Category Archives: short stories

Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India by Mark Tully

Upcountry Tales Title: Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India
Author: Mark Tully
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386582690
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I think writing short stories is the most difficult thing to do. To encapsulate everything, you have to say in a short story isn’t easy. And maybe that’s the reason I admire people who write short stories. Mark Tully returns to the terrain of fiction after a while with his short story collection “Upcountry Tales: Once Upon a Time in the Heart of India”. His last work of fiction, “The Heart of India” was published in 1995 and the only one at that So he has written fiction after 22 years and let me tell you, it doesn’t seem that way at all.

The stories in this collection are set in villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh during the second half of the 1980s (so you will not find technology intruding in any of them and thank God for that). These stories are of common people (a teacher in The Reluctant Lover)– some you might encounter but not give a second glance or time of day. At the same time, these very people come alive in Mr. Tully’s stories – they aren’t in the background – they come to the fore and that’s what I loved about these stories.

There are rebels, pragmatists, bumblers, quiet heroes as well – all finding a way to deal with social hierarchies and the government forces around them. You relate to so much as you read. Mark Tully’s India isn’t quite what you or I imagine to be – maybe because we don’t know the real India so to say, so sometimes the terrain is rather surprising (or should I say shocking) but having said that, you get used to its flora and fauna and above all, its people.

The book is of stories that are serious, that are light-hearted and are also tragic. You meet heroes and heroines who have battled in their ways and manner against corruption and red-tapeism. Mark Tully does a wonderful job of painting these stories against a canvas of a wide-range of topics – from class to race differences to the rules of a patriarchal society (The Ploughman’s Lament) and that to me was something else while reading this book. He also goes on to admit in the introduction that only two of the stories are based on real characters (which had to happen given his knowledge and experience on a first-hand basis with India), while the rest are fictional.

“Upcountry Tales” is a book full of warmth and of an India that we need to know. Time doesn’t matter then – whether the stories are set in the 80s or not (that’s barely anything to go by in my opinion), what matters is the people – people who when push comes to shove, will make their presence felt.

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Interview with Chhimi Tenduf-La: Author of “Loyal Stalkers”.

So I had just finished reading “Loyal Stalkers” and had a few questions in my mind for the author. I was lucky enough to have been in touch with him on mail, so I could conduct this interview through the web. Chhimi Tenduf-La is a world citizen in the true sense. His stories are of ordinary people and yet seem so extraordinary that they cut across territories of geography, mind and emotions. A collection that I loved reading and truly cherished.

final cover

Here is a short interview:

What made you write a collection of short-stories, after two novels?

I started a couple of stories in Loyal Stalkers as novels, but I felt they were better left with some things unsaid, whereas if I fleshed them out they would have lost their subtlety. When I found I could connect them I knew I could advance an over-riding story through a number of different characters and plots. This was enormously enjoyable and allowed for much more freedom. When writing a novel I may think of a character I want to write about but cannot fit him into the plot. With a collection I could just write a new story for him.

Your characters aren’t redeemed easily. Why so? Why is there a constancy in not letting them see the light of day?

I guess I had not thought about this much, until you asked this excellent question, but one of my pet hates is people acting with impunity because they know they will not be punished whatever they do. Here in Sri Lanka money and connections can get you off most things and that annoys me. As you point out, all my characters, although they have redeeming features, pay for the crimes they commit.

Chhimi book 3

I am intrigued by the title. How did you choose that for the story (a little obvious, yes) but then why stick to this for the entire collection?

I feel this whole book could have been written by a nosey aunty obsessed with what her neighbours are doing. I think it is indicative of society here that people are more concerned with other people’s lives than their own. Most of the stories have some stalking theme; the maid obsessed with her boss, the abusive relationship, the loyal dog following his special needs friend. I wanted the title to be creepy, but also reflect Colombo society in some ways; everyone is invested in each other’s lives, they can be a little annoying, but yet there is that closeness and that feeling that there is always someone nearby to help you when in need.

You’ve been a citizen of the world and yet this collection restricts itself to Sri Lanka. Why so? Why not give the characters space to see the world?

As I found my feet as an author I felt safest writing about what I know best. I have been here so long I have forgotten what it is like to live elsewhere. Yet now you have said it I do want to explore what some of my characters would be like living in another country. How much would it change them? Thanks for the idea!

Your top 5 favourite books and why?

I have limited this to books I have read recently.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared 
by Jonas Jonasson 

Comedy in literature is hard to balance. Endearingly silly, or annoyingly farcical. Jonasson gets it just right in this inspiring tale about Allan Karlson who goes on the run to avoid celebrating his 100th birthday. As he does so, we travel back through a hilarious twentieth century history lesson, in which Karlson mingles with great leaders and tyrants; at one point he convinces Stalin to shave off his moustache, and he regularly has a young Kim Jong Il sitting on his lap. Genius.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Great movie, greater book. The prose, slick and punchy, suck you in, slap you back and forth and churn you out. With great twists, cool dialog, and an abundance of quotable lines, Palahniuk tells an extraordinarily original story with awesome ease.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika

It is more than a novel about cricket; it is Sri Lankan modern history through the eyes of an alcoholic. It is recognition of the tragedies, often self-inflicted, that tore at Sri Lanka’s core. It is a detective story, a mystery, a thriller, the search for a genius Tamil cricketer whose name and records have all but been wiped out of Sri Lankan history.

The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War 
by Rohini Mohan

A 368 page lesson about Sri Lanka’s civil war. In fact, this is the definitive lesson about any war; about child soldiers, mistrust, disappearances and lies. This book reads like a novel, whereas it is fact. Rohini Mohan messes with your emotions; she humanises people we thought were monsters. She makes you root for them, understand them, believe them.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I had to pluck up the courage to read this a second time because it is an incredibly disturbing book for a parent to read – but it was all worth it. Munaweera’s writing is brilliantly fluid, emotive and captivating and personally I felt this was an even better book that her prize-winning Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

Chhimi 9

Was writing “Loyal Stalkers” a cathartic experience? Did you live some of these stories yourself or through someone else?

I find all writing to be cathartic and relaxing. But yes, Loyal Stalkers touched on a number of issues that all of us in Sri Lanka should be more aware of. Since writing it I have become more sensitive to others affected by these issues, be it a friend battling homophobia or a maid not getting enough credit for the work she does.

Chhimi as a writer…

I write purely for enjoyment at the moment. I have never felt pressured into it or had writer’s block; maybe I require both to improve as a writer. I have a fairly wild imagination so this is an outlet for it. I write two hours a day, but nothing on weekends and I read back my work hundreds of times to try to see if it flows. Once it is printed I hate looking at my writing because it is too late to change anything I don’t like. I try to be snappy, hip, humorous and sensitive as a writer but probably fail in all regards. My story-telling is more inspired by movies than by books, for some reason, maybe because I don’t want to write like anyone else (not that I could).

How important do you think it is for the short-story form to be recognized in India and why do people prefer the novel over the story?

I was told by a UK based publisher that the issue they have with short story collections is that it is very hard to get the leading lit critics to review them, unless the writer is very well known. If a book does not get reviewed, book shops are reluctant to sell it. Maybe the problem with short stories is that readers may love one, but lose momentum if they don’t quite dig the next one. It is a lot of stopping and starting I guess, whereas with a novel you have invested in the characters already and so each time you pick up the book you’re not taking a blind leap of faith. This is why I have tried to link the stories in Loyal Stalkers, and have the characters popping in and out of each other’s lives. I love reading short stories myself because they are standalones; I can read one each night and if I don’t like one I have not wasted too much time on it. In some ways short stories are more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily bookworms and thus they are important to India if they can get more people to read. They can also get more people to write; almost anyone can sit down and write a short story, whereas a novel requires a different level of commitment and craft. With such rich culture and tradition, as well as the complexities of class I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of people in India who could write an important short story.

Chhimi 4

Your 5 favourite short-story writers

I’m inspired by R K Nayaran,  Alejandro Zambra and Raymond Carver. To understand how to appeal to a large audience, Jeffrey Archer. Of current South Asian writers Prajwal Parajuly, Sandip Roy and Ashok Ferrey. (I know this is 8 and not 5, sorry).

What are you working on next?

I have taken a break because I am not entirely sure in what direction I want to go. A novel, a collection, a movie? Maybe I will focus on writing more articles for a while. I have had many false starts with writing because I jump into new projects too fast, so now I am trying to be patient and I hope a killer idea for a novel will start growing on me.

A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry by Grace Paley. Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley.

A Grace Paley Reader Title: A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry
Author: Grace Paley
Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley
Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN:978-0374165826
Genre: Anthology
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Grace Paley is one of those writers for which you to devote a lot of time and mind space. The reason I say this: the narrators and characters of her stories will not leave you. Her essays will haunt you long after you have finished reading them. Her verse will stay, whether you like it or not. To me, she is one of the finest I have read this year (I have of course read her works earlier as well – but scattered). I think this book also is the definite collection if you need an introduction to her work, before you move on to other books by her.

“A Grace Paley Reader” has a lot of omissions from her earlier works, but I guess as an editor they have to choose what to put and what to remove. Nonetheless, to me the span of her work mattered and this anthology touched on almost every genre in which she wrote. My favourite essays though are “A Midrash on Happiness” and also “Other People’s Children” which are very unsettling and yet so comforting – the paradox is hard to explain.

But then the sort of writer Grace Paley was, it is just very difficult to ignore her as a reader. “A Conversation with my Father” will tear you up in no time and you would wonder if a short story can do that, as it already has. Her economy of words, and at the same time the effortlessness of her prose keeps you stunned. Paley was also a feminist and that is reflective in her poems such as “Anti-Love Poem” or “Is There a Difference Between Men and Women” and my personal favourite “Letter to my Daughter”. She can do anything if you ask me and does in most of her work.

The introduction by George Saunders sums up her work beautifully in this one sentence: “Grace Paley will live in the minds of the readers she has moved, and in the minds of those she will yet move”. Need I say more after this?

 

Immoderate Men: Stories by Shikhandin

Immoderate Men Title: Immoderate Men: Stories
Author: Shikhandin
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9385755965
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 200
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Short stories intrigue me. Something about them that leads me to them almost quite often, mostly between the novels that I read. After “Men without Women”, here is another collection on the lives of men titled “Immoderate Men” spanning across 1 1 stories – telling tales of various men and their lives which are sometimes made easy and sometimes not. These stories are about circumstances that surround us – ones that can be fought and changed and some that cannot. They are about the human mind and the human heart and the workings which are unknown to man, no matter how hard he tries to understand them.

The stories sometimes in this collection are wistful and sometimes profound, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes just a matter of fact. In short, there is almost everything for everyone to put it quite loosely. The stories are heartwarming and also sometimes quite cruel. They question what society lays out for us and sometimes they are merely spectators. From a grandfather who sits on a park bench contemplating the beauty of his daughter-in-law and the son who abandoned them to Manish discovering something not so savory about his wife to six friends talking about everything in a café, till things take a turn of their own – these stories are visceral, vivid and completely unexpected.

Shikandin’s writing is taut and doesn’t waste any time with the scenery or the weather. There is however a lot of atmosphere that seeps in to the book without the reader knowing about it – sometimes took me by surprise as well. There is a structure to the stories and there are times when Shikhandin breaks it mercilessly, leaving the reader lost and confused. The stories take you back and forth – make you see lives differently, you will also find some similarities between these men’s lives and yours and sometimes you will be thankful that your lives are so different.

Men without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Title: Men Without Women: Stories
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780451494627
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

When Murakami writes, you sit up and take notice. It happens to me every single time I pick up his books – he shocks me out of my existence, and takes me to a world of missing cats or women, jazz, elephants even, books – more so noir ones, and places where one loses their soul and don’t know how to get it back. His world is weird but I must also admit that it is pretty close to the one in which we live – only we don’t see it that clearly, whereas he has managed to and that’s why has the capacity to sweep us off our feet, every single time.

The same anticipation and excitement made me start his latest collection of stories (this means there is a novel coming up in 2018) “Men without Women” (inspired by Hemingway and thank God that’s where the inspiration ends). Well, let me be honest – as much as I love and adore Murakami’s writing, I wasn’t impressed initially. They all seemed to be the same kind of stories I had read in the past – about jazz, cats, women leaving men, etc. I thought it was the same but I was gladly mistaken when that perception changed as I finished the fourth story.

“What changed?” you might ask. Well, I think after the fourth story, at least to me, his stories made sense like they never had. The loneliness existed (but obviously) in each of them and there was this sense of ennui as well that loomed large, but there was something else that kept gnawing at me – something that I just cannot define. Was it my mid-life crisis (I just turned 34) that I saw being manifested in these stories? At some point, was it the realization of being lonely and perhaps abandoned by someone I love? What was it, that kept tugging at my heart relentlessly? Trust me, I tried very hard to find the answer within the pages of this collection of 7 stories (out of which I love four) that are vintage Murakami – and so be it if he has to write the way he does every single time, as long as people’s hearts and souls can relate to his written word.

Murakami’s characters are mysterious, enigmatic, call them what you might but they are just human – like you and I. The only difference is that their vulnerabilities are to be peeled – layer by layer – they don’t show it. So it could be Kino right out of a bad marriage, who opens a bar and emerges himself in it, only to understand his purpose. Or for that matter it could be the story of a successful plastic surgeon who hopelessly falls in love with a married woman (with whom and many others he has a clockwork arrangement of meeting and fucking and nothing else) and is doomed because he cannot have her. Murakami’s characters and his worlds are hidden and yet once in a while you get some glimpses of it to help you navigate through the writing, which to me is superlative.

The story that stood out most particularly for me was “Samsa in Love” – a tribute to Kafka, where Gregor Samsa woke up to find that he is human (loved the irony there) and how there is some sort of dystopian world at large outside his house, which he is unaware of, till a lady who deals with making locks makes him aware of it. This is Prague by the way – one of the few times I have read a Murakami story set outside of Japan. The pace at which this story moved – extremely fast and at the same time, leaves you with this unsettling feeling. I think most of his stories do that. They jolt you from your reverie and you don’t even realize that it has happened long after till you mull over it.

A lot of people have also criticized this collection by calling it sexist. Have they even read this collection of stories? To my mind, there is nothing sexist about it – it is if anything about empowered women who know better than men – a lot better if you ask me. They are not vague about their decision-making, nor are they women who need men – in fact it is the other way around – in all these 7 stories it is the men who want women so badly, that they might just do anything to have them in their lives. The translation by Philip Gabriel (who to my mind has translated most of Murakami’s works) and Ted Goossen shines – you can sense everything that Murakami might want to say (maybe I felt it because I have read a lot of his work?) and nothing seems to be lost to the reader.

From a recently widowed actor in the story “Drive My Car” to a teenager who has no ambition whatsoever and wants his girlfriend to date other men in “Yesterday”, Murakami’s men are there everywhere. Some of them lead lives that are content. Some that aren’t. Some who glide through life not wanting to upset the order of things and some who will challenge everything laid out for them. But they are around for sure. We just need to see them with the right set of eyes.