Lessons from life
Jyoti Singh

The Second Nose and Other Stories
by Yashpal. Translated by Anand.
Rupa and Co. Pages 189. Rs 195.

The Second Nose and Other StoriesTranslated into English by Anand, a print and broadcast journalist, The Second Nose and Other Stories incorporate Yashpal’s 15 short stories. If Munshi Premchand soared above all the writers in the Hindi literary world in the first half of the 20th century, Yashpal (1903-76) dominated the literary scene in the second half. Serving a life sentence for his involvement in the armed struggle for India’s Independence as a comrade of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, he gave himself to writing. It was liberation from the confines of the prison and formed his first collection of short stories, Pinjare ki Udan, published in 1938.

Short stories, novels and socio-political essays continued to flow from his pen after his release that prompted Mahadevi Verma to comment: "When other writers were praying to Sarasvati, the muse of literature, for her blessing, Yashpal was making bombs in a dark, secret cellar. When he arrived on the literary scene much behind others, it was him that Saraswati gave her undivided attention."

The stories provide a taste of Yashpal’s candid approach to the questions of his time. Saag, National Anthem, Testimonial of Loyalty, Kala Aadmi explore the complicity of the Indians with the British, which few of his contemporaries could. Saag focuses on how the fear of the white Sahibs tormented every heart and led to suspicion of one another, hindering integration. National Anthem mock the turncoats like Rai Bahadur, who was eager to serve the masters of the newly independent India as he did the British, apologises to a visiting dignitary for his daughters’ inability to sing the new national anthem as well as she rendered "God Save The King" during the Raj.

Pandit Bansi Dhar of the Testimonial Of Loyalty represent the traitors who betrayed their fellowmen merely to flatter the whites. Kala Aadmi focuses on the deference shown by the Indians to everything that was associated with white sahibs. The protagonist M. A. Shack’s efforts to speak fluent English, to wear crisp Sahib-style shirts and trousers, smoke cigarettes instead of hooka, anglicising the spelling of his name Sheikh into a Shack, visiting clubs and dancing like Sahibs to escape Kala Aadmi’s life are satirically highlighted.

The stories carry a strong undercurrent of social reform and protest. The tales unveil the suffering and exploitation of women in the rigid social milieu: Kokla’s life (Robber Women) shows how women in order to combat starvation enter the world of prostitution, while Honest Bread highlights the honesty of a prostitute, Phulia. One Cigarette narrates the sad tale of Damati who is thrown out of the house and disowned for merely smoking a cigarette. While orthodox community brands Sarju a witch for opting to end her life in defiance to polyandry (The Witch), apathetic attitude of people who fail to understand that for a poor "expressing grief was a privilege," thus scoffing at a nameless and penniless woman for not mourning her son’s death and selling vegetables in The Right to Grief, is traced. Second Nose, where the husband slits the nose of his beautiful wife just because the others ogle at her, conveys the grotesque travesty of saving a family honor and makes it relevant even today. Urmila (Borrowed Happiness) and Indu (The Ostracised) though educated and modern women are shown to be trapped in the invisible bonds of tradition, unable to choose their destiny. Unquestioning submission of human beings to a deity or faith is the focus in The Priest Who Saw God, The Devi’s Blessing, and The Mire of Sin.

Anand deserves to be accorded due credit for not only excellently translating, but also transmitting the spirit of the age in which the stories are written. The sentimental overtones and frank realistic depiction of characters and circumstances are gripping. Yashpal’s deep concern with India he fought for and dreamt of lends the narratives universal appeal and significance.