By Nawaid Anjum
Years ago, when Bill Buford was the fiction editor (1995-2002) of The New Yorker, he had published a short story by George Saunders, who went on to win the Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo in 2017. Saunders, who had to put up with a series of painful edits and was fishing for a compliment, whined to Buford on the phone: “But what do you like about the story?” There was a long pause at the other end. And, then, Buford, who had relaunched the then-defunct Granta in 1979 and vaulted it to the literary glory as its editor till 1995, said: “Well, I read a line. And I like it… enough to read the next.”
“And that was it: his entire short story aesthetic and presumably that of the magazine. And it’s perfect. A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time. We have to keep being pulled into a story in order for it to do anything to us,” writes Saunders in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021), in which he tries to understand the physics of the form through Russian classics.
In Out of Print, Ten Years: An Anthology of Stories, a commemorative compendium of 30 stories compiled from the short fiction published in the online literary magazine, Out of Print, which completed 10 years in September 2020, the staggering power of the form reveals itself to the reader — a line, a segment and a structural pulse at a time. It was this power that had led Indira Chandrasekhar, a scientist and writer, to envisage a platform devoted to the genre of short fiction from or connected with the Indian subcontinent. The anthology gives a peek into just how substantive the decade has been for the quarterly literary e-zine that has, over the years, featured work from a wide spectrum of writers. Chandrasekhar notes in the introduction that the range of writing reflects “the issues dominating our collective psyche”. These writers — both those writing in English as well as those (nearly half) whose works have been translated from Indian languages, including Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Bangla, Marathi, Malayalam and Gujarati — are “writers with spike and bite, writers rooted and restless, writers telling good old-fashioned stories, undercut with unease”, as Sampurna Chattarji succinctly summarises in her blurb for the book. Their stories help us glimpse, Chattarji adds, “the fractures and fissures of the India we must constantly reimagine, remake, retell and yes — record”.
The volume has been neatly categorised into five sections, with each section containing stories with common terrains and thematic concerns. The sections begin with comments by different writers that bring into relief the strands coursing through the veins of these stories — the strands that bind them — as well as their narrative arc. The stories range from the mythological and magical, subversive and surreal. There are stories that delight and stories that disturb, stories that are at once profound and perceptive, uncanny and evocative, eclectic and electrifying. Some reflect on life and death, others on love, art and beauty. Some explore a sense of the self of their characters while others seem to be preoccupied by their protagonists’ place in the world and their journeys within.
In the opening story, Three Princess of Kashi, Shashi Deshpande draws on Mahabharata to re-examine and reinterpret the voicelessness and powerlessness of the three Princesses of Kashi — Amba, Ambalika and Ambika. At some point in the story, Ambika, who narrates the story, wonders: “Sometimes I think that if Bhishma had had a mother, if he had a wife, sisters, if he had lived even a part of his life among women, he would have been a different man. But he never knew women, any woman, intimately. He sees them only as creatures meant to bear children, heirs for the family.” In her opening comment, Samhita Arni, one of the magazine’s first editors, writes how it is essentially a story of sexual exploitation that has its resonance in the era of #MeToo: a story that uses “muted, forgotten” characters to “offer us rich possibilities and new perspectives”. The stories that follow, across the sections, are each wondrous in their own ways. For instance, UR Ananthamurthy’s Apoorva (translated from the Kannada by Deepa Ganesh), Anjum Hasan’s The Big Picture and Chandrahas Choudhury’s Dnyaneshwar Kulkarni Changes His Name — that foreground the dichotomy between the inside and the outside — demonstrate how fiction writers shift between the self, both familiar and strange. Jayant Kaikini (Threshold) and Annie Zaidi (Sujata) are among the writers who capture the dissipation of love and hope. Krishna Sobti (The Currency Has Changed) and Anita Roy (Jenna) are among those who “craft place from layers of memory”. The six translated stories in the final section, titled Reality Imagine, include those by Ali Akbar Natiq (The Graveyard), Paul Zacharia (The Bar) and Mustansir Hussain Tarar (Baba Bagloos). They all examine the inequitable social realities that engender sorrow and suffering, despair and helplessness.
A good short story is said to be the one that examines the human condition well. Many of the stories in this volume live up to that adage — a shard, a sliver, a vignette at a time, a line at a time.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based independent culture journalist