Monday, January 30, 2012

On Chaso's short-story collection Dolls' Wedding

[From my Sunday Guardian column]

Most literary critics I know would agree that a large number of mediocre books get published month after month, and that an equal number of promising writers don’t get the editorial attention they deserve. These are natural offshoots of the democratisation and expansion of publishing. Hundreds of mid-list titles come out each year: many of these don’t get noticed or reviewed; others do well on the strength of an author’s marketing savvy rather than through any initiative taken by the publishers. A cynical view of things is that publishers and editors are flailing in the dark, trying all sorts of things to find that indefinable “formula” that turns a book into a bestseller. In the resulting chaos, quality suffers.

Yet there are silver linings too, and among the brightest of them is the Penguin Modern Classics series, which includes discerning translations of important Indian writers from around the country: Yashpal, Bhisham Sahni, Fakir Mohan Senapati and Kamleshwar among them. Most of these are not mass-market titles expected to sell thousands of copies, but they are put together by knowledgeable people who care about the literature in question, and they constantly introduce me to provocative writers whom I might otherwise never have encountered.

Among the newest titles is Dolls’ Wedding, a collection of short fiction by the Telugu writer Chaso (Chaganti Somayajulu). As translators Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman tell it in their Introduction, Chaso was part of the dynamic cultural scene of Vizianagaram as a young man in the 1930s – he read literary journals from England, idolised T S Eliot and Ezra Pound and was influenced by Western ideas. But he was also sufficiently self-aware to realise that he had a better facility for writing in Telugu than in English. This pragmatism comes across in his stories, which are stunning in their deceptive unfussiness. Many of them have only threadbare “plots” (a straight answer to the question “What happens in this story?” would sound very banal), but they are composed of little observations that shed light on a character’s nature and social background. Mood is created by the accumulation of details, such as the casual chatter between students in the story “Why Would I Lose it, Dad?” about a young boy whose impoverished father can no longer afford to send him to school.

Much of Chaso’s work provides tangential entry points into people’s inner lives. A good example is “Got to Go to Eluru”, which seems at first to be a straightforward account of a man encountering a key figure from his past – an older woman with whom he had a sexual relationship when he was a student. Since this man is the narrator, we are privy to his melancholy and dreamy view of things. (“If I look back, my life has been a mess,” he tells us, “like a mulaga tree crawling with caterpillars. But those five months were like honeycombs on the tree.”) But as the story proceeds in its undramatic way, Chaso also allows us to imagine the circumstances of the middle-aged widow – we see that as a woman from a Brahmin family, who was married to a much older man, she didn’t have the luxury of wafting on cloudy romance; she had to be practical and safeguard her interests, even if it meant subverting societal norms. All this is only alluded to, which makes the story more effective than it would have been if everything had been laid bare for the reader’s easy consumption.

On a similar note, the title story “Dolls’ Wedding” – in which an ancient great-grandmother tells stories from her childhood – derives its power from what is not explicitly said; from how the old woman appears dimly aware of - and resigned to - the injustices of her life. And in one of the finest pieces here, “Choice”, a leper instructs his daughter to choose a blind man over a cripple for her husband, and much is revealed through the playful irreverence of the language (the old man’s lecture is described as a “Beggar’s Upanishad”; the blind man is overjoyed to find “a chick like Erri”). These are not people who spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves – they are too busy getting on with their lives and winning tiny battles. Chaso brings real vitality to them and to his many other characters, but he does it in unexpected and pleasing ways.


  1. I am very pleased that this particular book got your attention, of all the Penguin India's Modern Classics. I am one of those Telugu speakers who is envious of the torrent of Bengali translations(Arunava Sinha ,etc.) and lament the virtual absence of Telugu on the translation scene.
    Now,thankfully, we have several Translations from Telugu in Penguin.
    Do check out Amuktamalyada, The Appeasement of Radhika and Girls for Sale which came out in the past six months from Penguin.
    Also, the best writing in Telugu has happened in the Short Story and Poetry genres. And, Chaso is a master of the Short Story genre in Telugu.

    Also, I am very keen to know how the translation read - especially for a non-Telugu reader.And your general impression of the publication.

  2. Aditya: as I indicated in the post, the translation worked very well for me on its own terms (if it hadn't, I don't think I could have enjoyed this book at all). But of course, not knowing Telugu, I can't say anything about how it compares with the original.

  3. I guess translators are inherently writers in their own right. A word by word translation can be done through google as well, but to capture the essence of the original writer's thought needs an understanding of the process of writing.

    Kafka's translated works for example, are criticized sometimes on account of inaccurately portraying the plot. In "The Metamorphosis" for example, the translated version portrays that the protagonist has become an insect/animal, whereas in the original text, Kafka apparently meant to describe that the character was metamorphosed to an despicable creature-not necessarily an insect/animal.

    It will be interesting to see if Murakami's translated works are deemed to be 'different' than the original text-especially when they're read by the English-literate Japanese readers.