Short Stories (introduction)

To write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.

-Susan Sontag

Hello and welcome!

Like most lovers of fiction, I grew up on a diet of stories. Short stories. They were coinage when I was young. Finish the glass of milk and you’ll get a story. Try not to fail in Arithmetic and, who knows, you might get a book of stories. The barter system worked mainly because there were some great story tellers in the family. For instance, my favourite maternal uncle worshipped the Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock, and honed the art of building suspense by trying it out on my tender imagination. He went on to conjure award winning advertising campaigns – and left me with a lifelong addiction for chills and goose bumps.

Another relative, an aunt from my father’s side, was widowed at fourteen and parceled back to her paternal home – Return to Sender. Her life, I realize now, could not have been about anything other than a mean struggle: to acquire an education, find a job, sustain herself without being a burden on anyone. I have never dared to ask what it meant for her to live such a life. All I remember are the bed time stories with which she entertained us during the summer nights in the courtyard. Tales replete with princesses who were always beautiful but never perfect; kings who wielded the power of life and death, but overlooked the fact that they, too, were mortal; sages who knew all that there was to know at that time, but forgot that a human cannot, can never, know Everything. And then there were the ordinary souls who peopled her storyworld: the peasant who was always simple but poor, his wife who was always smarter than he, his son who was a no-good, his daughter who was not so pretty – my aunt was very plain – but sweet-tempered, kind-hearted, intelligent, industrious and usually the heroine of the tale. Where did these stories come from? She didn’t dream them up because the plots were too precise for that. However, she did fiddle a bit with characterization, particularly the dialogue, to drive home a point or two about laziness, respect for elders, humility and other virtues.

The third storyteller was another aunt, even older, a great-aunt. A woman of haunting beauty, diminutive, demure, who always spoke very softly, but kept the keys to the kitchen store and the family strong box firmly clipped to her waistband. She’d measure out the spices, the grain and the ghee to the last milligram, but she was generous with the stories she read and shared. What did she read? The house this aunt lived in had once belonged to a English family who, driven bankrupt, had sold it for a song just after Independence. Apart from some cutlery, crockery and furniture they had left behind a wonderful century-old library of books in which weighty leather bound volumes of the history of the French Revolution cohabited in flagrante delicto with a lurid collection of penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and paperback detective fiction. The great aunt loved Agatha Christie: I recall hearing a story titled SOS which was about how a stranger walks in, after his car breaks down, to a strange candle-lit family meal in a house deep in the countryside. Years later, when I read the story, in the collection The Hound of Death, I felt a bit let down. Compared to the story I’d heard, the written version seemed diminished. Where was the atmosphere? Another story that she was fond of telling was The Half-brothers by Elizabeth Gaskell, a tragic tale of two boys in a snowstorm, but also a tale of domestic cruelty. The story, available online, reads well enough, but she told it much better, with perfect rhythm and voice modulation so that the end left you as every good tragedy should, with a lump in your throat and tears pricking your eyelids. Happily wretched.

Finally, there is one more person, whom I cannot leave unremembered: my father, the most colourful raconteur I have known. A reader all his life, he had an eye and an ear for words – an alliteration, an analogy, an aphorism, a bon mot, an irony. When he died, he left behind notebooks filled with quotes jotted down in his small, upright, pointed writing: on religion, on war ( he was in the Army), on gender relations, on drink – there were plenty of the last in the Army! It is to him I owe the biggest debt of gratitude. He taught me that the world not described may as well not exist. Use the right word, the only right word, therein lies the key to good writing. And in there, lies, too, the art of the short story.

The short story is an art, no doubt. And it has attracted some of the finest artists ever. My private journey of short stories reads like an A-Z guide. It starts with Asimov and Atwood moves to Borges, Bradbury, Camus, Carver, Chekhov, Chopin, Dahl, genuflects at Joyce and Kafka, reminisces at Maupassant, marvels at Munro and ends somewhere near Wodehouse and Wolff. As for countries and cultures, that is the secret of the short story – it transcends time, belongs nowhere yet finds a home everywhere. It takes on some of the colour and texture of the teller and his/ her world view. One can listen to the 2000 year old tale of Shakuntala and her battle to prove her son’s paternity in Dushyant’s court and immediately connect it to the struggles of a single mum today. We are our stories and our stories are Us. Yes, it is the audience, the reader or listener, who renews the short story, keeps it in circulation by drawing it in and then exhaling it out into another listening ear, a waiting heart. With every breath the story lives. Because the short story is ephemeral, like our lives, it must reach out and touch as many as possible. It must.

Through this blog, I invite you to join me on this odyssey of stories: what makes them, what shapes them, how they change us and how we, in turn, change them. There are interviews, stories about authors, anecdotes and trivia. Finally, there are the stories themselves. Old, new, borrowed, blue. Yarns of all shades to tease and please you.