Book excerpt: ‘A Self-Portrait’ by late pioneer of Hindi writing, Mohan Rakesh
Book excerpt: Translation of A Self-Portrait by pioneer of Hindi writing, Mohan Rakesh.
Another Life: Thirteen Stories and a Play, edited by Carlo Cappola, presents the work of one of the most famous writers in Hindi fiction and drama, Mohan Rakesh. A new translation, released by HarperCollins India, offers a great introduction to anyone interested in Mohan Rakesh, a pioneer of Hindi writing in the 21st century, and to modern Hindi literature and plays. The compilation brings together a selection of his fiction, authorised by the author himself, before his death on January 3, 1972, aged 46.
Mohan Rakesh was a towering figure in Hindi fiction and drama, and one of the pioneers of the 'Nai Kahani' literary movement of Hindi literature in the 1950s. He wrote the first modern Hindi play, Ashadh Ka Ek Din (1958), and made significant contribution to the forms of the novel, short story, travelogue, criticism, memoirs and drama. More than a decade in the making, and put together in collaboration with the author, this volume makes a broad range of his work available to English readers.
The stories here range from humorous, satirical studies of human foibles, to profound, painful commentaries on the complexities of the human condition. A translation of Adhe Adhure, the play that thrust Indian drama into modernity and one of the finest ever written in Hindi, is included as well.
Rounding out the book, as part of the 'PS Section', are A Self-Portrait and an interview - both rare, first-person statements by the author, and among the most important critical sources for his work. This is an essential volume for anyone interested in the changing landscape of post-Independence Hindi literature.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, of A Self-Portrait, translated from Hindi by Deborah Torch:
At the age of nineteen, I was very rebellious. Divya (that is not her real name) was witness to my state of mind. ‘Why do you speak in such a shrill voice?’ she often asked.‘Don’t you know how to speak slowly?’
Then I went to Lahore to study for my MA. I supported myself by tutoring and my stipend money. My sister looked after the house and had a job in a school in Okra.
Divya said very little. She did not know how to express herself in words, but said more by sitting silently staring.
To see me, she had to come to Lahore from Amritsar. Both of us used to miss Saturday classes.
I would take her across the River Ravi in our college boat. Walking in the radish and turnip fields, I would talk excessively, conveying to her my cynical attitudes. Sometimes she would stop me with only one word: ‘Why?’
My forehead would wrinkle. Pressing her hand in mine, I said, ‘You’re very young. You won’t understand these things.’ Tilting her head, she looked at me. Suddenly I realized that, at the age of seventeen, she was not as young as I had thought. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘along with the economic revolution, another revolution has to occur in the world – a revolution in human relationships, in our social institutions. Our religion, our morality, our cultural concepts – these are the gifts of a civilization which has become obsolete.’
Divya stopped short and looked at me with surprise. Then she said only this much:‘Why?’
How many matters crop up in the mind which get nowhere once we think about why? All day long I used to sit with friends in the Standard or Lareng’s Bar. My tutoring and stipend money would be completely exhausted by the tenth, and the burden of debt would start to fall on my shoulders. Something was constantly burning inside me, and it appears the veins in my head were about to burst. Coming back from the bars, I would feel many things clashing with each other – yesterday’s impression with today’s experiences, adolescent dreams with the surrounding reality.
I felt the helplessness of believing that my former attitudes about life had been a mistake. I felt a strong hatred arising towards the life which I had lived. My state was like that of an insect which had been writhing in a box; I still squirm, even after having come into the open sunshine.
My mind did not seem to be anywhere – neither in the classroom nor outside it, nor in my room in the hostel, nor in the badminton court, nor in the coffee house, nor in the flower beds of Lawrence Garden, nor in the movie theatre, nor in the library.My mind was always on fire, and I could not stop thinking about myself. In class, during the lecture on linguistics or while copying inscriptions my mind would suddenly go completely blank. My eyes would stare at leaves flashing in the sun and my mind again was lost in those gathered problems from which it wanted to be saved. If the professor suddenly asked some question, I was startled and gave him a vacant stare.
When I didn’t give the answer – ‘You’re not sick, are you?’ ‘No, sir.’
‘Then why does your face look as though you ...’
‘I am perfectly fine, sir.’
‘The trouble with you,’ an aristocratic friend started to say, ‘is that you don’t understand mathematics. You can’t create a balance among the impressions that you have. Your mind sways like a pendulum between this and that so that you can’t ever relax and you are always tense. There are only two cures for you: one, nerve tonic, and the other, a woman’s body.’
But from my dormitory warden, I would hear, ‘You are in a daze because sex is completely new to you. I see that your mind has moved from serious subjects. You are ruining yourself by laughing and drinking. Whenever I think about you, I feel sad.’
The two sides of the pendulum! The truth was probably in either of them or in neither of them. I could not be cured by the advice of the aristocratic friend, nor could I get any direction from the sorrow of the warden. If there was truth, the truth was somewhere else, outside the range and far from the constant swinging of that pendulum.The truth would be in a pendulum that swings at such speed that once you go to one side, you would feel no yearning to go back in the other direction.
‘If you ask me, you are a cursed person,’one wheat-coloured poet friend of mine said.‘Life holds no path for you.’
Why is there no path? My mind rebels. There should be and certainly must be a path. And often I used to look at myself with detachment.
In a palace house in Krishnanagar, a man lives with his mother, sister and brother in two rooms in the upper storey.
Right now, as he sits in the room with his mother, there will be a fight over why she is making a jumper out of his old shirts which she cut up.Why does she not just sew a new jumper? Does she think him so incompetent to support the family that he cannot even provide new clothes?
Then a voice will call up from downstairs and he will run away. He will sit for a couple of hours in a coffee house or restaurant. He drinks coffee without needing it and debates with no meaning in what he says. He will use his intellectual superiority to make a fool out of someone. Sometimes he will laugh so loudly that the restaurant manager is helpless and will send a little message in the bearer’s hand: ‘Please!’ After a while, holding a whiskey glass from somewhere he will start expounding upon Vedic verses. He will talk about ‘sacred depression’. To be alone, separated from friends, is quite an experience. It is as though the fibres of one person’s existence are woven into the fibres of another’s, and to be cut from those fibres is to be completely alone.
Then he’ll sit alone on some bench in the Lawrence. He does not care to talk, even if he knows people there. Sitting alone, he will suppress himself. He does not even recognize familiar faces which are passing right by him. People will think that he is really crazy or the victim of a severe inferiority complex.
In the evening, there appears to be a play rehearsal in progress in the hall at college. He will play many roles, all by himself. From this, it will seem that he is not one, but many people. He wants to see the shape of his own personality in all of the roles.
Then he will go to a meeting of the students’ union or join in some procession. He will talk in a loud voice. He will chant slogans. He will be ready to fight anything important.
Huddling in his bed at night, he will read some novel of Dostoevski. He will write, and then tear up what he has written. If his brain feels stagnant as he writes, he will free himself by throwing away the paper and pen. He will give the pile of torn papers to his mother to burn.
Before going to sleep, he will look at his face in the mirror. Seeing the tangled hair on his head, he panics and becomes feverish at the sight of his furious eyes.
Two mishaps occurred at about the same time. First, Partition, then the death of Divya.The first threw him by uprooting him from his native land.The second only increased that feeling of being uprooted.
At the age of twenty-two, the boy became very old.
But by then, the path seemed to exist – in those papers of which many, many piles would be burned and destroyed even in the future.
Another Life: Thirteen Stories and a Play, HarperCollins India, `399.