The Gujarati short-story writer Dhumketu was born Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi in 1892, 18 years after the American poet Robert Frost’s birth. Dhumketu died in 1965, two years after Frost. I conflate the lives of these two men not because they were contemporaries, which they were, but rather to suggest that short stories and poems are siblings that cross literary borders.
In his Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch writes, “A short story, like a lyric poem,… may use its narrative as much to establish and fortify an image as to follow the tale to its dramatic outcome.”
Koch proceeds to use Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to make his case. He insists that “the poem could be a short story”: there’s a setting (“Between the woods and frozen lake”); a moment in time (“The darkest evening of the year”); characters (the narrator, his horse, and the man “Whose woods these are”); and there’s conflict of whether to stay or go (“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”).
In the same way that Koch says that Frost’s “poem has all the elements of a story collapsed within a single murmuring image,” I believe that Dhumketu’s short stories have all the elements of poetry built on the foundation of memorable imagery. And Jenny Bhatt’s translation of Dhumketu’s Gujarati makes the imagery vivid for Anglophone readers. Partly because I have a rudimentary appreciation of Gujarati, translations of idioms such as “sab bandar ke vepaari” add layers to stories such as “The New Poet” where this particular image of “a trader in every port” plays a vital role.
Jhumpa Lahiri, who writes and translates in English and Italian, believes that “to translate is to alter one’s linguistic coordinates, to grab on to what has slipped away, to cope with exile.” But I’m sure that both Bhatt and Lahiri would agree that the remainder of this review should be dedicated to Dhumketu’s short stories.
The Shehnai Virtuoso, from which the book’s title is derived, has an excellent example of an image that lingers in the reader’s mind: “When the tragic gloom, like the doleful, lamenting strains of jogiya music, would advance from that Shehnai, then even his own father would lay a hand on his and be able to say only this much in a grief-drenched voice: ‘Son! Enough now. Enough. Any more than this will not be bearable.’”
This image of the father’s hand on his blind son’s hand has immediacy and conveys the silencing of the son’s shehnai; at the same time, it heightens the haunting sound of that piercing musical instrument’s reed; and it foreshadows the tragedy and grief that follows. So much is accomplished in these few descriptive lines that I have reimagined as poetry with line breaks:
When the tragic gloom
like the doleful, lamenting strains of
would advance from
then even his own father would
lay a hand on his
and be able to say only this much
in a grief-drenched voice:
“Son! Enough now. Enough.
Any more than this will not be bearable.”
Most of Dhumketu’s compelling stories in this fine collection similarly turn on an image.
The book’s first (and in this reader’s opinion, finest) story, “The Post Office” contains the image of a daughter’s letter that her father never receives. Although I can rightly be accused of being a sentimentalist, it is not the sentimentality of this story that is remarkable. Dhumketu’s masterful use of similes and metaphors is perhaps why Bhatt opens the book with “The Post Office.”
Here’s an outstanding hook of an opening sentence: “The hazy dawn sky was glittering with the previous night’s stars—big and small—like happy memories shimmering in a person’s life.” This simile is brilliant in shedding light. By reversing what is compared (hazy dawn sky to memories rather than the happy memories to the sky), Dhumketu reveals both the setting and the narrator.
Ali, the aging father who longs for words from his daughter who has moved away after marriage, was a hunter in his youth. “Now Ali had learnt what affection and separation meant. Earlier, one of the pleasures of the hunt was the baby partridges running around in bewilderment once he had shot and killed the parent.”
It would be powerful to read about the death of a baby partridge, for that would incite feelings of a parent’s loss; but Dhumketu inverts the loss with the parent’s death. And later in the story, after writing metaphorically that “the post office… became [Ali’s] holy land and place of pilgrimage,” Dhumketu turns the tale once more. The postmaster, who had at first been dismissive of Ali’s futile and pitiful daily march to the post office, learns that his own daughter is ill in a faraway country.
While Dhumketu wrote his stories in the faraway Gujarat of the early 20th century, he remains relevant to the modern reader with an open heart and an appreciation for poetic writing that merits more than the 1,000 words of this review. Though each story could be reviewed, I close with “Mungo Gungo,” an ode to a man who saved children by diving into a reservoir that might have drowned those young lives. His swimming skill was an art form, and as “the artist was creating his artwork… the artwork was creating the artist.”
This reminds me of another MG, of Mohandas Gandhi and his Sarvodaya philosophy: “you build the road and the road builds you.”
Just as Gandhian thought remains relevant for those willing to slow down on today’s expressways, so do Dhumketu’s stories from the village road.
For RCO’s papa, Chhaganlal M. Oza, who loves the sweet sound of Gujarati and at 95, has witnessed the “lovely woods” of India’s independence and the “tragic gloom” of Gandhiji’s assassination. Papa has miles to go before he hears the shehnai in his sleep.
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