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Short stopover

Navtej Sarna’s short story collection is here. As is Prajwal Parajuly’s. Will they usher in good times for short story writers in a market largely cut out for novels, wonders Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.

If you have read the blurb of this article and are hoping to see a big shift of scene in the publishing world, at long last, let me warn you now itself, it might not match your hopes. For long, publishers of Indian writing in English have been taking the line, by now familiar to our writers: not short stories but novels sell. If you have made a name as a novelist, you have earned yourself the permit to roll out a clasp of shorts. Debut author? Very little chance.

And then, in rapid succession you see a small spurt of shorts hitting bookstores. Even as you are leafing through debut writer Prajwal Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughter — published by UK-based independent publisher Quercus, and marketed in India by Penguin, here is seasoned hand Navtej Sarna’s Winter Evenings (Rupa) vying for readers’ attention. Next you know is theatre-TV actor Jayant Kripalani turning author with short fiction this coming January. Rupa Gulab’s chick-lit short stories are out in January too. And business is good. Kapish Mehra of Rupa Publications talks about selling more than 7000 copies of Arun Sikka’s The Kabab Maker And The Consultant last year. Nagraj Krishnan, Senior Manager, product, Penguin India, is equally enthusiastic about Prajwal’s book receiving a very good response.

This certainly looks like a good time for shorts then. Is it? Saugata Mukerjee of Picador India, the publishers of Kripalani and Gulab’s books, pins down the reality pretty fast. “Ideally, to today’s time-crunched readers, short stories should work. For novels, you need time but with a short story collection, you have the freedom of not reading the entire book.” But he admits that it is the novel that seems to sell. Then why is Picador taking a “market risk” with Kripalani? “There is always a small space for good shorts. What has worked for Kripalani’s stories is that they ring around a theme, the iconic New Market of Kolkata, where the author grew up. Plus, it is written in a witty, delectable style. Gulab’s book I Kissed the Frog again is different in approach. Not all short stories work.”

Nagraj too calls short stories not mainstream publishing. “For every 100 novels, there are five short stories.” Though they are coming out in the U.S. and the U.K., we have to see whether they work here too,” says Nagraj, who heads the international division of the publishing giant and decides on bringing titles not just published by the group but by 12 other independent international publishers. Prajwal’s book got his go-ahead for being a narrative of the Nepali society hardly seen in Indian writing in English.

Unlike the international houses, home-grown Rupa has been pushing the genre more often. To it goes the credit of giving breaks to well known short story writers like Shinie Antony. Says Mehra, “I believe, in publishing there is no thumb rule. Look at our 2005 book Nine on Nine (Nandita Puri), it continues to be a bestseller.”

As for authors, Prajwal, being a first timer, was facing a dual dilemma — of attempting a vast project like a novel and also the fear of being rejected for being a debut writer of shorts. “When I started off, writing a novel seemed too intimidating. It was only when I wrote Land Where I Flee, my novel (to be released next year), that I found how much easier it is than writing the collection of short stories. Of course, people warned me after the first draft was done that no international publisher would pick up a collection of shorts by a debut author.”

Bangalore-based Shinie says she has always found it difficult to convince a publisher with short stories. “One publisher told me a frank no even before reading my first manuscript. He said they just do not sell. I think the thing here, as in everything else in life, is to believe in it yourself and hope that the belief is catching. Editors always ask for a unifying theme, which if it is organic, well and good, but if contrived, hurts the reader’s eye and the writer’s sensibilities.”

Sarna too wishes there was more space for short stories, a genre he started with. “Earlier, there were some literary magazines where shorts were accepted. I had been published in magazines like The Illustrated Weekly but such space is there only for regional writers now,” he rues.

Shinie, a winner of Commonwealth Prize for Short Story Writing, though is steadfast. “I can’t think beyond short fiction. When I attempt non-fiction, novels, there are concerns of a technical nature and I am not sure if I can come across. Each short story is a different experience in writing, what you feel, convey, arrive at... And you do not have too much space to speak. The clock ticks with every word. I think this condensing, gathered tight lipped-ness is what I like best about short stories.”

Though always under pressure, both Sarna and Shinie say no one can write consciously for the market. “I would still write short stories even if a single person did not buy them anymore. It is up to a genre to persuade that this is the best form to read/understand this particular story. And if readership comes along, great,” says Shinie. And then, storytelling keeps faith with that particular tale — how well to tell it. “It could be a novel, a novella or a short-short, the important thing is that this is the way it is best told.”

So you know what she is writing next: short stories.

As for Sarna, he is all set to roll out an English translation of his father’s Punjabi short stories.


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