Book Title: Life Was Here Somewhere
Author: Ajeet Cour
These are Ajeet Cour’s stories translated from Punjabi. She was born in Lahore in 1934. Since 1947, Delhi has been her home, muse and battlefield. In 1986, she received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her autobiography. In 2006, she was given the Padma Shri for social work. She has been an untiring writer and civic interventionist. The two sides of her work meet in most of these ‘stories’, some of which read like long footnotes to the autobiography.
These are not all stories as stories are usually understood — as fictional yarns. Many are stories as journalists refer to them — as narrative reports. Yet, what separates them from both kinds is the first-person narrator, which makes them read like personal essays in which the writer reminisces with bitterness about her several brushes with the country’s bovine bureaucracy and cold clerkdom. The brushes often left her bruised, and the wounds never healed. So the open-ended stories read like open wounds, festering with memories of long battles that had to be abandoned. The bureaucracy does not let a citizen win. ‘A Losing Battle’ says it out loud.
‘Life was Here Somewhere’, from which the book gets its title, tells in neat detail how bureaucratic apathy and complicity produce waste and destruction. I hope someone in India is doing research on bureaucracy and the Anthropocene, for modern India’s cultural climate does not spawn the likes of Kafka. ‘Clerk Maharaja’ reminds you of scenes in ‘The Trial’ but without their subliminal horror; what you have instead is a comic banality that suits most Indians’ placid acceptance of corruption as a moral norm. A touch of humour now and then makes the banality uncannily iridescent.
Of all the stories gathered here, the best probably is ‘Eyes’. It uses a bit of suspense, some pathos, and a good dose of ethos. The narrator is a boy trying to make sense of his father’s death at the hands of the police. He suffers ostracism as he is perceived as a terrorist’s son. He cannot understand how a man as gentle-souled as his father, who could not see a bird in pain, be a terrorist. Through a tactical use of silence, Ajeet Cour manages to infuse ambiguity into the story. She salvages the humanity of the man killed and implicates the state machinery, yet keeps everything in the twilight of doubt. The narrative restraint augments the sense of inscrutability hanging over human affairs.
The feeblest of the tales is ‘All for Nothing’. It seems the writer has no clue as to where she is headed, so that she just lets the story drop, without working it out to an ending.
The cover painting by Arpana Cour does more than embellish the book, adding visual and mythological resonances to storied themes. Where the book most disappoints is in the translations and editing. The translations are generally dull and cliched, without the verve of literary expression. The result is the stories barely read like literature; as literary journalism too, they come across as mediocre. The dialogues are stiff and lifeless. This, in turn, takes vitality out of the characters.