Nuanced narrative

Print edition : March 15, 2019
The writer’s connect with reality and realism holds his narratives together.

This is an elegantly produced collection of short stories. The ordinariness of the stock image used on the cover is pleasantly offset by the maroon-brown colour used for the title and credits. The text is set in a smart, easy-on-the-eye font and the book itself is designed for comfortable reading. First impressions, as in all things, defying logic and reason, do matter, and A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil, translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra, makes a good first impression.

Translations are a tricky business, both for translator and reader. After all, a language is not simply the sum total of words. Words are only markers that peel off layers to reveal meaning, intent, implication, experience, culture, history, tradition, and so on. Between these layers lies change, in all its inexorable manifestations. In the process of translation, all of this in one language transects with all of this in another, sometimes directly and sometimes through a third, transforming text and requiring their transformation.

This aspect hit home in the very first story in the anthology called “Thirst” in which the writer’s eyes rest for a few moments on the relationship between Bandu and his woman, Pushpa, as they undertake a train journey. There is some kind of analogy drawn between the nature of their relationship and the parched landscape they are passing through; however, the story is puzzling, even confusing, and sometimes prescriptive. It speaks, for instance, about “the blue edge of hatred” and “his super-sensitive cockroach antennae” gauging “her response to the words and, pleased with the impact, he continued to play out the drama”, even as it mundanely records how he “patted her back and discreetly assessed the effect of his words on her. 

He discovered that they had made no impact whatsoever. Bhaisaheb was not used to accepting defeat of this kind.” Wondering how and if the aftertaste of dissatisfaction left behind by “Thirst” would be compensated and being forced to second-guess my own responses in light of the fact that Gangadhar Gadgil is a trendsetter in the genre of the short story in Marathi, I started reading the second story, “Bandu and his Umbrellas”, and was soon caught up in a series of unfortunate circumstances arising from the interplay between Bandu and his umbrellas, delightfully delineated by the author, the occasional stereotyping notwithstanding (“typical feminine guile”). Even a literal “He took his temper and went for a walk” works, as do the plainly funny bits.

Gangadhar Gadgil’s range of themes is refreshing. He focusses on relationships: the unseen, the unsung, the unspoken, and the amusing. By and large, the stories and their characters and/or situations resonate, even if they mostly focus on Maharashtrian upper-caste society. Sometimes, a small image brings an entire scenario vividly to life, as in this description from “Bittersweet” of a meddlesome sister-in-law: “For no reason she hovers around the men, posing on one leg [emphasis added], talking coquettishly to them.”

While the title story, “A Faceless Evening”, has a James Joycean edge to it that sometimes goes over the reader’s head, and “A Man, A Fairy and A Tortoise” leans towards the banal, other stories such as “Multiplication”, “Before I Go”, “My Ajji”, “Our Teacher Leaves School”, “Gopal Padhiye” and “Fleeting Reflections” emanate a quiet, inner energy. “Fleeting Reflections” is tender and moving; “My Ajji” could well be your ajji (grandmother). 

A story like “The Two” reveals the author’s own preconceived notions regarding south Indians. When you read something like “Unable to hold back any longer, she broke into a tirade against Padma, convincing me that no language is as effective to berate someone as Tamil is” or come across more than one reference to dark skin, the negative stereotyping cannot be ignored. That’s when we have to remind ourselves that stories must be read in the context of the times in which they were written; imposing notions and positions in retrospect serves no purpose and is unfair.

“Our Teacher Leaves School” is quite simply about a teacher leaving school, and readers will be quick to identify with the emotions and reactions such an event can evoke. Everyone of a certain generation will remember, at least those who studied in girls’ schools will, at least one student who routinely left a flower on her favourite teacher’s desk. Gangadhar Gadgil takes the ordinary a step further with just a hint of possibility and vivid visual detail. As revealed, for instance, in this passage about the Bai (teacher): “Our Bai is very nice. She is very beautiful too—like the fresh garlands in the flower seller’s basket. Her smile sparkles like the fine silver thread woven into the garlands. I wanted to say all this to Meena. But I knew she would laugh at me. Big-eyed Vinu wouldn’t. He understands these things. That’s why I like him.”

authentic ring


Gangadhar Gadgil is surprisingly nuanced in the way he gets under the skin of his characters, unravelling them in their social and psychological contexts; this imbues his stories with a ring of authenticity. “Before I Go” is about an elderly woman reminiscing about her life. She urges her son and his family to take care of a friend who “cared for me. She is my childhood friend….” And her young granddaughter reacts: “‘Aiya, friend, Ajji?’ Janakibai’s granddaughter was amused. Do old women also have friends, she wondered.” 

And a few lines further: “Janakibai stopped mid-sentence. She did not see the response she was expecting from Govindrao. It was not possible for him to feel for Sundarabai what Janakibai felt for her. She saw clearly that the affection she had felt for the woman would die with her.”

In keeping with what is generally seen as standard behaviour, the protagonist of “Fleeting Reflections” appears to have remained silent about his love for a woman whom he eventually marries, or so we understand from the story. Gangadhar Gadgil weaves a story of nostalgia around that unspoken emotion in a manner that could easily slip into maudlin romance but somehow does not. Otherwise how would we embrace the feelings expressed in lines such as: “No matter how educated a woman is, she takes great pride in making a house a home. What deep impulse makes them behave this way? That’s when I realised how beautiful the word home is and how much romance there is in calling your wife a homemaker.” Again, 

It is Gangadhar Gadgil’s connect with reality and realism that hold his narratives together with a fine sensibility and integrity. There is no shying away: Gangadhar GadgilHe faces situations, emotions and reactions head-on and effectively in most of the stories. Sometimes, though, there is a feeling that something is lost in translation, despite Keerti Ramachandra’s best efforts. This seems more because of the nature of translation in general than this translation in particular. So much said, for instance, in the original Marathi, would imply much more by association; said in English, some of the association is bound to be lost and that is nobody’s fault. However, a glossary would have helped. Indeed, they are essential to any work involving different languages and/or cultures.

Gangadhar Gadgil (1923-2008) was a multifaceted writer. He wrote novels, plays, travelogues and short stories, and won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1996 for an autobiographical work called Eka Mungiche Mahabharat (An Ant’s Mahabharat). Now, with an intriguing title like that and with the taste of A Faceless Evening fresh in the mind, there is no way this reader is not going to find and read the award-winning book.