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The ‘unfathomable’ India

The ‘unfathomable’ India
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First Published: Fri, Feb 25 2011. 06 32 PM IST

India—A Traveller’s Literary Companion: Edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, HarperCollins India, 234 pages, Rs399.
India—A Traveller’s Literary Companion: Edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, HarperCollins India, 234 pages, Rs399.
Updated: Fri, Feb 25 2011. 06 32 PM IST
The last story in this collection summed it up. Githa Hariharan’s Halfway Animals is not an uninteresting tale, it’s well-written and it makes you look at chimpanzees in a new way.
Chalk up three positives. But what does it have to do with Tamil Nadu, south India or even India, which is how it is slotted? Answer: nothing at all (except, if you deduce from her name that Hariharan is from Tamil Nadu). And this artifice of slotting was just one more irritation in a book that has plenty of them.
India—A Traveller’s Literary Companion: Edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, HarperCollins India, 234 pages, Rs399.
They came like a meteor shower— quick, flashing, repetitive—in Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s Canvasser Krishnalal. The title itself is puzzling: Who or what is a canvasser? I assumed it’s someone canvassing for votes. But in his preface, Chandrahas Choudhury calls Krishnalal an “itinerant seller”, and I later learned that Bandhopadhyay himself gave it that title. It would have been good to find out why he chose that odd word. Why not Vendor Krishnalal?
The Krishnalal story was translated by an American academic, apparently for an American audience. So it has people saying “What’s up with the rent?” and “Enough already!” and “the pain goes right away”. It is filled with references to cents and pennies—in one case, “a few pennies’ worth of shopping” and “four cents’ shopping” appear two lines apart—but also sometimes to rupees. It refers to “Shiyalda” and “Sheyalda”, both of which might capture the pronunciation for an American reader, but might leave an Indian, accustomed to “Sealdah”, geographically baffled. It talks of “cigarillos”, presumably beedis in their untranslated avatar.
Like with Hariharan’s writing, it’s not that this is an uninteresting story. But why didn’t Choudhury see fit to put back beedis and paise, perhaps even Sealdah?
Some writers left me cold. For example, in Asura Pond, Fakir Mohan Senapati rambles from allegory to philosophy to narrative, apparently unsure of what he wanted to write. So when he “proves” that there were fish in the pond by observing that “no one ever saw the crocodiles carrying money (or) obtaining fish in exchange for rice” (yes), this sarcasm or irony or whatever only seems clumsy. In Nazir Mansuri’s The Whale, the characters are too often “enraged”, or otherwise gripped by extreme emotion, to be believable. Did Mansuri write this way or was Nikhil Khandekar an over-zealous translator?
Admittedly, there are bright spots. Mansuri himself nicely weaves a parallel through his story that eventually comes to fruition in the mind of a whaler contemplating a woman lying in a room: “(Her) back tugged at him desperately, like the back of a whale.” And six pages apart, I found two different yet oddly complementary notes about marriage. Qurratulain Hyder speaks of “people who had been married for years and years, for whom there was nothing new, nothing left to know, and it was time for peace, calm and rest”. For Kunal Basu, it is “the pointless chitter-chatter of long married couples that added less than pepper and salt to plain evenings with television and occasional incursions by neighbours”.
These closely observed images make you wonder: Did Choudhury deliberately juxtapose these stories? And then you know: Because nothing else connects these 13 stories, even the tenuous link jumps out. And there you have it—my major problem with this book.
It’s not that the writing is uneven. It’s not that some translation is iffy. But there is no reason to put these stories together.
Anita Desai sets it up in her foreword when she says: “(T)hese stories … are a kaleidoscope of the traditional and modern, the urban and rural, the wealthy and impoverished—a revealing glimpse into the many Indias encompassed by that fathomless word ‘India’”. Consider that if you replaced “India” with “world” in that sentence, you’d have a good introduction to a grab-bag of stories from around the planet that share nothing except that they were written by humans. I can’t think of one reason why that grab-bag should exist. Are things different because it’s India? Because what Desai is really saying is that these stories share nothing except that they were written by Indians.
Here’s the point. We all look for good writing, and certainly there’s some in this book. But when someone puts together an anthology, you naturally want to know what prompted him to do it. In itself, that can be a provocative insight into the anthologist’s thinking. This is why I own and enjoy such anthologies as Urban Voice, Worst Journeys, and The Short Works of Richard Feynman.
But in this case, how did Choudhury select these stories? What’s the thread that runs through this “Literary Companion”? If “world” would be an unsatisfactory answer to those questions, “India”, even “fathomless India”, is no less so. Fathomless we might be, but we have our skeins and webs. This would have been a more memorable book by far had Choudhury taken us on a journey along one of those.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 25 2011. 06 32 PM IST