“A short story is a collaboration between a writer and a reader.”

– Shana Susan Ninan

Murli Melwani is the perceptive author of Themes In The Indian Short Story In English: An Historical And A Critical Survey. Below is an email interview of his. You’ll note that his insightful remarks and comments in the book are quite repeated here in the interview. Keen and crisp observations bear a mark in his answers.

SSN: Besides Indian short stories in English being under-projected, what were your reasons to do a critical survey of the same?

MM: The reasons are both literary and personal. First, the literary. Look at all the cultures and sub-cultures we have in this huge country. You need flexible literary forms to convey the essence of these patterns of life. After poetry, the short story is the most flexible of literary forms. A short story can be anything the writer makes it. Something as fragile as Liam O’Flaherty’s sketch of the first flight of a black bird to something as heavily carpentered as Somerset Maugham’s plotted stories of atmosphere, interplay of motive and incisive characterisation. Conveying an unusual or a particular ethnic experience is best done by writing, to use Jane Austen’s phrase, on a “little bit – two inches wide –of ivory”. The short story is that two inches of ivory.

Also, collections of short stories have a tendency to disappear as easily from public memory as they do from library shelves. People are talking about Madhusree Mukherjee’s* portrayal of the Great Bengal Famine, but who remembers Ela Sen’s collection of short stories today?**. The famine occurred in 1943. Ela Sen’s book came out in 1944. Ela Sen’s portrayal is so very authentic. Almost as if she was walking among the starving skeletal figures.

The personal. I made a career change: from a college teacher in India to an exporter in Taiwan. In those days Taipei had only one English book store. Most of the books were on English as a second language! The conversation by and large centered round business charts, figures, targets. I needed to give myself an intellectual lifeline. H.E.Bates’s The Modern Short Story came to my rescue. This book gives us the author’s personal assessment of a number of great short story writers in England, Ireland, America and Russia. This book was my inspiration for a long-term project. I love short stories. I found there was very little critical work on Indian short stories in English. I asked myself, why not pioneer an historical and a critical survey? I got over collections of short stories from India. Made notes for the twenty five years I lived in Taiwan. I put the notes together when I moved to the U.S. The book came out in late 2009.

SSN: What gives short stories their richness? As in, when compared to other forms of writing.

MM; A number of qualities. Suggestiveness, for one. Brevity, for another. Compression, for a third. A short story is really a collaboration between a writer and a reader. The words are the code. The pages are the transmitter. The reader’s imagination is the transistor that receives the waves and reconstructs a whole. It is this elasticity of the short story that makes it such a great form.

SSN: Having been a short story writer yourself, was it easier to critically survey such a topic?

MM: Definitely. I could see how the short story writer was trying to create a character. Assume the author’s aim was to bring alive a character by means of her gestures: at one point he could show her smoothening back her hair with a casual brush of the palm; at another, using her hands to make a point. A skilful writer can suggest the atmosphere of a rainy day by indicating the dampness that permeated the walls. The point is I could read the writer’s intentions.

SSN: What was the inspiration for the cover of your book?

MM: When my publisher asked me what I’d like to emphasise on the cover, I told him to try to depict the traditional and the modern existing side by side. The co-existence of tradition and change are a fact of Indian life. How can short stories writers not tacitly or implicitly acknowledge them?  The publisher’s artist did the rest.

SSN: What is the reception of Indian short stories in English abroad, not just the countries with a large Indian population?

MM: To be honest, collections of short stories sell less than novels. The American universities that offer Asian studies carry them. Mostly stories are eye openers for Americans. “There’s hardly anything about caste in this book.” This from a review of Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. I would not know the situation in other countries.

SSN: Internet, social networking sites and ‘little’ publishers have given a renewed impetus to short stories. Do you think this’ll inspire up and coming writers?

MM: Without doubt. Just pull up e-zine sites. Look at these two online magazines Zoetrope and Narrative. In 2008, Penguin India brought a selection Blogprint: The Winners of the Sulekha.com-Penguin Online Writing Contest. I believe www.sulekha.com received over a thousand entries for the contest.

SSN: Qualities that a short story writer should possess.

MM: A very difficult question. I’ll try to answer it, anyway. He should compress language. He should suggest, rather than pencil in, character. He should hint at, rather than paint the setting. The theme should be self-evident, rather than stated. Raymond Carver’s stories are good models of a short story writer’s craft.

SSN: Any existing short story you think you should’ve written and why.

MM: I wish I could have written Padma Hejmadi’s The Uncles and the Mahatma. It’s a gem of a story. Why? Because it has richness of theme, a touch of comedy, finely etched characters, a deep understanding of Indian tradition.

SSN: Anything else you’d like to comment on.

MM: Two comments, if you will allow me. One, Women writers in India continue to amaze me with their unusual perspectives and experiences. A recent example: the stories by women in Shinie Antony’s anthology, Why We Don’t Talk. Two, I am pleased at the growth in the number of publishers in India in the last few years. This means more openings for writers.


*in her book, Churchill’s Secret War. Tranquebar

**Darkening Days. Sushil Gupta & Co

Murli Melwani was born, raised and educated in Shillong, Meghalaya. He taught English Literature at Sankardev College, before making a mid-career change to head an export company in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1980. He now lives in Plano, Texas. Blockbuster books and movies have their place, he says, but he prefers Indie movies and books by ethnic writers. Murli Melwani’s occasional journalistic writing appears in The Dallas Morning News. His other books are – A collection of short stories: Stories of a Salesman Writers Workshop 1967. A second edition appeared in 1979. A Play in Three Acts: Deep Roots. 1973. Literary Criticism: Themes in Indo Anglian Literature. Prakash Book Depot. 1973. More about his work can be read on: http://indoenglishstories.blogspot.com/

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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 30th, 2010 at 9:47 pm and is filed under Interview, Non-Fiction, Short Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.


  1. October 31st, 2010 | Sanjiv Bhatla says:

    Somerset Maugham is my favourite Short story writer. I am glad that Murli Melwani too makes a mention of him. I would also like to mention one more name while talking of this genre, though it is not at all essential that MM too should have mentioned it – “our own” Sadat Hassan Munto, the Urdu short story writer, who lived and worked in Bombay (with Urdu BLITZ, if I am not mistaken). One of his collections in English translation was brought out by Penguin India sometime in the 90s. I personally find his short stories in it absolutely the top-class kind, which in my opinion can be ranked among the best in the world.

  2. November 7th, 2010 | Sunder Mukesh says:

    I know Mr Murli Melwani for 4 – 5 years. I will say one thing about him He is A is very Humble and Nice person. God bless him and give him more good ideas to pen.
    Sunder Mukesh

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