This collection of 17 short stories, is delightfully translated by Gillian Wright, inspired and aided no doubt by Bhisham Sahni, a master translator himself. The stories are selected by the author, strictly not playing any personal favourites, but tipping his hat to the readers’ favourites instead. So you can expect the most well-known ones like ‘Dinner for the Boss’, ‘Paali’, ‘Sparrow’, ‘Veero’, ‘The Witch’, ‘Before Dying’, ‘Radha-Anuradha’ and ‘Salma Aapa’ and relatively hidden gems like ‘Wang Chu’ and ‘Genesis’.
The very first one, ‘Dinner for the Boss’, a tragi-comic tale of a man’s desperate attempt to please his boss set against his mother’s desperate attempt to please him, leaves you craving for more. You get more than you asked for with ‘Nandlal’s Leela’, the subtle comedy of a nobody trying to work his way through bureaucracy, ‘Mother or Stepmother’ a heartrending tale about the many shades of motherhood, ‘Salma Aapa’, a touching story of letting whimsy run its course and ‘Paali’ on sheer pointlessness of communalism as shown by a lost child being shared between a Hindu and a Muslim family. By the time you reach ‘The Sparrow’, the story of a bereaved widower finding redemption in lunacy, ‘Wang Chu’, a tear-inducing end-of-innocence account of a young Chinese Buddha-devotee and ‘The Witch’, a post-modern fable of household witchcraft, you have been through all the nine emotions or navrasa in equal measures. The only chink in this multifaceted gem of a collection, in my humble opinion, is ‘The Wondrous Bone’ – a fairy tale of greed and salvation. It fails to impress, because Sahni hasn’t had to chance to display his great characterization skills.
Bhisham Sahani, known to most as the writer of ‘Tamas’, a dark epic novel set against the partition, actually considers these short stories as higher achievements than his novels. In his words, “a short story is like lodging in a house one night and moving away the next morning, whereas a novel is like coming into a town where you have to bide for months on end. In a short story, every word must have some eloquence, every utterance some significance.” We can only guess how many painstaking rewrites it took to achieve the water-like flow of his language, as simple, as real and just as refreshing. His characters and tone of voice are no exception. It is surprising how little bitterness or judgment shows through in his stories, even when he talks about the reckless murder of innocence or rank opportunism by Hindu and Muslim upper classes alike. He never has to raise his voice to make his point for his great faith in Middle India and it’s inherent goodness. Because the middle class he has pinned his hopes on is not the kind which just ‘measures out life in coffee spoons’ but the only species with some shreds of humanity left in them. They get beaten black and blue by life, but get up and keep walking with a smile. Because that’s the only way they have ever known.
It saddens to see this species evolving into a cheaper clone of the upper class.