Archive for May 23rd, 2013

May 23, 2013

Uday Prakash, The Walls of Delhi (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

I read a version of “The Walls of Delhi” in the Hirsh Sawhney-edited Delhi Noir a few years ago. I remember thinking at the time that it was the strongest story in the collection, though I get the feeling it may have been rather truncated.

The three stories that make up this collection are ‘about’ poverty and class; they’re angry, erudite, often sardonic, frequently quite chatty and self-reflexive. They’re brilliant. And the first in particular feels like it belongs to my city in ways that few Delhi books do.



In his translator’s afterword to Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi, Jason Grunebaum discusses the difficulty of deciding how much to translate, with which words and concepts the reader can be expected to be familiar. In order to make Prakash’s work accessible to the widest possible audience Grunebaum chooses to assume a relatively ignorant reader, equipped with little knowledge of Hindi or of the society in which the stories in this collection take place.

The Walls of Delhi is comprised of three of Prakash’s works, the titular short story and two novellas. I read Grunebaum’s afterword before I began on the rest of the work, which is why I was particularly struck when, a couple of pages in, the author referred to Fellini and Antonioni. Clearly the author himself wasn’t too worried about readers lacking cultural context.

I kept coming back to this as I read. The three stories that make up The Walls of Delhi all focus on individuals, and are all set among India’s poor. The protagonist of “The Walls of Delhi” is a sweeper who commutes to Saket every day to clean out a gym. The family at the centre of “Mangosil” live in an impoverished neighbourhood in Delhi, next to a fetid open drain that may be the primary mover of the plot. “Mohandas” tells of a man who, unable to get a job, struggles to support his family in the face of both bad luck and corruption. All three stories have struggling protagonists trying to get ahead and being constantly beaten back. And yet these stories of individual struggle take place against a wider backdrop that is stunning in its scope. Uday Prakash lays claim to the whole world; he constantly invokes political events across the globe. The Holocaust, India Shining, Abu Ghraib, the release of particular films and songs, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Gaza Strip, all of these are referred to, creating a sort of timeline of modern history that intertwines itself (as the world always does) in the lives of our heroes.

Often this timeline is used as a mechanism for outrage, fixing the story in history so that we cannot dismiss these tragic events (none of these are happy stories; all end in failure, disappointment or death) by relegating them to the past. The stories are upsetting and angering, yes, but they are even more so because they take place in a modern, civilised world. “This was the time of Mohandas, of you, of me, of Bisnath, of what we see this very day when we look outside our windows,” the text insists, “And the time everybody knows as the first decade of the twenty-first century”.

If Prakash’s text is wide-ranging and cosmopolitan, we’re never allowed to doubt that many of his characters are as well. A character named Azad (“his personality was perfect, apart from being a smackhead”) is well-informed on subjects like horses and perfumes. The narrator of “Mangosil” is a writer, and widely-read, as is the honest judge (named “Muktibodh” in honour of the great poet) in “Mohandas”. Despite the anger underlying these stories they are frequently clever and self-referential, often addressing the reader directly and inviting her to play along. “Don’t you think that amid all the pain and sorrow and bleak colours of this story little drops of joy have been interspersed?” Prakash offers his characters moments that are gloriously funny or sensual (I was particularly struck by a description of a woman bathing in a red sari)—which only make their eventual tragedies all the more poignant.

Jason Grunebaum’s translation manages to convey both Prakash’s rage and his playfulness. The tendency to translate everything, including the lyrics of film songs, is bound to make the Indian reader roll her eyes a little, and the results are sometimes redundant (“salty namkeen snacks”) or bizarre (“hey, blindy!”). Yet I find myself in sympathy with Grunebaum’s desire to reach the widest possible audience—Prakash deserves nothing less.