Books

Literary reviews , interviews and other features.

The Angst of Being a Modern Indian

The Cosmopolitans ♦
Anjum Hasan
Penguin India, 309 pages, Rs 499.

anjum-book“Being a modern Indian is hard work,” a former king tells Qayanaat, the protagonist of Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans. If this is true for the King, the dispossessed monarch of fictional, small-town Simhal, it’s certainly so for Qayanaat, a 53-year-old single woman who lives in Bengaluru, subsisting on the diminishing material wealth of one man, her deceased father, while trying to manage her excess of emotions for another, the artist Baban.

Had Hasan chosen Baban—a character who recalls certain real Indian artists, such as Subodh Gupta—as her protagonist,The Cosmopolitans would likely have been India’s first Künstlerroman set in the contemporary art world. And Baban, triumphantly returning from New York to launch his large-scale conceptual work, ‘Nostalgia’, in Bengaluru, would have been a rich character for Hasan to use to pick apart the tensions she explores: between modernity and tradition, aesthetics and ethics, art and profit.

Instead, although The Cosmopolitans opens with the inauguration of ‘Nostalgia’, Hasan sets about painting a portrait of Qayanaat, a character on the periphery of the art world, but at the center of this ambitious, yet intimate, novel of ideas. Qayanaat neither makes art, nor collects it, and her place in the wider world is unclear as well. She is hopeless with money; her quietly bohemian lifestyle, surrounded by her garden and a few works of art, is only enabled by the house that her father left her. By conventional benchmarks, she is something of a failure. This makes her an appealing and important character in a country obsessed with success.

The first half of the book describes Qayanaat’s life in Bengaluru, as a drifter on a sleepy art scene populated by a cast of familiar figures. There are the Bengalis, both elderly intellectuals and young, eager creators; Baban, the maverick hotshot with his NRI arm-candy; the aficionados and the aunties, the patrons of various means. Hasan deftly sketches her characters and has fun fleshing out the stereotypes. Baban, for instance, “reared on curd rice and Charminar, now sought after by the world’s leading galleries and collectors”, or Sara, Qayanaat’s “vivacious, art-loving friend, her jingle-jangle jewellery and swishy skirts”.

There’s no snappy sentence to describe Qayanaat’s slippery existence in this milieu. While Baban calls her QT, her ex-boyfriend Sathi’s mispronunciation of her name (which comes from the Urdu and Arabic kainaat, or universe) is one reason she gives for breaking up with him. Later, the King calls her Mandakini. For her part, Qayanaat is too busy attempting to live as a modern Indian to try and analyse such an existence, least of all through an aesthetic lens:

When among her artist friends, she always withdrew from conscience-stricken conversations about Who Was to Blame and What Should be Done. Hell, she would think. What happened to experience? It seemed to have been replaced by hot air. If we can’t be out there, eating grass and fighting the Indian state with rickety rifles, we could at least shut up and look to our own lives. Karma, she would think. Wasn’t it supposed to be the guiding force once, the idea that every action, however minor, has consequences? So she would go back home and water the flowers and then sit in silence, looking at the garden of trees her father had planted. Almond, frangipani, pink tabebuia.

Eventually, Qayanaat’s passive retreat turns into an impetuous offensive against the seriousness and conceit of the art world. The impulse that drives her must be familiar to many of us who, standing in a gallery sipping wine, have felt the urge to to do something drastic, something that would puncture the solemnity and the casual conviviality of the occasion, to rub out the hallowed glow emanating from the artist or artworks, so robbed of their own power to rupture the mundane.

Book One culminates in just such a moment of rebellion, which ends in a disaster that Hasan treats as almost more comedic than tragic. In order to finance an escape from the repercussions of her actions, and her guilt, Qayanaat sells an old painting she owns by ‘Nur Jahan’, a sort of artist-in-purdah whose nude paintings have gained notoriety and appreciated in value due to the political controversy surrounding them.

Book Two shifts aesthetic gears significantly, from visual to performance art, from avante-garde to tradition. “I’ll go into India,” Qayanaat decides, to learn about the dance-theatre of the town of Simhal. But between meeting the King, with his odd mix of conservative and worldly views; Vipul Singh, a local tout and wannabe tough; and Malti, a widowed tribal woman; Qayanaat finds “India” perhaps a bit more than she bargained for.

The cheek that makes the first half of The Cosmopolitans so enjoyable to a reader familiar with the metropolitan art world retreats slightly in the book’s second half. As Qayanaat finds herself out of her element, she is less capable of passing judgment upon a world in which she is truly an outsider, as are we. If this transition makes Hasan’s book a little less fun, it also make it a more robust portrait of the angst of being a modern Indian. There is slight frustration in watching Qayanaat bridge her experiences in the countryside with her life in the city by way of maternal instinct, but – typically of Hasan’s art – it is only because it imitates life all too well.

Originally published in The Wire.

 

Published: December 28, 2015

Crash of Civilisations

City of Spies ♦

By Sorayya Khan
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015, 239 pp., Rs 295 (PB)
ISBN 978-93-83064-78-6

city of spies

Pakistan was scorchingly hot during the summer of 1977, the narrator of City of Spies recalls: “the newspapers were filled with worry that rain might never come”. And the persistent Cold War chill in relations between the United States of America and the Soviet Union only meant that the politics of the subcontinent were simmering too. A day after the American Embassy in Islamabad celebrated its country’s independence, things finally boiled over. As some of the worst floods in its history hit Karachi, the papers reported that General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had imprisoned Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, accused of election rigging and murdering political opponents, and declared martial law. The General’s photograph was splashed across the front pages, with his eyes “cast down, as if he were posing reluctantly, like a Pakistani bride”.

In the decades since then, historians have researched, in depth, the transformation of Pakistan under the eleven years of Zia’s rule, as well as substantiated many of the open secrets about the international influences that allowed his regime to flourish. Several novelists have also attempted to unearth the gritty truth of life from beneath the heavy monolith of dictatorship, to describe how things changed, incrementally but irrevocably, as the State and military became further entangled with religious extremist groups and foreign superpowers. In his satirical novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Mohammad Hanif channeled the comedic voice of a fictional junior air force officer to retell the story of Zia’s death – and suspected assassination – in a 1988 plane crash. In her very different debut, In the City by the Sea (1998), the London-based author Kamila Shamsie described the cost of Zia’s ruthlessness on the life of a child growing up in Karachi.

Sorayya Khan’s third novel combines elements of both these seminal books: her first-person narrator is an 11-year-old girl, Aliya Shah (rather unfortunately characterised as “a different Malala” by Amitava Kumar in a cover blurb). Aliya is the “half-and-half ” youngest child of a Dutch mother and Pakistani father, who believes that “being white is… being whole. And knowing it”. She is also keen enough to understand that her mother has become “brown” by “being married to my father… though, of course, you couldn’t tell by looking”.

In an essay on “The March of the Novel Through History” (Kenyon College, 1998), Amitav Ghosh, whose novel The Shadow Lines (1988) resonates in the pages City of Spies, wrote that to describe one’s environment, “one must somehow distance oneself from it… one must assume a certain posture, a form of address. In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin with an act of dislocation”.

Like Ghosh’s landmark novel, City of Spies is a story of dislocation with diasporic dimensions, freighted with questions of national belonging. But unlike The Shadow Lines, or Kamila Shamsie’s sweepingly international Burnt Shadows (2009), Khan’s book is rooted in a particular place and time. Her characters do not range too far and wide, even if the causes and consequences of the things that happen to them in the 30 months following Zia’s coup spiral out from Islamabad, the titular city of spies, to places like Teheran and Cazenovia, New York.

Aliya is certainly a character at odds with her environment, but her moment of dislocation occurs as prologue, before the story begins. The Shah family is uprooted from Europe when Aliya’s father, bound by a patriotic sense of duty, leaves his United Nations job to head a Pakistani government agency. The family settles in what Aliya’s grandfather (a protagonist of Khan’s previous book, Five Queen’s Road, set in the aftermath of Partition) calls the “fake” city of Islamabad, a city that pales in comparison to his beloved, history-soaked Lahore.

Aliya’s self-conscious thoughts about her identity, and her observations, are a useful lens through which to view the rippling effects of the General’s political machinations in the public and domestic spheres of Pakistan’s capital. She is mostly able to keep the two halves of her life – the Shah household and the American School where she studies – separate. But as a sensitive pre-teen, she is also aware of the tension flowing through Islamabad’s wide, empty streets. In her eyes, the city is a playground for several strange games. There’s the competition for dominance between the cars marked by Soviet and American diplomatic license plates, surrounded by the clamour of a bevy of less identifiable plates from smaller countries, the pawns of this board. From the vantage of her seat on an incongruous yellow school bus, Aliya also has a ringside view of the spitting game the American boys play, targeting hapless Pakistani passers-by. Aliya cringes, but is unable to stand up to her schoolmates.“A small part of me believed that Pakistanis deserved to be spit upon,” she remarks. “I wasn’t proud of this, of course…”

These road games provide a neat dramatic setup for the tragedy at the centre of the novel, an event that causes Aliya’s discomfort to blossom into a full-blown identity crisis. Hanif, the young, Bhutto-obsessed son of the family servant, Sadiq, is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When Aliya discovers that the car was driven by the mother of her American best friend, the accident becomes conflated in her mind with the fate of Pakistan. Her personal loss – sharpened by guilt at her inability to have communicated with Hanif when he was alive – becomes a political one. “With the hit-and-run accident on an Islamabad street, Anne Simon had behaved in her personal life the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted without, for the most part, suffering any consequences.”

Khan writes this death with heartbreaking subtlety, keeping it from lapsing into a cliché plot twist by revealing the details of the accident to Aliya in bits and pieces, as the adults around her attempt to censor the information. City of Spies is not a particularly long novel, but Khan’s tight rein on its pace and artful ratcheting up and down of action make the consequences of the accident appear to slowly unfurl in the characters’ lives, even as the months pass swiftly by. (There are also many lovely distractions along the way, such as the juxtaposition of various cuisines: Aliya’s mother’s European baking; the imported junk food from the commissary stockpiled at her friend’s house; and Sadiq’s cooking, which makes her house smell “like Pakistan” to an American visitor.)

As Aliya begins to view Hanif’s death, compounded by Bhutto’s hanging, in geopolitical terms, she begins to see herself as Pakistani, despite being alienated by language and class from most of her fellow citizens. “Knowing who’d killed Hanif made the spaces in my life fall into each other like collapsing sand tunnels. It would be impossible to separate them, reshape them and restore them to the way they had been.”

In an attempt to give the accident some meaning, Aliya begins to secretly learn Urdu, with Sadiq’s help. Their friendship, built over convincing, though halting, dialogue, is just one of the tenderly drawn relationships between Khan’s memorable, sympathetic characters. In a way, her simple but emotionally packed story is an attempt to depoliticise the personal, or at least to find hope in the power of communication between two people to subvert the structures of power in which they exist.

It takes years for Aliya to understand that learning a language is only one aspect of this sort of communication. After a riot, spurred by suspicions of American involvement in a siege in Mecca, results in the burning of the American Embassy, a rift forms between Sadiq and the family. At the time, Aliya thinks of the riot as another kind of game: “I was suddenly reminded of Klackers, the game of two balls suspended on a string. When one ball hit the other, the klick-klack sent it careening. Countries were connected to each other the same way, which made our world a very scary place.”

Aliya’s thoughts – and the event itself– recall the reflections on a different riot, on the other side of the subcontinent, by the narrator of The Shadow Lines as he tries to “learn the meaning of distance” while drawing circles on maps. Attempting to “imagine an event, any event, that might occur in a city near the periphery of that circle” that could bring people at its centre “pouring out into the streets”, he comes up with “none, that is, other than war”.

“My parents tell me that we are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them,” the grownup Aliya tells us in the prologue, “The war of my story, the war we shared long ago, whether we knew it or not, is the Cold War.” Riots, the civilian violence often engendered by war, are real and inexplicable —“to look for words” beyond the simple description of these events “would be to give them meaning… a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” cautions the narrator of The Shadow Lines. But Khan also wants to suggest the possibility of a thaw; of reconciliation through communication, however imperfect. In her story, the city may be full of spies, and people prone to making mistakes, but they are also capable of forgiveness and surprising humanity. In her attempt to square Pakistan’s dire news headlines with the minutiae of life, there is a plea for giving people the benefit of the doubt, for faith in sanity even in the face of madness.

Originally published in the September-November 2015 issue of Biblio.

Published: November 9, 2015

Capital Rambles

Delhi: Unknown Tales of a CityDelhi: Unknown Tales of a City
By RV Smith
(Roli, ₹295)

Among the contemporary crop of Delhi’s flâneurs and society chroniclers, Ronald Vivian Smith is a tall figure. The septuagenarian arrived from Agra in the late 1950s, and his regular columns in The Statesman and The Hindu span the decades of wandering he has done in his adopted home city since then. Many of these columns are available online—rich inspiration for the first generation of city bloggers— and have also periodically been published in books such as The Delhi that No-one Knows (2005), Capital Vignettes (2008) and Delhi Rambles (2014).

The newest such edition is Delhi: Unknown Tales of a City, comprising columns from between 1990 and 2011, and brought out by Roli Books. Through anecdotes and encounters with Dilliwalas, both past and present, Smith explores myriad facets of the capital. As a raconteur, it is Smith’s “sense of delight in histories discovered over the years,” as Narayani Gupta wrote in her foreword to The Delhi that No-one Knows, that anyone who has had even a passing flirtation with Delhiyana will be able to identify with. As Smith talks about festivals, monuments, rulers and poets, the feeling of discovery is familiar; accessible. Yet Smith’s distinct personality only flashes through sporadically: in his attraction to a beautiful face, his self-deprecating awareness of the meandering nature of his own writing.

The journalist Mayank Austen Soofi, in a way one of Smith’s successors, notes in a profile in Mint Lounge that “Unlike other celebrated writers on Delhi, Smith remains as invisible as the people and places he writes about.” Particularly jarring in this book is the use of the neutral third-person, which results in awkward phrases such as “one stumbled” and “as one looked up with a start, one found a female form in white…” A more intimate first-person narration from Smith, if not a proper memoir, would be welcome.

And as far as compendia of vignettes go, this one could have been better shepherded. While The Delhi that No-one Knows has Smith’s writing grouped by geographical area and Capital Vignettes has thematic sections, the columns in Unknown Tales of a City seem somewhat arbitrarily organised, almost in a slightly muddled alphabetical order. Related columns—such as those about Diwali, or Bahadur Shah Zafar—could for example have been combined into longer chapters by an invested editor. An index would have been helpful, too.

Unknown Tales is still an enjoyable dip, in part because Smith is clear-eyed about his hobby. “Legends are more enchanting than factual history,” he writes. Concluding one particularly juicy tale, of a rumour about kebabs made of human flesh, Smith writes, slightly tongue in cheek, “Where exactly the tikka seller sat in the Mori Gate area is difficult to say now… Ask Mullaji, if you can find him, and he will confirm that this is true.”

In Smith’s tales of an old but rapidly changing city, facts are less important than the stories people tell. Some of the most interesting entries deal with the evolving names of places: Chandni Chowk, for example; or the names of places that no longer exist, such as a list of dry or covered-up wells. As one haunted well disappears under a new colony, it becomes, like so many other landmarks, “part of the gossip of old fogeys.”

Particularly poignant is Smith’s description of a deserted sentry tower in the cantonment near Naraina, which evokes thoughts of  “the futility of maintaining a watch over something which will eventually need no vigilance and harbours only vagabonds at night. It’s most distressing to think like that. You come back to the fishmongers…Perhaps the fishmongers may move out too and the sentry tower will be demolished. Then only memories will remain.” One could say Smith’s writing mirrors the city itself: rambling; extending, a bit haphazardly, in many directions and many layers; but with snatches of beauty and nuggets of history hiding just under the surface for those who go looking.

Originally published in Outlook Traveller, August 2015.

 

Published: August 3, 2015

A Strange, Familiar Place

This Place ♦

By Amitabha Bagchi
Fourth Estate / HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2013, 253 pp.,
Rs 499 (HB)
ISBN 978-93-5116-018-2

thisplaceAfter being suspended from his government job, Naresh Kumar, the title character in Amitabha Bagchi’s previous book, The Householder (Fourth Estate, 2012), finds himself a stranger in his own house. He waits desperately for the evening, “The time after which this house, which he had plotted and pleaded and sweated to have allotted to him, this house where every single object, durable and consumable, had been bought with the money he had earned, this house where every single person ate because he worked, this house that didn’t seem to possess the generosity to keep him during the day, this same house would open up and welcome him back. Shamelessly ignoring the fact that he had not left all day, the house would readmit him into its rigid routine.”

“This house” is the particular locus of Bagchi’s second novel, but the question of how people make and unmake – and are made and unmade by – place is present in all three of his books, which have sometimes been slotted into categories circumscribed by setting: the campus novel (Above Average, HarperCollins, 2007), the Delhi novel (The Householder), and the immigrant novel (This Place).

This Place takes in the larger reality of an entire city, Baltimore, but focusses its plot and action around one stretch of 26th Street, where its small cast of characters live. Compared to Naresh – a man mired in his relationships with the world, whose form of rebellion (a contemplated affair with his secretary) is almost as tawdry a cliché as the confines of his mundane middle-class life – the main character in This Place, Jeevan, is a cipher. Formerly a taxi driver, Jeevan has been in America for a long time but never quite lived there. He looks at other immigrants, settling into their new lives and sometimes tries “to want the things that they wanted”. Early in the book, he walks into his house and “for a moment it felt like he was visiting himself, Jeevan Sharma, an old acquaintance. He felt a twinge of curiosity, as if he had known this Jeevan Sharma when they were both much younger and was eager to see what his life was like now and how he kept his house.” In a sense, This Place is the story of how he discovers himself through the people around him on 26th street.

On one level, Jeevan already knows that this closeness to his neighbours goes beyond proximity and has a premonition that “he could stay in this place for a long time”. Besides Jeevan, on the four houses on 26th street there’s Miss Lucy, an elderly black lady who plays the organ and makes him pancakes; Henry, who never missed a day of work before he retired, and whose idol is Cal Ripken, Jr (the Baltimore baseball player who holds a record for consecutive games played); and the younger, more transient characters Matthew and Kay, a couple with marital problems who have just moved in. Jeevan’s Pakistani boss, Shabbir, owns three of the four houses and holds court at his Food Point restaurant nearby. As the diversity of the characters implies, this is not the “immigrant fiction” of the ghetto, but the story of a few people at a crossroads, unrelated by blood, yet functioning like family.

Bagchi is also especially interested in characters in transitional places, whether it’s The Householder’s government flats (where “there was always a near or distant future looming ahead… they would have to return this house to the government, ‘surrender it’…”) or the IIT-Delhi campus in Above Average. In This Place, Baltimore itself is in upheaval at the end of the 1990s. After years of neglect, the city administration, with the backing of Johns Hopkins University, is taking over 26th street for “urban renewal”. Bagchi casts “The City” as a larger entity, imposing its own agency upon its inhabitants. “The City has exercised its rights,” one of its representatives tells Miss Lucy. “The City has the power, they are using their power,” Shabbir tells Jeevan, “And we are all going to benefit.”

Larger economic shifts may be driving the City, but it is Shabbir, one of its newer residents, who celebrates and implements its decisions. “This hell will become heaven, Jeevan bhai,” Shabbir says, anticipating how highly he will be compensated for his property, “and we will be landlords in heaven.” Attachment to the old buildings and old neighbours is foolish, Shabbir explains to his son, who wants to help save the houses by registering them as historical landmarks. “What history is there in this two-hundred-year-old country anyway? In Lahore, every mohalla had a six-hundred-year-old-building just sitting there with birds shitting all over it.” He takes Miss Lucy to a new house and she protests that “I didn’t birth two children here… My husband didn’t fall down dead here.” He replies, “Your final home is in the sky with your god. Till then, if living here is your destiny, you must accept it.”

Bagchi is a writer who flirts with stereotypes, complicating them through his characters’ actions. While Shabbir’s motivations are primarily pecuniary, this “greedy man’s ruthless acquisitiveness” is tempered by “a version of honesty”. Jeevan is Shabbir’s accountant and moral compass — accepting his shady business dealings while drawing a line when the landlord tries to keep his ownership of Miss Lucy’s house a secret and to profit from it. Jeevan may be putting down roots in shifting ground, but it’s precisely this churning that allows him to realise the extent of his attachment to other people. Another character reflects that “This time it wasn’t he who would leave but the place itself.” The threat of a reverse type of displacement compels Jeevan.

Bagchi also excels at monologues and dialogue, and he often uses both to stylistically reflect the book’s themes. Henry’s uninterrupted retelling of his past in an early soliloquy mirrors the stasis (soon to be shattered) of the city he has known for “seventy some” years. During a dinner conversation between Jeevan and Shabbir at a Chinese eatery, intrusions by the owner and delivery boy and the random dialogue of fellow diners captures the fragmentary, cheek-by- jowl nature of urban life. Readers who liked the compressed style of Bagchi’s previous books may find This Place disappointing: the writing feels sparser than the college slang-filled dialogue and almost fetishistic descriptions of Delhi in Above Average, or the thick descriptions of babudom and domestic life in The Householder. In some of This Place, Bagchi uses the lighter touch of short story writing, inviting sustained intimacy through a description or a dialogue, but dancing away from overly long digressions in favour of punch and concision.

Bagchi wrote This Place before he wrote The Householder, but the subtle stylistic difference seems more like an authorial choice than the result of a lack of experience. Bagchi has described in a note how he wanted This Place to echo the emptiness of the paintings of Edward Hopper, “landscapes marked by human habitation but empty of human figures,” that imply an understanding of “the essential transience of human life and [a] hope for permanence” on what humans build. At the end of each chapter, Bagchi appends a coda that riffs on a word or a theme from the preceding pages through a conversation between anonymous strangers or a description of the cityscape. Some are oblique, such as a conversation about homemade versus box pancakes overheard on a bus. Others are heavyhanded; one chapter ends in a vision of decrepit, bullet-riddled walls and then an assertion, almost in the voice of the City: “What do we do with this place? … Perhaps the best way is to start from scratch. Demolish them, each last one of them. Pulverize them. We need to start afresh. A clean slate. We won’t make the same mistakes this time.”

These codas, and Bagchi’s excursions into characters’ back-stories and inner lives, all accumulate to create an excess of incompleteness, an almost claustrophobic lightness. He approximates the surface emptiness and sudden intimacy of urban American life itself. Space – a limitless resource to be conquered, administered and turned to profit – supersedes place. When Kamran and Kay dissect the significance of the words “our past” in the criteria for registering a historic landmark, Kamran says, ‘“I don’t think that their ‘our’ means us,’ … ‘It’s like, you know, a bigger ‘our’.” “Yeah,” said Kay. “That’s what’s funny. It’s an “our” that includes us, but it’s so big that it doesn’t mean us.”’

These characters try, and fail, to resist the erosion of place – “This place will not be here in a few months’ time,” says Jeevan – but find what refuge they can in planning a future together — “And all of you will be in all the places you’ll be in,” answers Matthew. The idea echoes Walt Whitman’s “A Song For Occupations,” (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman / James R Osgood and Company / 1881-82), which encourages “You workwomen and workmen of these States”, who build the nations’ cities, to make some meaning too, out of each other’s company:

Will you seek afar off? you surely come back at last,
In things best known to you finding the best, or as good as the best,
In folks nearest to you finding the sweetest, strongest, lovingest,
Happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour,
Man in the first you see or touch, always in friend, brother, nighest neighbor…

Originally published in the March-April 2014 issue of Biblio.

Read as a PDF here:

Published: April 16, 2014

Shelved selves

Unpacking literary baggage ♦

booksThe first library I fell in love with was my great-grandfather’s study in Shimla. An angular room with thick glass windows, dark wood furniture and a scuffed, burnt orange carpet, it looked out over the misty tops of ragged pine trees and rounded hills. Like any good study, its architect knew that the delicate work of the mind needs buffering from the shrill sounds of the household, and the library was accessible only from the front veranda. Encircling the room were shelves enclosed within stubborn sliding glass doors; each shelf lined with dusty newspapers – some of which were probably worthy of preservation themselves. Hardcover books were packed tightly together, many of them doubly secured in homemade plastic jackets. Prying a spine loose would set a shoal of silverfish darting into different directions, and large hairy spiders lurked in the corners of the ceiling, spinning their own stories in a spiky gossamer font.

My great-grandfather was a historian and educator, and many of the books were too academic for me on those early summer vacations, but it didn’t matter. Adding to the literary clutter, my brother and I would cart our summer reading in suitcases all the way from the US. We’d sink into the new plastic weave seats of old dining chairs, our noses close to the pages, breathing in the book-must while sneaking glances at my grandfather as he composed letters with a fountain pen at his father’s writing table. This quietly thrilling collegiality was disturbed only by the sudden clatter of monkeys on the tin roof above, or my grandmother calling us for garam chai and butter-smeared, currant-filled fruit buns. Inhaling the dust of these old history books (some of them bundled up and brought all the way from Lahore during Partition) was like absorbing a sense of my own past – recuperating something I thought I’d lost as an angsty first-generation American.

Back then, the contents of the library didn’t matter so much, but age demands prejudice and  I’ve since become one of those people who makes a beeline for the bookshelf upon entering a new home. Recognising an obscure personal favourite in an acquaintance’s collection has often perfectly bound a friendship. And when a new love interest goes off to make tea or pour wine, examining his private life through a shelf of Russian literature or radical politics makes me wonder how neatly this catalogue might complement mine.

My own bookshelves have felt like a distinct disadvantage. Sparsely filled with random titles and castoffs from friends who have also shuttled cities and continents for work, they reflect the fact that carting books in suitcases, or cardboard boxes, has become a fixed feature of a transient life. My childhood library sits on white shelves in America, neatly ordered by author, waiting for when I have my own kids. I haven’t revisited the Shimla study in a decade. But after yet another move, I recently had the chance to rip open the boxes, dust, order by genre and stuff into shelves what felt like various chapters of my life. Worn classics from childhood, theoretical texts scrawled with earnest marginalia from college, all the Delhiana hoarded from editing a city magazine, old postcard bookmarks, a glut of contemporary Indian literature and many volumes with stiff spines and crisp pages set aside for future reading.

“Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me,” writes Claire Messud in Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books. In this edition of a Yale University Press series, Messud continues, “To be weighed down by things – books, furniture – seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” I’ve often felt the same way in the face of heavy boxes and duct tape. In the same book, Gary Shteyngart says, “Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” Why not just throw them all out, I wonder, when that third half-read copy of Moby Dick turns up. Or put a moratorium on book-buying and get a tablet?

But as I sit surrounded by stacks of fresh and faded titles, sniffling not just because of the dust, arranging my shelves gives weight to the task of putting myself back in order. I’m sure digital libraries have their place, but maybe my personal history still needs this hefty cover: this old baggage of beloved literature, those potent, unread volumes taking up space, and yes, even that stash of romance novels, stuffed spine-inward behind the Derrida.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.

Published: October 31, 2013

Home of horrors

Jnavayanaoe Sacco and Chris Hedges combine efforts to draw a poignant, disturbing picture of post-capitalist America ♦

Black and white truth has little place in the slippery grey of liberal opinion. Poverty porn or slum tourism are easy dismissals of writing on the human fallout of consumer capitalism. And plenty of people make a fetish of poverty for personal or political gain. But some artists bring the dying places of the world to life in their work with such searing conviction that it burns through the smog. Like cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, whose work is a reminder that moral uncertainty is all too often a veil of self-deception – that if looking at poverty can be exploitative, we’re still not justified in averting our eyes.

If in urban India we’re quite used to looking away from our own inequalities, oppression in the US is practically a sight unseen by the rest of the world. The new South Asian edition of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a 2012 collaboration between Sacco and Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges, could change that. Published by Delhi’s Navayana, which engages with caste and other forms of inequality, the book reports on the American communities hard-hit by globalisation, the so-called “sacrifice zones” of unchecked capitalism. The book is split into five chapters, four of which consist mostly of Hedges’ written reportage from America’s deepest circles of hell: the Native American reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; the violent city of Camden, New Jersey; Welch, in an area of West Virginia devastated by coal mining; and Immokalee, Florida, an agricultural region reliant on undocumented immigrant labour. Sacco’s illustrations are interspersed: sound-bite portraits and a few short story-length histories of representative individuals.

The stories are relentlessly horrific. There’s senseless murder, forced prostitution, alcoholism, pill addiction, obesity, homelessness, genocide fuelled by suicide, and more grit than some readers might be able to stomach. “Take a look at the American dream,” says the manager of a tent town in Camden. “In today’s society, no one is exempt… Everybody is one paycheck away from being here.”


Both Sacco and Hedges let such characters do a lot of the talking, but Hedges is also an opinionated presence in these pages and he makes no apologies for it. At times he gets almost biblical, which might invigorate or irritate, depending on the reader. “To stand on the sidelines and say ‘I am innocent’ is to bear the mark of Cain,” Hedges proclaims.

Founding editor of Navayana, S Anand is a believer. “This charge of being biased and pedantic… frankly it is tiresome,” he wrote over email. “The crisis they [Hedges and Sacco] are documenting is vulgar. The hard-hitting documentary style is effective.” Anand and Sacco had been on each other’s radars even before the latter blurbed Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, a graphic novel inspired by Ambedkar’s life and illustrated by two Pardhan-Gond artists. (Sacco also addressed caste in his reporting from Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.) The cartoonist was instrumental in getting Navayana the South Asian rights.

The edition, Anand said, is aimed at English-speaking upper and middle class members who believe in “following the American model… a blind imitation of a crass consumerist capitalistic ethic”. And while it complicates the idea of America, the bookinevitably stirs up comparisons between poverty in “developed” versus “developing” nations.

“One of the key reasons I did this book is to try and create a template for similar books in India,” said Anand, who, besides cowriting Bhimayana, also published A Gardener in the Wasteland, a graphic interpretation of Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri. “I want to publish such a book on Koodankulam for instance, a sacrifice zone in the making,” he said. “There’s no dearth of issues; there’s a dearth of writers and artists. Sadly, in India, the graphic novel form is considered merely cool, quirky, fashionable. It’s like a boys’ club. That [it] can be political is granted, but is rarely attempted.”

Days of Destruction… isn’t perfect – some of the academic interludes sit awkwardly within personal narratives; occasionally there are abrupt switches from one character to another, past to present or fact to opinion. What Hedges is especially good at, though, is underscoring how downtrodden people turn against each other, and how oppressors encourage this to their advantage.

In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Hedges and Sacco are also good at looking for resistance. These “bright spots” range from union history to community organising groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to intelligent, outspoken individuals who defy the stereotype of hapless sacrificial victims. The final chapter is devoted to the Occupy movement, which the authors see as evidence that discontent with capitalism is spreading to those who are well-placed to protest it. Whatever Occupy’s potential to inspire revolt may be; the chapter is a valuable, clear-eyed, insider dissection of the movement. Anand pointed out that “many of the poor in India have no choice but to ‘occupy’ or squat. These acts are not seen, unfortunately, as political… Only when the middle class of the US, mostly whites, staged Occupy did it become newsworthy.” Still, Occupy is an important example for elites anywhere whose sense of justice can often outpace a willingness to acknowledge, as Anand put it, “their endorsement of a capitalistic ethic; their own culpability through consumption”. And in an age of global industry, creating links between oppression and revolt in different parts of the world is an important endeavor in itself. Cutting through the smokescreen of “neutral” reporting, Days of Destruction… is a reminder that “Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers… It passes on another narrative.” And radical dissent can start as simply as exercising one’s right to unselfish action.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Nayavana ₹595.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.

Published: October 11, 2013

The Hired Man

Aminatta Forna travels to Croatia for her fourth novel ♦

the-hired-manIn her fourth book, Aminatta Forna ventures out of Sierra Leone and Africa, the setting for her previous titles (including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prizewinning The Memory of Love). Set in a small town at the foot of the mountains in Croatia, The Hired Man, like Forna’s earlier work, grapples with the effects of violence and war – now in the past, but never far from the surface of the present, a “dark child scratching on the walls”, as Duro, the story’s narrator and titular character, writes.

In the supple and self-assured style of an author who has consciously honed her craft over time and who can draw description out from the wells of imagination and research, Forna describes the beauty of the Croatian countryside and the horrors buried in its wildflower-filled fields and azure swimming holes with equal skill. The story unfolds over a few summer weeks, during which time Duro Kolak also revisits the span of his 46 years. His outpouring of memories is prompted by the arrival of Laura, an Englishwoman who has purchased an abandoned home nearby with her husband. With her two teenage children in tow, Laura busies herself with restoring the “blue house” and enlists him to help. She’s set her sights on starting a real estate service for wealthy outsiders looking for vacation homes, but when it comes to knowing the reason for these abandoned houses, she’s happy to turn a blind eye to the area’s history.

Ultimately the family has to confront this past, though the more horrifying events remain contained within Duro’s memories of the 1990s. And while these memories incorporates soldiers, sieges and abductions, Forna’s intent isn’t to shock but to question what makes some humans despise others and to discover what happens when childhood grudges and playground politics are grafted onto communal conflicts and flourish there, blooming into the most grotesque expressions of hatred. Forna eloquently frames this question, keeping things interesting through suspended information and some rather nice, nonmainstream character dynamics (the friendship between Duro and Laura’s daughter, Duro’s relationship with his hunting dogs).

Because she doesn’t point to the war’s political perpetrators by name (referring more directly to the town’s fictional petty villains) and because her narrator is a man who sometimes has to look away from the truth in order to live with it, The Hired Man can seem a little bloodless compared to Forna’s more personal work set in Sierra Leone (her father was a politician there and was hanged on charges of treason). Yet following last year’s “best tourist season in Croatia’s history,” according to that country’s tourism minister, Forna’s latest is a timely reminder that “Et in Arcadia Ego”.

The Hired Man, Bloomsbury, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2013.

Published: August 4, 2013

A Conversation With: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

A Conversation With: Literary Critic and Novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ♦

faruqiIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.

Writers in English can usually assume a global readership. Though Urdu was a lingua franca, at least in India, 150 years ago, its contemporary literature has a more specific audience. How did the shift in audience affect your translation?
The novel is slightly longer than the Urdu version, because I had to explain certain things. And of course translating two lines of verse in Urdu might expand to four or five lines in English. One theory of translation is that it is worthless unless it sounds like translation. I really don’t agree with that at all, because when you are transferring a certain kind of cultural code and symbolism, which is so utterly alien, it is unfair on the reader to make her feel, all the time, that “yes, I am reading something in high Urdu in the English form.” Like some English woman wearing Indian dress.

How did you go about researching and reinventing the worlds of 19th century Delhi — from the descriptions of carpet-weaving to courtly etiquette?
I didn’t do any systematic, formal research. As I wrote, I did consult a few books when I needed to verify some particular detail, dates mostly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the novel had always existed in my head as an amorphous, identity-less entity. Facts, memories, impressions — and of course my reading before I’d began to compose the novel — it was all there — a chaos, especially because I didn’t have anything like an idea to write a novel with Wazir Khanam as the chief character.

Of course, I was incomparably enriched by my love for pre-modern Persian and Urdu poetry. Later, what went into my unconscious, more than I realized, was my reading of the Dastan of Amir Hamza, a series of loosely linked oral romances whose 46 volumes and 42,000-plus pages and more than 20 million words I read, and in some cases reread, since about 1980. I’ll always remain obliged to Frances Pritchett [professor emerita at Columbia University] who directed my attention to the Dastan.

For both Urdu and English novels, you restricted yourself to words from the 19th-century lexicon. “The Mirror of Beauty” is very readable, but is the original book a challenge for native Urdu speakers?.
People have been admiring it for sheer size and expanse, but everybody has complained: you didn’t give a glossary, you should have given the Farsi [Persian] in translation. Even in Pakistan, people complained. Not that it was not popular – it went through two editions in four years or so, which is somewhat remarkable for an Urdu novel. I made it the way it is quite consciously, writing in a register which is no longer spoken — archaic Urdu which is unfamiliar to most people. I didn’t care. I was doing my thing. I had to be faithful to my own vision.

There’s a strong rapport between Indian and Pakistani authors writing in English – they review each other’s books, travel to each other’s festivals, make the same award lists. What about Indian and Pakistani writers in Urdu?
On a personal level, there is a lot of friendliness, a lot of coming and going and writing and reading, but it’s not wholehearted promotion. I can promote a Pakistani writer or book wholeheartedly, but the Pakistani literary establishment is reluctant to promote Indian writers so strongly. Almost every important writer who died in Pakistan or is taken as a Pakistani now – take Faiz [Ahmad Faiz], Rashid, [Saadat Hasan] Manto – everybody has written about them in India. You can’t find a comparative example [in Pakistan]. Otherwise, they are extremely cordial; they will feed you, they will wine you, they will dine you.

You’ve mentioned your interest in the historical fiction of A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, among others. Are there any fictionalizations of India, particularly its Mughal history, that you looked at?
In English, Amitav Ghosh’s novels, which I have read and admired: “Sea of Poppies,” followed by “River of Smoke.” A lot of history has gone into them, although it is a history of a very narrow area, that is Bengal of the early 19th or late 18th century, particularly the opium trade. He certainly has full grasp on the material.

You’ve suggested that you wrote “The Mirror of Beauty” not just as a pleasant trip back through time. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I was hoping that if young people read this book, they will learn more about themselves – where they came from, how they were formed — the pain of separation, of discontinuity [from] what the world was before 1857. Though it was already crumbling, they had a world which was self-conscious, which was sure of its self-worth, which could match with any other culture or any other society anywhere – but for the adverse information and propaganda handed out to us by our colonial master.

In any case, every past is worth revisiting, even if it is the dirtiest possible past. But this past is not dirty. This past is honorable. And this past is more literate, more cultured, more sophisticated than today’s present. I am hoping people who take the trouble of reading it will find it an easy book to read, in the sense that the story goes along and keeps you interested, and ultimately they will know where they came from, what they were.

Originally published in The New York Times“India Ink” blog, July 17, 2013.

Published: July 17, 2013

Portrait of a lady

The last century of Mughal rule comes to life in The Mirror of Beauty, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s compelling picture of Delhi and its wider world ♦

 

 View as PDFThe Mirror of Beauty

Beloved of poets and coveted by kings, conquered and constructed again and again, Delhi in its present avatar is a tough city to love. Yet many still regard it with affection, looking through the rosy veil of nostalgia at the capital’s embarrassment of ruins: from the tiny, pipal-shaded shrines in Shahjahanabad courtyards, to the Kalan Masjid, steeply soaring out of a narrow alley near Turkman Gate. What would it be like to see the city’s empty palace rooms and silent tombs fill with life again?

It is to this Delhi of the past, specifically the 19th century, that Shamsur Rahman Faruqi allows the reader to travel in his monumental 2006 Urdu novel Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman, now reworked in English as The Mirror of Beauty by the author himself. The pinnacle of its creator’s fictional oeuvre, this novel sits atop a lifetime’s worth of work in Urdu literature. Faruqi, who ideally should need no introduction to the English literary scene, was born in 1935 and lives in Allahabad. A respected Urdu critic who also writes poetry and fiction (and had a career in the Indian Postal Service), he is that rare literary figure who is both steeped in the culture of his own language and well-versed in other traditions. For example, the novel’s envoi is taken from “The Traveller”, a 1763 poem by Oliver Goldsmith who writes of being, “Impelled, with steps unceasing to pursue/ Some fleeting good that mocks me with the view.” In The Mirror of Beauty, Faruqi finally captures that view – of India seen through the portal of its capital city, during the period when “The Company may have been ruling, but it did not reign”. And he does so in gorgeously detailed miniature style, with figures of complex hue, set against both urban and natural landscapes. At the very centre of the frame is Wazir Khanam, a woman so beautiful that “you would feel that the Tailor of Eternity had cut all dresses for her and her alone”. As a miniaturist illustrates myth, so Faruqi fictionalises history: Wazir Khanam was in fact the mother of the poet Dagh Dehlvi and eventually the wife of an heir apparent to Bahadur Shah Zafar.

mirrorYet in Faruqi’s portrait of her, Wazir is more than simply wife, mother, daughter or lover. He brings the interior life of this otherwise peripheral person to the fore, with finesse. She does not necessarily control her destiny – no character really has that kind of power – but she pushes against fate. While she accepts the fact of her beauty, even uses it to her advantage, Wazir’s spirit yearns to transcend the societal expectations of her sex. In a telling moment, British Resident William Fraser, who was murdered in 1835 (a death Faruqi vividly brings to life), woos Wazir and mistakes her for a mere nautch girl: “In spite of his vast experience and natural capacity for discerning subtleties,” Faruqi writes, “Fraser missed out completely at judging Wazir and did not appreciate that her own sense of self was that of a refined woman of good family, though of decidedly liberal views.” In Faruqi’s sensitive delineation, Wazir is neither stereotype nor anachronism.

Around this extraordinary woman circle the men of the story: her lovers, her husbands, her son Dagh, her forefathers in Kashmir and Rajasthan. Then there are saints, soldiers, scientists and, most of all, the poets, who form a colourful crowd behind Wazir. Dagh and Mirza Ghalib are two of the book’s most verbose verse-mongers, but for many characters, poetry itself is the medium through which their most emotional conversations take place. Faruqi, whose many poetry-related accomplishments include a four-volume project on Mir Taqi Mir, presents the conversation between 19th-century poets and those who preceded them as a continuum, running through public performances and secret notes, in royal chambers and chai-stalls. Summoning the spirit of the Persian mystic poet Hafiz, an augur tells Wazir: “If you read his poetry, imagining that those words have just been uttered by him, and uttered for you alone, then… The poet never dies. He’s present through his words: it is just that he… talks to us in twig and branch, in garden, park and meadow, in palace and the poorest alley, in castle and tent…” Sometimes the couplets studding The Mirror of Beauty can be opaque in translation (Romanised Urdu footnotes would have been brilliant), but they still imply a world where literature was not quite so set apart from life.

Literature is but one element in the backdrop of this portrait of a woman, her city and times. The scalloped arches, domes and minarets of Delhi’s architecture are also visible in “the city which ceases to remember past sorrows in the shortest possible time”; which proclaims “its undying youth and beauty through the… towering spire of Qutb Sahib… the power and grandeur of Muhammad Tughlaq’s mausoleum… through the mellifluous sounds of the reciters of the Quran or the Primary Declaration of Faith in the ancient mosque attached to the meeting house at the effulgent mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya… through the grey blue pigeons which roost at the two-toned dome of Shahjahan’s mosque… through the sudden starting up of the fountain in savan bhadon, the large six-sided tank in the Haveli [the Lal Qila]…” Built into these stone, brick and marble structures is the city’s social fabric. When Wazir first leaves Delhi to live in Jaipur with an Englishman, she recalls “the whispers, the silences, the intimate conversations, the exchange of quick, friendly phrases, the faces showing through narrow windows at the back that provided safe communication between homes, the phrases sweet and musical like the trill of the harmonicon – a small little interior hutch of one’s heart in spite of lives lived together in narrow houses. All that was Delhi…” There are perhaps even a few glimpses of the modern city presaged in its past: even then Dilliwalas are “past masters in fashioning rumours, making and exchanging news, flying every kind of kite in every kind of weather…” And when Wazir worries about “having to return alone after nightfall” from a party on the Pahadi (The Ridge), the contemporary reader can sympathise with her plight.

In language that can be flowery or formal but is always unselfconsciously literary, Faruqi fills in the nuances of Delhi life with a fine brush. Subtleties of fabric and dress are laid out in long passages describing outfits down to their transparency and regional provenance. There are long honorific titles, much capitalised, referring to kings and other important men. The dialogue reads appropriately to its era, with little flourishes like the Nawab of Loharu’s taqia kalam, or pet word, “bhaiwallah”, and Welsh adventurer Fanny Parkes’ spirited memoirs through her one-sided conversation with Wazir. There are passages describing diet and Unani medicine, highly refined codes of hospitality and etiquette, and the various arts – from music to painting to carpet-weaving. The chapters describing a journey through Thuggi territory are gripping, suspenseful, and creepy as hell. This isn’t a subaltern history as such, but by describing in detail the lives of a society’s consumers, Faruqi gestures at the whole world of creative, small-scale production supporting it.

This way of life is threatened by the creeping influences and sometimes violent impositions of British might. Despite its romanticising tendency, The Mirror of Beauty is not a self-Orientalising book, but one attempting to show how an entire world was destroyed from the inside out. “The Firangee mind was by nature haughty, tyrannical and overbearing,” muses Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, Delhi’s “Rhazes and Avicenna”. Mughal heir apparent Mirza Fakhru realises that there was “an alien presence in their midst… impinging not on just economics, trade and money… The Firangees impact changed the values that attached to art, poetry, social conventions… They were increasingly successful in teaching the Hindustani that the values that he loves, the lights which he hopes to lead him into worldly success and Heavenly favour, are wrong, or at best outdated.”

Ultimately the question of whether a decline in Indo-Islamic culture was inevitable “absent the political pressure and military conflicts of those times” is at the heart of The Mirror of Beauty, and it is referenced in the novel’s first book (there are seven). These early chapters, the book’s “frame”, narrate the discovery of a portrait of Wazir Khanam in a London museum by her descendent Wasim Jafar, who shares it with Dr Khalil Asghar Farooqui, a retired opthalmologist. In a description that could apply to Faruqi himself, Farooqui writes of Jafar: “Old pictures, books, documents, manuscripts, were thus milk and bread to him.” It is the English reader’s good fortune that Faruqi decided to share this knowledge (even incorporating primary sources in translation) in such tantalising form. “The people of today are developing the habit of forgetting,” he notes, introducing a chapter related to Madhava Rao Sindhia, “The dust and smoke of modern life are busy obliterating, or at least dimming, many such events hidden in the mazes of family stories and even the histories of nations.”

Recuperating these histories is difficult, but not impossible. Like Jafar, Faruqi rejects “the notion that the past is a foreign country and strangers who visit there cannot comprehend its language… old words can be narrated in new words…” Putting the notion to practice in his translation of a verse by Hafiz, Faruqi describes a beauty so deep and complex that her reflection “sends the mirror to sleep”. We may never see more than a reflection of the past we’ve lost – that fleeting good that, in Goldsmith’s words, “allures from far, yet as I follow, flies”. But the reflection itself is such a beautiful dream that we are lucky to have seen it at all.

The Mirror of Beauty, Hamish Hamilton, ₹699.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 15, 2013

Hats and Doctors

Daisy Rockwell’s translation of the late Upendranath Ashk ♦

hatsDaisy Rockwell’s translation of Hindi-Urdu writer Upendranath Ashk’s short stories is more of a teaser than a complete introduction to the Jalandhar-born author. Rockwell, who also edited the collection, had the fortune to meet Ashk a year before he died in Allahabad in 1996. She admiringly characterises him as idiosyncratic and hostile, an outlier in a field that was already being marginalised.

Rockwell is working on a translation of Ashk’s 1947 novel Girti Divarein, a major work, and she implies in the introduction that Hats and Doctors is a somewhat random assortment of stories – some of them in debatably “final” form as the author used multiple drafts and on occasion even supplied his own translations. Through colourful anecdote, she also tells us that Ashk himself tasked her with the translation, if in a somewhat oblique manner.

This obliqueness is a feature of the stories here as well, and Ashk’s subtle satire comes through more clearly in some than others. In some, it is the protagonist or narrator’s discomfort that rises to a near-fevered pitch: a newly promoted bureaucrat in “Brown Sahibs” and the hypochondriac of “Hats and Doctors”. Other memorable characters include an irritable train passenger in “The Cartoon Hero” and a miserly yet bombastic family of tourists in Kashmir in “The Dal Eaters”. Though relatively restrained, several of the stories approach the grotesque: “Dying and Dying”, set in another train compartment, juxtaposes the memory of a nuptial night with an intimation of mortality; “Mr. Ghatpande” captures life and death in a tuberculosis ward (Ashk himself spent time in one). Ashk’s concern with writing about the unfortunate members of society comes through in many stories: “The Aubergine Plant” underscores the worth of one man’s life compared to another’s.

The reader will find something to like in the 16 stories here. Rockwell has previously written a critical biography of Ashk, and the casual reader may wish for more insight into his life and philosophy than is given in her fun but slightly flippant introduction to Hats and Doctors. The stories too may have benefited from a more introductory context. Still, if the book leaves one wanting a bit more, there’s the assurance that more is on the way: Rockwell is hard at work on Falling Walls (no publication date yet though); meanwhile she hopes “that some of these stories will induce a few readers… to turn their feet towards a Hindi bookshop one day.”

Upendranath Ashk’s Hats and Doctors Penguin India, ₹299.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 16, 2013