How relevant is the context to a text and its writer? Understanding the circumstances that mould a writer is, perhaps, only a supplementary element in the process of literary appreciation, but it undeniably facilitates a comprehensive understanding of the writer and the text.
The Routledge Writer in Context series on Indian writers has originated from this perspective. Needless to say, it is a very welcome and timely step in the publishing of Indian-language literature in translation, for what it offers through the anthology, is a combination of the writer’s works and their critical appraisal. Although Indian language literatures, or bhasha works, are steadily being brought out of their regions through translations, the critical corpus in the bhashas is yet to be made accessible to readers in other languages. It is this lacuna that the Routledge series addresses very effectively; what makes these books invaluable to the researcher and the reader are the translations of critical works on the writers by critics in their languages.
The first books in the series are on two feisty writers who were leading figures in the languages they wrote in — Krishna Sobti in Hindi and Joginder Paul in Urdu. Sobti, as the title of the book Krishna Sobti: A Counter Archive indicates, was the author of works that challenged and changed the conventional notions of mainstream literature and literary writing. There was nothing normative about her life and work, and they exemplified her statement: “The romance of life is not in a straight line. Things would go stale if that were to happen.”
The Krishna Sobti anthology, edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Rekha Sethi, consists of five broad sections — translations of Sobti’s fiction, her major works of non-fiction, critical perspectives on the writer in English as well as translations from Hindi, interviews with Sobti, and personal reminiscences by other writers. An entire sub-section is very appropriately devoted to what is perhaps the most important in her oeuvre, Zindaginama. The critical essays by Priyadarshan and Rekha Sethi (written originally in Hindi) give us an idea of what the writer meant to the Hindi literary world.
Sobti was revolutionary in her writings, boldly exploring the limits of language and sexuality at a time when very few women writers dared to do so, especially in Hindi. The most eloquent work in this respect is her Mitro Marjani, published in 1967. But this revolutionary spirit did not fortunately limit her to categories of the woman writer or feminist writer. Rather, what we see in her is an androgynous spirit that prompted her to write Hum Hashmat in the male voice. As explained by the editors in their Introduction, “she wanted to create within herself an androgynous self; she wanted to have an alter ego or a self that would give her another perspective from within.” It is interesting to note the coincidental similarity of this with Virginia Woolf’s concept of the androgynous mind which is “woman-manly” or “man-womanly”.
The Joginder Paul anthology titled Joginder Paul: The Writerly Writer is edited by Chandana Dutta and is organised around similar lines as the Sobti volume. Borrowing the term from French literary theorist Roland Barthes, the editor in her preface describes Paul as a ‘writerly writer’ who leaves his texts open-ended, thereby allowing the reader greater freedom in the reading process.
Paul, like his contemporary Sobti, lived through the harrowing experiences of the Partition, which moulded his literary writings to a great extent. His migration to Nairobi in Kenya after marriage added another dimension to his writings, which was of a cosmopolitanism that we rarely find in an Indian language writer. For instance, his anthology Dharti ki Kaal is the first Urdu story collection about Africa. Like Franz Kafka, who wrote in German in Czechoslovakia, Paul’s decision to write in Urdu about Kenya brings to mind the numerous debates that have arisen with respect to the choice of language, especially in the Indian context. Paul’s conscious preference of Urdu over English validates many Indian bhasha writers’ conviction that only the mother-tongue can convey the depth of emotions.
Paul is the inheritor of the Urdu literary legacy handed down by writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Krishan Chander, and like in the works of most of these Partition writers, the nation is a looming presence in many of his works, too. For instance, the extract “The Story of India” from a longer work of the same name, points to how tradition and a highly developed historical consciousness can be counter-productive: “The pressure of acidity caused by excessive consumption of ancient legacy has rendered our national masters too impatient for balanced movement, so we, whose steps depend entirely on whatever they decide to do, keep following them in their painful acrobatics”. The prescience of this observation cannot be lost on us readers in contemporary India.
Another noteworthy contribution of Paul was his championing of the genre called the Urdu afsanche, or very short stories. It can be seen as the precursor of the flash fiction of today. Paul went on to author four collections of afsanche. As American poet-translator Christopher Merrill observes in his essay, each of these very short stories raises existential doubts that usually “a Zen koan can provoke”.
Both volumes maintain a judicious balance between fiction and non-fiction by the writers, supplementing it with critical essays. However, even as we concede that translations of lengthy texts are impossible in a volume of this sort, some of the translated texts appear too sketchy and do not do justice to the creativity of the writer. This is true especially in the Paul anthology.
Some of the critical essays in both volumes are originally written in English. It would have been better if English had been kept out of it altogether, considering that critical material in English is relatively easily accessible. Nonetheless, one advantage of the juxtaposition of English with translated material is that we get a comparative perspective of the writers through the critical lens of their bhashas and English. The influence of Western critical idiom is apparent, however, in the titles of both books — Jacques Derrida in “counter archive” and Barthes in “writerly writer”.
But these are very minor irritants in what is a stupendous exercise of capturing the essence of two prolific writers in rather slim volumes. The editors Paul Kumar and Sethi (Krishna Sobti) and Dutta (Joginder Paul) have done this commendably. They have also taken care to include personal reminiscences by friends and family, which add a touch of warmth to what would otherwise have become a scholarly but dry critical appraisal. It should also be mentioned that despite the nod to western critical lingo in the titles, the books are in themselves written in critically rigorous language that is refreshingly jargon-free.
One hopes that these volumes have only opened the doors to what will be a long and exhaustive series on Indian language writers, for they provide exactly what researchers and scholars in Indian literatures have long been frustrated about – the fact that there lies beyond the veil of an unknown language, a veritable treasure-house of knowledge. They provide the valuable key to unlock and retrieve the luminaries of the multiple Indian literary worlds.
Mini Chandran is professor of English, department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Kanpur