In 1936, in the last year of his life, the Hindi author Premchand traveled to Lucknow to address the first annual meeting of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA). In his forty-five minute speech titled “The Aims of Literature” he charted a course for the future of Indian literature that was progressive and realistic. His speech, and the AIPWA, was to change the course of Indian writing dramatically, for the coming decades and beyond.
But founding the AIPWA was not Premchand’s idea. That credit belongs to the Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer, and the English writer Mulk Raj Anand, among others, young Indian students in London who had the year before sent to Premchand a manifesto for Indian progressive writing. The manifesto was a fiery tract, written in English, which Premchand translated into Hindi and published in his journal Hans, carefully eliminating some of the more fiery proclamations about such things as the need for a frank and open depiction of sexuality.
This was not just prudishness on Premchand’s part. In 1932, Zaheer, along with fellow writers Ahmad Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar, had published the seminal story collection Angaare (“Embers”). The collection is usually described as creating a ‘literary firestorm’—this both for its frank and open depiction of sexuality, and also for its daring critiques of religion and hierarchy. The book was promptly banned, most copies were burned, and the authors were harassed, some for years afterwards. No doubt Premchand wished to avoid further controversy when he published the first progressive manifesto in Hans.
Angaare can thus be credited in part with ushering in the era of progressivism to the world of Indian letters, and less famously, exposing Indian readers, however briefly, to modernist techniques, especially stream of consciousness writing, a technique favoured by Zaheer and Ali, who were much taken with the writings of the Bloomsbury group. The book then promptly disappeared, only resurfacing now and again in the form of individual stories, until an Urdu version was found and eventually published, edited by Khalid Alvi in 1995. Rarely available in Urdu, and never in English, English readers are now faced with an embarrassment of riches: not one, but two new translations have been published at the same time, one from Penguin India and one from Rupa.
The original volume would have been slim, almost a tract. Everyone, including the Urdu publisher, has felt that such a slim volume needed a good deal more context considering its weighty literary-historical context, and the fact that the stories themselves are somewhat difficult to understand due to their experimental nature. For, as with many books deemed blasphemous or profane, you can count on the fact that those decrying their content have never set eyes on the words between their covers.
Like the writings of James Joyce before them, or Salman Rushdie much later on, the early stories of Zaheer and Ali (though not those of Rashid Jahan and Mahmud-uz-Zafar, which are written in a much more straightforward style) are so experimental with regard to form that it would take a seasoned (and hyper-sensitive) literary critic to find the blasphemy woven therein. It can safely be imputed, therefore, that these writings were damned through hearsay and rumor, and that just as very few people actually bother to make it all the way through The Satanic Verses to find out what the fuss is about (and interestingly, some of the fuss is actually about the ‘Satanic Verses’ of legend in one of Zaheer’s stories), far fewer ever laid eyes on the allegedly incendiary stories of Angaare. In fact, the possibly blasphemous materials are far outnumbered by the stories that deal with the theme of sexism and sexual violence against women. Did Rashid Jahan’s very accessible one-act play, a dialogue between two women about the dangers of having too many children, particularly uterine prolapse, offend patriarchal sensibilities with its clear challenge to the authority of a husband over a wife’s body and its nearly clinical descriptions of gynaecological ailments offend some male readers? Perhaps it was so, as Rashid Jahan, a gynaecologist, was the only woman in the collective, and came in for the most abuse following the publication of Angare, according to the Penguin edition’s translator, Snehal Shingavi, in his introduction.
So how to go about choosing which translation to read? Both have lengthy scholarly introductions and include short biographies for each writer. The introductions to both are informative and full of original research. In fact, it should be said that they did not entirely overlap, and that the two present the reader with slightly different information that is not contradictory but instead complementary. But here, the similarities end. Whereas in the Penguin edition, Shingavi has produced a polished translation that could easily be enjoyed by any reader with no knowledge of Hindi or Urdu, Vibha S. Chauhan, working with the editor of the Urdu edition, Khalid Alvi, has not. Though Chauhan asserts in her introduction that she has only left untranslated such common words as ‘moulvi’, ‘aadaab’, ‘mujra’ and ‘chaprasi’, “especially in instances where the meaning or implication of the word is clear from the context itself,” in practice this is hardly the case. Not only are words that are not common in Indian English frequently found in the text with no gloss, but sometimes, entire sentences, prayers and lines of poetry are reproduced as Urdu in Roman script with little or no explanation.
Consider for example, these sentences from Sajjad Zaheer’s story “Insomnia” (“Nind Nahin Aati” in Urdu), which appear in the Rupa edition thus:
“Bahr-e-rajaz mein daal ke bahre ramal chale. Khoob! Woh tifl kya karega jo ghutne ke bal chale. Brilliant! What do you expect from a child who crawls on all fours!”
The first sentence is given the following footnote:
“The quoted line is by the poet Insha-allah-khan-insha. He is commenting on poets who start with one metre and slip into another inadvertently.”
It’s not clear what is meant by calling this a ‘quoted line,’ as the sentence is not contained in quotation marks—is the Urdu sentence a quotation? Does the translator consider it to be quoted because she has left it in Urdu? Then two other sentences follow in Urdu, one of just one word. The two English sentences that follow are translations of these, but that is not entirely clear, nor is there a translation given of the first sentence, which is explained in terms of why it was put in the text by the author, but not in terms of what it means. Contrast this with the translation in the Penguin version of the story (here called “Can’t Sleep”, a less clinical-sounding rendering of “Nind Nahin Aati”):
“Does the ocean flow into the river now? Bravo. A still-crawling child is supposed to do that how?”
Elsewhere this pattern complicates passages of stream of consciousness writing, already difficult enough to understand, by retaining the original language and offering footnotes that explain the technique, but not the meaning of the passage. In Ahmad Ali’s story “The Clouds Don’t Come,” there are a few sentences in the middle of a long paragraph in which the Urdu words are broken up and written apart with ellipses. Chauhan’s rendering goes thus:
“Qua … a … ari r-e—suaa aheb-a … aa … paki- dastaar-e-muba-a-rak … yu … baa aa …. Rava mein … kha … tan … ga … aa … aa.”
A footnote comes at the end of this which offers the following explanation:
“This is an attempt to reproduce the stretched-out sounds of rote learning. Here, for instance the word ‘quari’, which is a special way of reading of the Quran in a guttural voice, the word is pronounced as ‘qua a ari’. The idea of persistent repetition becoming absurd is communicated over the next few phrases.”
Besides the fact that this explanation is hard to follow as it seems to be missing some words, it might be of interest to the student trying to make her way through the original text as a kind of commentary. Otherwise, it simply presents most readers, and not just those who don’t know Hindi-Urdu, with a chunk of text to be skipped for incomprehensibility. By contrast, Shingavi has rendered the passage less mystifying while still staying true to the experimental style of writing by inserting dashes in the place of ellipses, because, yes, even punctuation sometimes needs translating:
“ Re-ci-i-it-er of the Qu-u-ur-ran. There’s a pie-e-ce of haa-aay in your ho-o-ly tur-ur-ban.”
Chauhan’s philosophy of translation clearly demonstrates that the Rupa edition is not meant for readers that do not know Hindi-Urdu (and in the cases above, the language is not even simple Hindi-Urdu). The international reader of English will feel shut out, as will readers from South India, or Bangladesh, or elsewhere in South Asia besides northern India and Pakistan. Who then is the intended audience? Chauhan gives us a clue in her introduction. Her co-translator, Alvi, who is also her colleague at Zakir Husain Delhi College, had shared his Devanagari translations of some of the stories with her when she expressed in interest in learning more about the collective. She enjoyed them greatly and wished to read the rest of the stories, but “The only way this could have happened was by Khalid-sa’ab reading the stories aloud to me.” This is a curious pronouncement—another way she could read the rest of the stories would be by learning the Urdu script—but it shows where this translation is coming from and who it is meant for, namely English readers who are fluent in Hindi but don’t read the Urdu script. For such readers, this edition is preferable because it retains large amounts of the original language, and doesn’t attempt to make the text accessible to international readers.
As an international reader who happens to know the language and both scripts well enough to read them, the view that a script is a greater barrier than a language is bizarre, though I recognize that Chauhan’s view is common enough. One can learn the Urdu script in a matter of weeks as an adult, but to learn Hindi-Urdu language well enough to read the Rupa translation of Angaare would take many years of dedicated study. At the same time, there is something cozy about Chauhan’s description of the oral transmission of the textas the practice that undergirds their edition, reminiscent of the guru-chela tradition. For those who know Hindi but believe the Urdu script to be an insuperable barrier to their ability to read the text, this edition is for you. But for those who wish to read Angaare in a polished English translation, I direct you to the Penguin edition.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print.
Daisy Rockwell is a translator, painter, and writer who lives in Vermont, USA. She has a PhD in South Asian literature and has written widely on Hindi and Urdu literature, including her book Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography, Katha, 2004. Rockwell has translated a collection of Ashk's short stories, Hats and Doctors, Penguin, 2013, and her translation of Ashk's novel Falling Walls is forthcoming from Penguin India in 2015. She is also the author of a novel, Taste, Foxhead Books, 2014.