(Translations is now a regular monthly column in the Business Standard, covering works by Indian writers.)
Ila Arab Mehta,
Translated from Gujarati by Rita Kothari
Rs 350, 200 pages
In March 2003, a brief news item, a few paragraphs long, came out in The Telegraph. “Muslims in Gujarat face blatant discrimination”, the headline said: this community had difficulty buying houses, and found it hard to get mobile phone connections, housing loans, credit cards and insurance policies.
“Or anything,” the story added helpfully, “that requires the verification of name, address and source of income.” These news stories, their smudged print speaking of the ways in which the lives of numerous Indians had been disrupted and diminished by an institutionalised discrimination, were forgotten as the memory of the 2002 riots in Gujarat faded.
By 2011, when Ila Arab Mehta’s Fence (Zubaan, translated by Rita Kothari) was published in Gujarati, the facts of segregation and prejudice against Muslims in the state were no longer considered newsworthy in an India surging in a different direction. But fiction has a licence that goes far beyond the reach of the news, and with decades of experience as a novelist, short story writer and teacher, Mehta spins a deft tale for the times. It is a pity that the introduction speaks of Fence in isolation, not placing it in the context of Mehta’s other challenging and memorable writings.
The Gujarati cover for Fence (Vad) features a faceless woman in a burkha, her silhouette hovering above a large apartment building bisected diagonally by a single strand of barbed wire. The English language edition replaces this with a burkha-clad woman, her eyes connecting with the reader’s, radiating a sturdy confidence as she rides a motorbike.
We meet Fateema Lokhandwala when she is on her way to work, preferring to ride along the riverbank so that she can see the new housing estates coming up where she hopes to buy a small flat of her own some day. Her story unfolds rapidly. She grows up in a “fragile mud-baked house that could fall any moment” in a village in Saurashtra. By the age of eight, she begins to understand that some classmates are different: she is “different”, so are Dalits.
Education and English give her a way out; soon she has started to dream larger dreams. “Surely, on this wide and beautiful earth that Allah had made, there must be a small piece of land for me?”
Without sentimentality, but with enormous affection, Mehta sets down the many fences in Fateema’s life – when she clears her university exam, part of her wonders at the questions the examiners ask her, about Jinnah and Hindu-Muslim unity.
“How much she had prepared for the interview, from ancient to modern India!” But were the examiners really interested in the questions they asked, or were they scrutinising her “Muslim mentality”? When she can finally afford a house, she is told that the builder’s plans are never quite ready yet, that there is no provision in the society rules to allot flats to a single woman. Religion is never mentioned, and yet it stands like a fence between her and her dreams.
A key subplot concerns Fateema’s brother, Kareem, and his immersion in the world of an imported terrorism, of conspiracies “to spread communal tension” and to “incite the youth”, in those twinned phrases. He attempts to draw Fateema in, too, and for a brief while, she finds herself under suspicion for being a traitor, a namakharam. (Kothari, the Gujarati literature expert who has translated Fence, wisely leaves “namakharam” as it is instead of attempting clunky verbatim equivalents.)
This is the weakest section of Fence: the trope of the terrorist and the “good”, patriotic Muslim, found in the same family, grates all the more because it is such a cliche in an otherwise subtle and layered novel. Fateema is three-dimensional; Kareem just a plot device. But once the novel returns to Fateema’s dream, it gathers strength again.
The saddest part of Fence is not that the prejudices Mehta sketches so expertly are true; it is that the compassion, trust and practical assistance Fateema receives from strangers, friends and even the police ring slightly hollow. In these times, happy endings are the preserve of fiction, not reality.
My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits
Translated from the Original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi
When I meet readers who know Ismat Chughtai only through her most famous short stories, I struggle to explain what they have missed. Ismat became part of my memory so gradually; I read her short stories, old interviews, her account of the infamous obscenity trial that took her and Manto to Lahore, and then her memoir, with an increasing sense of respect and affinity.
She became one of the great joys and influences of my reading life; somewhere between Toni Morrison, Mahasweta Debi, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, Chughtai lay stretched out on her charpai, chewing ice, her notebook propped up on her pillow.
For those who have not yet had the pleasure of encountering Chughtai’s work in full, Morrison has a useful word: rememory, which refers to those people and places that should be part of your memory, but have slid just out of reach until summoned.
My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits (translated from the original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi; Women Unlimited) is an essential companion volume to Chughtai’s memoir and her fiction. The 21 pieces here roam from the urgent question facing writers after Partition – how to respond to horror? – to pen-portraits of Manto, of writers from the Progressive movement, sketches of her childhood, peppered with her views on women (and the men who have too many views on women).
In Naqvi’s translation, Chughtai’s voice carries clearly across the decades, her humour and acute observations intact. One minor omission is that the date of publication for each essay is not included, though it may be worked out from context.
Instead of translating words like afsana, fitna, sehra, Naqvi follows the sensible practice of including a translation in brackets at first usage and continuing to use the Urdu word subsequently, or printing it in italics untranslated if the meaning is clear from the context.
Two of the great losses of urban Indian life are repaired in the first sections: the amnesia over the rich debate between the Progressives and the Modernists, and the vivid Urdu literary world in India just before and after Independence.
The communal violence after Partition was covered by so many writers working in Hindi and Urdu: Chughtai names Krishan Chander, Sardar Jafri, Majaz, Ahmed Abbas, Upendranath Ashk, Sahir Ludhianvi and many more. “How could literature, which has close ties with life, avoid getting its shirtfront wet when life was drenched with blood?” she asks; a writer cannot be silent in the dark times.
Ismat retains her usual clarity about Manto – their literary friendship spanned decades and survived Manto’s drinking. “Manto is very fond of things that create an uproar and awaken with a start even those who are fast asleep…. Well, that will impress everyone, he will be famous,” she writes. But when Hanif Ramay attacked him in the 1950s, she was swift to rebuke him: “Manto was neither a giant nor a dwarf. Not everything was for sale in Manto’s life. Friendship, love, honour and privacy – he has not sold any of these values for pennies.”
Chughtai’s views on gender could be transported from her times into ours. She writes with keen intelligence on the heroine and her shadow sister, the tawa’if; with brisk scorn on the kerfuffle over erotic writing in literature. “It’s not necessary to concentrate on every kind of filth imaginable… but what is so shameful about exposing a particular part of the body in order to soak up the sunlight?” And those who venerate women as goddesses, she suggests, would do better to imagine women as friends or companions.
There is so much here, from Chughtai’s hatred of hypocrisy – the wide gap between what was embraced in private, denounced in public – to her swift dissections of the fiery literary debates of the time. But this collection is also a chance to see how she was as a writer, from the stories she wrote in secret in her childhood to her brisk pronouncements: “That’s not dialogue, that’s just the way we speak at home.”
Her advice to writers was typical: “Write, and write so much that people begin to accept you as a reality.” It takes a second before you feel the bite, and the truth, behind the words.
Written In Tears
Arupa Patangia Kalita
The North East may be one corner of India where these stories are placed, but their likeness can be found in many areas of the world today,” writes Ranjita Biswas, who has produced a highly competent, fluid translation of Arupa Patangia Kalita’s eight novellas and stories compiled in Written in Tears (Harper Perennial). “One only has to scratch the surface to come face-to-face with the truth.”
Most of these stories were written during Assam’s most turbulent years, and Kalita has always had a way of telling stories as though the landscape formed the paper on which she wrote. But in so many of these stories, she captures that larger truth, placing her along with writers as diverse as Chimamanda Adichie (Half Of A Yellow Sun) or Phil Klay (Redeployment).
This collection is a manual for surviving loss, for living alongside drastic change and uncertainty, and Kalita’s attempt often seems to be on an insistence that the individual be given dignity, not reduced to a statistic or a symbol of the long conflict. Her storytelling unfolds in ripples, moving often towards violence, but within those circles, there are glimpses of beauty, ordinary loves, everyday concerns.
In Anurima’s Motherland, the protagonist dreams, not of the police or of abandoned houses, but of the honey bees she loves in the garden. “She dreamt that they flew away from the honeycomb again and again; once she tried to hold them with the end of her chador. Or she saw a bare branch of the tree trembling in the wind, or the base of the tree filled with dead bees…”
It is often women who centre her novellas, as with Mainao in The Cursed Fields of Golden Rice. Legends and demons, the weaving of shawls, a life built on simple, good things – “the fresh harvested paddy, zumai and the pitha” – of the harvest festivals intersect with the inexorable passage of time, the hardening of history around them as soldiers come to eat rice with chicken curry, oblivious to what they have demanded. “Mainao cooked the rice. She wept when she had to kill the hen, which had just started laying the eggs.”
The reader begins to see violence and insurgency differently: not as events in themselves, not even as the outcome of political movements, but as near-demonic interruptions in the fabric of a life someone is trying to weave on her loom.
When Kalita summarises history, she does so deftly. She writes in Face in the Mirror of the early 1990s in Assam with the exhaustion and clarity of over-familiarity: “It was a time when money was counted only in lakhs and the number of deaths escalated every day. The group that wanted a separate state was becoming like the bharando bird; with its two mouths, it was devouring its own body.” But Written In Tears is not so much a history of that time as it is a history of how people survive these times, and how they survive the multiple losses, the slow bleeding of everything around them – unable to leave, despite the many hardships of staying, the risks of turning to stone.
Some of her insights are startling, inverting what you might think you know. The idea, for instance, that much of the imported English school syllabus has no relevance is challenged as one of her main characters, Surabhi Barua, takes Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwaymen and breathes the landscape and the times into those tired phrases, seeing in his ghosts her own: “The girl tied to the pole, her mouth gagged by the soldiers.”
But perhaps Arupa Patangia Kalita is at her best when she asks deceptively simple questions. In the final story, Ayengla of the Blue Hills, Ayengla wonders what people want, why they create problems and conflicts. From these ordinary, almost banal thoughts, she moves to a basic and hard question: “If they did succeed in getting their own land, who would rule it and who would have to leave?” Like the stories in Written In Tears, these are timeless, and timely, questions, with no good answers.
(Published in the Business Standard, September-October 2015)