The Short Stories

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.