Khushwant Singh Vasant Anant Shahane - Essay

Vasant Anant Shahane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Khushwant Singh, as a short-story writer, pursues and practices the art of the short story in its early twentieth-century mold and narrative form. His stories reveal a distinct narrative structure and an almost traditional development of the plot which recalls, and approximates, the early phase of the Italian novella or German novellum. Although his stories are not tales in the traditional sense, they exemplify many narrative elements of the tale. Although his stories tend to be episodic in structure and intent, the unfolding of the dominant theme characterizes all of his stories. Episodes seem to be dexterously strung together to make the essential point or to delineate character or bring out the significance of action. Action and episode dominate the stories. This dominant characteristic accounts for their being within the traditional mold and conventional pattern.

Singh's stories derive their structure from the plot which is based on conflict or crisis in character and situation. The development of action in his stories is sequential and is marked by progression in time rather than in space. The stories are episodic in some measure since episodes, or units of action, often seem to dominate other elements in the story such as character, theme, symbol. The action is unfolded in a series of complications which evoke curiosity and create suspense. A conflict in situation and character is created, developed, and resolved through a succession of scenes. The resolution of the conflict brings out the point of the story which is sometimes a surprise, sometimes an unexpected tragicomic outcome or revelation; but it is always a fitting finale to the interesting sequence of events. Khushwant Singh's stories display a linear development in sequence, a geometrical design, the lines advancing in straight, though different, directions only to find the ultimate point of resolution.

His stories and techniques cannot be described as modern because they do not transcend the traditional narrative and episodic structure and enter the arena of modernity either of the "luminous halo" indicated by Virginia Woolf or of segments of space-time polarity. (pp. 32-3)

The definitions or descriptions of the novel as a "dramatic poem" or the short story as a "poetic playlet" are inapplicable to Khushwant Singh's novels and to his short stories primarily because the basic quality of his creative mind is not that of a poet but that of a satirically and comically inclined writer of fiction….

The compression of a maximum of life within a minimum of space, which is an essential element of the modern short story, characterizes Khushwant Singh's stories of social import. He is a humorist and realist in one, and his stories reveal this dual artistic power. (p. 33)

Irony is one of the main characteristics of Singh, and his stories illustrate this quality. (p. 34)

"The Mark of Vishnu" is a strikingly original and significant story, and it has found a place in many anthologies of Indo-Anglian and English stories. Though many anthologists seem to admire "The Mark of Vishnu," I believe it suffers from inherent weaknesses of structure, theme, and symbol. First, the title "The Mark of Vishnu" is overweighted with religious and moral significance for the thin body and narrative content of the story to bear as its symbolic heading; second, the irony arising out of the symbolic significance is partly misconceived. (p. 37)

"The Mark of Vishnu" has a powerful theme and an extraordinarily gripping narrative content; yet the irony, which is the keynote of the story, is not quite brought out…. The ironic meaning emerging from the two levels of meaning of the title is the principal motif of the story. The mark of Vishnu is a symbol of divine preservation, whereas the actual "V" mark, dug by the Kala Nag's fangs, since it is fatally destructive, is the very reversal of the original Hindu symbol. The issue is presented between superstition and reason, popular belief and corporal reality, pagan faith in animal deity, and the sheer aggressive beastliness of the animal world; yet the question remains whether the problem is appropriately presented…. The sheer scientific, biological, bodily reality, of the natural poisonousness of the fangs of the cobra is pitted against the superstitious-cum-religious belief of the Hindus that the cobra is divine…. Ganga Ram's blind devotion to the Kala Nag, as presented by Khushwant Singh, seems a little unconvincing inasmuch as it is an exaggerated portrayal of a perhaps vanishing Hindu tradition and belief. (pp. 38-9)

Khushwant Singh's art of the short story is marked by a preponderant comic spirit which assumes various shapes and forms…. Singh is a skilled craftsman in unmasking the central character in a story; in the process, he is mildly satirical, or farcical or lively and light-hearted. This process operates extensively in Singh's stories, and man's absurdities are constantly exposed and held up to ridicule. (p. 39)

The quality of experience and its presentation in stories such as "My Own My Native Land" are journalistic and reportorial in nature, which develops into a pattern in Singh's fiction. The experience seems to merely touch the surface of life and does not form part either of sensibility or sensation, the two principal strands in modern English and American fiction…. Singh's stories, though masculine in spirit, do not belong to the world of sensation. They contain qualities which are associated with the essays of Addison and Steele, the perceptive comments on social and individual mores, a fine sense of humor, and a not-too-obtrusive moral intention. Though they lack the urbanity and surface graces of Addison's essays, they embody and encompass his delectable satirical art, his liveliness and humor. (pp. 50-1)

In analyzing some of the sociologically and psychologically motivated short stories of Singh, the critic should recognize and interpret the interplay of means and ends…. Sometimes the characteristics of the central figure undergo a change, but this is only a means of creating the total effect, which is the author's ultimate objective. Thus, the interplay between means and ends constitutes a growth which is almost parallel to the development of the story's structure. (p. 53)

Although Khushwant Singh is a pronounced realist, he quite often confronts the supernatural. His treatment of the intangible, inexplicable, and supernatural elements of human experience and its differentiation from the actualities of existence brings out his view of the complexity of life and the danger of oversimplifying it. He portrays characters and situations that are outside the boundaries of the rational and yet seem truer than real-life characters and commonly prevailing situations. (p. 59)

[Singh] does not quite create what may be termed as "formula" stories, though the elements of ideological and structural manipulation in them are unmistakable. Stories such as "The Great Difference" are essentially sociological and, therefore, approximate to the pattern of the formula story. The accepted pattern of the "well-made tale," too, is relevant to stories such as "Rats and Cats in the House of Culture" and "The Constipated Frenchman." The predominant quality of Khushwant Singh as a short-story writer is his comic spirit, informed by the sense of incongruity and by the bewildering phenomena of contradictions in life. Modern man is up against the absurdities that life presents and though the sense of the absurd has in part led to the formulation of the philosophy of existentialism, which has given birth to writers such as Kafka, Singh is not attracted to this philosophical approach. He is primarily preoccupied with the incongruities of life in a lighter vein and with the comic...

(The entire section is 3230 words.)