Friday, January 13, 2012

Two good short stories by Tayeb Salih and Henri Lopes

I was re-reading 'The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories', a collection of short stories from various parts of Africa. Dipping randomly into the short stories in the collection, the stories by Tayeb Salih and Andrea Leskes had a impact which resulted in this post on them.

A Handful of Dates - Tayeb Salih. The story is about a young boy who, as the story begins is in awe and admiration of his grandfather, who is the richest man in their village and also well respected by everyone. He wants to be like his grandfather when he grows up,thinks the world of him and also is his favorite grandson. One day he is surprised to learn that most of the land they own now, earlier belonged to their neighbor 'Masood' who has lost most of what he inherited from his father due to his indolent (as the grandfather says) ways. The same day Masood approaches the grandfather telling him the dates in his land (what he has still) is being harvested and invites him to it. Both grandfather and grandson go to the harvesting. The story takes a poignant turn here. At the harvest the boy sees Masood being aloof, but underneath it the boys senses that Masood is suffering. After the harvest, the dates are two  merchants and his grandfather who tells Masood that he is still in debt with him. Something snaps inside the boy and he runs away from there and the story ends with him throwing up the dates he had eaten while watching the harvest. A lot of things are unsaid here, but causes great impact. Masood's pain at seeing another part of his inheritance go away, the boy's sudden empathy with Masood. Why does that happen? It's not as if the boy's grandfather cheated Masood, but the boy doesn't care or rather doesn't understand this at his young age. The rules of the adult life is probably still not clear to him. What he sees is that a formerly rich man being stripped of his possessions (due to his fault in any case) and his heart goes out to him, a child's sympathy for someone who's suffering not considering whether the suffering is due to the person's own misdoings. It's not as if he hates his grandfather, but is rather torn between the love for him and sympathy for Masood. To put it in a nutshell, the boy behaves like a boy free of all the trappings of adulthood. Ten or fifteen years down the line, he himself may take part in getting any remaining possessions of Masood for his debt, but for now lets allow him to enjoy his childhood which is simple and free of complications. An excellent story of just 5 pages, which leaves a impact for long time after reading it.

The Advance - Henri Lopes - This story is about a maid 'Carmen' a single mother, who wants to get some advance from her employer for her ailing son. At first glance it would seem to be a cliched story about suffering employees and cruel employers and anyway, cliches are generally true in most cases. But the quality of writing in this story elevates it. The mental state of Carmen, her anguish at her son's illness, fear that something may happen to him, expectation and anxiety over whether her employer would give her money is is brought out in a heartrending manner. The employer too is not a stereotyped person, but is brought out as more real. For instance she berates Carmen for her son's illness saying that she should give him more healthy food without realizing that giving such food for even one day would take up a month's salary of Carmen. The employer is not shown as being cruel, but as indifferent and oblivious to the life Carmen leads, which is actually worse. It's one thing to know about a person's situation and not helping them, but not knowing their problems and being condescending towards them is the worst thing. Another thing that struck me was that, generally in such stories, the employer's child is shown as being loving towards the maid, but here the child too is shown as being generally disrespectful of Carmen and holds her in disdain. Carmen on her part tries to agree with everything here employer says, about the quality of food to given etc. She even agrees when her employer speaks quickly in French and  she is not able to follow her, nodding her head so that her employer does not get angry and not give her the money. Finally the employer tells her she would give the money tomorrow and gives her an aspirin for now. Carmen leaves with it, walking for a long time to reach her house.

Both stories show the power of seemingly simple plots/narratives, which however have great depth and can trouble you for a long time after reading it. This Anchor collection is not to be missed as it gives a glimpse into the live in various parts of Africa.


  1. These writers are totally new to me but I can see they have written fine stories. In fact, there's great short stories coming out of Africa in recent years and I need to look up at least some of them. A collection of short stories is a good place to start.

  2. Hi Prashant, this collection is an excellent one to get started. Ben Okri's 'Stars of the new curfew' is also good. As for novels from Africa, I would recommend 'Wizard of the Crow' by Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

  3. These are also new to me writers-I love short stories for their ability to open up whole new areas of reading to us-thanks for posting on these authors

  4. I've read both stories and loved them! Postcolonial literature is really moving! As for novels from Africa, I strongly recommend "Wide Sargasso Sea". Thanks for the post!