Ever since the translation of indigenous literature, mainly into English, was initiated almost a decade ago, it has triggered off reams of publications, and gradually evolved into a specific genre. Obviously, this process has been a tremendous success as publishing houses of renown have made forays into this sphere, though often glossing over prominent credits to the key player, i.e. the translator. The National Book Trust deserves credit for this well packaged, composite book on Hindi translations which acknowledges the vital cog in this whole process i.e., the compiler and translator on the cover. The translation upsurge has spawned a subtle cultural renaissance by bridging the schism between the rural/urban readership and by facilitating a convergence among various regional microcosms in the country as a wealth of literary talent unravels in English. At any rate, translations have largely been the handiwork of anglophiles, since the process of translation is not merely an elementary linguistic exercise but requires a bilingual expertise and dexterity; to capture the flavour of the colloquialisms of the terrain and the cul-tural nuances or mores imbued. This precisely defines Vandana Singh’s translatory skills as she crafts, synergizes and sieves the essence of the piece while retaining its original flavour.
This compilation amalgamates the multiple facets of the contemporary urbanized social segment, presented by a dramatis personae from this very strata. They feel emotionally inept as they physically pace ahead at breakneck speed gasping to cope with the multifarious roles they jostle with. These impressionistic pieces are not assumptions or presumptions but a treatise on urban lives. They have culminated into literary fabrications but seem like excerpts from our daily lives, the emotional turmoil and the protagonists reactions are familiar, too.
Vandana has culled her stories most appropriately as each one depicts the myriad issues and conflicts that have arisen as technology, rapid consumerism and westernization impact the urbanscape. The players in this scenario must reinvent, reassess and strategize themselves, their interactions with each other and how they relate to a habitat in flux. For instance, a pertinent issue with the technologically infused and surcharged milieu is the use of artificial insemination by childless couples. The last but certainly not the least, absorbing and moving story is ‘Third Presence’ by Rekha. The true feelings that emanate from the spouse of a woman who is artificially impregnated—“it was a cold, sterilized moment, pierced by the tip of a needle, a false note in the melody of life. Etherised. As though an evil spirit had appeared and what could have been the most beautiful moment of our lives was made unholy, impure by his presence” (p. 207).
Vandana’s lens also focuses on social malaises like ‘wife swapping’ concealed in the urban underbelly. Chitra Mudgal’s story is an interesting rendition of extant hypocrisy in interpersonal relationships despite the perfunctory strides of modernization. The title of this story is used for the book. The prize-winning story by Alka Saraogi ‘Aak Egarasi’ is a fascinating and surreal presentation of an idealistic youth’s yearning for utopia. Her other heartrending story is of a modern woman’s dilemma in counterbalancing motherhood, her career and her plight. In a similar strain, Mannu Bhandari’s ‘A New Job’ manifests the frustration a woman feels when for her husband his profession is a priority, whereas domesticity is defined as hers. Her helplessness is drowned in the unwritten rules and conventions even contemporary women must comply with.
Women vie with men to share the social scape on an equal footing in the story ‘The Other’. As the feelings and perceptions of both are juxtaposed, the man is overwhelmed by suspicion and envy towards his wife. “Suddenly Bhagirath detested Neelam and her suggestive mannerisms. She is totally engrossed in the discussion but doesn’t forget to draw attention to herself, now a toss of the head, now a fluttering of the eyelashes, it seems she can’t be still. If I hold her head in place she’ll probably not be able to speak. There’s a limit to being spirited and exhibiting your zest for life. How conveniently the pallav of her sari has slipped to one side completely revealing her midriff and exposing her waist and breasts” (p. 88).
Today’s social scenario is gripped by the tentacles of communalism which mar the harmony of communities as they dwell in juxtaposition. Nasira Sharma skilfully engages with this malaise in her story ‘Hunger’. Amidst the multiple facets of a rapidly changing urban milieu, the diasporic presence is an essential constituent of most families. It symbolizes enormous economic remunerations to families and countries but the emotional vicissitudes with which it grapples are reflected in the realms of literature. The emotional dilemmas in the minds of the first generation of immigrants who migrated on attaining their adulthood and particularly their confused identity syndrome is manifested in Mridula Garg’s ‘Alias Sam’. They have a strong urge to grope for their cultural roots back home whereas their children are not ABCDs any longer but authentic Americans, so both generations cannot synchronize their relationships with each other, or their environs. “Archie and Katy have long forgotten that their names used to be Arjun and Kavita. They are married to some Susan and George; their children Bob, John etc. are named after their American grandparents, and they don’t like to remember their coloured Indian relatives. Once a month, Archie and Katy speak to him over the phone and for Christmas and Easter he receives cakes, turkey and other gifts from them. There are any number of men and women of his age there with him, so how could he possibly be alone, they reason out with him.”
The context of the power struggles and space-sharing whether in the domestic or professional sphere is conflict ridden. This compendium would be incomplete without a discussion on marital disharmony in the wake of modernization. The Story of Manjul Bhagat’s ‘A Tattered Doll’ is a take on the subject. An interesting paradox is manifested, Neha is ready to live with an impotent husband but this society which otherwise looks at sex as a blasphemous reality considers it as an imperative for con-jugal sustenance and bliss. If divorce is discussed then the experience of a second marriage is not far behind, a common occurrence in Gitanjali Shree’s ‘Beyond the Blind Turn’. As the protagonist leaves an economically deprived man to move in with her affluent boss, she soon tires of him, her life seems inane as the emotional bonds do not germinate, so she eventually aborts his child which spells her liberation. The woman’s body is used by both men as a whimsical domain as neither values her entity or her emotional yearning, so she seizes authority over her body and disconnects the meaningless seed herself.
Krishna Sobti’s stories, despite their brevity are moving. However, ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ ‘I’ll Protect You’ and ‘Lama’ are a trifle out of sync with the thematic kernel of urbanization. I suppose a mixed bag is there for dramatic relief in typified monotony. Be it Alka Saraogi, Chitra Mudgal, Geetanjali Shree, Krishna Sobti, Mamta Kalia, Manjul Bhagat, Mannu Bhandari, Mridula Garg, Nasira Sharma, Rajee Seth or Rekha, each story has a distinct facet, as they are deftly pieced together to depict an urban jigsaw with its gamut of fads and foibles.
Though the essential trajectory of the book is gender-oriented, the protagonists do not merely wallow in the issues restricted to their gender but transgress to comment on the contemporary urban space where they are equal constituents. If at all there is gender addressal, the protagonists have reinvented their strategies and themselves.
Gurpreet K. Maini is an officer on special duty with the Literary Centre at Punjab Bhawan, New Delhi.