Tag Archives: Short stories

Full Moon Night (پورے چاند کہ رات) (पूरे चांद कि रात)

By Krishan Chander ♦

lambert

It was the month of April. The branches of the almond trees were laden with flowers and, despite an icy nip in the air, a mild trace of spring had arrived. In the velvety doob grass beneath the lofty peaks above, bits of snow were visible, blooming here and there like white flowers. By the next month, these white blossoms would be absorbed into the grass, and the grass would turn a deep, dark green. On the branches of the almond trees, raw green almonds would flash like topaz gems. And the mist would gradually recede from the azure mountain faces. Across the bridge over the lake, the familiar baaing of sheep, kicking up the dust of the footpath. Then, all summer long, under those tall and lofty peaks, the shepherds would sing as they sheared the sheep of their thick, heavy wool, fattened all through the winter.

However it was now the month of April. The new leaves had not yet burst forth on the peaks [/tung trees]. An icy veil still hung over the mountains. The heart of the footpath didn’t yet hum with the sounds of sheep. Simal Lake was not yet brightened by lamp-like lotuses. The lake’s dark green waters kept concealed within its breast a thousand splendours, which with the onset of spring would suddenly ripple across its surface like laughter, innocent and pure. Buds were just starting to glint in the branches of the almond trees on both sides of the bridge. It was April, on the last dawn of winter, when the heralds of spring, the almond blossoms, awaken and send their petals swimming on the waters of the lake: sweet little boats that dance on the water’s surface and tremble in anticipation of the arrival of spring.

I had come via the forest side of the bridge, and I had been waiting a long time for her. The third watch of the day was over. Evening had fallen – the houseboats going to Wular Lake passed under the stony arches of the bridge. And now they appeared on the horizon like paper boats, delicate and insubstantial. The crimson colour of the evening crept from one side of the sky to the other, slowly changing from crimson to kohl and from kohl to pitch black — until the footpath, too, lay in repose, in the shelter of the line of almond trees. And then, out of the dead stillness of the night, the first star suddenly shone forth, like some traveler’s song. The chill in the air sharpened and its icy touch numbed my nostrils.

The moon rose.

And then she came.

Walking quickly – running – down the slope of the footpath. She came right up to me, and stopped. She spoke softly:

“Hai!”

She was breathing fast; her breath would stop, then race again. She touched my shoulder, with her fingers, then put her head there. And the dense disheveled jungle of her dark black hair went tumbling down to the depths of my soul.

I’ve been waiting for you since the evening,” I said.

“Now night has fallen,” she said, laughing, “and a very good night, it is”. She put her delicate, tender little hand on my other shoulder and, like the branch of an almond tree heavy with flowers, she bowed and collapsed, as if into slumber, on my shoulder.

She was silent for a long time. For a long time, I was silent. Then, she laughed of her own accord, she said “My father came with me up to the turn on the footpath, because I had said that I felt scared. I’m supposed to sleep over at my friend Rajjo’s house today. Well, not sleep, actually, stay awake. All of us girls are going to stay up singing songs to celebrate the first almond blossoms… And the thing is, I was preparing to come here since the late afternoon. But I had to dehusk the rice… and this set of clothes was washed yesterday and today it wasn’t dry. I dried it over a fire, and mummy had gone to the jungle to collect wood, and she hadn’t come back yet. And until she came back… how could I bring these ears of corn, these dried apricots and wild apricots for you? Look at all I’ve brought for you! Oh, you’re truly in a temper. I’m here–look at me. It’s a full moon night. Let’s untie that boat moored at the shore and take a spin on the lake.”

She looked into my eyes. Hers were now lost in love and consternation, and I saw that they reflected the moon. And the moon was telling me, “Go, untie the boat and set out on the lake’s waters. Tonight it is the delightful festival of the yellow almond blossoms. Tonight she’s kept all of them – her girlfriends, her father, her baby sister, her big brothers [/brother] – in the dark, because tonight is a full moon night. The cool white almond blossoms are like handfuls of snow, strewn in every direction, and the songs of Kashmir are swelling like milk in the breast [“the songs of Kashmir are ringing in its valley like milk surging through a mother’s breasts” – Jai Ratan, tr]. And you’ve imagined her wearing that seven-string rope of pearls around her neck.” I put a scarlet, seven-string necklace around her neck and said, “You will stay awake all of tonight. The first night of the Kashmiri spring. Tonight, the songs of Kashmir will blossom from your throat just like the saffron flowers [crocuses] bloom on moonlit nights. Here, wear these seven scarlet strings.”

The moon witnessed all this, peeping out from her troubled eyes, then suddenly, from some tree somewhere, a nightingale struck up a melody. The lamps started flashing from the boats, and the low sound of singing rose up through the trees from the hamlet. The singing, the children’s chirping voices, the heavy voices of men, a strain of crying babies; the subtle taste of soft, salty fish, rice and kohlrabi leaves in the air; the full moon night with all its spring-bringing, youthful force… my anger melted away. “Come, let’s go onto the lake,” I said, taking her hand in mine.

We crossed the bridge and left the footpath. The line of almond trees and the low ground came to an end. Now we were walking alongside the banks of the lake. Frogs croaked in the undergrowth. The rough noises of the frogs and crickets and the bands [rushes?] turned into a sweet melody, a symphonic lullaby. Stationed in the middle of the lake, which was drifting off to sleep, was a moonlit boat. It was still, quiet; as if it had been waiting here for a thousand years for love. Waiting here for the love between she and me; waiting for you and your lover’s smiles; waiting for one person’s dream of another’s desire. Like a maiden’s body, expectant of the blessed touch of love, it had been waiting for the beautifully pure full moon night.

The boat was tied to an apricot tree that grew on the very edge of the lake. The ground was quite soft here. From the shelter of the moonlit leaves, the boat came clinking along and the frogs sang a little more slowly. The sound of the lake water repeatedly kissing the shore lapped our ears again and again. I put my hands on her waist and pulled her hard against my chest. The lake kissed the shore again and again. I kissed her eyes first, and a thousand lotuses blossomed on the the lake’s surface. Then I kissed her face and at once light gusts of a soft breeze rose up and started singing [sadaha] songs. After that, I kissed her lips, and the sound of praying rose up from thousands of temples, mosques and churches, and the flowers of the ground and the stars of the sky and the drifting clouds in the air started dancing all together. Then I kissed her chin and then the curls and coils of hair at her neck. The lamp-like lotuses opened and closed, like buds. And the singing, rose up, then grew slower; the dancing/swaying abated and came to a stop. Now there was just the sound of those frogs. Just the lake’s soft relentless kisses, and someone in a tight embrace, sighing convulsively.

I carefully untied the boat and she sat in it. Taking the oar, I rowed the craft to the middle of the lake, where the boat came to a stop by itself, drifting neither here nor there. I picked up the paddle and put it in the boat. She opened her bag, took out some wild apricots and gave them to me, then started eating some herself.

The wild apricots were dry, and sweet-and-sour.

“These are from last spring,” she said.

I kept eating them, and looking at her.

“Last spring,” she added slowly, “when you weren’t here.”

Last spring. I wasn’t here, and the wild apricot trees were full of flowers. At the slightest movement of a branch, these flowers would break off and scatter like pearls on the surface of the ground. Last spring, I wasn’t here but the wild apricot trees were fit to burst with flowers and full of green apricots – hard, sour apricots that are eaten with salt and spices, causing the tongue to tingle and the nose to start running. Still, they would be eaten. Last spring, I wasn’t here when the green apricots turned yellow and golden and red. When the red buds swayed joyfully on every branch, and innocent, sparkling eyes, filling with delight, would watch them sway and start to dance. Last spring, I wasn’t here when beautiful hands collected these red apricots. When beautiful lips sucked their fresh juice. The apricots were set out on the roofs of homes to dry. One spring would pass and another would be just arriving by the time I came to take pleasure in their delicious taste.

After eating these wild apricots we ate the dried khubani apricots. At first, these do not seem very sweet, but as they dissolve in the saliva, they fill the mouth with flavours of honey and sugar.

“These are very soft and very sweet,” I said.

She broke a pit with her teeth, took out the apricot kernel and gave it to me. “Eat.”

The seed was sweet, like an almond.

“I’ve never eaten apricots like this,” I said.

“These are from a tree in our courtyard. There’s just one apricot tree at our place, but the apricots it gets are so big, red and sweet that, that I can’t even describe it! All my girlfriends gather together when the apricots ripen. And when they feed someone apricots they say… ‘last spring…’”

Last spring, I thought, when I wasn’t here, but the apricot tree was standing in the courtyard just the same. Last spring, when the tree filled with tender leaves, then, hanging amongst them, a few green, tapered apricot fruit, their seeds newly created. These unripe fruit made a good chutney to go with the afternoon meal. Last spring, I wasn’t here and the apricots bore their stones. And the colour of the fruit began to turn light golden. Inside the pits, the soft seeds surpassed even the green almonds in taste. Last spring, I wasn’t here, but those red, red apricots were — as comely of complexion as the maidens of Kashmir, and just as juicy. Glimpses of them would be visible through the swaying of the thick green leaves and then the girls, rejoicing, would start dancing in the courtyard. Her little brother climbs the tree and plucks apricots; he throws them down to his sister’s friends. How sweet were these juice-filled apricots of last spring. When I was not here…

The apricots were finished and she took out an ear of corn. It had a fragrant, earthy perfume. The golden roasted corn had crunchy kernels, clear and transparent with a lustre like burnt pearls, and was incredibly sweet in taste.

“These are ears of sweet corn [misri makai],” she said.

“Amazingly sugary,” I replied, while biting the cob.

“It’s saved from the last harvest,” she said, “hidden inside the house, out of sight of mother’s watchful eye.”

Eating the corn from one side, I left some rows of kernels, then she ate from the same place and left some rows for me. We both ate from the same cob in this fashion. I thought how sweet these ears of sweet corn were. This corn from the last harvest, when I, however, was not here. When your father plowed the fields; when he hoed and sowed; and when the clouds gave rain. Out of the earth grew little shoots of many shades of green, which you weeded. Then the plants grew big and sprouted little heads on top. They began to wave in the wind and you would go to look at those green ears of corn. I wasn’t there, but kernels were forming within those ears. Kernels full of milk, with skin so thin that the slightest touch of a fingernail would cause the milk to come out. The earth nourished such tender, vulnerable cobs and then the juice matured and the corn became strong and hearty, firm and ripe. Nothing would happen to it now if you put your nail to it – it’s more likely your fingernail would break. The corn silk, at first yellow, now turned golden, then finally dusky and dark. The ears of corn turned brown, like the colour of the land. I hadn’t come then. But threshing floors were set up in the fields and the oxen walked on them and separated the kernels from the corn. And you sang songs of love with your friends, and set aside a few cobs, roasted them and hid them away. I wasn’t here, but this earth was; there was this creation, there were love songs, there was corn, roasted on the fire. But I wasn’t here.

I looked at her, with happiness. “Now, on the full moon night, it’s as if every matter has been resolved,” I said. “Last night wasn’t complete, but tonight is.”

She put the ear of corn to my mouth. The warm salty touch of her lips was still on it. “Shall I kiss you?” I asked.

“Shh! The boat will sink,” she said.

“So what do we do?”

“Let it sink,” she said.

*

That full moon night still has a hold over me. I’m about 70 years old now, but that full moon night still sparkles in my memory, as if it were just yesterday. I couldn’t ever have loved anyone so purely. She, too, could not have loved like that again. It was something else, that magic, which brought us together on a full moon night and left us in such at state that afterwards she didn’t return home but came away with me that very night. We spent five or six days lost in love, dallying and wandering about here and there like children: on the edge of the jungle, by rivers and streams, in the shade of the walnut trees, forgetting the world and everything in it.

I bought a smallish house on the lake shore and we moved into it. After about a month, I went to Srinagar, telling her I’d be back on the third day after my departure. When I returned, I saw her, deep in an intimate conversation with some young fellow. They were eating from the same dish, putting morsels of food into each other’s mouths. They were laughing. I saw them, but they didn’t see me – they were so wrapped up in their happiness that they didn’t notice me there.

This must be last spring’s lover, I realized, or the one from the spring before that. When I wasn’t here. In how many springs to come will love, like a promiscuous woman, lose control, strip naked and start to dance? Today, the autumn that follows every spring has come to your house, I thought. Now what work do you have here? With these thoughts in mind, I left in that state, without meeting them. And I never again met my first spring.

Now, after forty-eight years, I have returned. My sons are with me; my wife is dead. But my sons’ wives and their children are with me, and our travels have brought us all to the shores of Simal Lake, and it is the month of April. Late afternoon has turned to evening and I have been standing by the side of the bridge, looking at the line of almond trees for a long time. The clusters of white buds are waving in the cool breeze. There is no [?] sound of familiar footsteps on the dust of the footpath. A pretty girl, a little bag clutched in her hand, scurries across the bridge and my heart skips a beat. On the far side, from amongst the trees, a woman calls to her husband to come for dinner. The birds have been making a racket; they suddenly flutter their feathers in the dense branches of the trees and then, all at once, fall silent. That must be some boatman singing. His humming floats away toward the horizon.

I cross the bridge and walk ahead; my sons, their wives and their children behind me in their own separate groups. Here the line of trees comes to an end, and the low ground too. I am at the edge of the lake. This is the apricot tree, but how big it has become! But the boat – this is a boat, but is it the same boat? Up ahead is the house. That house of my first spring, my love of the full moon night.

There is light in the house and the sounds of children; someone starts singing in a deep voice. An old woman shrilly shuts him up. I consider. It has been half a century since I have seen this house. There is such confusion on seeing it. But I did buy it, after all; in truth, I am even now its owner. Seeing it has indeed presented a dilemma. I go inside the house.

A couple of cute children. A young woman, serving food into a plate for her husband. She sees me and falters. Two boys are fighting; they fall silent in surprise. The old woman stops short, mid-scold. She comes right up to me. “Who are you?”

I say, “This is my house”.

“Right, right, it’s your father’s house,” she says sarcastically.

“No. Not my father’s, it’s mine. It’s been some 48 years since I bought it. Now, well, I’ve just come to see it, just like that. I haven’t come to kick you people out. This house, well, treat it is as your own. I’m just here…” having said this much, I start to turn back. The old woman’s fingers clench tightly into a fist. She takes a breath, inhaling sharply. “So it’s you,” she said. “Now, after so many years… how could anyone recognize…?”

She stands frozen in silence for a long time. I stand in the courtyard below, quietly gazing at her. Then she laughs of her own accord. “Come,” she says, “I’ll introduce you to my household… See, this is my eldest son. This one is younger than him, this is the older one’s wife. This is my eldest grandson – say hello, son. My granddaughter… This is my husband, shh, don’t wake him. He’s had a fever since the day before. Let him sleep…”

Then she asks, “What can I offer you?”

I notice, hanging from a peg on the wall, ears of corn: roasted, transparent golden kernels with the lustre of pearls.

We both smile.

“Most of my teeth have fallen out,” she says. “The ones I do have don’t really work.”

“I’m in the same condition,” I say.  “I can’t eat corn.”

Seeing me go into the house, my family members have also come inside. There is now rather a bustle. Very quickly, the children start mingling with each other.

Gradually, the two of us drift outside. Slowly, we walk to the edge of the lake.

“I waited for you for six years,” she says. “Why didn’t you come back that day?”

“I came,” I say. “But I saw you with some other young man, so I left again.”

“What are you saying?”

“Yes… you were sharing a meal with him. From one plate. He was putting morsels of food into your mouth and you into his.”

She is silent. Then she begins to laugh loudly.

“What happened?” I ask, suprised.

“Arrey, that was my brother!”

Then she starts laughing even harder. “He had come to meet me. You were also supposed to come that day. He was about to leave – I stopped him so that he could meet you. And then you never showed up.”

Suddenly, she is serious. “I waited for you — six years. After you left, God gave me a son. Your son. But after a year, he too died. For four more years, I watched for your return. But you didn’t come and I got married.”

Two children come outside. Lost in their own game, the boy is feeding the girl an ear of corn.

“That’s my grandson,” she says.

“That’s my granddaughter…”

They run far away along the banks of the lake, two beautiful picture albums of life. We watch them for a long while. She comes and stands next to me and says, “I’m glad that you’ve come today. I’ve made my whole life now. I have seen all its happiness and sadness. My home is prospering. And today you have come too, and I don’t feel the slightest sorrow.”

“That is just how I feel,” I say. “I used to think I would never again meet you in life. So, for so many years, I never returned here. But now that I have come I don’t feel even the slightest bit bad.”

We are both silent. The playful children return to us. She picks up my granddaughter, I her grandson. She kisses my granddaughter, I kiss her grandson, and we look at each other with happiness. The moon is shining in her eyes and it’s saying, in delighted surprise, “A person dies, but not life itself. Spring comes to an end. But then another spring comes along. Many little loves also finish off. But life’s great, true love is established forever. Neither of you were here last spring; you both witnessed this spring; but you won’t be here in the next one. But life will still be there, and love too, and beauty, and innocence, and grace.”

The children want to play with each other and climb down from our laps. They run to the apricot tree, where the boat is tied.

“Is that the same tree?” I ask.

“No,” she smiles, “it’s a different one.”

Translated from Urdu, from Azaadi Ke Baad: Urdu Afsaane.

Published: April 25, 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

Going off script

A cross-border blog spreads the word of South Asian literature ♦

Shiraz Hassan

Shiraz Hassan

In India, Pakistani writers in English are considered common property. Their books are often published here first, and writers like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Nadeem Aslam frequent our literary festivals. But when it comes to contemporary Hindi or Urdu fiction crossing the border, the script barrier can be more difficult to surmount. Shiraz Hassan, an Islamabad journalist with the Urdu daily Jehan Pakistan, decided to start transliterating and posting Urdu and Hindi stories online last August. He told us about the challenges and rewards of running Kahani Khazana, a literary blog in the two languages.

How did you come up with the idea for a Hindi-Urdu exchange?
The idea developed when I started studying Hindi in Punjab University, Lahore. In Pakistan, though many people understand Hindi – as Bollywood films and TV soaps are quite popular – Devanagari is considered “alien”. As far as the film or TV industry is concerned, it isn’t an issue, but for literature lovers it’s the biggest hurdle. So I learned Devanagari and tried to read Hindi stories. After reading “Naukar Ki Kameez” by Vinod Kumar Shukla in Urdu, I thought more Hindi stories should be translated. So, I just started, keeping in mind that there is a treasure of stories written in Hindi and Urdu, both in India and Pakistan, by well-known, lesser-known and even unknown authors. Most of these stories are a mirror image of the prevailing circumstances of the people living in the two countries, which comprise a common South Asian culture. The readers may appreciate that there are barely a handful of words that need actual translation.

Why short stories?
We deliberately chose stories and not poetry, as poetry can still be shared through mushairas. In this regard Ilmana Fasih, an India-born friend based in Canada helped me kick off this project.

What were the technical difficulties of setting up the blog?
Managing a blog in Urdu is very hectic, as Windows systems do not support Urdu script well. We have to use Unicode scripting, which is hard to read for some. People suggested using JPEGs of the Urdu in Nastaliq, which is easy to read. But then there were problems in designing the web page. In Pakistan, Hindi typing software is not available, so I have to rely on Google transliterate. For Urdu I use Urdu InPage software, then convert the text into Unicode for web. The idea is to put the same story in both Devanagari and Urdu in a single post.

What are your editorial criteria?
The basic criterion is writers who started writing post-Partition. Most people in India and Pakistan know about Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Munshi Premchand, Krishan Chandra, Ismat Chughtai and others. But what happened after that – how prose literature developed in India and Pakistan – is a big gap. In Pakistan, literature about Partition is just one aspect. We saw the fall of Dhaka, martial law, political turmoil and terrorism – all these have their effects on literature. What Hindi writers wrote post-Partition, and are writing nowadays, we have no idea. When I got the chance to read the Hindi stories, I found that they are very much like ours. The stories I picked for Kahani Khazana are mostly narratives of our society – the political turmoils, poverty; few of them are related to India-Pakistan relations. After reading Wajahat Asghar’s “Aag”, one cannot identify whether it is a Pakistani story or an Indian one.

Who are the authors so far?
I selected Rasheed Amjad, Mirza Athar Baig and Muhammad Mansha Yaad – renowned and well-established Urdu writers, but not many people know them outside Pakistan. Selecting Hindi stories was a hurdle. Several Indian friends suggested names. I found the short stories of Wajahat Asghar, Vishnu Prabhakar, Usha Priyamvada, Anindita Basu, Sushant Supriya and Anand very catchy and relevant.

Did you consciously decide not to include English translations?
The prominent names of Urdu and Hindi literature have been translated into English. Contemporary literature has also been translated, and many Indian and Pakistani writers write in English. My idea was to explore Hindi and Urdu contemporary literature without killing the taste of the language. If you are reading a Hindi story in Urdu, it is almost 100 per cent what the writer wrote and wanted to say; it’s just like reading the original text.

Do you think Hindi (and Urdu) in India and Urdu in Pakistan face similar challenges?
In Pakistan, Urdu literature is being ignored at several levels. Though Urdu is compulsory until 12th grade, it is not a breadwinner language like English. But there are still many writers who are writing in Urdu. I can say that Urdu is facing almost the same kinds of challenges Hindi is facing in India. At the recent Lahore Literary Festival, almost all the sessions were in English, most guests were English-writing and speaking, and just a couple of token sessions were dedicated to Urdu.

Do you know other online cultural initiatives that connect people across borders?
The Internet has opened wide the doors on both sides of the border. Sometimes, some random person messages you, saying that he read your articles and it’s his first time interacting with a Pakistani. It happens. Social media has provided this opportunity for people to share thoughts. Aman ki Asha [The Times of India and Jang Group’s campaign] also played a good role in this regard. Other than that, Pul-e-Jawan (across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan), Romancing the Border and Folk Punjab are online groups that are playing a commendable role.

How do you plan to keep Kahani Khazana going?
Kahani Khazana is running on a volunteer basis. I am translating more stories, Ilmana is helping, and some friends proofread the Hindi. I would like to include Punjabi stories also, as Punjabi in Pakistan is written in Shahmukhi, and the Gurmukhi script is used in India. It’s just a matter of time until you see Punjabi stories in both scripts at Kahani Khazana as well.

Kahani Khazana is online at www.kahanikhazana.wordpress.com.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 12, 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

Difficult Pleasures

 Anjum Hasan’s short stories score on pacing and plot ♦

pleasuresTortured as some of them are, it’s a pleasure to slip inside the minds of the characters of Anjum Hasan’s fourth book. In this collection of 13 perfect short stories, Hasan picks moments out of ordinary lives set in Bangalore, Shillong (where she grew up) and farther afield.

Wherever she takes us, Hasan draws a clear yet nuanced picture of place. About Goa, she writes of the “faraway roar and retreat of the waves, the clear-cut conversations… the ecstatic smell of garlic frying in butter, and the great blue-and-white globe of sand, sky and sea in which all of this is sealed to prevent anything like unhappiness from leaking in.”

Hasan has the rare ability to provoke a feeling of déjà vu about a place. The universality of her characters’ landscapes are even more impressive. Hasan excels at walking the thin line between a person’s specific thoughts and the common nature of half-formed thoughts in general. This is especially true of the stories with child protagonists, like “Hanging On like Death”, which captures the distress of the loveable Neel, who wants nothing more than for his father to see him acting in his school play.

Hasan’s older characters teeter between life’s inherent loneliness and the intimacy of family and friends. In “Immanuel Kant in Shillong”, a professor’s grief over his dead wife mixes with his complicated feelings about his work and students. It’s an ambitious, stand-out story that touches on the nature of modernity, violence and right and wrong.

Perhaps the best aspect of these stories is their restraint. Hasan is a master of pacing and plot; often the narrative seems headed for disaster but she’ll write in an unpredictable, yet true-to- life route. Difficult Pleasures is a reminder of what classic short stories are supposed to look like, and that the most eloquent authors let their characters do the talking.

Difficult Pleasures, Penguin Viking ₹399.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2012.

Published: March 30, 2012