Precious tales

Print edition : January 19, 2018
The collection of short stories is a sensitive, creative collaboration between writers, translators, editors and publishers, bringing out a wellspring of emotions.

OPENING this book is like opening a gift-wrapped pack of 12 books in a book case. If placed side by side, the stories in the book would make for a mosaic of the map of India, spanning history, geography, culture and language, embodying as they do, the literatures of Kashmir to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Punjab to Bihar, Odisha and Sikkim, and including the life and literatures of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

But whether they are set in a village in Odisha, in the city of the Golden Temple, along a sinuous river by a nalukettu house redolent with nostalgia and magic, or in a basti in Andhra Pradesh, the connecting link between the stories is the raw emotion—love, lust, yearning, fear, grief—though the themes range from superstition, to exploitation, poverty, hunger, violence and corruption.

There is a lucid introduction by Mini Krishnan, who has edited this collection, which is an excellent backdrop of the history of translation against which these stories are placed. Her name has become almost synonymous with translation from Indian languages into English, thanks to her dedication and considerable achievement in that area, as Translations Editor, Oxford University Press, and series editor of a pioneering list through Macmillan India 20 years ago.

Exploitation of Adivasis

“Seed”, set in Bihar, is vintage Mahaswetha Devi, dealing with the exploitation of Adivasis at the hands of the so-called upper classes and landowners who fleece the workers but donate “108 pure-silver bael leaves” and “a golden cobra to crown the Shiva idol in Hanuman Mishra’s temple”. Originally published in Bengali in 1979, it has been expertly translated by Ipsita Chanda.

The excesses of the Emergency are evoked graphically:

“Where has Karan gone?

And Bulaki?

Why is there no news of them?

They are lost in the police files.”

“Who has stolen the sleep from Dulan’s eyes?

His sleep is lost in the police files.”

The language draws upon the metaphor of agriculture very appropriately, starting with the title of the story.

“He returns to the patch of land, digging into the depths of his mind, with the pick-axe of anxiety.”

At the end of the story, Dulan, the chief protagonist of the story, reflects with poignant irony: “I have turned you all into seed. To be a seed is to be alive.”

Partition memories

“Signs” by Nirmal Verma, has been impeccably translated from the original Hindi by Pratik Kanjilal. It is a delicate water colour about Partition, unlike the gory, lurid images one has come to associate with it. An ageing resident of Delhi receives a letter from a magazine editor requesting him to write for a special issue about the city at the time of Partition. He travels down memory lane to his childhood.

His memories are as mellow as the gentle November sun slanting through the public library, his place of refuge. This is a nuanced wash of a story, with a subtext as sensitive as the author. Is his mind subconsciously avoiding all associations with Partition as he wonders whether what is alluded to in the letter is the Partition of Old Delhi and New Delhi?

There is just a hint to suggest that he is a retired journalist—a tint of a tender friendship nipped in the bud because of Partition.

Days of mourning

“Period of Mourning” is the story of young Mehrunissa whose mother dies when she is a year old and whose father remarries. She is forced to work in a beedi factory and also look after her stepsisters, in addition to doing all the household chores. Her father is too weak to stand up to her cruel stepmother. When Mehrunissa is 15, her father passes away and her stepmother loses no time in arranging her marriage to a widower who is 25 years older than her and owns a provision store. He pampers his nubile young wife with all the material comforts, as though to make up for what he cannot give her.

Mehrunissa is inevitably attracted to his young assistant Samad. When her husband dies not long after their marriage and Mehrunissa is in iddath (the days of mourning), reading the Quran, she has all the time to reflect on her situation, and also to dream.

Quotations from the Quran add to the irony of her situation. In fact, the narrative is bracketed with two quotations. On the last day of iddath, she waits eagerly for the housekeeper to come and collect the keys to the shop from her and draw her into normal life again, but she does not come. She hears Samad talking to the housekeeper in the verandah. The front door opens and closes and Mehrunissa is surprised. Where could Samad have gone?

An emotionally leashed story by Bolwar Mahamad Kunhi, sensitively transcreated from the Kannada by Keerti Ramachandra.

Meticulous observation

“Bulbuls” (translated from Kashmiri by Neerja Mattoo) is about the tender relationship between an old man and a family of bulbuls. The reader is struck by the meticulous observation of the author, Habib Kamran, as also his sensitivity to the birds. He is overcome by guilt and grief when one of the bulbul chicks gets lost as he tries to protect its family from a cat and the rain. Suddenly, from the leaf dump emerges the mother bulbul… its wings spread out as if wanting to fly, but unable to do so. “Is this what is meant by broken wings? I wondered.”

It comes close to him, and begins to writhe in pain, in a dance of agony, as though attempting to annihilate itself, and it seems to assume a human face. “It was sorrow in an excruciating form, a mourning and an appeal. But it was not a loud wail, it was a silent weeping.”

Mesmerising

“The Deepest Blue” is as mesmerising as the metaphor of the snake, which is its central trope.

Set in Kerala, it tells the story of a simmering wife of 13 years and mother of two daughters, who is yearning for a love across lifetimes. She persuades her husband to help her buy her dream house, which is a replica of her nalukettu childhood home. When she sees her dream house, she is enchanted by it.

The author’s description of the house with the parijatham and njaaval trees, the central courtyard with the tulasi plant, the sacred grove, all cast an eerie spell, as reality and illusion blur. This ambience is the prelude to the inevitable magnetism that draws the woman and the ascetic who owns it together and holds them in an inexorable thrall. Here we have the author K.R. Meera at her most evocative. It is to the credit of the translator, J. Devika, that the narrative does not read like a translation from the original in Malayalam.

Tour de force

“Jumman” tells the story of a callous man against the backdrop of blind superstition. Perhaps, Jotya, the protagonist, becomes hardened by his soul-destroying occupation of skinning dead animals. When he came home tired from his day’s work, his wife and children would look fearful. Women and children in the neighbouring houses would wait impatiently for their menfolk to return, but in Jotya’s case it was different. Though he has many children, he had never once caressed them, and the word “love” did not exist in his vocabulary. His wife and children die one after the other, and then a little goat kid enters Jotya’s lonely life. His desperate need for companionship, even with a goat kid, is touching, and though he had never carried any of his children in his arms, he carries the goat kid on his shoulders wherever he goes.

The rest of the story charts the roller-skate quality of Jotya’s life with the kid as it grows up, and the villagers’ reaction to it. The build-up to the ending is a deeply moving tour de force. This is a finely crafted story by Shripad Narayan Pendse and is smoothly translated from the Marathi original by Shantha Gokhale.

One is used to reading about the Hindu-Muslim conflict, but the Hindu-Sikh conflict is not so common. “The Fourth Direction” by Waryam Singh Sandhu (translated by Nirupama Dutt) is set at the time of the Sikh separatist movement of the 1980s and derives its title from a folk tale with the same name. The story opens with two cousins on a journey in Punjab.

They need to reach Amritsar to attend a family wedding in the morning. There is a build-up of tension and fear as well as of local colour, with the cousins reminiscing about visits to the Golden Temple and about the folk tale with the same name which their Dadi/Nani used to tell them, with all of them tucked under a warm quilt. It is a story about a rajkumar who found himself at a crossroads once. On making enquiries, he is advised to take any of three directions, but not to take the fourth direction, because it is perilous.

Nonetheless, curiosity and courage spur the rajkumar in the fourth direction, and he returns home safe, bringing back with him something priceless—no one is able to tell whether it is wealth or wisdom, or something that gives him happiness.

The eponymously named story has an equally heart-warming denouement.

Two themes

The “Witch” is a “two-in-one tale” about witchcraft and police corruption. This is not a serious treatment of both themes, but a racy, even ribald in places, account of an “investigation” into an instance of witchcraft in a village in Odisha. The narrative is laced liberally with local colour and tongue-in-cheek humour. Good teamwork between the author Kamalakanta Mohapatra and the translators Leelawati Mohapatra and Paul St. Pierre.

Special appeal

“Hunger” is the only story in this collection about a child, which perhaps gives it its special appeal. No one reading this story could have experienced the raw, gnawing hunger described in the narrative: “Her belly smouldered sleeplessly like a haystack on which an ember has fallen accidentally.” It speaks not only for the author, Kolakuri Enoch’s imagination, but also for his empathy. His language has been flawlessly translated from the original Telugu by C.L.L. Jayaprada. The story opens with a common enough scene on an Indian road—a frog has been run over by a vehicle. The reader cannot help but be disturbed by the detailed description of the gruesome incident.

This is a story about seven-year-old Chinni, who is as pretty as a flower, notwithstanding her grimy face and tattered clothes and her family of five—a father who goes in search of work wherever it takes him and not returning for days, a heavily pregnant mother, her 10-year-old sister and her challenged two-year-old brother. The utter destitution of the family is described graphically. But they are rich in caring and concern. The mother scrapes the bottom of the rice pot and gives a few handfuls to her elder daughter without keeping anything for herself; the sister gives her share to her two younger siblings and Chinni gives her share to her little brother and the mother tells her elder daughter:

“See! The little one has also grown to be like you. Have you seen her giving food to her little brother without keeping anything for herself? It doesn’t really matter whether we have anything to eat or drink. Your affection for each other is enough.”

After three days of starvation, hunger gnawing her stomach like a rat, little Chinni lies awake. She reminisces about that period when, as though by a quirk of fate, her family had feasted on bread, eggs, butter, jam, oranges, apples, bananas, grapes. The author’s descriptions of food are sensuous, and highlight Chinni’s hunger by contrast. “When she ate bread and eggs, her tongue had felt like a garden blossoming with luxuriant colourful flowers…. When she ate bananas of different varieties, centuries of hunger seemed to just disappear…. When she ate a laddu, it tasted like ambrosia from the crumbling foundations of heaven itself….”

She wonders what she can do to help her family. Towards dawn, the answer flashes across her tender mind. She gets up and goes and sits under the tamarind tree outside their hut. It starts to rain, as though in a pathetic fallacy, but Chinni continues to sit, waiting…. Pablo Neruda’s lines: “In what language does rain fall on tormented cities?” (read villages) flash across one’s mind, as the story moves to its gut-wrenching ending, and the wheel turns full circle, in a masterly sleight of the author’s hand. In this string of pearls, this story stands out like a priceless black pearl, for more reasons than one.

Tell me along, long story is a sensitive, creative collaboration between writers, translators, editors and publishers. As one closes the book, one finds that not only have one’s horizons been widened but one’s wellsprings of emotions have been deepened. The stories continue to resonate, long after one has finished reading them. One is struck afresh by the interconnectivity between man, animal, bird and nature as this mosaic portrays. More strength to such collaborations.

Indu K. Mallah is a writer, poet, literary critic and social activist. Several of her short stories have been broadcast on the BBC, two of her screenplays have won national awards. Her novel, Shadows In Dream-time, has won wide critical acclaim.

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