The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Poonam Saxena definitively makes good on its boast. This collection is a labor of love from Saxena who confesses herself to be a devourer of Hindi Literature. Regional writers, barring a few who have enjoyed universal acclaim, have long been denied their fair share of appreciation, admiration and popularity. It is a crying shame, because there is a treasure trove of blinding talent, lurking in the nooks and crannies of the artistic world, waiting to be discovered. Translators who work hard to amend this sad situation deserve to be commended for doing their part to give deserving stories the love and exposure they so richly deserve in addition to enhancing their reach in pop culture.
The stories themselves, lovingly gathered and narrated are a treat for readers who are unfamiliar with the bountiful treasures of Hindi Literature. Saxena has selected 25 stories featuring the best work from an earlier time as well as modern talents. The stories from the Nayi Kahani movement which occurred in post – independent India and mirrored a variety of social ills are particularly harrowing and thought – provoking.
Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s ‘She Had Said So’ written over a hundred years ago is a timeless tale of selflessness and sacrifice set during World War I were Indian Soldiers were carted off to die, yearning for home, hearth and delicious mangoes while fighting a war on the bidding of their white conquerors. Stories set in the aftermath of the Partition, communal riots, and War chronicling dark and bloody chapters in the history of India and Pakistan such as ‘The Times Have Changed’ by Krishna Sobti, ‘Lord of the Rubble’ by Mohan Rakesh, which made me bawl uncontrollably when old Ghani mian returns to the home he built which has been reduced to ashes along with the rest of his family and ‘War’ by Shaani capture the horror and pathos of those terrifying times and fill the reader with remorse for the hatred and tolerance that was and is reflective of the sundered bonds between children of what was once the same land.
Poverty and caste discrimination is a recurrent theme in some of the stories which seek to highlight the widening chasms between the privileged and unfortunates which leaves one with a bitter taste in the mouth and a stricken conscience. Premchand’s ‘The Thakur’s Well’ is a hard – hitting tale of poor Gangi who is willing to risk life and limb to slake her husband’s thirst but will have nothing to show for her bravery simply because society will never let her rise above her status as a low caste member
Women’s exploitation as well as the untold hardships they are forced to endure are beautifully portrayed in stories like the chilling, ‘Where Lakshmi is Held Captive’ by Rajendra Yadav. It is one of those stories that you will not forget or forgive in a hurry, given the scale of injustice wreaked by a miserly old man on his own daughter and Agyeya’s ‘Gangrene’, a tale about the tortuous monotony of domestic chores that drain a woman of her vitality. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s ‘Escape’, Yashpal’s ‘Phoolo’s Kurta’ and ‘The Human Measure’ explore the same trope with a touch of macabre humor.
The social evil that is ageism is also highlighted in gripping yarns like Bhisham Sahni, ‘A Feast for the Boss’ where a son wonders what to do with his decrepit old mum when his white boss visits and Usha Priyamvada’s ‘The Homecoming’ where Gajadhar Babu realizes that his family has little use for him on retirement.
Asghar Wajahat’s ‘The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp’ and Uday Prakash’s ‘Tirich’ deserve special mention too, though both are going to haunt my nightmares, simply for being undeniably brilliant. In fact, every single story in this lovely collection is replete with merit, making for some very enjoyable reading and truly delicious experiences.
This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.