Saturday, October 8, 2005

A contrived tale

Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghRudyard Kipling wrote Kim more than 105 years ago. It became his most successful work of fiction. Many generations of the English-speaking world came to know about India through this novel.

It has gone into hundreds of editions and been translated into every language of the globe. It was cited when Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In short, Kim is regarded as a world classic. When my daughter Mala was about to leave for Cambridge, I bought her a copy and told her it was a must before she went to England. She never bothered to read it. I found it in my shelf of unread books and decided to take a second look at it.

I must have read Kim over 50 years ago. I recollected it was about an Irish orphan Kim O’Hara, who had turned vagabond, and a Tibetan lama walking from Lahore, where they first met going eastwards along the Grand Trunk Road. My memory had betrayed me. They went to Ambala by train and loitered about the countryside. The more I proceeded with the novel the more irritated I became with the language Kipling used: thee, thou, hast, moveth etc, all of which had become outdated by the time he wrote.

Most of his characters were drawn from his earlier writings: a Pathan horse-trader, a Bengali babu who mispronounced English words (even the mispronunciations mentioned are incorrect) to show his inborn contempt for educated Bengali bhadralok. Every Indian mispronounces train as ‘terain’.

He packed as many castes as he could think of to show off his knowledge of India. Characters come and go with an appropriate number of kothawalis and wanton women with little relevance to the theme, which in any case, is the much hackneyed obsession of the British of Russian conspiracies to invade India. All the so-called spies — Russian, French, and Indian — are unbelievably amateurish. However, I plodded on and on till the end, hoping to find out why Kim had been rated so high. I failed to do so.

I turned to Professor Jamiluddin’s seminal work on Rudyard Kipling, The Tropic Sun (Orient Longman). He devoted a whole chapter to Kim. He has rightly quoted a few lyrical descriptions of dusk descending on Punjab villages, paraos (halting places) and serais. he has also quoted foreign authors extolling the novel as a masterpiece of informative fiction.

I remain unconvinced of its greatness. It is an utterly contrived tale full of unlikely coincidences strung together. I hope I am wrong in my assessment as I have a high opinion of Kipling as a poet.

Kolkata icon

A Punjabi fluent in Bengali and Sanskrit, Professor of English literature, poet, calligrapher, translator, transcreator, publisher and guru to a generation of bhadralok and Marwari chelas — all in one person is Professor P. Lal, owner of the Writers Workshop of Kolkata.

He attires himself in a long chogha befitting a guru and holds weekly readings of his translation of the Mahabharata for anyone who cares to join in. He has become a cult figure in Kolkata’s literary circles.

Among P. Lal’s many translations (he likes to describe them as transcreations), his favourite is the Mahabharata. In 1980, he produced a condensed, readable prose version of the epic. Earlier, in 1968, he had published the first volume of the complete translation of the Adi Parva (The Book of the Beginning). And now "a heavily, scrupulously revised edition."

It is a transcreation of the complete text of the Adi Parva. It has stories other than the central narrative of the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. It includes the feud between Garuda and the snakes, as well as passages regarded as interpretations that are often deleted (e.g. the story of Ganesha writing down Sage Vyasa’s text which is omitted in the Poona edition).

Like all Writers Workshop books, the Mahabharata is produced in a style unique to this publishing house. It is beautifully produced, and has a hand-painted front page scene of Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra. And it is as highly readable as anything P. Lal writes. After having sampled the Adi Parva, readers will look forward to reading the complete text, hopefully by 2008.

In praise of wine

Having finished the first draft of translation of my favourite couplets of Urdu poetry in collaboration with Kamana Prasad, I am satiated with the praise of wine and women. Mirza Ghalib and Meer Taqi Meer made no secret of their love of wine. More surprising than them are Mohammed Rafi Sauda (1706-1781), who I am not sure was a drinker, and Akbar Ilahabadi (1846-1921), who I am certain was a teetotaller. Sauda has these memorable lines:

Saaqi gayee bahaar, dil mein rahee havas Too minnaton say jaam day aur main kahoon kay bas

(O Saqi gone is the spring of youth

Remains but one regret in the heart of mine That you never pressed a goblet in my hand

And I protested "I’ve had enough of wine.)

Akbar Ilahabadi’s lines have his usual touch of humour:

Saaghar-e-mai hai saamney, Sheikh say kah rahey hain sab

Deykhta kya hai har taraf? Mard-e-Khuda charhaa bhee jaa

(The jug of wine lies before the Sheikh

As well as the cup

Why look here and there?

They ask Man of God 

Bottom up.)

For Bengal CM

May I request you — great communist — to change the name of an already mutilated name Kolkata to Kolkatai. This minor change of "I" after Kolkata will dramatise the whole journey from this Middle East to the Far East. Look at it this way.

One leaves Dubai and lands at Mumbai, and from there at Chennai. And from Chennai to Kolkatai (if you kindly agree) and from there to Shanghai. All the five airport names will end in "ai" and this could give a boost to our failing AI (Air-India).

(Contributed by Jai Deb Bajaj, Irvine, California.)