Category Archives: Penguin Viking

Stories on Caste by Premchand. Edited by M. Asaduddin. Translated from the Hindi and Urdu by Various.

Stories on Caste by Premchand

Title: Stories on Caste
Author: Premchand
Edited by M. Asaduddin
Translated from the Hindi and Urdu by Various
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670091447
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Translation
Pages: 168
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

There is no chance that you will read any short-story written by Premchand and not be moved in some manner or the other. To add to that, I started reading his “Stories on Caste” which I knew would show me the stark mirror of reality that exists in our society, even until today. We might like to believe that the caste system has been done with, but we are so wrong. It exists and how. And not just in small towns and villages, but also in cities. When we normalize abuses referring to caste; when we overlook perhaps even the smallest occurrences of caste differences at home – that’s precisely when we need to be aware and look at what is happening around us.

Premchand’s stories aren’t extraordinary. Not the writing style to a large extent. However, what makes them extraordinary are the circumstances – the acute sense of observation and transferring those experiences to words. It is unfortunate and very sad that he had to write from life. At the same time, Premchand’s stories are not all without hope. There are some that bring some amount of wit, cunning and not-all-is-lost sense of things to the table. For instance, in “The Lashes of Good Fortune”, an orphan makes something of his life when he runs away from his oppressive master and returns to a different village altogether and a different life. The book begins though with a punch-in-your-face story “Thakur’s Well” (Thakur ka Kuan) – where a woman has to slyly try and get clean water for her ailing husband and that too from the Thakur’s well.

I think Premchand was perhaps one of the only writers then who depicted the lives of the underdog so to say with such empathy and nuance. The oppressors and oppression did not limit themselves – they came in various forms in his stories. For instance in “One and a Quarter Ser of Wheat ” (Sawa Ser Gehun), a poor farmer doesn’t even know what he has done to his generations to come, just by borrowing sawa ser gehun from the local landlord. Premchand never shied away from telling it the way it was (that quality to a very large extent, I have found in most regional writers’ works. The stark reality is always shown to the reader, no matter what).

At the same time, what I found very interesting about his stories was that the oppressors were found whether sarcastically or not shown to be oscillating between doing the right thing and what their “dharma” asked of them to do. In “Salvation” (Sadgati), poor Dukhi dies a meaningless death, trying to work on something so senseless because he doesn’t want to offend a Brahmin priest. And yet, ironically enough there are times in the story when the priest and his wife get sentimental about Dukhi and yet do nothing to show any emotion because they aren’t supposed to as they are of a higher caste. This inner battle of what to do and what is ultimately done continues to be seen in almost all of these stories in this collection. Of course, Premchand explores guilt in every form – but redemption is something rare.

Premchand’s stories may seem clear and straightforward and yet the layers to each of them are that of a wider scale and thought. Might I also add that nothing gets lost in translation in these stories. I was told by plenty of people on social media to read them in Hindi but I chose to read in English only because it moves faster for me. Having said that, none of the nuances of Hindi or Urdu (3 have been translated from the Urdu) have been lost. I had read some of these stories in Hindi earlier so I am aware (well superficially though) that the translators (there are about twelve to thirteen that have worked on these stories – sometimes individually, others collectively) have been true to their craft, because the emotion hits you real hard, no matter the language.

“Stories on Caste” is one of the five collection of Premchand’s stories published by Penguin India. The remaining four are on: Women, Village, City and Animals. Each I am sure unique in their own way. I for one can’t wait to start reading the others.

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Last Stories by William Trevor

Last Stories Title: Last Stories
Author: William Trevor
Publisher: Viking, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241337769
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Of all that I have read of William Trevor’s work, one thing is certain: There is a sense of magic to his prose. His sentences take you by the hand, lead you on (you give in quite readily as well) and for sure you will never be disappointed. As a reader, you will be at a loss, because you loved every story and that hasn’t happened in a while with a short-story collection. You then realize that you after all read Trevor and make a promise to reread the collection and you do. Nothing sweeter than to honour this kind of a promise.

I am obviously referring to Trevor’s last collection of stories, posthumously published and aptly titled “Last Stories” (though I think to some extent that was very lazy). “Last Stories” is a collection of stories that is mysterious, enigmatic, sparse and yet spot on – the pace of the prose is languid and easy and somehow has the potential to draw you right into it.

Now to the stories. Trevor wrote of common men and women – those who are lost and are struggling to come to terms with life. I think after Alice Munro, Trevor is hands down my second favourite short-story writer. Every story that I have read by him has left a mark on my mind, heart and life.

All through the book what tugged at my heart is loneliness and longing that is consistent in almost every story. “Mrs Crasthorpe” is about a middle-aged widow who is only seeking companionship, only to be rebuffed later on in the story by a widower. It definitely broke my heart and that too with luscious prose at its center. And then there is “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” which is perhaps the most cheerful story of the collection. Miss Nightingale is the protagonist of this story who has known a bit about disappointment in her life, who in her fifties is almost reminiscing about her sixteen-year-old affair with a married man. Like I said, loneliness and longing are at the heart of every story in this collection and Trevor doesn’t let you forget that.

In “At the Caffe Daria” a wife whose husband left her for her best friend, renews her relationship with friend, after the husband’s death. And then there is “The Unknown Girl” featuring Emily, a housecleaner who commits suicide after speaking of love to the son of the house. William Trevor knows the harshness of the real world and yet somehow his characters never let go of some hope, in whatever way and manner, even in death so to say.

His stories spell disaster, confusion and loss of innocence (if there was any) for his characters. They grow-up but perhaps a little later. Or they also grow-up a little sooner than expected. Life is unfair and unkind to them and yet they are survivors all along. “Last Stories” will remind you of his genius and make you wonder why he had to leave us so soon. A beauty of a book.

 

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

Whistle in the Dark Title: Whistle in the Dark
Author: Emma Healey
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0241327623
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I read “Elizabeth Is Missing” some time ago and loved it. Having read that, I had very high expectations from “Whistle in the Dark” and thankfully it did not disappoint at all.

Jen and Hugh are a fairly ordinary couple – middle aged, middle class and not with too many aspirations, or so it seems. Their eldest daughter, Meg has left home. The younger one, Lana lives with them and is a recluse, like most teenagers, are meant to be. At the heart of it though, Lana is a troubled young girl, who is undergoing therapy and has tried to harm herself. Jen wants the closeness back with her daughter, so she takes her for a painting holiday to Peak District. Lana disappears for four whole days and is discovered, well and bruised and shaken, but alive.

Lana will not speak with her parents about it, no matter what. She says she doesn’t recall anything but Jen refuses to believe that. She is devastated by the loss of her daughter and relieved when they find her, but she can’t place her head around Lana’s inability to tell them what happened. Jen starts recreating in her head what could have happened, getting paranoid like any mother would, speaking to Lana’s friends, checking her social media accounts for traces and trying to scrutinize her memories of the trip. All of this is happening and Meg is being ignored, feeling left out.

“Whistle in the Dark” is about parents and children and the complex relationship they share. It is about loss, grieving and wondering what will happen when children will leave the nest and fly in the open sky. I loved the writing. It is frighteningly real, sharp, life-like and almost presents both sides of the story. Even though I am not a parent, somehow I could relate to Jen more than Lana. It was almost as if her pain and determination to protect her children, became immensely real.

“Whistle in the Dark” is a book that makes you think of the social dynamics of our times and what perhaps love is all about, parental love more than anything else. A read that is relevant, empathetic, and profound.

Days without End by Sebastian Barry

Title: Days without End
Author: Sebastian Barry
Publisher: Viking, Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780525427360
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The more I think about “Days without End” by Sebastian Barry, the more I feel that I just must go back and reread it. This book is poetic to the point of it being heartbreaking and yet you can look at it objectively but not for long – because you will be swept away in this epic tale of the Wild West (and mind you, I don’t like these Wild West tales at all) that has such beauty about it even in the dark times that surround it – given the war with the Indians in the 1850s, soon followed by the Civil War.

Sebastian Barry’s characters are as human as they can get and there is no good or bad to it. You cannot pick sides and that’s the nature of war and love. Barry’s writing doesn’t come with layers of prose. He makes you see life, and not tell you anything. The show vs. tell craft is superlatively used in all his books (this being the 3rd that I read by him and can’t wait to gobble the rest). At the same time, there is this sense of stillness to his books – like a river flowing in the background whose gurgle you get used to till it is flooded – his writing is pretty much like that.

Thomas McNulty is seventeen years old and has fled famine in Ireland to come to the United States of America. He meets another orphan on the road, John Cole and they initially dress as women for 50 cents a dance to keep themselves from starvation. They head to the West, fighting the Indian wars, come back to civilian life, back in uniform for the Civil War. What will surprise you is how they build a family (I will not give away that part of the story) so for that you have to read the book.

This is the kind of book that makes you believe that love transcends all barriers – gender mostly and is pure. It doesn’t need validation and never has. It is not even a gay love story. It is just about love and that is enough. The sentences are mostly short but shine so much so that you would have to keep the book down and ruminate on each scenario and word that Sebastian Barry throws at you. His prose is short and subtle – painting the landscape with language as he goes along. The characters – even the minor ones like the Sergeant and the Major are well-etched. Some you love and some you hate.

“Days without End” is the kind of book that you will reread. You will do that because of the story, the setting and the emotions it will evoke inside of you. Might I also add that it isn’t for everyone – the writing has to grow on you but once it does, it is very difficult to let go of. A read not to be missed if you love the quiet life with some turmoil thrown in.

365 Stories: Day 6: The Black Dog by Ruskin Bond

death-under-the-deodars

Ruskin Bond’s stories warm and fuzzy. They are the kind of stories that are meant to snuggle you in bed and put you to sleep – once again dreaming of them. He is a master of his craft and every time I think I need to go back to the familiar, I can depend on his stories.

“The Black Dog” was a story I read yesterday as part of my 365 stories of 2017 and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is about Bond and his experience with a black dog as he travels one night to attend a party in the 70s in Mussoorie where he resides. The story is scenic (as it should be) and you will not get bored even once. It is short and to the point and will leave you wanting more. The story is from the collection “Death under the Deodars”. I still have to read the others and will soon get to them.