Lockdown Reading is a series where authors will enlist the books they are reading (or not) during this time. Previously, Annie Zaidi had detailed the books she has been trying to read, Rheea Mukherjee had revealed the one the book she is reading these days, and Namita Gokhale had given a glimpse of the way she spending time during lockdown. Last week, Paro Anand, author and playwright shared the books she is reading and revisiting. This week, writer Anukrti Upadhyay shares her list.
To me, fiction is about telling stories which engross and lift the readers out of themselves, that create new experiences, or synthesise old ones, in ways that evoke curiosity or wonder or even awe. This is a time of anxiety and pain and myriad nameless feelings, nameless because we haven’t experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. Stories become even more important at such times. I would like to recommend a few short story collections today. Why short stories? Because why not!
Also, because it is a demanding, difficult form and to do them well is, to me, the true test of authorship. I found these collections tremendously rewarding reads, both as a reader and a student of the short story craft. In their differing ways, these stories explain us to ourselves. All these books, to me, are timeless.
Firstly, Blue is like Blue, a collection of short stories by Vinod Kumar Shukla, one of the living greats of Hindi Literature. The stories, published by HarperCollins under their Perennial imprint, have been translated so authentically by Sara Rai and Arvind Krishan Malhotra that they read like originals.
The stories subvert the craft and plot schemes of short story form – A young man is cycling to work and finds a dry leaf in his pocket, a young husband is irked by the tattoo on his wife’s arm and tries to obliterate it, a young boy speaks about the small
town he was born and raised in. They seem simple and sparse on surface but have a wealth of meaning and are told with a deep, but not maudlin, empathy. They are a lesson in the art and craft of short story writing.
Next, a collection of short stories titled – Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel. The astounding, absurd, surreal stories, dipping quotidian inanities into absurd interludes, are unlike anything I had read before. They demand to be read and re-read, their seeming disconnected absurdities prompt introspection. The woman who collects dead insects and writes poetry, the character who worries that beggars will steal her kidneys, the man who leaves the preserved foetus of his brother in the care of a librarian – all these characters stay with you and provoke and
intrigue you, just as the best of literature ought to. I am so grateful to my editor at HarperCollins, Rahul Soni and Champaca book store in Bangalore for introducing me to this astonishing author and her works.
Then there is Picnic in The Storm by Yukiko Motoya. I am an ardent admirer of all things Japan (so much so that my next book, titled Kintsugi, out later this year from HarperCollins, is set partly in Japan!). Picnic in the Storm is a collection of disruptive, beguiling and intriguing short stories. They abound in strange characters, solemn undertakings, surreal
happenings – a woman body builder, a husband who turns into a mountain peony, a cat who refuses to be toilet-trained, the stories create new metaphors for alienation and difficulties in achieving true closeness, of urban lives and unfinished expressions.
An old favourite and one that I read and re-read – Palm-of-the-hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata. I read it incessantly during one of my trips to Japan, carrying it everywhere with me, buttoned up inside my jacket as spring-snow fell all around. I read it everywhere too – sitting under one of the glorious pines on Lake Ashiya as wind wove its scented magic or
lying on the hot slab of a sauna as my body sweated out memories. These are stories that speak of harsh things with a deceptive gentleness. A must-read for lovers of short stories – perfect vignettes seen from a window in a different time, different place and yet strangely familiar.
Lastly, Timeless Tales from Marwar, a collection of folk-tales written in Rajasthani by the legendary archivist and author, Vijaydan Detha, ably translated by Vishesh Kothari and published by Penguin Random House. After my short novels, Daura and Bhaunri, which are set in Rajasthan’s desert-scape, were published, I realised there is a dearth of works of fiction in English about Rajasthan and its colourful and hardy folk. A translation of the folk- tales of Rajasthan, filled with magic and earthy wisdom, kings and richmen, farmers and nomads is a delightful way of exploring the desert and its people.
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