About the Book
Daniell Comes to Judgment: New and Vintage Daruwalla is a collection of short stories by Keki N. Daruwalla, the acclaimed poet-cum-novelist of our time. There are new stories here written especially for this book in a span of less than two months and perennial favourites (of vintage worth) still relevant in today’s changed times. The collection showcases the author’s enduring range.
The new stories are first person narratives and with the exception of one voices of women-city women-putting into words their moods and memories. The author has deliberately shunned the violence-factor in this collection. In fact ‘Bars’, a story included in this volume, is a commentary on the forces of intolerance straining the social fabric.
Coming to the perennial favourites, they are Vintage Keki Daruwalla; vignettes from the vast repository of a wordsmith who can straddle myth and reality with ease and finesse, breathe life into metaphors, coalesce fact and fancy and still sound fascinatingly credible, with his patent black humour well in place. The collection includes stories where fantasy and myth transport one to the pre-language, pre-script era; to amphibious trains and an island of birds.
In short, the master storyteller weaves his magic yet again.
Keki N. Daruwalla, poet and writer, lives in Delhi, and has written over ten poetry volumes, a novella, two novels and half a dozen short story collections. His latest collection of poetry is The Map Maker (2002). His poetry volume The Keeper of the Dead won the Sahitya Akademi Award (1984) while Landscapes won the Commonwealth Poetry Award (Asia) in 1987. His first novel, Pepper and Christ, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize (Asia and UK) in 2010.
Apart from being an acclaimed poet, Daruwalla is also a serious short story writer who has been writing short stories for the last forty years. His short story collections inter alia include Sword and Abyss, A House in Ranikhet and Islands. His works have been translated into various European languages-Spanish, Swedish, Magyar, German and Russian.
Born in 1937, Daruwalla did his Masters in English Literature from Punjab University and also spent a year in Oxford as a Queen Elizabeth House Fellow. A career bureaucrat with the central government, he has been a Member of the National Commission for Minorities. He retired from goveI1Ullent service as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
In reading Keki Daruwalla’s sensitively written tales about diverse issues and at various locations, I am reminded of Naguib Mahfouz’s words: ‘The writer interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions, and values. That is art: And the comparison has a serious intent because a writer’s art goes beyond the crafting of a narrative; it embraces social causes and brings a fresh perspective to occurrences that are missed by the ordinary eye. Like Mahfouz, Keki Daruwalla has been in the civil service, and like him too, Keki has spoken up for liberated literary expression. Significantly, the authors have straddled several genres, eager to explore boundaries and cross over them, their narratives showing that the best story is one which disguises its intent, for it captures the reader with the power of telling and permeates the conscience with its tender reflections. Keki Daruwalla, known to most of his admirers as a poet who won the distinguished Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia in 1987 and went on become the most easily recognised voice of Indian poetry in English, has taken a fortunate step in bringing out a selection of his short stories written over several decades. Recently Keki raised a question and provided an answer. ‘Poets are turning to the novel. Why? Then again, why on earth not? Fiction presents a cerebral challenge-the plot and how your characters knuckle under or square up to circumstances: (The Hindu, Feb 13,2016.) Applying this to his own work, one may comment that Daruwalla’s high reputation as a poet has often obscured his superb craftsmanship as a writer of short stories. The present collection titled Daniell Comes to Judgement: New and Vintage Daruwalla is a much needed volume carrying old favourites along with delightfully new material. The stories dwell in the twilight zone of desires, those that relate to innate passions and reach towards the impossible in search of fulfillment. Such desires are not defined in the ordinary sense of emotional or sexual need but cover a gamut of experiences in India and beyond, in history and contemporary living. The sophisticated and nuanced writing is in control of the form of shorter fiction-a most difficult genre-to render vignettes that will tug at the heartstrings and spark off personal empathies. Like the grand masters of old, for example, Edgar Allan Poe, who said, ‘A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it: Keki captures the moment and the milieu with exemplary art.
Modern love is only equivalent to a wallet, the author seems to suggest in several stories. Relationships break down, spouses blatantly cheat on each other, young people turn cynical about marriage, and the churning wheel of the economy determines where the heart will be lodged. Urban stress plays on human psychology, morphing it into caricatures of old values such as dignity, affection, and nurturance. The evolution in rural India has stripped away any innocence. But the poet’s brush cannot only deal harsh strokes, and Kekis language mellows to witness nature while emotional devilry plays itself out in society. Within this frame, Daruwalla’s short fiction has undergone changes, the older material more realistic and tethered to a plot structure, the recent stories liberated from such expectations and willing to take wing in unknown skies.
In the new stories with which the collection opens, it’s gratifying to see Daruwalla writing in the first person as a woman, entering the psyche and contending with themes such as exploitation, mental aberration, jealousy and suchlike. He has always been a gender- sensitive writer but to take the plunge and give narrative voice to a variety of female personae is to risk a creative crossover. The success is spectacular and pertinent to empowerment issues today. ‘Daniell Comes to Judgement’ echoes the hype over art auctions and the pricing of treasures. Janet, the narrator and custodian of Daniell’s precious print, is wary of a dealer who befriends her and offers her a pittance. Though she loses the print in a flood, she regains her confidence through a second chance, a kind of redemption. Another story, ‘Garima and a Buried Fragrance: shows how the act of watering a mother’s garden, her heritage of womanhood, brings forth the perfumes from buried bulbs, and enriches Garima’s day as she greets ‘the poorwaiya ... the east wind ... coming like a cone of light at dawn’.
It may be a common assumption that love and betrayal chart parallel tracks but Keki Daruwalla includes unusual woman-centred narratives from his earlier works that are subtle endorsements of feminine strength. ‘A House in Ranikhet, ‘And on You also be Peace’ and ‘Crossroads’ are among these. Set in different locations and in varying contexts, it’s the humanitarian motif of trust that the stories play upon. Women liberated from traditional constraints find their way through challenges that are concomitant with modernity. They will negotiate society with confidence, maybe buy a house, decide on their companions, keep secrets, try strategies of manipulation-and why not? Episodes show the divergences from conventional value systems, with nerve and verve, yet the ‘poetic stories: as Namita Gokhale calls them, carry an astonishing beauty.
A cluster of stories reflect upon identity formations during the national movement. The early favourite, ‘Love Across the Salt Desert: speaks of cross-border smuggling and the romance of camel trains. ‘The Rann lay like a paralysed monster, its back covered with scab and scar tissue and dried blister-skin.’ Young love blossoms amidst danger and despair, and the finale is a triumph of the human spirit over the prejudices of place. As Najab shyly escorts his bride, Fatimah, from the ‘alien’ land of Pakistan into his paternal home in India, the skies open up with a shower of benediction. Comparable to this is another story, ‘When Gandhi Came to Gorakhpur, which is about the call for swadeshi and an individual’s struggle between profit and sacrifice. Remarkable here is the transformative experience of Shadilal when he meets Gandhi and is reminded of his patriotic promises. To this repertoire is added another story using the political muscle-man, Ram Khilawan, in a haunting tale of forbidden love, ‘The Day of the Winter Solstice.’
None of this is polemical. Keki Daruwalla is a consummate storyteller. However, after reading a batch of tales, one is likely to seek the core of the writer’s consciousness. Despite Daruwallas deep interest in Greek and Egyptian history, and in Russia, on which a few stories are based (‘Trojan Horse’, ‘The Hieroglyph Cave: ‘A Russian Story’), the core is not in the fascinating plots but in the act of seeking the purpose of human existence. Revisiting mythology helps to interpret the present, and Daruwalla’s fine ability to invest the legends with meaning turns the narratives into quest stories of modern day explorers mimicking the old, as if time has rolled over the sands but the hourglass has stood still.
Has human nature evolved or are the elemental passions of love and desire, trust and betrayal, possession and denial still the constitutive segments of the soul? The paradoxes of mortality show up in magnificent stories relating to asceticism, such as ‘The Long Night of the Bhikshu, ‘High Pastures’ and ‘Bird Island: In a prose piece Keki had written, ‘It is not just that the writer has changed his views, his reaction to events, or the way he sees life now as against the way he looked at it earlier ... the core problem lies in the writer not being the same man. The bridge with his own past has disappeared: The bridge can be found; it is made of memories, of images, of dreams-a trope that makes a frequent appearance throughout Keki’s work. In Bhikshu’s mind, the ‘burnt leaf face of his mother flitted through this dream world’, and in a father’s quest for his lost son is seen ‘an island rise up in front of them, as if some bird god had summoned the entire water fowl kingdom to the skies’. These are intimations of immortality, to recall Wordsworth’s phrase, even while they presage mutability and death.
Yet Keki Daruwalla proffers not a dark vision of living but a wise and buoyant one. Politics, humour, caricature, sprightly dialogue, risque phrases at times, make for the pace of his tales. The characters are recognisable but just beyond our ordinary ken; they speak, act and move, but in a manner that lifts them out of the banal state of our everyday routine.
Keki Daruwalla’s stories have received much praise, from critics beginning with Mulk Raj Anand, who placed him among ‘the few genuine experimentalists in the new Indian short story: (Horizon) In today’s context the stories will no longer be dubbed ‘experimental’ but I think their genuine merit lies in capturing the social phenomenon of a variously developing India of the last three decades. This includes a recapitulation of significant history and problems of identity, violence, exploitation, love and loss. No single story teller in Indian Writing in English has covered so much ground in so directly engaged a fashion. Coupled with Keki’s achievements in novel writing and poetry, this volume of stories speaks for his outstanding achievement as a literary practitioner.
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