Book Review: Rockwell revisits a prolific raconteur’s notebooks

Book Review: Rockwell revisits a prolific raconteur’s notebooks

By PRASHANSA TANEJA | | 27 April, 2013
Upendranath Ashk
Upendranath Ashk’s stories, selected from a long and fruitful career, place him alongside masters of short fiction like Guy de Maupassant, writes Prashansa Taneja.

I bought my first collection of the Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk's short stories from the Hindi Book Centre's stall at this year's Delhi World Book Fair. The 'Hindiwaalon ka arena' (as I like to call it) in Hall No. 12 was a place different from any other at the book fair. Students with jholas filled with books hanging on one shoulder conversed passionately about Hindi literature. At Bharatiya Jnanpith's stall, the man at the till asked me how many books by Hindi author Jainendra I had read when I purchased his novel Sunita. Outside a stall, a couple was seated on chairs drinking tea and talking to three bespectacled men in kurta-pyjamas, who were standing up. Just as I was passing by them, one of the bespectacled men said to the other two, "Now, janaab, tell me, wasn't it Devaki Nandan Khatri who wrote Chandrakanta?" I stopped to listen. The man continued rather grandly, "Sitting before you is the grandson of that very great writer!" The grandson smiled, bowed his head in recognition of his ancestry, and drank some more of his tea.

My search for Upendranath Ashk's books led me to Hindi Book Centre's stall. The owner was very sorry to tell me that they only had a collection of ten of his short stories and, no, they didn't have his novel Girti Deewarein in stock at the fair. However, I could go to their shop on Asaf Ali Road. But surely there must be a bigger collection of his short stories? The owner shook his head. "What can we do? Things are in a pitiable state at Neelabh Prakashan (the publishing house started by Ashk's wife Kaushalya, now managed by their grandsons). The books are riddled with printing mistakes. They don't keep Ashk's books in stock anymore and get the books bound ad hoc if someone places an order. You should try National Book Trust."

I bought the short-story collection from Hindi Book Centre and started walking towards the NBT stall, in hopes of finding a copy of Upendranath Ashk ki Shresht Kahaniyan ("The Best Stories of Upendranath Ashk"). But no such luck. The trip to Vani Prakashan's stall, too, was fruitless, but not entirely disappointing, as they had good news to share: a multi-volume granthavali or collected works of Upendranath Ashk was in the works.

Ashk's contribution to Hindi literature runs into thousands of pages (plays, novels, short stories and many volumes of autobiographical writings) and, when his collected works are published, they will easily occupy an entire shelf, if not two. His short-story writing career alone spans half a century. Ashk's staggering oeuvre might discourage the timid reader who can read his work in the original Hindi but doesn't know where to start (and perhaps is a little unconfident about his or her reading speed). Daisy Rockwell's fantastic translations of sixteen of his stories in the volume titled Hats and Doctors are a great introduction not only for non-Devanagari-reading readers completely dependent on English translations, but also for the said modest Hindi reader.

Daisy Rockwell spent seventeen years translating these stories, and a reader need only go back to the stories in the original to see how well she’s carried the rhythm of Ashk’s prose into English. 

Often in these stories, reminiscent of the best short fiction of Guy de Maupassant, people end up inflicting the same wrongs on others that they are enduring already (The Dal Eaters, Formalities), and jump into actions that they have long been trying to, or at least pretending to, avoid (Who Can Trust a Man?, The Cartoon Hero, Some Suds and a Smile) – and the effect is comedic. In The Dal Eaters, which will carve a place in the reader's heart, a family of skinflints travel to Kashmir, only to sleep in Gurdwaras and on footpaths, eat five-anna thalis, go out into the fields to relieve themselves, and inconvenience their fellow travelers and poor Kashmiris whose source of livelihood is tourism. People are brought back down to earth, sometimes cruelly, in stories like Brown Sahibs and A Listless Evening. Bravados are unraveled, ambitions thwarted and self-images broken to pieces.

Dropcap OnIn A Listless Evening a professor in his fifties working toward a DPhil is driven to an act of foolish derring-do by his obsession with a young woman, his neighbour. Ashk shows us the full extent of his puerile fixation, as the professor imagines himself to be capable of youthful love:

"He had just come out of the bathroom after washing his hands and face, the door had been a little open, and then he heard the melody I won't call to you; a tender and lamenting, ringing melody! The silly girl had replaced the masculine verb ending in the song with the feminine. She kept singing that same line over and over again as she went into the hallway or some other room, 'I won't call to you, I won't call to you...' It seemed to Professor Kanetkar as if she were singing those lines over and over again to him. [...] As he scrutinized the attractiveness of his face in the mirror, he thought of that sweet melody and said to himself in Gujarati, 'But I'll call out to you, my love, I'll call out to you.'"

In the title story Hats and Doctors, Ashk draws from his passion for hats (I have yet to see a photograph of him in which he's not wearing one) and experience with doctors. The protagonist is hiding a condition behind his sartorial elegance and expansive collection of hats; he wants to get rid of it and thence begin all his troubles. Ashk has a sharp eye for that aspect of the human condition where we return invariably to our prior states of being to escape or ignore trouble; which is why I made the comparison to Maupassant.

In The Bed, a near-incestuous mother-son relationship hampers a couple's wedding night. Keshi cannot get the image of his mother out of his mind as he starts to make love to his bride: "Until a few years ago, he had lain on his mother's bosom just as he was lying on his wife's at the moment." Even the nuptial bed has been borrowed from the mother. The Indian mama's boy is a figure we are all too familiar with, and Ashk brings out both the comedy and helplessness of his situation. Five of the sixteen stories in this collection are in first person, and I liked My First Letter of Resignation particularly for its narrator's artful voice. The only story that disappointed me a little was The Aubergine Plant which I thought was made predictable by its overt progressivism.

Daisy Rockwell spent seventeen years translating these stories, and a reader need only go back to the stories in the original to see how well she's carried the rhythm of Ashk's prose into English. Ashk might have told her that she was "a very difficult woman to work with", as she shares with us in her delightful introduction, but he couldn't have found a more dedicated and meticulous translator than her.

I enjoyed reading these stories in Rockwell's translation immensely. Every lover of the short story should read them, a couple of stories at a time, and let them work their spell.

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