Awake When All the World is Asleep
By Shree Ghatage
An English critic once dismissed the short story as a typically Indian form--something that no publisher is really interested in printing--and therefore something that no serious modern writer is really interested in exploring. There are, of course, excep-
tions to this sweeping statement. Short stories appear in magazines, run in contests and are collated in collections. But the form is practised nowhere with such serious- ness as in the Indian subcontinent and by those Indians who have moved bag and baggage with their culture to other parts of the world.
Shaila has returned to Bombay for her father's sixtieth birthday party. In the linked stories that follow, Shree Ghatage renders an India that can only be revealed first by leaving, then by returning. This is Ghatage's first published collection of stories. She lives in Canada and moves be-
tween her two worlds in the currently fash-
ionable manner. But her creative dilemmas do not yet concern the problems of reconciling two different cultures. She touches upon this topic briefly only once, in the opening story in which she tells her parents that she intends to marry a Canadian called Simon. To which her mother replies, 'I want you to think very carefully before you re-
ject this culture which is so much a part of you to establish that you "and nobody else" have control over your life.'
Ghatage's stories are about control. They are set in Bombay, though unlike Vikram Chandra's stories, here Bombay is not an essential character in the stories. They are in essence stories of the ordinary days of Indian life that take place in a thousand and one cities across the subcontinent: a daughter coming from Canada to confront her parents' traditional views of life; a vil-
lager whose wives always die; the dilemma of an adopted daughter; twins who, when con-
fronted with infidelity, realise they will never meet each other again. Fragments of the way things are and were. Ghatage looks for the unexpected truths that lie hidden behind everyday life and tries to portray them without overstating them or resorting to an exotic bag of literary tricks.
The stories are based firmly in character and in a dramatis personae who reappear again and again from previous stories, some-
times even before we realise that they have done so. Her style is poignant with a dash of humour. The twist in the tale comes subtly, understatedly, often so much so that you have to read the passage a second time before the meaning of the deeper truth sinks in. Her language is intricate, touched with occasional poetry, though the writing remains confident and forceful. Sometimes the stories need more time than they are given and the pace seems forced, as if the writer were working under the constraint of a word limit or as if she had suddenly thought of a better idea. Her revelations are not earth-shattering, nor is her style especially eye-catching. Her writing, in fact, verges on the commonplace at times, adapting itself to the diurnal issues on which her collection centres. But that is her strength and has much to do with the success and promise of this book.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quar-
terly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)