In his book Redefining Urdu Politics in India (OUP, 2007), Ather Farouqui raised some very pertinent questions regarding the past, present and future of Urdu language in India. Among other things, he rued the fact that one of the primary reasons for the gradual shrinkage of public space for the Urdu language in India was its increasing identification with the Muslim community. Three points need to be emphasized here. One, considering that the Muslim population in India has only increased and not dwindled over the years, do we assume that the Urdu language has now lost out on its traditional patronage of the Muslims, too? Two, this tendency to identify languages with ethnic and religious groups is nothing but a wayward form of social perception, and not empirically verifiable. Three, though this might actually be the case with Urdu language in India, the history of Urdu literary culture definitely does suggest otherwise.
Or else how would we give due recognition and fair assessment to such non-Muslim literary stalwarts as Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishnan Chander, Balraj Komal and Joginder Paul, among others, without attempting a wholesale re-visioning of the Urdu literary culture? Put simply, the historical reasons for the gradual decline of the popularity of Urdu language in India are far too complex and numerous to be reduced to a simple mathematical equation. Besides, it is very important to recognize the contribution of the non-Muslim writers and poets by acknowledging the way in which they have not only taken ownership of the language, but also shaped or re-shaped Urdu literary history, even culture, down the ages.
Joginder Paul’s literary career, spreading well over six decades now, is a fair testimony to the way in which Urdu language and literature have undergone a major paradigm shift, even transformation at the hands of non-Muslims. Starting his literary career with the publication of his first story in Saqi, a Lucknow-based magazine, somewhere in 1945, he has, over the years, contributed as many as 19 works of short and long fiction to the ever-burgeoning repertoire of Urdu literature. While Dharti Ka Lal (1961), Main Kyon Sochoon (1962) Mati Ka Idrak (1970), Be Muhavara (1978), Be Irada (1983), Khudu Baba Ka Maqbara (1994) and Parinde (2000) are some of his well-known collections of short stories; his other works include Bayanat (1975) and Amad Ki Raft (1975), two novellas, and Nadeed (1983) and Khawab-i-rau (1990), two equally significant novels. However, Joginder Paul’s formidable reputation as a writer does not depend on the sheer weight of the quantity he has helped produce.
A worthy member of the Urdu progressive writers’ movement, Joginder Paul is a self-professed liberal humanist, with a deep and abiding engagement with social issues and his occasional forays into avant-gardism. A true modernist, forever eager to experiment with forms as varied as realism, magic realism, surrealism and fantasy, Joginder Paul has been extensively translated into English and other European and/or Indian languages, too. Though I have read most of his work only in translation, all those who have read him in the original testify to his qualities as a craftsman extraordinaire. Though Punjabi was Joginder Paul’s first language, and English his life-long vocation, he preferred Urdu as a medium for his creative self-expression only because, as he says, ‘Urdu is not a language, but a culture and writing in Urdu is participating in or creating a unique literary culture.’
Born in Sialkot (now in Pakistan) in 1925, Joginder Paul first migrated to Ambala (India) in 1947, and later to Kenya, after his marriage. As a double émigré, he has had to live through the trials and tribulations of being in a state of permanent exile, a condition that defined his fiction, too. This is what enables him to observe every human situation he portrays from without, thus imparting to his fiction a rare sense of objectivity, even aloofness. Rather than explore the solipsistic, existential dilemmas of an exile, the progressive in Joginder Paul always strives to work out the complex web of its socio-historical dynamics. But since his commitment to art is almost as strong as is his alignment to progressive ideology, he always manages to attain this rare synthesis, even balance of the aesthetic and ideological concerns in his work, a quality that truly makes him an outstanding writer.
Beyond Black Waters is one of Joginder Paul’s most recent works to be made available in English translation, thanks to the efforts of a very competent translator, Vibha S. Chauhan. Though she is somewhat diffident, even apologetic about her effort in the acknowledgements, her translation of Paar Pare is, indeed, quite commendable, even praiseworthy. While going through this extremely racy and fluid translation, I often wondered if I was actually reading this work in translation or in the original. Now, before I begin to sound over-sugary or polemical, let me confess my own reasons for starting out on this laudatory note in a defence of the translator she doesn’t need at all. To be honest, I’ve been provoked into making such a statement by an extremely casual, almost thoughtless approach of a reviewer, Sangeeta Barooh Pisharoty, who, in the columns of The Hindu (April 27, 2008), has unnecessarily denounced the translator, without doing justice either to her or to her own reading of the novella.
One unfortunate fact is that people who often end up reviewing the translations neither understand the intricacies of this process, nor possess the necessary wherewithal to offer any comparative assessment of the two versions, viz., the original and the translated one. Such reviewers do great disservice to the cause of translation activity in our country.
Beyond Black Waters, as the title suggests, is set in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an area cut off from the mainland, which gained notoriety during the second half of the British colonial rule in India. It was during this period that these islands acquired the dubious epithet of Kala Pani, and came to be seen as a place of social ostracism, political torture and isolation. Often the British rulers would ship away freedom fighters, political prisoners, convicts, thieves, robbers or murders to this island, in the hope that they would either die of extreme isolation or perish owing to the harsh living conditions there. Though this practice had started in 1857, it gained momentum only after 1906, when the construction of the Cellular Jail was completed. Although demolished after 1947, the jail continues to occupy a mythical, almost fabled status in the popular consciousness of most Indians.
Conscious of its historical significance, Joginder Paul has exploited the literary and symbolic associations of Kala Pani by locating the action of his novella in this back-of-beyond place. Significantly, the action of the novel is set, not in the pre- but in the post-Independence phase, very suggestively underscored in the opening section, where the statue of ‘some angrez bahadur’ in Putlewala Chowk of Port Blair city is replaced by that of Jawaharlal Nehru. Though the minister, at the time of unveiling, says that Nehru’s soul was peeping through the statue, Baba Lalu, the main protagonist, thinks that the ‘old angrez bahadur’ was ‘still standing there’ (p. 3). My purpose in quoting this section so extensively is mainly to point out that while this novella starts off in the mode of magic realism, blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, history and fiction, it fails to sustain this mode throughout.
The novella shows a vertical split down its spine, quite literally into two sections: ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Today’. The last section ‘Now’ is just an appendage, an epilogue, meant to round off the dramatic outcome of ‘action’ in an equally dramatic manner. In the first section, Joginder Paul reconstructs the surreal past of his socially excluded, marginalized characters, through a series of stories, each character so passionately narrates. Baba Lalu is perhaps the most fascinating of them all; he lives in a Kissonwali Gali, and churns out stories, dime-a-dozen. Born to a ‘profligate deity’ and an ‘apsara,’ ‘fed on the mother bear’s milk’ (p. 5) and brought up by a devout Muslim Allahdita, who also exploited him sexually, Baba Lalu was convicted for a crime he never committed. His wife, Gaura, a Hindu prostitute, is now serving a term for a murder she accidentally committed. In a bid to save herself from the clutches of an overtly aggressive customer, she killed him. Jalim Singh, who spent a term in the Cellular Jail around the same time as Bhai Vir Singh, a famous Punjabi litterateur (an apocryphal story), never tires of singing hosannas to his bravery, courage and patience. In fact, when he feels ‘very, very happy, then Bhai Vir Singh’s corpse swims in front of (his) eyes’ (p. 19).
Enclosed within these compelling tales is the bizarre story of the original inhabitants of the island, known as the Jarawa tribe. Roaming around naked on the island and devoid of memory, the Jarawas were ‘actually the descendants of fishes,’ who were swept ashore in the course of a ‘devastating sea-storm,’ and had slowly assumed the forms of men and women, as the years passed (p. 27). And when Baba Lalu and Gaura see ‘themselves reflected in each other’s eyes,’ it is the age-old custom and code of the Jarawas that they end up practising. The first section effectively captures the story of different inhabitants, both real and unreal; it is the story of how Baba Lalu and Gaura discover love in a lost Eden, put down roots in this evanescent world, build a small house in a Kissonwali Gali and then raise two sons, one as a Muslim, and the other as a Sikh. Concerned only about their struggle for survival, they reject all narrow considerations of caste, creed and religion, continuing to prosper in their state of reclaimed innocence, until tragedy strikes.
In the second half, however, the novella slips, somewhat unexpectedly, into a patently realistic mode, especially once Joginder Paul becomes obsessed with the idea of exposing the sinister ideology of communalism or its surreptitious entry into the placid, Edenic environment of Kala Pani. To the extent to which Joginder Paul has been able to overturn reality by transforming a land of former convicts, murders and criminals into a place of refuge and safety, he deserves full marks. But once he gets involved with the idea of communalism and goes about portraying it in his uncharacteristic oversimplified, almost parodic manner, all pretensions to magic realism are abandoned. This is when Paul’s characterization becomes stereotypical, his treatment of theme unilinear or one-dimensional, thus turning his novella into a hard-to-digest ‘thesis novel’.
It is difficult to explain why this happens, and of course, from a novelist of Joginder Paul’s stature, one certainly does expect much better. For instance, one wonders, why he has chosen to reduce this highly complex problem of communalism to the handiwork of a single Hindu leader, who comes from UP and succeeds in sowing the seeds of dissension and hostility among the peaceful inhabitants of the island. At this point, the story loses its sheen, even intrinsic appeal and begins to slip into polemics. One also wonders if his treatment of the entire problem has anything to do with the fact that he was writing for a predominantly Urdu-speaking readership.
Without politicizing the issue in any way, all I would like to state is that while it is always the prerogative of the writer to make such decisions in the manner he deems fit, one still has to worry about this internal schism within the novella, which results from the use of two very different, rather contradictory and antithetical styles coming into play. The basic confusion is not whether the novella ought to be read as an exercise in magic realism or as a thesis novel, but whether the two styles can actually be mixed up with as much abandon as these have been in the present case. While the first half of the novel charms, even entrances with its Marquezean or Rushdiean sweep, the second half sorely disappoints because of its over-concern for a political comment.
This confusion on the part of the writer is also, in some way, responsible for the uneven quality of this particular novella. Among other things, it creates a ripple down effect in the mind of the reader, making it difficult for him to decide as to how he ought to read or approach this novella. This I am saying not on the basis of any implied comparison of Joginder Paul’s novella to that of another work, but purely on the basis of such impressive and tantalizing novellas as Sleepwalkers and Pinjare that he is often remembered for. I would also say that Sangeeta Pisharoty has erroneously blamed the translator for some of the textual flaws that must, in all fairness, be placed at the novelist’s door.
To my mind, Paar Pare could have easily turned into an extraordinary piece of fiction, only if it had somehow overcome the theoretical confusion it suffers from. Potentially, it is an excellent novella, though its potential remains at best, only half-realized. Now whether this is to be attributed to the neglect of aesthetics or over-valorization of ideology is something that remains debatable.
Rana Nayar teaches English at Panjab University, Chandigarh. His areas of interest are translation studies, drama/theatre and critical theory.