The long and short of it

Updates from : The Hindu

Twelve stories, translated from 11 languages — the recently launched Tell Me a Long, Long Story gives English readers a taste of the grandeur of Indian literature

In Mahasweta Devi’s Seed, written in Bengali as Bichhan in 1979, the protagonist Dulan Ganju has an ‘eerie’ habit — he sits atop a machan guarding a barren land by himself every night.

In A Place To Live, translated from the Tamil version titled Kaaninilam Vendum, the author Gopikrishnan describes light-heartedly, a young couple’s life in the cramped line houses of Mylapore of the 1980s.

The stories, although completely different in setting, mood, and style, have one thing in common — the mystique of India. They are among the 12 ‘long short stories’ part of the anthology Tell Me a Long, Long Story (Aleph Book Company), edited by Mini Krishnan. The collection, which includes translations from languages including Urdu, Kashmiri, Odia, and Marathi, is said to be among the first of its kind.

Excerpts from an email interview with the editor:

Tell us briefly about your journey with Indian literature.

I’ve been editing translations since 1992 though the first lot of 11 Macmillan translations took another four years to reach the public. I had always enjoyed reading translations not minding the archaic style of the 1960s or even poor translations but my first formal exposure came through critical writing when I helped Dr KM George to edit the 4,000 page Comparative Indian Literature volumes (Macmillans) in 1980-85.

It was he who inspired me. It set me thinking about a translation programme which materialised only when Valli Alagappan of the MR AR Education Trust and her father the late AMM Arunachalam made available 50 lakhs for a project I called the Modern Indian Novels in Translation (1992). With more stops than starts I sourced and edited 37 volumes for Macmillans. In 2001, I moved to OUP — a better platform for both writers and translators.

You’ve published hundreds of writers. Why did you wait to bring out your own title?

Time. All my time is spent polishing and editing translations in consultation with my translators — sometimes fatiguing, but always a learning experience — or trying to promote the writers and their amplifiers in various fora after they are published because publishing a translation is only half the work.

I feel responsible for any time spent away from script refinement. So, it took four years to put this collection together. Anyway it isn’t really my book. It belongs to all the writers and translators who made it possible.

Tell us how you came upon the stories in your collection.

I came across them at the time I began looking for suitable works I could include in the Oxford Novellas series.

Why isn’t the long story literary format as popular as the short story and the novel?

We are a story-telling and story-loving species and have got used to two kinds of genres: the novel and the short story. Both serve Master Time in different ways. You “enter” a novel and arrange the furniture of characters and familiarise yourself with the environment — the context, mentally committing yourself to a certain span of time.

As for the short story, you know before you start reading one that you’ll be done in 20 minutes. So the mind is prepared. But the long story is neither here nor there. It also finds it difficult to find the right trains to jump on. Its proper début would be in a magazine (now of course there are online journals) but a magazine has to make space for a long story, depriving itself of advertisements for it. Nor can a publisher dress up 8,000 words like he can an 18,000-word novella and pass it off as a novel, Gachar Gochar (Harper) and Bara (OUP) being recent examples. The long story therefore tends to fade from sight more rapidly than short stories. They cannot be gathered easily into collections in their original languages nor do they reprint the way short stories do. A translator may not pick up a long short like she would a short story. It is a lot of work to take on without any guarantee of publication.

Do you have other titles in the pipeline? Have you ever been tempted to write fiction?

If I can wrench some time out of my editing schedules I would love to travel in the reverse direction and look for very short stories. No more than 800-1,000 words per story. As for writing fiction… I’ve written only one story and it was published in The Hindu!

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