By Ekta R. Garg
February 16, 2011
Rated: Borrow it
In understanding myself as a writer, many times I’ve come face to face with issues of culture as well. Being a first-generation American daughter to Indian parents, I have a rich cultural heritage and a more personal connection to this unbelievable world of words: my paternal grandfather was a journalist and writer in four different languages. Although he died before I knew myself as a writer my passion for story comes from him, and I like to think he would be proud today of the writing I’ve done and plan to do.
Due to the fact that he is no longer alive, however, I don’t have a direct link to the literary heritage of South Asia and more specifically India. So I always find it interesting to read the work of other South Asian writers. I feel with them all at once a sense of affinity and also feel in awe of their talent. Writing about culture and weaving those intricate threads into the fabric of fiction—and doing it well—is by no means an easy task.
Writer Shyam Selvadurai took on the difficult task of being the editor of a collection of short stories that tries to represent the colorful tapestries of South Asia. Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers offers stories from such well-known writers as Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri as well as writers not as well-known in the literary mainstream. The idea, Selvadurai explains in his introduction, is to offer the stories like the vendors common on any neighborhood street in India.
Those vendors all have the “wallah” suffix added to their description—the “chai wallah” sells tea, the “sabji wallah” offers fresh vegetables, and the “story wallah,” by Selvadurai’s account, offers his or her readers the best in fiction. Anyone picking up this collection will certainly get a variety of voices and stories but all of these stories are most certainly rooted in their cultures, be they Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, or Pakistani (among others represented in the book.)
Each of the 26 stories most definitely carries a sense of personal experiences. Characters work in factories or sugar cane fields, they endure racist and degrading remarks from non-South-Asian counterparts, and even within their own countries and cultures they fight systems by circumventing them. In reading through these harsh, cruel living conditions, each author internalizes his or her characters’ trials, and no wonder: some of those trials originate with the authors themselves.
Rooplall Monar grew up in Guyana on a sugar estate and his story “Bahadur” recounts the efforts of a field laborer to get promoted to night watchman. Hanif Kureishi, born in 1954 to a Pakistani father and a British mother, learned first-hand what it meant to struggle between two cultures and recounts some of those difficulties in “We’re Not Jews.” And editor Selvadurai himself relives some of his own personal experiences as a gay youth in “Pigs Can’t Fly,” an excerpt of his novel Funny Boy, which focuses on a young man acknowledging the truth about his sexuality against the backdrop of the violent interactions in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers.
In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t read all 26 stories. Some of them just didn’t cater to my personal tastes, although I certainly made the effort. But that’s the beauty of a collection of short stories: not every single one has to appeal to the reader. An author once likened a good novel to a wonderful marriage, and a great short story to a fantastic date. I relish the marriage, its familiarity and longevity, its dependability. But the dates are wonderful too, and I appreciate the freshness, the unexpected, the chance to discover something new and get to know myself better all at the same time.
For readers looking to get a glimpse into various facets of South Asian writers, Story-Wallah is a good beginning.
What the ratings mean:
Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection. It’s definitely worth it!
Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.
Bypass it–Free time is precious. Don’t spend it on this book!