Book Review

Good, but not quite best

  • The Best Asian Short Stories presents a varied Asian platter but the collection will not appeal to all palates
- Richa Bhattarai

Jan 12, 2019-

In ‘March, Me and Sakura’ by Geetanjali Shree, a 70-year-old Indian mother travels to Japan to be with her son. At first wary of the unfamiliar country and afraid of venturing out, she ends up an adventurous soul, freeing the child within in the new land, far from judgment and societal restrictions. It is enthralling to travel with her and shed our inhibitions alongside.

This amalgamation of cultures and identities, of a country’s tone clashing with—and yet matching—another, of physical and psychological journeys, of the delicate link that binds all humanity together and the rough blades that hew them apart—all 32 stories compiled in The Best Asian Short Stories (2017) try to hold this element within them. Some elegantly, others bluntly, still others in a nonchalant manner.

Take Mithran Samasundrum’s ‘The Yakuza under the Stairs’. A cab driver-turned-real estate agent travels from London to Bangkok in search of greener pastures, even managing to acquire a Thai wife and a Japanese gangster, but is humbled to discover that even when circumstances are totally transformed, some emotions and ways of life cut across all cultural traits and traditions.

This unity and dissonance of thought and feeling is imbibed vividly in the very first story, ‘Fits and Starts’ by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow. A Chinese woman and a Malay man come together briefly at a fast-food joint, unlearning some of their pasts to mold into the other, relearning, teaching.

Meanwhile, in ‘The Spaces Between Stars’ by Geeta Kothari, an Indian woman squirms to find a common foothold with her American family, while trying to battle her own feelings of inadequacy and puzzled by moral and ethical dilemmas. Just a couple of stories away, in ‘Water on a Hot Plate’, Murli Melwani reminds us that the world is melting into one, even as individual identities evaporate quicker than, well, water on a hot plate. A Sindhi family in Canada, with business in Taiwan, goes out to eat at a Chinese restaurant. Ironically, one of the owners, brought up in India, sports a gold pendant of the Hindu deity Ganesha. There is no turning back from this fascinating yet improbable-seeming cohesion—so what is the way forward?

Plenty of stories in the compilation pose this question, that so resonates with our multicultural, cosmopolitan, salad bowl times. Some of them offer answers, others fear disruption. Some report it with glee, others with apprehension. In this multitude of voices, narratives, queries and doubts, there is one chain that links the stories in a commonality—as much as trade, connectivity, dreams of open orders, diplomacy and protocol, it is actually stories, art, literature and civilisations that connect us—with their strands of a shared history and culture, family and relationships, the constant struggle and pleasure of being part of the complicated Asian tapestry.

It is wonderful that the stories are not limited to South Asia as is usual, but sweep across the continent to encompass similarities and peculiarities from Singapore and Malaysia, Japan and Syria, Pakistan and China. The attempt to branch out to many countries is praiseworthy. India does take up a large chunk of the anthology, and there is no representation from nations like Nepal and Iran, Vietnam and Bhutan. However, the process of selection was transparent and open, as explained by editor Monideepa Sahu in her intelligent and patiently drafted foreword. But this will not stop readers from expecting writing from their own countries to enhance the bright patchwork quilt of stories pouring in from different quarters.

There are quite a few translations in the collection, another laudable fact. The joy of accessing and enjoying soulful translations from languages and authors we might never have heard of otherwise is a good thing to happen in literature. Indeed, this volume includes some stalwarts we know, and introduces us to many more who are a pleasure to read and analyse.

One such story, pleasurable in its art yet touching and painful in content, is ‘Big Mother’ by Farah Ghuznavi—a powerful observation on polygamy, childhood sexual abuse, and the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. A story of the survival of the fittest, a resignation towards life’s surprises and atrocities that the story exhorts us to develop. ‘Ammulu’ by Poile Sengupta starts off as a slow family tale, a father searching for a son-in-law for his demure daughter well-versed in homely arts, yet rejected for her ‘homeliness.’ Her transformation, coinciding with a sudden shift in the tone, is both exhilarating and frightening to witness.

A similarly shocking tale is ‘Pigs’ by Francis Paolo Quina, in which a victim of bullying retaliates. It is quite a macabre scene, yet perfectly illustrates just how dangerous bullying is to both bully and victim. Other thrilling tales include ‘Deep Matches’ by Farouk Gulsara, wherein a South Indian descendent tries to play with customs laws in Malaysia, and ‘Girls’ Home’ by Clara Chow, with dashes of mystery and the charm of old-world China. Also worth mentioning for their thoughtfulness are ‘Powerless’ by Moinul Ahsan Saber and ‘Offspring’ by Subrata Sengupta, both of which untangle complexities of the woman’s body and mind.

And yet, despite a sincere effort to present a varied Asian platter, the collection will not appeal to all palates. Because the stories are not created equal. Some of them, either by virtue of the writers’ own effort or that of the editor, sparkle and seduce, with wonderful nuance and technique. The majority of the stories are above-average in their thought, style and presentation—but this is woefully inadequate for an anthology that sets the benchmark high by proclaiming to contain the ‘best’ stories. At least six stories in the anthology are shoddy, whether due to theme or execution. There are grammatical and linguistic errors that feel as gritty as sand between the teeth. The lackluster stories with sub-par language needed the work of a merciless copy editor before they came together in this volume.

The ambitious collection gives us some great moments, but is unable to deliver on its promise of serenading us with the best stories from Asia.

Published: 12-01-2019 10:12

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