In her book Talking Poems, Eunice De Souza introduces Keki Daruwalla as a prolific poet, “sometimes an uneven one. But he has a range of experience not available to other poets, a sharp sense of irony, and a capacity for reflectiveness and tenderness”. Reading through the thoughtfully collected short stories in Love Across the Salt Desert, it seems that De Souza’s typically perceptive characterization may apply to Daruwalla’s writing across forms.
The stories in Love Across the Salt Desert come from Daruwalla’s considerable body of work, which has been in the making since the 1970s. The atmospheric, fiercely dramatic titular story of this collection comes from Sword and Abyss, his first collection published in 1979.
Daruwalla’s poetic voice, a forthright but lightly struck literary baritone, meshes well with his penchant for writing in the classic short story style. They have something of the quality of the Urdu afsana—literally, a “tale”—especially the later ones, in which individual characters are modelled much more strongly than in his early stories, which one could argue are dominated by the narrator’s voice and its intensely visual quality, as well as its penchant for the machinations of plots that turn on a dime.
They are told very much in the vein of the great early 20th century European tale-tellers. “My father was a professor, so as a kid I read—you could say I was made to read—everything,” Daruwalla says in a phone interview from Delhi, where, apart from his writing, he works with the National Commission for Minorities (he worked with the Indian Police Service, among other things).
“I remember reading all of William Somerset Maugham when I was younger. This must have been about 55-60 years ago. And one read a lot of O’ Henry and, of course, Maupassant, who I presume is still taught in school textbooks.”
He is, as are O’ Henry and Saki, which may be why devotees of these masters may take particular pleasure in Daruwalla’s style and worldview. As Madhusudan Prasad once said, linking Daruwalla with his great contemporary, poet Arun Kolatkar, he can be “dramatic, conversational, ironical, satirical, meditative or humorous...never lachrymose”.
Drought in Kutch, metaphysical doubt in the mountain country of Uttarakhand, cultural misunderstandings in the thick of the Quit India movement, disenchanted radicalism in shabby urban India: Daruwalla’s stories cut into these landscapes of potential human tragedy with a wonderful dryness. “I’m not as bleak as some people like to think,” he says. “Particularly given some of the poetry. I once met an ambassador—let me not say from which country—who asked me, ‘Why do you write such bleak poetry? Who reads it?’” He agrees with the notion that in his stories, there is an enveloping sense of the comic; of life as being bigger than individual suffering. The sahib who commits a simple faux pas inadvertently turns his local petitioners into revolutionaries, in the story How the Quit India Movement Came to Alipur.
It is, Daruwalla might agree, always the little things that thrill us about broad histories.
“There were stories like The Trojan Horse (published in this collection),” he says, “which came about when I read a French surrealist writer who wrote a short story by that name, in which the horse walked up to a bar, had a drink—that sort of surreal nonsense. And I thought, I can do better than this.” He laughs. “That sounds a bit presumptuous, doesn’t it? And The Jahangir Syndrome took off on the Indian belief that you could knock on the emperor Jahangir’s door even at midnight and expect justice—or so his legend says. So I wrote about a corrupt magistrate, a sort of confronting of expectations.”
He writes in the preface to his stories that his switching forms has brought him “flak”. “Critics said some of my poems could be read as short stories and vice-versa.”
This is no bad thing to my mind, and indeed, one of the chief pleasures of Daruwalla’s stories, even the rougher-edged early ones, is the beautiful rhythm of his narration, and his joy in creating images. From In A High Wind, for example: “An entire room was filled with the bric-a-brac of kite flying, earthern bowls of manja in which the paste had turned into a crust, thin bamboo sticks, cut paper, and twines of all description…bowls encrusted with layhee, a glue made out of flour, sank sharply once the glue got stale.” It’s difficult to think of many contemporary Indian writers in English who can draw on quite this “range of experience” that De Souza praises in Daruwalla, and use it quite so simply and vividly.
“Speaking formally, my first book of short stories was a little ambivalent an occasion or two, when the short story turned into a poem or vice-versa,” Daruwalla says. ”But no longer. There has to be a germinal idea, a germinal metaphor, of course, but it develops quite clearly.”
One of the other poetic qualities of his prose is the tension between his landscapes and the characters who are impossible to separate from these settings. In a poem written during the Emergency, Rhapsody on a Hungry Night, Daruwalla wrote, “We’ll match other planets/crater for crater/as we move to the outer/membranes of the finite,/as we move towards/the gouged face of the moon.”
This “gouged face” may have some literal similarities with the bleached Rann of Kutch, through which the young Najab travels across the India-Pakistan border in the collection’s title story. But it also comes to mind in whatever setting Daruwalla’s characters experience their quiet devastations and absurd reversals of fate. His writing grasps at places and moods that are, perhaps, fully expressed only when considered at something of a remove.
“I spent a few days in Kutch in the 1970s, when I was working there,” he says, about the landscapes from which his stories spring. “I have, in fact, traversed the landscape I describe (in Love Across the Salt Desert), with the Kala Doongar (literally, black hill) and so on, right up to the borderlands. And I did live in Joshimath, the Bhotia country that is the setting of Shaman, for three years, between 1963 and 1965.”
Junot Diaz, interviewed earlier this year in Mint, remarked that writing a novel was a process of accumulation and integration, while short stories were about what the writer could strip away from them; an act of streamlining. Daruwalla, who wrote his first novel, For Pepper and Christ (2009), says: “I find that certainly true of the novel. Even if I have a dream, I’ll want it to somehow find its way into the writing, to add layers, create characters. There’s the continuous urge to add in details, otherwise you find you’re stumped. As for whittling—I’m not so sure. A short story, for me, still operates on the principle that once you have an idea, you have to flesh it out. Details are just as important to a short story.”
“I keep coming back to my stories,” he says, of the process of writing them. “Poetry is the only thing I have written in one sitting—I can never do anything in one go. I’ve taken two months to write a short story. I struggled in the beginning. One didn’t know; looking back on some of my earlier work now I find some of it somewhat raw. But one learns over time.”
“I suppose the mode of the short story now is a sort of flash, something with a dashed-off quality. But I don’t want to change my style. I’ve stuck to my old ways. I must have a plot.” He laughs again. “I’m not sorry! I don’t have to apologize for wanting a story with a plot.”
Keki Daruwalla and Neelam Saran Gour will hold a reading of short stories at the Press Club, Glass House, Azad Maidan, Mahapalika Marg, Mumbai, on 1 September.
Love Across the Salt Desert—Selected Short Stories: Penguin-Ravi Dayal , 230 pages, Rs 299.