Book Title: A Game of Fire
Author: Nanak Singh. Translated by Navdeep Suri
Nanak Singh is one of the immortals of Punjabi literature, yet he was not available to readers in English until his grandson Navdeep Suri started translating his books some years ago. The most recent of those translations is of ‘Agg Di Khed’, a novel written in 1948, as ‘A Game of Fire’. Nanak Singh wanted the book to be read as a historical narrative in a fictional form. “But the truth must be told,” he wrote in the Foreword. And he chose to tell it as fiction not because he was afraid, but because he was truthful and brave. He wanted to reach beyond facts to reveal the structure of reality and give us intimations of a truth at once terrible and beautiful. Attempting this when the wounds from Partition were raw and bleeding must have exacted an enormous emotional price and been cathartic. One side of that truth is “the bestiality displayed by the people of Punjab” which “was of a level unseen and unheard of in any society or civilisation”. The other side is the kindness many people proved capable of, as when Satnam takes off his turban and wraps it around a helpless girl stripped naked and being paraded by a mob.
Nanak Singh is a master of action and passion, unafraid of melodrama when the narrative demands it and restraining, when necessary, an excess of emotion through the economy of language. He brings his characters to life with a few decisive touches. The finest crafted among those characters are human, all too human: not cast as either only good or bad, and capable — like Yusuf — of redemptive transformation. Not that Nanak Singh is reluctant to face evil: he writes of doctors who crave to kill those they have sworn to heal and save.
At times, as in the case of Naseem, he appears to be stretching probability, but he does not let it snap. As in a master’s hands, fictional truth here overwrites reality, and deepens our experience of being alive. Credible nightmares and incredible actuality fuse (in this lies, it seems, the secret of the filmmakers’ fascination with his books). This is impossible without a snake-charmer’s seductive ways with language. In a language that has at once the power of sheer plainness and an eerie excess of the baroque, he can evoke “a night as shadowy as the plan of an assassin”. Such is the fine substructure of a narrative edifice that tactically mobilises popular signs, such as names with a mythological ring and Gandhi’s watermark-like presence in Krishna’s decision to spread the message of peace in the midst of arson and massacre.
Navdeep Suri is better at translating non-fiction than fiction. His translation of the Foreword to the novel is effortless and exquisite. But as soon as the novel begins, the diplomat overpowers the writer. The language often becomes stiff and stilted. The diplomat’s language of equivocation again and again encroaches on poetic suggestion and textual ambiguity. One likely reason is an insufficient attunement of the translator’s ear to hear Punjabi rhythms in the sounds of English. Another is the train-watcher’s view of the narrative as a movement of parts, at the cost of a contemplative grasp of the novel as a unity in its very contexture. The result is that metaphors get messed up and disintegrate instead of building up cumulatively to reveal the complex meaning.
The translation gradually takes off. By the time you reach the last chapter, it is soaring. But then it is too late. The problem, probably, is with the editorial handling of the translation. The Indian publishing industry, except in isolated cases, is not yet equipped to ably handle literary translations. This is part of the current state of translational ecology in India. Seen against this backdrop, Navdeep Suri’s earnest attempt is an act of valour and a contribution to a more inclusive literary map of the subcontinent.