When writers write novels, they have all the space they need to delineate their settings, to allow their characters to grow, and to explore issues away from the core plot that they think might enhance the readers’ understanding and enjoyment of the story. A novel is usually at least 60,000 words in length, and usually much more. I know this from my own reading, and from my attempts to write novels—two of which currently stand at more than 100,000 words.
To my mind, writing short stories—not novelettes, not novellas, but true short stories of, say 7,500 words or less—is a more difficult craft than novel writing. Short stories demand discipline of a writer, they demand clarity of thought, and, perhaps most difficult of all, they demand the ability to be economical with words. A writer of short stories must be able to differentiate that which is essential to a story from that which would be nice to include---if only there was the space. The shorter a short story is to be, the more the writer must bring these things into play. This, I feel necessary, preamble brings me to Abha Iyengar’s slim collection of eight stories, ‘The Gourd Seller and other stories’ (Kitaab, 2015).
Frequently dealing with difficult themes, such as sexual assault and the buying of silence, as in ‘The High Stool’, mental cruelty and the unwanted attention of a grandfather, as in ‘A Family of Beauties’, and the role of women in Indian society, it is to the author’s credit that the stories never become maudlin or angst filled diatribes, Abha Iyengar’s abilities as a writer are too deft and well controlled to allow that to happen. What she succeeds in doing, is to allow us, as onlookers, to feel what her characters are feeling, to understand the emotional turmoil that sometimes reveals itself within them, and, often, to admire their tenacity in finding ways to improve their lives.
The clarity of Iyengar’s prose manifests itself on every page of ‘The Gourd Seller and other stories’. We come across well-honed sentences and descriptions that delight, such as this, from the story ‘Drought Country’: ‘Mother is stiff, austere; she does not speak much and her eyes soften only sometimes, when a stray thought enters her mind or she hears an old song on the radio.’ Which of us could fail, even though there is nothing in the way of a physical description, to have an image of this old lady in our minds?
So it is with Abha Iyengar’s stories, some are beautifully jewel-like, other’s, because of their grim subject matter, are finely-crafted artefacts. All of them, however, are works of art that are testimony to the power words can have, to shock, inform and entertain, when used by a real artist.