Painted in words
How easy is it to accept that telling a story might not be the principal objective of a novel? Two recent translations—of Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude (Samay Sargam) and Geetanjai Shree’s The Roof Beneath Their Feet (Tirohit)—pose that very question, pushing the reader towards an appreciation of fiction as something akin to painting.
Picture a canvas, if you will, with a multitude of scenes depicted on it. For all its appearance of story-telling, this work of art offers more of an aesthetic experience, an interaction with theme and form through the senses, than it does a journey through one or more narratives from start to finish. Instead, there is one composite view to begin with, which can be followed by a closer look at the parts, only to come back to the whole with greater enrichment.
There is movement, of course, as there must be in fiction. It can even have the façade of chronology, as novels often do. Things take place, people take decisions, and this, in turn, makes more things happen. But more than the bare bones of incidents and characters, it is the artful depiction that captures the attention, creating the more lasting impression. So it is with both The Music of Solitude and The Roof Beneath Their Feet.
Uncannily perhaps, both these novels use space as an integral part of their creations. Shree’s work is set in Laburnum House, a cluster of contiguous buildings with a common roof where a different life plays itself out for the inhabitants stifled by their daily life beneath. And Sobti’s characters move in and out of each other’s modest, government-issue flats, weaving for themselves a reality that alternates with the homogeneity of government-issue existence in Delhi.
Neither of these works, then, is just about the stories they reveal. Still, the succession—or back-and-forth—of incidents remains the glue that holds the framework together. In The Roof Beneath Their Feet, the protagonist Chachcho’s nephew, who had doted on her when she was alive, tries to piece together the story of her life after her death. Joining him on the quest is Lalna, the woman who came in for shelter and stayed back for friendship and, perhaps, much more.
Unexpected truths reveal themselves at every turn, but are they facts? For memory is unreliable, and the characters want to remember things the way it suits them. Even their original perception, it turns out, is flawed. The canvas hides as much as it reveals, and personal history can be, at best, intensely subjective. The untold text says as much, if not more, than what the characters reveal.
Middle-class life takes on a new artistic form in these novels. Once seen as a generic grind by writers flying the flag of gritty naturalism, in these works it is seen as escape from narrative, a living out of individual desires through innovative means. Thus, the relationship between Chachcho and Lalna takes them into a story they build for themselves, empowering them to get away from their respective tyrannies into something that makes life a little more colourful.
Aranya and Ishan, living in solitude with memories of the youth and middle age they have left behind, along with their personal tragedies, make their own story too in The Music of Solitude, breaking out of their self-imposed emotional asceticism to open themselves to possibilities. Admitting the differences in their personalities, gracious in their acceptance of each other’s refusal to change in their personal autumns, they nevertheless find a different dimension of truth through one another’s lives—truth about themselves, more than truth about the world.
On the face of it, this is a romance—between the two of them, as well as between them and the city. But what matters here is not the progression of love or the actualization of it, but the journey that the man and woman embark on to come to terms with this distinctly disturbing emotion. There are splendid conversations on time and mortality, there are endearing moments of cooking and eating, there are quiet travels and startling discoveries along the way, all of them adding up to an entire experience of life rather than the breathless unspooling of passion.
The distinct concerns that inform much of Sobti’s and Shree’s works are to be found here as well. As she did in her path-breaking early novels To Hell With You Mitro (Mitro Marjani) or Listen Girl (Ai Ladki), Sobti, the grande dame of Hindi literature, goes unapologetically into the inner lives of her characters, balancing the intensity of content with a lightness of touch. As for Shree, her political concerns, as played out in personal spaces, are clearly reflected here, just as they are in her earlier Mai and The Empty Space (Khali Jagah).
These are novels in translation, a fact sometimes easy to forget because of the facility of the English versions. Rahul Soni in Shree’s case and Vasudha Dalmia in Sobti’s remain unobtrusive and faithful to the watercolour words in the originals, happily avoiding the earthiness that English often injects into prose. Different registers are captured subtly by both translators, a formidable challenge when working from a language abounding in different dialects of speech.
Both novels explore the individual’s sense of self—according to their personal perceptions rather than the roles they are expected to play in family and society. Gently in Sobti’s case, and explosively in Shree’s, the characters demolish external expectations to stake a claim to life on their own terms. Perhaps it is in depicting this emergence into a sort of freedom that these fine examples of the contemporary Hindi novel show the strides that mindful fiction—versus the litfest-facing kind—continues to take in India.