Short stories are an important literary genre, because that is the way stories traditionally have been told: fables, fairy tales, folk-tales. It is traditional, and therefore simple to understand. But short-stories is not an easy style to master. Writing a short-story is like a painting; you have only one frame to paint in all the details necessary to create an effect. Just like a T-20 match, 3-panel comic, song, a movie (a good movie should actually be a novella, otherwise they become hideous monsters like the Harry Potters, or the countless movie adaptations that are forgettable.) Nothing more, nothing less.
It is very easy, to get carried away, and bring in mundane details, and end up adding bulk to the story and diluting the effect, the abrupt climax characterised in short-stories. Sometimes, it is needed for the story’s climax is too abrupt, and sometimes the master short-story writers, like Roald Dahl, end up weaving the mundane into the climax. (I must grudgingly agree, that Jeffery Archer has produced a number of good short stories, but his novels are too predictable.)
Recently on a vacation, I read Ashokamitran’s tenth anthology of short-stories called Appavin Snehidar or My Father’s Friend, published in 1991. Ashokamitran is the pen-name of J. Tyagarajan, and has been acclaimed as “… one of the most distinguished of contemporary novelists and short-story writers in Tamil, and one of the best-known literary figures… and is a recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi award.”1
I think he writes complete rubbish. Unless that is the way Tamil short-stories are told, which, I have a sneaking suspicion, isn’t the case.
Ashokamitran writes in a style, which gives new life to the mundane details of our lives, which better remained dead; atleast in short-stories. I have read about 10 to 12 of his stories, beginning each story with renewed hope that this story wouldn’t be like the others, only to have my hope dashed with unfailing regularity each time.
If and when you do decide to read his work, you will notice in quite a few stories, the high point, which ought to be the climax of the story, and ideally, the end of the story as well. Ashokamitran, though, happily decides to give the natural contours of the story a miss, and goes on adding detail after detail, which is useless to the story and the reader. After burying the ending of the story somewhere in the middle, he decides to carry on with the non-events as they unfold in the character’s now boring lives. Sometime when he runs out of ink or paper, I don’t know which, he decides to call it a day and end the story.
In some of the stories, he contrives to remove the climax, leaving a gaping hole, which he fills with, what else, mundanities.
Ashokamitran comes close to the ideal story in one story, but that was only because the story was one page long, and he didn’t get enough space to decorate the story with the protagonist’s life.
The only reason one could find his stories appealing, is that most of stories are centred around in Hyderabad and Madras. People of the same age as him, would revel in the details, that is there for no reason, of the cities and the lives of people, because of the deep sense of nostalgia that they would derive from it.
I rarely write such scathing reviews. But what really got my goat was that it was published by the Sahitya Akademi, which I figured would sponsor good literature. Not this! Before every short story, I would gaze at the logo of Sahitya Akademi, inexplicably be reminded of Premchand, and the fun his stories would have. After the story, I would fling the book across the room, disgusted.
What disgusted me even more, was the publisher’s blurb, that claimed that he was one of the greatest writers our land has produced. Idiots. What clouded their senses must have been his unusual analogies, “.. they were washing their truck, just as they would wash their domestic animals…”.
But this, even I can write. No, sorry, I can’t write this rubbish. Just before reading this book, I read a whole book of short stories by Somerset Maugham in small-print in 2 hours. Ashokamitran’s anthology took me two weeks, because of the emotional upheaval with each story. It would take me a day to recover from each story.
Somerset Maugham, one of favourite writers, famously said, that he didn’t write or create most of his stories. Most of it happened, and he just happened to be there to pen them down. But, to do that you need to have skill, like cutting up a pineapple. Mr. Ashokamitran, please to be taking care next time.