Tag Archives: Hindi

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

Delhi dictionary

Mind your language ♦

From Time Out Delhi, March 2013

576112_621227147903321_1656476044_nThe word “kedgeree”, according to The Concise Hobson-Jobson, “appears to have been applied metaphorically to mixtures of sundry kinds and also to jargon or lingua franca.” That definition, from the Anglo-Indian glossary first published in 1886, still finds a place in this issue’s cover story: our humble attempt to capture some of the flavour of Delhi talk, which is as much a commingling of linguistic and cultural sources in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. Creating a dictionary of slang, which exists at the edges of standardised language, is a slippery and paradoxical exercise even for proper linguists, and we don’t presume to provide an authoritative source. What we do hope you find in the following pages is an echo of the joyous, polyglot cacophony of our linguistically absorbent capital city, as well as some insights into why we speak the way we do. To go with the faux-educational tone of this sheher ka shabdkosh, we’ve also commissioned illustrations by the same artists who design those ubiquitous alphabet and “good habits” charts. We’ve included words that we think are either exclusive to or especially common in Delhi, but given the gaalis flying about our office during disagreements while compiling the list, we’re sure you, too, may take issue with some of the entries. Weigh in with your opinions and tweet your additions (@timeoutdelhi, #delhislang) after sampling the khichdi we’ve made of our city’s native tongues.

Read the full story below, download it as a prettier PDF here, or find it online at Time Out Delhi.

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Published: March 15, 2013

Unclaimed Terrain

Ajay Navaria’s stories deal with the new customs of caste ♦

navariaA tea cup, a clogged toilet, a pair of old gym shoes; these innocuous objects are transformed into loaded signifiers of caste in a new collection of short stories by Jamia Millia professor and writer Ajay Navaria. These concrete details and objects anchor the larger discussions of caste – between characters or in narrative asides – within Unclaimed Terrain’s seven short stories, translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck.

The most concise story is “New Custom”, in which a teacup becomes a symbol of oppression over the course of a chai stall chat. Two moments of overturned expectations among a small cast propel the plot within the limited backdrop of a village street. Mistaking a Dalit visitor from the city for a landowner, a chaiwalla serves his customer graciously, but things turn nasty when he discovers the man’s caste. In a rapid, efficient climax that matches the quickness with which a crowd gathers on the scene, Navaria points to entrenched discrimination while hinting at the power of money and education to disrupt it.

This story’s economy is impressive, with inequality echoed in its descriptive details: the runt and the pick of a litter of puppies wrestle in the dust; a television broadcasts the American interrogation of Saddam Hussein. Resonant with the dynamics of oppression, the stories sometimes blur together. Recurring themes include fathers and sons, weddings and extra-marital relationships, constrained resources and windfalls and, especially, rural tradition and urban freedom.

“This was the alluring and magical charm of the metropolis. It was intoxicating – and lethal,” the Dalit protagonist of “Tattoo” thinks to himself while signing up at a posh gym near Khan Market. Brueck’s porous translation lets in the ambiguity – the city is magical but lethal, money liberates but can also curse. Religion too is fraught; in “Scream”, the protagonist rejects conversion: “More than religion, I needed bread and dignity… I thought it better to remain unclaimed terrain than to be known by some strange name.”

At times, the prose is too diffuse to make sense of on the first reading – and as Brueck acknowledges in her note, Navaria’s “literary Hindi spliced with English, Rajasthani, and the occasional Punjabi inflection” makes his work “exciting and difficult to translate”. “Hello Premchand” offers a glimpse of further layers of literary allusion in its retelling of Premchand’s classic “Doodh Ka Daam”, the subject of a controversy over its inclusion in NCERT textbooks a few years ago (the story’s opponents protested its “negative” depiction of Dalit characters and the use of the word “bhangi”). Some of the translations of the longer stories gesture at their complexity rather than fully capture it, but what they do capture is engaging and important.

In grappling with inequality, at times Navaria’s prose and dialogue seem to purposefully recall the strident tone of historical “literature of the oppressed”. But the little details, like the teacup, keep his fiction grounded in realism while acting as hooks that snag not only the tangled arguments surrounding caste, but also the reader’s attention.

Unclaimed Terrain, Navayana, ₹295.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013

Published: March 4, 2013

The Walls of Delhi

Uday Prakash’s stories bring downtrodden characters to life ♦

thewallsofdelhi_web“I bet you’re thinking that I’m taking advantage of the one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the birth of Premchand, the King of Hindi Fiction, to spin you some hundredand- twenty-five-year-old story, dressed up as a tale of today,” writes Uday Prakash, in one of his stinging authorial asides, “But the truth is that the account I am putting before you, in its old and backward style… is a tale of a time right after 9/11, in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York; a time when two sovereign Asian nations were reduced to ash and rubble.”

The truth – whether in that particular story, “Mohandas”, of a low-caste villager thwarted at every step by corruption, or in the two other tales in The Walls of Delhi – is Prakash’s primary obsession. In his title story (the collection is translated by Jason Grunebaum) he charts the changing fortunes of a sweeper who discovers a stash of dirty money in a Saket gym. In “Mohandas”, he destroys any illusion of the modern Indian village as a Gandhian idyll, and “Mangosil” is the story of a family in Jahangirpuri struggling to break into middle class life while coping with a son’s mysterious medical condition. Prakash delicately paints these grey worlds, where power triumphs and corruption festers, then exposes the truth as black and white with moving results. Yet these stories aren’t uniformly dreary; as he writes, “Don’t you think that amid all the pain and sorrow and bleak colours of this story little drops of joy have been interspersed?” These tempering moments of hope, which is constantly smothered, throw the harshness into relief.

Grunebaum captures Prakash’s satirical, darkly funny, conversational style, and though the book would have benefitted from stronger proofreading (a few mis-transliterations of Delhi neighbourhoods particularly jar), The Walls of Delhi is a highly recommended contemporary Hindi collection.

The Walls of Delhi, Translated by Jason Grunebaum, Hachette, ₹350.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.

Published: February 1, 2013

Mind your language

Learning Urdu in Delhi ♦

Malik Al Shuaraa Tootee-e-Hind Abu Alhasan Khwaajah Hazrat Amir Khusrau

Amir Khusrau’s tomb in Nizamuddin

Growing up mostly in the US, my Hindi instruction was limited to brief bouts of Sunday school and reading that ubiquitous Children’s Book Trust Panchatantra with my mother. I did all right, but my family’s own connection to reading Hindi was slight, given that half wrote in Gujarati and the other in Urdu. Like many Dilliwalas, I tried once to learn Nastaliq – in my case, one summer at my grandfather’s knee, with composition books and calli­graphy pens. It didn’t stick.

But recently, a visiting American friend with an interest in qawwali stumbled upon Zabaan, a quietly impressive language centre in East of Kailash that advertises only by word of mouth but has outgrown its offices twice since opening in 2009. The centre offers instruction primarily in Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and Pashto, but teaches other languages on demand. Most excitingly, it offers a free four-session crash course in reading Urdu for Hindi speakers. My friend and I duly signed up for what happened to be Zabaan’s 50th batch of the course. The classes are small, but director Ali Taqi, who was also my teacher, reckons they’ve introduced over 500 people to the script since he and his co-founder Christoph Dusenbery opened the centre.

The enterprise is an illustrative case of how sometimes the people most interested in preserving language or culture are those that come to it from the outside. Taqi, who peppers his encouraging lessons with wry observation (“People are 40 per cent less educated now than they were a generation ago.”), grew up in Chicago, but his Hyderabadi parents ensured he returned to India often. After college, he started teaching Indian Americans Hindi, managing a pretty good living. He took an introductory Urdu course during graduate school in Seattle and got hooked, eventually teaching at the same university. Ultimately, he and Dusenbery, who taught with him, started thinking seriously about starting a company. “We researched what this would look like in Seattle, and what it would take to start it in India, because we knew there was a demand for learning Hindi and Urdu in Delhi,” Taqi said.

In a way, it’s odd that there would be such a demand in a city populated by Urdu literates as little as 150 years ago. On one level, there’s plenty of life conducted in Urdu around the city. Besides the silver-haired governors of the Urdu Academy, a glance at this magazine’s listings and book reviews reveals a healthy interest in Urdu literature and linguistic history. At the same time, it’s not like people are rushing to set up coaching centres in the subject.

There are, as Taqi put it, “two parts to the city” – and one is deci­dedly marginalised. For example, as far as he knows, there’s only one non-religious Urdu bookstore in Delhi, near Jama Masjid. But two or three classes into the course, I started looking for the glimpses of Nastaliq, and magically, this other city started to emerge. First to come into focus were the NDMC signboards, with their clear script and helpful transliterations in Roman and Devanagari. Then, colony boards on the way to work in Lajpat Nagar, whose Punjabi residents came to the city before the dominance of Gurmukhi. And then there was the thrill of standing before a dargah in Nizamuddin and deciphering the epitaph: “Malik-al-Shuara Tooti-e-Hind Abul Hasan Khawajah Hazrat Amir Khusrau.” Or, on a dusky Thursday evening at Ferozeshah Kotla, peeking at people’s petitions to djinns, affixed to the stones and railings, by the mellow light of hundreds of small candles.

The small percentage of Zab­aan’s students who continue with paid Urdu instruction often do so precisely because they want this fuller access to Delhi, past and present. Taqi told me he’s had students who bring in their deceased parents’ letters in Urdu, “or just something their grandmother, grandfather scribbled”. The majority of the centre’s Urdu students are “Hindu Indian people under the age 40,” Taqi said, “exactly the people we wanted to reach out to.”

“We knew there weren’t many people in Delhi under 40, including native Urdu speakers, who [knew] how to read and write,” Taqi said. “Knowing that it has this reputation of being difficult, we decided to give it away for free. It’s the kind of thing that no one, unless they are a researcher or work for government, [is] going to pay you to learn. It’s sort of like a gift to Delhi. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, anyone who wants to get in touch with their roots again.” Including American-born Dilliwalis.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.

Published: February 1, 2013

Bridges, not barriers

Delhi’s new literary festival is an appropriately polyglot affair ♦

If India is, as Mark Twain put it, “the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues”, then Delhi is the place where all  these nations and tongues inevitably meet. This fortnight, a new festival acknowledges the importance of the capital as a literary destination – just as worthy as your Jaipurs, your Thiruvananthapurams and your Hay-on-Wyes. But more importantly, it puts the spotlight squarely on those hundred tongues (well, eight of them, at least) in a way that few stages have before.
The· idea for Samanvay was born out of the India Habitat Centre’s desire to ride the popularity of literary festivals, but to turn the focus inwards – towards Indian languages – rather than outwards. IHC Director Raj Liberhan said “The citizen is usually kind of immune from the beauty of the Indian languages’ writing for various reasons. We wanted to actually let people see for themselves the universality of thought, emotion, and yet the variety of expression.
The festival was designed by Satyanand Nirupam, Associate Editor at Delhi Press’ Sarita magazine, and Giriraj Kiradoo, founder and editor of bilingual journal and publisher Pratilipi. The two decided to invite writers of Assamese, Punjabi, Malyalam, Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and English literature. lf Samanvay does become an annual fixture as planned, the next year’s edition may include more or different languages.
Kiradoo and Satyanand decided to hone in on relatively specific themes for each of the three-day festival’s sessions. They spoke to established and new writers to put a finger on the pulse of each language’s literary scene. So there are sessions with topics as narrow as Punjabi Dalit love poetry, challenges for women writers from Assam, and “women writing the body” in Tamil. Each session will include readings and discussions between a moderator and an author panel. The writers themselves range from famous (Javed Akhtar on “The Death of Mushayara”) to young Sahitya Akademi winners, bloggers and a few fresh faces.
The Malayalam session on “Autobiography from the margins”, for example, is moderated by celebrated poet K Satchitanandan and includes authors Nalini Jameela, a sex worker; Sister Jesme, a nun who left her convent after 33 years; CKJanu, a tribal activist; and Pokkudan, a Dalit who wrote about vanishing mangrove forests. Autobiography has always been a strong genre in Malayalam writing, Satchitanandan told us, “but what has happened recently is that a lot of people who are on the margins of society have come out with their stories. These mark a break from the mainstream autobiographies, mostly written by political leaders, bureaucrats or well-known actors.”
With over 50 such writers from far and wide, the organisers realised that they’d have to push Samanvay’s intended November slot to December. The bigger logistical question though, was deciding which language to use In each session. Each discussion will have oneor two bilingual participants and a bilingual moderator. If a writer speaks in her own language, the moderator will take the conversation forward after quickly briefing the audience. Nirupam explained that “Our whole focus is on expression. There should be a dialogue between people without language acting as a barrier.”
This refusal to spoon-feed the audience underlines Samanvay’s relative lack of interest in selling big names or drawing attention from the international media. “Just as books are being written with a target reader in mind,” Nirupam said, “festival directors also ask who will be attending. We figured that if we talk about things that are important, people will come of their own accord – if not this year, then next year.” Liberhan explained the decision to stop worrying too much about accessibility (read: accessibility to English speakers): “It’s so difficult amongst the generality of audiences to pick and choose. Hopefully, we can get people who can pick for themselves.”
Those who do attend might come to the pleasant realisation that Indian language writing is more approachable than they think. Nirupam pointed out that a person from Delhi “knows quite a bit of Urdu, but he’s not confident of how much he knows. So when he sits In the Urdu session and hears the language, he’ll realise that there’s hardly a difference.”
He also quoted the example of people leaming Hindi to read Devaki Nandan Khatri ‘s novels. More recently, Kashinath Singh’s Kashi Ka Aasi was adapted as a Bengali play, Kashinama, by Usha Ganguli. “When it was staged In Kolkata, lots of Bengalis learned Hindi just to read the original,” Nirupam said. “Sometimes, good books or authors act as a bridge between languages. Hopefully, the festival can remove some of the mental blocks that prevent us from reaching outside our own languages. Our languages are tied together, they have commonalities.”
By letting linguistic plurality reign – in all its glorious cacophony – rather than touting its headliners, Samanvay should provide a diverting complement to the Delhi intelligentsia’s annual exodus to Jaipur. At the least, it will help bring authors whose books grow dusty on the sturdy, but sometimes unreachable, upper shelves of the Sahitya Akademi’s library to a wider audience. At best, Delhi’s own festival could become an important forum for the knitting together of our hundred nations.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2011.

Published: December 2, 2011