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The Play of Dolls stories show how Hindi poet Kunwar Narain explored the human through the inhuman

In a new translation of his early short fiction, the humanity of men is stripped and threatened in relation to animals as well as other men

Written by Harish Trivedi |
August 30, 2020 6:30:46 am
Kumar Narain was primarily a poet, in which capacity he won many plum awards and honours: the Sahitya Akademi, the Jnanpith, the Padma Bhushan and the lot.

In one of Kunwar Narain’s stories, two men begin fighting in the middle of a street, calling each other the “son of a pig,” “insect,” “owl”, etc. Gradually, all the creatures so invoked come and surround the two men to watch them fight. The ass asks (he would, wouldn’t he?) why they are fighting, not knowing that to fight you don’t need a reason, but only strength. When the two men have strangled each other to death, all the animals clap loud and long enough to make the skies resound. The lion declares ceremoniously that the fight ended in a tie, and orders an owl sitting on a tree to record the history of the fight for the edification of future generations of animals.

In another story, two rapacious and rival managers of an orphanage are prevented from killing each other by a woman tying them to stakes at opposite ends of a courtyard as they viciously snarl and growl. In yet another, a mysterious man comes riding a high horse and orders the narrator to take off all his clothes. And, in yet another, a terrifying insect appears and sits on top of the narrator’s manuscript, glinting at him more and more terrifyingly. But no, unlike in Kafka, the minatory insect here is one entity and the human victim another; the one does not metamorphose into the other.
The humanity of men is stripped and threatened not only in relation to animals in these stories but also, of course, to other men.

An ageing man renounces the world but is soon hauled back to a police station because they have found an old shirt of his with bloodstains on it. By the time the killer is found, this all-forsaking man has gone out of his mind and begun to claim that he has murdered not one person but “the whole world”. In a quieter and subtler story, a man feels his status as a human being diminished by the hour as he is made to sit all day, waiting to be called in by a government official he has come to see. Many of the first-person narrators in the other stories here are meek, mild and fairly faceless characters, created mainly to be sat upon, but this one shows high individuality.

Sitting idly but impatiently, he vaguely recalls Shakespeare: “I am tied to the stake/…bear-like” (animal and stake again!). He then recalls more accurately Sahir Ludhianvi: “Meri raaton ke muqaddar mein sahar hai ki nahin? (Is it the fate of my nights to see the dawn or not?, as translated here)” When he is finally called in, the smug official, who has probably never heard of either poet, dismisses his plea at once with civil aplomb. The few women in these stories are less than fully human to start with, for they are invariably seen through male eyes. This is not the predatory male gaze so much as a quizzical but indulgent regard for the different quiddity of women. There are several sudden kisses, initiated by women as well as men. In an especially intricate story, a woman stands stark naked before a mirror, gazing at herself through the narrow gap between her fingers with which she covers her face. She is trying to see how she looks to others — with the male narrator watching her watching herself.

These stories are like no others written by any Hindi writer. As if conducting semi-scientific experiments, Narain brings a sceptical scalpel to all kinds of characters to peel off their put-on humanesque skins and expose their beastly nature. Through setting himself these ethical puzzles, Narain seems intent on figuring out what precisely it means to be human and to act human. Some of the stories seem to be ingeniously designed thought-experiments, and in some others, this persistent humanist concern becomes explicit, as with the strings in the puppeteer’s hand occasionally showing in the title-story, ‘The Play of Dolls’. The word “human” tolls through the book.

Kumar Narain was primarily a poet, in which capacity he won many plum awards and honours: the Sahitya Akademi, the Jnanpith, the Padma Bhushan and the lot. In a famous poem, he said he wished to be reborn as “human-er”. This volume of short stories was the only one he put together in his lifetime. The two conscientious translators substantially enhance the 143 pages of the text here with 48 pages of informative and solicitous para-text. One can’t wait for Narain’s other (posthumous) collection of short stories to come out in English, for they are even more playfully inquisitive.

Harish Trivedi taught English at Delhi University

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