South Asia has a long and powerful tradition of short stories as a form of literary expression. The short story is on the rise again globally, and with May being celebrated as the Short Story Month around the world, we thought we would wrap up the month with our own list of 10 must-read short stories by South Asian writers.
Our list includes some of the finest classical and contemporary short story writers from South Asia. Even though it is difficult to pick one story for each literary genius, the stories in the list are among the most acclaimed short stories written by these authors. As an introduction to new readers, each story also attempts to capture the ethos of its writer’s entire body of work.
The list is by no means exhaustive and we’re sure it falls short of identifying important stories in regional and local languages. So please let us know about your favourite South Asian short stories in the comments section below. Hope you enjoy our selection.
- Kabuliwala (“The vendor from Kabul”) by Rabindranath Tagore
The Bengali Nobel laureate is most famous for his poetry, but he had started writing short stories as a teenager and his stories went on to influence many other writers and art forms. Tagore’s short stories focused on the life of the common people in Indian villages and also critiqued social customs. In Kabuliwala, he at once speaks of the oppression of geography and language and, through the character of an Afghan fruit-seller, of the way love can transcend such boundaries.
- The Price of Bananas By Mulk Raj Anand
Mulk Raj Anand is among the pioneers of English fiction writing in India. He was committed to writing about social injustice, poverty and caste in India and addressed these issues in his books.
‘The Price of Bananas’ is written in Anand’s signature style with an observer as narrator. In simple prose, the story uses a situation on a railway platform to expose class differences in society. Read the story on Google Books.
- Eidgah by Munshi Premchand
Premchand is one of the best 20th Century writers from the subcontinent. He penned over 250 short stories and more than 12 novels and was also a leading member of the progressive writers movement. ‘Eidgah’ revolves around a poor orphan boy being raised by his grandmother. The touching story has a lesson in sacrifice at its core.
- Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto
Manto, the widely-acclaimed Urdu short story writer, produced perhaps his darkest, most poignant satire in Toba Tek Singh [link English translation]. The story, just like many other of Manto’s classic short stories, are based around the Partition of India and Pakistan. In ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Manto uses the setting of a mental asylum to build a sharp and pointed criticism on the politics and absurdity of religious and geographical divide.
- Anandi by Ghulam Abbas
Abbas, another master of Urdu short stories, produced some of the most socially prescient writings in the subcontinent ever.
In ‘Anandi’, he dissects the hypocrisy of a society that hides behind a facade of self-righteousness but derives secret pleasures from what it declares taboo.
- Lihaf (“The Quilt”) by Ismat Chughtai
The first woman writer to appear in this list is easily also the most revolutionary and defiant, so much so that when Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Lihaf’ was published in 1941, the state government banned it on charges of obscenity. While Chughtai may not have been clear about her stance on same-sex relationships for women, ‘Lihaf’ was perhaps the first contemporary Urdu short story to discuss homosexuality and question the typical silence of a patriarchal society on matters of sexual orientation. Read an English translation of Lihaf at Manushi.org.
- Janglee Booti (“The Wild Flower”) by Amrita Pritam
Amrita Pritam, the iconic Punjabi poet and writer, wrote prolifically about the repression women face in South Asian societies.
In ‘Janglee Booti’, she not only highlights the gender discrimination in rural India but also uses the wild flower as a metaphor for the superstitions in society that ultimately make women suffer.
- Kadavulum Kandasamy Pillaiyum (“God and Kandasamy Pillaiyum”) by Pudhumaippittan
Lord Shiva descends from the heavens to spend a day with Kandasamy Pillaiyum in Madras in this short story by Pudhumaippittan, who is considered to be the most prominent Tamil short story writer. Pudhumaippittan often reinterpreted mythological themes in his stories. But the gods in his stories did not always find life with the mortals easy and comfortable. Look for the story in a 2005 English translation collection of Pudhumaippittan’s short stories by Mavanna Publications.
- Mrs. Sen by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri is arguably the finest contemporary English short story writer of South Asian origin. Each story in her debut Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, is an exquisite experience. But ‘Mrs. Sen’ captures uniquely the struggle of an immigrant to let go of the attachment to objects from her homeland, which overpower the demand to integrate into new ways of living. Look for the story in the Interpreter of Maladies published by Mariner Books.
- Nawabdin Electrician By Daniyal Mueenuddin
Daniyal Mueenuddin explores class differences and social status through specific situations in his short stories. In ‘Nawabdin Electrician’, Mueenuddin weaves an authentic narrative about social choices around a man who has used cheating and acumen to avoid unemployment but must face a violent test. Read Nawabdin Electrician in The New Yorker magazine.
Also recommended South Asian short story writers: Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Qurratulain Hyder, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, A Hameed, Mansha Yaad