Editor: David Davidar
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A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces is an anthology containing 39 Indian short stories, edited by David Davidar.
The editor of this book has been very straightforward about the rule he used to create this anthology: each of the stories had to have an Indian essence, and each of them had to have appealed to him on a personal level. So I’m going to review it using the same rule!
What I liked
Naturally, most of the stories are wonderful. The usual suspects are all there: Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand, Khushwant Singh, R.K.Narayan. The stories are organised somewhat chronologically, so reading the book from cover to cover (as I did) is like watching a film about Indian lives, Indian mores, Indian sensibilities across the last century. I encountered some authors I hadn’t read before: Ambai, Anna Bhau Sathe, Manjula Padmanabhan. In fact, a lot of South Indian authors that I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading before. Contemporary Indian fiction is represented by Anita Desai, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Tharoor and more.
Special mention: Bena Sareen’s cover design. Her book covers are so evocative, so meditative… I can’t analyse what makes them so, but there are times I want to buy Aleph Book Company’s books just because of her covers. (Check out the hardcover version of The Freethinker’s Prayer Book by Khushwant Singh, or The King’s Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshta, or Butterflies on the Roof of the World by Peter Smetacek.
What I didn’t
1. Come on! This is David Davidar, who has spent a lifetime in the publishing industry. Why stick to known favorites? Why not go out on a limb and introduce readers to writers whose work is not included in the regular school syllabus?
2. Perhaps criticism no. 1 is unfair, given how clearly the editor states his rule for selecting stories (read above). So then, regarding the stories he did pick: I wasn’t sure these were the best choices from each individual author’s body of work. I mean, A Horse and Two Goats from R. K. Narayan? You have got to be kidding.
3. This one is just me being provincial (since I myself am Konkani). Why isn’t there any representation from Konkani authors, Assamese authors or Gujarati authors? I don’t buy the “there were no good translations” line. Manohar Shetty’s book “Ferry Crossing” has translations of stories by Chandrakant Keni, Pundalik Naik, Damodar Mauzo and many others. Sonia Faleiro’s “The Girl” is a Goan novella written in English. So is Janice Pariat’s book of stories set in the North-East, “Boats on Land”. No fair!
Oh well. Though I’ve complained quite a bit above, the total rating I’ve given the book is 3.5/5 … a high one. This is mainly because, all said and done this is a great anthology, in spite of the errors of commission and omission. If I had to give a teenager, or a non-Indian, or a novice reader a book of Indian short stories to read, this would be a great choice… with a few inclusions it might have been the ideal one. For readers looking for something extraordinary, though, this one can leave you a bit unsatisfied… in which case, I’d urge you to try the Katha Prize Stories volumes. As I plan to.