Twentieth Century Indian Short Story in English

1. Introduction

Short story is a genre of literature that basically deals with prose fictions that are tailored to be read in a single sitting itself. They may or may not have a moral value attached to them and are purely written to provide readers with a sense of blessing. It is here that short stories come as a respite – they are light, they are entertaining and they are everyone’s cup of tea. The Indian English short story owes its origin to Kamala Sathianadan for her collection of stories titled stories from Indian Christian Life published in 1898 but it was the 1930s that this genre made its real beginning.  India has been the address of many prolific writers who have influenced an entire generation. They have greatly contributed to English literature, portraying the rich culture and heritage of the land and the society. While India is filled with authors and novelists who have greatly contributed in the genre of short stories as well, some of them worth mentioning are Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, K. A. Abbas, Khushwant Singh, Kamala Das, Ruskin Bond, Shashi Deshpande, Arun Joshi, Anita Desai and others. 

2. The Leading Writers

2.1 The Founding Fathers – Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao

One of the first Indian writers in the English language to make a mark on the international scenario, Mulk Raj Anand was an author with hundreds of novels, short stories and essays to his name. Considered a pioneer of the Anglo-Indian fiction, he is best remembered for his depiction of the poorer classes of people in India and their plight. His writings are rich with the realistic and touching portrayal of the problems of the common man, often written with heart wrenching clarity. A bold and outspoken writer, he exposed several of India’s evil practices through his writings. He was a prolific writer and authored a great number of works, most of them were a commentary on the social structure of his time. He is  outstanding with  virtue of his fecundity and the great variety of theme and mood, tone and technique which characterises his short stories.  

R. K. Narayan is considered as one of leading figures of early Indian literature in English. He is the one who made India accessible to the people in foreign countries—he gave unfamiliar people a window to peep into Indian culture and sensibilities. His simple and modest writing style is often compared to that of the great American author William Faulkner. R.K. Narayan made India accessible to the outside world through his literature. He will be remembered for the invention of Malgudi, a semi-urban fictional town in southern India where most of his stories were set. 

Mulk  Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan practice the short story as it is understood in the West. Seen in the light of this tradition, the short stories of Raja Rao are found to be lacking in many respects. There is hardly any development in a number of his stories. Raja Rao’s stories show little respect for the chronology of events. He does not appear to be interested in probing the individual consciousness or studying motivation. Nor does he deal with personal relationships.  

However, this does not mean that all of Raja Rao’s short stories are formless. Stories like “Companions” and  “The Cow of the Barricades” are complete in the Western sense, and move without digression to the final effect. The truth is that it is unfair to judge Raja Rao’s stories by Western critical standards. It is not his intention to follow the Western genre completely. In most of his stories he appears to be experimenting with form. 

2.2 The Succession: From Khushwant Singh to Salman Rushdie

The Indian English  short story writers  who succeeded the founding fathers begin  with Khushwant Singh. He has written a handful of short stories. A love affair in London, posthumous, when Sikh meets Sikh, the red tie, karma, and others are some of the stories that always capture the readers mind. 

 Attia Hosain has written a volume of poetry. Her crisp short stories  (Phoenix Field and Other Stories, 1953) are indeed short, some of them no more than anecdotes. But even the briefest, offering a single glimpse of life, are vivid and telling manifesting capacities for summoning physical presence in its impact and roundedness and for discriminating between shades of feeling.  

Moving on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who is considered by many to be the most distinguished of all Indian Women writes. Some stories written by her for instance, ‘My First Marriage’ , ‘The Widow’ , ‘A Spiritual Call’ , which tell in a style both free and controlled of the special pathos attaching to the experience of Women in a male-dominated world,  experience foresworn, experience lost and experience exploited.  

Mrs Jhabvala’s stories of the sufferings of Indian women have nothing shrill or argumentative about them. They are quiet, factual and powerful,  and all the more effective because of their insight into feeling and their assessment of the strength of the will. Her stories also show the mysterious, impossible fancies separating human beings, menand women, the indigenous and the expatriate.  

Ruskin Bond is an award winning Indian author of British descent, much renowned for his role in promoting children’s literature in India. A prolific writer, he has written over 500 short stories. Some of his well known stories are ‘The Sensualist’, ‘The Night Train At Deoli’, ‘The Cherry Tree’, ‘The Tiger In The Tunnel’, ‘Time Stops At Shamli’, ‘Susanna’s 7 Husbands’, ‘Delhi Is Not Far’, The Bleu Umbrella’, ‘A Flight Of Pigeons’,and so on. 

Among the others Anita Desai, Padma Hejmadi, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das , and Salman Rushdie are the most eminent twentieth century  Indian short story writers in English. 

3. Some Best Examples of Twentieth Century Indian Short Stories in English

There are some best-known and most enduringly popular short stories written in the twentieth century. These stories are written at various points of time in pre – and post – independent India, and reflect the milieux familiar to older generation Indians as well as more contemporary readership. All the stories have one thing in common – a universality of experience that appeals to young and old alike. 

R.K. Narayan’s hilarious account of an American tourist talking to a Tamil rustic who knows no English in ‘A Horse and Two Goats’ ends with an unusual convergence. Underlying the humour is the tragedy of poverty that is the bane of rural India. It is a faithful portrait of the Indian countryside woven skilfully by the master story-teller in his inimitable style. Raja Rao’s ‘The Cow Of the Barricades’ set in pre-independent India narrates the story of Gauri the Cow, a martyr to the cause, venerated and loved by the people of Gorakhpur. The legend of Gauri lives on in the wooden toy cow. Old age and the travails of time are the themes of K.A. Abbas’s ‘Sparrows’ , Attia Hosain’s ‘Phoenix Field’ and Githa Hariharan’s ‘The Remains of the Feast’. 

Khushwant  Singh, Anita Desai and Ruskin Bond relate charming stories of childhood and the pains of growing up. In ‘The Mark of Vishnu’ Khushwant Singh makes wonderful use of irony to delineate the brash thoughtlessness of youth, while Anita Desai captures familiar scenes of childhood in ‘Games at Twilight’. It is a story which will strike a responsible chord in all those who have experienced that inexplicable feeling of loneliness even in the midst of one’s nearest one. 

Ruskin Bond’s sensitive portrayal of the college student smitten by the smouldering eyes of the basket-seller at Deoli is a vivid recreation of teenage love. The writer uses the incident of a chance encounter in a remote railway station to skilfully weave a tale of longing, of hope and dreaming.  

Shashi Deshpande, Manjula Padmanabhan and Anjana Appachana offer different perceptions of women’s experiences which have a popular appeal. Warm and stimulating, honest and engaging, the stories deal with relationships in and outside marriage, the man-woman equation, and family ties between generations of women.

Shashi Deshpande’s ‘The Valley in Shadow’ is the story of a lonely, polio-stricken woman on holiday with an unfeeling husband, drawn towards a stranger. The chance encounter sets her fantasizing but things fall into place and hope seems to lift the shadows from her dark, brooding existence as she decides to return home with her family. These stories have all won wide acclaim in a very brief period of time and are sure to be cherished for a long time to come.  

4. Literary Merits of Some Selected Writers and Their Contributions to the Indian Short Stories

Anand’s is first Indian short story writer in English of renown. His stories have vigour and vitality. He has written the short story in almost all its forms and thus anticipated the work of subsequent writers who specialized in one form or another. The American scholar, Marlene Fisher, suggests that a single interpretation holds good for Mulk Raj Anand’s all stories. According to her, all the short stories of Anand explore “lostness, internal and external, and represents a search for meaning along this path.” ‘The Lost Child’ is a rubric for a great many of the short stories of Mulk Raj Anand. Whether concentrating on the literal lostness of a child at a fair or on a cynical, on a lust-ridden priest who is lost to himself and his God or on a young daughter-in-law who is desolately alone in the midst of her new husband’s family, Anand treats this aspect of the human condition with an astonishing variety and control of form and tone.” 

R.K. Narayan the short story writer is a humanist in the broad as well as the narrow sense. As a humanist in the broad sense he reveals a sense of perspective, an understanding what life is. In the narrow sense, he is an amused observer of life’s foibles. Irony, gentle satire, caricature, exaggeration abound in his stories. Narayan’s stories have a peculiar, highly personal flavour. These are conveyed in a language which is remarkably pliant in his hands.  

Shashi Despande also has a number of short story collections to her  credit. Her stories depict Indian life as perceived by her in today’s times. She recreated a range of characters with ‘authenticity and convention.’ She used mythical characters and ordinary middle class men to depict the plight of women. Her stories are primarily women-centric and her themes focused on the various moods  – such as guilt, loneliness, and failure. Her lucid and direct style with use of simple and natural English drew more readers towards the short story. 

Moving on to Kamala Das, love is the central and recurrent theme in her stories. Herabilities to churn stories depicting love relationships between  men and women with frankness madeher one of the earliest bold writers in Indian Writing in English. The stories written by Anita Desai came to be labeled as psychological stories for her ability to explore the subconscious human mind. Her stories deal with feminine mind and sensibility. She employs evocative images in her stories.  

5. Wide Range of Themes, Style, Form, Techniques and Characters in the Short Stories

In twentieth century  the Indian short story has covered a wide range of subjects with  a larger gallery of characters and that the record of Indian life is more authentic in this genre than in the novel. Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao, who represent the first flowing  (1935-45) of this genre, responded to the nationalist movement, each on his own way. Mulk Raj Anand, the social activist, presenting a true vision of Indian life;  R.K. Narayan, with his perception of the average as positive, exploring the nature of life and reality; and Raja Rao experimenting with form. The 1970s more than fulfil the expectations of the 60s. The decade is marked by an endless variety in the handling of themes and variations, coupled with varying modes and technique of narration influenced by Russian and American short fiction. 

Anand’s work leads from stark naturalism to ironical and symbolical presentation. The themes and subjects of Anand are mainly aimed at depicting the contemporary social situation as seen and felt by the individual. Portraying graphically the helpless individual in his pitiful and helpless predicament, Anand aims at touching the humanist chords of the readers heart with the message of none-too-happy present social situation. He  does not practice one form of the story but many. He adopts a pompous style, presumably to heighten the farcical effect. He expresses his social concern by means of symbolism. His  short stories, unlike his novels, do not portray English characters; there are only references to them. The common thread in this group of stories is the desire of Indians to throw off the foreign yoke. 

A close study of R.K. Narayan’s stories reveals that Narayan repeats situations and characters in different combinations. A large number of Narayan’s stories deal with children. An equal number are about animals. Some hold a mirror to the irony of lift. The norms, patterns and behaviour of adult human life are reported in child characters. Although all Narayan’s allegory satire and irony reveals a more bent, he doesn’t offer his stories as the narrative or dramatic exposition of his ideas. They strike one as stories which, first and foremost, delight. Most of his characters belong to the middle class. He relates his incidents in a quiet, even casual manner.  

It is interesting to note that most of the post-independence women short story writers like  Shashi Deshpande, Anita Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gauri Deshpande and R.P. Jhabvala used the experimental style in their writing.  

6. Conclusion

Short Story as genre was popularized among readers between nineteen thirties and eighties owing to the contributions made by the triumvirate of Indian English fiction  – Anand, Narayan and Raja Rao. They were followed by other writers like K.A. Abbas, Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai, Sunita Jain, Kamala Das, Shashi Deshpande and a few others. 

Indian short story of the Twienteeth century originally written in  English has covered a wide range of experience. The settings of the stories have revealed more of this vast country than the novels or plays. The variety of types and characters that appear in the short story are as infinite as the situations and the emotions the stories evoke.  

In spite of the advantages it has over other literary forms, in spite of its considerable achievement, the Indian short story in English has been neglected by critics. Critics  of Indian Writing in English share the world-wide tendency of regarding the short story as the step-child of literatures, although, second to poetry, this literally form is the most suitable recording the variety and nuance of Indian experience.  


  1. Melwani , Murli, The Indian Short Story in English, BookBaby: 2015. 
  2. Kohli, Suresh, Great Stories from Modern India,  Om Books International; 2015. 
  3. Greatest Short Stories, Mulk Raj Anand, Jaico Publication House, 1999. 

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