A storyteller from Gujarat arrives: The Shehnai Virtuoso by Dhumketu

The short story is that which, like a flash of lightning, pierces right through while establishing a viewpoint; without any other machinations, simply gestures with a finger to awaken dormant emotions; creates an entirely new imaginary world around the reader. The novel says whatever it wants. The short story, by rousing the imagination and emotions, only alludes to or provides a spark of what it wants to say. That is why the writer of the short story needs a reader who is impressionable, emotional, swift and intelligent; to such a reader, he will be forever in debt.

– Dhumketu, Introduction to his collection, Tankha I

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the South Asian literature that commands the most immediate attention outside the sub-continent is that which is written in English—even within India, English-language authors occupy a considerable amount of shelf space. Yet, the Indian Constitution recognizes 22 official languages and there are hundreds of other spoken languages and dialects, including English. So one might imagine that we are only able to access the tip of a rich literary iceberg. However, with the recent International Booker win for Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi), the first ever Hindi winner, a heightened awareness of the riches of translated and yet-to-be translated literature from across South Asia is spreading near and far.

How fortuitous then, that in this increasingly welcoming environment, a magical Guajarati storyteller has arrived on North American shores to share a broad selection of his well-loved tales with a wider contemporary audience, a journey made possible by an attentive and gifted translator. Writing under the pen name Dhumketu, Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (1892 1965) was one of the most prominent and prolific Gujarati writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He produced work across a broad range of genres, but was especially notable as a master of the short-story, publishing twenty-four volumes during his lifetime. When one enters this newly-released collection, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, it is best to prepare to settle in and be carried away—it is difficult to resist the temptation to “read just one more…”

In her helpful Introduction, translator Jenny Bhatt traces the evolution of the Gujarati short story and the influence of European, Russian and American literature on the form. However, Dhumketu (whose chosen name means “comet”) distinguished himself from his contemporaries in a number of important ways. Firstly, he invited the reader into the inner worlds of his characters through skillful use of plot, theme, action, setting and dialogue. A second critical feature was his “focus on people from all walks of life—rural to royal, young to old.” He also set many stories among the poor and lower classes and castes, characters often either overlooked or caricatured by other writers. Finally, his stories often depict strong-willed, independent women and sensitive men, granting them varied roles and circumstances within his work in a manner that was progressive for his time and, as a result, relevant for ours.

The Shehnai Virtuoso gathers twenty-six stories that span Dhumketu’s career, opening with his best-known work, “The Post Office”—the melancholy tale of a man who waits in vain for a letter from his daughter. This piece sets the tone for a varied collection that touches on a wide range of deeply human themes. Although the majority of the tales are set in rural Gujarat, a few are set elsewhere, like Darjeeling, Karnataka, and an ancient kingdom in what is now Bihar.

Throughout, Dhumketu demonstrates an uncanny ability to pull a reader right into a story with little fuss, a skill that seems to become even tighter and more focused over the course of his career, and thus over the course of this volume. And even though there are definitely some themes that recur, the perspective, approach and atmosphere shifts from story to story, keeping his tales fresh and engaging. Nonetheless, he knows the innate value of timeless themes—jealousy, greed, heartbreak, loss—exploring them through the adventures of devious, manipulative personalities, ill-fated lovers, tragic heroes and quiet, isolated souls who express themselves most fully through music.

Not openly active in the political struggle for Independence that marked his time, Dhumketu did not shy away from allowing his characters, narrators and plots illustrate and express important ideas of freedom and matters of social injustice, recognizing perhaps that literature provides room for more complex and nuanced presentations to emerge, even in short form. The play of power and status, born of wealth, class and caste, is an intrinsic element of many of his stories—the vulnerability of the simple soul and the tragedy of the combination of beauty and poverty held a particular appeal—but he resists proselytizing. Rather, wonderfully wise and pertinent observations are regularly woven into his narratives that he trusts his readers to understand.

Another striking quality that emerges in some of the most powerful tales in this collection is Dhumketu’s capacity for an exceptional evocation of the depths of sorrow and loss.  The title story, for example, is one of several tales featuring gifted, yet mentally damaged musicians who suffer a loss that impacts and colours their ability to play and the soul wrenching effect of the notes their instruments produce. “The Shehnai Virtuoso” is a simple account of traveller who happens to stop in an unremarkable village on what happens to be a most fortuitous night—the death anniversary of the son of a talented shehnai (an oboe-like instrument constructed of reed and wood or metal) player, the only time when the devastated father picks up his instrument. No one in the village misses this annual moonlit performance. Our cynical narrator expects little when suddenly:

Through the air, such despairing, lamenting harmonies emanated from the sad tunes of the shehnai player that just single note of his falling on the ear felt like a language only the soul understands! As if today, having the opportunity to hear that language, the soul had rendered the entire body and all the senses and had overtaken the mind.

Oh to be present on that forested night! But for my money, one of the most moving stories from this rich and varied collection, is “The Prisoner of Andaman.” This is the tale of a man who returns to his native village after serving twenty years in prison for murder. Visaji, eager to see his home and friends again is met by the harsh realization that he has been forgotten, only his crime remains to distinguish him. The love that is “brimming over in his own heart” after so many years of penance and exile, is met with hostile indifference. Dhumketu portrays his growing anguish so acutely—“it felt as if his legs had broken. His heart was wounded”—that it is impossible not to share his pain, no matter his past.

In selecting the stories that comprise this collection, translator Bhatt wanted to showcase the range of Dhumketu’s work and encourage an appreciation of his chronological progression as a writer, so she chose one story from each of his published collections, plus two. As such she has created an excellent and entertaining introduction to this important Gujarati author—not an easy task over a longer volume like this. Her keen translation incorporates common expressions  and terms, explained in footnotes and a brief glossary only if necessary, thus preserving the flavour of the culture and the communities of Dhumketu’s fictional world.

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu is translated by Jenny Bhatt and published by Deep Vellum. An earlier edit of this collection was published in India in 2020 as Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (Harper Perennial).

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

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