Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) (AC for short) was a physician by profession, and a short-story writer par excellence in Russian. His skill is amply manifested in his plays as well. Chekhov's stories remain quite popular the world over, because they are tales of human emotions: love, hatred, sorrow, stories of everyday life, and sad cases of dementia. KumKum considered that AC was like a psychiatrist, but the new-fangled ideas of Sigmund Freud had not been delivered to the world when AC was alive. Sunil entertained the notion that AC was bipolar. Is there any evidence for this?
Valentine’s Day dictated Gopa’s choice of a passage for reading from After The Theatre. A girl is intoxicated by the idea of being in love with so many young men. She reflects: “To be unloved and unhappy -- how interesting that was. There is something beautiful, touching, and poetical about it when one loves and the other is indifferent.” There was general laughter at this fantastic notion.
In Gooseberries a man achieves at the age of forty what he has desired all his life: to buy a farm, leave the city, and pursue his devotion to gooseberries. Which let it be clear, is not the tart amla we know in India (‘Dabur Amla Kes Tel’), but the Cape Gooseberry, which looks like a small tomatillo:
Priya later commented as follows.
I can to a great extent identify with Nikolai's joy in growing gooseberries. I am one for farming. Impressed by a story on terrace gardens and vegetables grown in them, I ventured and met up with the VFPCK (Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Kerala) and enlisted for a scheme that gave me 25 pots with start-up seedlings and know-how. The tomatoes did well. They bloomed in ones and twos giving me exquisite joy. They were never cooked but placed in a small bowl in the drawing room as a center piece. My family excused my quirk for replacing flowers with tomatoes, and later with brinjals. But when brinjals, the small purple variety, and white ones became the center piece, they thought I had grown mad.
But the tomatoes and brinjals gave me great thrill and joy. Really those days I was happier than at other times, and I think it was because of the tomatoes and brinjals. There were green chilies too, which I left on the plants to turn red. They looked insidiously charming. But the gourds were a let-down and the pests got more than I did from them.
Soon small and big holes appeared on the leaves. They began to turn brown at the edges. I did not use pesticides but neem extract, which did not help. The plants wilted and withered and then died. My veg garden patch came to an end. But like Nikolai's gooseberries, the tomatoes and brinjals filled my heart with joy. Like Andreas's joy it grew and grew and held me while it flourished.
Happiness is ....in things you like to do.
Betrothed was the choice of Mathew, since everyone was talking of Valentine’s. It’s full of word-pictures. In the ordinary course it is men who are accused of having contempt for women. Here it’s the reverse. It’s a story about a girl’s liberation by the influence of a young dying man, from her impending wedding to a priest’s son.
Choosing Ward No. 6, the longest story in our assigned reading would be natural. It has the largest variety of characters, and in some ways the inmates seem more interesting than the ‘sane’ people. How individual and resourceful they are! Joe observed that many of the inmates lead harmless lives, not a danger to others or to themselves. Why keep them in loony bins? Is it their relatives who want to put away people incapable of earning their living, so that they then become charges of the state?
Arundhaty was good enough to read from a play of Chekhov, The Three Sisters. This was her first session, a testing of waters to see if she wished to join the KRG. Instead of just listening, she participated and also read a passage.
Anton Chekhov wrote short stories as easily as people dash off a haiku in 2 minutes. Some stories are short, a few pages, and it is remarkable how much he packs into them. As you can expect from his large body of work, the genius may always be there, but the quality of the execution varies greatly. Many stories have no point at all; they are just descriptions of mundane things that happen to ordinary people, without any dramatic element, or surprising revelation at the end. Others like Ward No. 6 have the plot lines of a novel, and the inversion of fortunes at the end makes one wonder how easily a person may be passed off as insane. The description of the different types of inmates in the asylum owes its clarity to the precision of a professional physician, and the pathos of a master of story-telling. KumKum told Joe that Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who wrote masterly case-studies of his patients, considered some of the Chekhov pieces as extremely revelatory of mental states. Joe thought of The Black Monk as Magical Realism, but KumKum told him it’s a clinical description of hallucination. How depressing!
1. State your own criteria for assessing the twelve short stories, and select one or two you consider best, and say why.
After the Theatre
Ward No. 6
The Three Sisters