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The power of Premchand

`Premchand shines through not only with his irresistible story-telling magic but also with his abiding contemporary relevance.'

THE Oxford India Premchand offers the reader about a thousand pages of Premchand in English translation, and is part of a new series which also includes The Oxford India Ghalib and The Oxford India Ramanujan. These are thick, cube-sized, firmly bound volumes, and what seems to hold them together is not any clear editorial principle but the binding. In fact, the Premchand volume does not even bother to name an editor; it contains simply a reprint of four books of translations of Premchand by three different translators published over the last decade or two. These four separate works are now reproduced just as they had been first published, in different typefaces and fonts, with the pagination, which confusingly begins afresh for each book, to be found sometimes at the top of the page, sometimes at the bottom, and sometimes not at all. Many errors in these translations, such as pointed out in earlier reviews, are retained just as they were, including the glaring misspelling of the very title of a novel, Ghaban, as Gaban, which is rather like misspelling Ghalib as Galib. This is done presumably with the sole motive of cutting costs at any cost; it is as if Oxford India were pirating their own books.

Once we have got over the preliminary glitches, the mega-volume provides a substantial feast of Premchand's writings, comprising 42 short stories selected thematically and two major novels. In Nirmala (first published in 1927), Premchand's favoured project of excoriating social evils is given a rare depth by the exceptionally fine psychologisation of the ill-married and sexually anguished heroine, while G[h]aban: the Stolen Jewels (1931) ranges far and wide from its point of departure in the inordinate female greed for jewellery to become a complex political novel. But, speaking of jewels, one may ask where in this massive anthology is the jewel in Premchand's crown, Godan? Well, it's not here for the simple commercial reason that neither of its two English translations was published by Oxford and they haven't thought it worthwhile to negotiate reprinting rights.

The three different translators in the Oxford India Premchand offer consistently enjoyable if varied fare. David Rubin, who fills nearly half the volume with the short stories, makes some palpable errors but is fetchingly conscientious and modest: "it seems scarcely possible," he admits, "to do justice to Premchand's style in translation." Alok Rai renders Nirmala with confident ease and flair and an occasional Indianism; he also provides a sophisticated discussion of the mode of melodrama which Premchand is said to resort to. Christopher King bumbles and blusters his way through G(h)aban but is readable enough, reminding one of the distinction Sujit Mukherjee makes in Translation as Recovery (2004) that while Indian translators of Indian literature into English may sometimes get the language wrong, foreign translators often commit the greater offence of getting the culture wrong.

The Oxford Karachi volume, Courtesans' Quarter, is in contrast a slim paperback which contains a novel by Premchand not so far translated into English. It was written originally in Urdu under the title Bazaar-e-Husn but first published in Hindi under the title Seva-sadan (i.e. The House of Service) in 1919. The Hindi publisher from Calcutta paid Premchand with alacrity the sum of Rs. 450, while the laggard Urdu publisher from Lahore paid Rs. 250 when he eventually did publish the novel in 1924. This experience was to serve as a catalyst in Premchand's decision to switch from writing in Urdu to begin writing in Hindi in mid-career. Incidentally, in Courtesans' Quarter, both Ralph Russell in his "Foreword" and M.H. Askari in his "Introduction" state that Bazaar-e-Husn was published in 1917; apparently, they have not read the two major biographies of Premchand by Amrit Rai (1962) and Madan Gopal (1964).

Bazaar-e-Husn was Premchand's first major novel; he had published before it four novellas in Urdu of just about a hundred pages each. In it, he told the tale of an unhappy housewife who is beguiled away from the path of domestic virtue into becoming a courtesan but then reforms herself and atones by serving as the manager of an orphanage for the young daughters of courtesans, the seva-sadan of the Hindi title. While the Urdu title highlights the fall of the heroine, the Hindi title highlights her redemption, and it is tempting to see the two titles as widely symptomatic of their respective literary cultures.

Besides the main plot, Premchand stages in this novel several long debates between various characters on some topical issues, thus giving the book in part the flavour of a novel of ideas. For example, members of the Municipal Board of Banaras (where the novel is set) argue at length over a proposal to move the courtesans' quarter from the centre of the city to somewhere outside the city, as if that were the solution to the problem. In the process, differences emerge not so much between the Muslim and the Hindu members of the Board as within and among members of each community. Seldom has an Urdu / Hindi novel been more outspoken about the divisions between Hindus and Muslims but, already for Premchand, class and vested economic interests cut across religions.

Even in the Hindi version of the novel, the Muslim characters speak in fairly chaste Urdu which the Pakistani translator of the Urdu version could have been expected to get right. But Amina Azfar falls at many hurdles. Most crucially, perhaps, she fails to distinguish between two highly charged phrases which were current in the Muslim discourse of the day and which Haji Hashim, a die-hard character in the novel, uses with strategic finesse. By biradarane-vatan (brothers living in the same country), he means euphemistically the Hindus, and by biradarane-millat (brothers in religious faith) he refers in sharp contrast to fellow Muslims, and he sees the two as irreconcilably opposed to each other. But Azfar completely misses the nuance here and thus also the underlying politics. On the other hand, she translates the Hindu quom as "the Hindu nation" (and not the Hindu community), a choice which may seem coloured anachronistically by the so called two-nation theory which the Muslims were to advance in support of their claim for Pakistan.

If Azfar gets the Urdu wrong, could she be expected to get the Hindi right? Here, her problems are complicated by the peculiarities of the Urdu script which often leaves out vowels, to be filled in through guess-work by the reader. This may explain, but does not excuse, why throughout this translation the heroine Suman is nonsensically called "Saman." Similarly, Uma Nath is transmuted into "Oma Nath," Balbhadra into "Balbahadar," Subhadra into "Sobhdra," and Baij Nath into "Beja Nath" which must be especially mortifying for this character as "beja" in Urdu means inappropriate or incongruous. Equally in its Urdu and Hindu versions, the novel is populated largely by Hindu characters, and in making such basic errors Azfar gets not merely the spellings wrong but the culture wrong. On the other hand, she routinely inserts on her own initiative the initials "PBUH" after each reference to the Prophet Muhammad in the text, i.e. Peace Be Upon Him. Though nicely pious in its own way, such peace surely passeth literary understanding.

But such is the power of Premchand that through all the inevitable (and some evitable) distortions and obfuscations of translation in these two volumes, he shines through not only with his irresistible story-telling magic but also with his abiding contemporary relevance. In Courtesans' Quarter, a heated debate rages between two characters over the issue of "mental slavery" to the West and a little later, a third character intervenes to say: "As long as the educated among us remain under the spell of English, no national language can come into being." This was written in 1919, and it is nothing if not unsettling to read it now — in English.

The Oxford India Premchand, Oxford University Press, Delhi, p. approx. 950, Rs. 750.

Courtesans' Quarter, Munshi Premchand, translated by Amina Azfar, Oxford University Press, Karachi, p. 260, Pakistani Rupees 350.


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