Saturday, July 31, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
A tale of intrigue, violence
Khushwant Singh

"One section, ‘The Arrogance of Hindutva,’ began: ‘India has always operated best when she is in partnership with others, whether it’s the Mughals or the British. To strike out these chapters of India’s history with a saffron pen is to miss the point about India, which is ultimately too hospitable, too welcoming to stand on her own. The British did not subjugate her, rather they allowed her to blossom, much like the support a rubber tree gives to the twisting pepper vine that grows in its shadow.’

The extract is taken from the Jon Stock’s spy thriller The Cardamom Club (Penguin). Stock was the correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph in Delhi for a couple of years and spent quite some time in Cochin. He is back in England writing his third novel.

Stock makes a black and white division between the English who hated everything Indian (Indophobia) and those who loved India and Indians (Indo-phillia). India haters highlighted everything bad about the country: sati, bride burning, human and animal sacrifices, etc. All this to prove that Indians were incapable of running their affairs and giving them independence was a blunder. Indians are equally divided between those who believed that they were better off under British rule than their own corrupt leaders and those who fought for freedom and vowed to make India a nuclear power on par with the most powerful nations of the world.

Stock names the leader of Indian haters Macaulay (the choice of name is noteworthy). He is a sadist and a sexual pervert and lives in an island off the Malabar coast. His outfit is known as the Cardamom Club. It has vast resources at its disposal, including means to bribe a whole village to enact sati, spices to keep a watch on Indian emigrants settled in England, who they heartily loathe, have its agents get important posts in the British High Commission, and if they find the High Commissioner too pro-Indian have him sacked or bumped off. On the other side, is a Malayali one-time freedom fighter now practising medicine in Scotland. He is also engaged in stealing British nuclear secrets and sending them to India. His son, Raj Nair, having qualified as a doctor, gets a posting as medical officer in the British High Commission, in Delhi. He can speak no Indian language. The High Commissioner, who is pro-Indian, sends Raj Nair to Cochin to check up on Macaulay and his Cardamom Club. With him is a Malayali beauty, Priyanka — a journalist who he had run into at a diplomatic party in Delhi.

The Cardamom Club is a tangled tale of intrigue, back-stabbing and violence. It is utterly contrived and lacking in conviction. It heads towards a fairy tale ending with Raj and Priynka getting married and living happily ever afterwards. That is not so. He gives his tale yet another twist, making it even less credible. Nevertheless much as I tried to give up on it halfway, I was unable to do so.

Iqbal translated

Lovers of poetry agree that in order to get the best of its flavour and music of its words, it has to be read in the original; translated in other languages, it reads flat as if it has been robbed of its resonance. There are a few notable exceptions when the language of the original is close to the one in wh ich it has been translated as German, French, Spanish and Italian into English. The worst victims are translations of Oriental languages into European. The only examples of successful renderings I can think of are Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia. Scott Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam, Brough & Lee Siegel’s renderings of Sanskrit poems and recently William Radice’s translation of Tagore’s Songs. When it comes to Urdu-into-English most Urdu lovers, including Professor Ralph Russell, are agreed that no one has succeeded as well as Victor Kiernan in translating selections from Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Eat, drink and be merry
July 24, 2004
House of Praise
July 17, 2004
In Farid’s footsteps
July 10, 2004
One up on Ghalib
July 3, 2004
Star interpreters
June 26, 2004
What makes a city beautiful
June 19, 2004
CRI turns 100: No sound of celebration
June 12, 2004
Man-motivated tragedies
June 5, 2004
A verdict in favour of secularism
May 29, 2004
Charm of the Shivaliks
May 22, 2004
Meditating upon the Gayatri Mantra
May 1, 2004
Idol speculation
April 24, 2004
He could’ve been Betaaj Badshah
April 17, 2004
The potent Gayatri Mantra
April 10, 2004

Kiernan for some years was teaching English at the Aitchison Chief’s College in Lahore. During his Lahore years, Kiernan taught himself Urdu and had the benefit of having Faiz as a close friend. It was not the same when he tried his hand translating Allama Iqbal who was dead by the time Kiernan arrived in Lahore. I for one was not even aware that he had done so till last week when I got Poems From Iqbal: Renderings in English Verse with Comparative Urdu Text, published by the Oxford University Press, Karachi in 1955. That is a sad commentary on India-Pakistan relations when it comes to exchange of books between two neighbouring countries which share a common linguistic heritage. What I have in hand is the second edition put into print early this year. Having tried my hand at Iqbal’s poetry, I have a few bones to pick with Kiernan and his publishers. First is about the selection made by them. I can well understand the omission of Allama’s Saarey Jahaan Say Acchha Hindustan Hamaara — Of all the countries of the world, our Hindustan is the best. It would not go down well with Pakistanis then in the first flush of patriotism after breaking away from India. Even more difficult for them to swallow would be Hindi hain hum, Vatan hai Hindustan hamara — (we are Indians, our homeland is Hindustan). I was vastly amused when my old friend Vasant Sathe (former Cabinet Minister) shed his secular pretensions and stated publicly that Iqbal’s lines would read better if changed to Hindu hain hum vatan hai Hindustan hamara. Can we really blame the Pakistanis for being Muslim chauvanists when our Hindutva supporters are no different from their bigots?

However, I have other reservations about Kiernan’s rendering of Iqbal. Unlike his translations of Faiz which read very smoothly, his renderings of Iqbal are in laboured rhyme. I will quote one poem Haqeeqat-e-Husan Beauty’s essence). He translates it as follows:

Beauty asked God one day

This question: ‘Why

Didst Thou not make me, in Thy world, undying?’

And God replying —

‘A picture show is this world: all this world

A tale out of the long night of not-being;

And in it, seeing

Its nature works through mutability

That only is the lovely whose essence knows decay.’

The moon stood near and heard this colloquy,

The words tool wing about the sky

And reached the morning-star;

Dawn learned them from its star, and told the dew...

It told the heavens’ whisper to

Earth’s poor familiar;

And at the dew’s report the flower’s eye filled,

With pain the new bud’s tiny heartbeat thrilled;

Springtime fled from the garden, weeping;

Youth, that had come to wander there, went creeping

Sadly away.

I rendered the same poem as follows:

To the Creater did Beauty one day complain

"Why made ye one of stuff that doth wane?"

"The world is like a hall of mirrors," answered He

"A tale told to pass the long night of eternity.

Since of changeable hues it was first made

It’s the essence of beauty that it must fade."

The moon overheard, she was not far

It spread in the skies to the Morning Star.

The Star told the Dawn, Dawn to Dew extended

The secret of Heaven thus to the Earth descended

The bud’s little heart burst with grief and bled

Grief filled the garden in loud lament

Youth that had come to sport in sorrow went.

I leave it to my readers to judge which version is closer to the original and reads more smoothly — the Pakistani or the Indian.