Tag Archives: Translation

Saqi, April 1946

One of the most interesting covers I came upon while browsing through the British Library’s Endangered Archives project is the April 1946 issue of Saqi. The issue is the Urdu journal’s special humour edition. The illustration is signed by Sobha Singh, the artist best known for his paintings of Sikh gurus (several Saqi covers are signed by him).

Saqi April 1946. From the Endangered Archives Project, British Library

Saqi April 1946. From the Endangered Archives Project, British Library

On the top left are the opening lines of “Wataniyat” (Patriotism), a poem by Allama Iqbal published in the 1924 collection Bang-e-Dara (The Call of the Bell). They are found on a number of the Saqi covers. For some reason, however, the last few words are changed from (what I think is) the original poem (online, with a rough translation here), from the antonymous “lutf-o-sitam” to the synonymous “lutf-o-karam”. (Hover over for definitions.)

اسدورميں مے اور ہے جام اور ہے جم اور

ساقي نے بنا کي روشِ لطف وکرم/ستماور

Is daur mein mai aur hai, jaam aur hai, jam aur,
Saqi ne bina kii rawish-e-lutf-o-karam/sitam aur.

This round, the wine is not wine, the cup not a cup, the crowd more than a crowd.
The Saqi has set in motion new modes of pleasure and generosity/oppression.

All definitions from Platts Dictionary.

Published: August 15, 2015

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter III

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Published: December 4, 2014

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter IV

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Published: December 4, 2014

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter I

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Published: December 4, 2014

Protected: Juz Qais (جُزقیس) (जुज़ क़ैस)

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Published: November 30, 2014

Protected: Jarahat tohfa (جراہت تُحفہ)

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Published: November 30, 2014

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter II

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Published: July 5, 2014

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

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