21 January 2013

Book Review: The Mirror of Wonders

Beastly tales

A little-known collection of stories in Urdu is brought to life in this vivid translation

The Mirror Of Wonders And Other Tales.
By Syed Rafiq Hussain
Translated by Saleem Kidwai.
Yoda Press.
196 pages, 

Syed Rafiq Hussain is the most interesting Urdu writer you’ve never heard of.

His beautifully observed, unusual tales about animals were first published in the Delhi-based literary journal Saqi in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Hussain died in 1944; Aina-e-Hairat, the only collection of his stories ever published, came out a fortnight after his death. It was republished a couple of times, once under the wonderful title Sher Kya Sochta Hoga? (What Must the Tiger Think?). His work then practically disappeared from circulation until 2002, when it was republished in Karachi, Pakistan. 

The Mirror of Wonders And Other Tales, Saleem Kidwai’s precise, vivid translation of Aina-e-Hairat, is the first attempt to bring this gifted, little-known and thoroughly intriguing writer to the attention of an English-reading audience. Kidwai’s wonderful introduction reproduces—in translation—two autobiographical fragments by Hussain, in which he insists, among other things, that he “cannot write Urdu at all” (“sometimes spelling even the simplest of words takes me a couple of minutes”), that he has read perhaps 2,000 stories and novels in English but only four or five in Urdu—and that he hates animals: “I have never willingly allowed the presence of pet animals in the house.” 

This may seem a little unbelievable from a man whose stories contain perhaps the most detailed, empathetic descriptions of animals that I have ever read: a proud tigress watching her cubs learn to pin down their kill, a crazed wild elephant on the warpath, a mongoose preparing to battle a dog. But reading Kalua, one is brought up short by his description of the black-sherwani-clad “lord of the house” as annoyed and distressed by the small black puppy his young son has decided to adopt. The dog lasts in the house only eight days before it is entrusted again to the streets from which it came. Could the sherwani-clad father be an ironic self-portrait, one wonders? 

Hussain’s life also throws up the complexity of a close relationship with animals that did not preclude killing them. Kidwai tells us that while working on the Sharda canal project in the 1920s, Hussain was posted in the thickly forested Terai region of the Himalayan foothills. There he hunted deer and rabbits on a bicycle, and under the influence of a local landlord called Haji Abdul Hamid, became fascinated by big game shikar.

However difficult a reconciliation between these things may appear to our 21st century eyes, no one who reads these stories can remain in any doubt about where Hussain’s sympathies lie. The animals in these stories cannot be described as having been “humanized” in any uncomplicated fashion—if anything, their emotional attachments are deeper and longer-lasting than those of human beings. It is humans who fall prey to envy and greed, who fail to honour the relationships they forge. 

And yet Hussain’s gaze is by no means a romantic one. He may describe the tiger as picking his food from among the jungle herds like “a wise gardener gradually picks vegetables from his fields”—but he does not shy away from the inevitable violence of their deaths. The affecting tale of Biru the nilgai (blue-bull antelope) may have the quality of a coming-of-age narrative, but the domesticated animal discovering its true self in the wild must also discover its capacity for aggression. The female monkey of the title story may appear as an exemplar of maternal attachment, but there is also a mocking description of her being taken painfully to task for the crime of “untimely labour” by her impregnator, the male “large-hearted, pleasure-loving, well-bred monkey [who] therefore had another ten or twelve wives”.

Hussain reserves his most sardonic voice, however, for human beings—the “not too educated but extremely broad minded young lady” who brings a baby monkey home to worship as Hanuman; the callous Anglophile husband who declares he’ll make sandwiches for the party since his “incompetent” wife has made only Indian delicacies; the aptly-named Major Boast, whose essentials for an elephant hunt include a camera but not courage. Hussain’s unsparing gaze doesn’t exclude himself—the title story is a direct indictment of his childhood beliefs in high birth and respectability. Seen in the mirror of wonders, the human world seems much more bestial than that of beasts.

Published in Mint Lounge.

10 January 2013

Pratilipi's new issue: Freedom Special

The new issue of the bilingual literary magazine Pratilipi -- brought out in English and Hindi -- is finally out!

The lead feature on Freedom is something I've worked especially hard to put together, and it's chock-full of exciting new work -- fiction, essays, memoirs, poetry, as well all of the above in translation. Here's a link to the lead feature, and here's my introduction to it. The excellent writers and translators represented include Parvati Sharma, Arunava Sinha, Ratika Kapur, Nisha Susan, Aruni Kashyap, Sumana Roy, Daisy Rockwell, Upendranath Ashk, Ashapurna Debi, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Salma, Lakshmi Holmstrom, Ambarish Satwik, Manisha Pandey and Smriti Ravindra, among others.

Other things in the issue include features on writing by and for children (including  by Prabhat and by Musharraf Ali Farooqi); features on three modern Indian greats -- Ajneya, Naiyer Masud and Shrilal Shukla; a focus on bilingual Danish poet Claus Ankersen; fresh work by ten young Hindi writers, a text for open debate on realism and comparative literature, the full text of a Krishna Baldev Vaid play in Alok Bhalla’s English translation -- and plenty more. In all, the issue features more than 70 writers from 12 languages.

Happy reading!

3 January 2013

Post Facto: Trains of thought

My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight.

o get on a train in India is to enter a different world. You may carry your mobile phone and check Twitter on it, you may carry a dongle and browse the internet on your laptop, but you can do nothing about the speed of the train itself. In the 1800s, when trains first began to transport people across distances that might have taken weeks or days in a matter of hours, they were the most vivid symbols of speed, of technological modernity. Now, in a world where the aeroplane has become more commonplace and accessible, they appear as gentle lumbering beasts. It is a pace that encourages involved arguments and intense heart-to-hearts; at the very least, gupshup.

We are on a train from Delhi to Banaras. It is delayed by several hours because of the fog. But no-one is complaining. Since the previous night's train did not even depart, people are just glad they are on a train at least. The family sitting with us – a tall 60-something man with an impressive but tidy white beard, his bespectacled and much smaller wife and their 20-something son Nadeem – are regulars on this route. The parents live in a village near Dildar Nagar, a small town past Banaras. Their elder son lives in Delhi, in Okhla, and they visit him often. This time they are returning from a long stay that involved a gall bladder operation for the old man. They offer us keema-roti, we offer them oranges. Later, at Allahabad, their married daughter arrives at the station with freshly-cooked puris and a flask of strong tea that is unrecognizable as being the same substance as the 'dip chai' that is sadly becoming ubiquitous on Indian railways.

The father and son are full of train stories: trains which seemed strangely empty and turned out to be crawling with bed-bugs, summer trains with crowds clambering atop them waiting for the water tank to be filled, puja special trains without taps in the toilets. From Delhi to Patna there are a huge number of trains, partly because of Laloo Yadav's stint as Railways Minister. But the number of travellers between Delhi and Bihar/Eastern UP seems still to outstrip the supply of berths – a ticket is hard to get at short notice most times of the year. There is also a clear hierarchy of trains. The 'good' trains, say our companions, are almost always full. A train that is running half-empty is likely to be a train on which the well-informed know not to travel, because it has a reputation for running late, or being dirty, or having bad service. "There's no pantry car on many of these trains. And the bedding they give you – well, it's like we're giving you this, you can use it – or not. Not is more likely," laughs Nadeem.
I’ve never been to Nagpur, but I know oranges must be imagined – and hopefully bought – at the station. I’ve never been to Khandwa, but I know to get off the train double-quick and buy lassi and shrikhand from the wonderful dairy cooperative shop.
rain stories are anchored to place-names: "Arre, that time we took the train from Begusarai" or "Remember when we were returning from the wedding in Lucknow?" Some places you think you know are places you have never been to: they are the names of stations passed on the rail journeys of your childhood. I've never been to Nagpur, but I know oranges must be imagined – and hopefully bought – at the station. I've never been to Khandwa, but I know to get off the train double-quick and buy lassi and shrikhand from the wonderful dairy cooperative shop...

(The piece carries on) 

Read the whole of it here