The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash (Tr: Jason Grunebaum)
Hachette India/2013, pp.224 (PB), price: Rs 350.
For last two decades, Uday Prakash is arguably one the most prolific, widely read and controversial writers whose works have been translated in many Indian and foreign languages. Despite being ‘exiled’ from the complex web of groups, organizations, godfathers, departments and hierarchies that reign over the Hindi academia and literary world, his survival as a writer is one of the interesting literary moments of our times. One should note that, unlike other languages, in Hindi, the literary activities are heavily guided and controlled by the guilds of Hindi academia.
Uday Prakash’s own sense of depravity has pushed him to weave a solidarity with innumerable Indians suffering and struggling to earn a minimum dignity as human beings. The three novellas of this collection lay bare the everyday saga of commoners in his usual provocative, chilling and caustic style of storytelling.
A migrant from a small village working as cleaner, Ramnivas, the protagonist of the title story, finds a stack of money in one of the walls of a posh Delhi Gym one fine day, and goes on a fantasy trip along with his wife. The second novella is the story of Mohandas, an educated lower-caste youth, whose dreams and aspirations are destroyed for corruption of all kinds, at all levels. The third story titled Mangosil tells the struggles of Chandrakant, a servant of a police officer, who runs aways with brutalized Shobha to begin a new life. They soon have a child who is suffering from a serious disease. But, these stories are full of characters, references and incidents taking the narratives to the various dimensions and opening up the labyrinth of the harsh and hidden realities of the contemporary India.
One of the profound characteristics of Uday Prakash’s stories is the authorial presence as ‘I’ that directly addresses the reader as ‘you’. This factor heightens the pungent and piercing sensation felt by the reader. Look at these lines from the title story: Walk outside your home and take a good look at the little crowd that hangs out at the shop or stall or cart – and who knows? You might find where the tunnel comes out.
The author does not only converse about the characters or the situations, he also does not hesitate from commenting on our times. In Mohandas, he says, Thousands of Bisnath-like individuals had stolen the identities, qualifications, and abilities of others in desirable residential colonies like Lenin Nagar, Gandhi Nagar, Ambedkar Nagar, Jawahar Nagar, Shastri, Nehru, and Tilak Nagar – and had worked in their places for years, earning thousands of rupees with each pay cheque.
Jason Grunebaum’s note at the end of book is an interesting addition. He not only provides a context to his translation, but also tells the reader how he understands the personality and the works of the original author. Grunebaum teaches Hindi at University of Chicago and has translated Uday Prakash’s earlier novel titled The Girl with the Golden Parasol, one of the most popular and provocative works in Hindi literature of recent times.
Being a writer himself and being mindful of the nuances of English in this region and places like US, Britain, Australia etc., and most importantly, having a great degree of familiarity with Uday Prakash’s prose and its inherent voice, the translator has done his work extraordinarily well.
The stories in this collection should be read not only because they are coming from an extremely important voice in Hindi literature, but also because they are not just stories but a profound mapping of our times’ civilizational crises resulting from the blend of an awfully oppressive social order and brutal imperialism.
He underlines in Mohandas: It’s a tale of time when anybody worshipping any gods other than the god of the US and Europe were called fascists, terrorists, religious fanatics. Gas and oil, water, markets, profit, plunder: to get all of this, companies, governments, and armies were killing innocent people every day all over the world.
Despite being amidst despair all around, these tales have dash of hope scattered all over. Suri, the ailing kid in the last story, copies a few lines from a poem in his note book:
You are still alive, you are not alone yet-
And pitiful is the one who holds out his rag of life
To beg mercy of the darkness.
A version of this article has appeared in The New Indian Express (May 5, 2013).