Under my byline

The game of life, translated

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 21 August 2010


Wiping away tears, I’m thinking in amazement: “This really shouldn’t work.” But it does. I’ve just finished reading the death of the hero in Premchand’s novel Rangbhumi. The blind beggar Surdas dies like a saint, with forgiveness for those who once beset him, and with humility. Almost his last words are “Ram-Ram”. His village mourns him, and when his body is mounted on its funeral pyre every man, woman and child is there. His adopted son, once estranged, comes weeping to light the fire. It’s significant that just a few days earlier the entire village had burned to the ground, after a terrible conflict that had very humble origins, as a struggle over a piece of land.

This is surely too heavy-handed. It sounds like Gandhi and the independence movement, even perhaps Partition. There are other familiar characters: Kunwar Bharat Singh and his son Vinay approximate Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal. But Premchand died in 1936, aged just 56, and Rangbhumi was written in the early 1920s, the time of non-cooperation and Chauri Chaura. Call it prescience, or call it pattern-recognition; even the lives of saints and rich men of conscience follow a set of rules.

Whatever it is, the emotional force of this piece of narrative is surprising — especially for a reader who is, like me, so little acquainted with Hindi-Urdu literature. Somewhere within the Indian reader must be buried the necessary raw material, the understanding of Indian archetypes of character and motivation, and Premchand is able to mine that seam more effectively than Western or Western-inspired contemporary Indian writers. In Western literature this subject would make a tragedy. In India, opposed imperatives never grow monstrous and altogether consume the individual. (Think of Oedipus confronting his irreconcilable duties as son, king and husband, or Macbeth’s terrible crisis of loyalty and ambition.) Somehow, dharma provides the answer and the solution. From anger comes peace. The universe is what it is. And so on.

The thing is, I am reading Premchand in English. What’s more, the translator is American. When Indian translators cannot make Premchand come alive in English (I own a stultifying version of Godaan), how does a retired professor of history named Christopher King do it?

We meet for an adda over a cup of chai and a biskoot — only, it turns into an interview over cappuccino and carrot cake. King — whose dissertation was on the 19th-century politics of Hindi and Urdu — has an awkward metaphor ready to hand. Because of unknowable differences in the soil, water and air, he explains, “Indian chai here and Indian chai in America cannot be the same. So when you translate, you turn Indian chai into some other kind of chai.” Some things work out well: Premchand’s “na baat na cheet” turns into “neither chit nor chat”. Other things are trickier. King says each word or phrase in either language has its own “circle of connotations”. The difficulty is in getting the circles to overlap enough to allow the game to continue. He illustrates what he means by holding the thumb and forefinger of each hand circled in front of his eyes.

It took King two years to complete this translation. At over 600 pages, it is quite a big book.

King has been coming to India since the 1960s. In some respects he seems to have entered vanaprastha, and discourses on how Premchand has Surdas live the metaphor of “the game of life”. “You have to play without malice,” King says, like “this man who’s poor, blind, crippled and low-caste, but an irrepressible optimist”. Even the title of the novel is encoded with this message: King translates it as “The Arena of Life”.

The piece of land that triggers the conflict in Rangbhumi belongs to Surdas, who lets it lie empty for the villagers’ cows to graze. Until a local industrialist sets his eyes on that land, because he wants to build a tobacco factory on it. He gets the land, of course, but makes no profit from it. A translator may need the right emotional equipment to capture Premchand’s shades of meaning, but there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind how political a writer Premchand was, nor how relevant he remains.

Rangbhumi: The Arena of Life
Christopher R King, ed. and trans.
Oxford University Press
pp xviii + 650


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