The magical and the mundane come together beautifully in Anukriti Upadhyay’s recent novellas in English
Both books are set in rural Rajasthan and are full of the flavour of the land and its people
In Anukrti Upadhyay’s novel Daura, an idealistic, poetic young district collector tours the small villages—dhanis—sheltered by sand dunes in the Thar desert and peopled mostly by semi-nomadic and nomadic tribes like the Nats and Kanjars. The Hindi term for this sort of official tour of inspection and restoration—daura—takes on special significance in the course of the story, which is slowly, almost teasingly, revealed to the reader. To a Hindi speaker, the other, deeper meaning of the word may reveal itself early in the narrative, or it may elude them till the author herself points to it, but it is a moment of discovery; of finding pleasure in words and language. Daura also means a bout of illness or madness.
It is this felicity with both the languages she writes in, English and Hindi, that lends a piquant charm to Upadhyay’s two slim novels, Bhaunri (HarperCollins India; ₹299) and Daura, her first works in English. The author says she hadn’t really thought about how writing in two languages impacts the creative process, but it is obvious that it is significant to the way she writes and what she writes about. “Writing in Hindi and English is both enriching and frustrating for me. The relationship I have with the two languages, the ease or caution I approach them with depending upon the story, the constant translating and transmuting as I write and rewrite, can be exhilarating and challenging," says Upadhyay. “I think in both Hindi and English and find myself moving from one language to the other to find the just right expression, which often leads me on wild goose chases, till halfway through, I realize that what I wanted to say has changed."
Both books are set in rural Rajasthan, and are full of the flavour of the land and its people. Upadhyay brings them richly to life—but unlike popular representations of Rajasthani lives and cultures in Bollywood, in movies like Lamhe and Paheli, she neither romanticizes them nor strips them completely of fascination and charm. Their lives are as full of poverty and deprivation as colour and magic and beauty, and in Upadhyay’s deft writing, they retain all these aspects.
It is obvious that Upadhyay loves the desert and its people. “I was born in Jaipur and grew up there. The desert was a presence around me from childhood—something at once real and imagined. The distinctive ways and customs of desert folk, their lore and myths, music, dance, unique aesthetic, food and occupations, hardships and resilience—all enriched my internal and external worlds," she says.
It all “melded and transformed" when she began writing Daura and then Bhaunri. “It emerged vivid and glowing with a beauty that things only have in dreams or memories. I only hope I was able to capture a fraction of the beauty I experienced in my writing," she adds.
Daura is the more magical, mystical story—steeped in the lore of the land; of magnificently beautiful creatures that manifest themselves in mundane forms; of lost princesses and devs, humans who attain divinity because of apparent miracles. You get a sense that these tales and fables are essential to life in these harsh conditions—stories allow the people here to make sense of death and loss and hardship. Yet the real world is never too far in both novels, but especially in Bhaunri, which deals with the lives of women. In an endless cycle of activity, cows must be fed, buttermilk must be churned, bajra rotis must be made hot to serve the men when they come from the fields.
It is also, at heart, a feminist novel that exposes the deeply patriarchal values of the communities it is set in. Bhaunri is a woman of strength and character, yet her life is always subservient to those of her husband and father-in-law. Her strength and resilience as well as her obsessive love for her husband, which makes her both vulnerable and dangerous, are captured in simple, searing prose.
Both novels seem to have sprung from fable-like stories that Upadhyay is only retelling. This, however, is not the case. “The folk tales recounted in the two books, whether it’s the story of the tree princess or Bhaunri’s ancestors, are not folk tales in the real sense of the term. They were not invented in an untraceable past or handed down through generations. I suppose their setting and details and the fantasy at the heart of them give them a fable-like feel. They came into being with the flow of the narrative in each book," says Upadhyay.
Her next book is a “story-cycle with interconnected characters, each piece of which could be read independently and also as a whole." Upadhyay is an admirer of Japanese writers like Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and the working title of this book, Kintsugi, refers to the Japanese art of repairing broken objects with gold so they become more precious than before.
Taking characters and making them more than the sum of their parts is Upadhyay’s strength—something that’s evident in these luminous short novels as well.