A collection of short stories written by writers writing in the same language and coming from the same place can often cover the past and present of a place more widely than it is possible for a novel which, even those moving back and forth in time to cover a long period, mostly takes a linier trajectory.
The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told translated by Arunava Sinha do something similar: the collection brings together the work of the most famous and not so famous Bengali writers coming from different periods and places of Bengal and covering a huge landscape from Bengal’s past and present.
Alas, it is hard to understand whether it is by design or accident. Sinha informs us, in the introduction, that his choice of stories isn’t based on any scholarly or thematic consideration; instead on what he considers best stories or stories he has been able to place himself. On a more informative note, he informs us that Bengali short stories can’t be traced to any particular period or group of practitioners of the form; they were always being written; they were always there, evolving with time.
The first story in the collection is Rabindra Nath Tagore’s famous Kabuliwallah. Having seen its movie adaptations, which were lengthened by songs, I felt the story ended too soon, although it read surprisingly fresh. Mahesh, by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, tells the story of a Muslim man who owns a cow called Mahesh and takes care of the animal with fatherly affection and care. One day, due to Mahesh, misfortune visits him and enraged he hits Mahesh on its head killing the animal. The village turns against him accusing him of cow slaughter. It was written around a century back.
Einstein and Indubala deals with our preference for entertainment over scholarship. Einstein visits a small town to deliver a lecture. On the day the lecture is scheduled, there is another event in the town which everyone is awaiting: a live performance by Indubala, a cine sensation. When Einstein arrives at the lecture venue he finds all the seats empty.
The guard informs him that everyone would have gone to watch Indubala perform. Finally the scientist goes to the place and finds the organizers of his lecture sitting there. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay had written it based on a report he had read in a newspaper.
I found Sunil Gangopadhay’s Post Mortem too incoherent. It reminded me of what the writer had once told about writing short stories. In his initial days as a writer he was reluctant to try out short stories, until a friend told him one day that writing short stories was easy: write what you do in a day, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed, and stop somewhere, and you have a short story.
Swapan is Dead, Long Live Swapan by Udayan Ghosh deals with Naxalism, the only story in the collection to deal with the socio-political issue which had rocked Bengal in the 70s. I also liked Mahaswtha Devi’s Urvashi and Johnny which is about people who call streets their home. There are a few more in the collection.
The literary merit of the stories notwithstanding, the book’s title -The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told - could be a little more understated as also the title of its introduction where Sinha justifies putting together the collection – My Love Affair with Bengali Stories.