The Walls of Delhi | Uday Prakash

Spectral tunnels

With the surge in Indian English publishing, it is no secret that authors who work in the other Indian languages have long felt neglected and undervalued. A particularly sharp expression of this occurs in the story Mangosil, by the celebrated Hindi writer Uday Prakash. “When I tried explaining my troubles to Delhi’s influential writers and thinkers," says the narrator, a possible stand-in for Prakash himself, “I felt as if I were a snail that had surfaced to the world above, telling the divine bipeds patting their fat bellies about his wild, weird, other-caste experiences from his home at the bottom of the sea. My language was incomprehensible."

The chilling sense one gets from this passage is of someone trapped in a hermetically sealed room, the echoes of his own cries bouncing off the walls. It is no surprise then that the three stories in Prakash’s collection The Walls of Delhi contain powerful representations of other forms of marginalization too. The world of this book is one of spectral tunnels in which the untold chronicles of the dispossessed lie hidden (“walk outside your home and take a good look at the little crowd that hangs out at the shop or stall or cart. You might find where the tunnel comes out") as well as hollow walls containing the dark secrets of privileged people.

The Walls of Delhi: By Uday Prakash, Translated By Jason Grunebaum, Hachette India, 224 pages, ₹ 350.
The Walls of Delhi: By Uday Prakash, Translated By Jason Grunebaum, Hachette India, 224 pages, ₹ 350.

These are angry, sarcastic stories, imbued with the rage of someone who has seen too much meaningless injustice to want to withhold judgement—it is the rage that comes with seeing the cities of a half-developed country from the sky, as “incongruous tokens of priceless, shining marble stuck in the mire and mud". Prakash’s writing is full of poetic imagery. “One more stomach had delivered itself to the house that morning," is said of a child’s birth in a poor family. When Mohandas wades into a river, “tiny kothari fish swam to the surface and fought to nip at the salt from his teardrops". And the narrator occasionally breaks the fourth wall by giving us parenthetical asides about politics or the economy, showing a sense of curiosity about the wider world and about distant figures like Bill Clinton, almost as if trying to convince himself that his derelict protagonists really do inhabit the planet on which these other, “important" things are happening.

Not having read these stories in the original Hindi, Jason Grunebaum’s translation seemed serviceable to me, though there is the odd jarring note: An old man says “hey blindy"—an awkward, slangy translation of “andhi"—to his wife, and some phrases—“Isn’t this peachy?"—feel culturally discordant. But Grunebaum clarifies that he wanted to make these stories accessible to a non-Indian readership, which is as well, for their content is unsettling and often fantastical to begin with. At the same time, it is useful to remember how strange reality can be. In his afterword, Grunebaum mentions a trip with Prakash to Chhattisgarh, where they just happened to run into the “real Mohandas", walking on the road, “looking just as haggard and resilient as described in the story". They spoke for a bit, took some photos and then went their separate ways—“Mohandas" presumably to continue fighting his small battles against shadowy imposters, Grunebaum returning to translate stories about deprivation for a readership that can sympathize but perhaps not fully understand.

Jai Arjun Singh

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Unclaimed Terrain | Ajay Navaria

Shadow people

Unclaimed Terrain: By Ajay Navaria. Translated by Laura Brueck, Navayana, 200 pages, ₹ 295.
Unclaimed Terrain: By Ajay Navaria. Translated by Laura Brueck, Navayana, 200 pages, ₹ 295.
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