The short story affords a writer a welcome diversion from hard work. The novel, whether good or bad, printable or otherwise, involves considerable labour. Sheer wordage, anywhere between sixty and one hundred thousand words, looks forbidding at first, as it might well demand concentrated attention over an indefinite stretch of time. Although my novels are rather short by present day standards, while i am at work on one I feel restless and uneasy at being shackled to a single task for months on end. At such times one's mind also becomes sentence-ridden: words last written or yet to be written keep ringing about one's ears, to the exclusion of all other sounds or sense. When the first draft has taken shape one feels lighter at heart, but the relief is short-lived. The first draft will have to be followed by a second, and possibly a third or fourth, until perfection (a chemical pursuit) is attained. And then someday one arbitrarily decided to pack up the manuscript and mail it to one's literary agent.
At the end of every novel I have vowed never to write another one--a propitious moment to attempt a short story or two. I enjoy writing a short story. Unlike the novel, which emerges from relevant, minutely work-out detail, the short story can be brought into existence through a mere suggestion of detail, the focus being kept on a central idea or climax.
The material available to a story writer in India is limitless. Within a broad climate of inherited culture there are endless variations: every individual differs from every other individual, not only economically, but in outlook, habits and day-to-day philosophy. It is stimulating to live in a society that is not standardized or mechanized, and is free from monotony. Under such conditions the writer has only to look out of the winder to pick up a character (and thereby a story).
A short story must be short--on that point there is universal agreement. but the definition of a story is understood differently at different levels, ranging from the news reporter's use of the term to the literary pundit's profundities on the subject of plot, climax, structure and texture, with dos and don'ts for the writer. Speaking for myself, I discover a story when a personality passes through a crisis of spirit or circumstances. In the following thirty-odd tales, almost invariably the central character faces some kind of crisis and either resolves it or lives with it. But some stories may prove to be nothing more than a special or significant moment in someone's life or a pattern of existence brought to view.
I have named this volume Malgudi Days in order to give it a plausibly geographical status. I am often asked, 'Where is Malgudi?' All I can say is that it is imaginary and not to be found on any map (although the University of Chicago Press has published a literary atlas with a map of India indicating the location of Malgudi). If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal.
I can detect Malgudi characters even in New York: for instance, West Twenty-third Street, where I have lived for months at a time off and on since 1959, possess every element of Malgudi, with its landmarks and humanity remaining unchanged--the drunk lolling on the steps of the synagogue, the shop sign announcing in blazing letters EVERYTHING IN THIS STORE MUST GO WITHING A WEEK. FIFTY PER CENT OFF ON ALL ITEMS, the barber, the dentist, the lawyer and the specialist in fishing hooks, tackle and rods, the five-and-ten and the delicatessen (the man greeted me with 'Hi! Where have you been all this time? Where do you go for your milk and rice nowadays?' little realizing that I am not a permanent resident of Twenty-third Street or of America either)--all are there as they were, with an air of unshaken permanence and familiarity. Above all, the Chelsea Hotel, where I revisted after many years and was received with a whoop of joy by the manager, who hugged me and summoned all his staff (or those who were still alive) to meet me, including the old gentleman in a wheelchair, now one hundred and sixteen years old, a permanent resident who must have been in his early nineties when I last stayed in that hotel
Malgudi has been only a concept but has proved good enough for my purposes. I can't make it more concrete however much I might be interrogated. When an enthusiastic television producer in London asked me recently if I would cooperate by showing him around Malgudi and introducing him to the characters in my novels for the purpose of producing an hour-long feature, I felt shaken for a moment and said out of politeness, 'I am going to be busy working on a new novel...'
'Another Malgudi novel?' he asked.
'Yes,' I said.
'What will it be about?'
'About a tiger possessing a human soul...'
'Oh, that sounds interesting! I think I will wait. It will be marvelous to include the tiger in my documentary...'