One of the reasons why Chekhov is considered to be one of the greatest short story writers is his mastery over time. The classical novel seeks to capture the passage of time, the experiential reality of long nights and punishing days. The short story, however, is more like capturing one moment in time, like an insect forever trapped in amber, preserved flawlessly for all eternity.
For Now, It Is Night
Harper Perennial India
For Now, It Is Night, a recently published collection of short stories of the Kashmiri writer Hari Krishna Kaul, understands this quite well. Many of the 17 stories here deliver precisely that insect-trapped-in-amber feeling. And the exhibit under display is Kashmir itself, in all its contradictions and challenges, upheavals and displacements. Somewhat unusually, these stories have been rendered into English by four separate translators, each tackling one phase of the writer’s career.
Also Read | Death, decay, and disintegration
The opening story, “Sunshine”, is a highly poignant reminder of the many things we take for granted that are simply not commonplace for Kashmiris. The central character, a middle-aged woman named Poshkuj, is visiting her Delhi-dwelling son, Surendarnath (Saiba to his mother), and daughter-in-law, Chhoti, and the most precious commodity for her in this megapolis is sunlight. It is the lack of consistent sunlight that has led to her little grandson (born to Poshkuj’s other son) developing chilblains back in Srinagar.
Sunshine, or its lack, acts as a metaphor for the suppressed dreams of this woman, or rather the things that she has consciously given up on. If sunshine is happiness, a cloudy sky is surely regret, the story seems to suggest. Sample this passage, where she thinks about Surendarnath’s achievements and how she, Poshkuj, wasted a golden chance to get a fat dowry during his wedding.
“He had gone to England on a scholarship to study, and had then found a job there with the Indian High Commission. Recently transferred to Delhi, he had a good position in the Ministry of External Affairs with a salary of approximately one thousand rupees. He had been married off before leaving for England. Truth be told, Poshkuj regretted that decision. If Saiba were single now, some well-to-do man would have been begging her for an alliance for his daughter. Anyway, what’s done is done, she mused. She never spoke of that disappointment to anyone.”
Private disappointments and covertly dealt wounds are recurring themes in Kaul’s stories. In this world, there are no pantomime villains. Instead, the protagonist’s near-and-dear ones are often those who deliver the unkindest cuts. As for example, in the story “Twins”, which takes a modernist approach to the idea of the “evil twin”, or the doppelganger. Here, the twins are identical, and we meet one of them in the aftermath of the other’s untimely death. The deceased is a writer, somewhat naive and definitely not the kind who is savvy with money.
See how Kaul invites the reader to trace a pattern in the surviving brother’s drunken ramblings. In every inebriated leap of logic, there is this sense of political and economic realities on a collision course with each other.
“I smelt his breath. Perhaps he’d had an extra drink that day, which is why the wretch was talking of lakhs and crores. Then he became even more incoherent and began to ramble. He talked about communism, then switched to the music halls of Czechoslovakia. He boasted about socialism and then he blathered on about income tax. He delivered a sermon on Gandhi’s non-violence and spoke of smoke rising from the cotton mills of Ahmedabad.”
Split into two
The idea of the doppelganger receives an even more interesting spin in “One Sahib and the Other”, where we meet two politicians from opposite ends of the aisle. One of them is a rationalist while the other opts for the communally charged brand of politics. One of them has a daughter, the other a son. One of them is soft-spoken, the other in-your-face and abrasive.
And yet, even as they sit and drink tea and smoke tobacco in harmonious coexistence, they speak casually of leading their followers against each other. Confrontations are planned in lockstep, almost, so much so that one particularly funny moment sees one of the sahibs borrowing money from the other ahead of a public rally where both are supposed to be in attendance. The reason? The borrowing sahib’s comrades need to buy black flags in order to protest the lending sahib’s presence.
“Hari Krishna Kaul revels in ambiguity, holding his cards close to the chest until the last couple of paragraphs.”
Are they smarter, kinder, more enlightened than the average Joe? the story asks of us. Or are they smooth-talking sociopaths who think nothing of manipulating their followers like puppets?
Kaul revels in this sort of ambiguity, holding his cards close to his chest until the last couple of paragraphs in the story, which reminded me more than once of the classic Premchand story Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess-Players). Another story, “Curfew”, is an immensely subtle, almost unclassifiable story about the slow-burn terror of being forcefully confined—a tedious unravelling of the mind. By the end of the story, the protagonist no longer knows exactly how he feels; all he knows is that there is a barely repressed rage inside him, which fails to ignite only because of his immense exhaustion.
Also Read | Lost homeland: Review of ‘Rooh’ by Manav Kaul
“He felt exhausted, as though he had actually shouted slogans on the street; hurled stones at the military; as if he had burnt a few buses and a few trucks; as if he had pulled out electric wires and telephone cables–he got up from the window and lay down, resting his head on his elbows. He tried hard to fall asleep but failed.”
The title story alone would have been worth “the price of admission”, so to say. But as it turns out, there are at least five or six stories here that ought to be in the literary curricula across the country. But of course, nothing of that sort will happen because these stories speak of Kashmir. I invite you to read this brilliant book; you can thank me later.
Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.