The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Mid-day Meal at Midnight

With "Slumdog Millioner" attracting criticism that poverty sells, I thought I should try my hand in portraying poverty in one of my blogposts. I know poverty as such will not catapult any trash to literary success overnight. In order that it attracts the notice of the readers, there has to be something ineluctable, rather irresistable about it. I've read Vikas Swarup's book "Q & A" some three years ago. I had enjoyed its literary format, the charm of urban living, even in hovels has been so very beautifully portrayed.

Mangat Prasad would not do anything that was wrong--call it his fear of God or his timidity, he was sure to stay miles away from any act that could goad him to repent. People believed this and Mangat had never ever given a chance to anybody to believe otherwise.

Well, society demands cost for everything, even for living an honest living. Mangat Prasad was too poor to afford that. A square meal for all the seven members of the family was all that he craved, but he was not lucky always. So, he was answerable for his failure, all the while and to everybody--to his quibbling wife and snivelling kids, to his impatient debtors and neglectful relations. 'Is this the way you've decided to maintain your family? My children go unfed, they're so very wretchedly dressed, but look at neighbour's children. How blissfully they enjoy,' Malti, the emaciated middle-aged wife of Mangat, used to lash out at her husband as hunger in her own belly rumbled.

Mangat could not have ignored them all the while. One day the exhortations of Malti worked on him and he sat down to take a hard look at his principles. That day he was suffering from fever, but the urgency of the matter needed his quick decision, a feverish decision: whether he would allow his family to rot in hunger or adopt some quick means to alleviate its sufferings.

And what was the quick-fix? Eureka! Suddenly Managat felt he had found out the answer, something that had been eluding him for years: he decided to steal.

Madho Singh, the shopkeeper of the village, was a person of means who had never ever thought of insuring his shop. Let alone insuring, he had no dog to guard his shop. When he was himself the guard, where was the point in spending money on the security of his establishment? At night, he used to sleep on the floor of his shop with its doors and windows closed.

And Mangat knew that. It was no easy task to steal from the shop. So he headed for the school. It was in his knowledge that there was stock of rice in the school for mid-day meals. He decided where he should steal without being noticed.

The task was even easier than he thought. Not a street dog was there at this hour of the night to accost Magat. But then there was no big stock of rice; it was only a small bag weighing two to three kilos at the maximum. With the bag of booty he rushed out.

Curiosity had the better of him. 'I should know exactly what I've stolen. Malti won't be happy with so less, still…let me have a look,' Magat mumbled. Soon he reached the light post, the only incandescent light illuminating the sleepy village. There he opened the bag.

'Ah, what a pity! Are they feeding children this sort of wretched grub? The whole stuff is full of pebbles and chaff,' a sigh of disgust escaped Mangat's ravenous belly. He sat down then and there and started picking the stones out of the rice.

It took him just half an hour to make the rice clean. 'Aha! Now the children would find it tasty. Students should eat rice better than this or how else do they remember those difficult lessons in the school?' Mangat uttered a rhetorical question.

The novice of a thief headed back to the school. But this time Madho Singh was on his way. It was unusual for him to go out of his shop at night, but people used to say this about him: Madho had, of late, started practicing black art for coaxing evil spirits into showering wealth on him.

'Mangat, why are you roaming at this hour and what's that in your hand?' the village shopkeeper challenged.

'See, Madhoji, what these people are up to. They just feed children rice full of pebbles and husks. Isn't it cruel of them to give this trash to children in the name of mid-day meals?" Mangat responded.

For a second, Madho Singh, the village shopkeeper got confused. Why should Mangat get critical of mid-day meals at midnight? So he snatched the bag from Mangat and started examining it.

'And how did you get this rice?' Madho Singh asked.

'I've cleaned this rice for the use of children. Even hungry children shouldn't be given adulterated stuff. Let's go to the school and return it,' Mangat said this as a flicker of dry smile crossed his face. A rumble in his belly reminded him that he was hungry. His worry about his hungry children and angry wife began to worry him again.
A. N. Nanda


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The English Teacher


Some six years back I had an occasion to read “The English Teacher” by R. K. Narayan. It is such a wonderful novel—one cannot stop before finishing it. As I remember, I had read that while travelling from Bhubaneswar to Yasovantpur by train and a couple of sections were still left unfinished as I reached the last station and moved to National Law School University for training. I completed the leftover portion within next two or three days. It’s not a theme R. K. Narayan usually writes: the protagonist has a one-to-one talk with the soul of his deceased wife. I liked the book so much that today when I write a small story for my blog, I cannot stop plagiarising the title “The English Teacher”. Of course, my subject matter is different; it has more the influence of Roald Dahl than of R. K. Narayan. Aha! That’s more than a hint already; saying more would mean critiquing my own work, I say!!

Mr. Dev Kumar Benarjee is the lecturer in English in the small town of Ballamgarh. His is an attitude only explicable in terms of a certain inscrutable principle governing that weird language he teaches, or for that matter, the weird culture he mimics. For most part of his daily interaction, he speaks only one language, that is in English, whether he is to talk to his students or his neighbours or even to the rickshaw-puller that transports him to his college and brings him back home. The street dogs are the big beneficiaries of Mr. Benrjee's linguistic preference. 'Aha! I won't fault you for not following me, you the speechless pathetic puppets, I won't. Even my students, my greengrocer, my rickshaw-puller do not try to understand the dictions of this brilliant language. Come eat this English Marie, these are no ordinary biscuits. Good for boosting your English pronunciation, I say.' Saying that he throws a pack of biscuits to the whining hungry street dogs and makes them gambol in happiness.

An admirer of English sartorial perfection, Mr. Benarjee tries his best to dress himself as gentlemanly as possible, to make it sure that his choice of clothes suits the occasion, the context, highlighting his personality to his advantage. He has a set of double-breasted formal wear, another dinner suit of midnight blue and yet another complete light grey morning suit with its tail trailing almost a couple of feet behind. A small town such as Ballamgarh has no shop to provide those formals on rent and hence Mr. Benarjee has made neat acquisition of everything kept in his wardrobe, complete in all respects, from starched bows to top hats and to jaunty cummerbunds. The vagaries of Ballamgarh weather have never discouraged him from matching his outfits with the occasions, perspiration and skin maladies notwithstanding.

A confirmed bachelor, a connoisseur of fine wine and hand-rolled cigar, a person of measured smile and verbal self-restraint, Mr. Benarjee likes to be wished by all so that he can snub a few of them at will. He has actually a few friends and none of them would ever take Mr. Benarjee for granted, for the more-than-life-size ego in him has never ever accommodated into the friendly space granted by his friends. He could be unbearably critical of friends coming late to the parties or slovenly dressed or even of their inattentiveness when he likes to seek their attention.

But that is not the case really, when he intends to interact with ladies. Take for instance, his demeanour with his girl students. With a smiling countenance, a smile that verges on seduction, he goes past a group of girls in front of the ladies' common room or the subsidised students' canteen. While teaching his lessons, his attention is transfixed on the face of a girl of his choice, almost throughout the session, and there are only rare occasions when he moves his eyelids for the benefit of other students in the class. He is not anything if not warm when he returns their wishes with a word or two in compliment, cryptic and coquettish, say "gorgeous", "splendid", "awesome", with a look of wistfulness, as if the next moment an avalanche of flirtatious wink were going to break loose.... Maybe Mr Benarjee, well into his early forties, is late to realise that silent approbation of ladies is what it takes to make a complete man!

Enough said about his warmth in dealings! His special considerations are only for those sweet-faced chicks! A smile as good as derision spontaneously crosses his lips when he is face to face with an unattractive boy that has come from a village school. Extreme hate leads him to ignore the rustic. Why shouldn't he? The likes of him are unfashionably dressed, uncouth and barefooted, with dishevelled sticky hair and unshaven stubbles and they do display all sorts of obnoxious mannerisms like picking noose in the public or scratching their scrotum without an iota of shame!

Students in the college, fresh from their high schools and its all-vernacular ambience, find the English-medium curriculum extremely exacting. They look at everybody speaking English with awe and reverence, as if he or she is a fellow with special trait and unattainable acumen. Girls think if society is not on their way they would marry only the one who teaches them English. Aha! Fantasizing has no charm unless the hero is their English sir, Mr. Benarjee.

Once something unbelievably incongruous happens in front of Mr. Benarjee: an uncouth lout of a boy named Baatara passes by him with a sweet mademoiselle of undergraduate class, Veena-both hand in hand-talking and giggling, admiring each other, as if the next thing they would start doing would be further ludicrous, say hugging each other in public glare or kissing mouth to mouth or even lying down at the roadside for exchange of physical warmth. 'That's too licentious, really too much,' mumbles Mr. Benarjee and hollers the lovers to immediately come to him for a session of emergency disciplining.

'Don't you have scant respect for social propriety, you the uncouth lout of the slum?' Mr. Benarjee bellows.

'Sir, it's not the matter as you think,' pleads Baatara.

'Don't act smart, I know everything. Not for nothing I devote my time for those small slips in decorum. And I know when to strike,' Mr. Benarjee is yet to recover.

'Sir, Veena is my sister and your social propriety allows a sister to move with her brother. So, why fuss?' Baatara means asserting this time.

'Leave Veena behind, she'll be with me alone, at least for an hour. More than you, she needs to be taught how to conduct in public. She is such a sweet girl but with no training on public behaviour. Good I could spot her,' Mr. Benarjee steals a look at Veena. Then continuing his address he goes on, 'Don't worry, boy, I'll train her properly. It's a matter of only one session of learning,' Mr. Benarjee has, by this time, already softened his tone. He was talking convincingly, rather so convincingly that Veena has no problem in realising that it is in her interest to agree with the English teacher Mr. Benarjee who only talks of things appropriate.

'Baatara, you can go now. I'll take care. I'll meet you as soon as I'm finished with this, okay,' said Veena.

Baatara fails to muster words in protest. He just goes away without even looking back for once. Veena and Mr. Benarjee head for their house where proper arrangement is in place for an hour-long session of social propriety.

A. N. Nanda



Thursday, February 12, 2009

To the Extent, It Can


It is often said about translation that a translator, while recreating the contents of a piece of literature in a different language, can go only to an extent. So, the end-product has to be intellectually limited and emotionally superficial, for there is always an element of "transmission loss" in the process. Quite true, it could be definitely so if we are talking of poetry.

Let's take an example. "आखिर कवि बनने के लिए सिर्फ़ दो ही चीज़ चाहिए, नारी डिक्सनरी '' Its English rendering would appear something like this: At the end of the day, a poet needs only two things--a woman and a dictionary. Here, don't we lose the internal rhyme which is the essence of the line? This is just one of the ways "transmission loss" could occur.

A poem is not merely the sum total of the words it contains; there has to be something unwritten about it. And that is the first thing in a poem to stand out, something that invites readers to take a closer look, to suss out, or even to internalize. Let's call that the soul of the poem. Is it always easy to connect with that soul? No, perhaps not. More often than not, it is difficult to be at one with the thinking of poets who give shape to their intimate feelings through their poems. Genuine poetry flows out of creative impulse, not just by deliberate tweaking. Aren't the poets themselves surprised when they come to revisit their own creation after lapse of some days?

Poetic creativity is a process: emotions emulsify and then get sieved through the honeycomb of words to take a form, a rhyme, a layout; sometimes they are experimentally unique and sometimes banally repetitive. Fine, a statement of universal truth is always language-neutral, ever apealing and enduring in its impact. But then very few poems these days deal with universal truth in a straightforward manner enabling their easy translation, say "A thing of beauty is joy for ever" or "The music in my heart I bore, Long after it was heard no more" or even "Men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever". To an extent modern poems are meant to be complicated, echoing the reality of the comtemporary living, and they are to be understood even before knowing the literal meaning of the words used in them. Maybe its internal rhyme or the power of imagery or maybe its akinness to the life and dream of the readership--something very special about a poem finally goes to impart readability to it. It is that speciality one must capture to be truthful to the contents one seeks to translate. When it is difficult to fathom the very depth of feeling from where poetry emanates, how can one translate it without losing its content and emphasis?

And what if the poet himself starts translating his own work? The feeling he has expressed in his poem should guide him to translate his own work from one language to the other and as such it is expected that there should be no gap whatsoever in expression of its poetic essence. But actually that does not happen. Despite everything, it is often difficult to transfer the soul from poem to poem across the linguistic nuances. I have a personal experience to share here. Only last week I was called upon to contribute a poem to the Souvenir my alma mater is going to publish on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee. Since the primary school is set in a rustic setting and since the readers would be comfortable in my mother tongue Oriya, I chose to compose a poem in Oriya and on a theme that would touch them. The poem I could ultimately give shape to is full of colloquialism: there are special words to imply special objects, special recipes, local flora and fauna, typical habitat and clime and while composing that I felt that the way I chose was the best one to go about it. I had no other objective than writing something good that would apear readable and comprehensible while keeping to the form that modern poetry allows. And this is how I would self-translate the first two stanzas of my poem:

Let's Sleep Wide Awake

To vanish into thin air

It's not a phenomenon new,

Like they all did it as they left us

The yellow bird and the crow, the vulture and the sparrow,

Like we left the carts and palanquins far behind

So far behind that they're now out of sight,

Broth of rice morsel, rice water

patuaa roasted in sal-leaf parcels--

All the recipes are now lost from the canvas of mind

Like those forgotten dreams of last night,

The jackel has slept for good gnawing the fibrous palm fruits

Now the poor sonless soul has none to lit his pyre

Everything is lost now, vanished into thin air.

The water, red in colour, oozing down the thached roof

Will merrily flow down to merge in the Ganges

It's our mini Ganga with eddies swirling

Helter-skelter under the logged bridge,

There's no distinction between a fish and a frog

Floatsams and foams, god only knows where do they come from

They will flow down the stream,

Lily will blossom and fish will frolic

The snake of water will go across to take rest

Under the cool shade of weeds in the swamp--

Are these really going to happen ? or will they go away

And vanish into thin air, before us, we the luckless?

A. N. Nanda