Book Review: 'The Lotus Singers'

Alan Cheuse reviews a collection of short fiction from authors in South Asia, called The Lotus Singers. The stories are from writers in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — among other countries.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: A good book doesn't have to be science fiction to transport us to distant worlds. A new anthology of stories called "The Lotus Singers" accomplishes that. It features the work of writers from a variety of South Asian countries, and Alan Cheuse finds the authors' perspectives well worth visiting.

ALAN CHEUSE: First, let me do some numbers for you. "The Lotus Singers" gives us nearly 20 contemporary pieces of short fiction from a number South Asian nations mainly India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; stories either written in English or translated by various hands from the Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, Bangla and Marathi.

None of the writers included here in this volume has much if any reputation at all in the U.S. But their subjects are pressing: Hunger, rape, feudal oppression, struggle among castes and social classes, the struggle of women to achieve a modicum of equality, civil war; overbearing matters, yes. But there's some incidental joy here, too, as in the powerful story "Emancipation" written originally in Urdu by Pakistani writer Hasan Manzar in which we read of the emotional and legal turmoil of an Indian wife on a pilgrimage.

She's assaulted on a train by a conductor. But just before that life-changing event, the train crosses a bridge Ganges and the woman notices how the orange iron girders suddenly rose to high heaven and just as swiftly swooped back down reverberating with strange noises. Just then, she says, I would think of all the kids in our city who had never seen a bridge sway in this manner. They could not have been more unfortunate.

And there's the bliss that comes with understanding in the story by the Delhi writer Manjula Padmanabhan called "A Government of India Undertaking." Here, the narrator discovers one of life's great mysteries in an office filled with paper documents about birth and death.

No tour like a serious anthology such as this one to show you how a distant part of the world seems so foreign and yet so close to home.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Lotus Singers," a collection of stories from South Asia. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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