Stories which are short enough are called short stories. We love reading them because of their brevity, their ability to convey a lot within a short space. They provide pleasure or pain without taking up too much of readership time. They have always had a perennial appeal since time immemorial. My purpose here is not to praise the art of short story writing. But I will try to bring to the readers’ attention and memory, a few gems belonging to the particular genre that has withstood the test of time and should be handed down from generation to generation. These are testaments of the passage of history. Yet they reveal emotions that are timeless.
Reading a short story as a prescribed text for courses is quite different from reading them at one’s leisure hours or in a restive mood. The former situation robs all the fun off reading. Analysing a text for examination purposes is akin to tearing off the petals, one by one, of a flower. Whereas reading a short story for the simple joy of reading, allows one to appreciate the beauty of the flower, in full bloom.
There has been umpteen instances where a writer adept at writing fiction (mostly novels) – has failed miserably while writing a short story. For us, who read a majority of world literature in translation, the choices are aplenty. There are some masters who had perfected the art of the short story in such a way that their longer fictional works do not come to mind.
Guy de Maupassant’s short stories built a whole generation of writers, who read and tried to emulate his easy prose style. His short story, “The Diamond Necklace” stands apart in its wit and careful study of human behaviour. O’Henry’s “The last Leaf” speaks of the passion and pleasure of life and of love. Ireland, especially Dublin, ruled supreme in the heart of a writer like James Joyce. His Dubliners is a collection of stories which are all centred on the people inhabiting the city. I had read his story, “Araby” for my graduation classes. Much in a like manner, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle’s works speak of an England, particularly London, which acts like a leitmotif. We are transported into a period in history just around and after the Industrial Revolution respectively.
Short stories and novels have always balanced out each other, vying for the readers’ attention and reflection. As short stories can be read in one go (the current trend of writing flash fiction or a story of around 100 words is symptomatic of our lifestyle), they offer instant gratification and reading pleasure. We emit a sigh of relief after reading a short story. For a novel, it is not that easy. It is as though the novelist wants all the readers to realise the painstaking process and efforts that went into his work.
In the present times, as with everything else, the reading habit also has undergone a sea change. E-Readers and Kindles are for people who read books on the go. But to my mind, nothing can match the pleasure of taking up a paperback – any work of fiction, admire the pristine pages and sit down in a cosy nook to read the initial pages.
When I was younger till about a few years ago, novels written by authors like Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy attracted me more than compilations of short stories. But of late, I am reading a lot of the latter genre. Right now, I am reading a collection of 100 short stories by Anton Chekov. Even though these stories are primarily about the Russian ways of life in the late nineteenth century, yet they convey feelings which are universal, relevant and enjoyable.
Due to the prevalent and ongoing Covid crisis, we are getting the time to hone our creative skills. People are taking up writing and reading books like never before. So, on the one side, while the world is battling the ravages of the pandemic, people like us, who are lucky and fortunate, are taking up the quill and penning down poems, short stories, novellas or plays. Whatever may be the case, the urgency of self expression in this claustrophobic atmosphere has been realised and quite importantly too.
The best selling author, Shobha De has written Lockdown Liaisons which is a collection of stories which probably recount the experiences revolving around this unprecedented measure by the government imposed on its people. When I was a student and had to read a lot of text books, so as to achieve that magical figure in Board Examinations, I had longed for a time when I’d be able to read plenty of storybooks.
A library is more than a treasure house for books. I think it is the temple of learning. A library inculcates a love for reading in a discerning reader. I had grown up in an ordinary middle class Bengali milieu, where both my parents were struggling against all odds, in order to earn a living and help me gain a toehold in the social structure. I used to frequent libraries and borrowed books by the dozen. This had been a habit with me even a couple of years back.
The quarantine and lockdown days should motivate more and more people to read books. And, better still, take time out to express their creativity which lay buried for so many, many years. Here’s to the joys of reading as well as of writing!!