When we narrate stories from our past, we call up not just characters from that time but also our own past selves, and sometimes we are surprised by what we see. T’ta Professor, a novel by the renowned Hindi writer, the late Manohar Shyam Joshi, is just such a story. Its two main characters are the professor of the title, whose strange ways and whims make us see him in a constantly changing light, and the narrator himself, a middle-aged novelist called “Mr Joshi”.
A chance meeting with an acquaintance from his past reminds Mr Joshi of the time when, as a youth of 20 and an aspiring “progressive writer”, he worked for a while in a small school in the village of Sunaulidhar in Kumaon. The year is 1952, five years after Independence, but the ghost of the Raj still haunts the person of Khastivallabh Pant, a teacher at the school. He is mockingly called “professor” because of his double MA, and “T’ta” because of his clipped way of saying “Ta ta”, a form of leave-taking he learnt from some British soldiers.
The author wrote the 1980s’ television serial Hum Log (Photo by: The Hindustan Times Archive)
The professor is a crank: He wears a ridiculous pin-striped suit to work; considers himself “Sunaulidhar’s greatest authority on the English language”; and carries a notebook in which he jots down new English words. The young Joshi is quickly drawn into the politics of the school, and has to navigate the internecine strife between the principal, the manager, the clerk, and T’ta, even as he lusts after a teacher in the primary section and plots a comic novel called “Fools’ Paradise”. “Not just the principal and T’ta, virtually all of Sunaulidhar was made for lampooning,” he feels.
But, looking back at the time from the vantage point of old age, Joshi remarks that he could not see then how he himself—vain, hung up on grand romantic ideas, believing himself superior to Sunaulidhar’s provincials—“was as much a member of that Fools’ Paradise as the others”.
Manohar Shyam Joshi was the writer of serials such as Hum Log and Buniyaad, on which an entire generation of TV watchers was weaned, and even here he demonstrates a sure hand with dialogue and a grasp of the vanity of human self-perception. His book is never funnier than when T’ta bursts into tears after his beloved English dictionary is thrown into the gutter by his arch enemy, the principal. But its appeal flags a little when it turns, a little too swiftly, to the subject of sex, which for T’ta is “a very serious matter”, and of the stories of sexual initiation which the two protagonists share with each other. The situation at Sunaulidhar is beautifully set up only to be left behind.
Further, although many English-speaking readers have gained access to Joshi’s work because of translation, it is possible that some of the pleasure of his work is lost in translation. Ira Pande renders Joshi’s Hindi into a serviceable but not particularly attractive English. Some of her choices of words and phrases —“digs” for place of residence, “Lothario” for a womanizer, “any Tom, Dick or Harry”—seem stilted. This is all the more a fault because the narrative is about the laughable tendency of some Indians to imitate the English.
When Pande translates one line as “In those days, conversations about birth control were conducted sotto voce between friends”, the reader instantly feels that “sotto voce” is not the best choice of phrase, because its register is too formal when compared with the rest of the sentence, in a way that the original Hindi probably is not. But enough of Joshi comes through for us to want to read his more substantial works, in particular his novel Kyap, for which he won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2005.
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