August 2010

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion

...she finds herself listening without needing to eavesdrop on the conversation of a group of Englishmen and women at the next table.

A girl says, “We slept really well that night. We slept tight.”

A man says, “There were people coming out with their eyes rolling or totally spaced out. One girl was crying.”

Another man says, “He doesn’t want donations. He doesn’t want you to say anything. You just go in there and listen to him. That’s all he wants.”

The first man says authoritatively, “He is crucified every Friday and resurrected every Monday.”

Dawn expects the whole group to burst into laughter but they don’t, they just go on eating their chips and their tandoori pomfret and nanas with serious expressions.

-- From “Eye in the Sky,” by Anjum Hasan

Americans often suffer under the delusion that when people speak another language, they are talking about us. We imagine them insulting our appearance or discussing ways to cheat us. Our relentless monolingualism breeds paranoid narcissism. After ten years of studying Hindi, I was disappointed to learn the boring truth: those people at the next table were not talking about me. But, then, what could they be talking about? As far as I could tell, they were expressing various aspects of that complex subjectivity that is a hallmark of human experience.

If one doesn’t have the time to devote to learning a new language, that complex subjectivity that has nothing to do with us can often be experienced through translated literatures. Fiction translated from European languages has long been considered an essential part of an educated person’s repertoire, but the same cannot be said for Indian literature. The ready availability of Indian writing in English obscures the fact that Indian literature exists in fourteen or more languages, many of which enjoy literary traditions of some antiquity (Sanskrit, stretches back to the dawn of time, according to some sources). Thankfully, translations into English do exist, and are becoming more popular in the Indian publishing industry. This is partly because it is impossible for even multilingual Indians to have the ability to read more than, say, three or four languages fluently.

A good place to start reading beyond the Barnes and Noble display tables is a new collection of thirteen short stories and novel excerpts, India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Indian novelist and critic Chandrahas Choudhury. Of these stories, six were originally written in English, but only two authors are well known outside of India (Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra). The other stories are translated from seven different languages. The book is divided into sections corresponding to the four cardinal directions, and the stories are chosen not to give the hungry tourist more knowledge about these regions, but rather for qualities the editor feels tie the works to the quadrant in question.

The stories are a diverse bunch not just for their different points of origin and language, but also for their time periods. Some were published at the turn of the last century and written by venerable authors, such as Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s (1893-1950) Bengali story “Canvasser Krishanlal,” while some are of a very recent vintage, such as the English story “Eye in the Sky” (excerpted above), written by Anjum Hasan (1972-). They touch upon village life, as in Phanishwarnath Ranu’s hilarious “Panchlight,” a Hindi tale of Mahto caste elders who buy a Petromax lantern, but have no idea how to light it, and the urban middle class, as in Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant,” in which a middle-aged  Delhi accountant comes to believe he was in a previous life one of the Taj Mahal’s principal architects.

The quality of translation in the non-English stories is excellent and highly readable. Many treats await even connoisseurs of modern Indian literature. The standout for me was the 1901 novel excerpt “Asura Pond,” by the father of modern Oriya literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati. At first, I wondered if a story centering on a village pond would appeal to me as much as, say, Qurratulain Hyder’s Urdu story about a fallen woman, “The Sound of Falling Leaves.” I was thus unprepared for the satiric edge of Senapati’s narration. The highlight of the story is an extended “proof” that there are fish in the pond. “You might well remark,” observes the narrator, “’Of course, where there is water, there are fish. There is little need to note this.’” But if this were the case, he retorts, “ would find fish inside the water pitchers in your houses. It is not,” he asserts, “in our nature to base what we write on vague guesswork.” The narrator then continues for paragraphs, furnishing us with pieces of proof, and countering possible objections to his claim that there are fish in the pond. Let us close with the beginning of the crocodile proof:

Consider, if you will, the three long-beaked crocodiles lying immobile, with their mouths open, on the south side of the pond. They were there every day. Why were they in the pond? What did they live on? Did anyone see them grazing in the fields like cattle? Or did they follow the path of nonviolence, like the Jains? Needless to say, since they were alive, they must have been eating something. What could this “something” have been?

Daisy Rockwell paints and blogs under the name Lapata. Also, she has a PhD in Hindi literature. Follow her on Twitter.