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Seventeen: by Anita Agnihotri

Seventeen: by Anita Agnihotri

Arunava Sinha’s exceptional translation allows English readers to be transported into Agnihotri’s world

Seventeen: by Anita Agnihotri

4 / 5

“Crater Lake,” the first story in Anita Agnihotri’s collection Seventeen, begins with the sentence “…I didn’t know how to get there.” It’s a deceptive beginning for this excellent selection of 17 stories, nearly all of which are urgently told and precise in their direction. Each story crackles with intensity and purpose, and Arunava Sinha’s beautiful, award winning translation allows English readers to enjoy these stories in a way that feels authentic to their primarily Indian locations and characters. Though the stories feature bruising emotions and wonderfully complicated relationships, it is equally thrilling to simply sit back and enjoy Agnihotri’s descriptions of color, weather, landscapes, cityscapes, food and drink, all of which have been shepherded beautifully and authentically from Bengali to English by Sinha.

Many of the Indian writers of short fiction best known to American audiences (though this is problematic terminology, as many of the writers labeled as Indian are and identify as Americans or Europeans and/or dual citizens) write from a more global perspective than Agnihotri. Jhumpa Lahiri, arguably the best-known writer of Indian characters in short fiction, focuses (primarily, not exclusively) on Indians living abroad or second-or-third generation Indian-Americans. Bharati Mukherjee considers herself an American writer and often writes about characters with Indian heritage or history who have moved abroad. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni sets some of her work entirely in India, however much of her short fiction is concerned with South Asian immigrants. The list goes on and on and is not to say that any author is more or less Indian than another. The point here is that Seventeen stands out because, through Agnihotri’s clear, universal storytelling and Sinha’s excellent translation, its stories are almost entirely Indian while still being accessible to a foreign audience.

Nearly all of the stories in Seventeen are layered beautifully to achieve maximum effect. While literary short fiction can often get bogged down by a singular focus on beautiful language or shocking, soul-sucking sadness – or both – Agnihotri doesn’t allow her stories to exist simply for the sake of art. Instead, she dives directly into political, economic and social issues. She avoids making them sound like newspaper articles or court documents by populating her stories with dozens of diverse characters and allowing their relationships and hardships to reveal the issues at the heart of her stories. While the language and physical descriptions are beautiful, the characters are what move the stories forward. And though many of these stories are devastating – with plot points ranging from mass suicide to acid attacks – none of them are morbid or wallow in pain or despair.

Though there are rarely any problems with plot, language or character in any of the stories in Seventeen, the pacing of some, and subsequently the work as a whole, feels a bit off. Seventeen features 17 stories of almost equal length, and if a few of them are read in a sitting it can become easy to forget where one ends and another begins. More importantly, while the subjects of these stories are vital and the characters well formed, several of the stories end rather abruptly. While this contributes to the urgency and precision that is so attractive in the collection, it also does a disservice to some of the stories that are ruminating on complicated plots and complex characters. Some of them deserve a bit more time and attention than they have been given here.

Furthermore, while the stories in Seventeen have varied settings, characters, plots and openings, they all end rather similarly. Not in terms of plotting but rather in style. This contributes to the aforementioned abruptness problem. But it goes a bit beyond that as well, as these repeated endings of pensive reflection, while powerful, rob some of the most dynamic stories of their velocity.

Still, Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen is a splendid read. The stories in the collection are unique while still contributing to overall reflection on the complicated nature of the human spirit, particularly in the societal and financial conflicts of modern-day India. Arunava Sinha’s exceptional translation allows English readers to be transported into Agnihotri’s world and understand it without being deprived of the unique cultural intricacies on display. The stories in this collection remain distinctly and beautifully true to their locations and characters while still retaining a sense of universality.

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