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Humbling Form

The Short Story and the Novel: Some Reflections on the Self and the Other1

Ashutosh Bhardwaj
p. 105-122


Afin d’analyser l’humilité de la fiction de Nirmal Verma, un maître conteur en hindi, cet article se propose de comparer sa nouvelle “Under Cover of Darkness” (1957) avec le roman A Rag Called Happiness (1979). Verma, comme beaucoup d’autres écrivains, a souvent traité de thèmes, voire de personnages, identiques dans ses nouvelles et ses romans. Les deux textes abordés ici ont en commun de présenter, entre autres personnages similaires, un narrateur enfant, incapable de comprendre le monde qui l’entoure. Fort de ce constat, le présent article aborde une série de questions : la forme de la nouvelle comporte-t-elle un espace qui ne serait pas aisément accessible au roman malgré ses dimensions plus importantes ? Dans sa brièveté, dans sa capacité à saisir la vérité en un instant, la nouvelle offre-t-elle une épiphanie dont la nature est différente de celle du roman ?
Cette contribution s’efforce de démêler la politique d’humilité associée à la nouvelle et suggère que le terme a été employé de manière grossièrement injuste pour définir le genre. Une nouvelle est une composition complète en soi, même si elle peut parfois servir de laboratoire, de terreau pour le roman. En examinant la relation entre les deux formes, la percolation du récit bref dans l’épopée de l’ère moderne, l’auteur s’interroge sur les outils narratifs utilisés par Verma pour habiller ses nouvelles d’un voile mystique.

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  • 1 The subtitle is borrowed from a lecture Nirmal Verma delivered at Heidelberg University in 1989 ent (...)

1I should begin by stating that I have approached the theme of “short story as a humble form” not as a literary critic or an academic but as an insider, a fiction writer who has published a short story collection and several novellas. I also began a novel a few years ago, wrote its initial drafts, got its extracts published before it took the form of “creative non-fiction.” The short story is the form I have experimented with, the novel is the genre I have been trying to master.

  • 2 In India, my country, almost all the major awards for fiction are given for novels. The Rupees 2.5 (...)

2There are novelists and there are short story writers, respectively carrying a preference for the form they are writing in. And there is a publishing industry that is heavily skewed in favour of the novel.2 But there are also some writers who write in both those forms, often simultaneously. For such writers, the two genres are not exclusive; not bound in a hierarchy or an existential contest that the publishing industry attempts to propose, or the nomenclature “humble” seems to suggest. The dictionary defines the adjective “humble” in the following ways: “having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s importance,” “of low social, administrative, or political rank,” “of modest pretensions or dimensions.”

3The adjective, when used for the short story, clearly delineates its coordinates and assigns it, even if unwittingly, a lesser place in the history and hierarchy of fiction. The adjective ignores that for some writers the short story is not only a composition complete in itself, it also serves as an unsuspecting incubator for the novel, as a dark room in which one can view and develop the earliest frames of the novel. One such writer was Nirmal Verma (1929-2005), the great Indian storyteller, who developed his novels off the threads left behind in his short fiction. He wrote five novels, but it was the path-breaking short stories he wrote in his early years that brought him instant recognition. He would have been amused with the adjective “humble” being associated with his craft. This contribution attempts to explore the conversations between Verma’s two genres, conversations that take place underneath the text where the characters emerge from the pages and whisper to each other. It will, thus, raise and examine a few questions: what prompts such writers who deal with both forms to choose either one of them? Is there any fundamental difference between the manner in which a writer visits the two genres, or the nature of the epiphany they offer?

4Yet, before discussing these questions through the prism of Verma’s fiction, I shall ponder on the distinction between the two genres and on the origin of the term “humble.” Both the short story and the novel emerged in the modern era, gained acclaim, but it is the novel that is known as the representative genre of modern literature. It is widely considered to be the final frontier for a prose-writer, the epic of the modern age. It has also greatly contributed to the building of modern societies. Outlining the history of the novel in Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera put the emphasis on its contribution: “E.M. Cioran is right to call European society ‘the society of the novel’ and to speak of Europeans as ‘the children of the novel’” (6).

5On the other hand, India offers a curious paradox. It has traditionally been a society of Katha, or tales. Many of its great texts are composed of short anecdotal tales; Kathasagar, literally the ocean of tales, being one of them. However, with the emergence of the novel in the modern era, the short story has found relatively less space in literary criticism compared to the novel. The publishing industry in India, and it seems in major English-speaking countries like the US and the UK as well, often treats the short story as a subsidiary genre to the novel. One can only note this with a degree of irony because no less artistic finesse is expected of a short story than of a novel. Indeed, the short story can often be a more demanding and unforgiving form than the novel. Henry James, for instance, the master who wrote in both genres and is among the earliest exponents of the art of the novel, believed that the short story required greater precision than the novel. The volume and width of a novel may often cover up its clumsy spaces, a luxury not available to a short story that is expected to have a taut composition. One does not have to look beyond Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace and his short stories, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Three Hermits,” for instance. While his great novel has many avoidable passages, his stories are supremely crafted.

6Despite such expectations of perfection, if a short story is considered to be a humble form, then it seems that the humbleness flows from a biased gaze. It is not an intrinsic trait of the short story but an adjective lent to the form by the critic and, in an unsuspecting manner, some fiction writers also seem to have embraced the nomenclature “humble,” which, in the realm of the short story, came to refer to the poor, marginalised, outcast and disabled humans.

7Tracing the roots of such characterisation to Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” Frank O’Connor, in his masterly study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, describes the short story protagonist as the Little Man. However, be it the humble or the Little Man, such characterisations rest on a juxtaposition of the short story with the novel. They situate the novel as an existential other, as an intimate enemy of the short story and bind the genre in an unjust comparison with the novel. The comparison might be a legitimate scholarly exercise. Yet, its tone and tenor often tend to define yardsticks for a short story that are not innate to its form but to be seen through the prism of the novel. It may deny an independent existence to the short story as well as its autonomous study. Gauge the irony and unfairness behind such juxtaposition by the fact that the novel has perhaps never been defined against the short story. The novel has barely faced the questions that the short story has been subjected to. As he discusses “The Overcoat” and its protagonist, O’Connor is among the few theorists to take the fight to the novel’s court.

Now, this is something that the novel cannot do. For some reason that I can only guess at, the novel is bound to be a process of identification between the reader and the character. One could not make a novel out of a copying clerk with a name like Akakey Akakeivitch who merely needed a new overcoat any more than one could make one out of a child called Tommy Tompkins whose penny had gone down a drain. One character at least in any novel must represent the reader in some aspect of his own conception of himself—as the Wild Boy, the Rebel, the Dreamer, the Misunderstood Idealist—and this process of identification invariably leads to some concept of normality and to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole. (16-17)

8The reasons for such distinction between the novel and the short story perhaps lie in the historical and literary forces that seem to have created a divide between the two genres in the nineteenth century. It was not a mere aesthetic distinction but a class divide, a falsely perceived and imposed rift that skewed discourse in favour of the novel. Being the prime literary form of the modern era from its inception, the novel was conceived as the flag bearer of modern values. Its characters traversed a vast expanse and aspired to reach epic proportions. The novel participated in the discourse on grand narratives that modernity had built; it, indeed, is one of the grand narratives of modernity and modern literature. The short story never carried any ideological or historical responsibility of being the epic of the modern age. It is a non-epical form, and yet both genres complemented and supplemented each other, enriched literature.

9The divide emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century when the short story brought marginalised and oppressed characters into the centre and gradually located itself, as O’Connor noted, in a landscape that was “remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent” (20):

What it (the short story) has instead is a submerged population group—a bad phrase which I have had to use for want of a better. That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape. (17)

10The short story soon came to be identified with characters like Gogol’s clerk, whom O’Connor termed “the first appearance in fiction of the Little Man” (15). The tattered overcoat spread its warmth beyond Russian fiction and delineated the wider landscape of the short story. “In discussions of the modern novel we have come to talk of it as the novel without a hero. In fact, the short story has never had a hero,” O’Connor notes (17).

  • 3 There are many works on the topic. See, for instance, Anderson or Parrinder.

11The haves and have-nots of history also pervaded literary criticism and the non-heroic character of the short story eventually created the class divide between the two genres. As the novel and the idea of nation-state took birth almost simultaneously in many European countries, with one nourishing the other, the novel became a major site of discourse on the emerging bourgeois society and that grand construct called nationalism,3 and the short story as a chronicle of little lives was relegated as an allied genre.

12Another historical force contributed to this skewed characterisation. With the dramatic expansion of the magazine market in the late nineteenth century, the short story emerged as a “consumable product” for the magazine business and, as Sophia Kier-Byfield notes in a wonderful essay, “the genre’s very shortness became a point of contention, a possible site of artistic underachievement” (70).

13These twin developments foisted the terms “humble” or Little Man on the short story, and the genre began trailing the novel in the history of fiction. One needs a detailed research to identify whether such classification was a deliberate design of a larger political-cultural project, a study that is beyond the scope of this essay. Still, we can safely infer that the adjectives “humble” or “epic” were not intended to be innocuous or innocent adjectives. The terms had a history and political economy behind them.

14Both forms have traversed a long distance since then. The world has grown complex, the tattered overcoat is no longer the only inspiration for short story writers. The genre has moved beyond the shores carved by Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov. Postmodern writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino have expanded its sweep and magnitude. One such writer was Nirmal Verma, for whom the short story was not humble fiction; instead, it was like an exquisite sonata, without the elaboration of a symphony, but a complete composition in itself. He spent a decade in Prague on a Fellowship, learnt the Czech language and translated writers like Milan Kundera and Karel Capek into Hindi much before they were available in English. Before he went to Czechoslovakia in 1959 and wrote his first novel, Ve Din (Days of Longing, 1964), a bohemian romance based in Prague, Verma had pioneered the New Story movement in modern Hindi literature by introducing a layered narrative and complexity in short fiction. He was among the earliest writers in India to go beyond the prevailing dictum that a short story is about a “single event” and “is designed to produce a single effect.” Rarely about a single event, Verma’s short stories weave a web of relations and intersecting emotions, leaving a mélange of effects on the reader.

  • 4 Several Indian critics have written on Nirmal Verma, in both Hindi and English. Namvar Singh, Haris (...)

15Moreover, Verma’s short stories are not about “humble” characters: his protagonists are middle-class urban intellectuals, who live in capital cities, read European literature, listen to Mozart and Bach, and converse and confront with their void. His short stories performed another crucial function: when he began writing novels, he would often return to his short fiction written several years earlier and borrow several crucial elements for the novel. Indeed, three of his five novels seem to carry forward the previously written short stories by returning to their themes and by depicting characters very similar to those in the earlier stories. It appears that his shorter fiction was often the breeding ground, the incubator for his novels. There is a lot of literary criticism available on Verma. However, as far as I know, none of his critics have attempted to draw an umbilical cord between his short fiction and his novels.4

16Haruki Murakami, another author whose several novels have borrowed themes and motifs from his short stories, wrote in the introduction to his story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: “If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure” (vii). The metaphor is quite apt. The garden is a manicured entity; the forest is a wild and untidy heap of ideas and perceptions. The anticipations with which one visits a garden are different from those that take one to wilderness. And yet, this is only a partial distinction. For Verma, the short story was not a well-manicured garden, but an equally complex and entangled web of bushes and creepers, roots and shoots, which is what the novel can be compared to. The two were not distinct, mutually exclusive forms for him, not framed as existential others, not assigned any artistic hierarchy; they were two essential aspects of his writerly self in conversation with each other. However, Verma’s fiction introduces a curious paradox to the reader. On the one hand, it underlines a need to sever links between the respective aesthetics of the short story and the novel, and approach the former as an independent genre. On the other hand, it pushes the reader towards decoding silent conversations that take place beneath the surface and that connect the story and the novel. Resisting the hierarchical classification of the two genres, seeking an autonomous status for short fiction, Verma’s art nevertheless points towards a great aesthetic convergence between them. More significantly, it also makes clear that his novels may find their source in his shorter fiction. This was precisely the bridge as well as the point of origin that Murakami beautifully articulated several decades later:

In my case, when I write novels I try very hard to learn from the successes and failures I experience in writing short stories. In that sense, the short story is a kind of experimental laboratory for me as a novelist. It’s hard to experiment the way I like inside the framework of a novel, so without short stories I know I’d find the task of writing novels even more difficult and demanding. (ix)

17This is a decisive and incisive statement. The world mostly recognises Murakami as a novelist; with over a dozen novels, he is believed to be among the greatest novelists of this millennium. And yet, he attributes his novels to a nook in the attic that his short fiction has offered him—a space to undertake multiple experiments in the basement without the anxiety of being caught or even noticed.

18I can now return to the questions I have raised in the beginning. What prompts a writer to choose either one of the two genres? A writer approaches a short story with a frame of mind that is different from the one that takes him/her to the novel. Much before the aesthetic reception of the two genres, before epiphany arrives, the writer’s approach to the two defines their contours. While the novel undertakes a long journey to the destination, raises questions, waits for an answer and also offers some glimpses on the way; the short story cannot hold a long vigil. The epiphany a short story offers is sudden, a lightning flash in which an inalienable truth about life is revealed—the final crescendo of a symphony, delivered without building the tempo. Its brevity is not a constraint but a necessary and unique aspect of its form. Compared to the short story, the novel carries an immense and indulgent brooding space. It digs and delves deeper, but that does not mean that the short story skims the surface. It also strives to capture the light flashing at the end of the tunnel, but it is not interested in the elaborate dramas and tragedies that a novel cherishes. On the plane of width and volume, the short story may appear less ambitious and adventurous in comparison to a novel, but it is not humble about its abilities and achievements.

19Kier-Byfield gives a wonderful insight when she underlines that the epiphanic flash in the modernist short story is not necessarily linked with “truth”:

In the history of philosophy, light has been the symbol of truth and reason. However, in modern stories moments of flash bedazzle a human. This ambiguous flash indicates that the human knowledge will always be incomplete. (86)
A photographic reading of the epiphany moment in examples of the modernist short story will therefore be stimulated, discussing how these moments, like instances of flash, actually hinder the acquisition of knowledge: both character and reader are left dazzled, rather than closer to truth. (69)

20Kier-Byfield then quotes Maud Ellman who also made a similar observation: “If the mission of the realist novel is to make the reader see . . . the short story aims to make the reader blind, by casting such glaring light on the character that everything before, beyond or underneath incandescent surfaces vanishes” (81).

21These words aptly describe Verma’s fiction, but with a crucial caveat. Both his novels and short stories attempt to bedazzle the reader and complicate the available truths. His “mission” as a fiction writer, in both genres, is to confound the reader. In the pretext of resolving questions, he leaves the reader with greater questions. A writer goes to the novel in order to ponder over certain “bigger” issues about life, politics or philosophy, and attempt to offer some resolutions. A clear resolution has often been the hallmark of the novel, particularly the realist one. Verma also turns to the novel with greater questions, but he is not keen on offering any resolution. The epiphany in his fiction is a kind of skeptical light that places limitations on the human ability to know the world and confirms the partialities of human knowledge.

22This essay compares Verma’s 1957 short story “Andhere Mein” (“Under Cover of Darkness”) with his 1979 novel Ek Chithda Sukh (A Rag Called Happiness), and attempts to establish the umbilical cord between the two. Spanned over two decades, these works share several similarities, thematic as well as formal or artistic. At the centre of both we find solitary women characters in search of a fulfilling love, but whose lives are revealed and narrated through the perspective of a boy who has an innate curiosity and wonderment towards the women and their world. He remains a faithful chronicler, often an invisible entity as the narrative revolves around the women. The portrayal and unveiling of women through a male child lend a mystifying air to the narrative. His fragile and vulnerable eye is yet to acquire the desire that is often contained in an adult male gaze, but it is not free from the subtle traces of an unexpressed, perhaps still to be identified, longing. Since the boy can only have a partial perspective due to his limited cognition, this denies him the knowledge about unfolding events usually associated with first-person narration.

23The narrator of “Under Cover of Darkness” lives in Shimla with his parents. His mother is in love with his father’s friend Biren. At the tender age of ten he cannot really comprehend his mother’s actions and merely mulls them over in his head. Readers are able to draw inferences about various incidents and lend them some meaning that the narrator cannot. This dual layer of meanings, one that is available to the boy and the other more informed one to the reader, gives the narrative a distinct tension. The reader is often left looking for some clues to decode the duality of meanings.

24Two decades later, Verma returns with A Rag Called Happiness. Its fourteen-year-old narrator Munnu has arrived from a small town to live with his cousin Bitty in Delhi. She is part of a theatre troupe that is staging a play by August Strindberg. Her friend Ira, one of the actors in the troupe, is in love with a married man, Nittibhai.

25“Under Cover of Darkness” is a story of loss, forbidden romance, a vulnerable and fragile childhood, an anxious adulthood—and of Shimla hills. There are constant references to the plains and the “mythical” city of Delhi, to which several of Shimla’s residents migrate during winters. The story ends with the narrator’s last evening in Shimla before he leaves for Delhi with his parents. Almost each of these themes returns in A Rag Called Happiness, and the landscape, as if marking a natural progression, moves from Shimla to Delhi. In both works, the women protagonists are in a relationship that lacks social sanction, remains unfulfilled and eventually pushes them into solitude. The perpetual confrontation of their inner world with the external reality envelops the works in a cloud of melancholy.

26Still, more than these thematic similarities, the techniques that Verma uses in both works to illumine his narrative hold more significance, particularly considering that he is not a postmodernist storyteller. He makes aesthetic interventions within the realm of realism. The first is the choice of a boy-narrator, which enables Verma to complicate the available meanings and refuse easy inferences. Inquisitiveness is the prime trait of boyhood. The boy is at a stage when he easily turns curious and mystified by things around him, but cannot find any answers. His perspective never remains static, as every voice that he hears around him and every clue that he receives from the external world unsettles his perception. As the universe turns into a vast unresolved mystery for both boys, the reader finds multiple focal points in the gaze of the narrator. The boy draws an inference about a character or a situation, only to erase and redraw it again upon receiving some new clues—clues that perhaps do not exist outside of his imagination. As he attempts to comprehend life with all its vivid mysteries and magic, the adult characters get illumined from multiple vantage points and the narrative receives a mesmerising glow. And since he gets amazed by the tiniest things around him, a subtle breeze, a quiet lamppost, a floating melody in the dark, the words in the text seem imprinted on an invisible screen that can be seen only when viewed against a flame.

27Second, in both these works the boy converses with a girl who is a little older than him and has an impenetrable air about her. The girls know a bit more about the events than the boys do. They occasionally reveal a chink about the women’s lives that leaves the unsuspecting boys baffled and adds another layer of ambiguity to the narrative. The boys see and narrate, the girls intervene and drop hints and the reader interprets.

28Here is a conversation, taken from “Under Cover of Darkness,” between the boy and the girl. It takes place after the mother of the former has gone away:

     “So it is settled that you are going to Delhi, is it?” she said, sucking noisily at the apricot.
     “Yes, as soon as mother returns.”
     “Where has your mother gone?”
     “To her aunt’s place.”
     “Are you sure?” Bano looked at me mysteriously.
     “What’s the matter, Bano?” I asked, puzzled.
     “Nothing, just asking.” She pressed the apricot between her lips and added, “I won’t tell you. Mother has warned me not to.”
     I felt angry but smiled, feigning indifference. When I was angry I tried to hide my feelings behind a smile so that no one would think I were an ill-tempered fool. . . .
     “Bano, did your mom tell you something about my mother?”
     “How does that concern you?” (Verma, “Darkness” 82-83)

29Multiple layers of meanings can be traced here. The text does not mention where the mother has gone. The boy believes that she has left for her aunt’s home, whereas it seems that Bano has some crucial information that the boy and the reader do not have. While the reader can draw a faint inference, the boy can only be puzzled. Now let us read a sequence from the novel when Munnu is conversing with the girl as both of them watch the theatre rehearsals:

     “That’s your cousin,” she said. “I can always tell by her voice.”
Somehow he felt he could detect an undertone of contempt, of pettiness, of mockery in her tone. His throat went dry.
     “She is only acting her part,” he pleaded weakly in Bitty’s defence.
     “Some part!” Her lips curled in scorn. “They are deceiving themselves, I tell you.”
     “I don’t understand.”
     “They’re ruining their lives. You understand what that means, don’t you?” She laughed coldly.

30And then, later:

     “Have you ever seen it?”
     “Sorrow.” Perplexity showed in her taut face. “I haven’t, either. But sometimes as I watch your cousin on the sly, with that lost distracted look about her, I tell myself if ever it were possible to see sorrow it must look like her.” She laughed self-deprecatingly. (Verma, Rag 64-69)

31The girls know more about the world than the boys do. The tension among several contradictory layers of meanings available in a single frame intensifies considering that the knowledge pertains to the women who are close to the boys, and yet the outsider girls seem to know more about them. Given the similarity between the two passages, it can be deduced that the novel’s sequence has flown from the short story and the two genres were in perpetual conversation with each other. Having written a similar episode and accomplished a technique in an earlier short fiction, Verma now wants to develop the thread in a novel.

32Consider another instance. In both cases, the boy is unwell at some point, simmering under a mild fever. He is aware that it has affected his cognitive abilities and that his reception of the world may not be innocuous. This is how the boy of the story describes his illness to Bano:

“Bano, when I was ill, sometimes I had strange thoughts. I felt I was like mother—that there was something common between us. Something which no one likes about. I saw an apparition wrapped in snow, its hands white as marble, dangling in the air. An apparition coming from behind that suddenly bottled me up—and then I fell apart from my own self. Yes, from my own being, Bano.” (Verma, “Darkness” 83)

33Likewise, the narrator of A Rag Called Happiness remains unwell for large parts of the narrative. In fact, because of his illness, he has left Allahabad to live with his cousin Bitty:

Of late, back in Allahabad, he had scarcely ever moved out of his house. Something would scrape and wheeze in his chest at night. He’d sit up, doubling over, fighting for breath. His father would massage his back until he breathed easily again. One day a letter arrived from Bitty. ‘Send him to Delhi,’ she’d urged. (Verma, Rag 4)

34Illness is not a mere motif here. Verma, to borrow Susan Sontag’s words, uses illness as a “metaphor,” a narrative tool to create an illusory cloud over his fiction. Verma was fond of the Sanskrit word Maya, which is loosely translated in English as illusion, but has deeper epistemological meanings in Indian philosophy. It is defined in multiple ways: a partial meaning; a power that affects cognition; an entity that entices you and takes you away from truth; the potency of the ultimate reality to create a veil over truth. The word Maya recurs both in Verma’s fiction and in his diaries and journals. He uses illness to create a Mayavi universe, to question certitudes and lend a vulnerable tone to the narrative. On the other hand, Sontag describes illness as

the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. . . . My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. . . . Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. (Sontag 3-4)

35By the time Sontag published this insightful essay in 1978, Verma had already written several works that use illness as a metaphor, works that had an unwell protagonist at the centre. Illness dims the senses of the narrator, blurs the scene and adds uncertainty to the unfolding events. Great fiction writers suspend their judgment and begin by doubting their own eye to ensure that they do not become partial to a character. The choice of a boy narrator, simmering under a mild fever, enables Verma to ensure a self-reflective prose and raise a variety of questions which might not have been possible with an adult narrator.

36Both texts share another motif, an absentee mother, a woman whose unresolved gestures and unspoken sentences baffle the boy and evoke a sublime fear in him. The boy in “Under Cover of Darkness” is always unsure of his mother. She loves him more than his father does and spends more time with him, but she also exudes a fragile mystery that the boy is unable to decode. The boy often finds her on the verge of a cliff, beyond which begins a zone of no return. In the novel, Munnu’s mother gives him a diary on his twelfth birthday, asking him to regularly and assiduously write his observations; and yet, she sows in him a seed of uncertainty, a permanent skepticism as she writes on the first page of the diary: “Write what you see but what you see may not be right.” The reticent mother is a wonderful narrative device. Because she is revealed through her tender son who is unable to comprehend her actions, the act of unveiling becomes the act of concealing. The mother becomes a mysterious figure, a subtle object of desire, invoking a Freudian longing in the boy. It cultivates another layer of awareness in the narrators about their possible erroneous perceptions, and intensifies the cloud of illusion.

37There is another similarity, perhaps the most striking of all. The narrative flows in multiple times, a large part of it is recorded in remembrance as the narrator recollects and recomposes his past several years later, attempting to lend some meaning to his life. Since the impressions of the past change with every remembrance, the memory gets a new construction. Effectively, he is always seen revising and refashioning his past, indeed multiple pasts. Is there more than one life that he has lived?

He’d always be fascinated by this trafficking in memories, unhampered by the notions of borders, sentries, permits or passports: one simply sauntered across and knocked familiarly . . . (Verma, Rag 25)
That is probably why Mother gave me the notebook. She said when we sit down to write we remember again what we had seen but forgotten all about before long. But this remembering is not seeing—it is setting apart. And so, even as I see the incredulous stares of Bitty and Darry on the page of my notebook, the memory stands apart by itself, alone, stuck there like a pressed butterfly, dead, remains of a splash of colour that once flustered about on its broad wings. This is a kind of compromise one strikes between saying, dying and remembering. (Verma, Rag 53)
I could make out no words—just the sounds, primal, naked, recognisable by their timbre: This is Ira, this Bitty, this Nittibhai: These rippled like shadows in calm water and I realised for the first time that whereas you only hear words you can see the sounds—frescos on a stark wall, with anger and pain and remorse paling in flakes of plaster, where silence has its colours, laughter its light, thought its space. Years hence when I happen to go through my diary again, their words will not be my guide; I’ll follow instead these obscure clues back to this evening, knowing full well that this evening has disappeared for ever, that it has no existence independent of the clues impressed in my memory, that what I can return to can only be a remembrance of my memories of the evening, of this bathtub, this pack of cigarettes, these underclothes. (Verma, Rag 59)

38Time gets disrupted in these passages. The reader is uncertain about the temporal frame that records these events. Increasingly, the reader also becomes unsure about the actuality of events. If it is all being revealed in memory, taking new shapes with each turn, did all of this actually take place, or was it a mere illusion? The epiphany, here, is not about the realisation of any truth, but about the ephemeral nature of truths, the perpetual existence of Maya. As mentioned earlier, like his short stories, Verma’s later novels also offer an illusion of revelation and manage to conceal more than they attempt to reveal.

39Yet, if he manages to conceal truths in both genres, what is the difference between the two? Let me give two instances from another author, whose art Verma much admired, to underline the distinction. In a famous scene from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre has been made captive by Napoleon’s army. Lying on the ground, he stares at the stars. “High up in the light sky hung the full moon. Forests and fields beyond the camp, unseen before, were now visible in the distance. And farther still, beyond those forests and fields, the bright, oscillating, limitless distance lured one to itself.” At that moment, the infinity of his existence is revealed to him, and he tells himself: “And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!” (1090).

40Contrast the above episode with “The Three Hermits.” A Bishop on a voyage finds a boatman talking about three solitary men who live on an island in order to achieve the “salvation of their souls.” Curious, he asks the crew to sail towards the island. When they are there, he asks the three men how they serve God. One of them replies:

     “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”
     “But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.
     “We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!” (Tolstoy, Tales 163)

41The Bishop, convinced that they do not understand the Holy Trinity, spends the day teaching them. The three barely grasp his words. He makes them repeat the prayer a hundred times over, and returns with a smug smile. Back on the vessel, the island lost in the night, he sees a bright streak of light chasing the ship. As it comes closer, he is stunned to find the three hermits running on the water, hand in hand, all gleaming white:

     “We have forgotten your teaching,” they say with one voice. “Teach us again.”
     “Your own prayer will reach the Lord,” the bishop crossed himself. “It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” (Tolstoy, Tales 165)

42The short story ends here, with a sudden thud. Tolstoy manages to punch in a prelude, an interlude and a climax in just a few pages. Both the instances offer a flash, an epiphanic moment about an inalienable truth. The novel could afford greater brooding ground to Tolstoy, such as was not available to him when he wrote the short story, but the master could nevertheless create an epiphanic moment. There is another crucial difference: in the novel, the scene and the character evolve and develop over several chapters. The reader by then has gained considerable insights about Pierre. We can sense that the novel is gradually moving towards such an episode. The impact also lasts longer on the reader and the narrative, whereas in the short story the flash appears only to vanish. The reader is nearly baffled, looking for a few more clues but the branch has suddenly snapped. The three hermits are gliding on the water surface and before one realises what one has just witnessed, it is all over.

43Let us now compare this with Verma’s works. A Rag Called Happiness ends with the long musings and ramblings of Munnu as, years later, he reflects upon his Delhi days. The last chapter of the novel runs into several pages as he peels open many layers one by one, taking the reader with him to the dark alleys of the city and the people he had met in those days. He trails his memories, recalls Ira and Bitty, and tries to lend his past some meaning, but it always remains elusive.

44On the other hand, “Under Cover of Darkness” has a sudden ending. The boy is ambling in the hills when, by sheer chance, he finds himself at the home of his mother’s lover Biren. The latter is surprised to find the boy at his doorstep. He lets him in, hands him a book of letters by Gustave Flaubert to George Sand, and asks him to give it to his mother. The boy has not heard about either of the two. Clueless, he walks back home, flipping through the old yellowed pages of the book. He reflects upon the moment years later:

But that day the book had no significance for me. For a long time I stood under the lamppost, holding the book and looking at the room upstairs. Through the closed windows of mother’s room, a mournful light glistened.
That was our last evening in Shimla. (Verma, “Darkness” 86)

45That is the last sentence of the story. The final moments arrive in a flash that, by invoking Flaubert and Sand as metaphors, finally confirms to him the embers smouldering between his mother and Biren. Yet, he is left with more questions than ever. He cannot fully comprehend his mother’s secret that has just been revealed to him, cannot lend any meaning to the two names—Flaubert and Sand. Were they lovers or just friends? He does not know. The reader is not told whether the boy finally handed the book to his mother or kept it with him, hoping to extract some clues out of it in the future. All that the reader knows is that it was his last evening in Shimla. The reader can thus only imagine the torment the boy must have gone through as he flipped through the collection of letters, trying in vain to search between the words for some clues to the mystery surrounding his own mother. The book, for him, casts an oblique glance on her, a glance to which the boy cannot lend any concrete shape.

46Without the luxury to develop the mood through several chapters, Verma brings in a sudden climax, but manages a brilliant epiphanic moment. The crucial difference between Verma and several other authors who deal with both the novel and short story forms, Tolstoy in this case, is that he gives no resolution in either of the genres. His fiction questions assertions and makes various truths vulnerable. Pierre is assured about his realisation of infinity; the bishop has realised the fallacy of his beliefs. On the other hand, the boys in Verma’s works are increasingly uncertain about their perceptions. All the impressions that they gather through the narrative have eventually made them more skeptical than ever. Verma published this short fiction when he was twenty-eight and the novel at the age of fifty. Before turning thirty he had proposed a major truth about life in his short story, and continued exploring its various forms through his life. A genre that allowed him to propose the delicacies of dilemmas and anxieties of assertions, a form that incubated his novels could not have been “humble” for him.

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Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2015. Print.

Kier-Byfield, Sophia. “Revealing as Concealing: The Photographic Flash of Epiphany in the Modernist Short Story.” Short Fiction in Theory & Practice 8.1-2 (2018): 69-88. Print.

Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Print.

Murakami, Haruki. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Trans. Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. London: Vintage, 2007. Print.

O’Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. 1963. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2004. Print.

Parrinder, Patrick. Nation and Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Verma, Nirmal. “India and Europe: Some Reflections on the Self and the Other.” Kavita Asia. Bhopal: Bharat Bhavan, 1990. Print.

---. A Rag Called Happiness. 1979. Trans. Kuldip Singh. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.

---. “Under Cover of Darkness.” 1957. Trans. Jay Rattan. Collected Stories: An Inch and a Half Above Ground. New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 2004. 68-86. Print.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1990. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. Twenty-Three Tales. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1998. Print.

---. War and Peace. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

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1 The subtitle is borrowed from a lecture Nirmal Verma delivered at Heidelberg University in 1989 entitled “India and Europe: Some Reflections on the Self and the Other.” I am grateful to Dr Judith Misrahi-Barak as well as to the reviewers for their insightful comments on this article. It helped me to considerably improve this text.

2 In India, my country, almost all the major awards for fiction are given for novels. The Rupees 2.5 million JCB award, the richest in the country, recognises the best novel in a year. The 25000 $ DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is given annually for a novel by a South Asian writer. Then there is the Man Booker prize for the novel, among the most prestigious ones in the English-speaking world. There is barely any matching award for short stories.

3 There are many works on the topic. See, for instance, Anderson or Parrinder.

4 Several Indian critics have written on Nirmal Verma, in both Hindi and English. Namvar Singh, Harish Trivedi, Sham Lal, Malayaj, Ramesh Chandra Shah, Ashok Vajpeyi and Madan Soni are among the major names who have devoted their critical energies to decode the fiction of Verma, making him among the most written about Hindi authors in the last six decades. Namvar Singh, the grand old critic of Hindi literature, who ruled over the Hindi literary establishment for several decades, declared Verma’s first story collection, Parinde (1959), to be the first work of the New Story movement in Hindi.

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Ashutosh Bhardwaj, « The Short Story and the Novel: Some Reflections on the Self and the Other »Journal of the Short Story in English, 77 | 2021, 105-122.

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Ashutosh Bhardwaj, « The Short Story and the Novel: Some Reflections on the Self and the Other »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL :

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Ashutosh Bhardwaj

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a fiction writer and journalist. As a journalist, he has travelled across Central India and documented the Maoist insurgency. He won the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism for four consecutive years (2012-15). In 2015, he was shortlisted for the Reuters’ Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism. He has published a short story collection, Jo Frame Mein Na The, a book of essays on literature, Pitra Vadh, besides several novellas, diaries, travelogues, and critical essays. His novelist book on the Maoist insurgency, The Death Script (HarperCollins) has won the Atta Galatta best non-fiction book of the year 2020 award. He has received the Krishna Baldev Vaid Fellowship for his innovative fiction, was a writer-in-residence at the Sangam House in Bangalore, 2012-13, and Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (Shimla), 2017-19. He was writer-in-residence at Prague-City of Literature in 2021.

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