Bridging the walls of language

Cover page of The Walls of Delhi  

In the afterword, translator Jason Grunebaum sketches 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 Uday’s 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 into 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 globalised capitalism, in English?

The Walls of Delhi is a collection of three, rather long, short stories. The first, the title story, is about a sweeper who discovers a wall in a gymnasium in south Delhi that has a huge amount of cash stacked in it. How this discovery changes his life and the consequences of helping himself to the cash forms the narrative. 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 where a woman is exploited by local politicians and a child has a queer affliction: his head is growing much faster than his body.

The Walls of Delhi chills the reader when the police descend at night at the hotel room which the protagonist and his girlfriend are sharing. In Mohandas Uday uses names for the man’s family inspired by the earlier more famous Mohandas (Gandhi) and thus weaves a double edged story: achingly realistic and yet a satire. Self-reflexively, he engages the reader in a parallel authorial voice that also links up 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? The third story 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 serialized, they are a bit repetitive and this could have been edited out while placing them together in the collection. The collection could also have been richer with one or two more 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 translator’s effort 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 how 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 a 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 story-telling – that it helps us cross boundaries of reality and language, through translation.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 6:20:39 AM |

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