Every reader of literature makes a conceptual distinction between a folk tale and a short story. Folk tales have protagonists who are often generic, distinguished by their birth (a prince) or their profession (a potter).
In the world of the folk tale, creatures change form or come back to life from the dead, the characters are buoyed by boons or buffeted by curses, and good usually wins over evil in a way that is narratively satisfying.
The short story is a more modern form, and is in some ways both a response and a rebuke to the folk tale. It privileges psychology and interiority, believing that the drama of the human mind is just as striking as that of worldly action. It also disdains magic, although it frequently invents fantastical and imaginative premises of its own. Morally, the short story is not committed to upholding virtue or goodness; narratively, it is not committed to always finding a clear resolution. A folk tale is something that can be repeated and retooled; a short story, if its essence is to be kept, can only be read, privately or aloud.
Can a piece of narrative prose then be both a folk tale and a short story? To have done so seems to be one of the achievements of the octogenarian Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha. As Detha’s splendid American translator, Christi Merrill, says in her introduction to Chouboli and Other Stories, Detha’s writing involves both conservation and creation, notation and invention. For decades he has been bringing together, as A.K. Ramanujan did, all the folk tales he found told around him, and in the same language—Rajasthani— rather than the Hindi of which Rajasthani is often considered a poor cousin, thereby preserving and dignifying not just literature but language.
At the same time, Detha likes filling out the oral stories of his culture—stories that encode its traditional wisdom and its proverbs, its words for food and drink, custom and ritual—with realistic touches and literary flourishes of his own, making them a reflection on manners, morals, and human nature that is recognizably the work of an individual mind.
Certainly, in the best of these stories, The Dilemma (filmed by Amol Palekar as Paheli in 2005), a human predicament is so convincingly portrayed that we slow down our reading, wanting to savour the complexity of the situation. A pair of newly-weds are seen returning to the man’s village. They stop to rest beneath a tree, where a ghost resides. The ghost is so taken by the girl’s beauty that he falls in love with her. Strangely though, the husband, who should be experiencing something similar for his wife, is so caught up in the mercantile mindset of his community (Detha explicitly says he is a bania) that he can think only of trade and profit. Shortly after, he sets out on a journey of five years because it is an auspicious time for business.
The ghost, still pining, sees the man heading away, engages him in conversation and learns of his story, and decides to take his form and replace him in the household he has left behind. But he is so much in love with the girl that he cannot bring himself to be duplicitous with her: He confesses everything. In turn, the woman, who has always been seen as an object and without desires of her own, cannot bring herself to reject this most extraordinary love from the beyond. “All the wealth in the world cannot bring back time past,” writes Detha, and his story appears to side with those people who value time and human relationships over material values.
Although they are frequently diverting, not all the stories in Chouboli work so well. Sometimes there is only so far a folk tale can go, and to a modern sensibility some of the characters can seem too flat.
Even so, this is definitely a book worth reading, not least for Merrill’s own essay on the work of translation. “Armies march to the beat of drums,/ stories, to the rhythms of ohs and hmms”, goes one sing-song phrase in the book, and there are certainly many moments worthy of ohs and hmms in Chouboli.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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