By Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The Best Asian Short Stories
Editor: Monideepa Sahu
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.
In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.
Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.
We get a glimpse of the suffering generated by movements like Mao’s Great Leap Forward where the leader is blind to the suffering of millions. That poverty does not recognize religion, caste or creed is highlighted in some of the stories that transcend boundaries drawn by wealth and power. The uncertainty of life is highlighted in the struggles faced by a soldier’s wife in Kashmir. That constant repression, poverty, humiliation and provocation can transform a quiet child into someone beyond judgment is exemplified by stories from both Philippines and India. Social customs are called into question when a Pakistani girl tells an American, ‘You know, you are no different than any other daughter- in-law back home. You all want to get rid of your in-laws’. The universal issues taken up are not just of social and political intent but also deal with the inner angst of the characters, including teenagers who are trying to be macho or are trying to make a living. The stories are multi-layered and deeply absorbing.
The characters play out their drama sometimes with a happy outcome and sometimes with a sad or horrific aftermath. One feels compelled to pause after each story as it resonates and lingers to create a distinct impression. Sometimes, the experience can be disturbing and sometimes happy.
Monideepa Sahu, the editor, has justifiably pointed out in her foreword,
‘These stories come from the heart of Asia… The home-grown Asian identity runs as a strong undercurrent.’ And it is with this current that the reader flows to discover a multi cultural and variegated universe brought together with a skilful play of words and excellent editing. The distinct style of each author is like a uniquely coloured thread deftly woven to create an exquisite fabric truly Asian in its discernment. The narratives are fluid, the language and styles suited to the story told.
The 32 stories have one thing in common – they all inculcate compassion, a love for mankind and a view of a world beyond borders. This is a book I would cherish for the rest of my life, a must read. Hats off to Zafar Anjum for visualizing this fantastic collection and Monideepa Sahu for her excellent editing!
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’(2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’(1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’(2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com