South Asian Short Fiction Analysis

Expatriate South Asians

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Other writers left the subcontinent, some for political reasons or for professional advancement, others because, as Salman Rushdie notes in his introduction to Mirrorwork: Fifty Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 (1997), many of them are wanderers by nature. Among those who took up residence in the United States were Anjana Appachana, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Bharati Mukherjee, and Padma Perera. Rohinton Mistry moved to Canada, while Attia Hosain and Salman Rushdie settled in England. Some had more than one home. Anita Desai divided her time between England and the United States; Vikram Chandra lived both in Washington, D.C., and his native Bombay; and after 1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and her husband were commuting between New York and New Delhi.

As Rushdie points out, if one applied a residence test to writers, Ernest Hemingway and Henry James might not be considered American; Graham Greene, English; or James Joyce, Irish. The writers discussed in this essay are classified as South Asians because they all draw upon their experience of the Indian subcontinent for the characters, settings, and themes of their short fiction.

Shashi Tharoor and Jhumpa Lahiri

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Given the broad definition above, a writer does not necessarily have to be a native of the subcontinent to be classified as a South Asian writer. For example, Shashi Tharoor was born in London, though he grew up in Bombay and Calcutta. Although his work for the United Nations has taken him all over the world, Tharoor’s fiction reflects the experiences of his formative years.

Jhumpa Lahiri was also born in London, but she grew up in Rhode Island, seeing India only when her parents took her on visits to see her extended family. Although her parents always referred to India as “home,” she has said that she felt like an outsider there fully as much as she did in the American small town where she lived. Lahiri’s awareness of her cultural history, her perspective on the immigrant experience, and her preoccupation with alienation all justify her inclusion in this essay.

Robbie Clipper Sethi and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Robbie Clipper Sethi and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are not South Asian by blood, but both are considered South Asian writers. Robbie Clipper Sethi is an American, reared in New Jersey, Indiana, and California, who met and married a Punjabi Sikh and at the time she published her first book was teaching in New Jersey. In The Bride Wore Red: Tales of a Cross-Cultural Family (1996), Sethi described three marriages, all between American women and South Asian men. However, one of the strengths of Sethi’s book is her empathy with all her characters, not only the men, who by choosing their own wives defy their culture, but also their parents, who feel the loss of their ties to cultural tradition as well as their future as a family.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, too, is South Asian neither by birth nor by blood, but she is included in every list of major Indian fiction writers. Born in Germany to Jewish-Polish parents, then reared and educated in England, Jhabvala moved to India only after her marriage to an Indian architect in 1951. In “Introduction: Myself in India,” which prefaces her volume Out of India (1986), Jhabvala insists that every year she is becoming less Indian. Nevertheless, India has so strong a claim on her that periodically she must leave if she is not to be swallowed up by it. Like Sethi, Jhabvala understands cross-cultural conflicts; like Lahiri, she understands alienation. However, while she is capable of empathy, Jhabvala distances herself from her subject more than either of them do and probably more than any other Indian writer. Her voice is one of the most distinctive in South Asian fiction.

One Subcontinent, Many Languages

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though Partition drove vast numbers of people to areas dominated by those of their faith, it did little to alter one of the basic characteristics of the subcontinent: its cultural and linguistic diversity. As A. K. Ramanujan points out in his introduction to Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Tales from Twenty-two Languages (1991), the people of India alone speak one hundred different languages and sixteen hundred distinct dialects. In addition to Sanskrit, the language of ancient written texts, and English, which is read and spoken throughout the entire subcontinent, India has fifteen “major” vernacular languages, each of which is used by several million Indians. One of the most difficult decisions each South Asian writer must make is whether to write in one of the local languages or in English, which is familiar throughout the subcontinent.

The Argument for Writing in English

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

When India became independent from Great Britain, many nationalists felt that English was too tainted by colonialism to be appropriate for discourse, let alone for literary purposes. However, Salman Rushdie argues that, like Urdu, which came to India with earlier conquerors, the English used in the subcontinent should now be considered just another South Asian language.

Authors who write in English, Rushdie insists, are no less “Indian” in voice and perspective than those who utilize one of the native languages. Furthermore, if they are to reach a broad audience, works written in the vernacular must be translated into English, often suffering in the process. Rushdie contends that since independence the best works the subcontinent has produced have been written in English.

The Argument for the Vernacular

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Aditya Behl and David Nicholls, editors of The Penguin New Writing in India (1994), disagree with Rushdie’s assessment. They point out that, even if English-language authors produce some international bestsellers, their works are not necessarily better than those written in native languages. Behl and Nicholls offer the selections in their anthology as proof of the high quality of vernacular works and as evidence that any distrust of South Asian translators is unfounded. They are also convinced that, in an area where there are so many different cultures, only through vernacular literature can each of them be appreciated, understood, and perhaps even preserved.

A writer’s decision about language is much more than a choice between nationalism, on one hand, or the hope of an international blockbuster, on the other. One of India’s most respected playwrights and fiction writers, Mrinal Pande, was for many years a college English teacher, but she also served as editor of Hindi periodicals. She began writing in Hindi in order to reach more people and specifically more women. However, Pande changed to English for her short-story sequence, Daughter’s Daughter (1993), so that she could distance herself from her autobiographical subject matter and even access lost memories from her past.

South Asian Writers and Genre

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Though the short-fiction writers of the Indian subcontinent may be faced with more complex language issues than those in other parts of the world, they have the same problems when it comes to getting their works published. South Asian writers are only too aware of the facts. Most short stories are still published in periodicals; a few make it into anthologies, however, most publishers are hesitant to take a chance on a book-length collection of short fiction until an author has become established as a novelist.

Thus Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Bharati Mukherjee, Salman Rushdie, and Vikram Chandra all published one or more successful novels before bringing out collections of short stories. Similarly, it was not until after the success of two novels, The Great Indian Novel (1989) and Show Business (1991), that Shashi Tharoor’s early short fiction was accepted for publication. Although Tharoor warns readers that these stories were written when he was a relatively inexperienced writer and were designed for mass-circulation Indian magazines, reviewers found much to admire in The Five-Dollar Smile: Fourteen Early Stories and a Farce in Two Acts (1990; reissued in 1993 as The Five-Dollar Smile and Other Stories).

Sometimes, if a writer’s long fiction captures the public’s interest, critics will seek out earlier collections of short fiction by that writer. When Attia Hosain’s novel Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) was reissued in 1988, it almost immediately became the subject of scholarly studies. However, at least one reviewer pointed out the virtues of another volume by Hosain, which was reissued at the same time. Phoenix Fled (1953) was a collection of stories which originally appeared in Indian newspapers, and a good case can be made for its being superior to Sunlight on a Broken Column. Nevertheless, the scholarly community continued to focus almost exclusively on Hosain’s novel, neglecting her fine short fiction.

Fiction Genres and the American Market

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Because the American publishing industry found long fiction to be more marketable than short fiction, for a long time book-length collections by many of South Asia’s finest short-story writers were unavailable in most American bookstores or even in many libraries. Krishna Baldev Vaid and the noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray, for example, were admired in India for their collections of beautifully crafted short fiction, but in the United States, one would have to look for their short stories either in anthologies or in an occasional issue of the Chicago Review.

This bias in favor of the novel meant that anyone who wrote long fiction as well as short was almost certain to be introduced to American readers as a novelist. The award-winning author Shashi Deshpande, for example, had published five collections of short stories in India, as well as several novels, before any of her fiction became available in the United States. Significantly, the work that was selected for her American debut was a novel, A Matter of Time (1999). As the twenty-first century began, American readers still had to depend on anthologies for examples of her short fiction.

Unlike Deshpande, many writers are comfortable only in one genre. For example, Anita Desai chose the novel form not because it was easier to market but because she did not really like writing short stories. Even though critics found much to admire in her collection Games at Twilight and Other Stories (1978), thereafter Desai published no more volumes of short fiction but turned her attention exclusively to the novel. She explained her reasons in an interview in Literary India (1995): Shorter forms, she said, such as poems and short stories, made her feel pressured, while the novel gave her ample time to develop her ideas and enough scope to explore all their complexities.

New Hope for Short Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Late in the twentieth century, however, there seemed to be increased interest in short fiction. Critics were looking more closely at the genre. For example, Bharati Mukherjee had long been admired both for her novels and for her nonfiction publications, but it was her collection The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) that brought her the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction. Anjana Appachana, too, was gaining an international reputation on the basis of her short fiction. After winning the O. Henry Award in 1989 for a short story entitled “Her Mother,” Appachana won high praise from the critics for her first book, Incantations and Other Stories (1991).

Now it was not just the novels of a few famous South Asian writers that were featured in bookstores; their short-story collections were also popular, and there was a marked proliferation of books by lesser-known writers. By the spring of 2000, one would have no difficulty buying paperback editions of Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories; Jhabvala’s Out of India and her East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi (1998); Salman Rushdie’s East, West: Stories (1994); Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay (1997); and a number of R. K. Narayan’s volumes, including The Grandmother’s Tale and Selected Stories (1994).

Paperback Originals and a Pulitzer Prize

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

During the 1990’s, some members of the publishing industry noticed that sales of short-story collections were increasing. They could only hypothesize about the cause. Perhaps the new young writers in the academic workshops were writing more short stories or more polished stories; perhaps they were submitting them in book form because there were fewer magazines in which their works could be placed. In any case, the publisher Houghton Mifflin decided to try an experiment. They would issue short-story collections by new or relatively unknown writers as paperback originals, reasoning that their customers would be more willing to take a chance on less expensive books. One of the collections selected by Houghton Mifflin for this experiment was Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The volume appeared in 1999 as a Mariner Original; in 2000, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

As Interpreter of Maladies went into a second printing, Lahiri recalled the comment of an agent who had rejected it, suggesting that she come back when she had a novel, and a warning from the agent who did accept the book to the effect that short fiction did not sell well. According to conventional wisdom, both agents were right. Since Interpreter of Maladies was Lahiri’s first book, she was not assured the audience that an earlier novel might have provided. Its success was clearly due to her very real talent. However, those who enjoy reading and writing short fiction hoped that it might also signal the arrival of a long-overdue renascence for short fiction.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Behl, Aditya, and David Nicholls, eds. The Penguin New Writing in India. London: Penguin, 1995. Originally published as a special issue of the Chicago Review, this useful anthology is made up primarily of works translated from a dozen different languages. Many of the writers will be new to English-speaking readers.

Gupta, R. K. “Trends in Modern Indian Fiction.” World Literature Today 68 (Spring, 1994): 299-307. The author identifies six major themes in contemporary Indian fiction. Although he sometimes finds the writers’ thinking simplistic, Gupta praises their technical skill and their “boundless creative...

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