When I began writing the stories that eventually made up my debut collection, Each of Us Killers (Sep 2020; 7.13 Books), I had no grand theme or design in mind. I gravitated instinctually to writing about working life concerns because a) I’ve held different kinds of jobs since my teenage years and am interested in how we negotiate our work and personal identities; and b) more often than not, my way into a character’s life and identity is through the work they do.
That said, because I wasn’t conscious of this as the driving theme for most of my fiction, I didn’t look, at the time, for short story models focused on the working life. It was only after, when I was querying agents and publishers in 2017-2018, that I looked for comparison points. What I found was that, while there were a few story collections centered on work (see my reading list at The Rumpus) and definitely a lot of work-related novels (see my reading list at Electric Literature), there were very few story collections from writers of South Asian descent that focused on work. There are likely many reasons for this, not least of which is that the publishing industry likes books from our community to check off the usual tropes and stereotypes.
So, for this personal anthology, I went looking through some of my favorite literary magazines for stories by writers of South Asian descent about working lives. I also wanted to spotlight more writers who either don’t have books out yet or who aren’t known to the western world because their works are in regional South Asian languages. Putting these twelve stories together in this personal anthology reminded me, yet again, of the rich diversity of the South Asian region, even though the publishing industry prefers the usual stories of slums, terrorism, immigrantism, religious fundamentalism, and arranged marriage. South Asia is so much more than just those stories as, I hope, you’ll see from the selection below.
This is a story about a young Pakistani woman in Lahore whose job is that of a security checker at a tomb visited by tourists and sightseers. She was born with a bad leg, which has made even her parents see her as a burden. At her security checker job, she makes a new friend of sorts. He works at a small kiosk across the street. It’s an awkward, new relationship but she eventually trusts him enough to go inside the mausoleum with him. Ahmed layers subtle complications here but keeps the story grittily real. Her cinematic language helps us visualize each scene beautifully. And, even though we have a sense of foreboding as to what’s likely to happen, the ending is done so smoothly that it’s likely to make you take a deep breath like I did and reread it a couple of times.
First published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, 2020 and available to read online here
Mohan Rakesh was one of the pioneers of the Nayi Kahani (modern story) literary movement of Hindi literature in the 1950s. It didn’t start out as a movement but their efforts to break away from literary traditions, especially with the short story form, to convey the restlessness and reality of the newly-independent India broke new ground. Like the first story, this one is also about a custodian of sorts, though a self-appointed one. In post-Partition Amritsar, Punjab (India), some men have just returned from Lahore, Pakistan. Rakesh takes us, wide-angle, through the changes in the streets and its people before zooming in with a particular old returnee. Ganni has come to see the house he’d left behind with a family that’s no longer there. He’s not the eponymous custodian to whom the story’s point-of-view eventually shifts in a stark, chilling manner. The ending leaves us restless and unfulfilled, which is exactly the effect the writer wanted here.
Available to read online here. Also available in a different translation in The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, Aleph, 2020
Moving from Partition-driven deserted ruins to another kind of deserted ruins: an archaeological excavation in India’s Deccan Plateau where, as Anika, our protagonist tells us, “there should have been no bones, where nearly everyone was cremated.” The prose here is languid and beautiful, drawing us into the dream-like world Anika lives in with her friend and coworker, Carine. They’re digging up ancient bones and tablets and piecing together the unique language and story of their female owners. Then, a male expert from “the institute” shows up and everything changes. Woven into the present-time story of these three characters, we have the myth-like narratives of that ancient community of women who lived in secret when they were meant to die. I hope this is part of a larger novel that we will soon get to read in its entirety because I want to live in this world longer than this piece allows.
First published in The Offing, 2019, and available to read online here
Where the previous story is about ancient women who lived in secret defiance, this story is about a contemporary woman who lives in open defiance . . . as an overweight (by the industry’s standards) lapdancer. Govinden’s flash piece here is stunning in its imagery. Over a span of five nights, we see the short-lived career of this unconventional and hugely talented dancer. Her artistry gets her further than her contemporaries. But everything has a flipside and the ending here shows us that reality. This story showcases the power of the flash form in many ways.
First published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Volume 2, No. 2, October 2009. Read it online here
Speaking of talented women performers, here’s a story based on a real-life actor-turned-politician in India. J. Jayalalitha served six times as the Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu for over fourteen years between 1991 and 2016. This was after a successful film career from the 1960s onwards with over 140 movies to her name. At 43, she was the youngest to rise to that political office. And the most charismatic to date. People worshipped her like she was a living goddess. Despite the many legal cases against her for corruption and more, in the eyes of her people, she was always “Amma” or mother. Bhanoo imagines her average beginnings as a schoolgirl and then the quick rise to movie star and political legend. Told through the eyes of a former classmate, the narrative is about humanizing and finding some parts of ourselves in such a larger-than-life figure.
First published in Granta online, August 2020, and available to read here
Sticking with Granta Magazine and the idea of larger-than-life figures, here’s a story that won the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He was the first Indian to win it and it was his first work of short fiction to be published. It follows four men looking for a cow to be the mascot of the British Chewing Gum Company in colonial India in the early-1900s. They need this cow as part of their publicity campaign to lure people away from chewing paan to their gum. “What better way to get the natives to love our chewing gum than to link it to the cow? … The cow chews all day long. All Hindus love cows. If we use her on our posters they will love our chewing gum.” With humor and satire, Kulkarni takes on class, caste, religion, race, gender, and more here.
First published in Granta online, May 2016, and available to read here, and later published as part of the novel Cow and Company, Viking, 2019
Here’s another story that takes on gender, religion, and class issues and is also set in an office. A US-educated, free-willed young woman starts working at a government office in Lahore, Pakistan and disrupts the lives of the four conservative men reporting to her. The first-person plural point-of-view is used rather skillfully here to show both the collective mindset and the lack of self-knowledge among these men. Overall, it’s a sly, satirical take on that ancient, misogynistic belief that when a man is agitated by a woman’s appearance or behavior, it is the woman who must be stopped to told to behave differently. Zaheer avoids tired, old tropes here, though, and lets events run their natural course as they would in the real world. Also, that’s a terrific opening — setting up a whole lot of reader expectations upfront.
First published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Winter/Spring 2018, and available to read here
As for openings that set up a lot of reader expectations, here’s one more. Please read the translator’s note provided with the story there. Set in British India, this story is really an allegory for colonialism in India. It’s also much more, of course, in how it depicts human nature and all our deepest needs. Chowdhury was an astute socio-political observer and he wrote about the world wars, the Bengal famine, the India-Pakistan partition, and such big, historical events. His storytelling was all about getting readers emotionally vested so that they would be left disturbed. This story is very Chekhovian in how it builds complications very matter-of-factly, and yet keeps the action always escalating. The three-sentence ending is an efficient but heartbreaking summation of what colonialism does to the colonized.
First published in Asymptote and available to read here. Also collected in The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, Aleph, 2020
Endings can be heartbreaking even when they don’t turn out to be quite as we (and the characters) might be dreading. In this story about an 86-year-old Karachi cobbler and a young woman, that’s what happens. Both are missing their loved ones: the cobbler’s son has disappeared due to some mysterious involvement with the Taliban or the state intelligence agencies; the woman’s husband has left her suddenly for another. The woman begins taking her damaged shoes to the cobbler for repair but, as they’re both dealing with even deeper emotional damage, they start confiding in each other. The story progresses in ways that have us waiting for, if you’ll excuse the pun, the other shoe to drop. And then, right at the end, the husband returns and the son isn’t among those found dead. This leaves both characters without the closure they need to be able to move on in some fashion. And that’s what breaks our hearts even as the cobbler and the woman go on as best they can.
First published in Guernica, September 2017 and available to read online here
Let’s move from shoe repair work to household items repair work. And from Karachi, Pakistan to Jashore (as Jessore is now officially known), Bangladesh. There’s a young woman here too. Only, she’s all of twelve years and needs her doll mended by the repairman. And, oh yes, we have a couple of disappearances in this story too. About halfway in, the story takes a chilling, harrowing turn where the repairman is called on to do the biggest job of his life and you will hold your breath hoping for him to succeed. The narrative has a lovely folktale-like cadence and even uses some of the usual folktale tropes in how the characters are introduced and the scenes progress. A story with a timeless charm.
First published in translation in Words Without Borders, January 2013, and available to read here
Let’s stay with the household work theme. The note at the top of this story says that it is “. . . based on the life of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan girl convicted and subsequently executed in Saudi Arabia for the alleged murder of four-month-old Naif al-Quthaibi.” Nafeek was allegedly 17 years old when she arrived to work in Saudi Arabia in 2005. Her parents alleged that her passport was forged to adjust the year of birth so she could legally work abroad as a domestic helper. When the infant dies in her care, she’s accused of smothering it after a fight with her employer. Nafeek claimed the baby choked accidentally during a feeding. There was no post-mortem and Nafeek was beheaded based on a confession she signed in Arabic, which she could not read. This is a fictional account but it works with all these facts of Nafeek’s life to go beyond the headlines.
First published in translation in Words Without Borders, June 2013, and available to read here
Still staying with household matters, let’s end on a relatively lighter note (not in terms of theme but in terms of narrative style.) Here’s a story about the service people who do or support all the household work in India. Published during the 2020 pandemic, this is about what happens to that entire household labor economy when the upper classes decide to take care of themselves without any consideration for how daily wage earners will fare. And especially at a time when the latter are even more vulnerable. In India, this service class, from maids to delivery people to drivers and more, is the backbone of the country’s urban economy and has suffered the most. Sridhar’s satirical take here has plenty of bite. If only the people who need to read and understand it the most would find the time to do so instead of looking at blue skies and blooming flowers and the stars while congratulating themselves for being good citizens by wearing masks and practicing social distance.
First published in Infection House, August 2020 and available to read here