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.

Event

Musical Readings at the Times Lit Fest

Indian Novels Collective’s houseful event, Musical Readings at the Times Lit Fest proved that there will always be takers for a good story regardless of the era it is set in and most importantly, the language it was originally written in.
One usually does not associate the Times Literary Fest with readings of Indian novels, but not only was this Indian Novels Collective’s second time at the Times Literary Fest but it was also a full house with the audience not wanting the readings to end! The event in question being Musical Readings with Priyanka Setia and Yuki Ellias. Viewers had the pleasure of hearing Yuki Ellias read excerpts from Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel, Padma Nadir Majhi and Priyanka Setia read portions from Usha Priyamvada’s novel, Pachpan Khambhe Laal Deewarein.

Set in pre-independent India in a fictitious village by the banks of Padma river in present-day Bangladesh, Padma Nadir Majhi is about a local fisherman, namely Kuber, who finds himself exploited by a small businessman. This was narrated by theatre professional, Yuki Ellias with notes of the flute played by Easwaran Anantram (Vivek), which transported one to Ketupur where the novel was set.

Meanwhile, actor and performer, Priyanka Setia read pages from Pachpan Khambhe Laal Deewarein accompanied by violinist, Sanchit Chaudhary. Written by Usha Priyamvada, the book captures the anguish of Sushma, a hostel warden who’s the sole breadwinner of her family and how she feels obliged to give up pursuing the love of her life as she considers it her duty to look after her three younger siblings.

Had it not been for these readings, the audience would not have even heard of these books.

Yuki Ellias echoes these sentiments too when while recollecting her childhood and school-life and admits that there is a bias towards Hindi and English. Despite being half-Bengali, Yuki had never heard of Padma Nadir Majhi, who knew more about Bengali poetry, limericks and films,  thanks to her Bengali mother who happens to be an avid reader.

However, that is not the only reason that prevents people from reading Indian novels. Priyanka Setia points out, “We live in India where every state has its own language. Most people try to read in their own language. I am also Punjabi and so have read a lot of Punjabi literature.  So for me also, first is Punjabi literature then comes Hindi literature.”

While reading as a hobby is commonly pursued by those who are more inclined towards the arts. Even those not inclined towards the arts, often find themselves reading English novels, if not voraciously, at the very least, a few books here and there by the author or genre of their choice. Like Setia succinctly states, people read English literature as its easily available and trendy.

If only they knew what they were missing out on. Despite being set in pre-independent India, Padma Nadir Majhi perfectly captures how fisherman and for that matter, most blue collar workers and labourers from the unorganized sectors are treated. Rules pertaining to labour laws are not even half as stringent as they should be with workers, farmers and fishermen being grossly underpaid, overworked and made to work in the most inhuman circumstances. Yuki Ellias draws parallels with the novel which also touches upon how a petty and corrupt businessman, Hossain Miya is migrating fishermen to another island to set up a colony of sorts when she says, “All of us are trapped in a  certain sense of being kidnapped, taken to an island to work like dogs. Of course, we get funded for it but exploitation has not changed, it’s maybe gotten worse.”

While Padma Nadir Majhi captures the plight of how fishermen are exploited, Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein is a story of a hostel warden who is also trapped by her circumstances. Despite finding love, she chooses to resist it and instead fulfil her duty towards her family, who without saying anything expect her to support them since she is working. When she finally does find herself getting attracted to a younger man, Neel, she finds herself subjected to a lot of scrutiny from both her colleagues, students and her family who comment about petty things like how much she goes out and what time she comes, while they assassinate her character, simply because she for once decides to befriend a younger man and thinks about herself.

Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein perfectly captures the loneliness and isolation most single working women experience. On one hand, elder, unmarried, working women are viewed as a burden and by virtue of their being women, expected to be sensitive to their families’ needs and put their family first as it is in a woman’s DNA to be family oriented! Setia talks about the hypocrisy while narrating the conversation, Sushma’s aunt, Krishna Masi had with her mother who commented on her high salary and how that will prevent her from attracting suitors, because of which they are okay with her marrying anyone. To which her aunt points out, had Sushma done the same when she was younger, they would have dissuaded her and told her to focus on her studies, instead! Quite telling right, even of 2018?

Just like how older films are dismissed as they will not be contemporary enough, the same applies for novels, especially regional literature about which, awareness is abysmal, however that also is just a notion; Regardless of the time or place it is set in, an evocative story is timeless, the only barrier being our impressions and language, the latter problem, which forms the very basis for Indian Novels Collective’s existence – to reach all kinds of readers, regardless of their nationality, mother tongue or age.