Mitali Goswami, who has translated Imran Hussain's The Water Spirit and Other Stories from the original in Assamese, begins the book's afterword with a fairly well-known quote from Salman Rushdie's essay Imaginary Homelands: "Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation. I cling obstinately to the notion that that something can also be gained." It's a — dare we say it? — noble aim for a translator.
Goswami's translation of Imran Hussain's stories is in tune with the demands of modern-day sub-continental translation projects: there is no exoticism, the language tries to retain as many original words as possible (although there is a glossary at the end) and the intensity of Hussain's last paragraphs comes across beautifully. But the real masterstroke is this: whereas the original collection, Hudumdao aru Annanya Galpo, had just seven stories, the translated volume has eight, the additional story being a dazzling metafictional story called Bashikaran: The Enchantment. So beautifully does this last story tie up the motifs and concerns of the preceding seven tales, that it seems inconceivable that there is a volume out there without it. But we shall return to Bashikaran a little later. For now, let us take a look at what makes The Water-Spirit such a unique collection.
There have been plenty of wonderful Indian stories and poems that have encapsulated ecological themes with wit and wisdom: writers like Manjula Padmanabhan, Gieve Patel, and Ranjit Lal come to mind. Hussain stands apart, even in this august company, because of two reasons. The first is his mastery of the "moment of catharsis", a classical short fiction tool that Chekhov, for one, utilised with absurd ease. In Grash (Encroach), we meet a young girl called Bristi (quite literally, "rain") who is upset at the prospect of two impending deaths: her beloved grandfather, whose crazy tales of a simpler, greener past have an audience of one, and her favourite old tree, about to felled by a soulless corporation. One night, during a thunderstorm, she is approached by a hybrid spirit of sorts: the soul of the old tree anthropomorphised as an old man. Throughout the story, Hussain's dextrous use of language hints at the mystical connection with nature that we risk losing today. In the following lines, the marvellous imagery sums up the themes of deforestation and thoughtless industrialisation:
"As yet, the tree stood upright, now shorn of its leaves and branches, made naked. Only two boughs forked out to the right, and the left was silhouetted against the evening sky. And at the centre was the moon, hung asunder like a piece of dis carded apple. Through the smog of the factory air, the tree looked like a man with hands raised in prayer."
Hussain's second great strength is his highly effective fusion of folklore, superstition and class conflict, frequently placed under the umbrella concerns of eco-feminism: in stories like Hudumdao (The Rain God), Pokhila (The Butterfly) and Jatra (The Journey), we meet what might be considered the archetypal Imran Hussain heroine: a woman in tune with nature, sometimes explicitly engaged in forms of pagan worship (Hudumdao and Pokhila). Adversity, generally personified by the tyranny of the ruling classes (Bak, Utsav, Jatra) has hardened her once-gentle heart and made her a person you would not want to cross (Rubeya, the champion of cuss-words from Jatra). These women often act as mentors or guardians of young girls threatened by the very forces that changed their own lives forever (Bak, Pokhila).
Goswami’s translation of Imran Hussain’s stories is in tune with the demands of modern-day sub-continental translation projects: there is no exoticism, the language tries to retain as many original words as possible (although there is a glossary at the end) and the intensity of Hussain’s last paragraphs comes across beautifully.
In Pokhila (The Butterfly), for instance, we see a perfect convergence of the aforementioned themes. We meet young Togor on the eve of her first period. Only days ago, she was molested by the rich old man whose house she cleaned. She is not overly fond of her mother, who has insisted on the ritual fasting and painstaking solitary confinement that is the lot of the Assamese girl on her first period. Her aunt, Moina-pehi, wants to employ her at a women's cooperative, but her mother is not too impressed with this idea at first. She also points out that Togor's period has happened on a Saturday, believed to be an inauspicious day; first period on a Saturday portends widowhood. Ironically, it is after a shamanistic, other-worldly vision (where Togor sees herself as a butterfly) that pragmatic concerns prevail, with both mother and daughter.
By the time we come to the end of the collection, Hussain has hammered home most of these points quite adequately. Which is why the final story, Bashikaran (The Enchantment) comes as the cherry on top: this story is a postmodern experiment wherein we meet the author Imran Hussain as a character; he is looking to write a story on Hurmati, a traditional healing woman whose abilities he is highly sceptical of. In the opening scene of the story, we see Hussain and his wife talking about the relationship between the reader and the writer: this is a stand-in for the ideas of scholars like Barthes, Foucault and Spivak. Indeed, the epigram of the story is a playful doggerel called A Postmodern Basikaran Mantra, that name-checks all three. "Charmed be my words, armed be my words. / Fixed and rooted they be, If thus they not be / Cause of Mother Gayatri's / death shall you be. // Namoh namah Derridaei namaha, / Fucauaei namah! Hing Kring! Phoo! phoo!!"
Bashikaran is a deconstruction of the belief system that Hussain the character has carefully cultivated, and Hussain the author has masterfully laid down in the preceding stories. By the end of the tale, Hussain is not so sure that the woman is a fraud. The Assamese folktale compiler Lakshminath Bezbarua ends his seminal collection with a classic folk-storyteller's disclaimer: "Don't believe everything I say!", hinting towards the malleability of the oral form. Hussain's metafictional rejoinder falls into the same category.
The Water-Spirit and Other Stories is one of the best Indian releases of the year so far and is likely to end up on every year-end list.