Friday, March 01, 2013

Of snails and superhumans - Uday Prakash's tales of deprivation

[Did a version of this review for Mint Lounge]

With the surge in Indian English publishing and a concurrent increase in literature festivals with an Anglophone slant, it is no secret that writers who work in the other Indian languages have felt increasingly neglected and undervalued. A particularly sharp expression of this occurs in the story “Mangosil”, by the celebrated Hindi writer Uday Prakash. “When I tried explaining my troubles to Delhi’s influential writers and thinkers,” says the narrator, a possible stand-in for Prakash himself, “I felt as if I were a snail that had surfaced to the world above, telling the divine bipeds patting their fat bellies about his wild, weird, othercaste experiences from his home at the bottom of the sea. My language was incomprehensible. They viewed my utterances born of sorrow, vulnerability, and nerves with indifference, curiosity, wonder.”

The chilling sense one gets from this passage is of someone trapped in a hermetically sealed room, failing to be heard (much less understood), the echoes of his own cries bouncing off the walls. It is unsurprising then that Prakash’s collection The Walls of Delhi - three stories translated by Jason Grunebaum - contain powerful representations of other forms of marginalisation too. The world of this book is one of spectral tunnels in which the untold chronicles of the dispossessed lie hidden (“walk outside your home and take a good look at the little crowd that hangs out at the shop or stall or cart – and who knows? You might find where the tunnel comes out”) as well as hollow walls containing the dark secrets of privileged people.

Thus, in the title story, a poor man named Ramnivas finds seemingly limitless treasure in an improbable but oddly appropriate place: inside a wall of a south Delhi gym to which the children of the rich come to work off the weight they have accumulated from eating too much (even as Ramnivas mulls that one of his own children died after eating fish caught from the sewer). The stacks of currency notes change Ramnivas’s life – and a man who had looked like an emaciated version of the actor Jeetendra transforms into a “gregarious, colourful, radiant Govinda, always ready to flash a smile” – but soon his dream begins to unravel. In “Mohandas”, a lower-caste man discovers that his name and job have been stolen by an upper-caste loafer, and then comes upon what seems to be a village of doppelgangers, each usurping another’s rightful place in the world. (“Were all the people who had good jobs and held high positions and ran around in automobiles and caroused who they really claimed to be?” he wonders.) And in “Mangosil” a child’s head grows at an abnormal pace because it knows things other heads don’t know, or don’t want to know; the virus that causes this mysterious disease, we learn, is poverty.

These are angry, sarcastic stories, infused with the rage of someone who has seen far too much meaningless injustice to want to withhold judgements or trade in nuances. It is the rage that comes with seeing the cities of a half-developed country from the sky, as “incongruous tokens of priceless, shining marble stuck in the mire and mud”. Prakash’s writing is full of poetic imagery. “One more stomach had delivered itself to the house that morning,” it is said of a child’s birth in a poor family. Insects seem to recognise the cough of a dying man and arrive in droves as his phlegm hits the ground. When Mohandas wades into a river to pray, “tiny kothari fish swam to the surface and fought to nip at the salt from his teardrops”. And the narrator occasionally breaks the fourth wall by giving us parenthetical asides about politics or the economy, showing a sense of curiosity about the wider world and about the lives of distant figures like Bill Clinton, almost as if trying to convince himself that his derelict protagonists really do inhabit the same planet as the one on which these other, “important” things involving supra-humans are taking place. (One thinks again of the snail and the well-cushioned bipeds.)

Not having read these stories in the original Hindi, Grunebaum’s translation seemed serviceable to me, though there is the odd jarring note: an old man says “hey blindy” – an awkward, slangy rendering of “andhi” – to his wife, and some phrases – “Isn’t this peachy?” – feel culturally discordant. But Grunebaum clarifies that he wanted to make these stories accessible to a non-Indian readership, which is as well, for their content is unsettling to begin with; there are some obviously fabulist elements in them, especially in the story of the large-headed Suri. At the same time it is useful to remember how strange reality can be. In his Afterword, Grunebaum mentions a trip with Uday Prakash to Chhatisgarh, where they just happened to run into the “real Mohandas”, walking on the road, “looking just as haggard and resilient as described in the story”. They spoke for a bit, took some photos and then went their separate ways – “Mohandas” presumably to continue fighting his small battles against shadowy imposters, Grunebaum returning to translate stories about deprivation for a readership that can sympathise but perhaps not fully understand.


[Also see: Jason Grunebaum speaks with Trisha Gupta about translation here]


  1. I wonder if this lack of regard has to do with Hindi speakers themselves and their relationship with their mother tongue. Growing up in a fluently bi-lingual Bengali family, there was no way that Bangla would have ever been undervalued vis-a-vis English. Not when Durga Puja meant the singing of Rabindrasangeet and the recital of long, complicated poetry learnt by heart at mother's knee. The literatures of both languages were considered equally worthy of admiration. My parents wrote to their relatives in Bangla (we being probashi and all that) and I grew up reading all the usual English classics along with children's literature like Abol-Tabol (OMG! How can I ever forget Hajaberalo?), Stopper, Striker, etc. I still read in Bangla occasionally but what finally distanced me from it is the tiny, tiny font of the average publication and the horrid production quality. But I don't value the literature any less than any of the English stuff I read. It's a window into a different world. It's a pity about Hindi, really. It is such a powerful oral and literary tradition. Wish its native speakers would take care of it better.

  2. Powerful imagery. In fact, too hard-hitting for someone like me to stomach. Although their literary merit cannot be denied, I tend to steer clear of such books as they depress me and make me feel somehow guilty of being one of the haves in our society teeming with so many have-nots.

  3. Anon 1: thanks for that insight. Personally I continue to feel guilty (while refusing to do anything about it) about not reading in Hindi at all; now that I read for a living and spend most of my reading time on books for review purposes, it has become even harder to make the effort. But I'm constantly made aware that reading in another, less familiar language is a mind-expander in more ways than one: first at the level of the content itself, and second at the level of what parts of your brain come into play during the reading process.

  4. @Jai: Anon1 here. Thinking out loud here: Growing up all over India, I became tri-lingual (actually, quadri-lingual since I also can read Punjabi but haven't done so in a while). Not to show off, just that as an army brat, that was how things happened. Anyway, I did notice growing up in various small towns that none of my Hindi-speaking friends ever had Hindi books lying around their homes. Ours always had a Gitabitan, novels by sundry Bengali authors in the mix with the usual English pulp fiction and classics. When I grew up, I often wondered if there is a connection between *love* for a language and the status it gets in one's life. Strangely, the other North Indian lot I came across who loved and relished speaking their language as much as the Bengalis did theirs, were the Punjabis. Perhaps that accounts for why both cultures have such a cultural influence beyond their rather insignificant demographic numbers. The *affective* link between people and their languages matters.

  5. I have the book Delhi Noir - but thinking if it would be wise to read it there since Jason says it was heavily edited.
    Anyway - Anon , your analysis is very simplistic. Though I am not equipped to provide a detailed counter, but I think Bengali is a special case here, not Hindi. Bengali has been enriched with writers who were literary,and at the same time had a connect with the middle class. For example , Sunil Gangopadhayay was a very literary writer, and at the same time his fiction is very accessible.Same was true for other legends like Rabindranath, Sharat, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay etc.
    In Hindi, pulp fiction was immensely popular in the 90s. Then television gave another kind of escapism and it died off.By the way, consuming copious amounts of TV and Hindi cinema is also a manifestation of love of the language, isn't it?
    There have been writers like Shivani , Guru Dutt(not the actor) ,Rahi Masoom Raza etc. who have tried to bridge the gap between literariness
    and mass appeal and have been successful. There have been other names as well but not enough.To conclude, in my humble opinion, I think in Hindi there has been dearth of accessible and literary writers , in the tradition of Prem Chand. Most of the new Hindi novel writing was something that middle class could not related to, due to various reasons.
    Also, I dont want to get on a soapboax, but wanted to make a point about reading in your mother tongue- In my experience, it is a more visceral experience - since the memories that we have are mostly of events that have transpired in the mother tongue.