The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 28, 2002

Essence of lower middle class
Vikramdeep Johal

India: Selected Short Stories
by Bhisham Sahni (translated by Gillian Wright). Penguin India, New Delhi. Pages 244+x. Rs 295

READING these English translations of Hindi stories, a question springs to mind: What kinds of readers, especially Indian, will this anthology attract? Obviously it will interest those who are familiar with the prime international language but not with the national language. And also those who know Hindi, or rather it is their mother tongue, but who take no pride in it and have all but rejected it, behaving like the son who ill-treats his mother in one of the stories.

Readers of the latter kind go for such books without bothering to look for the original works, which in any case are less easily available and much less attractively packaged. Well, thatís the way the cookie crumbles for vernacular writers. For them the saving grace is seeing their creations, through translation, find new readers in the country and abroad. And few are more deserving of a wider audience than Bhisham Sahni.

A doyen of post-Independence Hindi literature, Sahni is far removed from all those high-profile, publicity-crazy writers dotting the literary firmament. He writes in a simple yet powerful style, making good use of irony and avoiding any frills or pyrotechnics. His works are marked by sympathy for victims of an unjust system. However, he doesnít wallow in cynicism and pessimism. Hope springs eternal in the hearts of his characters.


If Nirmal Vermaís fiction captures the essence of the Indian upper middle class, Sahniís does the same for the lower one. The best as well as the worst of this class is portrayed in these stories. On the one hand, there is love, compassion, the heroic struggle for existence and the capacity to dream, but on the other there is selfishness, dogmatism and insensitivity.

The most representative story of them all, and arguably the best, is Dinner for the Boss (Chief Ki Davat). Career-conscious Shyamnath invites his boss to dinner. To ensure the partyís success, he tries hard to remove an "obstacle" ó his old mother. However, seeing that the boss has been impressed by her, Shyamnath, feigning affection, turns to her for the sake of his promotion. And the mother, in spite of the humiliation she has suffered at her sonís hands, agrees to do the needful for his prosperity.

Sahniís understanding of loss and displacement comes across poignantly in his Partition stories. In Paali, a four-year-old boy gets separated from his Hindu parents and is adopted by a childless Muslim couple. He is forced to undergo circumcision by fanatical members of the Muslim community and rechristened Altaf. Just when the boy seems to have settled down in his new avatar, his father arrives and takes him to India, where again fanatics ó this time Hindu ó play havoc with his identity. In Veero, a Sikh woman taken by a Muslim man is unable to forget her past and looks for her brother, year after year, among the pilgrims coming from India.

The translated stories, by and large, manage to capture the spirit of the originals. However, if one goes into the niceties, the translations at times seem awkward and weak. For instance, in Mata-Vimata (Mother or Stepmother), a woman resisting another's attempt to grab a baby from her lap shouts: "Chhod, tujhe maut khaye, chhod, gaadi chhoot rahi hai..." Its translation ó "Let me be, may death eat you, let me alone, the train's leaving..."ó lacks the originalís intensity. In the same story, certain expletives are translated while others are not. It sounds pretty odd, hearing a woman now say "butcher, whore", now "haramzadi, naspitti". Moreover, the idioms lose their impact, even seem funny, by being translated literally. Take this: "There is delay in Godís house, but never darkness!"

What irritates the reader most are the glaring proof reading and editing mistakes. Right on page No.1, a woman is wearing a "dressing down". In another place, a girl "new the dialogues of several films by heart." Such silly mistakes wonít do Penguinís reputation any good.

Conspicuous by its absence is a glossary, which is a necessity here since several words are left untranslated. The years in which the stories were first published have also not been mentioned. Above all, it would have been great had the Hindi originals been provided in the book, as done recently by Indialog while bringing out an anthology of Nirmal Vermaís stories in translation.

Warts and all, these translations are a decent read. Letís hope they lead readers to the appreciation of the original stories.