“The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories” by Dhumketu

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, Dhumketu, Jenny Bhatt (trans) (Deep Vellum, July 2022; HarperCollins India, September 2020) The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, Dhumketu, Jenny Bhatt (trans) (Deep Vellum, July 2022; HarperCollins India, September 2020)

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. He also published travelogues, essays, translations and literary criticism.  

In her introduction, translator Jenny Bhatt makes a strong case for a re-evaluation of Dhumketu’s work. She argues that if Dhumketu had been more widely translated and read in his time, he would have been considered the equal of Tolstoy, Chekov and Tagore. She writes that her own work, she hopes, may go some way to redress the balance.


The key to understanding Dhumketu is his belief that the short story is most successful when it uses allusions or “sparks” to fire the reader’s emotions or thoughts. Instead of spelling out an exact description of a character or direct criticism of the society in which he lived, Dhumketa offers hints (and occasionally hard truths) which allow the reader to fill in the gaps using their own imagination.

This device is at work in The Noble Daughters-in-Law, a tragic tale of two widowed women. Yamuna’s family are wealthy until her father dies and, though no fault of their own, she and her mother lose their former status. Dhumketa drily notes:


Yamuna became the daughter of an impoverished widow. This change in a society where money is given limitless prestige is considered of much significance.


Yamuna, who is described merely as “beautiful”, marries herself but suffers the same fate: her husband is murdered by thugs, as is the cart-puller who attempts to save him. Yamuna’s in-laws are horrified by her attempt to help the (lower caste) cart-puller’s widow and turn on her. She flees the house and disappears. Dhumketa lets the facts speak for themselves:


The rich in-laws felt no need to investigate because her husband had died. And there was no place for a widowed daughter-in-law. She was the daughter of poor parents; so, she had no standing.


After several unpleasant adventures, Yamuna finds work in a nobleman’s house. He too dies, leaving his wife in a perilous position because there is no male heir. Rather than face the inevitable—becoming a prostitute—she burns herself to death, taking Yamuna with her. It is an unnecessary waste of human life, but Dhumketa does not apportion blame: the final conclusion is left to the reader.


Another “spark” or flash of inspiration is portrayed in the title story where the narrator is overwhelmed by a lament played on a shehnai, a woodwind instrument similar to an oboe. Feeling that his soul has been hijacked by the music, the narrator grasps for rational thought to explain the sensation. When logic escapes him, the narrator has an epiphany of self-knowledge. Dhumketu writes:


… that’s when I realised that my reserve of pure wisdom was close to nothing. What appeared to be wisdom was an argumentative account of received prejudices.


Likewise, in A Happy Delusion, the narrator is struck by a budding author’s lifelong attempt to establish a magazine. Manmohan sacrifices everything in order to keep his literary whimsy afloat. It is never successful – or any good – but his determination and hard work is extraordinary. So too is the fact that he seems to be happy. The narrator realizes that Manmohan’s “non-accomplishment itself was his great accomplishment.” In modern parlance, the moral of the story might be that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

The translator has kept some of the original Gujarati phrases for effect and the stories retain their historical setting. There is no modernization of scene or era. Yet Dhumketu’s insights show that, while times change, human nature does not. It is these little pearls of wisdom which make Dhumketu’s stories timeless and relevant to today.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.