A drawing by Nandalall Bose illustrating Tagore's short story "The Hero". Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/eldritchpress.org
A drawing by Nandalall Bose illustrating Tagore's short story "The Hero". Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/eldritchpress.org

Food for train journeys

Arunava Sinha’s collection of translated Bengali short stories offers a quirky mix of the expected and the unknown.

In his compelling introduction to this collection of translated Bengali short fiction, Arunava Sinha tells us that "the Bengali short story did not evolve slowly from a primordial swamp, but sprang up, more or less fully formed, around the same time as its counterparts in other languages around the globe". This is one of the more remarkable features of international modernism, a phenomenon which included the modern short story: around the end of the nineteenth century, all over the world, in France, in Russia, in England, in North America, in Turkey, and in the Indian subcontinent, similar literary developments were taking place at roughly the same time. But in order to understand both the modernity and the historical specificity of the short story, we need to recognise its kinship with – but also its difference from –  a much older form, the tale, present from the earliest antiquity in every literary culture, and transmitted through both oral and written traditions.

In India, collections of tales are at least as ancient as the 11th century compendium entitled Kathasaritsagara (The Ocean of the Streams of Stories), which draws upon earlier anthologies made up of even older individual units. The tale is a narrative form driven primarily by plot, and therefore constitutes a fictional repertoire that can be endlessly drawn upon by the storyteller. Many oral cultures attach great importance to the storyteller as a repository of traditional narratives, passing them on to her successors. By contrast, the modern short story subordinates plot to the apparently arbitrary and unformed materials of the realist fragment, or 'slice of life'. Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay 'The Storyteller', emphasises the capacity of the tale to achieve perfection through repetition: to this he contrasts the short story, which, as he puts it, "has removed itself from oral tradition and no longer permits that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers… in which the perfect narrative is revealed through… a variety of retellings." In effect, the tale can be told many times, the short story can only be told once.

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Himal Southasian