Looking for a patli gali, an urban shortcut
I met a painter of abstracts at an exhibition recently. When he paints, he stands in front of a canvas, one of a series that he sets up, and then the colors and sights explode, much like the energy of a tornado- and once he is spent, he moves on to another canvas and then yet another, the whirls of color and form an expression from the unknown.
If only the process of translation were as simple.
The closest parallel possibly is learning Indian classical music, looking for a sur or note, hearing whether the note is at the right level, whether it is from the right family of notes for that particular work, whether the way it is rendered or sung, does that fit the meaning of that work? Or does it need to be whittled or polished? Does it perchance stray and use a note that is not from the same note family, a dissonant note? Does the word fit the fabric woven so far? All the time knowing that the translation is a stretch of the original word, that it can never fit the grain of the story completely. At most the translation is a narrow, skirting road that meanders and just about meets the highway.
This story, “Antim Adhyay” or “The Final Chapter,” borrows liberally from the Indian epics. It is not a simple tale to translate or to read. It is rapacious, makes demands of the reader; without this attention to detail you see the first layer and get what you paid for, you miss the steps, the subtext that leads to that sense of bereavement at the end.
The title hints at a vast canvas. If you can see that scale, then you can see the extent of the damage and the wasteland at the close. The author helps you along with several hints, beginning with the title and his use of the metaphysical. Instead of using the commonly used “prakaran” for chapter, he uses “adhyay”, a rather classical word, one that you would expect to see in ‘serious’ works like the Epics, where each chapters deals with a different epoch, phase or narrator.
The storyline as such, is simple, set in three parts. In the first part, the protagonist Jagubhai is picked up from a village crossroads in the middle of nowhere and pushed into the maelstrom of caste-based Indian politics. In the second, power-happy part, he learns the ropes, survives and even thrives. The last part details his burnout- engrossed in an affair, he loses touch with changes in the political landscape and literally falls apart.
Tempo, pacing and language are very different in each part. Now to effectively do this in a play or script would be difficult, but the scriptwriter would have at his command the tools of voice, body language and expression. The author who works with words, lacks this advantage.
Sentence structure is one of the issues I’ve worked with. Sentences are put together differently in both the languages. Gujarati sentence structure seems to be politely exploratory, cautious, working around clauses to broach the main point. English is angular, direct, even abrupt, has no patience with run-on sentences. To translate, one needs to reorder these lines; crafting, reframing and rephrasing. Sometimes the flavor does not survive this clean-up. For instance, in “The Final Chapter,” a villager’s wide-eyed gawk at the complexity of a political life is lost in the directness of translation.
Emna samkalino kaala thata. “Aye Jagabhai! Kaank andarna devpechni vaato to karo! Aa chapavala lakhey chey aey sachu? Bhala aadmi, tamarey aney pardhanoney to baithakuthak.”
Which, rather incompletely,translates to:
“Aye Jagbhai! Tell us, won’t you, about the inner moves and countermoves? All that these journalists write, is it true? Oh good man, you dine with powerful ministers!?” Dialect has a raw tang, how does one take this into an angular, blunt language?
Another example, where Jagubhai asks his nephew for a loan, in a circuitous, halting language, letting the reader reach the conclusion long before the text gets there- “If the nephew were reminded after due editing and polishing that as a child he had been severely caned and sent to school, he’d let him stay a few days, feed him rich sweets and maybe hand over a few currency notes when it was time for him to leave.” Contrast this with the curt orders issued by this same man makes in his capacity of Honorable Minister … this must get done, do what you must.
As for dialogue, it is presented differently in the two languages. I have left the author’s original paragraphing intact at his insistence. Any change would be a re-grouping of his thoughts. Certain lines that are spoken when the protagonist is in a drunken stupor are presented in the original as a droning voice, all run together and without punctuation. I have left these as written.
Some of the text sounds cynical. For instance, Jagubhai’s apparent detachment when he is given the party ticket. “Padia, give these boys some tea. Certainly this invitation was expected some day, sooner or later.” Or, when Jagubhai admonishes his supporter, Gopal, and tells him to stay away from his love interest, Yashu. This is a clear demarcation of territorial rights, “What is your intention? Do you wish to have a rakhee tied to your wrist, make her your sister?” How would one retain this purposeful nonchalance in English?
The text is peppered with references to the Mahabharata, particularly when describing or dealing with people. The Chief Minister, a childhood friend, who lures this daft villager into politics for the caste equation, is compared to the evil uncle, Shakuni, the key schemer of the great war of Mahabharata. The escalating pressures of the election are like Abhimanyu’s predicament in the chakravyuh, the secret, intricate maze-like army formation that he knew how to enter, but not how to exit. These references require cultural context, grounding in Indian mythology that footnotes could help with. But footnotes are an intrusion, the pace of the story is lost. Would footnotes not interfere with the speed and weft of the story? I’ve left these terms as they are, and the incompleteness of the meaning for the reader, gnaws at me.
Another challenge in this translation is the metaphysical and philosophical references specially since the author is subtly making fun of the intelligentsia’s tendency to gloss over the unacceptable, or rework facts. There are pertinent references to the eastern philosophy of advaita, or duality, but you have to be adroit to catch them. Should the translator attempt to explain, wouldn’t this be tampering? But if the tale is left as such wouldn’t the meaning be lost?
For instance, the author presents Jagubhai’s rearrangement of his life story as an amalgamate of truth and non-truth:
The experiments that had been carried out in Bombay had been funded by selling his father’s land, and what exactly had happened when he was a delegate to the taluka panchayat- these can be considered an amalgamate of truth and untruth. In a similar manner, research was applied to his physical self as well.
Perhaps Jagubhai agreed with the philosophy of Maya, that the world was an illusion, a manifestation of the universal spirit:
For simplicity, he’d count industrialists among farmer’s sons. If his attention was drawn to the fact that no one there had seen a plough for seven generations, he’d say, “Oh bhai! We say that this is this and that is the other, we attach labels saying that this is industry and that is something else, but at the end of the day, everything comes around to farming. There is no difference. Everything is one and the same.”
These are some of the challenges I have tried to deal with while translating this story. I’ve tried to be true to the sense of the original but disclaimers apply. At the end of the day this translation can only touch upon the margins of the original. It isn’t more than a patli gali; a narrow, winding, walking-only lane that cuts through someone’s backyard, trips by lines of shops and dense slums, takes the liberty of common ground trespasses to quickly reach the main highway.
The Final Chapter
Gujarati version (PDF)
The Gujarati author Pravinsinh Chavda has six short story collections and a novel to his credit. A literary autobiography and a travelogue were recently published. His stories appear in many Gujarati literary magazines, with translations into Hindi and Marathi as well. He has been a member of Gujarat Public Service Commission, has worked in the Gujarat Educational Services, and has taught for about a decade at MTB Arts College, South Gujarat University, Surat.
When envoys reached him with news about the ticket allotment for the state assembly, Jagubhai was waiting at the village bus stand, a wet napkin wrapped to his head. He’d reached in a rush, but the one-thirty bus had left right before his eyes, and since the next bus was only after two hours, he sat by a banyan tree, his legs stretched out. When he’d recollect this moment, he’d say, God- such a crisis on both fronts. His nephew was now a mamlatdar in Deodar, a local government official. If the nephew were reminded after due editing and polishing that as a child he had been severely caned and sent to school, he’d let him stay a few days, feed him rich sweets and maybe hand over a few currency notes when it was time for him to leave. In the state capital forty kilometers away, a similar crisis had cropped up. Meetings had been called to decide on ticket allocations, and would disperse without any decision. Permutations and combinations of caste numbers and social classes had been put together by inept hands several times, only to fall apart. Amidst this shower of abuse and allegation, the state committee president remembered his old boarding school pal. Rolling up his sleeves and pulling apart warring clansmen, he said, “If that’s the case, what’s wrong with my Jago? Why not my Jago?”
A jeep reached his village in pursuit of this trail, and four young men jumped out, crying, “Where is Jagubhai, Jagubhaisaheb?” The maturity that Jagubhai showed then was praised, and his dialogues often quoted in election gatherings. Fatigue had set in from boredom and heat, and when party workers rushed to tell him the news, in a tired voice he said, “There is nothing very great about this.”
A young man batting dust-laden eyelashes said, “Sir, you are at this very moment, at once, urgently summoned to the Chief Minister’s residence!”
Jagubhai stared at the overflowing vessel in which he was brewing tea. He said, “Padia, give these boys some tea. Certainly this invitation was expected someday, sooner or later.”
Afterwards, seated either at some member’s home or in the assembly hostel he’d narrate what happened in the capital. Jagubhai would raise his glass, examine its colors with wonder and tell his companions, “I was insistent with Shakun. Bhai. I have walked far ahead, why grab me by the limb and drag me into this quagmire?” The party president’s name was a conjunction of two or three Sanskritized words, but Jagubhai used a an abbreviation from their childhood. Since that acronym alluded to a character from the Mahabharat, listeners found his words significant. He shrugged and rushed from room to room in the chief minister’s official residence, as if they were playing tag. the Chief Minister and the party chief chasing him. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity he must have sanctioned this act.
One is not the doer, one is merely a witness. Jagubhai experienced this truth in its entirety during the election campaign. Along with this new-found confidence, a sense of humor had surfaced, so before leaving the capital he asked Shakun for a last night and even mentioned Abhimanyu’s plight. When the party’s vehicle burdened under the weight of the ticket finally reached his village late at night, he stood for a while looking at his house. The buffalo-shed outside his house had been dissembled, numerous donkeys with sacks of sand stood by, and handsome dark-skinned men with knives and cutters clenched under their teeth, were silently putting up a tent. Charpoys creaked with the weight of notables from surrounding villages. Jayanti, the owner of an oil mill, had turned up with two vehicles. When everyone said, “No-no! Now there is no time to sleep…” and left after a second round of tea, Jayanti stayed back. Jayanti murmured, “Any immediate service that I can render?” Jagubhai simply said, “If you have a hundred or two to spare? I shall be caught up in this race now, and your poor aunt….” Jayanti slid a currency bundle under the pillow.
Election meetings began the next day. Jagubhai would stand in front of the microphone examining his palms, and speak slowly, as if he were reading from the text inscribed there. “I belong to you, my brothers. I belong to this soil, to this dust and this jungle.” Someone sent home a consignment of a dozen chairs. In the dark night, sacks of wheat and rice crept into the house. Beds, mattresses and sheets appeared. Someone sent over a gas range and a cylinder. One night, a bone-tired Jagubhai was propped up by two men while a tailor took measurements. A dozen dhoti and kurtas were delivered the next day. He’d ask questions in election gatherings, “This outer cover is that of a Brahmin, that I can’t deny- but in which other manner do I seem like a Brahmin, oh brothers, do explain?” He’d slap himself. “I am a farmer, a fisherman.” To establish his point, he’d turn to botany. “I am not a nilgiri or a gulmohar. I am a babool, a hardy evergreen, a cactus shrub. I belong to this land, this this …” Here, he’d wash down something struck in his throat with a glass of water or two and roar, “In short, gentlemen, all of us have to arise together.”
The faint halo that was just discernable at the close of the final campaign could be seen much clearer once results were announced. It was as if a load were washed away from his body, mind and all over. No incompatibilities remained. All the knots and tangles had been separated out. With this change in the color of his eyes, he began to view the story of his life differently. If some parts of personal history were set aside, some other parts positioned appropriately, then he traced his lineage to a learned Brahmin. Right from childhood, he’d heard been weaned on tales of saints and devotees. Some Sanskrit had seeped deep into his body, like the iron rods that are used in construction. He was educated- not in some village school- but in Ahmedabad, and later had progressed all the way to Wilson College, Bombay, to study English for a year and a half. He knew the names “Lord McCauley” and “Edmund Burke”. He had memorized the entire speech beginning with “Brutus is an honorable man”. About twenty-five odd books like “Gujarat no nath” lay scattered about his home. The experiments that had once been carried out in Bombay had been funded by selling his father’s land, and what exactly had happened when he was a delegate to the taluka panchayat- these can be considered an amalgamate of truth and untruth. In a similar manner, his physical self was a matter of research as well. His home was crowded with party workers and amidst debates on state issues like unemployment and electricity, Jagubhai would receive advice about his appearance. If saheb were to discard this dhoti and wear a kurta-pajama instead, sir would look ten years younger. Jagubhai almost laughed aloud. You silly children! A tailor with a mysterious smile appeared and delivered kurta-pajama, several pairs of trousers and silk bush-shirts. In the new grammar it was inappropriate to raise questions like who paid for this divine endowment, Narsinh Mehta-like, of cloth and stitching. Wrinkles on the fifty-two year mask on his face were peeled away. Amidst all this, a gushing Jagubhai rubbed his eyes and looked around.
In the state assembly, he’d close his eyes and sit quietly. If he had to speak sometimes, he’d say, “Brothers, we have to keep the farmer in mind. But first, we need to remember the forsaken, barely tolerated as a part of the village community- my brother. the landless laborer.” When he’d say this, the pores on his face would dilate. To enhance these facial pores and increase this sensitivity of expression, a masseur would drop in, twice a week, late at night. “What’s all this at this age? Layers of lotions and creams smeared all over my body?” Once such opposition had been stated, Jagubhai would smile, stretch out, and yield to the ministrations. The masseur would explain, “Sir, the sludge built up over a decade will vanish from under your skin.” After each such session, calculations would be made. Sir looks five years younger. Sir looks like a young man. Jagubhai would intervene. “Now stop all this. Or you’ll reach a minus age.” One night, he protested right at the beginning but two men of his age caught him tight by the arms so he chuckled till his hair was colored. He felt as if life herself was holding the infant Jagu in her lap and showering affection.
Photographers were interested in his face. The running-about of the last few years had shrunken his face and crafted deep creases. After workers labored to clean up that space, the lines that were revealed could easily pass for a compassionate wisdom. In the manner that in summer one opens a door only to the extent necessary, his eyes would be half-shut, and his left lip corner would twitch. When he’d look at the mirror, he’d appreciate the mystery of rebirth. On account of the political situation, his photograph featured often in the newspaper.
Oscillations of the balance of power in the capital did not adversely affect Jagubhai. The party was vertically split. Amidst all this, he was comfortable, sheltered like a bird asleep in its nest.
In addition to his constituency, people from other parts of the state would often drop in with their problems. After hearing them, Jagubhai would instruct some hanger-on, “Which department does this concern? Call up immediately!” On the phone, without notice or attention to what was being said, he’d only say this much, “He’s a farmer’s son. If his work doesn’t get done, whose work will?” For the sake of simplicity, he’d count industrialists among farmer’s sons. If his attention was drawn to the fact that no one there had let alone seen a plough for seven generations, he’d say, “Oh bhai! We say that this is this and that is the other, we attach labels saying that this is industry and that is something else, but at the end of the day, everything comes around to farming. There is no difference. Everything is one and the same.”
Sometimes, late at night, this spirit of non-duality would hijack him and transport him to Ganesh’s farmhouse, ten kilometers from the state capital. Ganesh was an ardent supporter. He owned a large farm and three factories. They’d sit in the garden, glass in hand, and Ganesh would worry. What problem did Sir have, what was bothering him-it was not clear. Sir must be comfortable in every way. Was his chair all right? The wind that touches him must be from the right direction, of the right quantity. In matters of the heart , he’d standby and arrange pillows for support. With a narrowed gaze he’d try to fathom the language on Sir’s face. His family home in the village was falling apart. One son was employed in the railways as a clerk, the elder one, less educated, was a conductor in the State Transport Corporation. Sir, of course, couldn’t be selfish, Sir couldn’t differentiate between one and the other, but it was time he thought like a man of the world.
Jagubhai searched for the right term “Public criticism?”
“In this age you cannot afford to be like Narsinh Mehta, waiting for divine grace.” Jagubhai liked this young man’s temperament. He had zest, ambition. He laughed and said, “What will work in this age, and what will not- that’s something you’ll have to explain, Ganesh.”
Ganesh said, “First. Your village is not too far away. Every fortnight or so, you must find the time to visit. The second task- drop a word and find appropriate jobs for the two princes. You do favors for the whole world. If you can’t handle this, tell me.” Jagubhai laughed at these sullen words. “Ok, I’ve told you, then.” Ganesh stood up. “You don’t know me. I’ll set up a new factory. Without your consent I’ll make you an equal partner. What will you do, after all?”
Tea and snacks would be served till late at night. Who paid for the servants and the cooks-Jagubhai didn’t entirely know. His visitors would leave, satiated after talking about empowering villages, helping artisans, repairing the broken backs of farm laborers. One night after everyone had left, as Jagubhai was slipping off his overshirt, he glanced outside the window, then he went close to the grill and stared. “Who are you?”
The girl replied from the dark porch, “What if two jasood plants were grown here?”
Since he had to strain his eyes, he said, “Whoever you are, first come in.”
She walked in, drew a chair to the window and sat down. Jagubhai rubbed his eyes- she’d defied the laws of gravity and was hovering near the ceiling. She’d also taken on a rose and saffron hue.
“Who are you?” Jagubhai asked again.
They spoke about many unrelated matters. Her name was Yashu. These government-issue calendars and pictures should be thrown out, and two proper frames put up on opposite walls. If you have to handle thousands of all kinds of people on so many issues, don’t you get fed up? Mother is a teacher in a primary school. There was a mix up about her transfer. Place a small rack by the wall, with a photo of Mother Saraswati and a few books, this is absolutely a must. She’d done her B.Com- but where are the jobs? That will be taken care of too, Jagubhai mumbled, but he felt very lonely. He said- this night. All this is not as nice as it seems. I am not as good as I seem. After you leave, I’ll have to drink. The girl laughed and said, do you consider that an evil? Jagubhai said- I’ll send the car to drop you , but sit a while. No- sit where you are. Don’t get up. Oh! Why are you saying this? As if I’m going to run away! I’ll come again tomorrow. Can you call up the education committee? Jagubhai said- why education alone! The Security Council can be called up too. I have something to tell you.
The favor Yashu wanted was a minor one. One phone call, and a transfer was arranged from the village school to one in the city suburbs. Pigeon’s glad? With tears in her eyes, Yashu replied - glad. She had brought a packet of sweets. There were no other visitors that afternoon. The house was quiet.
Jagubhai looked away. He said, “Your work is done. Now?”
“Why worry about tomorrow? Let’s talk about today. Here- look up!”
“If I look up and you’re not there?”
Yashu would drop in every few days and roam around. In the kitchen, she’d shoo away the cook and make snacks. Sometimes she’d sit with everyone and listen to political discussions without comment, and Jagubhai would stare at her. Reflections of Yashu’s body, mind and soul were constantly traced on his psyche. Sometimes, she’d get up suddenly, go to the garden and read. Once, she was stubborn. Does not matter how great you are. You’ll have to come home. Mother wants to thank you. The very next day, Jagubhai got there, searching for her address. Yashu sat coyly, and as she fed him a snack, she said, “You don’t worry about anything at all.” Her mother said, “What do I tell such a great man, but she is a little naïve. Be a little careful.” Yashu escorted him to his car. She slammed the door, bent to the window, and said, “Understood? I’m naïve….”
When Jagubhai would discuss official matters with ministers, Yashu would doodle in a small diary. She’d write proverbs without any concession to grammar or meaning, and in all seriousness pass him these slips under the table. Where he’d deem it necessary, Jagubhai would introduce her- poor girl, she’s bereft. After they’d leave Yashu would ask, “How did you decide that I’m bereft?” Jagubhai would tell her, don’t argue with me on language niceties. I speak what I feel like. Everything is corrupt. Everyone is a thief, especially the ones from our party. No one is spared; I’m no exception. Do you want to hear more?” One evening while stepping out of the lift at the secretariat he stopped Yashu, “My impulsive mind suggests something new today. It says, Yashu. stay back tonight. Ganesh’s farmhouse is empty…”
About once a month he’d go to his village, and charpoys would be arranged outside his home. Observing graduates from the village running about enthusiastically, Jagubhai would shake his head. You are running about for nothing. No boys! There are no jobs anywhere. His friends would cajole him. Aye Jagbhai! Tell us, won’t you, about the inner circle moves and countermoves?
All that journalists write about, is it true? Oh good man, you dine with powerful ministers! Jagubhai would say, everyone there is a scoundrel. In due course, after the group would laugh and leave, he’d glance at the son who was working as a conductor. His son would be bathing in the wash area in the front courtyard, he’d spread water over a day’s dusty effort, and every now and then scowl at his father. Jagubhai would ask him, “Why this anger, o’ prince? Do you have your sight on half the kingdom?” After the boy would take his mattress and withdraw to the terrace with, an unavoidable meeting would be held. The one who’d be shuffling about somewhere in the background, would sit by his feet.
“What do you have to say? Any questions? You want to start an agitation?”
This person would shake her head.
Once, she mumbled, “People are talking.”
“What kind of talk?”
“All kinds of talk.”
“But, as such, what kind of talk?”
“Of this and that.”
At first, he roared with laughter. He then drummed his chest for a while, and then quietly said. “Listen, everywhere in the country, bad things are happening, everyone is a scoundrel. I have only to advise you that sitting at home you shouldn’t entertain evil thoughts and feel miserable.”
He didn’t hear her speak, so he asked again, “Understood?”
“Then please retire, sleep peacefully and take the good Lord’s name.”
That hand continued pressing his feet, and soon Jagubhai was asleep.
Ganesh, ever loyal, was particularly pleased with the progress that was recently made. He said once, “This is a good arrangement, sahib. This is particularly necessary in public life.” Jagubhai narrowed his gaze. “What is your intention? Do you wish to have a rakhee tied to your wrist, make her your sister?” “The only feeling I have is that you must visit when you want to, and relax.” At this point, something happened which he couldn’t understand. “Tears in sir’s eyes?” “We don’t have much time, Ganeshkumar, not much time.”
Yashu’s sweet voice would envelop him. Pushing her voice aside, of late, a hoarse voice from some distant corner had begun to engulf him. Some days he’d begin drinking on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. The vision of the beauty that he witnessed past the golden fluid, that alone was the truth. Where was he? Who was he? Nothing of me is mine- one morning he extended an empty glass. Pour me another peg. All that exists belongs to you. What is this uproar? Yashu said, “The people have rebelled. They’re breaking open government offices. They’re burning furniture.” Jagubhai said, “As such the people are not wrong”… I want to watch the beauty. Come here, sit down a while. A rush of party meetings took place, voluminous ledgers were filled with signatures, and festival-like rallies of farmers and farm laborers were organized in village after village. Men with half-closed eyes, an incoherent mumble and a mild smile began to sway rhythmically. First, a lathi charge, and then a police firing were ordered on the dancers.
Jagubhai watched all this with half-slit eyes. Walls were being pulled down, blasts were heard, but the truth was distant from all this. To arrive at the truth, with Yashu’s assistance a comprehensive three-day camp was organized. After making arrangements for meals and sundry necessities, Ganesh left the scene along with the retinue of servants. In that quiet, like embers, happiness would briefly flare from time to time. Don’t want to get up. Don’t want to eat. You sit right here. First your clothes and then your skin and your heart, soul and mind, unravel all these layers one by one. The truth is not distanced, it is here, this light….
That night, it was dark within and outside the house. All the lights had been put out. In the dark, laughter would ring out and Jagubhai would run from one room to another in its close pursuit. Sometimes he would touch a garment, at other times a strand of hair would brush his face. Chasing about, he leapt from the terrace and the deer screamed with laughter and collapsed. I want to possess you, Yashu, but what is this? Why are all the directions lit? They straightened and looked at the flames that engulfed the state capital. A few smaller fires were spotted from the surrounding villages too. What is all this, Yashu? What festival are the Fire Gods celebrating? Yashu switched on the television and explained what he assumed was an illusion of the worldly senses. The people are joyous. The monsters have been assassinated. Jagubhai gathered his energies and said - make it simpler. Yashu said- the assembly has been dismissed. After the fire, it is time for the rains. Jagubhai said with wonder- listen, Yashu. Even the heavens and earth have joined this folk dance.
Jagubhai slept well. When he awoke, a dim light suffused the room. No tresses were visible on the pillow beside him, so he checked all over the bed. A thought crossed his mind. He stumbled through the entire house. Then he went outside. Groves of lemon and chicku surrounded the house. It was raining gently. In a playful gait, he slowly and deliberately pranced about everywhere. Wiping raindrops from his face, he mimicked a birdcall, “Yaaashuuu..” In this fashion, some mornings a partially clad Yashu had led him to a game of hide and seek. First slowly, and then with intent, he checked each tree, mumbling “Yashu, Yashu..” Could he locate a strand, a discarded garment or a patch of laughter hidden behind some tree? After he’d checked the shrubs, he wallowed in mud, and the rain reached his face from his eyes.
Translated from the Gujarati by Mira Desai