Reading Short Stories with Flashlights

by Nakul Vāc
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The other day we were kicking around a few short stories in a WhatsApp group and someone said ‘I don’t get it’ and I said to myself, “Well, it’s about women not ‘getting it’ at all or not ‘getting enough of it’ or ‘not getting the right kind'”. I also realized that it’s been a while since I relished thinking about short stories. With all the novel and poetry reading and all the translation brouhaha, the poor step-cousin genre was getting squeezed out. Getting squeezed out, wasn’t that in some weird way a metaphor for the genre itself? For the short story doesn’t have the capacious luxury of the novel or the transcendence of the poem. Its very name hints at being hemmed in by the constraints of time and space. The here and now not the eternal verities for all time and everywhere. One could almost say it’s the genre of mortality and hence most palpably human. If the Gods indulged in literary past times, I am pretty sure they won’t be trying their hand at short stories. 

The stories I like are akin to the basement of my house, filled with odds and ends, the detritus of lived experience. Some writers, the ones I don’t like, get you to the basement quickly, turn on the floodlights and say, “There, see all the clutter, how awful”. Thanks, but no thanks for adding to the clutter, and please turn off that garish light on your way out! There are others who don’t get you there soon enough or those that never turn on the lights but let you wend your way in the dark. The cloak and dagger mysteries can be entertaining, but the tripping and falling can get tiresome at times. The ones I like keep a hidden flashlight tucked right between their lines. If you are attentive enough or sometimes even lucky enough to find that flashlight and turn it on, it might light up that baby crib that never rocked or that manuscript of that story that never got published and suddenly you unearth the forgotten stories within that story that was your life. 

Stories and Flashlights, that could be the perfect title for that essay on short stories that I will never get to write. Anyway, as I was saying at the beginning, we were kicking around some stories and there was this one which had a lot of dramatic switching on and off of lights. There is this writer who rooms in a portion of a dwelling that houses a couple. She is probably 18 years of age and her husband who probably sleeps around comes back late at night and beats the shit out of her. Oh-oh, at this point we are expecting the flashlights to light up the basement and get a sermon on life, which we all know is a bitch. But to our surprise, no. Events transpire, and our abused teen ends up at the writer’s room and flat out says ‘I am not getting it’. Remember this is 1942 and this is a Tamil story and yes, the ‘it’ definitely connotes ‘it’ and something more. There is a lot of light switching going on that, to make a bad joke, sheds light on what transpires. One can imagine several high-minded readings of this story and the story is that good that it is capable of accommodating all those readings. But a more down-to-earth prosaic one would follow that emotionally and sexually dissatisfied girl taking the bold step of availing an opportunity presented to her by a man who is the antithesis of her husband. She is already in his room, but she is obviously very young and obviously still not clear as to what she is about to articulate or do.

All of this happens in half-light. She musters enough confidence in the man and sees a potential way going forward. The light comes back on and with it comes a sort of emotional solace and perhaps even a bit of foreplay. But the light that brings pleasure could also be harshly brutal. It illuminates the future societal ramifications and the moral pitfalls of the act she is about to indulge in. In that unforgiving light, she has an inkling of doubt that perhaps the “way out” is just a “way in” to another horror chamber where she will be used first and then abused. She backs off and prefers the half-light where possibilities abounded without the inconveniencing downers of the full light of reality. One must be very careful here in ascribing to this very young woman all the harshly won mindsets and attributes of feminists of a later age. We should remember that she does go back to her whacko husband and dies a predictable death. But one must imagine her going back to the horror show with that half-light hope that one day she might step into a better world in the full light of respect and freedom.

Even though I am not a believer, I still believe our readings are fated. It was only sheer chance (or fate) that the heroine of the next story I read was “getting” a lot of it but not of her own choice. She is a prostitute who almost seems to decide to commit suicide out of boredom. There are no flashlights under which she bitches about her plight in a society that would cruelly label her a bitch. That she doesn’t do so makes it more poignant and makes the deadpan descriptions of her multiple attempts to set up the noose by which she is about to hang herself, very moving. I don’t want to give away the plot of the story but let me just say that in the end, she is a bit shocked that it was she who went through all that trouble to set up that damn noose that stares back at her in all its ridiculousness.

We talked of flashlights and short stories before. In this story, the first mention of light also illuminates the domineering aspect of her husband/pimp who apparently orders her to stay indoors, with the lights turned off when she is not entertaining customers. But the more interesting light in this story is that flashlight buried in the words ‘எனக்கு தண்ணி தவிக்குது’ (‘I am dying of thirst’) that Devayani utters to one of her customers and the ensuing act of compassion that follows. The story is deliberately puzzling, and the loose ends can be tied several ways. I prefer to view it as a confrontation of the life and death wish in all of us. She is a woman alive who wants to die, and her customer is probably a dying man who wants to live (At one point he says his job is the business of dying. The doctor is waiting for him and he complains about ‘நேரக் கணக்கு’, in other words about time running out. At the intersection of these opposing wish/ forces (Thanatos and Eros if you prefer being anally Freudian) is that wise adage: ‘தவிச்ச வாய்க்கு தண்ணீர் கொடு’ (Always offer water to a parched mouth). Beyond the glare of pleasure, libido, sexuality, and human brutality, there is that flickering light of human compassion that is worth living for or even coming back from death for. But does that blue Terylene shirt and Flowing Dhoti symbolize the blue of the sky and the white seas and between them … The poor fellow is dying, give him a break.

The stories are ‘சிறிது வெளிச்சம்’ by கு.ப.ரா and ‘டெர்லின் ஷர்ட்டும் எட்டு முழ வேட்டியும் அணிந்த மனிதர்’ by ஜி.நாகராஜன். Read them (with a flashlight if you will.)

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Sources / Further Reading:

1. ‘சிறிது வெளிச்சம்’, Ku.Pa. Ra, Kalamohini, December,1942
2. ‘டெர்லின் ஷர்ட்டும் எட்டு முழ வேட்டியும் அணிந்த மனிதர்’, G.Nagarajan, Kannadasan, November, 1973
3. ‘புனைவு என்னும் புதிர்‘, Vimaladitha Maamallan, Kalachuvadu 2017 – A collection of crisp commentaries that appeared individually in Tamil Hindu that attempts to unriddle the art of Tamil short fiction by discussing these stories along with ten others.

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