Author: Navtej Sarna
Publishers: Rainlight, Rupa
Price: Rs 350
Humayun Kabir, in a foreword to Contemporary Indian Stories (Sahitya Akademi, 1959), says that Rabindranath Tagore described his short stories as the life of Bengal seen through the window of his moving boat. This could as well be said about Navtej Sarna’s stories. Though, belonging as they do to a different time, they are not limited to any one region, or even to India. His stories remind me of a storyteller of an earlier time, Somerset Maugham, whose tales too roved all over the world, the narrator often being a well-travelled man and a writer like Maugham himself. Sarna’s stories, too, come through the persona of a man like himself: a diplomat, a bureaucrat and a writer. However, Sarna happily lacks Maugham’s cynicism and has a more compassionate gaze. Mr Krishnan, for example, in the story, ‘On Official Duty’, is punctilious about his job and a man of such rigid habits that his wife could time herself by his words: at 7.15, he would say this, at 7.30, he would say that and so on. Krishnan could have become either slightly comical or unsympathetic, but Sarna’s compassionate gaze and a brief glimpse of Krishnan’s past transform him.
Like all collections, this one, too, is uneven. Some stories are so-so, as we Indians say, but there are some startlingly good stories, which always redeem a collection. The title story, ‘Winter Evenings’, and ‘Sunrise at Mashobra’ brilliantly capture a mood, at the same time vividly etching out the characters in a few words. In ‘Winter Evenings’, two men come together every evening out of loneliness, though each finds the other predictable and irritating — which leads to a burst of hostility at the end of an evening. The story ends with both of them knowing that they will meet again the next day. ‘Sunrise at Mashobra’ is about a newly-married couple at the beginning of their honeymoon, the man nostalgic, the woman irritable, knowing that he is lost in the memories of his earlier failed marriage. The mood of melancholy is beautifully evoked: “A smoky sadness had risen from somewhere, from some lonely cooking fires in the valley, perhaps and entered the soul of the evening. It seemed to float around, wrapped in a nameless nostalgia …”
Sarna’s language, though never self-consciously ‘poetic’, is the high point of his stories, as also his ability to create a powerful impact in a few words. In ‘Rumki’, for example, the girl Rumki’s tragic story is told very briefly, almost in passing, part of the larger story of a trainee administrator’s experience of an official stay in a village. Though Saran touches her only tangentially, he manages to make Rumki the heroine of the story. And in the end, the writer, in just one line, reveals the young man’s awareness of his helplessness to do anything about Rumki.
A good short story briefly illuminates a few moments, an event, or a relationship so brilliantly that some light is shed on the past as well as on the future. Sarna’s best stories work in this way, piercing the shadows of the past, and giving a glimpse of the future. If there is a problem, it is that the end is often too abrupt. As in ‘Golden Twilight’, where a woman, whose unusualness is sympathetically evoked, finally becomes a poet, a conclusion that seems to come out of nowhere. A larger problem is that, in a number of stories, there is a sense of something lacking. Is it because the writer seems hesitant to plunge into the depths of his story, of his characters? One gets a feeling that he is holding himself back from getting into greater depths.
Nevertheless, this is a very welcome collection. There aren’t many good short story writers in English today, unlike the bhashas, where the short story scene is vibrant. It is a pleasure, too, to read a writer whose language and craft keep pace with each other, and who promises to be an excellent short story writer — if only publishers don’t seduce him away from short stories and into embracing novels.
Shashi Deshpande is an award-winning Bangalore-based novelist