Sometime back I had finished reading tales of Tenali Raman and recently finished reading stories of Mullah Nasruddin. In many ways the tales are similar but in some unique ways Nasruddin in very different from Tenali Raman. Nasruddin is a trickster and a jester at the same time. He manages to outsmart everybody most of the time but there are times when he also ends up being a fool and that is the beauty of Nasruddin.
The oldest tales of Nasruddin have been found in book called “Saltukname” and according to this book Nasruddin was born in 13th century in Turkey. I am not sure whether all the tales that are attributed to him actually happened or were they present in the earliest book. It is quite possible that over time people have added their own version of new stories using Nasruddin as the central character.
In many of his stories his donkey is a constant companion. Sometimes making a fool of him, sometimes getting beaten up, sometimes getting sold and sometimes showing a camaraderie shown between two friends. Many of the stories end up giving you lessons of life and many of them or just interplay of words. When Nasruddin ends up making a fool of himself, you wonder whether he is the same person who outsmarts everybody all the time.
I guess whether it was Tenali Raman or Birbal or Mullah Nasruddin and probably there are many more in different cultures of the world, the stories were created to provide some fun and teaching at the same time. But we forget about the common sense that is portrayed in these stories.
We have all heard of people like Birbal, Mullah Nasruddin and Tenali Raman. All of these are historical figures and worked as court jesters at different points of time in history. Tenali Raman worked in the court of Vijayanagar Empire in 16th century. Sri Krishna Deva Raya ruled the kingdom at that time and his court had many intelligent advisors but Tenali Raman is the most famous one. This book is a collection of short stories about Tenali Raman and how he managed to outwit everybody through his intelligence, shrewdness and ingenuity.
Many of the stories involve Tenali Raman taking on the King resulting in King getting angry with him but in the end it was Tenali Raman who always prevailed and managed to make the King understand his point of view. Some of the stories are very simple but many of them are with very deep meaning. In one story, Tenali Raman serves Sharbat (A kind of cold-drink) to courtiers in different types of cups. All of them try to take the best looking ones and the simple cups were left behind. Now the idea here was to enjoy the Sharbat but we all end up getting worried about the cups. It is so true in our lives as well.
It is really amazing that all these stories have survived. I am not sure whether they were written down or whether they have just been passed on from one generation to another through word of mouth. All the stories have feel good ending and make so much sense after we finish reading them. It is a coincidence that immediately after Tenali Raman, I am reading stories of Mullah Nasruddin but I will write about that some other time.
Another IIMA alumnus, becoming a writer. Looks like the bug is really catching all of them. The author Vivek Kumar Agarwal though is a bit different. Instead of going for chicklet or romantic comedy, he has chosen short stories to let his inside author come out. “To Catch a Smile” is an interesting collection of short stories that are really short. These are not stories where you might find a plot, the background and eternal climax telling you the end result of the whole story. These stories are very simple statement of human emotions. In the endless life, he has picked up a moment and created a story about that moment.
Most of these stories are really short and simple. As an example, there is a story about a guy who is going away for studies and his two friends who are girls have come to drop him. One of them likes him and in the last moment of catching train he seem to realize that as well as his own emotions for her and the story ends there with him saying “I will never know what I have missed”. There is a story about a painter who is trying to catch a smile of the woman he is painting. A story about two lovers meeting after a long time not knowing why they were meeting again. A story about a guy dying in accident and meeting somebody who is already dead.
All these stories are about catching these human emotions of love, hate, apathy, sadness and many others. To me, it was a very different genre of short story writing. I have liked the short stories of Archer style that are short but still full of drama and mystery. In this case there is no drama and certainly no mystery. It is just the idea of capturing a moment.
All of us have read or heard tales of “Panchatantra” at some point of time or other in our life. These are classic animal fables attributed to have written by “Vishnu Sharma” more than two thousand years ago in Sanskrit. The origin of stories must have been still older and probably they were passed on from generations to generations through the art of story telling. I wanted to get hold of complete book and read it in Hindi and luckily found the book in recent book festival and finished reading it recently.
As the name says, the book is divided into five sections talking about five different principals: Identifying friends, Making friends, Crows and Owls, Loss of gains, Ill considered action. According to known history, Vishnu Sharma had used these tales to teach common principles to children of a King. The stories are extremely simple and are interwoven together. You will find characters of one story telling another story to each other and it goes on like that. The author has used specific animal behaviour and instincts to provide insights on various principles. These stories have been translated, adapted and retold in almost all cultures around the world and are known in different forms. But the main idea still remains the same. Learn from animal behaviour and use that to make your life better.
I had a really great time reading these stories. After a long time, I was reading something that just revolves around animals and how they are supposed to get food for living. It was a great form of comfort reading. It takes you really back in time when life did not revolve around gadgets, technology and desires that go beyond your basic necessities. We have learned so much but have forgotten so many things that the behaviour of these animal characters teaches us.
Which books do we like most? The ones which are smaller in size or ones that are very long. What about short stories? I guess there is no straight answer to all these. I have read short stories that are less than a page and I have also read books that were more than thousand pages and I have enjoyed both. Sometimes a writer can put across the point in few lines and sometimes the same point can be played out in hundreds of pages.
What matters in case of books is the content and way of writing. It is always possible to squeeze the whole concept of a book into few lines but a good book is not only telling you a summary of a story. It shows you a picture of era. The narrative is such that you can create cities, people, events in your imagination and to create that imagination, it requires for author to provide details and that takes a lot of pages. Sometimes the books also trace a lot of events which are important for the end result. If the reader were to read the end result directly it does not give the same pleasure of reading.
There are also books which come in many sequels and readers lap up all of them even if it runs into many volumes. In such cases, even though a particular book is short, the story is still long and a break in between increases the curiosity of the readers much more.
But I think there is initial inhibition in taking up a book if it is too long and heavy. Also if the reader is not regular or not reading the book in one sitting, they may lose the context and may never finish a long book. There is a sweet spot of 200-400 pages for most of the books and many authors try to not beat that sweet spot. In the end what matters is not the size but how the story has been put forward and how much the reader is able to relate to it.