When words fail

This rich and textured volume by Krishna Sobti that won the 1980 Sahitya Akademi in Hindi deserved a better translation.

July 23, 2016 04:25 pm | Updated 04:25 pm IST

Zindaginama; Krishna Sobti, translated from the Hindi by Neel Kanwar Mani and Moyna Mazumdar, HarperPerennial, Rs. 550.

Zindaginama; Krishna Sobti, translated from the Hindi by Neel Kanwar Mani and Moyna Mazumdar, HarperPerennial, Rs. 550.

Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama is not a novel in the conventional European sense. Ashok Vajpeyi has described it as an “abridged Mahabharata ”, meant as high praise, but the book’s particular form and ambition defy attempts to find precedent or analogue. The ambition is evident in the title, one that is retained in this English translation. This is a book whose subject is not merely the lives of individual characters but life itself, as it was lived and understood in the Gujarat region of undivided Punjab in the early 20th century.

Although Zindaginama won the Sahitya Akademi for Hindi in 1980 and is widely acclaimed as a modern classic, it has a rather less salutary claim to fame, or rather, notoriety. In 1984, Sobti’s great contemporary Amrita Pritam published a biography of an obscure revolutionary titled Hardatt ka Zindaginama . Sobti sued for breach of copyright, claiming that the word “z indaginama ” was her exclusive property and that Pritam’s title amounted to plagiarism.

By the time the case was settled in Pritam’s favour it was 2011, and Pritam had been dead six years. But the publicity overshadowed both books. Sobti had conceived of this novel as Zindagi Rukh , merely the first part of a Zindaginama trilogy; the other volumes were never written. The long court case may also have been a factor in delaying the translation of the book into English. This translation, by Neer Kanwal Mani with Moyna Mazumdar, appears almost four decades after the original.

Zindaginama resists summary almost as fiercely as it does categorisation. The setting is Shahpur, a village north of Gujrat in what is today the Pakistan Punjab. No dates are specified, but events referred to in the narrative — such as the First World War and the Ghadar movement — place it in the first two decades of the 20th century.

There are so many characters — well into three figures — that the reader soon longs for a dramatis personae , a device recently deployed, to great effect, in the novel sequences of Hillary Mantel and Elena Ferrante. Characters appear without introduction and are referred to by a variety of names and titles, often without explanation. What holds the book together, its narrative epicentre, is the Shah household. Shahji, the patriarch, is a rich moneylender whose wealth and personality — somewhere between firm and ruthless — entitle him to the status of de facto village headman. His younger brother, Kashi, is a kind of Sufi mystic, unable to endorse Shahji’s materialism and enforcement of traditional social hierarchies.

The Shahs reflect the religious syncretism of pre-partition Punjab, a place where God is known to Hindu, Muslim and Sikh alike as Rabb, and the teachings and holy men of every religion are known and respected by all. Shahji often reminds us that under British rule, religious and caste identities are often codified; Kashi contends that these differences have no true value.

The Shah brothers are the link between the village, and thus the book, and the outside world. But the book’s most compelling characters are the women of the household. Chachi Mehri, a widow who left her wealthy Sikh in-laws to marry a Shah, only to be widowed again without bearing child, is a heartbreaking example of unfulfilled yearning in a society where women are judged only on their ability to produce sons. Shahni, Shahji’s wife, is eventually successful in this regard, but is then confronted by the undeniable mutual attraction between her husband and Rabeyan, a young woman brought in to help take care of the son. Zindaginama is a powerful reminder that denying women the pursuit of happiness means suppressing female sexuality and desire, not eliminating it.

By any standards, this is a difficult book to translate. It is a Punjabi story told in Hindi, with extensive use of Punjabi vocabulary. Much of the narrative is dialogue, in a variety of different registers. And the book is full of poetry — from well-known and obscure verse in many languages to songs and couplets composed by Sobti herself. Mani and Mazumdar deserve credit simply for attempting a task of such difficulty. But their translation does a disservice to Sobti’s book. It is clumsy, ungrammatical — there are basic errors on almost every page that ought to have been caught by an editor — and filled with clichés. The tone ranges from anachronistic contemporary English — this village has a “community centre” — to a bizarre mock-Victorian. In a book that is distinguished above all by its attention to the particular sounds and rhythms of rural Punjab, it is jarring to hear one character say of another: “Syeda is one skittish filly.”

The translators choose to retain a vast number of Hindi and Punjabi words in the English text, in a professed attempt to convey “cultural nuances” and “specific flavour”. But they appear unconvinced by their own strategy, often offering a gloss in the text itself, so that a sentence contains needless repetition. The result is a text that is simply not convincing in English. This passage could serve as a précis of the translation’s weaknesses:

“Noora, once infamously known as Yaarni Jatti, descended to her customary tactics. ‘Shut up, oye , ishqi tiddey , you lovelorn pipsqueak, countless manhoods have been vanquished in pussy worship.’”

As difficult as Zindaginama must have been to translate, the book, and Sobti, deserved better.

Keshava Guha is aBengaluru-based writer.

Zindaginama ; Krishna Sobti, translated from the Hindi by Neel Kanwar Mani and Moyna Mazumdar, HarperPerennial, Rs. 550.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.