Why do we read short stories?

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I came to the form of the short story late. But once I did, I stayed.

Initially, it was a matter of practicalities. In my first year of college, I wanted to discover Chekhov. I wanted to find out what all the hype was about, not just because he’s known for shaping the form, but because it would be a quick visit—in and out in ten minutes—to a massive body of work. There were all the cliches used to describe short story collections. Boxes of chocolates, assortments, platter of sweetmeats. You taste each kind and move on.

I’ve moved on from many such stories in the past decade of reading them; eventually I would begin to review them; most recently, I’ve taken to guiding undergraduate students through their own reading of short fiction.

And with each short story I read, this feeling of being a temporary visitor remains.

The first short story I remember reading is “Shari” by the Bangladeshi author Farida Hossain—my grandmother. It is my favourite work of fiction by Nanu, who has devoted over five decades to writing rhymes, songs, novels, film and TV scripts, but primarily short stories. “Shari” begins within the folds of a clothing store, where Raju is an artist of his craft. He knows how to wrap the nine yards of Bengali fabric around his waist, 8 pleats flapping dexterously between his fingers, the aachol hanging freely from his shoulder. He knows which fabric and colour to pose in for which customer, and for Mili, his favourite client, he saves the most vibrant of shades matching her personality. When war breaks out in East Pakistan and he offers her shelter on one rain-drenched day, from men who seem to be in violent pursuit, the fine balance of their relationship as salesman and customer is unchangeably disturbed. Later, he would rather pretend she is a stranger than sell her the plain white shari she comes seeking—she who used to buy the most colourful of his wares.

As happens when you grow up in a house full of well-stocked bookshelves, I read this story when I was perhaps too young for it. But it was my first experience with subtlety—with the notion that brief encounters, with their minimal exchanges, often contain yards and yards of communication, miscommunication, compassion, and sometimes even trauma and violence. Sometimes they’re the memories that remain sharper than long-winded narratives of clarity. With time and age, you glean more and more from that one brief flash of recognition.

To read and move on from short stories is to come into contact with such moments. Together, they can form a network of ideas.

I became interested in Chekhov because I became interested in Russian literature, because in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which I scarfed down during one winter when I was very young, the character of Ashoke is saved from a fatal accident by a fellow passenger who was reading Nikolai Gogol’s “The Raincoat” on their train. That life-altering encounter inspires Ashoke to name his son after the author of the short story. The Namesake was the first time I experienced unspoken pain and nostalgia without being able to shed tears for it. Prior to that, I had bawled thick, fat streams of misery for Sirius Black dying, for Fred Weasley dying, for Mia and Michael breaking up in the 10th instalment of The Princess Diaries series.

But here was Ashoke, lurking hesitantly in his teenage son’s bedroom, attempting to share with his child, on his birthday, a piece of his trauma, a symbol of the accident that had given him a second chance at life. But 14-year-old Gogol is ashamed of this odd name that he’s been given, and he’d much rather listen to his music than read an old copy of some book called The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol.

Years would pass and The Lowland would soon replace The Namesake as my favourite book by Lahiri, but for years I have felt like I was a silent witness to the awkward sadness of their exchange. It was this unease that made me want to tap into the Russian greats. I wanted to break into that scene and call after Ashoke—Amake dao, ami porey dichhi, give it to me, I’ll read it. I never ended up reading “The Raincoat”, but through the labyrinths of lovers of Russian literature, I’ve discovered Turkish-American Elif Batuman, my favourite writer and a scholar of Russian literature. Her adventures in nonfiction, which draw fuel from fiction, continue to impact much of my writing.

But that’s a story for another day. Let’s wind back.

Isn’t this such a Bengali thing to do? To unravel one anecdote from another, connect them across one story and another, twist them up into knots until you don’t even remember what the conversation was about?

I’ve always suspected that this is why so much of Bangla literature is made up of short stories, and why we’re so quick to reach for them in other languages too. Not a short attention span exactly, but a consciousness that processes the chaos of our reality in episodes, absorbing the briefest, most potent flashes of meaning and sentiment. That one time you met a relative in a wedding. That one wedding where the potato in the biryani was succulent, steam drenched in butter wafting across the table. That one chapter of communal harmony, of nationalistic fervour, that time the students stopped the cars in the streets and forced drivers to account for people’s safety. Our histories unfold in and repeat the arcs of epic novels. But we retain their memories through short stories.

I haven’t read nearly enough of them in Bangla, but true to form, it is this impulse for the anecdote—the essence of the act—that resonates with my own tendencies as a reader.

As a woman and a millennial who reads, I resonate with the short story’s need to bend and collapse time. Time: not just as a concept of when, but how—time as a space that can make and break possibilities, depending on the kind of body you inhabit, when and where you inhabit it. Sometimes, the way we react to these anecdotes forms its own parallel stream of stories.

In Mashiul Alam’s short story “Milk”, translated from the Bangla by Shabnam Nadiya, a mother’s body fails to produce milk for her child. Nearby, in the same village, lives a dog bursting at her breasts with milk. Another wild dog, an animal of the same species, has killed her pup. The two incidents exist in parallel worlds. When they shift and cross paths—the dog begins to feed the human child—the villagers beat the dog dead for daring to nourish a baby across species lines.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and in Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream”, two women experience two extreme versions of space: one that presses out all air, all freedom from a room, pressing forth from the walls monstrous, emancipated women, and another that wipes away all violence, all opposition to usher forth into the streets cheerful, emancipated women.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of teaching all three texts to undergraduate students. Their reactions—bafflement, discomfort, indignation—have made my relishing these stories all the more delightful.

My students believe it is unfair that we’re so quick to disbelieve Jane of the yellow wallpaper. So what if her visions are imaginary? Why does that mean that her room might be an asylum? As a narrator, is she unreliable because of her mental condition? Or must she be reliable because her mental condition is a product of the way her society treats women?

My students shed tears when the dog was beaten to death in Modhupur in Mashiul Alam’s story. They believe one needs the magnanimity of magic realism to bring justice to horrors the likes of which are witnessed in Bangladesh daily.

Most interestingly, my students believe Rokeya’s invented Ladyland is not a good example of equality.

This latter interaction with short fiction has perhaps been the most stimulating one for me—to take a classic that in South Asia is all but synonymous to freedom for women, and discover that the solutions it provides might no longer seem perfect.

Ladyland works—has done so for decades—because it offers the promise of a blank canvas. What would you make of your world if you could do anything with it? If the dangers and obstacles were removed?

It’s understandable that for women of the earlier generations of Ladyland’s visitors, the impulse would be to subvert the gender roles they had lived with for so long. Let us out, let us shape the world, we can show you what we’re capable of. Walk in our shoes, you’ll know what it feels like to live shackled and misrepresented.

These seemingly simpler debates are still pertinent because women’s inherent right to education and to spiritual and physical agency is still an uphill battle in parts of South Asia, in most parts of Bangladesh.

But that blank canvas of Ladyland also doubles as a mirror: it says something about the choices we make for our conception of space. And as many of my students have pointed out—where is the space for nuance in Ladyland? Where do trans and queer individuals find themselves in its neat division of men and women? Where is the critical discourse that equality isn’t about replacing one gender with another in a position of absolute power? As Sultana jerks awake at the story’s end, why are some of us left with a mild sense of disappointment with the skewed version of gender relations that is portrayed?

The discourse is here—among us readers. In our classrooms, our book clubs, in the margins of the books we carry and the conversations we start in our virtual spaces. It lies in the way we bring context to the silo of the text and sieve out our interpretations. And then we reflect: what do our readings say about us?

As a teacher, the aspects of a text that offend my students and leave them dissatisfied jostle me into paying more attention. They remind me that inclusivity is a perpetual work in progress. As an editor of reviews, the articles that go unnoticed remind me that literary taste is a chimera; it mutates, consuming and begetting ideas. As a reader who also teaches and edits, I discover that whatever I think I may know about a text can be upended at any moment.

Novels can offer these reminders too. The Great Gatsby, after all, was reviewed tersely in the 1920s for its “unpleasant characters”, before Fitzgerald’s death and the book’s new editions and adaptations built it up into The Great American Novel.

But there’s something in the short story that allows it to flit through the cracks of collective reception and the history-defining blocks of the literary canon. Somehow, a single story, free of the heft of a novel, remains hidden in the oeuvre of an author. It lies nestled in a collection of other stories, or appears last in a compiled set, or resurfaces every few years in a blog or a literary magazine—a little-known gem that can mutate into a standalone novella, or can reveal something precious and little known about an otherwise famous author. Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams”. Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”. The resurgence of Shahidul Zahir’s musicality this past year.

They travel so well and know so well when to halt and emanate their influence.

It is this lightness, too, that makes such powerful readers of some of us. It is because Sultana wakes up suddenly from an incomplete dream that we want to colour in those areas left too grey. It is because Jane’s memories form a palimpsest that we discover the need to read between the lines. As readers, we tend to lose direction in the thickets of the novel, become distracted by the visual action of plays and poetry. The brevity and the subtlety of the short story makes space—there I evolve, make connections, take offence, change my mind, and, sometimes, find my own ideas as a writer.

 

 

 

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