SAARC and the Short Story: A Brief Estimation

Mahesh Paudyal

A timeless folktale, popular in Nepal as ‘Sunkeshari Raniko Katha’, features a princess with golden hair, who is, by a sudden turn of her fate, forced to marry her own elder brother, which she rejects. Almost all the Nepali kids get to hear this story in one moment or another, and by that token, the story is iconic in the cultural life of the people of Nepal. As is true for most of the folktales, the plot of this story varies as one moves from east to west, or from north to south for that matter. As cultures, languages and ways of life vary, the story picks up different moss. What is even more astonishing about the story is that, it has its versions overseas too. There are scholars who think the story travelled to Nepal in the ancient time from foreign lands, because the concept of ‘golden hair’ is typically western and quite alien to Nepali culture. Folktales apart, if we conduct a survey of certain archetypes, like origin myths or stories of stepmothers and stepchildren, they occur in different cultures, including the most distantly separated ones, and the plots of the tales strangely coincide. Featuring human, animals, birds and plants as children of the same primordial parents, explaining the rise of a community in headwaters, locating the birth of the first human in a heterogeneous sexual relation between dissimilar partners, or featuring a fight between good and evil and the eventual defeat of the evil as a mark of the civilizational progress of a community are among the most common traits in stories found across the globe. Viewed this way, the story travels and hints towards a similar origin and fast dispersal of communities.

If we look for stories that explain the social interpretation of things like the dark marks on the moon, the earthquake, the occurrence of the rainbow or man-snake relationship, we find similar stories in dissimilar cultural and geographical locations. Scholars like Jacques Derrida consider it a case of teleopoiesis, a case of creative overlap between cultures across long distances while there are others who think the stories originated at one place and travelled, as people migrated from there, and gained feathers of their own hues. Apologists of the archetypal criticism, including Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell explain it as a rendition of archetypes that are notorious for recurrence in cultures across the globe.

If this commonality is considered a fact, the story can be taken as a basis to explore similarities in the collective unconscious of folks living in close geographical spaces more accurately.  If we consider a clearly defined location like South Asia flanked by the Himalayas on the north and the Indian Ocean in the south, or say, the Arabian sands in the west and the Bay of Bengal in the east, we find a lot of similarities in stories. It’s true that modern stories have taken a different route and are most often programmed by socio-political realities, but the soul of the story in South Asia still remains faithful to its ancestral version and that is what connects the folks of the region to the story. This explains why the story is among the most popular literary genres in South Asia.

Let’s consider Nepal’s case first to set a point of departure.  The story in Nepal today is a modernized conglomeration of elements derived from a rich oral tradition of tales largely rooted in four sources: the folk sources, the Kirat and other indigenous civilizations, the Hindu scriptures and the Buddhist tales. A scrutiny of the most popular modern short stories in Nepal suggests that structurally, they reproduce the make-up of these ancient tales, and they borrow heavily from the storehouse of these tales in the form of allusions, structural base, characters, symbols, anecdotes and aphorism. Experimental patterns or borrowed structures and forms have had little or no impact, and the works remain largely ignored by the general readership. A reader, trained in a certain tradition, is perhaps more at home with works conforming to similar tradition rather than in borrowed forms.

If we look at the history of the short story in Nepal, we primarily have three phases: the initial phase, the developmental phase and the modern phase. The initial phase features little or no original creations, but is entirely dominated by adaptation from ancient sources. Much of the stories of this phase derive their plots from ancient sources, including Panchatantra, Hitopadesh, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Jataka Tales of the Buddha, origin myths of indigenous communities, folktales and the like. Only in the second phase, or say the developmental phase did our authors start writing original tales, though structurally, they stuck to the same ancient or folk pattern. As for example, stories of Guru Prasad Mainali, the first towering modern and original storywriter of Nepal, still reproduced the traditional linear storytelling pattern, and most of his themes are idealistic, good versus evil types depicting the victory of the good, and moralistic, advising readers to side with integrity. His contemporaries like Pushkar Samsher also followed the same pattern though we can clearly notice an attempt to break the story from the hangover of the ancient stories.

Soon after this pattern gave way to yet another phase of the story, we started noticing the advent of western education, and Nepali authors started having direct access to international literature, either because they traveled, or read the world through the English language. Consequently, major two major traits of world literature during the war era, namely psychoanalytic and existential views, influenced our stories beyond telling. Writers like Bhawani Bhikshu and Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala championed the psychological line of narrativization, and the same flourished even more, with frank sexual depictions, in master storywriters like Daulat Bikram Bista, Govinda Bahadur Malla Gothale and Prema Shah. The existential school of thought influenced a big number of storywriters, the most important of them being Parijat, Dhruva Chandra Gautam, Pararu Pradhan, Mohan Raj Sharma, Manu Brajaki and Pushkar Lohani. Side by side, the romantics and the experimentalists flourished too, and we also started sensing the rise of the progressive, who saw their heyday in the decades that followed.

The ‘modern’ phase in Nepali literature coincides with the rise of revolt against the Rana regime in the first two decades of the twentieth century and encompasses all the major political movements thereafter for the establishment of democracy in Nepal. This obviously means much of modern Nepali literature is political, and one of the major thrusts here is that of progressive and protest literature. The ‘modern’ Nepali short story, therefore, is heavily dotted with political messages, and it started raising issues of human rights, women’s empowerment, social and economic reforms, freedom of the working class, etc. A survey of the short story of this era brings us close to progressive writers like Ramesh Bikal, who tried to direct the public attention to the difference of privileges that exist among economic classes.

The latest phase of the story in Nepal carries both modern and post-modern traits. In one hand, it continues to advocate for the rights of the people at the margin, for which, we may see the stories of Narayan Dhakal, Khagendra Sangraula, Harihar Khanal and others. A huge population of young-generation storywriters has championed this project, and many of them belong to talents from the marginal communities themselves. Their short fictions tell untold stories and unearth the taste of the unexplored nationalities. One may see stories by Upendra Subba, Bina Theeng Tamang, Naveen Bibhas, Nirupa Prasun and others as examples.

On the other hand, there is a generation of writers that experiments with forms and themes and picks up issues that question all sorts of established norms. Roshan Thapa Neerav and Kumar Nagarkoti are among the most revered storywriters of this pattern. They tamper with set patterns and question the established values but refrain from being judgmental or prescriptive. They represent the postmodern face of Nepali short story.

What is true about Nepali short story is that in all of its development phases, there always were writers who focused themselves in studying and exploring the deeper realities of life, its paradoxes, its meanings and import. They do not seem influenced by any major theoretical or ideational movement or wave, and they continue to dig the soil of life as deeply as they can. These storywriters have enjoyed popular acclaim even at a time missionary or agenda-driven writing has become the norm of the day. Story writers like Sanat Regmi, Kishore Pahadi, Dhruva Sapkota, Krishna Dharabasi, Mahesh Bikram Shah, Amar Neupane, Ramlal Joshi and Mahesh Paudyal are a few names to mention.

Let’s turn to India now. India, as a region, is too heterogeneous and wide to discover any common binding trait as definitional, not only for literature but for any aspect of life for that matter. As far as the short story is concerned, India also shares the same fate as Nepal does. Its pre-modern stories heavily borrow from ancient Hindu and folk scriptures, while the modern Indian short story is basically a narrativization of its social realities. Take Premchand from the north, Tagore from the East and R.K. Narayan from the south as examples. All three base their stories in the rural, educationally backward, and socially highly hierarchical societies, and their major attempt is to dramatize the difference. Although Tagore is rather different in dealing with issues of women and children in depth, he shares with the aforementioned master storytellers the tendency to pick up issues of social realities of the Indian society of their days.

One cult of Indian short story, which continues the modern socio-realistic fiction, belongs to the progress school, and in this school, we can analyze writers like Sarat Chandra Chatopadhyaya, Raja Rao Nirmal Verma, Mulk Raj Anand and Mohan Rakesh. Issue of women and their identity underpin the fictions of Mahashweta Devi and Amrita Pritam, while Khuswant Singh devoted his life to the exploration of the paradoxes of an individual’s life in a humorous way. Keki N. Daruwalla, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Arun Joshi, and Kamala Das are other short story writers that stand along the same tradition.

Turning to Bangladesh, we more or less find similar narratives as those we find in India. One major difference, however, is that modern Bangladeshi short story also gives a lot of space to the political change after 1971, and the rise of Bangla nationalism to an extent that have never been felt before. Since the rise of modern Bangladesh is rooted in language movement and martyrdom of people, the sense of nationalism in Bangladeshi psyche and its literature is quite high. In almost all of the short stories written after this event, we can see the echoes of such extreme form of nationalism. Short stories by Bangladeshi diaspora, however, echo many other themes, including the question of human rights and freedom, women’s empowerment, diasporic dilemmas and cultural conflicts, etc.

In Pakistan, apart from the folktales and the stories transmitted through the oral tradition, the modern short story has greatly been restricted to the Urdu language and the Afsana. Certain attempts were made at it by the legendary Taufiq Rafat and names such as Athar Tahir regularly contribute to literary anthologies – for despite all the troubles surrounding the short story, it is also easy enough to write for any prolific writer. But perhaps the only attempts made at actual compilations in recent times have been by the writer Bilal Tanweer, who published The Scatter Here is Too Great in 2013 – and even that ended up being a novel-in-stories with a converging plot. This is not to say that English short story compilations are not published in Pakistan. Indeed, a lot of retired writers, public servants with some pretense to letters often end up writing short stories rather than a memoir if they fancy themselves as the creative sort. One recent addition to the list of short story compilation is “Storyteller’s Tales” by Khaled Saeed. But what makes this particular collection of work different is that it is a thoroughly unassuming book. Not necessarily in the writing that is, but in the way it has been structured – and even printed. A flimsy looking paperback not even 150 pages strong, the full title Khaled has given his book is “Storyteller’s Tales – a collection of short stories and musings.” “Storyteller’s Tales” is about our world – the world we live in, breathe in and are very much grounded in no matter how much one may think otherwise. For sure the writer is not shy about occasionally delving into other-worldly concepts, unknown to most, there are allusions to the divine and the extra-terrestrial. But they are not a waxing and waning on science or philosophy, but rather just a painfully simple explanation of the extraordinary that is very much part of the everyday life.

Sri Lanka has always fared very well in the landscape of literature, and there is no question why the short story should be an exception. With a rich cultural and religious tradition, Sri Lanka has always very intimated brooded folk tales and traditional stories with moralizing themes. On the front of the modern short story too, Sri Lanka has a very encouraging performance, and some of its writers have earned international fame as well. The long colonial history of Sri Lanka, the threat that faces the local culture, the violence that plagued the nation  in the recent decades, the ethnic divide, the constant economic and political unrest that followed and the migration of the natives from Sri Lanka towards other locations in the world have found ample echo in modern Sri Lankan literature, including the short story. Scholars say

Contributions made by critics and translators like Vijita Fernando and K S Sivakumaran in collecting, translating and promoting modern Sri Lankan short story is commendable. Story writers like Sunethra Rajakarunanayake and S Yoganathan and Maureen Seneviratne are capable of foregrounding a light of hope even as Sri Lanka struggles to recover from multiple crisis at the moment. Master storywriters like Martin Wickramasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amerasekera, K. Jayatilaka, Karuna Perera, Alagu Subramaniam, S. Yoganathan and Thamarai Chelvi captures the uncertainty and the pathos of day to day life in the peninsula. Santhan, James Goonewardene’s, Gamini Akmeemana’s and others are making immensurable contributions towards enriching modern Sri Lankan short stories.

As far as the Maldives is concerned, its short story still hovers very much around its folktales, especially those that deal with lives in the sea and the land, the interaction between creatures living in these spaces. Folk Tales of Maldieves, edited by Xavier Romero-Frias is one case in point to remember. Similar anthologies have appeared in the recent times, but the modern Maldeivial short story is still a genre in the making. Therefore, no much discussion is warranted here. Bhutan, more or less, shares the same fate as far as the short story is concerned. It has a very rich tradition of folktales, testified by a collection of international repute, The Talisman of Good Fortune and Other Stories from Rural Bhutan, collected and edited by Rinzin Rinzin. Folktales of Bhutan by Kunzang Choden has also reached the international readership through online publications like Amazon. But the modern story, in the strict sense of the term, in an internally comprehensible languages has still been a bleak reality.  This does not, however, mean that Bhutan has not written modern short stories.

Viewed this way, the story has always been a part of the South Asian collective unconscious. Since most of the countries in this geographical space are culturally defined, the primordial stories tend to reproduce religious, moral and spiritual values that regulate the societies living here. Apart from these, however, the modern short story has adopted a rich developmental trajectory with modern themes, including human psychology, socio-political reality, colonial-postcolonial tug of war, familial and personal conflicts, clash of values, empowerment of the marginal categories, etc. In fact, these are also the issues that underpin the short story in other locations as well, and by that token, South Asia has very well caught up with the international literary tune. This is a great respite, for there are locations where the modern literature is still a far cry. SAARC has, contrarily, made itself indispensable in the map of the short story on the globe.