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Upendranath Ashk (1910-96) is one of Hindi literature’s biggest names, a writer whose oeuvre spanned over a hundred volumes of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism and translation. Hats And Doctors offers the English reader the first proper glimpse of Ashk’s very particular sensibility: profound yet light-hearted, satirical yet deeply engaged.

He unravels the ironies of his protagonists’ lives with a wry humour: sharp as a scalpel, yet somehow understated. In some stories, like Who Can Trust a Man?, this is achieved through a glancing narratorial style: People are bereaved, remarry, undergo all kinds of tumult, seemingly without great emotional labour. In others, like In the Insane Asylum, wryness emerges from tragedy. These stories range as widely across 1940s-1960s India as Ashk himself did, from the Bombay film industry to Kashmir, and across the north Indian towns he knew well: Delhi, Lucknow, Jalandhar, Allahabad.

The milieus are delightfully detailed: if Brown Sahibs gives us a marvellously credible sociology of Allahabad’s rickshaw pullers and its bureaucrats, the title story contrasts the ills of Lucknow’s allopaths and homoeopaths.

Upendranath Ashk. Photo courtesy: Neelabh
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Upendranath Ashk. Photo courtesy: Neelabh

How did you come to be interested in Ashk’s writing?

In graduate school at The University of Chicago, I did a lot of reading on Hindi novelists. One writer compared Ashk’s novels to (Marcel) Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This intrigued me and I ended up writing my PhD thesis on Ashk’s six-volume novel cycle Girti Divarein (Falling Walls). There are indeed many similarities with Proust, but Ashk never actually read his novels.

You wrote a biography of Ashk for Katha Books in 2005. Tell us a little about Ashk’s early life.

Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography was based on my PhD thesis. Ashk was born Upendranath Sharma, the second of six sons in a Saraswat Brahmin family in Jalandhar. His father, a station master, was an alcoholic with a violent temper. Girti Divarein is semi-autobiographical, and there are many riveting passages about the impact of Ashk’s father’s violence on the family.

Ashk has said that his father wanted his sons to grow up to be the best at whatever they chose to do. He was just as intent that they learn English and Sanskrit well as he was that they become first-class pehelwans (wrestlers). Ashk and his Bhai Sahib, who became a dentist, failed miserably at this second task, but some of the other brothers did become top-notch pehelwans. After college, Ashk escaped his family, and what he saw as the provinciality of Jalandhar, to make a start for himself as a writer in Lahore.

You met Ashk in the last years of his life. What was it like?

It was terrifying. He was very ill, but quite sharp. I think he believed that researchers should come armed with lists of numbered questions. I had in mind a more organic process of discovery which he didn’t really understand. He wanted me to come to see him every morning to ask these questions that didn’t really exist. His family thought these daily visits were not good for his health, and I’m sure they were right, but his word was still law in the house. So I’d spend the afternoons coming up with new questions, dreading what the morning’s session might bring. Sometimes he would berate me and send me away. There was no knowing what would happen.

It’s fascinating that Ashk started by writing in Punjabi and then Urdu, before shifting to Hindi. Was the choice a difficult one? What did it mean for him as a writer, and for the Hindi-Urdu divide in general?

Hats and Doctors: By Upendranath Ashk, translated by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin, 240 pages, Rs 299
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Hats and Doctors: By Upendranath Ashk, translated by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin, 240 pages, Rs 299

 I’ve never seen Ashk write about this rationale explicitly but he was not an impractical man. He didn’t come from money and he always supported himself through his writing. Hindi was difficult for him, however, because in those days educated Punjabi Hindus were much better versed in Urdu than Hindi. The entire first volume of Girti Divarein he wrote first in Urdu and then translated into Hindi himself.

Ashk seemed to have critical, often publicly hostile relationships with many of his peers, most famously (Saadat Hasan) Manto. According to Aftab Ahmad and Matt Reeck’s recent introduction to Manto’s ‘Bombay Stories’, Manto even left his All India Radio job because he couldn’t stand Ashk editing his plays…

Manto’s conflict was more with Rashid, the station manager who gave Ashk the play to edit. There was a dushmani, however, that Ashk recorded in his long essay Manto Mera Dushman (My Enemy Manto); they both had combative personalities and enormous egos. But Manto later helped Ashk get a job in the film industry in Bombay, so the animosity wasn’t that deep. But yes, Ashk was famous for making enemies. His multi-volume memoir Chehere: Anek (Many Faces) listed the shortcomings of all his contemporaries. Ashk also self-published all his work (his wife, Kaushalya, ran their publishing house, Neelabh Prakashan), and his introductions go on about critics and writers who had unfairly attacked him or deceived him. Ashk strongly believed that the Hindi world had it in for him—and by the end of his life that became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How autobiographical was Ashk’s writing?

Very, although the novels more than the stories. Ashk did have TB and stayed at the Panchgani sanatorium described in Mr Ghatpande. The protagonist in the title story Hats And Doctors, like Ashk, had many interesting types of headgear and suffered from all sorts of maladies. Other than that I wouldn’t say they’re about himself. But Ashk was a firm believer in “write what you know".

Do you have other projects on the anvil?

Yes, I am in the middle of translating the first novel in Ashk’s Girti Divarein series. I’m also working on my third novel (the first two will surface in print in the next year) and, of course, painting, as always.

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