The focus of the Out of Print short fiction workshop at the Chandigarh Literature Festival was lynching and mob violence. Sadly, there is no need to elaborate on the reasons for the choice so soon after Dadri. The presence of Nayantara Sahgal as one of the key speakers and attendees at the festival, made this theme only more relevant.
This was a generous workshop, among other things, in terms of the time allotted, and I think all the participants were grateful for the time to write, and the time to critique, as a group, each other’s works.
Three readings were suggested to the participants in advance, two that have appeared in Out of Print, Mischief in Netanagar by Altaf Tyrewala and Bed Bug by Vasudhendra – which meant that they were easily accessible. The other, A Day in 1919 by Sadat Husain Manto was from the translation by Rakshanda Jalil in Naked Voices: Stories and Sketches, Roli Books, 2008.
The intention of the readings was to examine ways in which the issue of violence, mass violence can be dealt with in short fiction. In Altaf Tyrewala’s story, a mob riot is potentially triggered following Pakistan’s win in a cricket match. The protagonist is driven by a profound sense of powerlessness, a feeling of having no control over any part of his life, and is driven to mischief, with very wide-reaching implications. In Vasudhendra’s Bed Bug a young man is put to death for being blatantly and boldly homosexual. The actual killing is carried out by the father and brothers of the young man, but the multi-layered aspect of the violence may be seen as perpetrated on him by almost the entire the village. Manto’s brilliant A Day in 1919 has been beautifully and expertly analysed by many a scholar. Suffice it to say that the story creates many layers of distance in dealing with the violence of Jalianwala Bagh massacre, but in the end, its power lies in the sharp focus of the personal response.
That personal viewpoint, that ability to focus mass injustice, large-scale violence to a single, if multi-faceted story is one of the powers of short fiction. Which, of course, aligns with an instinctive human response to scales that seem beyond comprehension. Each of the four stories that were sent in by the participants deals with a larger injustice in a deeply personal way.
Parminder Singh’s Regurgitation places the story in the context of deep-seated prejudice and the cruelty it engenders. A Faceless Voice by Sunaina Jain views caste injustice from the very high seat of death itself. Jonaki Ray tells the story of rape, and the societal fabric that breeds impunity, from multiple viewpoints in Kaleidoscope. Born Good examines the pressure that a loving and indulgent sister faces when drugs and failure afflict a sibling.
I post this after attending the brilliant keynote address by Shashi Deshpande at the opening session of the Bangalore Literature Festival. Among many other critical points she made, she questioned if writers can bring about change. If one can summarise and paraphrase her, writers can’t change anything, but they can open the floor to discussion. All of the four stories from the Out of Print short fiction workshop at the Chandigarh Literature Festival can certainly do so.