Book List

Five gems of Hindi Literature

I always struggle with choosing anything—a dish, a sari, a moment to photograph in the falling and fading dusk… But the most difficult is choosing favourite books, out of so many that I find myself re-reading and thinking about. So, this is not a list of my favourite books, because it is impossible for me to compile one, this is just a list of five Hindi classics I read at a young and impressionable age:
 

I read Punarnava by Aacharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi as a child, and was entranced by the sheer beauty of its Sanskritised prose. Aacharya Dwivedi was amongst the most learned literary luminaries. He was a Sanskrit scholar and brought the beauty of the Sanskrit language and literary references and forms into Hindi. His most celebrated work is Banbhatt ki Atmakatha, a seminal novel truly unparalleled in Hindi literature. But I like Punarnava for its strong women characters and the beautiful, star-crossed, unselfish romances. Read it for the two heroines, Mrinal Manjari and Chanda, who are stronger, more courageous and expressive than the male protagonists.
 

Parati Parikatha by Phaneeshwarnath Renu was another book that I read early on. Though perhaps his first novel, Maila Aanchal, is better known, to me Parati Parikatha is a one-of-its-kind novel portraying village-life in a part of Bihar in lyrical, regional-language laden prose. It brings to life the village and its people in all their absurdity, wisdom, wiliness and idealism and depicts the deep fault-lines of caste, ignorance and social injustices. A must read for, amongst other factors, its iconic characters who remain with the reader for long while.
 

Krishna Sobti’s Daar se Bichudi is the story of a woman abducted from her family and sexually exploited by multiple men against the backdrop of 19th century India. The heroine, Pasho, tugs at the heart with her beauty, innocence and helplessness and I remember being filled with anger at the way she is disempowered by the society and her own family. Perhaps that is what Krishna Sobti intended. But the real appeal of Daar se Bichudi lies in its Punjabi-laced prose that borders on poetry and delicious descriptions of home-life in prosperous 19th century households. I prefer this book over Mitro Marjaani, the more celebrated, more iconoclastic of her works for the loving portrayal of Pasho.
 

Mannu Bhandari is amongst my favourite writers. Her understanding of human frailties and her nuanced, subtle handling of them cannot be matched in Hindi literature. Her novel Aapka Bunty is a heart-breaking story about a small boy’s suffering through his parents’ separation. It deals with a broken family and the inarticulate pain of a child. While reading it, I cried at each new hurt Bunty received as he was tossed between the new families his parents had built for themselves. This book needs to be read for Mannu Bhandari’s sensitive writing and her masterly understanding of a child’s perspective.
 

Shekhar ek Jeevani by Agyeya, a seminal and controversial work about the protagonist by the same name, an acutely self-aware man, sifting through and analysing his life-experiences while awaiting execution for taking part in revolutionary activities. It is an intense novel in two parts and delves in the psyche of Shekhar who had several similarities with the writer himself. The work is remarkable for its non-linear narrative and unafraid exploration of socially and psychologically challenging themes and for Agyeya’s polished, precise, flowing prose.

Reading these books revealed the beauty and power of language to me and taught me that story-telling is a constant exploration, which requires breaching the boundaries of form and subject.
   

About the writer
Anukrti Upadhyay writers fiction and poetry in both English and Hindi. Her collection of Hindi short stories, titled Japani Sarai, and two English novellas, Daura and Bhaunri, were published in 2019. Her has also appeared in numerous literary journals. Kintsugi which was released late July 2020 is her fourth book. In her other life, she is a law and finance professional and conservation enthusiast.

Book launch

‘A translation of this beautifully written literary work helps us bring connections across cultures and helps us see the work in a new light.’
Daisy Rockwell on why Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein by Usha Priyamvada needed translation

‘Main yahan chhatri ke neeche khadi hun aur wahan mera akelapan bheeg raha hai.’

Sahitya Akademi winner, poet and critic – Anamika – recalls her first reading of Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein during the official launch of the translation by Daisy Rockewell. While sitting at her ancestral home and the rains pouring down continuously, she could see Sushma Sharma in the rain, standing under an umbrella while her loneliness gets drenched in the downpour. It’s so strange how we relate a book to the emotion it evoked and the atmosphere we read it in – even if we eventually forget the plot. That’s the imprint brilliant books like Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein leave on their readers even when years have passed and the book becomes a mere recollection of emotion.
 

Daisy Rockwell, Anamika and Shinjini Kumar in conversation on the translation of Usha Priyamvada’s Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein
 
Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein, one of Usha Priyamvada’s best known works has now been translated into English by Daisy Rockwell. The novel narrates the story of Sushma Sharma – the novel’s protagonist – who is a lecturer at an all-women’s college in Delhi and the sole bread earner of her family in Kanpur. Dragging on to life with responsibilities and duties, Sushma’s life is turned topsy turvy with the arrival of a charismatic and young individual – Neel. Torn between making a ‘selfish’ choice of choosing her love or fulfilling her duties, Priyamvada’s novel explores the unseen shackles that bind women and dilemmas they constantly find themselves in. Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein has always been a much loved novel which was also adapted as a TV Series for Doordarshan. A brilliant piece of modernist literature which till date had only appealed to the Hindi-speaking audience could now enrapture the world breaking apart the language barrier.

A stimulating discussion during the book launch between Daisy Rockwell, Anamika and Indian Novels Collective’s co-founder Shinjini Kumar opened the many facets of the rather simple novel of women’s desires. The translator’s note which is a window to the entire text perfectly captures the essence of the book. It views the book from different angles, analyses it from various perspectives and enables the reader to receive it as they desire. She feels that public spheres, including the literary spheres often tend to sideline women’s stories as being ‘too dated’ even if they hold their relevance even today.

Being an open-ended novel, Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein shatters the common notion of ‘happy ending’ and inculcates the reality of women’s lives into its plot. Using shringar as an aesthetic and also as a metaphor, it symbolises how Sushma’s attire was all colourful even when her life lacked hues. Anamika beautifully put together the reality of Indian literature saying that ‘aesthetics, ethics and poetics go hand in hand in India.’ The vivid imagery employed by Priyamvada has been deftly translated keeping the cultural context in the language it is being translated to.

Women centric stories aren’t only limited to India. It’s astounding to see how parallels can be drawn between different cultures wherein women face similar dilemmas. Rockwell drawing cultural parallels between Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is one of the prime highlights of the launch. It establishes the fact that women’s dilemmas sacrifices are universal and not constrained.

The opposite of Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein happens in Priyamvada’s second novel – Rukogi Nahi Radhika where the protagonist leaves her widower father for her future with Manish – the man in her life. A thread binds both the novels together, as they deal with liberation in different senses.

Elaborating on her translation of this Hindi classic, Daisy explains how translation is about ‘choices’. Choices so as to capture the exact essence of the text as it is in its original language. While people usually critique what was ‘lost’ in translation, we should rather focus on what is ‘gained’ – expressions, literary tropes and windows to different cultures which otherwise would’ve been impossible.

Pachpan Khambe Lal Deewarein which has been Indian Novels Collective’s favourite since a long time – with our dramatised reading of the book in 2018 and publishing its translation now in 2021, we hope to unfurl the novel’s beauty to as many audiences as possible. A book where the Khambe stands for shackles and strength both, it evokes individual emotions in the reader who can receive it as their own consciousness allows them to. Daisy Rockwell’s beautiful and crisp translation of Usha Priyamvada’s novel has thus opened new doors to the Hindi literary world.