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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Found in Translation: Manto’s Bombay and Uday Prakash’s Delhi

Saadat Hasan Manto

his has been a week of reading in translation: first Saadat Hasan Manto's Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, and then Uday Prakash's The Walls of Delhi, translated by Jason Grunebaum. Manto wrote in the '30s, '40s and '50s, and Uday Prakash in the last two decades, but the English translations are brand new. Bombay Stories came out last month from Random House India, and The Walls of Delhi will be out in January from Hachette India (I read an Australian edition, which has just been shortlisted for the DSC Prize).

Translation is a strange and wonderful thing. A book rewritten in another language is like a person given the gift of new life: a new name, a new look, new turns of phrase — and hopefully new admirers. Sometimes the makeover can feel radical. Both these books bring together pieces that have never been published alongside before, giving the authors' work a new form, and — for me — suddenly placing them in potential conversation.

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Prakash’s bitingly satirical takes on contemporary Indian life and literary culture, while not exactly subject to censorship like Manto, have often brought down upon him the ire of the Hindi establishment.

Bombay Stories unites all Manto's fiction set in Bombay, while The Walls of Delhi puts the eponymous long short story next to two novellas, 'Mangosil' and 'Mohandas'. The translators' focus on Manto's richly animated depictions of a particular urban milieu allows a different Manto to emerge than the Partition-heavy figure that has been the staple of Manto publications in English. (The one exception to this is the deliciously irreverent filmi Manto of Stars from Another Sky, Penguin's translation of Ganje Farishte.) The book also, as Reeck observes, "represents the first and best literary evidence of Bombay's emergence as the modern city we now recognise it to be", a publishing back-flip that finally enables Manto to take his legitimate place at the head of that now extensive sub-genre of Indian writing which Reeck designates as 'Bombay fiction'. This world, populated by "prostitutes, pimps, writers, film stars, musicians, the debauched, the rich", is one that Manto seems to have inhabited with ease.

As a writer of 'lowlife' fictions, in Salman Rushdie's description, Manto may share something with Hindi writer Uday Prakash, whose sharp-angled tours of post-globalisation Delhi are often routed through the city's poorest quarters. Also, Prakash's bitingly satirical takes on contemporary Indian life and literary culture, while not exactly subject to censorship like Manto, have often brought down upon him the ire of the Hindi establishment.

he Hindi story 'Dilli ki Deewar' originally appeared as part of Dattatreya ke Dukh (the title would translate as 'The Woes of Dattatreya'). There, this tale (of a sweeper called Ramnivas whose life changes when he finds a stash of money in a wall) was one among many pieces ranging from a paragraph to 40-odd pages, with the narrator Vinayak Dattatreya as unifying factor. A composite of middle class types—honest government servant, unsuccessful Hindi poet, benevolent colony uncle, lowly research scholar—Dattatreya is bemused, long-suffering. Told in his voice, these riffs on life in Delhi at the start of the 21st century have a familiar conversational quality that cushions us a little from their darkness.

Uday Prakash

A very different effect is achieved in The Walls of Delhi, with its three fully-realised narratives where the odds are stacked heavily against the protagonists. The quirkiness of Dattatreya's voice is somewhat overwhelmed by the epic sweep of Mohandas's tale of unrelenting caste and class injustice in an MP village (beautifully formulated as identity theft), and by the even more surreal 'Mangosil', in which a fifty-year-old couple in a Jahangirpuri hovel have a baby whose head gets larger and larger, endangering his life even as he gets more and more thoughtfully adult. Rather than the darkly comic, musing tone I remember from the Hindi, what The Walls of Delhi produces a powerfully despairing sense of a flawed system that creates dreamworlds but dashes hopes against the wall again and again. These lives can only come to tragic ends.

Another trait that Uday Prakash and Manto share is the authorial intrusion. Manto, of course, was ahead of his time when he included an eponymous Manto character or made sly self-reflexive references to writing. Prakash's authorial interventions are more forceful, less ambiguous, often bringing in his take on political news, or locating himself in the story as a full fledged character. But even more than the 'I', what's really striking is his use of 'you'. That direct address — "If you want to get lucky, come to Delhi right away — it's not far at all. Forget about being a millionaire; coming to Delhi is the only way left to scrape by." — conjures up a imagined community of readers who share both newspapers and hopes. How does that address work outside India?

Micro-decisions a translator makes can transform characters. Ramnivas and Sushma going to see a film at "the Alpana" instead of at Alpana Cinema changes them, as does Sushma's mother calling her "honey". And the girl from Pydhoni seems altogether cooler playing 'Why, You Fool, Are You Always Falling in Love' from her 'Untouchable Girl' record, instead of 'Kise Karataa Murakh Pyaar Pyaar Pyaar Teraa Kaun Hai' from Achhut Kanya.

Some of this may seem unavoidable, an attempt to make these worlds more recognisable to the imagined reader in English. But if she is to be truly inserted into Uday Prakash's imagined community of readers (or Manto's), the real reader of translations must work a little harder.

 
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