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The Short and the Shorter

Harish Trivedi

By Ira Valeria Sarma
Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 344, Rs. 895.00


Why is the short story called the short story when the long story is called not the long story but the novel? Why could it not be called simply the story? Following the illogical English usage, the term for the short story in some Indian languages too includes a word for short, as in ‘chhoto golpo’ in Bengali, but in some other languages such as Hindi, this redundant qualifier has never been used, and we have simply the ‘kahani’ or, less commonly, the ‘katha.’ The term ‘laghukatha’ in Hindi thus means not the short story but the very short story, the kind that fills just a column if that. This big book on that small subject was written by Ira Valeria Sarma, a German academic, as a PhD dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. It is assiduously well researched and systematically thorough, was first published in Berlin in 2003, and is now reissued in India without any additional and updated materials. Nevertheless, it remains the definitive study of the subject in English simply because there is apparently no other full-length study of the subject in English yet, which in turn may be because the popularity of this sub-genre has declined meanwhile. Sarma seems to have caught the subject at its brief high point.   Meanwhile, she herself has moved on to a study of relatively bigger subjects, such as Tulsi Das. Though she does go back to as early as 1905, as all researchers perhaps must go back to give their subject a respectable genealogy, Sarma is eventually content to concede that the laghukatha in Hindi gets going only around 1970. To her credit, she politely but firmly dismisses the Indian scholarly convention through which the antecedents of anything in the world including the laghukatha can be found in the Rig-Veda. In fact, she is not tempted to acknowledge even Kahlil Gibran or Manto (of the book of sketches titled Siyah Hashiye) as a precursor of the Hindi sub-genre.   The corpus that Sarma identifies and assembles is of awesome size: 2818 laghukathas published between 1977 and 1995. Of these, she lets a computer choose 281, about 10%, to form ‘the base research unit’ (p. 73); these are listed in full bibliographical detail in an Appendix. She then proceeds to analyse them under various simple rubrics: Content, Theme, Protagonists, Space, Form (divided further into Outer Form and Inner Form), Titles, Style, and Syntax. ...

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