The Hindi and Maithili writer Rajkamal Chaudhary is at his best at capturing the essential apathy of modern India.
Rajkamal Chaudhary, Saadat Hasan Manto, and a small handful of writers from the early 20th century strike me as authors who ought to have been legendary on the global stage not just for their writing, which is admirable and durable, but also for their essentially rebellious lives. But India, it appears, does not countenance Jack Kerouacs and Roberto Bolanos in its libraries. Neither, unfortunately, does the Anglophone world expect cult-like writing, idiosyncratic writers, and nonconformist lifestyles from India, despite the outright criminals that often infest the nation’s body politic. But then a criminal is often the most conformist of all people, as Chaudhary sometimes showed in his fiction, and more so when the criminal wears a political or religious garb.
Traces of Boots on Tongue
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Translated by Saudamini Deo, Traces of Boots on Tongue, presents a selection of the Hindi short stories of Rajkamal Chaudhary, born in a traditional Maithili Brahman family in Bihar, named Manindra Narayan Choudhary, and known affectionately as Phool Babu. Despite a short and personally eventful life (1929–1967), Chaudhary wrote ten novels (one of them even set in New York, despite, as far as I know, never going to the US), hundreds of poems and short stories, as well as many essays and plays. He was initially a Maithili writer, in which he wrote extensively, and is said to have started writing in Hindi only from 1956. He also wrote a bit in Bengali, and the occasional poem in English.
It appears that his literary reputation, like that of his near-contemporary Manto, was marred during his lifetime by his tendency to write about tabooed aspects of life, including sex. This included his tendency to create female protagonists or characters who are otherwise conveniently erased from acceptable middle-class accounts, or only narrated in the ink of reformative pity.
The powerful stories in Traces of Boots on Tongue show ample evidence of this. Chaudhary, it is said, believed that the lives of women, including both their sexuality and their sexual exploitation, are the best mirror of society. For Chaudhary, even though his writing is mostly located in India, this was a larger matter. As the narrator of his story, “Traces of Boots on Tongue” puts it: “I remembered all the girls of East of Eden who lived in brothels and thought their bodies their capital, like farmers thought their farms and workers thought their hammers.”
As the above quotation shows, the translation, while always competent, is at times too literal, which is obviously the translator’s choice. However, for me, and for many other readers who, unlike me, can access this fiction only in English, the above line would work much better if the Hindi word had not been rendered literally as “thought” but slanted into “considered”. The sentence would have greater fluidity for an Anglophone readership if it had been translated as “I remembered all the girls of East of Eden who lived in brothels and considered their bodies their capital, like farmers considered their farms and workers considered their hammers.” Hindi to English translation has improved a lot in recent years, but I think it still requires more editorial intervention: any translator, who is always too close to the original text, needs an editor who can step aside a bit. This seems to be lacking in much of the translations, greatly improved compared to the past in terms of what translators can do, that comes out of India.
Despite this reservation, the stories of Chaudhary jump out and grab you by the collar. He is at his best at capturing the essential apathy of modern India, an apathy that can be linked to the disappointment of the post-Independence decade, as it often is by critics, but that is far deeper in Chaudhary’s world. For instance, in “Some People in a Burning House”, a few customers and prostitutes hide in the filthy basement of a brothel in order to avoid a police raid. It is dark in there, and one of the customers is bitten by what he fears is a snake. He calls upon another customer, an engineer, who has been smoking, to strike a match, but the engineer replies, nonchalantly, “I have two cigarettes, and a total of two matchsticks. I will light a matchstick only when I feel like smoking a cigarette.”
Along with this apathy towards other people’s situation and sufferings, which is often only half-revealed, there exists a vast sexual longing in many of the protagonists, ranging from adolescents to housewives. In “Elementary Knowledge of Geography”, which is probably autobiographical (or contains autobiographical elements, like some of the other stories, for its protagonist is named Phool Babu), a housewife and mother is shown as desiring her son’s friend, while the adolescent boy is more interested in using the situation to get permission to attend a magic show. Once again, even sexual longing is a frayed matter, it seems to promise no real way out: the relationships in all the stories offer different kinds of failure, though the point of the stories is not the failure but the process that leads to it.
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The impression one gains from Chaudhary’s stories is of an intensely lived world where essential human values have been grossly distorted, despite a parrot-like chanting of cultural virtues, and where what exists and what is supposed to exist are two different things. Perhaps, after all, Chaudhary might have been neglected in his lifetime not because of the lewdness and vulgarity of which he was accused, but because his depictions, in the elusive manner of literature, were too close to reality. If so, that reality is still with us. That is why one needs to read Traces of Boots on Tongue.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.