The only memory I have of my grandfather before he passed away was him calling me ‘good gurl di laltain’ when I was a toddler, for pulling off my part in our game. I would spin around in my lehenga, to him singing dholi taaro dhol baaje. I never knew why laaltein, or what all of it meant together- I made my peace understanding it as a Punjabi grandpa’s drivel, stashing the memory away as a precious obscurity. It was only in high school when I decided to excavate some of my family history of partition through the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, did his words take on meaning. In Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, a few years after Punjab is split into two, it occurs to the authorities that the lunatics in mental asylums must also be exchanged across the border, the Muslims to Pakistaan and the Hindus and Sikhs to Hindustaan. News of the transfers bewilder the inmates, who, cut off from news, are in a frenzy over whether the asylum had been in Hindustaan or Pakistaan, which of the two their own villages fell in, and how it came to be that land that was Hindustaan a few years ago when they were brought in was now Pakistan. The opinion of one Sikh inmate is sought out on the matter, and his response was always: ‘Uper the gur gur the annexe the bat dhayana the mung the dal of the Government of Toba Tek Singh.’ The words struck me as the long form of the gibberish my grandfather would come to imitate when playing with me. His call had been translated to me, in a strange sense, from beyond the grave. All of a sudden, with this tiny story, the old drivel became boundlessly meaningful, and made me swell up in the lofty awe of being, not rootless, but forever embodied in the webs of history, whether I’d know it or not.
This kind of magic is, in some inexplicable way, endemic to the short story. Neil Gaiman says in his masterclass on storytelling, that the short story is not the kind of magic trick where you have a carnival in a big box, but where the magician asks you to open your empty hand, passes hers over it, and suddenly, there’s a rose there.
The short form is a treat because it cannot rely on the reader’s attachment to characters or settings to be loved. It must pull off a trick in the little space it takes, every turn of thought naked, because there is no room for anything other than what the writer can be precisely sure of conveying. Only words sacred to her can remain. Good short stories are case studies for the barest bones of stories, for the exposed clockworks of pure wonder.
My grandfather wasn’t a voracious reader, and he didn’t have to be, to make stories part of him. Unlike the deeply personal experience of committing to a novel, which commands time and becomes exclusive to the elite for their abundance of leisure, the short story can be read by shopkeepers in gaps between customers, shared orally over lunch breaks at construction sites, and apparently summoned through the tunnels of death. They transcend space, time, and individuality easily, and clean the windows between one’s own self and cultures she could inhabit, temporarily but indelibly.
Here are the short stories that make me praise the genre so, curated to make you love them as much as I do.
1. The Last Leaf, by O Henry.
What makes a painting a masterpiece? Read here: https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/the-last-leaf.pdf
2. The Student, by Anton Chekhov
Certified by Dr. Cornel West as a life-changing two and a half pages, this gem from 1894 on time and belief can be read here: https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/the-last-leaf.pdf
3. Toba Tek Singh, Tetwaal ka Kutta, and Naya Kaanoon, and Aakhri Salaam, by Saadat Hasan Manto
Few events can appreciate the absurd dilemmas that come with drawing borders and changing laws than the bloody Partition of India, and few people can chronicle the Partition like Saadat Hasan Manto. Read the stories in the Devanagari and Urdu scripts on Rekhta: https://www.rekhta.org/authors/saadat-hasan-manto/stories
The English translations of these can be found in ‘Kingdom’s End’, a collection of Manto’s short stories translated by Khaled Hasan and published by Penguin Books, India.
4. Lihaaf and Gainda, by Ismat Chughtai
Narratives of desire, playtime, and fraught friendship at the dawn of Independence, through the eyes of young girls.
5. Speech Sounds, by Octavia Butler
What does it mean to communicate? What does it mean to hope, when one can’t? Read here: https://www.unl.edu/english/docs/englishweek17/engl200-speechsounds.pdf
6. Daughters of the Moon, by Italo Calvino
Where do discarded things go? To the moon, of course!
This delightful piece on consumerism is available here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/02/23/the-daughters-of-the-moon
Though not strictly short stories or any genre at all, Invisible Cities by Calvino holds poetic prose on space, desire, cities, and memory, like no other, and is my favourite book.
7. Prominent Author, by Philip K Dick
A guaranteed pleasure for science fiction fans, this story is a rumination on time and significance.
Find it complete with illustrations in its original print, here: https://nyc3.digitaloceanspaces.com/sffaudio-usa/usa-pdfs/ProminentAuthorByPhilipK.Dick.pdf
8. Ambitious Sophomore, The No Talent Kid, and Thanasphere, by Kurt Vonnegut
Heart-winning stories on desire, space exploration, and secrets. The collection containing these, Bogombo Snuff Box, can be downloaded on z-library.asia.