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Monday, September 27, 2021

Book Review: Falling Walls

Upendranath Ashk has been passed over by history in favour of his friend and rival Sa’adat Hasan Manto. Can a new translation of his Girti Divarein right the balance?

Written by Harish Trivedi |
Updated: November 14, 2015 12:00:17 am
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Title: Falling Walls
Author: Upendranath Ashk, Translated by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 512
Price: Rs 499

When Sa’adat Hasan Manto died in Lahore in 1955, Upendranath ‘Ashk’ wrote a long obituary which he titled “Manto My Enemy.” The two had worked together in All India Radio in Delhi, needling and disparaging each other constantly until Ashk, by his own account, drove Manto to leave and seek employment elsewhere. Shortly afterwards, however, Manto called Ashk over to Bombay to work together again, now in Filmistan Studios, and they were promptly at each other’s throats. “I like you,” Manto soon said to Ashk in English, “though I also hate you.” After the obituary was published, Manto’s widow Safiya wrote to “Ashkbhai-jaan” (brother) to say he had only told the whole truth. She also thanked Ashk for the money he had sent her more than once, for Manto had died in penury and debt.

In the 1930s-’40s, Ashk and Manto were thus on the same page, as rivals but companionate writers of comparable stature. Since then, and especially after the surge of interest in Partition literature upon the 50th anniversary of the event in 1997, Manto’s star has been in the ascendant, perhaps even more so in English than in Urdu, while Ashk languishes in relative obscurity. His literary output is incomparably larger and more various in its themes than Manto’s, comprising huge slices of the human comedy, but Manto with just half-a-dozen searing short stories of man’s inhumanity to man — and to woman — is now in another orbit.


Upendranath ‘Ashk’ (1910-1996) grew up in Jalandhar speaking Punjabi, began writing poetry in Urdu with the takhallus or pen-name of Ashk (tears), switched to writing novels and short stories in Hindi, and then won popularity as the author of widely performed Hindi plays. He had left Bombay when he fell ill with tuberculosis and after a slow recovery, decided to make his home in Allahabad, then the great garh or citadel of Hindi literature. He set up his own publishing house there and jostled for space among numerous hugely talented writers of whom as many as four were to go on to win the Jnanpeeth award. He always felt that he was treated as a Punjabi outsider and never given his due, and he didn’t help matters by going after his critics by joining issue with them at length in print, because of what he called his “love for revenge.” Meanwhile, besides publishing numerous other works of his as he went along, he carried on for half a century with what he intended to be his magnum opus in seven volumes (1947-1996); it came to some kind of an inconclusive end only with his passing away.

It is the first volume of this vast slow-motion narrative, Girti Divarein, which Daisy Rockwell has now translated into English as Falling Walls, herself taking 20 years over the task. Rockwell has a PhD from Chicago on Ashk and has earlier published a biography of his as well as a volume of his short stories in translation, Hats and Doctors. She is not just a life-long Ashk enthusiast but indeed a partisan, swallowing whole many of Ashk’s self-serving assertions and allegations against others and making some spectacularly tall claims of her own for his fiction. She says, for example, that Ashk’s saga is comparable to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but admits that when she says this to anyone, “I always get a chuckle.”

In fact, nothing could be further from Proust’s great psychological novel than Falling Walls, for Ashk was a practitioner of what Namvar Singh in a letter to him forthrightly called “dire realism and factualism.” Ashk’s semi-autobiographical hero Chetan is 21, and drifts from being a school teacher in Jalandhar to a petty journalist in Lahore to an assistant to a dubious vaidya in Shimla. He wants to write a novel but has read hardly any himself. His singing at a public performance is a disaster and his acting in a minor female role in a play is a calamity. But it all happens so randomly and superficially that it does not seem to affect him much or help him grow, for he never thinks and seldom feels. Indeed, he seems to have hardly any interiority to him worth the name. When Ashk sent a couple of short stories to Premchand in 1932, Premchand advised him to read a good book on psychology and also EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.

Rockwell hopes that Ashk’s novel will do well in English as it has now been “freed of its literary milieu.” But it still remains unremittingly quotidian and flat and some elementary errors in translation by Rockwell will hardly help the cause. Ashk has no other enemies left now; may he prosper on his own.

Trivedi is former professor of English, University of Delhi.   

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