Book Review: The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu, Translated by Jenny Bhatt

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When Dhumketu’s first collection of short stories, Tankha, came out in 1926, it revolutionized the genre in India. Characterized by a fine sensitivity, deep humanism, perceptive observation, and an intimate knowledge of both rural and urban life, his fiction has provided entertainment and edification to generations of Gujarati readers and speakers.

The Shehnai Virtuoso brings together the first substantial collection of Dhumketu’s work to be available in English. Beautifully translated for a wide new audience by Jenny Bhatt, these much-loved stories — like the finest literature — remain remarkable and relevant even today.

One of my goals for this year has been to read more translated books, especially Indian ones and not just my favorite Chinese danmei novels, but I can’t say that I’ve succeeded much at it. So, when I saw that this collection of short stories had released, I decided I had to pick it up, and put away my numerous ARCs to do just that.

I truly know very little about Indian literature, especially from the 20th century, which is a shame and I can only hope that I will get to read more of those works from various Indian languages. But I had heard of the author Dhumketu because of a friend Charvi who reviewed one of his story collections a while ago. Which is why I decided to read this collection and was immediately engrossed in it. I think most of these stories were written pre-independence and are set during those times but the author explores themes like caste discrimination, bribery, grief, loneliness, loss which are feel very relatable and relevant to today’s times. The writing has a lot of simplicity to it and the author excels at telling a lot in just a few words. The translator Jenny Bhatt has also done a great job conveying the beauty of Dhumketu’s words and made them accessible to us all, for which I am very thankful. While I may have loved some stories here more than others, this collection is definitely a gem, a mirror to the Indian society of the times, and worth reading for everyone. This has only increased my resolve to read more desi books.

Below are my individual story reviews:

The Post Office

Importance of empathizing with another person’s situation, told in a very simple but effective manner.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tears of the Soul

Tale of woman’s plight who is always asked to sacrifice something of herself for a higher purpose. A bit rage inducing, sad and powerful at the same time.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

On the Banks of the Sarayu

I don’t know exactly what this story wanted to convey but it definitely made me sad for the child who only wanted to listen to a story from him ever busy parents.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Kailas

A bittersweet tale of regrets and grief and loneliness, unexpected bonds, and finding purpose anew.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Queen of Nepal

Another story of what if’s and regrets, and some surprising turn of events.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

The Rebirth of Poetry

A surprising blend of fantasy and scifi, set in a futuristic dystopia, this was about how humans need dreams and diversity and artistic liberty to have fulfilling lives. But when compared to our current lifestyle where we are in a constant need for stimulation, this story left more questions than answers.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

Ebb and Flow

CW: miscarriage, corporal punishment

While it is about how monotonous one’s life can get and how that can totally take the joy out of living, I’m not sure what I feel about this story.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Unknown Helpers

Exactly as the title says, it’s the story of those who help when help is needed without any expectations.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Anaami

Just a sweet tale of an unexpected bond between a young child, her milk-woman and a neighbor who doesn’t want to be involved.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Noble Daughters-In-Law

CW: suicide

Sad but equally enraging story about the lives of women in those times, tied in destiny to their husbands and cast off once they are widows, without much hope for survival.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Light and Shade

Very much about the cycle of abuse across generations and households, and one young girl’s quest to find a way out of it in her own little ways.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Gulabvahu

Filled with extreme caste prejudice, the ending of it almost felt like deserved comeuppance.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

The New Poet

I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh at the overenthusiastic man who considered himself an extraordinary poet or be sympathetic that he couldn’t understand the sarcastic comments being made at his expense.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

The Shehnai Virtuso

It’s about grief and remembrance but what I will remember most are the gorgeous descriptions of soulful music.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

Mungo Gungo

I’m not sure I understood the intent here but I felt it was about how devastating it could be if the only thing you were good at is taken from you.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5

Ratno Dholi

A tale of unrivaled joy and unbridled jealousy, the power of lies told over and over again, and the fickle nature of trust, this was truly heartbreaking.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

My Homes

CW: suicide

A fascinating tale about how every home has a story behind it, in this case, full of loss and grief.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

The Prisoner of Andaman

A bit bittersweet but hopeful story of not feeling the love in one’s birth place and finding a new home elsewhere, even if it started out of desperate circumstances.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5

A Happy Delusion

Definitely a well written and thought provoking tale about life, one’s accomplishments, and what happens when one’s passion and survival are at cross purposes.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A Memorable Day

A tale of two women of the same name but very disparate circumstances, it also felt like a commentary on how society and we humans create these divisions because of our own feeling of moral superiority. And despite lots of disparagement about the true nature of art and artistry, I’m not sure I understood or enjoyed this fully.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

When a Devi Ma Becomes a Woman

Another story which I can’t say I understood the ending, but I definitely hated the men in it for having no loyalty and how their respect for a woman was all just a façade.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5

The Golden Necklace

A tale about true love, sincerity, craftsmanship and how it grants immortality on the creator, this was very interesting.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This Dispenser of Justice

A tale of oppression and justice, this felt sad but ultimately was satisfying.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

The Creator of Life’s Ruins

CW: usage of ableist slurs

I can’t say that I liked the redemption arc of an idle and wicked disabled man as the main story here. But I guess the author wrote it to perfectly encapsulate the proverb “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Worst of the Worst

A very well written tale of exaction of justice by a most unlikely person when everyone else in the community doesn’t even try.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Old Custom, New Approach

While many stories here felt relevant to the current times, this one could have been written in 2022 and would still be true because bribery still rules the roost in government offices, and ethical principles are relegated to printouts on the wall.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

5 star

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