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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Shehnai Virtuoso


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To purchase The Shehnai Virtuoso

Title: The Shehnai Virtuoso
Author: Dhumketu
Genre: Stories
Written: (Eng. 2020)
Length: 319 pages
Original in: Gujarati
Availability: The Shehnai Virtuoso - US
The Shehnai Virtuoso - UK
The Shehnai Virtuoso - Canada
Ratno Dholi - India
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Deep Vellum
  • and Other Stories
  • Previously published in India as: Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu (2020)
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jenny Bhatt
  • With two Introductions by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, wide-ranging, varied collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 6/2/2021 Mihir Vatsa
Hindustan Times A 20/11/2020 Suhit Kelkar

  From the Reviews:
  • "Since the stories are presented chronologically, we get an idea of Dhumketu’s evolving craft. His earlier works are at times archetypal and simplistic, but he soon masters the art of handling complex emotions. (...) The most remarkable aspect of Dhumketu’s craft is that it deflects attention from the craft itself, giving us an immersive reading experience." - Mihir Vatsa, The Hindu

  • "(A)mong the best short story collections to have emerged from India in years. It features refreshingly robust plots, character development that makes you feel compassion for the characters, and a powerfully realistic depiction of rural Indian society, with its complex interplay of caste, class and gender. (...) What strikes you first of all, is Dhumketu’s deep as well as wide-ranging power of observation and creative inclusion (.....) For the most part, the English translation is reasonably fast-paced, and eminently accessible. The occasional use of Gujarati words and interjections typical to Gujarati lend a conversational tone to the work. The language is simple, and approximates the way that many Indians speak. (...) This collection is an essential read." - Suhit Kelkar, Hindustan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Shehnai Virtuoso -- first published as Ratno Dholi -- presents twenty-six stories by Gujarati writer Dhumketu, selected from the more than five hundred that he published. The collection is arranged chronologically, beginning with 'The Post Office', an early version of which was published in 1923. Translator Jenny Bhatt explains in her Introduction that she then selected one story from each of the twenty-four collections of stories Dhumketu published (the first in 1926), and then slipped in one more ('Kailas') "as this translator's whimsy because of a personal connection", providing a career-spanning overview of the author's story-writing. (As Bhatt notes, the prolific Dhumketu also published twenty-nine historical novels and seven social novels, as well as plays and a variety of other work.) While some more bibliographic information about the individual stories and Dhumketu's publishing history would have been welcome, the stories are the point here; so too Bhatt's Introduction provides helpful information about an author likely to be new to any non-Indian reader but does not overwhelm the reader by going on at too great length.
       An Introduction by the author to one of his collections is also included, and here Dhumketu notes:

     The short story is not the miniature form of the novel. The art of the short story is entirely independent. In that same vein, there is no novel-writing tradition that especially governs the short story.
       Bhatt discusses the evolution of the short story in Indian and specifically Gujarati literature in her Introduction, noting that the translation of Western short stories was very influential in the development of the modern (beginning in the early twentieth century) Gujarati short story. So too we then find that much of Dhumketu's work is in many ways familiar, especially in structure and presentation, reminiscent of the work of many of the European and American masters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century -- though Dhumketu is no mere imitator, developing his own style and voice in also building on local tradition and experience (and, presumably, language, though of course that is more difficult to get a good sense of in translation).
       The more than two dozen stories do offer quite a variety -- down to the science-fiction-like 'The Rebirth of Poetry', which begins when: "Many years of the twentieth century had flown past. Society had transformed completely". Here Dhumketu imagines a very changed world -- one where, among much else: "Women could, of their own volition, become men. And men could take on womanly appearances" and "technological contact with the inhabitants of the moon and of the planet Mars has been made". It's an interesting small early variation on concerns about the increasingly technology-dominated future, including the plea of the masses: "Do not turn us into emotionless machines. Give us dreams !"
       Most of the stories are more closely of their time and place; as Bhatt notes in her Introduction, only one of those included here is historical. (There is also one based on a story by Maxim Gorky.) Several are about writers -- though these generally have a humorous edge, acknowledging that writing is, for different reasons (want of talent as well as the difficulty of making a living off it), a difficult pursuit.
       'The New Poet', presented as "A Farce Performance", opens beautifully:
     One day, as Raskalanandanand snored during the day, he had a lightning-like idea. Or, in poetic language, a brilliant idea emerged from his soul.
     'What if I become a poet ?'
       In 'A Happy Delusion' the narrator is visited by a despairing mother and her son, the youth showing off a handwritten magazine, Sand-Farm, which he has impossibly high hopes for. The narrator tries to dissuade him from pursuing this dream -- "Monthly magazines don't run in Gujarat" -- but the youth will remain true to his delusion. Encountering him years later, the narrator finds him still entirely gripped by his "great, beautiful dream", as:
     He began to pour out to me all the hard work of these many years. There were many notebooks of poems too. He even read two to four poems from them. There was nothing in those poems. But that was the beauty of it: that he was completely oblivious to the fact that there was nothing in them. He was absorbed in the delightful world created in his mind.
       Several stories feature characters of great extreme -- not least, Makno Bharthi, the central figure in 'The Worst of the Worst'. In 'Tears of the Soul' Amrapali is so beautiful that the law requires her to remain unmarried, so that: "the Lichhavis do not slice each other dead amongst themselves" competing for her. Ratno Dholi, the eponymous protagonist of the tale that gave the original Indian edition of this volume its title, is a virtuoso on the dhol who then, inspired by the beautiful Sundari: "became amazing. After that, there was no earthly language that the dhol could not speak". His talent is transcendent -- yet this other-worldly ability means also:
     And Ratno was indeed crazy. All those who receive oceanic talent become like that. Sanity remains with those whose minds are as small as puddles. Ratno had received the great ocean to swim in.
       'The Shehnai Virtuoso' -- the title of the American edition of this volume -- also features a gifted musician, and his son, about whom it is said that it was: "as if he had become the musical embodiment of some forgotten divine power of nature".
       Here and elsewhere the extreme and perfection are, in one way or another, too much; so also, in 'The Noble Daughters-in-Law' Dhumketu suggests:
But beauty is such a terrible, ephemeral, fickle thing that whoever chases it does not attain it. Also, that beauty does not even exist the way they imagine it.
       Other stories give a deeper impression of place, including 'My Homes', in which the narrator recounts some of the places he has lived and his experiences there. In 'The Prisoner of Andaman' a convicted murderer, released after almost twenty years, finds you can't go home again -- and realizes that the island-prison of Kaala Paani "was his true home" -- not least because of the indigenous 'jungle-people' who: "did not have any means of accounting" -- neither for money, as they still bartered for goods, nor for long-past deeds, which everyone still holds against him in the village he tries to return to. Would-be civilization proves anything but welcoming; instead he finds: "He remembered the jungle. That was his country, not this".
       The twenty-six stories here offer quite a variety, and Dhumketu shows considerable range. He is clearly a talented story-writer -- though as someone who (much) prefers the novel form I note with particular regret that while Dhumketu offers a very good version of Amrapali's story in 'Tears of the Soul', Bhatt reveals that he: "then went on to write an entire novel about her" (which, alas. remains untranslated).
       There is no question that The Shehnai Virtuoso is a very welcome -- and long overdue -- introduction to a significant writer, from a language and tradition from which only a smattering has previously been accessible to English-speaking readers. This is a generous, wide-ranging selection, offering a very good variety -- an excellent sampler, even if it only offers one-twentieth (!) of the author's story-output alone.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 September 2022

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The Shehnai Virtuoso: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Gujarati-writing Dhumketu (ધૂમકેતુ; actually Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi (ગૌરીશંકર ગોવર્ધનરામ જોશી)) lived 1892 to 1965.

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© 2022 the complete review

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