Of literature’s many paradoxes, one of the most persistent is the dependence of so many writers who call themselves realists on protagonists who are anything but. Like all good paradoxes, this one too points to an important truth. From Miguel de Cervantes onwards, naïve protagonists in fiction—their hearts filled with noble ideals, believing, if not that the world is a just place, then certainly that a more just world can be made—provide a point of view on human nature that eventually unsettles readers just as much as their fictional milieu unsettles them. Of course, they may come across as purely comic if they, like Don Quixote, refuse to learn anything. But equally, should they learn to adapt themselves to their circumstances, we sense something tragic about their realism, and feel the need to defend or rescue exactly what they are abandoning.

Something like this narrative arc—one says “something" because this substantial novel is only a fragment of a massive, seven-volume story, and much remains to be realized in the story’s “future"—appears in Girti Deevarein by Upendranath Ashk. Ashk is one of the realist Hindi novel’s holy trinity alongside Munshi Premchand and Yashpal. This series was his great novelistic project: the story of five years in the life of a highly sensitive young man that he hoped would also become a portrait of the age.

Brutalized by a belligerent, hard-drinking father, Chetan knows he can never become the same kind of man—but has no sense of what kind of man to become instead. He needs time to grow into a place of independence, but meanwhile time is a rope twisting more and more knots around him: a wife who does not represent what he wants in a woman, a job in a newspaper that bears no resemblance to what he seeks from work. He is tormented by his feelings towards women who cross his path—most notably his sister-in-law, Neela. Not having a strong sense of self, he repeatedly places his trust in older men who seem to represent some kind of power or virtue, but each one of these engagements leads him only to a further revelation of “the duplicity of the age".

Beyond him, another figure seems to proceed serenely: the writer, building up in painstaking (and occasionally pointless) detail the surfaces and structures of lower middle-class life in undivided Punjab in the 1930s. We are in a universe of galis and mohallas (neighbourhoods), charpoys and turbans, thundering patriarchs, downcast mothers, the frames of karma and dharma, the Arya Samaj and the Congress party, a glass of milk before bed, and one set of new clothes every year (readers attentive to the literary politics of language will be interested to know that Ashk, himself a Punjabi, began the novel in Urdu and later translated it into Hindi, following the lead of Premchand, who was an early literary champion of Hindi in the Urdu-Hindi-Hindustani debates of the time).

Daisy Rockwell, Ashk’s greatly involved translator (she has also written a critical biography of the writer, and published a collection of his stories called Hats And Doctors), has elsewhere compared Ashk to Marcel Proust. The resemblance is certainly worth contemplating. Both writers wrote a seven-volume novel sequence that remained unfinished. The theme of In Search Of Lost Time is also the development of a nervous and questing young man into an artist, and both protagonists return obsessively to the fevered climate of their childhoods.

But the fundamental difference is that Proust’s story is told in the first person by the protagonist, who by the force and beauty and peculiarity of his obsessions succeeds in converting us to his poetic vision of reality, while Ashk’s narrator shows us Chetan from the outside as the prisoner of his circumstances, and the reality of Ashk’s world remains stubbornly prosaic and mean. The workings of memory are central to the narrative method of both writers. But the dozens of flashbacks to Chetan’s childhood reveal not just a character who seeks refuge from his own present, but also a writer wrestling with his own rather rudimentary technique, and finding no other way of going forward than going backwards.

Towards the end, though, the writing suddenly takes wing, and Chetan’s difficulties with the world begin to be marked by insight rather than incoherence. Glimmering observations begin to appear about the relationship between art and life, self and society, religion and morality (trying, for instance, to compare the boy Chetan’s love of nature with the adult Chetan’s love of art, the narrator observes that “with art, he found what he couldn’t attain in nature: self-expression" and that “Art is really the daughter of nature").

The story builds up to a devastating denouement. After having meditated for long upon his discontent, Chetan decides that he is at fault for the emotional distance between his wife and him. He resolves to make an effort to scale the wall of gender difference so deeply built into marriage by tradition, and make his wife not his slave but his friend.

Just then comes the news that the young Neela is about to be married off. And Chetan remembers that it was he who, having nearly committed a misdemeanour with Neela, had advised her father to have her married off. Now, attending the wedding, he sees that the groom is a well-off, well-over-the-hill widower. Yearning for a genuine soulmate himself, he has just ensured that another human being will forever be denied one. Yet again, Chetan feels hapless, but there is a difference: He feels hapless for the sake of someone else. And in the same breath he ceases to lie to himself. “The naked truth appeared before him. He was in love with Neela.... Intelligence, religion, morality, society, marriage—all those walls which in reality had kept his desire hidden from him had fallen in his imagination." Watching these walls fall so dramatically, one moves from asking more of Ashk to asking for more Ashk.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novels Arzee The Dwarf (2009) and Clouds (forthcoming).

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