26 June 2015

Book Review: To the Farthest Rock

A book review published in last week's BL Ink:

Travelling Light
An impeccable translation of the Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh’s travelogue Aakhiri Chattan Tak brings 1950s India vividly to life

At the age of 27, having quit his recently-acquired position as Hindi teacher at the Bishop Cotton school in Shimla, Mohan Rakesh decided to travel. Here is how he describes it: “I had long wanted to travel by coastal roads along the sea. Sometimes I had time, sometimes money, but seldom both together. Then I resigned from my teaching job and time and a little money became available. I set out for the seacoast immediately.”
It was December 1952. To the Farthest Rock, translated from Rakesh’s Aakhiri Chattan Tak, details his three-month journey along India’s western coast, starting with a train ride from Delhi to Bombay, and ending in Kanyakumari. Rakesh went on to become a major Hindi writer — his best-known works are the Delhi-set novel Andhere Bandh Kamre, and the plays Adhe Adhure, Ashadh ka Ek Din and Lehron ke Rajhans, all regarded as 20th-century classics. At the time he made this journey, though, he had published only one book of stories: Insan ke Khandahar.
But reading this book, one does not often feel that one is reading a 27-year-old. If anything, there is an admirable maturity in the way Rakesh holds out against the temptation to hold forth. There is a definite authorial voice here: observant, sensitive, and open to experience. But his refusal to marshal authority — either journalistic or writerly — is what makes this an unusual travelogue. It is not that Rakesh isn’t interested in places, or history, or art; it is rather that he is more interested, always, in people.
There is no ‘point’ to this book except as the travel diary of a young writer. It goes where he decides to go, and much of it unfolds as everyday conversations between strangers, on trains, in boats, in hotels, or just walking around a village. It has little in common with the judgmental audacity of a similar travelogue written by a young Indian man at the start of his writing career: Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. The sympathetic, observational tone put me more in mind of Upendranath Ashk’s 1940 short story ‘Furlough’, also set in a train compartment, a decade or so before Rakesh. 
To the Farthest Rock, by Mohan Rakesh
Translated from Hindi by Satti Khanna
Rs. 299, 192 pages, HarperCollins, 2015.
There is no pretence here of neutrality, of being a fly on the wall. Of course, Rakesh describes what he sees and hears, and does so with both precision and poetry. But what makes his pen-portraits of encounters with people so appealing is that he is always present in them: a quiet, sometimes surprised, occasionally irritable interlocutor. 
The muscular old boatman who rows him across the Bhopal lake, for instance, only gradually acquires a personality — and Rakesh describes the process with charming transparency: “We had been addressing him as ‘Boatman’. At the end of his recitation of Ghalib I asked him his name. “My name is Abdul Jabbar Pathan,” he replied, emphasising the surname Pathan.” When Rakesh says to Abdul Jabbar, “I would not have expected somebody your age to enjoy romantic poetry,” he is being candid about his own youthful tactlessness. Later, when Abdul Jabbar says he has “sworn off carnal desires”, and asks if they have the time to listen to “something different”, Rakesh again lets us in on his eyeroll: “I thought we were in for Sufi preaching”, before telling us how wrong he was.
While it does not consciously seek to locate itself in time, To the Farthest Rock is charged with a post-independence melancholy. There is the teenager travelling ticketless, who describes his life’s Partition upheavals with not a glimmer of complaint. The many unemployed young men Rakesh meets in Kerala are perhaps the strongest indicator of the national mood: an English-speaking, Sanskrit-reciting beggar; the jobless ‘debating society’ that gathers at Tellicherry’s railway station.
But even those who have jobs seem to have all the time in the world. Perhaps this is what the world was like in the 1950s, or perhaps it would still be like this if we were to only try getting on a train without a hotel booking or a return ticket. From the middle-class Karvakar, who persuades him to stay a night in Vasco, in his house, to the labourer Govindan who leaves his work to show Rakesh a coffee plantation, locals seem to go out of their way to spend time with him. Perhaps because Rakesh seems genuinely interested in their lives — from the young man who has decided not to marry “to avoid changes in his and his mother’s peaceful routine”, to the travelling salesman whose work keeps him away from his wife and child, the less he asks of people, the more they confide in him. But he also captures, with quiet poignancy, the experience of linguistic alienness.
The mention of language brings me to what is perhaps the most attractive thing about this book: the writing. I have not read the Hindi original, but in Satti Khanna’s excellent rendering, the language feels crisp even when the thought is meditative. The descriptions are crystal-clear, never indulgent with imagery. When there is an image, it is memorable. “Waves rose from the water like sharks.” Or when describing a spontaneous harmonica competition on a steamer from Goa to Mangalore, he writes: “The contest shifted from the quality of playing to the volume of ovation.”
The black-and-white sketches by Trinankur Banerjee add an attractive new layer of imagery. Satti Khanna’s ‘PS’ — a wonderful feature of HarperCollins’ translations — insightfully locates Rakesh in the Hindi literary context, and adds another visual layer: photographs, among which I was delighted to discover one of Rakesh with Ashk. It made for a perfect end to a book of companionable conversations.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 19 June, 2015.

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