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Shelly Walia: Gains in translation

Shelly Walia 

At the end of the book, Rakhshanda Jalil makes an honest admission. “A translation can never equal the original,” she writes, explaining that there is always an “inevitable distance between creative writing and its translation”. So we can take her word for it that the book doesn’t faithfully replicate the aura and complexities of Premchand’s characters and the exact nuances of Indian society of the late 19th century. Not that the reader should expect it, given the limitations of the English language and the challenges of transposing the poetic sheen of Premchand’s prose.

Despite her caveat, Jalil still does a commendable job in recreating the magic of reading Premchand’s stories for those who cannot access the originals. She strives to capture the essence of his writings in two ways — first, through the fine craftsmanship of her language and, second, through the intelligent selection of his work.

Moreover, the 17-odd stories Jalil has chosen offer an array of characters, situations and even narrative tones that make the book complete in itself. She broadens the experience of reading Premchand’s stories by bringing together not only the writer’s favourite stereotypes — oppressive landlords and moneylenders pitted against poor farmers and untouchables — but magistrates, Englishmen, college-goers and writers.

Among her selections are the widely-read and relished Idgah, Bade Bhai Saheb and Salvation, those that also form a part of the Hindi curriculum in schools and colleges; simple tales that draw on the harsh realities of conformed social structures, including A Winter Night, The Thakur’s Well, A Tale of Two Oxen, A Quarter and One Ser of Wheat and The Price of Milk; fable-like tales such as The Secret of Civilisation and witty commentary in Why do People Marry?

For instance, in a simple short story, The Price of Milk, the services of an untouchable housemaid in fostering an upper caste boy — even feeding the child her milk — are returned by putting out leftovers for her own son. Premchand exposes the upper and lower caste divide as it existed in his time. And, Jalil, in her translation, does capture the plight of the untouchable boy beautifully.

She writes: “But with the fading daylight, Mangal’s resentment too began to ebb. The hunger that had gnawed at him during his childhood had drunk his life blood and grown stronger. His eyes would constantly lift towards the clay pots. By now, he would have been given Suresh’s leftover sweets. What could he eat here? Dust?”

In The Salt Inspector, Premchand touches upon the concerns raised by Mahatma Gandhi against the egregious salt tax during the British Raj. As for the portrayal of women, even in a patriarchal society, Premchand’s women are not showpieces; though often depicted as cantankerous vixens, they are the mouthpieces of the society’s bitter truths. Jalil’s palette, in fact, has a mix of the writer’s many hues.

Where Jalil also scores a point is bringing together those of Premchand’s short stories that have a somewhat modern and contemporary resonance. Plus, his stories — like R K Narayan’s — have such simplicity at their core that they never run the risk of being misunderstood in the 21st century. Several of his stories draw on the deleterious effect of the caste system on society, the perceived glamour of the English language, the mad race to get a lucrative job among the Indian elite and the chasm between the upper and the lower classes. All of these are issues that find a resonance in India in the new millennium. At no point does Premchand’s allure seem dated. Since his stories are topical, it would be easy for anyone unfamiliar with Indian society to grasp its multifarious and intricate workings.

The title of the compilation, too, espouses the motto of unity in diversity, also reflecting what the translator attempted in her choice of stories. Moreover, it brings to the fore the religious frictions palpable back then and prevalent still.

Premchand’s short stories are a by-word in Hindi literature. The importance of these translations lie in the way he drew on north Indian social and cultural milieu of his time to present a dispassionate social commentary. It would be a monumental crime if his stories didn’t reach out to the English-speaking world and non-Hindi speaking Indians.

Jalil is an experienced translator and is devoted to popularising Hindi-Urdu culture. She has to her credit the translated works of literary geniuses such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Intizar Hussain and Shahryar. As a celebration of Premchand’s writings, she’s certainly pulled it off.

Translated by Rakhshanda Jalil
197 pages; Rs 250

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First Published: Fri, January 27 2012. 00:36 IST