December 2010

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

The War and Peace of Hindi Literature!

I read War and Peace a number of years ago in Allahabad, India, in March or April, when the temperatures begin to soar. Our roof-top apartment, so delightfully airy during other months, slowly transformed into an oven. This was how we learned why no landlord in India lives in the top floor of their house if they can avoid it. Frequent power outages exacerbate the situation, and by mid-day each day, the best course of action was to lie in the dark as immobile as possible and read. Napoleon's ill-advised campaign into Russia, the arrival of winter and the freeze-out of the French army provided a cooling balm to my imagination, if not my body.

I was reading War and Peace so that I might be able to continue to say, with confidence, that the Hindi novel Jhootha Sach, which means "False truth," was "the War and Peace of Hindi literature." It was a claim that was often thrown around, and one that I had carelessly made myself. Reading one book to find out if it can be used as an exemplar of another one has already read is ostensibly going about things backwards. But I had a particular motivation: Jhootha Sach was untranslated and I wanted to make the case that this fact was a tragedy for literature lovers around the world. Just imagine if War and Peace was sitting around in Russia, untranslated, and no non-Russian readers were able to access it? How culturally impoverished we would be if that were the case, even those of us who had never bothered to read it because of its notorious heft?

To the naked eye, it is this heft that is the most obvious shared characteristic between Jhootha Sach and War and Peace. The new English translation of Jhootha Sach (titled This is not that Dawn) is 1119 pages. Translations of War and Peace generally weigh in at around 1400+ pages. After size, there is their common theme: both novels are set during an Important Historical Event. Jhootha Sach is set during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan; War and Peace is set during the Napoleonic wars. But how does this make them different from, say, Cold Mountain? To answer that, I would have to read Cold Mountain, and, following William Shatner, I wonder if that’s just too long. Instead I will speculate: along with its zippy plot, several romances, sex, violence and a beautiful heroine, Jhootha Sach is a very serious novel. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf’s assessment of Middlemarch, it is a magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few novels in the world written for grown-up people.

But after this, the comparison begins to break down. Was Tolstoy a freedom fighter who apprenticed in a bomb factory? Did he do jail time for said activities? Did he stand shoulder to shoulder with the martyred revolutionaries Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar "Azad" to fight for freedom from the British Raj? I think not. And finally, where Tolstoy’s characters were primarily aristocrats from the upper classes of Russian life, Yashpal’s cast comes primarily from the educated lower middle classes of pre-Independence Lahore. When Yashpal writes about political turmoil, he writes from the perspective both of an intellectual and a revolutionary. His characters, steeped in politics because they have to be, break into paragraphs of arguments from a variety of nuanced political perspectives worthy of the great Russian novelists. But these arguments are often taking place in the narrow lanes and coffee shops of a city which will presently be torn apart by brutal violence and sectarian strife as the British prepare to leave India and draw a line between India Pakistan that is not announced until they are just out the door.

The richness of Jhootha Sach is such that after rereading it for the third time I find myself less able to describe it than ever before. The novel, with its huge cast of finely developed characters, absorbing storyline and intricately delineated streets and neighborhoods, is the kind of massive work of social realism that becomes incorporated into the reader’s own life. With each subsequent reading, I find myself less and less capable of analyzing the characters and events, as they come to fuse more permanently with my own reality. It feels almost unseemly, something on par with exposing a family member, to pick apart and examine the actions and motivations of the protagonist, Tara, as she travels from her sheltered lower-middle class life in the narrow lanes of pre-Partition Lahore, to her abduction during the Partition, to the post-Partition refugee camps in India, and beyond.

Tara is subjected, by the end of just the first of the two volumes, to a forced arranged marriage, rape, abduction and imprisonment. In the wrong hands, of which there have been many, such stories quickly become sensationalist, exploitative, even pornographic. Further discussing her trials can make one feel like a party to her victimization. But her author, Yashpal, writes with all the stylistic pyrotechnics of a legal scholar. His prose is simple, square, even, and one always has the sense that his primary commitment is to accuracy, even within his fictional universe, rather than piquancy. Yashpal, a man writing in 1950’s India, was an exemplary feminist. His ability to describe violence and social injustice toward women in a temperate, realistic fashion reminds us that such descriptions do not have to be salacious or sensational.

Yashpal’s most intriguing move as a feminist is the way in which he showcases the complicity of men in crimes against women. For at least the first three hundred pages of the novel, one is never entirely sure if the protagonist is Tara, or if it is her brother Puri. In fact, one assumes that it is Puri. Puri’s experiences closely mirror those of Yashpal in real life: he is a writer, a freedom fighter in the struggle for Independence from British rule, and he has spent time in jail. Such semi-autobiographical characters seem invariably to be heroes of novels, and it is with increasing surprise that one grows to realize that Puri is neither the protagonist nor any kind of hero. He is paranoid, insecure, hypocritical and self-deceiving: a brother who betrays his sister through his own narcissism, and a husband who can’t abide the superior intellect and social status of his wife. Moreover, and this is important, because Yashpal was considered an exemplary writer of progressive socialist realism in his day, Puri is above all a thoroughly hypocritical progressive and Marxist. Though he speaks of the role of women in society in all the right ways, and even writes about such things in a way that makes him very popular among the Communist Party members, in his personal life, he is complicit in socially oppressive customs and justifies his complicity to himself with self-serving arguments.

Because of the historical setting of the novel, as well as the ideological inclinations of the author, readers of Jhootha Sach must be prepared for a heaping serving of political conversation. Puri, for example is a hypocritical Marxist, but he is very critical of the Communist Party. The Communist Party itself comes in for heavy criticism from Yashpal in more books than just this one, particularly for its unfair demands on the personal lives of its members. A journalist named Gill, for example, explains that when he cut his hair for the woman he loved (he is a Sikh), the Party expelled him on the grounds that members must adhere to conventional social and religious customs in order to make their message more appealing to the masses. The Congress Party of Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, comes in for even more criticism as the honeymoon optimism of newly independent India quickly gives way to wide-spread bureaucratic corruption and petty politics. Characters sometimes argue for paragraphs about political ideologies or governmental policies, but anyone who does not find this realistic has not spent time in parts of the world where political engagement is part of every day life. In this respect, Jhootha Sach definitely reminds one of the great Russian novels. The characters’ tendencies to have long frank discussions about political economy and philosophy is reminiscent of similar passages in War and Peace and others. Woody Allen’s mash-up of Russian literature, Love and Death, parodies these types of conversations brilliantly. But what makes scenes such as this one so funny, however, is the American disbelief that anyone could in all seriousness sustain such heavy conversational topics outside of a classroom or a newsroom.

Though I did finish War and Peace in Allahabad (after reading Jhootha Sach during a bone-chilling Chicago winter), I never made the case to publishers or anyone else that Jhootha Sach was the War and Peace of Hindi literature. After translating a sizeable chunk of the novel, I learned that Yashpal’s son had always dreamed of doing the translation himself. The issue became murky, and I moved onto another, much longer, novel (the Remembrance of Things Past of Hindi literature!). Now, many years later, Jhootha Sach is finally out in English (and indeed translated by Yashpal’s son, Anand). My old draft of the translation (recently discovered in an excavation of the filing cabinets) sits, dusty and yellowing, in an old plastic sari bag near my desk, a monument to thwarted youthful ambition. But there is no need to feel remorse: the fact that the novel is now available to so many new readers in the world is thrilling. Everyone must read it. Now we just need someone to do an American edition (New Directions, are you listening?) and an e-book version (Kindle?).

Note: How does one buy this book in the U.S.? I would recommend going through ABE Books, where copies seem very reasonably priced at the moment. It can also be purchased through Flipkart and Indiaclub.