August 03, 2020
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Few Feet From Anguished Cries

The struggle to lead, and search for, an authentic life enliven Mohan Rakesh’s characters. A major Hindi writer gets an anthology we deserve.

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Few Feet From Anguished Cries
Few Feet From Anguished Cries
Another Life By Mohan Rakesh

Edited By Carlo Cappola
Harper Perennial | Pages: 408 | Rs. 399

To get an occasion to read Mohan Rakesh in times of newspeak is to remind oneself that the humanity of language is not lost. Language in the hands of a fiction writer performs its most honest function: it explores and struggles to understand human nat­ure, attempts exactitude but accepts that in even in its most successful mom­ents, all it can claim is that ‘I am almost there’. It is honest because while reading Rakesh, you can also hear him confess, “All my striving does not get me that one word which can expr­ess the total exploration of a human being and all the answers of such an exploration”.

Since language seeks to express the conflict of the human mind, it must also be part of that conflict. Rajinder Paul is right when he says that Mohan Rakesh “struggled like a sculptor with the stony language of Hindi to sharpen its edges”. He wanted to achieve a contemporary language. What is that contemporaneity? In an interview to Mohan Maharshi, Rakesh says, “I want to go close to that language which is the language of being and not merely the language to know.”

Another Life, a selection of 13 stories by Rakesh, an interview with him, a self sketch and his iconic play, Adhe Adhure, is a rare gift to those who cannot read him in the original. It was conceived by Carlo Coppola, editor-emeritus of the Journal of South Asian Literature, for a volume dedicated to Rakesh. It was planned in collaboration with Rakesh himself and its core selection was done by him. It appears in book form exactly 50 years after its conception.

Mohan Rakesh is known as part of the trio (Kamleshwar and Rajendra Yadav were the other two) who launched the ‘Nai Kahani’ movement in Hindi. Explaining the context in which they wrote, he says, “...We were confronted not with a situation but a phenomenon; that phenomenon was a growing degeneration in all spheres of life.... It was the sense of losing one’s grip on everything in life.” It is this banality of life which takes away from a human her heroic possibilities. How to react to it? It was possible to react strongly and emotionally to a devastation like Partition. But to deal with mundaneness, one required a different attitude: it became a struggle to “crystallise all our subjectivity into an objective view of life”. But he did not want his language, in the quest of objectivity to become distant.

The characters of Rakesh are caught in the dailyness of life. It is middle-class consciousness he writes about. Much before sociologists said so, he wrote that the country was becoming middle class in the sense that the morality of an average man of any class was now defined by a certain uppishness, status hunting, struggle for attainment of material possessions and the willingness to go to any extent to achieve this.

Faced with meaninglessness infecting all existence, writers strove to “crystallise all our subjectivity into an objective view of life”. But Rakesh didn’t want his language to become distant.

Rakesh’s stories are in many ways a search for a lost sophistication. He notes with sadness how subjectivities are shaped or deformed by situations or structures which are purportedly for human beings, but are impersonal. The institutions built by humans have bec­ome overpowering, and destined to trap creatures. This institutionalisation of humans is a particularly modern phenomenon. The moments of solitude in which they can discover themselves are rare. Colleagues watch helplessly as their colleagues are axed unjustly in Animal and Animals. The precariousness of this middle-class existence is best portrayed by Safety Pin, in which all the protagonists’s attention is spent in not letting his companions discover that “the lining of his pants buttons had come apart”. It is as if the safety pin holds tog­ether his total being.

It is the struggle to lead an authentic life, their search for it which makes the characters of Mohan Rakesh believable. Mira of The Sky of Steel pines for the lost star: “A star was shining in a part of the sky visible behind the trees outside the windows. It was so bright that it did not look like a star.” The ina­bility of Mira to respond to the call of the star and also unreality of that beckoning itself defines the state of our times. The cry of the protagonist in The Wound, who refuses be a slave of his times, is destined to rem­ain an empty cry. The translations carry the texture and tonality of the Rakesh’s language. When you compare them with the original, the translator is forced to paraphrase Rakesh, but the essence of his language is intact. This collection will enrich any bookshelf.

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