Distinctive Indigenous Short-stories of P. Raja
Short Story is a genre which has an enormous band width. Not to speak of the Western brand, in Bhasha literature too narratives, for example in Bhagavat Purana are termed katha, vrittanta, upakhyana, charitra and even varnana. In English fiction designated long and short the lengths are never specified or adhered to. There are very long ones like novellas and short ones like parables, fables, myths and legends. J.A.Cuddon in A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Indian Book Company, 1977) spent about 2000 words to explain what a short story meant to the Westerners in the vey distant and not very distant past. He also listed ‘conte’s tales or stories by the French writers like Flaubert and Maupassant. By way of an apologia it must be stated that writing a critique on a writer’s skill in short-story writing cannot be an easy job even for a compulsive literary penman.
In narratives we call fiction there are usually theme, plot, characters, dialogue, incidents, occurrences, episodes real, plausible, imaginary or concocted to top all these. Then there are narrative techniques which are a personal matter of the writer‘s skill and aplomb. There may be contraptions like deux ex machina, providential interpositions called God from the machine.
P. Raja is many in one, a poet, essayist and a short-story writer too. In the dedication of his first collection The Blood and other Stories he acknowledged the help and assistance of Manoj Das, the great Indian writer from Pondicherry. Great writers inspire and help budding writers in diverse ways and there is the example of the link between our R.K. Narayan (1906-2001) and Graham Greene (1904-1991). Greene liked and loved RK Narayan’s indigenous Indian flavour as in his Malgudi Days, a fabulous creation.
Raja’s first collection published in 1991 by BR Publication was later issued in 2011 by Busy Bee Books which is a proof of its popularity. Many of the stories in this book stood the test of time. The first story ‘The Blood’ is long but the narrative technique showed promise. The little boy and his chicken he called Minnal had to be sold and more painfully had to be pathetically killed too. ‘The Raw Material, laid partly in Qatar, is about a Shiekh’s lustfulness, the death of the Indian woman and her husband Chakravarty’s return to the motherland as a lunatic. It appears overworked. ‘Small’ is the story of a little kid singeing his lips imitating his father’s act of smoking a cigarette. ‘The Prize Poem’ is the tale of a foolish king. ‘The Professor’ is about the proverbial forgetful academic, a readable account. ‘You Want me to Repeat’ is the story of a mischievous young woman using the telephone to kill time till her hubby’s arrival. ‘The Stone’ is a very brief but electrifying narrative. ‘The Mourning Moon’ is concoction for the reason of the darkness of the no-moon night. ‘Sundal Vendor’ is about the poor man’s fear of the policemen and their cruelty. The stories like ‘The Editor’ are jibes against female editors. ‘The Wife’ is about a devout wife, verily a pativrata. ‘The Pencil’ is a clever piece of narration which harangues: ‘A pencil should only write. But never stab.’ Readers miss the credit of the line painting master, surely a lapse in the production of the book.
Kozhi Grandpa’s Chickens is again a collection of thirteen stories published in 1997. This shows a ripening of the writer’s narrative skill as well as the selection of themes.
There is a peculiar uniqueness in this volume in that the thirteen stories have been given credit to their sponsors too, who are businessmen, shop keepers, textile owners or even a doctor with a clinic.
‘The Unforgettable Woman’ is the mother whose silence the little son could not suffer. Humour in each language is unique. There is a tinge of Rabelaisian ribaldry in Tamil humour and Raja’s humour is ribald when the situation in the narrative demands or needs it. This is his forte. His poetry too is full of fun and fecundity. Sometimes for the serious minded some of his stories may appear silly and not very illuminating. The story ‘Mr Fishbowl’s Visit’ has this flash:
‘Mr. Fishbowl was about to get into the taxi waiting for him, when he turned to Sendhil, ‘May I use your toilet?’
‘Of course, Sir, if you must,’ said Sendhil ushering him into the house again.Back at the portico, Mr Fishbowl waved his hand to his hosts, and said curtly,’You need not tell anything to your sister.’ (p.20)
A reading of the text is a must to assess this remark and grin joyously.
‘Glass Fish’ (the title is explained too) is not very convincing but all stories need not carry conviction since conviction is a matter of individual psyche. A pinch of salt sometimes is a necessity. In the narration, the erring wife’s questions surely make the reader think deep:
“Just because you are my husband, it doesn’t mean that I am your slave. You are only my life’s partner. Have I ever questioned your fidelity? You are on your business trips twice or thrice a month and you have a lot of good-looking girls around you in your office. Do you want me to believe that you play husband only to me?”(49)
The whole narration is by the husband in a letter to his wife’s elder brother abroad! There is a declaration, or judgement rather, at the end in a couple of sentences and there is no knowing whether it is of the writer or the letter-writer in the narration. The following are the averments: Amnesia is not a disease. It could be a panacea for all bereaved souls as well.
The reader may feel that the story could have been titled ‘A Bereaved Soul’, more meaningfully.
Some of the stories are touching and their ardrata makes them memorable. ‘Dear God, This is Radhika’ is a little girl’s letter to God for having missed her father’s love in the latter’s love to add another floor to his house. The title story is about a clever scoundrel narrated skilfully. Stories about haunted houses are usually good reads though scary for the weak minded. ‘A Weird Brood of Rivals’ is a fine narrative emphasizing the greed of the scheming. Foolish kings are always laughable and they are laughed at with glee. ‘The Gold Seeds’ is about a stupid king who has to hang his head in shame when a fakir asks him in the open court: ‘Your Majesty! Is there no one honest in your kingdom?’ ‘The Day of the Minister’ is another story which draws laughter owing to a poor man’s desire to get photographed with the ministerkissing and fondling his daughter. Newspapers do their bit with the news item at the end: Madman Manhandles Minister.
The best of the stories in the second collection is the one at the end titled ‘After Grandma, Who?’ There are plays within plays and there could be stories within stories as here. The story within is juicy for thirsty adolescents. More to it later. The narrator is a doctor who begins the narration for the possible treatments of mad-dog bites. After talking about vaccines and things like tissue culture he comes to the point:
‘My maternal grandmother was no witch, for she neither looked like one nor practised the craft. … Yet, every one rushed to her when they were graced by the sharp teeth of dogs. (He did not say mad for obvious reasons being in the medical profession) Where did he learn the art of removing the poison from the blood stream and healing the wounds inflicted by dogs remains still a mystery to me.’
The narrative technique is captivating: the reader’s curiosity is roused and then the suspense has to be kept rising and it is done very well. Then comes the story about Vaithi Naiker who gets bitten by a surely mad dog. The treatment (mysterious even to a practising doctor) is given and then comes within the story the tale narrated voluptuously from Velu, the doc’s friend of long standing. Then the doc is electrified. When the narration is over the doc wishes to know more. “‘That’s right,’ I said, still eager to know why the washer woman blew out the lamp when Vaithi Naiker pushed her gently on the coir cot. Surely I must take a few lessons from Velu.”
The electrifying narration is not the doc’s but his friend Velu’s. The grandma breathes her last in the presence of her grandson and her cured patient. Her last words were: ‘I’ll not tell you the secret of curing dog bites. The saved man moans “After Rajambal, who?’
At the end this is the doc’s answer to Vaithi’s question: ‘Me, I was about to say. But an altogether different word spilled out of my mouth, “None.”’
The reader wants a spicy, juicy, tasty story and does not raise questions for he knows a tale is a tale and after all the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There my be absurd, unsatisfactory, bland, insipid or dirty stories but they are still stories and not out of every writer’s hundred or thousand stories all would be of the same level.
‘My Father’s Bicycle’, the third collection, came out in 2005. Raja’s dedication is a clue to the family penchant. It reads: ‘To my father who gracefully concocted stories &(sic) to my mother who faithfully believed them in Toto.’
‘Swami’s Dog’ is a story for light, rapid, smile reading. There would be no use looking for the book the writer cites in page.6. ‘First Love’ is the experience of a very young first time lover obviously an adolescent. The young woman gives him a revelation much later after running away saying her brother is seeing them from a distance. Young women are prone to this kind of ruse, realizes the young man when he comes to know that her brother was a primary school kid. ‘The Cook who saved the Natives’ is an excellent story. The writer says that it is based on the legendary history of Pondicherry. The writer displays captivating narrative mode. There are pauses of actual narration by interlacing it with statements like ‘As their strong desire for tasty dishes grew, many native women secured jobs as cooks in Frenchmen’s houses … The old lady paused. She pulled out a pouch from the hip portion of her sari, untied its mouth and took out a wad of tobacco and pushed it in one corner of her mouth. She then made indistinct sounds and finally a big he-hem, and cleared her throat. To come back to the story the cook unveils the truth at the end saying: ‘scooped two handfuls of salt and emptied them into the saucepan and stirred it thoroughly well,’ she said and exploded into a laugh. But for her act of wisdom and goodness there would have been several killings just for eating human flesh in Pondicherry
‘Lost Shoes’ is a thrilling story of a little boy for whom the police officer has to buy a new pair of shoes to keep the good opinion of the boy about his honour and reputation winning services. ‘Darshan’ is about the visit to Sarbeswara in Sarbeswaram. The wife has a dream repeatedly and compels her hubby to take her there. Their earlier visits failed to have the darshan but there was renovation or debris there. She asks her hubby ‘What happened next? He replies ‘That is obvious! God had the darshan of Sundari,” He says further ‘My wife changed colour. She wept. I knew why. Do you?’ No harm, even if you don’t.
‘As Flies to Wanton Boys’ is the story of an absurd charge and the divine interposition of the god on the machine making the enquiring officer realize how punishments occur to the innocent. He hurts a boy hitting him riding on his scooter but was exonerated that the boy himself was responsible for the accident. ‘I was up on that tree, lost my balance and fell on a speeding motor cyclist.’ This makes the officer decide to give a clean chit to the teacher who was charged with having a woman in the chemistry lab at midnight.
‘Ghosts’ is the story of a psychiatrist and a boy. The boy’s answers on the couch surprise the psychiatrist. The last part of the narration goes thus;
‘ You never had friendly neighbours to spend time with?’
‘Friendly neighbours? Strange are the ways of city dwellers. No one knows his neighbour and the phrase ‘friendly neighbours’ is taboo to them.’
‘How about your friends?’
‘I was always a top ranker. And that drove my classmates away from me. Only when I joined college, a couple of girls became very friendly with me. But my mother successfully cut all my relationship with the girls. Boy or girl … no one can quench the sort of love I crave for.’
Dr. Hornblower looked at Ganapathi blankly, as if he ran out of questions. Finally, he managed to ask, ‘Oh! Is that why you want to have a revolver?’
‘Yes! A revolver with three bullets.’ Ganapathi’s voice was assertive.
‘What is the third bullet for? Is it for you? Or for me?” Dr. Hornblower gave a smile … a mocking unpleasant smile.
Ganapathi cupped his hands round his eyes then crouched and looked skyward. ‘The third one,’ he said, is for the orphanage keeper who allowed my so called parents to adopt me.
Many of Raja’s stories are about marital situations, escapades and adventures of not just men only but also of women and the foibles of human beings. One remembers Puck’s wonder and his remark in Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream “Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ ‘The Bald’ is a very short and very interesting story of a man who married two women who successfully made him bald. He tells the professor who judged him wrongly while running his palm against his pate that he has married two, ‘one out of compulsion and the other out of necessity.’ ‘Toffee’ is about a man’s gumption in tackling ‘wife’ problems. ‘Identity’ is a narration about a single woman marrying a peon in her office, a widower with a son, just to secure a safe and uncommented upon accommodation. ‘The Foreign Balloon’ is a droll story about a condom. ‘My Father’s Bicycle’ is about the infatuation of a father on his imported Raleigh bicycle. For taking out his bicycle he beats up his own son and hospitalizes him. The boy’s conclusion is this: ‘Three weeks later I was discharged. Back home, I scorned the bicycle. But it looked more majestic than ever, with not a speck of dirt on it. “Who is my father’s son? You are me?” I cried excitedly, and almost violently, at the bicycle.’
Raja is an adept in making use of perfect translation equivalents of English to the language of his region, words, phrases and even proverbs. ‘Cow dung cake’, ‘pop-rice’, ‘hem of sari’, ‘pants (for trousers); ‘his face is well shaven’ ‘clear as a coconut kernel’, ‘cloth-cradle’ and ‘what snake hides in which ant-hill’, to cite only a few. There are coinages too, like ‘glassmate’ and ‘constipated-look’. Look at this expression: ‘he pulled the dhoti up his waist, passed its front in between his thighs, and tucked it into his dhoti top line from behind.’
Raja’s creation of stories is indigenous, fascinating and many a time titillating too.
Raja P, The Blood and Other Stories, (First published in 1991) Second Edition, Busy Bee Books, 2011
Raja P, Kozhi Grandpa’s Chickens, Busy Bee Books, 1997
Raja P. My Father’s Bicycle, Busy Bee Books, 2005