent facts of life and the prime pivot of many human actions.’  In this story she brings out effectively the fact that women too have physical urges and needs and if denied a legitimate fulfillment then a likelihood of alternative sexuality can become an actuality as it does in the story.

The theme of ‘Lihaf’ is then an inter-linked one where female sexuality, its suppression, the resulting loneliness and then lesbianism all exist in a logical sequence.  Though the major thrust of the story falls on the above mentioned aspects of a woman's existence in an oppressive and claustrophobic society, yet, as is the case with almost all of Chughtai’s stories ‘Lihaf’ also gives us a taste of a whole culture in its brief though vivid glimpses of the Nawabi way of life. It is a life full of luxuries and comforts with a surfeit of material things. Only Chughtai could think of supplying such details as Begum Jan's ‘fine spun Hyderabadi lace kurta’s or her elaborate toilette when she would have herself rubbed with ‘all kinds of oils, perfumed unguents and lotions.’ But what goes on in this luxurious household behind the chilmans and closed doors is another story altogether - one of deprivation, of loneliness and frustration and abnormal patterns of normal heterosexual behaviour. All this is surprisingly achieved through a nine-year-old narrator and through a deft use of the lihaf as a metaphor as well as an object. Something, which conceals and cloaks things so that one does not know what strong undercurrents, may lie beneath the apparently calm exterior. Let us take the story step by step to see how Chughtai is able to achieve this remarkable feat.

  •     Narrative Style

The first few lines of the story introduce us to the first person, the ‘I’ of the story, who is going to take us through the narrative and at the moment we are not aware that it is a nine-year-old girl. In fact, we sense that the story is going to be a flashback in the narrator’s life since there is a mention of the past memories which are revived the moment this narrator makes use of her quilt in the winter month. The introductory lines also link up the story with the title since the narrator not just mentions the lihaf but hints at the instrumental role it will play in the narrative both as an object as well as a metaphor and symbol. Its shadows assume identities that set the narrator's imagination racing. It is evident that the innocent object has played same significant role in the past for it to leave a lasting impact on the narrator’s mind. Our curiosity is suitably aroused and we move quickly onward for the mystery to unravel.

The second paragraph builds up the suspense as the narrator tells us in a chatty tone that it is no romantic tale that she proposes to tell, rather a frightening one where ‘the rocking shadow’ of a lihaf on the wall can still send shivers down her spine. Notice that the language used in simple, everyday, speech and the tone is conversational into which the metaphor of the lihaf has been woven in with a seemingly effortless ease. The next step is to bring us up to date with the time and there is the first hint of the autobiographical element of the story when the ‘I’ begins to assume the identity of the author. The first person narrator then is probably the author herself who is also going to be a participant in the story as it is clearly stated that she is going to draw upon memories of her childhood which go into making up this story. The mention of her childhood quarrels with her brothers and their male friends is a reference lifted directly from Chughtai’s own life. As mentioned earlier Chughtai’s own admission about the story was that it is based on a real life experience when whispers about such a woman and her affair with her maidservant were a recurrent topic of the gossip in the zenankhana. Despite the strong autobiographical relevance of the story, however, the narrator could be any woman relating a childhood experience.

The young narrator seems to be a far cry from the docile and submissive girls one would normally come across in a conservative Muslim household. Her unconventional tomboyish behaviour sets her apart from other girls who at her age were busy securing admirers while our narrator was occupied most of the time with fighting every boy or girl that came her way. It is this which prompts her mother to leave her with her ‘adopted sister’ (‘munhboli behan’ in the original) Begum Jan, for the time when she would be away on a visit to Agra. In Begun Jan's household there was not a single child with whom this narrator could gratify her quarrelsome tendencies and so her being packed off to the Nawab's house seems like a ‘punishment.’ It is this same Begun Jan's lihaf that has etched itself in the memory of our narrator and ‘is to this day preserved in it like a scar from a red hot iron.’

Till this point in the narrative the child's perspective has still not surfaced. We are being given a recollection of events from the perspective of the same person but who is now a grown up woman and who can therefore make connection between observed facts and prepare the ground for the narrative to unfold. Thus we are informed how Begum Jan came from an impoverished family and are also told that her destitute parents had given her in marriage to the Nawab Sahib because ‘although somewhat “advanced” in age, the Nawab was a very pious man.’  He had never been known to indulge in decrepit habits like visiting prostitutes and had even performed the Haj and helped others to perform it to.

  •     Position of Women

 Notice how the narrator is merely observing and reporting what had happened but Chughtai here is effecting a simultaneous exposure of a certain society and culture. It is a society where marriage seems to be the ultimate goal for a woman’s existence and somewhere money too plays a part or else why would the parents of a young and beautiful girl marry her off to a man much older then herself? At this point one might recall Chughtai’s other justly famous story ‘Chauthi ka Jora’ in which Kubra, the daughter of a poor widow is unable to find a groom for herself despite her mother's frantic efforts which push this family to the brink of absolute penury. Unable to bear the humiliation Kubra dies but one wonders had such a Nawab as Begum Jan's husband come along at that time, would not have Kubra’s mother gladly given her daughter in marriage to him ? Rich old men marrying poor put beautiful young girls was a common occurrence in a society where marriage was essential for a girl's survival but poverty often became a hindrance to it.  Thus we begin to get a peep not only into the life of Begum Jan but also into a culture which prompted such mismatched unions.

The next step is an unmasking of the pretentiousness, the hypocrisy, and the pseudo-religiosity of the Nawab and by extension of the society to which he belongs. This pious and religions man has a ‘mysterious hobby.’ Unlike others of his status he does not indulge in pigeon or cock fights. His interest and his only pleasure was ‘to have young fair-faced boys around him with slim waist whose expenses were generously, borne by the Nawab Sahib himself.’ On the face of it there seems to be nothing wrong in helping students. But Chughtai’s choice of words and her tongue-in-cheek manner hints at the seamy reality underneath this apparently virtuous behaviour. The boys are no robust, naughty quarrelsome children but ‘fair faced’ and ‘slim waisted’ and, as we are told later, dressed in ‘translucent kurtas, their well formed legs in tight fitting churidars…’ The description has an unhealthy ring to it and our suspicions are confirmed as the narrative progress.

For the Nawab, Begum Jan is nothing more than a piece of furniture in his house. Having married her and installed her as his wife he forgets all about her, leaving her to pine away in loneliness while he has his rendezvous with the young boys he prefers to surround himself with. Once again Chughtai is hinting at the position of women in Muslim household. They seem to have no voice of their own in which they would register protest at the oppression that they are made to experience every moment of their existence. Begum Jan has some legitimate rights as a wife but it is not for her to demand them. They can come her way only if the husband wishes it so otherwise she has merely to submit to her fate.

Thus all her dreams of spending a happy married life come to naught. She is relegated to living her life on her canopied bed, pining and yearning for her husband’s love. She burns with envy as she watches the boys through the chinks of the drawing room door. Like any conventional woman she takes recourse to prayers and vows in order to reclaim her husband and then to practicing her womanly charms on him but all her efforts fait. Using an apt smile Chughtai describes it as applying leeches to a stone. The Nawab does not budge an inch. The Begum then turns to books but available literature only fans her romantic dreams and heightens her realization that they would never come true, pushing her further into despondency. Thus she finds no solace anywhere and begins to lose sleep and health. Understandably she does not even feel like dressing up wearing fine clothes for who was there to see and appreciate?

The next paragraph continues an exposure of the Muslim culture, especially a Nawabi household. There is a steady stream of relatives and visitors who come fawning on the Nawab and most of these people are Begum Jan's poor relatives, who come to eat the Nawab’s rich food, to enjoy themselves at his expense and have their winter needs provided for. This was a very common occurrence in such households and Chughtai’s own father's house was just such a place where relatives and visitors felt free to come and enjoyed his hospitality. Chughtai’s exploration into a culture continues through a simple documentation of observed reality.

Though the poor relatives warmed themselves at the Nawab's expense, Begum Jan's life remained empty and cold and she shivered in her loneliness even though her lihaf had been ‘freshly stuffed with cotton which had been teased out into a fluff.’ The use of the lihaf as metaphor begins as early as this. It is unable to provide Begum Jan with the warmth that she needed and none of its shadows on the wall held any promise for her. In other words, Begum Jan remained cold and lonely and her frustration grew day by day. She almost ceased to live till one day Rabbu came on the scene and pulled her from the brink of despair back to life again.

The narrator recalls how Begum Jan blossomed under the hands of Rabbu. Her dried up body began to fill and her beauty burst into bloom. To unsuspecting eyes the secret lay in the oil massage that Rabbu gave her mistress and Chughtai ends this section of her story with a characteristically tongue-in-cheek comment that ‘the best medical journals…. will not give the prescription for this oil.’

  •     Visual Details

Having thus laid the ground for the action to take place Chughtai now takes us to that time in the past when the events of the story actually happened.  The narrator is a young girl of nine or ten and she begins immediately by recalling how Begum Jan had looked when she first saw her. Through minute details a complete picture of Begum Jan is sketched before our eyes in such vivid strokes that she comes alive for us. Reclining on the masnad, with Rabbu   ‘kneading her back and body’ she looked like a grand queen. There is innocence in this description which hints at the attraction that such a figure can have for a nine-year-old child. Notice that in this description of Begum Jaan there is an emphasis on the physical details. We are told about Begum Jan’s dark, luxuriously oiled hair and her immaculate parting, her black eyes and her carefully plucked eyebrows which looked like drawn bows; her distended eyes with heavy eyelids and thick lashes and her lips which were often reddened. The downy upperlip with the faint suggestion of a mustache makes her look sometimes like a young boy. In the midst of a beautiful description a single line immediately individualizes Begum Jan for us and at the same time alerts us to the fact that something might be amiss here.

The narrator continues in the same vein telling us about her smooth skin, her glistening legs, tall figure and well-proportioned body. For a nine-year-old girl to have observed and noticed all these is nothing unusual but it also hints at the young narrator’s ‘inchoate’ sexuality which prompts her to observe these physical details. In contrast to Begum Jan, Rabbu is just the opposite. In fact she has been presented as a perfect foil to the Begum and is as dark as the Begum is fair, ‘as flushed in the face as Begum Jan was snowy white.’ She is almost ugly, with a pock marked face, ‘a robust solid body, small nimble hands, a small, taut belly and fat, always moist lips.’ She was forever massaging Begum Jan and the narrator watches fascinated how quickly her hands moved. One moment they were at her waist and in a trice they were at her thighs and then racing down to her ankles.

  •     Suggestive Nature of the Details

Rabbu’s job was only to be Begum Jan’s constant companion; to be forever scratching her back, massaging her legs or her head, or various other parts of her body. The bewilderment of the child narrator is brought out effectively as she wonders at all this kneading and rubbing. At the same time since it is a child who is reporting these goings on, it is done without any awkwardness that might have accompanied such descriptions. The child narrator does not understand what is happening and naively states that her body would have simply disintegrated under so much pounding. Begum Jan’s elaborate toilette too gives us a glimpse of the Nawabi lifestyle but the closed doors, lighted braziers and Rabbu being Begum Jan’s only companion inside, raises our suspicious. A little later we are told that Begum Jan required this endless massaging because of a permanent itch on her skin which the doctors and hakims had been unable to cure. Rabbu’s comment that it is merely the Begum’s hot blood that causes the itch is accompanied with a sly smile and puts things in perspective for the adult reader though it leaves the child narrator naively accepting the reason for the massages.

The narrator now a grown woman recollects how Rabbu and Begum Jan were a topic of amused conversation at social functions and gatherings. There were bursts of laughter the moment their names were mentioned. Innumerable stories had been coined about the poor lady. Notice how things are left vague even when the mature narrator could have spelt them out for us. As a mature woman she knows the nature of relationship between Rabbu and Begum Jan but chooses to let it remain at the level of suggestion. Consequently we are taken thus far and no further even though the recollections of a child narrator are being filtered through an adult consciousness. The second section of the story ends at the point when the child narrator recalls how she was left with Begum Jan for a week while her mother went to Agra.

Till now it was as if the narrator was preparing the ground on which the events would unfold. The stage is set, the situation has been explained and the characters have been described. There have been enough suggestions and our curiosity has been aroused. Along with the child narrator we too enter the world of Begum Jaan. The child narrator’s bed is placed in Begum Jan’s room next to the latter’s bedstead. Things move in a normal fashion with the two playing a game of ‘Chance’ till ten or eleven after which the narrator goes off to sleep. The events of the night, however, send her into a tizzy when the rocking and heaving of Begum Jan’s lihaf jolts her out of her sleep. The innocence of the child on the one hand and the unspeakable goings on inside the lihaf on the other are thrown into high relief in the exchange that follows. She hears two people whispering and thinks that there may be a thief but on hearing Rabbu's voice sternly telling her to go to sleep the child ducks into her own lihaf for comfort. The next morning, Begum Jan’s lihaf looked absolutely innocent.

  •     The Child Narrator

Notice how the story continuously maintains a balance between reticence and suggestiveness. The use of the child narrator proves an effective device to deal with a forbidden subject. Though the events that are happening indicate a lesbian relationship in the offing yet the same is never explicitly stated or described, as the child understands almost nothing of the events. She can only convey what she sees and feels. She has merely observed Begum Jan's lihaf heaving and rocking and her child's imagination is limited enough to think that a thief is lurking somewhere. The next night however takes us a step further and we now get a taste of Chughtai’s phonetic use of words to convey sense through sound. At first the narrator can hear only Rabbu’s convulsive sobs and then noises ‘like those of a cat licking a plate.’ This time, though frightened, she doesn't call and goes back to sleep.

Rabbu's visit to her son who is a good-for-nothing and had rejected the hospitality of the Nawab once never to come back again, gives a nasty turn to events. Why do you think Rabbu's son is mentioned here and drawn into the narrative? Firstly it is because he becomes the reason for Rabbu's absence from the house which leads the unsuspecting narrator into the arms of the beguiling Begum Jan. At the same time, however, Rabbu’s son comes as a reminder of the Nawab’s predilection for young boys. This is so because it is mentioned that he too had taken up the Nawab Sahib's service for some time, and received many gifts of clothes from him but then no one knew why, he fled and never turned up at the house even to see his mother. Knowing the Nawab we can only conjecture as to what might have happened to drive the young boy away but once again things are left at the level of suggestion and nothing is explicitly stated or described.

Rabbu goes away; Begum Jan is distraught and dejected. Her body aches at every joint till our child narrator in all naivete offers to scratch her back. What follows is something which goes from innocent playfulness to unspeakable dread as Begum Jan presses the child narrator tightly to herself even when she tries desperately to escape. Instinctively she knows that something is awry.  She begins to weep inwardly while Begum Jan hugs and squeezes her like a plaything.  She was like one possessed and the child narrator feels like a trapped animal who could neither scream nor cry. Once again we are taken thus far and no further. This holding back at the right time is what makes Chughtai avoid exhibitionism and pornography while at the same time she places all the hints at our disposal to enable us to make our own inferences.

It is ironical that the narrator’s mother had placed her daughter in Begum Jan’s care safe from the loafing boys who roamed the place. And here was her daughter more scared of Begum Jan than of all the loafers in the world. Instead of admiration, Begum Jan now generated a feeling of disgust and dread in the narrator. When the child narrator becomes adamant about being sent home, despite the Begum’s cajoling, Rabbu acidly comments and says ‘“Unripe mangoes are sour, Begum Jan.”’  For the adult reader such an observation places things in a clear perspective as far as the Begum’s designs on the young girl are concerned.  At this the Begum throws a fit which transforms her from a gaudy, nauseatingly beautiful woman to a ghoulish nightmare.  It is only Rabbu who can calm her nerves and she sits massaging the Begum’s body when our narrator tiptoes into the bedroom.

One more time the lihaf sways like an elephant that night. There is once again a reliance on the phonetic use of words to convey what is happening inside the lihaf. Even at the moment of sinister revelation, Chughtai is able to deal with the subject with a freedom which comes to her through the use of the child narrator who reports things without any inhibitions or prior knowledge of what might be happening. For her the sounds are simply due to some feast that the Begum and Rabbu are enjoying in hiding and according to her this was entirely possible since Begum Jan had not eaten anything the whole day. But it is the consistent bloating up of the lihaf that once again sends the narrator’s imagination working overtime. In an entirely credible way Chughtai delineates how a child’s imagination can conjure up most nightmarish images in the darkness of the night. But today the narrator has decided to unravel the mystery of the elephant inside the lihaf. She sums up her courage to step down from her bed and switch on the light. As the light came on the lihaf did a somersault and collapsed. But in doing so, a corner of the lihaf was lifted by a foot revealing something for which the narrator was not prepared and she can only any 'Allah' and dive for her bed.

  •     The Ending

The ending of the story as it exists in the later versions of it is markedly different from how Chughtai had originally written it. In the first version of the story there was an extra line after the narrator dives into her sheets. It said ‘What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never till anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.’ Manto objected strongly to this sentence observing that the last line is ‘not artistic at all.’  When he spoke to Ismat about the story he said: ‘I liked your “Lihaf” very much. It is truly the distinctive feature of your style to use words in a judiciously economical fashion. But I was surprised that you wrote a pointless sentence at the end of your story.’ In all subsequent editions, the story was published without the last sentence. The line was superfluous and inartistic because the suggestiveness in the story had already successfully conveyed the real import of the events that had happened. Moreover, by implying that the nine-year-old child actually saw something disturbing inside the lihaf would be hastening the process of a sexual awakening, which would strike a very false note. Moreover, as Tahira Naqvi has observed. ‘At the time she wrote the story her knowledge regarding the subject of lesbianism was meager; what she could not “tell” was actually what she did not know.’

  •     The Lihaaf as Metaphor and Symbol

At the end of the story the Lihaf has been put to an ingenious and dexterous use to work both as an object as well as a metaphor. Its interpretation as a metaphor hinges on the lihaf’s capability to conceal and hide things. To put a cover on reality and thus it becomes operational on many levels in the story. On the one hand we see how

 Begum Jan becomes a ‘lihaf’ for the Nawab’s own proclivity about young boys. He uses his wife as a cover for his own nefarious activities. On the other instance we find that as an object the lihaf becomes a cover for Begum Jan’s and Rabbu’s nightly activities. It prevents the narrator from seeing what actually is happening inside but at the same time it makes her imagination run wild. Thus the lihaf is cloaking as well as provoking. In yet another sense the quilt or ‘lihaf’ becomes a cover for a woman’s suppressed sexuality. That is why though we are never told what might be happening inside the quilt yet we have been given enough hints to imagine what might be happening and the reason why it was happening. On a very important level, the child narrator becomes the ‘lihaf’ of the narrative technique to deal freely with forbidden subjects. Nothing is stated categorically, nothing inferred. Merely factual descriptions of observed reality are given along with hints and suggestions, which often leave things to the imagination of the reader. The child narrator is able to provide a lihaf, a cover for the narration of a story on a subject that was taboo. She becomes the lihaf of the technique In fact Chughtai’s artistry has been aptly termed 'lihafi' by Majnuh Gorakhpuri.

In yet another way, as Asaduddin has observed, the lihaf is used to indicate ‘the contrast between the speciously calm external aspect of things and the treacherous undercurrents.’ Begum Jan’s lihaf looks quite innocent to the narrator in the morning, but as the night advances it is the same lihaf that fills the narrator with dread as it hides an unspeakable reality from her.

  •     The Theme of Female Sexuality

The story does not romanticize or prettify lesbianism or homosexuality. Begum Jan is able to avoid direct censure because she does not violate the heterosexual code of chastity by taking another man into her bed. Lesbianism here is a choice made as an alternative to repressive heterosexuality.

As mentioned earlier too, the story succeeds in effectively fore grounding the issue of female sexuality. It hints at the physical needs of a woman and moves from recognition of these needs to a delineation of how they are either suppressed or exploited. Thus the story is also about suppression and oppression which leads to frustration loneliness and despair. What leads Begum Jan to find solace in Rabbu’s arms is her unfulfilled desires and her utter loneliness. Thus loneliness too is a significant theme of the story and intimately connected with the theme of female sexuality and its suppression. The answer is sought and found in alternative sexuality, in a physical bonding between two women thus making Lesbianism the other important theme of the story which ultimately comes to dominate and overshadow the other issues. In fact it will be interesting for you to know that the first book on lesbianism that was published in England was called The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall published in 1928. The title links up the issue of lesbianism with loneliness that women might face in their lives.

  •     Characters and Style

The characters in ‘Lihaf’ as in all of the Chughtai’s stories are culturally rooted. Begum Jan, Rabbu, the Nawab are all products of a particular social milieu. If taken out of their context they lose their force but placed within it they make a whole culture, a whole way of life come alive for us. As observed is the course of our analysis, character delineation is done through minute observation and details, which makes these characters come alive for us. They almost walk out of the pages to stand before us as real flesh and blood figures. This part of Chughtai’s artistry prompted Waris Alvi to observe that in her characters she creates ‘felt word pictures.’ Yet Ismat almost never ventures into the inner recesses of her characters’ minds. She prefers to dwell on external, observed reality and leaves the reader to interpret the psychology.

All this is achieved in a style that is simple, uninhibited, and straightforward with a sense of freedom and spontaneity. She takes the readers through her stories in an easy uncomplicated way without taking recourse to complicated stylistic devices like ‘flash back, flash forward, ellipsis, stream of consciousness and so on.’ She is a storyteller first and fore most and never experiments with form. Her narratives are almost like a conversation with her readers and are therefore all informal with the tone remaining chatty never reflective. One reason that Ismat herself located for this colloquial tone of her stories was in the fact that she never could write in solitude. She lived in a house brimful of people and while she sat in a corner writing one of her stories or plays in the same room there would be children quarrelling, servants wanting to know what to cook, her elder sisters discussing clothes and make-up or her mother and aunts indulging in some neighborly gossip. Thus her style too assumed this racy pace with which she was surrounded. The conversational tone established an immediate rapport with the reader. It became another reason for her to opt for colloquial, everyday speech in telling her stories rather than sophisticated, stiff and ornate Urdu that would make her characters seem unreal.

Ismat drew upon idioms, images and metaphors from the everyday world and made a deft use of them to impart a richness to her stories, making them fit into the narrative with complete ease and an effortlessness that can only belie the truth - just as we see happening in the case of the use of the lihaf as metaphor in our story. Krishan Chander, a noted stalwart of Urdu literature and Chughtai’s contemporary, remarked in his preface to a volume of her stories: ‘What one is reminded of by these stories is horse race, i.e. speed, movement, briskness and acceleration, to the extent that the reader is let for behind cursing the writer in his mind. Not only does her story seem to be running, but the sentences, images, metaphors, the sounds and sensibilities of the characters and their feelings - all seem to be moving along in a cluster with the force of a storm.’

In her novel Terhi Lakeer Chughtai explored the question of women’s friendship further and the same was attempted in ‘Zaroorat’ another story on a similar theme.

To think that 'Lihaf' is the final comment on Chughtai’s writing would be to dismiss her writing without understanding the full import of her work.  She is ‘Lihaf’ and much more. She is also ‘Chauthi ka Jora,’ ‘Jadein,’ ‘Kallu,’ ‘Hindustan Chor Do’, ‘Beghar’ ‘Kaarzaaz’ and many others. These are stories that deal with issues affecting men and women equally. She talks not just of women but of the socially oppressed, the weak, the poor and her work stands testimony of the fact that her explorations are wide ranging delving deep into issues which disturb and agitate us, at times forcing us out of our smugness. 


12 Ambai: Squirrel

Ambai: Squirrel

An Analysis

The Author and her Milieu

Ambai or C.S.Lakshmi was born in a large middle-class Brahmin family in 1944. Her parents hailed from Palghat, which was a constituent of the Madras Presidency but is now a district in Kerala. It had a predominantly Brahmin population. The family had settled in Coimbatore. Ambai was the third child of her parents, the eldest being a son while the second was a daughter. When the third child too happened to be a daughter the family was visibly upset. More so because it was an unplanned pregnancy and Ambai’s birth was an accident. In fact Ambai recalls in an interview how for many days her father did not even cradle her in his arms and always called her ‘blackie’ because of her dark complexion. ‘Blackie was however named Lakshmi for two reasons, firstly because her maternal grandmother’s name was Lakshmi and secondly because she was born on a Friday. Prejudice against the girl child in Indian society is a well-known fact and Ambai was to some extent a victim of this prejudice being the second daughter. Her first photograph was taken when she was four years old. Before that nobody ever thought of taking a snapshot of hers.

Ambai was put in a Tamil medium school as against the English medium one to which her elder siblings went. This happened soon after her younger brother was born. When in a few years her father got transferred to Bangalore, Ambai was again put in a Tamil medium school. According to her own admission ‘In my family I am the only one to write in Tamil. The others write even their personal letters in English.’ Despite these minor irritants, Ambai’s childhood was a happy one and she remembers fondly the many enjoyable vacations spent at her maternal grandmother’s house with innumerable cousins who became her playmates. Ambai was greatly influenced by her grandmother who was a self-taught Tamil scholar and who cultivated an interest in the young girl for Tamil literature by reading out poems to her in the language and explaining their meaning and also sang beautiful Tamil songs that enraptured the young Ambai. She gifted her book of songs to her when she died. In addition to her grandmother, Ambai’s own mother too was another constructive influence on her and who became at many points in her life the pillar of support she needed to stand on her own two feet. Ambai read avidly all the Tamil magazines and journals her mother subscribed to and grew up on the conservative, tradition bound often-romantic writings that these magazines encouraged and perpetuated. When Ambai first began writing at the age of sixteen, she wrote in a style similar to the one she had soaked up from those magazines. As she comments on her early writings she says: ‘Most of my initial stories had very rigid and orthodox views of sexuality, femininity and life in general. The widows in my stories, after a speech full of symbolic metaphors always refused to remarry and my heroines married idealists who were combinations of Tagore, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.’

Ambai’s family was a conservative one, as a result her upbringing followed on the lines of a conventional pattern. She took the usual training in Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam and gave performances till 1974. There was a tacit code of conduct for women and all had to adhere to it. Whatever they did had to be within the bounds of the tradition oriented demands of Tamil life and culture where an ideal woman was a perfect wife, mother and daughter having no desires or demands separate from those of her husband or father or brother. She was required to readily submit to whatever the patriarchal authority desired from her. Thus, to take a step which would run counter to the wishes of her father required tremendous courage and some guile from the young Ambai when she decided to move away from the confines of her home to Madras for widening her horizons and spreading out her wings as it were. She cited education as a genuine excuse and applied for MA at Madras Christian College. Her father was dead against the idea saying, ‘If you wish to study at Bangalore it’s OK. If you go to Madras you will get out of our hands. I wonder if you would ever return home.’ It was her mother who asked her if going to Madras would change her life. When Ambai replied in the affirmative, her mother did not say a single word more and pawned her jewelry and arranged for her to go and pursue her dreams. It was only after the mother and daughter had reached Madras and Ambai had been put up in a hostel that her father was informed. By then it was too late for him to do anything. He relented and resigned to Ambai’s decision and financed her education in Madras.

Ambai had already published two novels before she turned twenty. At sixteen she had won the first prize in a competition organized by the journal Kannan. Her entry Nandi Malai Charalile (At Nandi Hills Falls), a novel, was published shortly after she won the competition. This novel appeared under the name ‘Ambai’, the pseudonym that she had used for the first time on this occasion and was to continue using it thereafter for all her creative writing. The choice of the name ‘Ambai’ was determined firstly due to her atheist attitude and secondly by the strong impression that a character of that name left on her in Devan’s novel Parvatiyin Sangalpam (Parvati’s Vow). In this novel Parvati’s, the protagonist is abandoned by her husband because her education is not equal to his. At this Parvati takes a vow. She uses her knowledge of Tamil and begins writing. For her writings she uses the pseudonym ‘Ambai’ for it is another name for Parvati, and becomes a famous writer. When her husband learns of her new found fame he wants to return to her. At this Parvati tells him, ‘I do not need you any more.’ Ambai liked the determination of this woman protagonist of Devan’s novel and made her choice. As she recounts in an interview she says, ‘I do not believe in rituals or dogmas associated with Fridays in our culture. So I did not like my name Lakshmi and wished to use a pseudonym.’ Having read Devan’s novel she says, ‘I liked [Parvati’s] determination very much. So I chose Ambai as my pseudonym. Later on, I learnt about the character Amba, in Maharashtra. I began to like my pen name even better.’ Ambai always distinguishes between her persona as Ambai, writer of fiction and her persona as C.S.Lakshmi, cultural anthropologist and critic.

Her first short story Gnanam (Knowledge) was published in the journal Ananda Vikatan. She published many more stories in this magazine in the coming years. But her early writings were modeled on traditional concepts of womanhood and chastity. Her world was still limited to her home and there was a tacit rule limiting her interaction with the world outside. She therefore naively went along believing in the prevalent concepts, which required women to be chaste, pure, submissive and docile. To believe that a modern woman was one transgressing the bounds of morality was merely an extension of these conventional concepts.

Ambai struggled to break free. A rebel at heart she knew that there was a different and wider world beyond the confines of her walled existence. Thus her decision to move to Madras came about. She did her Masters from Madras and though she missed her mother immensely she never thought of returning home unlike the protagonist of her story ‘Kaartu’ (Wind) who does. She became friendly with writers like Ramaneeyam, Meyyadiyan and Aar. Vi. After her MA she worked briefly as a schoolteacher at Panruti but was asked to leave because of her anti-establishment activities. She would read works like A Tale of Two Cities to the children in their Moral Science class. Most of her energy at this time was taken up in fighting against the management and consequently she hardly wrote anything during her stay at Panruti. Her novel Andhi Malai(Twilight Time) was being serialized and she was ‘vaguely embarrassed’ by it, though she did not know the reason why. After leaving Panruti she took up a job as an English tutor in Tyagaraja College in Madras. Subsequently she secured a UGC fellowship and took admission in JNU for her Ph.D. and moved to Delhi in 1967.

Ambai’s experiences had widened her horizons till now. She had begun questioning the constant suppression that women were being made to submit to in all spheres of life. Her whole being rebelled against the men who oppressed women as well the women who meekly submitted to men. Before leaving for Delhi she wrote a story Siragugal Muriyum (Wings Get Broken) and sent it to Ananda Vikatan. Written form the woman’s point of view the story was about ‘a sensitive woman married to an insensitive man and the sense of suffocation she felt.’  It was promptly rejected and returned. Kalki andKalaimangal, two other popular journals, returned it too. In Delhi when Ambai sent it to Kanaiyazi, she asked the editor Kasturi Rangan, to tell her what was wrong with her story. She thought that not having written for a long time has made her go out of practice. But Kasturi Rangan was a keen and perceptive editor. He was quick to see why the story had been rejected. It talked of a woman’s silent suffering and highlighted the male insensitivity. Had the wife meekly submitted and prostrated herself at her husband’s feet the story would have been readily published by any of the magazines it was sent to. But the fact that the wife dares to murmur a protest was enough to blacklist it. Kasturi Rangan published the same in his journal Kanaiyazi and thus began a new chapter in Ambai’s literary career. Venkat Swaminathan and Indira Parthasarthy who were her friends from her days in Madras helped polish her art and constantly encouraged her to write.

Ambai’s literary career aptly reflects the various stages in her development both as a writer and as a person. From her early idealistic writings like Andhi Malai she moved to writing stories with new concerns but still wrote in the conventional style. Moving to Delhi, however, was the bold step she took to venturing into women centered stories that questioned the paradoxes of their suppressed existence. Coming under the influence of Marxist ideology at JNU she examined its inherent contradictions when she saw it being practiced by her upper class friends. From writing in the conventional style she moved to experiment with new forms, new themes and looked at old subjects from new angles. Her interests widened to include films, theatre, painting and Hindustani music. She learnt the Rudra Veena in the Drupad style from Zia Moinuddin Dagar Saheb. Ambai was deeply influenced by what her Guru said about rendering and appreciating a Raga. He said that a Raga ‘should not attack you like a huge ferocious wave. It should touch you gently like the wave does when you stand on the shore. It is a massive wave initially. But it internalizes its power, its impact lies within and touches you gently.’ Ambai admits to applying the same to everything -- all branches of fine arts as well as to ideologies. According to her ‘Be it feminism, Marxism – whatever it be, it ought to contain its potency before it touches you Stories that have a lot of feminist ideas go unappreciated if they lack an engaging style.’ Herein lies the germ for Ambai’s desire to evolve new forms and a new language for expressing her ideas in her writings. Her friends from the literary circle helped perfect her idiom and develop an individualistic style.

In 1974-75 she began research for her book The Face Behind the Mask. Meanwhile she continued writing stories, articles and novels. Apart from this she also wrote a few plays. During this period her research took her once again to Madras where she interacted with the Pregnyai (Consciousness) group. She became quite friendly with other members of this group such as Veerasami, Ravishankar, Paravi and Ravindran. She was the only woman in the all male group but suffered from no inhibitions while she argued with them, read with them, watched films and reviewed the same with them and on the whole spent an invigorating time with them. In the year 1976 she met and married Vishnu Mathur after living with him for six months. The decision to marry came after a lot of thought because neither of them believed in the institution of marriage. It was only to avoid countering criticism all the time and thus waste their energies in a meaningless activity that the two decided to have a registered marriage. According to Vishnu it was better to spend that energy on their relationship. But the conservative household at Vishnu’s parents’ made her feel suddenly imprisoned. It took a lot of determination and a tremendous amount of understanding on both sides for the relationship to last. Neither of them wanted to compromise their principles for anything. For this reason both of them decided not to have any children. Ambai had meanwhile started teaching at a college in Delhi. In 1978 they decided to move to Bombay. To resign from her job was Ambai’s own decision. In Bombay she did not take up any teaching assignment and devoted all her time to writing. She even wrote stories for a few films. The Face Behind the Mask was published in 1984. In 1987 Ambai received a fellowship in social history and researched on the lives of workers from the beedi industry. She had stopped writing for the journals in the early 1970’s and subsequently her stories came out as collections. Ambai’s recent writings have been for a journal from Neiveli, called Dalit.She has written on the death of the Marathi poet Vilas Gokhare and also on the Sathin, Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan. The Dalits as well as women are a suppressed lot in Ambai’s opinion and the various modes of oppression practiced against both the groups have a striking similarity. Ambai has also worked on the social history of women in Tamilnadu, and the same is currently under publication.

The Short Story in the Tamil Literary Scene 

The Tamil short story was born in the writings of V.V.S Iyer (1881-1925), who wrote a few stories from 1915-1917 and published them together in Mankayar Karsiyin Katal in 1917. With the sudden increase in literary journals and magazines, the Tamil short story finally found its niche. Writers like Rajaji and Narana Duraikannan used the form for didactic purposes and the short story unlike the novel became a powerful tool for dissemination of current concerns and ideas. Anthologies were compiled and writers like Subramanya Bharati, Pudumaipittham, N.Pitchamurthy, Kaa Naa Subramanyam, Chidambara Subramanian, Mouni, and B.S.Ramaiah and of course V.V.S Iyer became famous and helped the Tamil story to flourish. Many periodicals gave an impetus to this growing popularity of this form. Ananda Vikatan was one of them and was headed by R.Krishnamurthi, himself an established writer who wrote under the pseudonym Kalki. This popular journal published stories with an apparent preference for simplistic, entertainment-based narratives. Manikkodi, was another periodical launched in 1933 by Stalin Srinivasan, with the cooperation of his friends Va.Ra, and T.S.Chockalingam. Even though Srinivasan’s main interest was politics, he encouraged the younger generation of creative writers to contribute to his magazine. Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, Na.Pichamurthi and P.G.Sundarajan wrote frequently for this periodical. In 1935 B.S.Ramaiah took over as editor and made it his ambition to raise the Tamil Short Story to world standards. The writers associated with Manikkodicame to be known as the Manikkodi group.  Though Manikkodi was devoted to the short story genre it was different from magazines like Ananda Vikatan and endeavoured towards writing of more serious concern that would pose a challenge to the established social mores and customs and also provide an alternative to magazines like Ananda Vikatan. The Manikkodi writers wrote against child marriage, against exploitation of women, against traditionally accepted norms about chastity. They wrote about the ordinary people, their trials and tribulations, their small joys and big sorrows and their constant battle against the elements. T.Janakiraman, Jayakanthan, Pichamurthy, Mouni and Laa Saa Ramamirthan carried forward the Mannikodi tradition in their writings.

The 1970’s witnessed a boom of ‘little’ magazines – a sudden spurt in publication of small periodicals and journals which wanted to cash in on the increasing readership. When a number of periodicals were circulating over a hundred thousand copies a week or month, the kind of writing they carried and generated is anybody’s guess. Only stories with a strong entertainment value, written along simplistic lines, upholding the conservative social, cultural structure could find a place in them. Any serious writing that could have benefited from this wide circulation had to take a backseat due to the market dominated policies of these new periodicals. Despite this, however, a few good writers did emerge and also endured. Kandasamy, Konangi, Dilip Kumar, Thopil Mohamed Meeran are a few of the notable names of the post 70’s Tamil short story writers. The image of the woman that found expression through most of these writers’ works, remained one that was modeled on the precepts of Manu. Woman was the goddess of chastity; she was required to be passive and submissive, accepting her fate unquestioningly and uncomplainingly, worshipping her husband like a veritable god and finding fulfillment only in marriage and children. Apart from her home, her husband and her children, a woman was not supposed to have any life let alone have any personal longings, aspirations and desires separate from those of her family. Even if some writers were bold enough to raise a few questions the ending always showed the woman conforming to traditional beliefs. Such was the image propagated and reinforced by these male authors and the majority of women readersstaunchly believed in this image themselves.

What about the women writers however? Did they make their presence felt and if yes then did they do so by writing about issues closest to their hearts or were they swept along by the wave that commercialized literature? Gowri Ammal, Vai. Mu. Ko., Gugapriyai, Kumudini, Savitri Ammal, Visalakshmi Ammal, ‘Lakshmi,’ Krubai Sathyanadhan Ammal, Tamarai Kanni were familiar names in Tamil households. The society demanded from women the impossible task of being a repository of all its social and moral values. Brought up on a surfeit of such social precepts and religious customs these women writers merely reinforced the hackneyed ideas which gave man the freedom to have his will and asked women to submit to the same. Though most of them remained tradition bound, for some it was not due to any lack of awareness but more because the dominating market forces required a certain kind of writing only. Even a slight hint of challenging those traditions meant rejection such as ‘Kumudini’ faced when she wrote Diwan Magal. The story was about a non-Brahmin boy marrying a Brahmin girl. Ambai writes how ‘the orthodox Ananda Vikatan editor kept it rotting in the drawers of his table considering it too bold a theme, and it lay there till it was serialized in Manikkodi and later brought out as a book in 1946. Hemmed in by conservative thought, these women writers, with the exception of a few continued to write within the male paradigms and happily affirmed the patriarchal social structure.

For most of these women writers the image of a writer was more important than finding a means of self-expression through their writings. As Venkat Swaminathan observes, ‘Women writers were pampered and made into stars, but they were not allowed to question tradition or break the rules of convention.’ They genuinely believed in the shackles they adorned themselves with. They willingly conformed believing implicitly in the roles that the male dominated society had chalked out for them. Gugapriyai was quite convinced about a woman’s role in society: ‘Service, motherhood, chastity, wife-hood – what else is necessary for a woman?’ she coolly asked Ambai when the latter interviewed her for her book The Face Behind the Mask. Visalakshmi Ammal told Ambai she is certain that only marriage can bring fulfillment. ‘Lakshmi’, who was a doctor by profession, did bring in the working woman as a new subject but ultimately found that marriage was the final goal for them too. A man’s presence was absolutely necessary for a woman’s existence. These were early writers who genuinely believed in denying themselves any voice of self-assertion or even self-expression. The same was not expected, however, of the later women writers, Ambai’s contemporaries, who nevertheless continued to conform and submit to the dictates of the patriarchal configuration. Rajam Krishnan, Siva Sankari, Indumati, Vimala Ramani, K. Jayalakshmi, Gomati Nagarajan, Vasanthi, Girija, Kritika and R.Chudamani are some notable women writers of the period after 50’s. With the exception of a few like Kritika and R.Chudamani, the rest continued to reinforce the traditional renditions of womanhood because they let the market forces determine the kind of writing they did. K. Jayalakshmi admitted to Ambai, ‘I write for money now and cannot write whatever I want.’ A story that she wrote on a woman’s right to adornment even after her husband’s death was rejected by every magazine and finally was accepted for broadcast over the radio by a stroke of luck.’ Thus personal convictions of a few of these writers differed from what emerged in their writings. Girija, for instance, remarked in an interview that a woman is still a slave and ‘most laws to protect women and the so-called rights of women are only and eyewash.' R.Chudamani expressed that ‘women have been praised, protected and glorified and in essence enslaved. A woman wanting to break this is stopped by the social system that is only a larger form of this exploitation.’ But as Ambai notes in her research on Tamil women writers, most of them writing after 1950 and later ‘seem to present uniform traits that lead to facelessness. In reality this facelessness has been assumed in some cases and natural in others for many reasons.’ As pointed out earlier, these reasons were at times located in the demands of the market and at other times in the demands of the family as happened in the case of a writer who was beaten up by her husband when she wrote about the inner sufferings of a middle-class housewife. Can she write about anything else than husband-worshipping wives, she asks in a defeated tone? At the same time, reasons for not giving expression to issues closest to their heart also lay for some in the inherent contradictions within them. Such was the case with Girija, who on the one hand talked about the individual’s right to defy false norms and on the other remarked sincerely that she accepts most of the social restrictions imposed on women.

The reasons could be many but the fact remains that the image of a woman in Tamil literature and Tamil short stories continued to be predominantly the kind that staunchly adhered to tradition. It preserved the hallowed image of a goddess of chastity but in essence enslaved women to this image. Ambai’s probing, questioning, protesting stories caused disturbing ripples in this apparently smooth exterior of the Tamil literary scene and proved to be a trailblazer for the feminist voice in Tamil literature. 

 Ambai’s Writings

Ambai’s early stories conformed to traditional precepts but the second phase of her writing that began with Sriragugal Muriyum (‘Wings get Broken’), propelled her towards serious self-expression and a questioning of the centuries of oppression to which women have been submitting without so much as a murmur. Chaya, the neglected wife in ‘Wings get Broken,’ questions the sanctity of marriage even though ultimately she resigns herself to her fate. It is small wonder that all established magazines rejected the story. Ambai’s voice registered displeasure and agitated the calm surface of conventionality and conservatism. She realized that self-expression for women writers had no place in the male-dominated literary scene. She remarked that her story about the protesting wife could have been published ‘if the girl Chaya had committed suicide or had been killed as a punishment for her “sinful” thoughts. Traditionally she has no right to live the moment she questions, even to herself the sanctity of marriage.’ Ambai, however, was not one to be cowed down by convention or be dictated to by market forces. For her writing was a vehicle for expressing herself and in the story she highlighted the way men have circumscribed the world of women and determined their parameters for them. She has delineated a wide variety of women characters in her stories. Ranging from Chandra who enjoys the protective cover of her household, which nevertheless works as a control in ‘Gifts’; to Jiji who takes pride in slaving for her family and is overjoyed by the authority that a bunch of keys brings her way ‘A Kitchen in the Corner of the House.’ Then there is Rosa, who, though a victim of custodial torture and rape refuses to be used as a pawn by people who want to cash in on the publicity in ‘Black Horse Square.’ In ‘Wrestling,’ Shenbagam quietly asserts her position as she slips into her rightful place on the stage, singing with her husband, Shanmugam.  The place that she claims for herself had been denied her till now due to her husband’s fear of being overshadowed by his wife. The facets are many and all make a disconcerting statement about the position of women in society. As Venkat Swaminathan observes, ‘Shorn of the specificity of time, place and milieu, the undercurrent is a cry against oppression which is timeless and universal,’ (From Many Indias, Many Literatures). Ambai pointed out in her works, the innumerable clever and subtle ways in which society sought to suppress and repress women in all areas of life. She protested against ingeniously cultivated beliefs, against deep entrenchment of traditional ideas about womanhood that prevented women from seeing themselves as persons, separate from their family, parents, husbands, and children. She boldly sought to foreground the feminist concerns through her writings and succeeded in forcing people to take notice despite the stories being unconventional not just in their choice of subject and theme but also in their treatment of the same, in Ambai’s experimentation with form.

Ambai moved from writing simple realistic stories to highly complex ones where she made use of multiple perspectives, various levels of narration, and plurality of voices and skillfully wove in symbolic and archetypal sequences which at times placed an ironic interpretation on the main narrative. At times her stories were just a series of reflections, interior monologue which effected the protagonist’s ‘realization of the tragic contrast between the freedom of the inner world and the constraints of the outer world’ (Chaya in ‘Wings Get Broken’). At other times she experimented with form using the structure of a fable (‘Yellow Fish’) or a collage of surrealist images as in ‘Some Deaths.’ Then there were stories like ‘My Mother her Crime’ which had an inter-mingling of dream and reality. Lakshmi Holmstrom has observed that in Ambai’s work ‘there is a kind of exhilaration in this playing with forms at the height of her work, in what looks like post-modernistic techniques of multiple perspectives - many voices, fragmented and interspersed narratives – techniques which are normally used in the post modern novel.’ Ambai’s method is post modern but on the other side of it is her rootedness in Tamil literature and culture which is evident in her easy and often inverted use of allusions such as Ahalia in ‘Squirrel’ or Vamanan in the story with the same title.

Along with using different forms Ambai also felt the need to evolve a new language to give expression to her deepest concerns. This new language she feels, can evolve only out of our understanding ‘as gendered and historical beings’ and requires ‘going down into the deep foundations of life.’ She articulates her need for such a language in her research The Face Behind the Mask and ends by saying that ‘a language such as this does not come out of the experience of oneself and others alone, but by an ability to “see” the experience – by expressing the experience.’ Women, according to her, need to express the silence in their lives and need to create a space for themselves. In her essay entitled ‘Dealing with Silence, Space and Everyday Life’ Ambai reiterates that ‘the key struggle in women’s lives, it appears is the struggle to become conscious of this space, and where possible transform the quality of this space and loosen its bindings, fight its corrosion.’ The space exists but there are various processes working towards obliterating that space and silencing the voice, which expresses a need for that space. This is a process that is ageless and ubiquitous and has been going on for centuries.

If one ventures to explore this inward space that is a woman’s ‘it would mean tapping into a silence that tethers a range of passionate feelings – it means laying bare what has not been voiced hitherto because it has not been able to be voiced.’ There are so many unarticulated desires, emotions, aspirations in women’s lives that make up that silence, that space. In most of Ambai’s writings she endeavours to express this silence in words and images – a task that seems to be a difficult and daunting one – almost impossible Ambai’s fiction thus becomes a continuous quest for freedom to express, to communicate. It becomes a quest for self-fulfillment for understanding gender constructions, social, cultural oppressions. Ambai firmly believes that an understanding of what we are today can come only from our understanding of our past and thus her fiction becomes a quest for one’s roots, a journey into the historical past that has created the present self. Historicizing the self is a step towards understanding and one that she undertakes in ‘Squirrel.’



12.1 Squirrel

Squirrel

       An Introduction

‘Squirrel’ was originally published as ‘Anil’ in Ini (October 1986) and was included in Ambai’s second collection of stories,Veetin Mulayil Oru Samayalarai (‘A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,’ 1988). Between 1974 and 1984 Ambai did not do much of creative writing as most of her time was taken up by her research on Tamil women writers. While researching this field Ambai came to realize that most of these women writers conformed to the demands of a gender based society despite having convictions of their own which ran counter to the image they were required to project. It has already been illustrated how most of them failed to use their writing as a means of self-expression and allowed either the market forces or the family circumstances, to determine what they wrote. It was almost as if they wore a mask, which hid their real selves. As already mentioned, Ambai published her findings as C.S.Lakshmi in 1984 in a book that was aptly titled The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature. ‘Squirrel’ was a natural outcome of her experience as a researcher who is researching women’s writings.

‘Squirrel’ has been translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom in 1992 and published in a collection of Ambai’s storiesThe Purple Sea. A revised version of the translation came out in 1997. Apart from this there is another translation available which is by Chudamani Raghavan and Vasantha Kannabiran. The same was included in Volume II of Susie Tharu and K Lalita edited Women Writing in India from 600 BC to the Present. In the original there is a very obvious difference between the Tamil that the narrator uses and that used by the librarian and library staff. The narrator’s Tamil is Brahminical urban Tamil while the others use Tamil that is identifiably non-Brahminical. Such subtle differences, however, are not carried forward in any of the translations available.

       Detailed Analysis

  •     The Literal Level

In presentation and form ‘Squirrel’ is a story remarkably different from the other stories included in your course of study. It has a strong ideological base as against a strong narrative content. On the face of it nothing much happens in the story from the point of view of plot. A woman researcher visits a library to look up books written by women authors. Books, which have been gathering, dust due to neglect that in turn has resulted from the prejudices of a patriarchal society. Neglect has reduced these books to a state where they crumble at the touch of a hand and the library staff has been working at a physical restoration of these books by mending their spines with some glue and pasting back those pages that have come loose. The narrator listens to bits of conversation between the library staff and is helped by the librarian in bringing down books from the top shelves, which the narrator cannot reach. She sits reading these books alone on the third floor with just a squirrel for companion and is finally told that an official order has come to burn down these books which are of no use to anyone and instead require a lot of expenses for them to be restored. This is all that happens on the literal level. But on the metaphorical level a lot more is happening.

  •     The Metaphorical Level

The story is not just about a researcher who has a squirrel for companion during her visits to the library. It is much more than that. It is a rediscovery and a commemoration of women and women’s writings. It is about restoring an old forgotten past to the present consciousness. It is about resurrection versus annihilation where the idea of Ahalia is used skillfully to indicate what the narrator has set out to do. Just like Ram whose touch breathed life into Ahalia, so too the narrator wishes to bring these old, neglected, forgotten women authors back to life. In this context then the library becomes a metaphor for this quest into the past that seeks to unearth, discover and resurrect. Linked to this journey into the past is the writer’s quest for her historical self. What is it that she wants to do by reading neglected women authors? Her need to communicate, to bond intellectually with these women and their writings is part of her desire to understand her present consciousness and she knows that for a complete understanding of the present self one needs to historicize it and understand the past which has shaped it.  Often the boundary collapses between the factual real world surrounding the narrator and the dream world that she enters through the books she sits reading. Characters seem to step out of the pages to become real life figures, living their experiences in front of the narrator’s eyes making her a participant too. The squirrel becomes her only link with reality when it pulls her back into the present world by the ‘kwik kwik’ sound it makes. Let us now go over the story step by step to see how Ambai expresses her basic need for female bonding through the idea of a researcher researching women writers.

  •     Imagery

The first paragraph of the story begins with an emphasis on minute factual details of the ‘meshed windows’ the ‘angled tops’ the ‘ornamental arches’ and the ‘shadowy verandahs’ of the building the narrator is about to enter. Yet, there is a sudden change from this literal level to the metaphorical when the books in the library are personified and referred to as ‘Yellowed, stretched out on iron shelves.’ The image conveys the sense of a very old person lying stretched out on an iron shelf. This is the first indication of the life these inanimate books contain within them for the narrator. The effect that the sight of these books has on the narrator is similar to what the sight of an appetizing meal would have on a hungry person. There is a feeling of expectation, ‘a quickening of breath. A watering of the mouth.’ This indicates the narrator’s hunger for the books she is about to read and the idea is conveyed through sensations associated with food and hunger. Thus food imagery comes into play as early as this and will recur throughout the narrative in various forms to highlight different kinds of appetite being talked about in the story. The narrative voice is observant as well as reflective. But as yet we do not know who the narrator is.

  •     The Narrator

It is only in the second paragraph that the narrator refers to herself in the first person and we are face to face with the ‘I’ of the story. Her description of the librarian’s face looming over her as she enters the verandah is almost like a surrealist image superimposed on the narrator’s world of internal reflection:

 ‘There was a face as if suspended in space, floating in front of me. It was as if, starting from a pair of owl-like eyes, the flesh of the cheeks and the neck had all slithered down like a waterfall … then a few teeth appeared in a smile which pushed aside the wrinkled folds of skin.’

We get a taste of the narrator’s ability to lose herself in a reverie and then be suddenly jolted out of it as early as this and the same is going to continue with heightened effect as the narrative progresses. Notice that the narrator remains nameless but we come to know that it is a woman because of the way the librarian addresses her. In the translated version he calls her ‘madam’ but in the original the word used is ‘amma’ which is a word used by men in Tamil for addressing women irrespective of age or class.

  •     A Retelling of Mythical Allusions

The library holds a promise for a different world altogether for the narrator. The steel door leading to the library, chequered all over with steel wires seems like ‘a shadowy door leading to a different world.’ She imagines that the moment the door opens she would see ‘Urvashi dancing to the sound of her own anklet bells.’ The reference to Urvashi, is a very early instance of Ambai’s strong cultural grounding despite her modern themes and techniques. She uses the allusion to put across effectively the sense of eager anticipation that the narrator feels as she is about to enter a lost and forgotten world through the writings of the neglected women authors. It is significant that in this world Urvashi doesn’t dance to anybody else’s tunes but to the tune of her own anklet bells, for her own pleasure. The personification of books continues in their description as ‘lying on their backs, their tongues hanging out … sometimes the spine of the book was broken by its own weight. If you touched it there, you heard a sudden snap.’ It is evident that the books the researcher is seeking belong to a period very far back in time. They have yellowed with age and also disuse and are crumbling to pieces. Her interest in them, however, is a step towards bringing them back to life -- something that the library staff has been trying to do on a more literal level.

The reference to Ahalia at this point is another excellent example of how Ambai is able to weave mythical allusions into a modern narrative and yet keep the relevance intact. ‘Each book that was stroked and awakened to life was a very Ahalia,’ writes the narrator yet concludes with a pensive question ‘But which epic was there that recorded its history?’ The touch of Ram had resurrected Ahalia and the narrator seeks to do the same for the old books that she strokes. Notice the emphasis on touch that recreates, resurrects, and brings back to life. It is begun here and will carry on throughout the narrative. Yet, unlike Ahalia’s history that was recorded in an epic there was no such epic to record the history of these books seeking a similar resurrection. Also, unlike Ahalia, these books face annihilation as they are about to be burnt down than be restored to life as the conclusion of the story indicates. In this context a cross reference comes to mind that has also been pointed out in the annotations to the story in the suggested Anthology. In Pudamani Pittan’s short story Sabo Vimochanam there is a retelling of the legend of Ahalia’s resurrection but with a difference. In the story Ahalia chooses to turn into stone again voluntarily when she learns of Sita’s trial by fire to prove her purity and chastity. An act, which has traditionally upheld the divinity of Ram and by extension, has also upheld the supremacy of the patriarch, is questioned and rejected. What is highlighted in Pittan’s story is man’s inhumanity and injustice that forces his Ahalia to reject life. In Ambai’s ‘Squirrel’ a similarly callous attitude is iterated gleefully by the male librarian banishes these women’s writings to a death by fire. This is the ‘suggested retelling’ of myth in Ambai’s stories that Lakshmi Holmstrom has talked about.

  •     The Squirrel’s Entry into the Literal and Metaphorical Worlds

As the narrative progresses we are taken into the library through a factual description of the same but what you need to notice in the next few paragraphs is the emphasis that Ambai places on the physical sensation of touch which immediately establishes a connection between things and people. Here the connection is between the narrator and the books on the literal level and between past and present on the metaphorical level. And not just any past but that past which has shaped the present consciousness. The narrator tries to hold down the pages of a book, which were rustling through a sudden gust of wind. As she puts her hand on the cover ‘the trembling of the leaves passed into [her].’ At this point the squirrel enters the narrative and the factual world of the library. At first the narrator refers to the squirrel merely as ‘it’ thus raising our curiosity which is satisfied only a few lines later when we are told that this ‘it’ is a squirrel. The food imagery comes into play again as this squirrel has a special liking for the glue that has been used to paste together the pages of these old and crumbling books. A squirrel is very selective in its food habits and the fact that it has chosen to eat the paste only on the books of these women writers seems to indicate to the narrator the squirrel’s inexplicable preference for these writers. This in turn immediately establishes a connection between the two in the narrator’s imagination. Thus the squirrel enters the narrator’s metaphorical world as well and becomes her companion in her journey into the past in her quest for her historical self.

  •     The Past Resurrected/Surreal Techniques

It is interesting how Ambai chooses to resurrect the past for us by the manner in which the narrator refers to these women writers and their works. Names of books, journals, and magazines and also names of writers are recalled with a sense of the narrator forging a relationship with all of them. She admonishes the squirrel not to eat the paste on a particular book:

 ‘That’s Chintamani, the women’s journal that Balammal ran. That faded picture at the back that’s she in a nine-yard sari.

My relationship with her has only just begun. We have not yet conversed with each other. I don’t as yet know everything about her, only that she was not all that fond of Vai Mu Ko.’

The squirrel takes one look at Balammal and runs away. Two things have happened here. We have taken a step into the past with references to Balammal and Vai Mu Ko, two women writers who were also founder editors of two respective journals. Both these journals were geared towards improving the lot of women by highlighting their problems. But the names have been mentioned in such a manner that it almost seems they have stepped out from the past and become part of the present world and the narrator is now eager to begin her relationship with them. The dream and the reality coalesce to an extent that distinctions are removed and the two become one. It is a surreal experience where dream images superimpose on reality and take the narrator into the forgotten world of these women writers from whom she wishes to understand her present- self. The sensation of touch is emphasized once again as the narrator moves from one end of the open shelves to the other ‘touching the books. Establishing a relationship.’

The narrator becomes a participant in the events she reads and thus bonds intellectually with the women writers who wrote about those events and also with the women who appeared in them. Notice how Ambai once again weaves in a mythical allusion and gives it a humorous touch when she refers to a whole generation of writers descending into her stomach as she swallows a speck of dust that flew from the books displaying Rani Victoria Kummi. She feels that if Yasoda had cared to look into her mouth now she would have seen a Victoria Kummi instead of the universe she saw in baby Krishna’s mouth. The oblique reference to Krishna carries the allusion still further in a witty, ironical way. Krishna had preached to Arjun ‘to be like water on a lotus leaf, detached.’ From the detached manner of the library staff it seems to the narrator as though Krishna had preached the same sermon as soon as this library was set up. ‘Nothing that the library contained touched anyone who was working there.’ They seem to be more interested in their knee-high stainless steel tiffin carriers. The food imagery resurfaces to highlight the difference in the appetite of the library staff and that of the narrator. The former is interested only in food while the latter has a voracious appetite for the wealth of information the books contain about a neglected and forgotten world.

  •     Plurality of Perspectives

The difference between the attitudes of the library staff and the narrator should also draw your attention to the fact that the story is employing more than one perspective and therefore has a plurality of voices and narrative. One of these perspectives is that of the librarian and the other of the library staff and both are rooted in factual reality. Their narrative intersects the interior reflections of the narrator and we re-enter the factual world through their talk of food. In this exchange, however, two things are noticeable which proves that this is not just a comic interlude. The librarian, who is the only male character in the story, seems to be a husband oppressed by a dictatorial wife who decides what he should eat and what not. He longs to be free and eat as much as he wants. Thus he wishes to be born a woman taking his cue from the female members of his staff who celebrate their existence by enjoying their food without any restrictions. There is a strong hint here of the wife’s area of control operating through the kitchen but is it merely a case of reversed roles? Do we have here for a change a female oppressor and a suppressed male? Our doubts are soon dispelled when we witness the manner in which the librarian exercises his control over the women staff of his library: ‘“Get on with your work. Five lakhs of books are waiting to be catalogued. That’s enough about minced meat and husbands who grind spices.” ’ His disparaging comments on the books so cherished and desired by the narrator also throw the prejudiced male attitude into high relief: ‘“… This is all rubbish, madam, rubbish. These are just women’s books madam. Do you want them?”’ The librarian thus becomes a symbol of not just the male oppressor but also embodies in him the attitude that the patriarchal society adopts towards women and their writing. 

  •     Role of the Squirrel

The ‘kwik kwik’ of the squirrel ends this interlude with reality and draws the narrator back into her dream world. Notice how effortlessly the squirrel becomes a bridge between dream and reality, between past and present, taking the narrator from one to the other. The squirrel’s role in the narrative recalls its mythical relevance where it had played its part in helping Ram to build a bridge from Rameswaram to Lanka. The narrator recalls this allusion but does not hope for any miracles to happen in the current context. Despite her reservation a miracle does happen as soon as the librarian begins to throw down the books on the top shelves to her. Penmadhi BodhiniJagan Mohini and many others come crashing down bringing with them the world that had been forced into oblivion.

  •     Feminist Concerns

As the narrator touches the spine of an old mended nineteenth century book, ‘an ecstatic tremor rose from the soles of [her] feet and passed through [her] like an orgasm.’ As she bonds with these women writers and their works on an intellectual level, Ambai chooses to describe the asexual experience in sexual terms. Ismat Chughtai had talked about sexual bonding between women. In ‘Squirrel’ Ambai talks about intellectual bonding but sees it to be as much a deliberate and conscious act as entering into a lesbian relationship. Ambai once stated in an interview that ‘rejecting a sexual relationship with a man in a patriarchy and entering into a relationship with another woman is definitely a political decision.’ The narrator’s decision in ‘Squirrel’ to study neglected women writers is an equally political decision and so Ambai chooses to convey it through a sexual metaphor which indicates the completeness of the bond that her narrator has established with forgotten women writers.

The story is dominated by feminist concerns in more ways than one. The need for women to communicate and bond with one another is emphasized through the narrator’s efforts. At the same time the incidents that she relives through her reading of them in the women’s writings, highlights the suppression of women. There is the actual case of the tonsuring of a young widow after her death because only then can last rites be performed on her. Or the young Bengali girl who prefers to die rather than have her parents become homeless for the sake of marrying her. There is the deserted wife who jumps into the well along with her children. The narrator relives all these experiences, thus strengthening the bond she has with these women simply in the fact of being a woman herself. This is the past that has shaped her present consciousness. Each experience is a seen and felt experience. Ambai has illustrated in her fiction what she has advocated as a critic. The characters walk out of the pages of these books, not literally but metaphorically, indicating how deeply their experience is felt by the narrator to become a part of her own experiential self. In all of this the squirrel remains her only companion and her only link with the real world.

  •     Resurrection vs Annhilation

In the real world there are different issues altogether that are preoccupying the minds of the staff. The librarian, for instance, has an endless exercise going on for requisition of string for use in the library. This is a whole world removed from the ‘magical string’, which links the narrator to the woman writers and their books. The squirrel, by eating the paste on these books has devoured some of the experience of that world which the narrator shares with them. Thus it has become her companion in her world of illusion. At this point the harsh reality intrudes and intersects the interior reflections of the narrator. The librarian informs her of the government’s decision to burn the books: ‘“It’s very expensive to mend and repair all this. Not many people read them either. Perhaps one or two like you.” ’ Market forces conditioned by the male attitude thus banish a whole generation of women writers into oblivion. The Ahalia’s face annihilation even before they could be resurrected. Many voices are silenced. The narrator’s imagination already sees the fire spreading like a funeral pyre but ‘the squirrel lies prostate in front of the window, its four legs spread out, in an attitude of surrender.’ It is no longer satisfying its hunger. The food imagery that has run like a refrain through the whole story now culminates in an image of self-denial. The window facing north is significant and at the same time it is a culture specific reference. In Tamil culture a dying person is made to face the north direction. Here it is the squirrel that seems to have committed vadakkiruttal, a ritual of fasting unto death, facing the north direction and is done in protest or in sorrow. The case here seems to be both. The squirrel fast unto death also aptly images the fate of the books which have been condemned before they could even be brought back to life by readers like our researcher narrator.

  •     Themes and Style

The themes of the story thus emerge as operating on a pattern of opposites such as resurrection versus annihilation, hunger versus self-denial, past versus present. It works on three levels: the narrator and her world of interior monologue; the library staff and their world of mundane reality and thirdly the world of dreams in which surrealist images superimpose on reality. This makes for a plurality of voices and a mixture of narrative sequences making ‘Squirrel’ a story that is postmodern in technique. The narrator remains unnamed but is characterized as an academic, a researcher who is urban, educated, independent, reflective, determined to unearth and to understand. One who observes and analyses.

  •     Autobiographical Relevance

For years Ambai herself had been engaged in a process similar to what the researcher-narrator of ‘Squirrel’ is shown to be doing. The germ of the story therefore lies in real life experience. There are obvious connections and similarities between what her findings were at the end of her research as C.S.Lakshmi and what she is expressing as Ambai in ‘Squirrel.’ Ambai was able to resurrect lost and forgotten Tamil women writers in her book The Face Behind the Mask. It was while researching that Ambai came to realize with increasing urgency the need for the women of the world to bond with one another, to communicate with one another in order to arrive at some understanding of their historical selves. She implored women writers to write the truth, to have the courage to write the truth, to strive at discovering their true identities as persons rather than be subsumed in the roles of mother, wife, and daughter.

For expressing one’s real self Ambai felt the need to forge a new language. In her opinion, ‘to arrive at this language would mean a search and the search would be for one’s historical self and one’s society out of which the language would be created. Such a search would involve a journey into the historical past and present that has created the present historical self.’ The narrator of ‘Squirrel’ undertakes just such a journey when she goes researching women’s writings in the musty shelves of the dingy library. Those writings which had been gathering dust on the top-most racks because no one ever inquired for them and no one ever read them for they were after all simply women’s writings which talked of women’s concerns.

  •     What ‘Writing’ Should Involve

The story becomes a reflection on the activity of writing itself as the narrator enters this world of books by women authors. Writing should lead us to self realization and liberate us from identities yoked to traditionally held beliefs and concepts. A simple exploration of women’s writings in the past helps the narrator to historicize her self and arrive at an understanding of her present self through her ability to bond intellectually with the women she reads about. Through a dexterous use of cultural allusions, of surrealist images and dream impressions, Ambai makes the past come alive for us. The dividing line between dream and reality collapses so that past and present seem to become one. She is able to ‘see the experience’ as she reads about it - something that Ambai has advocated in her critical writings. Ambai’s essay ‘Dealing with silence, space and everyday life’ is an important orientation for understanding what she is attempting to do in her stories. Her desire to find ways of communicating that which has not been able to be voiced before is uppermost in her stories. She translates that silence into words and images and succeeds in communicating the same. For the same reason she places an emphasis on the importance of physical touch which too becomes a means for communication for then we not only see but also feelthe experience of others. If we are to understand who we are as gendered and historical beings then it is imperative that we should be able to see and feel the experience of others like us. This is what her narrator in ‘Squirrel’ achieves just as Rosa, the protagonist of a later story does in ‘The Black Horse Square.’ This in turn ultimately leads to an understanding of the present historical self which says Ambai should be the ultimate aim of the activity of writing. 

A cultural exploration becomes a self-exploration as well. The same is achieved because the story works on the literal as well as the metaphorical level. In addition it draws upon various cultural and mythical allusions to make its point. The mythical references are not used to reinforce traditional concepts. Rather there is a reinterpretation of these myths in the current context. Thus Ahalia might have been resurrected through the touch of Ram but the narrator’s touch only briefly breathes life into the neglected authors and ultimately has to let them perish under the official decree.


12.2 Appendix I: Some Questions

Appendix I: Some Questions

           The Holy Panchayat

  1. Comment critically on the title of the story.
  2. What according to you is the theme of the story ‘The Holy Panchayat’?
  3. Comment on the significance of the word ‘Holy’ in the title of the story.
  4. Do you find the ending of ‘The Holy Panchayat’ convincing? Give reasons for your answer.
  5. How is the conduct of an individual influenced by society in Premchand’s ‘The Holy Panchayat’?

           The M C C

  1. Comment critically on the title of the story.
  2. Do you think Narayan has been able to take us into the world of children in his story ‘The M.C.C’? Illustrate your answer with reference to the text.
  3. Is ‘The M.C.C.’ just a simple story about children and for children or does it operate on a deeper level too? Comment.
  4. In spite of its apparent simplicity, R. K. Narayan’s ‘The M.C.C.’ has strong nationalist overtones. Comment.
  5. Discuss “the starting of a cricket team (as) the most complicated problem on earth” from the point of view of children in R. K. Narayan’s ‘The M.C.C.’

           The Card Sharper’s Daughter

  1. Basheer has been successful in presenting a realistic picture of a village in Kerala. Do you agree?
  2. Comment on the humour in Basheer’s ‘The Card-Sharper’s daughter?
  3. Do you agree with the narrator when he says that in this story he has recorded a history? Give reasons for your answer.
  4. How has Basheer managed to present a critique of political ideologies through his narrative?
  5. Comment on the use of irony in the story?

           Toba Tek Singh

  1. Comment critically on the meaning and content of ‘Toba Tek Singh’.
  2. Do you think Manto has been successful in conveying the agony of the Partition in ‘Toba Tek Singh’? Give reasons for your answer.
  3. It has been observed that history is better represented through the medium of fiction than through a chronicling of historical events. Do you think ‘Toba Tek Singh’ bears out this point well?
  4. Critically comment on Manto’s use of madness as metaphor in ‘Toba Tek Singh’.
  5. “In the middle on a strip of no man’s land lay Toba Tek Singh.” What does this comment signify in ‘Toba Tek Singh’?

           The Quilt

  1. Comment on the title of the story ‘The Quilt.’
  2. Compare and contrast the presentation of women characters in ‘The Quilt’ and ‘Squirrel.’
  3. Evaluate Ismat Chughtai’s use of the first person narrative in ‘The Quilt.’ Does it bring out the latent meaning of the story more effectively?
  4. How is the quilt used as a metaphor and symbol in the story?
  5. Critically comment on the ending of the story.
  6. Ismat Chugtai’s ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt) deals primarily with woman’s sexual frustrations. Discuss the story in the light of this remark..

           Squirrel

  1. With the help of suitable illustrations, consider ‘Squirrel’ as both an autobiographical sketch and a reflection on the activity of writing.
  2. Would you agree with the view that ‘Squirrel’ is a story dominated by feminist concerns? Elucidate.
  3. Comment on the use of the first person narrator in the story.
  4. The story works on a literal as well as a metaphorical level. Illustrate how this helps in drawing forth the main concerns of the story.
  5.  Discuss the use of allusions in ‘Squirrel.’

12.3 Appendix II: Suggested Further Reading

Appendix II: Suggested Further Reading

           GENERAL READING

Das, Sisir Kumar, A History of Indian Literature 1800-1910, Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1991 and A History of Indian Literature 1911-1956, Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1995.

George, K.M., ed. Modern Indian Literature: An Anthology, vol. 1, Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1992.

Naik, M.K., A History of Indian English Literature, Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1982.

Reid, Ian, The Critical Idiom: The Short Story, London and New York: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1977.

Stone, Wilfred, Nancy Huddleston Packer and Robert Hoopes (eds), The Short Story: An Introduction, New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Ltd.,1983.

Tharu, Susie & K. Lalita ed., Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present, vol. 2, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993, Introduction and pp. 126-9.

           PREMCHAND

Bajpeyi, Nanda Dulare, Premchand: Sahityik Vivechan [Premchand: A Literary Discussion], Jalandhar: Hindi Bhavan, 1956.

Gopal, Madan, Kalam Ka Mazdoor.[Labourer with the Pen], Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1965.

Gupta, P. C., Literature and Society, Delhi: New Delhi Publishing House, 1983.

Gupta, Prakash Chandra, Premchand, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1968.

Gurtu, Shachirani ed., Premchand Aur Gorky [Premchand and Gorky], New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1955.

Madan, Inder Nath ed., Premchand: Ek Adhyayan: Jiwan, Chintan Aur Kala [Premchand, A Study: His Life, Thought and Art], Banaras: Saraswati Press, n.d.

Madhuresh, Hindi Kahani: Asmita Ki Talash, Panchkula: Adhar Prakashan, 1997.

Markandey and Mishra, S.P., Premchand Ki Kahaniyon Ka Mahatva [The Importance of Premchand’s Stories], Allahabad: Sumit Prakashan, 1998.

Pandey, Geetanjali, Between Two Worlds: An Intellectual Biography of Premchand, New Delhi: Manohar, 1989.

Premchand, Shivrani Devi, Premchand Ghar Mein [Premchand: In the Home], Delhi: Atma Ram & Sons, 1956.

Rai, Amrit, Premchand: A Life, translated from Hindi by Harish Trivedi, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1982, rpt. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Rai, Amrit, Premchand, New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1978.

Rai, Amrit, Premchand: Kalam Ka Sipahi [Premchand: The Soldier with the Pen], Allahabad: Hans Prakashan, 1962.

Rubin, David (tr.). The World of Premchand, Allen & Unwin, 1969.

Sen, Mrinal, ‘Premchand’s World in Focus,’ The Statesman Literary Supplement, 18 November 1978.

Sharma, Ram Vilas, Premchand Aur Unka Yug [Premchand and His Age], New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1993.

Sharma. Govind Narain, Premchand: Novelist and Thinker, Delhi: Pragati Publications, 1999.

Swan, Robert O, Munshi Premchand of Lamhi Village, Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1969.

Thukral, K.B., Mind and Ideology of Munshi Premchand, Delhi: Vitosha Prakashan, 1995.

           R K NARAYAN

Dwivedi, A. N. ed., Studies in the Contemporary Indian English Short Story, New World Literature Series, 38, Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1990.

Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa, Indian Writing in English, 4th edn., New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1984.

Macaulay, Thomas B., ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), in Speeches of Lord Macaulay with His Minute on Indian Education, selected with an introduction and notes by G. M. Young, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi, The Twice-Born Fiction, New Delhi: Heinemann, 1971.

Naik, M. K., A History of Indian English Literature, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1982.

Naik, M. K., The Ironic Vision: A Study of the Fiction of R. K. Narayan, New Delhi, 1981.

Narayan, R. K., A Horse and Two Goats, New York: Viking, 1970.

Narayan, R. K., My Days, New York: Viking, 1974.

Rao, Raja, ‘Foreword’, Kanthapura, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1989.

Venugopal, C. V., The Indian Short Story in English: A Survey, Bareilly: Prakash Book Depot, 1976.

Walsh, William, R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation, New Delhi: Allied, 1983.

           V M Basheer

Basheer, Vaikom Mohammad, ‘Me grandad ‘ad an elephant!’: Three stories of Muslim Life in South India, trans. R.E. Asher et, al., Edinburgh University of Edinburgh Press, 1980, New Delhi: Penguin India, 1992.

Kumar, Uday, ‘Basheer’s Humble Historian’ in Sharmishtha Panja ed. Many Indias Many Literatures: New Critical Essays, New Delhi, Worldview Publications, 1999.

Ravindran Vanajam ed., Vaikom Mohammad Basheer: Short Stories, New Delhi: Katha, Rupa, 1996.

           SAADAT HASAN MANTO

Alvi, Waris, Saadat Hasan Manto, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1995 [A monograph on Manto in Urdu].

Bhalla, Alok ed., The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1997.

Flemming, Leslie A., Another Lonely Voice: The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Lahore: Vangurd, 1985.

Hasan, Mushirul, India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom, 2 vols, New Delhi: Roli Books, 1985.

Kumar, Sukrita Paul, ‘Literary Modernism and Some Partition stories’, The New Story, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study in association with Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1990.

Mahajan, Sucheta, ‘Freedom and Partition’, Bipin Chandra et al., India’s Struggle for Independence, New Delhi: Viking / Penguin, 1987.

Manto, Saadat Hasan, Dastavez [A Literary Document], ed. Balraj Manra and Sharad Datt, 5 vols, New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1993 [A collection of Manto’s stories, letters and essays in the Devanagari Script].

Manto, Saadat Hasan, Partition: Sketches and Stories, translated and edited, Khalid Hasan, New Delhi: Viking, 1991.

Sharma, K.K. & Johri, B.K., The Partition in Indian-English Novels, Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1984.

Wadhavan, Jagdish Chander, Manto Naama: The Life of Saadat Hasan Manto, trans. Jai Ratan, New Delhi: Roli Books, 1998.

           ISMAT CHUGTAI

Asaduddin, M., Ismat Chughtai: Makers of Indian Literature, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1999.

Chughtai, Ismat, Kaaghazi Hai Pairahan [The Apparel is Paper-Thin], Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1988 [Chughtai’s Autobiography].

Chughtai, Ismat, The Quilt and Other Stories, trans. Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed, Delhi: Kali for Women, 1990.

Chughtai, Ismat. My Friend My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits, trans. Tahira Naqvi, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2001.

Kumar, Sukrita Paul and Sadiq ed., Ismat: The Life and Times of Ismat Chughtai, New Delhi: Katha, 1999.

Panja, Shormishtha ed., Many Indias, Many Literatures: New Critical Essays, New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 1999.

Tharu, Susie & K. Lalita ed., Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present, vol. 2, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993, Introduction and pp. 126-9.

Wadhawan, Jagdish Chandra, Ismat Chughtai: Shaksiyat Aur Fan [Ismat Chughtai: Her Personality and Art], Delhi: Jagdish Chandra Wadhawan, 1996

           AMBAI

Holmstrom, Lakshmi, ‘Introduction’, A Purple Sea, New Delhi: AEWP, 1992

Krishnankutty, Gita, Ambai (Katha Perspective), New Delhi: Katha, 1999.

Lakshmi, C. S., ‘Dealing with Silence, Space and Everyday Life’, in Gita Krishnankutty, Ambai (Katha Perspective), New Delhi: Katha, 1999.

Lakshmi, C. S., ‘Tradition and Modernity of Tamil Women Writers’, Social Scientist (April 1976), pp. 1-38

Lakshmi, C.S., The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature, New Delhi: Vikas, 1984

Mangalam, B. trans. ‘On Wings Unbroken: An Encounter with Ambai’ in Shormishtha Panja, ed., Many Indias, Many Literatures: New Critical Essays, New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 1999

Panja, Shormishtha ed., Many Indias, Many Literatures: New Critical Essays, New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 1999

Samanvitha, Pioneer Women Writers of South India, Bangalore: Department of Women’s Studies, NMKRV College for Women, 1993.

Swaminathan, Venkat, ‘The Written Wrath of the Dispossessed’ in Shormishtha Panja ed., Many Indias, Many Literatures: New Critical Essays, New Delhi: Worldview Publications, 1999

Tharu, Susie and K. Lalita eds., Women Writing in India vol. 2, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.