23 May 2013

Life's Little Ironies: the stories of Upendranath Ashk

Hats and Doctors: by Upendranath Ashk 
Translated by Daisy Rockwell 
Penguin, 240 pages, Rs 299
A review-cum-interview I did for Mint Lounge:

Upendranath Ashk (1910-96) is one of Hindi literature’s biggest names, a writer whose oeuvre spanned over a hundred volumes of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism and translation. Hats And Doctorsoffers the English reader the first proper glimpse of Ashk’s very particular sensibility: profound yet light-hearted, satirical yet deeply engaged.

He unravels the ironies of his protagonists’ lives with a wry humour: sharp as a scalpel, yet somehow understated. In some stories, likeWho Can Trust a Man?, this is achieved through a glancing narratorial style: People are bereaved, remarry, undergo all kinds of tumult, seemingly without great emotional labour. In others, like In the Insane Asylum, wryness emerges from tragedy.

These stories range as widely across 1940s-1960s India as Ashk himself did, from the Bombay film industry to Kashmir, and across the north Indian towns he knew well: Delhi, Lucknow, Jalandhar, Allahabad.

The milieus are delightfully detailed: if Brown Sahibs gives us a marvellously credible sociology of Allahabad’s rickshaw pullers and its bureaucrats, the title story contrasts the ills of Lucknow’s allopaths and homoeopaths.
Upendranath Ashk. Photo courtesy: Neelabh

Excerpts from an interview with Daisy Rockwell, Ashk’s translator and biographer:

How did you come to be interested in Ashk’s writing?
In graduate school at The University of Chicago, I did a lot of reading on Hindi novelists. One writer compared Ashk’s novels to (Marcel) Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This intrigued me and I ended up writing my PhD thesis on Ashk’s six-volume novel cycle Girti Divarein(Falling Walls). There are indeed many similarities with Proust, but Ashk never actually read his novels.
You wrote a biography of Ashk for Katha Books in 2005. Tell us a little about Ashk’s early life.
Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography was based on my PhD thesis. Ashk was born Upendranath Sharma, the second of six sons in a Saraswat Brahmin family in Jalandhar. His father, a station master, was an alcoholic with a violent temper. Girti Divarein is semi-autobiographical, and there are many riveting passages about the impact of Ashk’s father’s violence on the family.
Ashk has said that his father wanted his sons to grow up to be the best at whatever they chose to do. He was just as intent that they learn English and Sanskrit well as he was that they become first-class pehelwans (wrestlers). Ashk and his Bhai Sahib, who became a dentist, failed miserably at this second task, but some of the other brothers did become top-notch pehelwans. After college, Ashk escaped his family, and what he saw as the provinciality of Jalandhar, to make a start for himself as a writer in Lahore.
You met Ashk in the last years of his life. What was it like?
It was terrifying. He was very ill, but quite sharp. I think he believed that researchers should come armed with lists of numbered questions. I had in mind a more organic process of discovery which he didn’t really understand. He wanted me to come to see him every morning to ask these questions that didn’t really exist. His family thought these daily visits were not good for his health, and I’m sure they were right, but his word was still law in the house. So I’d spend the afternoons coming up with new questions, dreading what the morning’s session might bring. Sometimes he would berate me and send me away. There was no knowing what would happen.
It’s fascinating that Ashk started by writing in Punjabi and then Urdu, before shifting to Hindi. Was the choice a difficult one? What did it mean for him as a writer, and for the Hindi-Urdu divide in general?... [INTERVIEW CONTINUES]
Read the whole of my interview with Daisy Rockwell on the Mint site, here.

No comments: