Book review: The Best Asian Short Stories, 2018, ed. Dr Debotri Dhar
Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 is a collection of nineteen short stories, that saunter through the wonderland of Asia to dwell on vignettes of life in the vast continent. Edited by Dr Debotri Dhar and series editor Zafar Anjum, the second volume of the series has a mix of stories by eminent and upcoming writers.
Our emotions are played on from all angles as each story flavours our palate with different moods. We pause to smile over an unusual light-hearted Goan romance among the elderly in Geralyn Pinto’s “Cakes” and cringe with horror at the impact of acid attacks on women, a reality in Bangladesh and Pakistan as portrayed by Reba Khatun. Dr Rakshanda Jalil’s story with the tale of Zuliekha’s transformation from a shy Muslim girl to a glamorous club diva brings to mind Eliza Doolittle, heroine of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, except this story has a twist which colours it with class stratification that are essentially Indian.
“Festival”, a translated story from Japan, gives us a glimpse of the intermingling of old and new in a country that retains its traditions despite its modernity. William Tham Wai Liang’s nostalgic “At the Moonlit River’s Edge” brings us close to the theme that has been explored in The State of Emergency, the 2018 Singapore Literature prize-winning novel – the communist insurgency in 1950s Malaya. Strangely, Martin Bradley’s “Bougainvillea”, set in modern day Malaysia also hovers around the same theme as the protagonist journeys to Ipoh in search of his father’s grave, his father having lost his life in 1951 during an encounter with communist insurgents. However, this is a story that transcends the angst of history to bring in themes of friendship and wonder generated by the multicultural flavour of life in this region. We have another lovely story of ASEAN friendship in the Singaporean Thai romance named after the delicious Thai dessert, “Mango and Sticky Rice”.
The unusual and paranormal have been explored by a couple of writers. “The Rescuer” is a supernatural adventure set in a Japanese railway station, a strange tale that leaves the reader stupefied! “The Grey Thread” by young Vanessa Ng is another one that explores an unusual, bizarre journey into a world of paint and paper.
Some of the stories fiddle with recent natural disasters and contemporary issues. The impact of the historic cloudburst in the Himalayas in 2013 and the arbitrariness of all existence is explored in “The Cosmic Dance”. “Begin Again”, set in Phillipines, explores teen adjustment issues. “For Chikki’s Sake” not only comments on marital issues, parenting but also on caste based marriage, which still exists in parts of India. The dichotomy that exists in women’s world between feminism and reality in India is well captured in “Don’t Even Ask! Poochho Mat!” “The Amulet” explores the disappointment of a diva; “The Bureaucrats’s Wife” reflects the breakdown of values in a rich man’s home; “Lola’s Honeymoon” is a strange tale which gives a glimpse of moneyed life as does “The Cycle”, though this story does ascend social boundaries drawn by economic barriers and the futility of addiction to drugs and violence.
“Letting Go” is a story that, as editor Dr Dhar says, invokes ‘a deep yearning for a universe where beloved grandfathers never die’. “Lucas’s Story” by Anjaly Thomas, set in Tanzania against the backdrop of Mount Kiliminjaro, depicts how a white woman’s verdict colours the life of a local. Though the white woman, Angie, is comparable to Adela Quested from E. M. Foster’s “A passage to India” in her phobias and reactions, the story has no Asians in it and is the only one that stretches beyond Asia in this collection.
The content of the first collection of Best Asian Short Stories stretched far beyond the continent but delved deep into issues concerning the people of Asia. Published in 2017, the book had a concentration of stories that transcended borders, inculcated compassion and were woven with the love of mankind. In the recent collection brought out in 2018, we get a glimpse of Asia as it is with a tinge of hope, humour and happiness colouring the stories except in those that deal with women’s angst and feminist issues.
Says series editor Zafar Anjum, ‘We don’t want to impose any thematic restrictions to fetter the creativity of writers. We want a reflection of the contemporary human condition in the Asian societies; hence we keep it fluid and open. The editor finally decides which stories go into the volume.’ Perhaps, that is why each volume of short stories will have a unique flavour, defined by the individual taste of the editor.
Each story in this volume is well told and fluid, a distinctive read that can be mulled over, leaving an aftertaste that lingers in the psyche of the reader. I would call this recent collection a savoury plate of stories that titillate the palate with a diaspora of human emotions.
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.