Stories of urban India that cross the boundaries of reality and language.
In the afterword of this collection, translator Jason Grunebaum talks of how hard it was for the iconoclast Hindi writer Uday Prakash to write in the face of overwhelming odds. In parallel is the story of how international awards and recognition helped stabilise his writing life. This quandary is, perhaps, best depicted in the words of one of his characters, ‘When the English were here, it was English that made us slaves. Now that the English are gone, it’s Hindi that’s turned us into slaves.’ It evokes a larger question: should today’s writer write in one’s native language or, as the world marches to the beat of globalisation, in English?
The Walls of Delhi is a collection of three rather long short stories. The first, the title story, is about how a sweeper discovers a wall in a gymnasium in south Delhi that has a huge amount of cash plugged into it.. ‘Mohandas’ is a story of identity theft set in a coal mine in Anuppur district, on the edge of Bastar. ‘Mangosil’ deals with the squalid suburbs of north Delhi in which a woman is exploited by local politicians and a child has a queer affliction: his head is growing at a pace much faster than his body.
‘The Walls of Delhi’ chills the reader when at night, police descend on the hotel room which the protagonist and his girlfriend are sharing. In ‘Mohandas’, Uday uses names for the man’s family which are inspired by the earlier more famous Mohandas (Gandhi) and thus weaves a double-edged story: achingly realistic and yet a satire. Self-reflexively, Uday engages the reader in a parallel authorial voice, which also links the facts of this ordinary peasant’s problem with much bigger global con jobs and the question of justice: in the face of such chicanery by the authorities, is there an alternative to the gun that the desperate Maoists have picked up? ‘Mangosil’ propels Uday into the kind of writing which is really difficult to execute: the grotesque. This is an effort close to Kafka’s Metamorphosis but with a completely urban Indian sensibility.
Since the stories were initially serialised, they carry some repetition that could have been edited out while placing them together. The collection could also have been richer with one or two more translated stories. Overall, in this collection, both score: the Hindi language, which is up to date in its expression with our new urban realities including the depiction of squalor and grime; and the effort of the translator to keep the local flavour while evoking the multiple Indias, which is today’s reality.
Uday ends his first story with an anecdote. When asked why more people came to Nizamuddin Auliya than to the royal court, Nizamuddin answered: ‘Dilli is still far for many’. Dilli wasn’t really far but what Auliya meant is that people feel closer to him than to the royal court.
I feel that about this collection. That stories well translated from our regional languages into English could provide the much-needed lease of life to the deadening sameness of the English-language publishing that we now face in our markets. The book is reason to cheer the essence of storytelling — that it helps us cross boundaries of reality and language, through translation.