Dhumketu’s Shehnai Virtuoso, a compelling introduction to one of the leading authors in the Gujarati language, comprises twenty-six short stories gleaned from twenty-four volumes of Dhumketu’s short fiction. This giant of letters, who hailed from a western Indian state, is little-known in the English-speaking world. A contemporary of Mohandas K. Gandhi at the height of the Quit India movement, Dhumketu also produced twenty-nine historical novels, seven social novels, and numerous plays, essays, memoirs, travelogues, translations, and book reviews. Despite bearing witness to one of the most tumultuous and violent eras of human history, the type of circumstance that might compel another writer to address political issues head-on, Dhumketu’s stories highlight the experiences and emotions of the individual, with a keen eye for her suffering against a backdrop of subtle social commentary.
Even so, a large part of Dhumketu’s skill is his ability to have political circumstances propel the narrative forward, allowing commentary on ethics, justice, and morality while seldom naming these concepts. Shehnai Virtuoso’s pages are filled with the caste prejudice that was prominent in village life, the struggles of the poor against the rich, the recognition of women’s humanity, and a deep understanding of the nature of cruelty. A remarkable example of his nuanced yet cutting style appears early in “The Post Office,” one of Dhumketu’s best-known stories. Describing a retired hunter’s youth, he writes, in translation by Jenny Bhatt, “[. . .] one of the pleasures of the hunt was the baby partridges running around in bewilderment once he had shot and killed the parent.” Sentences like this create a tiny jolt of recognition, transcending distinctions of culture and time. Dhumketu’s focus on universal human traits through the lens of romantic attachments, the societal oppression of individuals, and the beauty of the natural world makes these stories, first published from 1926 to 1964, relevant to readers in twenty-first-century America.
Several stories in the collection—“The Noble Daughters-in-Law,” “Gulabvahu,” and the devastating “Tears of the Soul”—highlight the restraints imposed on women by a patriarchal world view. Dhumketu’s understanding of the antagonism between the individual and societal order is most compellingly portrayed in this last story, which is based on historical events. In the ancient republic of Vaishali, a prominent, beautiful, and talented musician is manipulated into a sophisticated form of prostitution under the guise of service to a freedom-loving state. The government’s claim on her body and child parallels terrors that are known to many in our modern day. This story, like so much of Dhumketu’s work, displays a striking ability to understand a woman’s experience of the world.
Many of these stories grapple with the value of art and the role of the artist in society. “Read your own poetry,” the narrator of “The New Poet” says in jest to a poet who is unable to nap during a train journey. “You will promptly fall asleep. It’s as if you are carrying sleeping pills with you already.” But Dhumketu also traces the immense sacrifice that an artist makes for the sake of her art, often in a world that will not support it. In the dystopian future described in “The Rebirth of Poetry,” the authorities ask, “Dance, music, art, poetry, literature—haven’t these intoxicants made beggars of you in the past?” What is the use of these arts, in other words, when they do not result in wealth or the bodily security of a person or a household? In a later story tracing the life of a hard-working editor of a literary journal, “A Happy Delusion,” Dhumketu seems to respond to this question. Recognizing that the literary journal contained “no vision, no life experience, nor anything that could be of use to any nation,” his narrator states, “[h]is non-achievement alone was great. His non-accomplishment itself was his great accomplishment.”
Jenny Bhatt’s skillful translation takes advantage of the unique place that English occupies on the subcontinent. Since the British first appeared on their shores in the early 1600s, the famously multilingual native South Asians adopted the English language and made it one of their own. It is an official language of the Indian government, familiar, like Hindi, across the country. Over the centuries, Indian English evolved as a distinct dialect, separate from British, American, Australian, Kenyan, and other forms, with its own unique accent, words, and syntax. Bhatt chooses to convey Dhumketu’s Gujarati words into Indian English and the result is charming; at times, a reader may not know if he is reading a translation or an original work by a speaker of Indian English. Bhatt’s choices in this regard also allow the power of Dhumketu’s metaphors to shine. There is great pleasure in reading a well-translated metaphor, which conveys not only visceral meaning but also a world view—a whole culture. For instance, in describing the bravery of a bereaved woman, Bhatt translates, “[f]or one who, on occasion, became a lioness, the sense of inferiority from her childhood had gathered such strength that her heroism at times became the size of three almonds.” Dhumketu’s stories are full of small, transportative jewels such as this one.
Dhumketu is known for having advanced the form of the Gujarati short story beyond folk tales or mere vignettes about morality. As Bhatt relates in her introduction, he believed that the singular brilliance of the form rests on its ability to tell a story “through only allusions or sparks.” Presumably, it was with this ideal in mind that Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi adopted the pen name Dhumketu, the Gujarati word for “comet.” These stories make the reader work in the best of ways, respecting her engagement as she pieces together a setting and characters at the beginning of each work and she deciphers a complete ending from the spare clues that the author has strewn in her path. Decades may be disposed of in a mere sentence. Along the way, the reader is dropped into full moments of intimate conversation or action of the type that are remembered and re-remembered over a lifetime. In the mysterious “Mungo Gungo,” the author provides accounts of only two scenes in the life of a mute man who, as a supremely skilled swimmer, rescues children and possessions that have fallen into the village’s massive reservoir. The protagonist cannot speak, and the story doesn’t contain any dialogue. Yet, the loving manner with which Dhumketu relates the experience of both the abuser and the abused captures the entirety of the protagonist’s time on earth.
These stories lie outside the boundaries of what is commonly generated in the present-day United States, where so many stories are manufactured in the factories of our creative writing programs. To read Dhumketu is to be reminded of the ways in which the short story can be stretched and shaped organically, while always remaining true to its exquisite form.
© 2022 by Rishi Reddi. All rights reserved.