A round-up of reviews of fiction and short story collections in translation from Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesia and eight different South Asian languages, classical and modern.
Chinatown, Thuân, translated Nguyễn An Lý
Thuan is writing from great artistic traditions as she teases out issues of choice and uncertainty, and follows the eternal presence of two men in constant contrast as her narrator sorts through her life and the cultural and temporal spaces these issues occupy. She does so as a writer’s writer, acutely aware of the accumulation and arrangement of the details that give life to her novel, and of the novel’s structure and its language, with repetitions of words, sentence structures, emotional states and images, all working with a rolling momentum as her narrator sits locked within her own constraints of a two-hour frame and an aesthetic that foregrounds the mysterious.
Happy Stories, Mostly, by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao
Norman Erikson Pasaribu is an Indonesian poet whose debut collection Sergius Mencari Bacchus won the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Competition. It was translated as Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Tiffany Tsao. Pasaribu’s recent collection of short stories, Cerita-Cerita Bahagia Hampir Seluruhnya, has also been translated by Tiffany Tsao, under the title Happy Stories, Mostly. The collection was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.
People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated by Tiffany Tsao
The author lists as influences authors as varied as Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, but he also seems to be channeling Roald Dahl, another writer whose short stories feature vaguely off-kilter protagonists in unhealthy (literally or figuratively) situations, yielding a similar sense of unease and discomfort that remains behind after the stories conclude.
The Dog of Tithwal by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon
Intense is the way to describe The Dog of Tithwal, a new volume of Manto’s selected stories newly translated by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, full of characters caught up in abominable or tragic circumstances, victims to greed and religion. The collection may best be approached via two outstanding stories, the title story and “Mozail”. Both are portrayals of violence, one is depicted in the pathetic killing of a dog and the other through a heart-rending suicide/killing of a woman. Mad men or animals or women who become symbols of sanity and sacrificial beings in light of the bloodbath around them.
After the War: The Last Books of the Mahabharata, translated by Wendy Doniger
The translation aims at making the ending of the Mahabharata accessible in a more or less contemporary idiom. Her selection starts with the Pandavas, the victors of the great war, visiting their mother and their uncle and aunt (the parents of the vanquished cousins in the war) who have moved to the forest living as hermits. The three die shortly after the visit. Then Krishna and his entire clan dies. The epic ends with the Pandavas going to Heaven.
Nireeswaran by VJ James, translated by Ministhy S
The novel is a delight: it makes for a gripping narrative that balances the turn of events that border on the miraculous with philosophical reflections on being human. Readers will find the working of the varied miracles in the novel very believable, learning something interesting from each as they see prayers come true in exquisite and surprising ways. In Nireeswaran, James takes the social evil of superstition and turns it into something nobler than satire: the story does not want to mock or correct a societal wrong; it wants the readers to pause and reflect, to look at life with wonder. It is an unusual victory of the sublime over the didactic.
The Wait and Other Stories by Damodar Mauzo, translated by Xavier Cota
Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo’s collection The Wait and Other Stories, translated by Xavier Cota into English, stands out for its simplicity. One might expect it to be about Goa, the region in southwestern Indian where Konkani is spoken. However, the canvas of the storytelling is far wider.
Pebblemonkey by Manindra Gupta, translated by Arunava Sinha
With climate change and environmental conservation on many minds these days, it’s only fitting that the late Manindra Gupta’s 2016 short novel, Pebblemonkey, told from the point of view of an adventurous monkey, has recently been translated into English by Arunava Sinha. The story takes on magical realism and weaves it into a cautionary tale about humans who exploit nature and think nothing of it.
Life And Political Reality: Two Novellas by Shahidul Zahir, translated by V Ramaswamy and Shahroza Nahrin
Bangladeshi writer Shahidul Zahir’s “Life and Political Reality”, the first of two novellas in this collection and more aptly described as a long paragraph, is a breathless account mostly of two days fifteen years apart—and to some extent a few days in between. The first day is the day the then-West Pakistani army enters Lakshmi Bazar, a small neighbourhood in East Pakistan in 1971.
Chronicles Of The Lost Daughters by Debarati Mukhopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha
Naraach, meaning weapon, is the original title of this absorbing historical epic, first published in Bengali. It sums up the novel’s purpose: a blistering indictment of the abuse of women in 19th-century Bengal. Prolific novelist Debarati Mukhopadhyay skillfully combines three major narrative threads with historical facts to present her case. She also draws in real-life individuals from the time, including the former Nawab of Awadh and Kadombini Gangopadhyay, one of the first Indian women to become a practising doctor. This creates a large cast of seemingly disparate characters who connect in a dramatic finale.
Banaras Talkies by Satya Vyas, translated by Himadri Agarwal
Satya Vyas’s 2015 bestselling campus novel Banaras Talkies—telling the stories of three undergraduate friends who have just started law school—has recently been translated into English by Himadri Agarwal and is full of humor, wit, and undergraduate antics.
Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times, edited by Volga, translated by M Sridhar and Alladi Uma
In India, a land of many languages, not all languages are created equal. In particular, the government has designated a half dozen as being “classical” and therefore deserving of special support. One of these is Sanskrit, but others are still being spoken (albeit in versions very different from the ancient times). One of these officially venerable languages is Telugu, spoken in two southern provinces Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The “best” in Telugu: The Best Stories of Our Times—a collection of works from 26 writers, selected by award-winning Telugu writer Volga and translated by by Alladi Uma and M Sridhar—is not meant as a superlative or subjective but rather as a reflection of Telugu-speaking society since the 1990s: the “our times” of the title.
The most substantial selection in English of short stories by Dhumketu, a pioneer of the short story form in Gujarati literature, is brought together in this new translation by Jenny Bhatt. Dhumketu, the pen-name of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, was a prolific writer in the first half of the 20th century, producing 500 short stories, over 35 novels and several plays.