The multi-volume novel cycle of Upendranath Ashk is, perhaps, the most voluminous Indian fiction of the 20th century. It begins with Girti Deevarein (1947) and ends at Iti Niyati (left incomplete when Ashk passed away in 1996), covering the struggles of an aspiring writer Chetan who carries a distinct autobiographical streak reminiscent of Ashk’s own life. Daisy Rockwell, who has translated the first volume, Falling Walls, besides a collection of Ashk’s stories, is now back with the translation of the second part, In the City a Mirror Wandering (Shahar Mein Ghoomta Aaina, 1963).
The novel unfolds over a single day, going back and forth in time, recording the city of Jalandhar in the 1930s through the meandering gaze of Chetan. It begins with Chetan stepping out of his home in the morning, leaving his wife Chanda whom he never wanted to marry. His lover, Chanda’s cousin, has been married to someone else. The melancholic young man wanders through the day, gathering plenty of experiences, dissects his past, feels increasingly disappointed by the people around him, before returning to Chanda in the last pages. The novel ends with these words: “She pressed her husband to her breast like a child. Chetan felt burned and parched by the heat, exhausted and defeated, and he’d arrived at the shores of that boundless lake — his fate rested at the shores of those deep, luminous, clear waters. If he fled, he’d no find salvation, no peace.”
Rockwell, in her introduction, asks an important question over his realisation about Chanda’s goodness. “Is this what it takes for a man to recognise the humanity in his wife?” Another question can be raised over the portrayal of Chetan. He assesses the city and its residents, but his gaze rarely turns inward. He feels disgusted with others, but places himself on an exalted pedestal. Chetan shares this tendency, eulogising the “writer-intellectual” and a subtle disparagement of those the narrator believes are “common men”, with several prominent male protagonists of modern Hindi literature. It was, perhaps, first subverted by the master prose stylist Krishna Baldev Vaid in Bimal Urf Jayen To Jayen Kahan (1974), whose writer-protagonist mocks himself, and then the delightfully irreverent Manohar Shyam Joshi in Kuru Kuru Swaha (1984).
Some critics have compared the daylong wandering of Chetan with that of Leopold Bloom of Ulysses (1922), and his novel cycle with the mammoth work of Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time, written over a period of time. Both the comparisons seem misplaced and unnecessary, not least because Bloom’s wife Molly, to whom he returns in the end, has been unfaithful to him. The novels of James Joyce and Ashk belong to two different universes. One can contrast them on many counts. Just one should suffice here. Aware of Molly’s adventures, Bloom, unlike Chetan, wishes to remain an unassuming man who doesn’t accord any special worth to his life. On the other hand, Proust dissected the past, his long and winding sentences peeled off layers of memory. Ashk wasn’t interested in an intense conversation with memory. His art lies elsewhere. His novel depicts an era when the city was emerging as a centre for aspiration, a new geography that was expected to erase hierarchies, a hope that was soon belied. Ashk meticulously registers the faultlines and failures of the city, his gaze illuminates its dark corners and crevices.
Among Ashk’s great European predecessors is Balzac’s Ferragus (1833) which, Italo Calvino observed, with great insight, was an obsessed enterprise “to turn a city into a novel”, to write a “topographical epic about Paris”, “the city as monstrous as a giant crustacean whose inhabitants are merely the limbs which propel it”.
Before switching to Hindi, Ashk wrote in Urdu and was fondly called Fida-e-Adab (one who is dedicated to literature) by his friends. His language is permeated with Urdu and Punjabi, his prose sprinkled with verses. Rockwell brings the flavour alive in her masterly translation. Ashk’s fiction is marked by a peculiar characteristic. Many of the quotes in the novel contain errors. Was it the case of an imperfect memory, poor translation or deliberate misquotes? Rockwell, who has also written Ashk’s biography, suggests that the compulsive editor in Ashk “most likely changed the quote to suit his needs”. If so, that’s a wonderful novelistic intervention.
Another issue needs attention. Several critics have termed it a six-volume work. However, Ashk Rachnavali edited by his son Neelabh places the number at seven. Ashk died in 1996, Neelabh notes, before completing the last volume Iti Niyati. The Rachnavali includes this work as well. Ashk travelled widely before he came to settle in Allahabad. His Khusro Bagh bungalow served as the venue for addas for writers. He even established his publishing house and printed his own books.The English translation of his ambitious work marks a major event in Indian literature.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a Fellow at the IIAS, Shimla. He is writing a book on the solitude of women in Indian novels