A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There | Significant historical work that needs to be approached afresh

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Published: November 17, 2019 3:30:24 AM

Four years on, reading its English translation, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, by Daisy Rockwell, I realise that I did well to restrict myself to a few polite sentences. For, not only Rockwell’s translation has transformed it into a new text, it also comes across as a significant historical work that needs to be approached afresh.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, historical work, book review, Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan, Gujrat, Pakistan, Gujarat, Hindustan, Partition In this September 1947 file photo, Muslim refugees, evacuated from areas of unrest in New Delhi, take shelter in Purana Qila. (PHOTO: AP)

A few years ago Krishna Sobti gave me the manuscript of her last novel, Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan. I believed that it was not quite up to her standards, need not be published, instead should be sent to the archives of a university that wanted her papers. It was a polite suggestion because the final choice, I believed, must rest with the author. The Hindi book soon came out, perhaps largely because the publisher was insistent.

Four years on, reading its English translation, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, by Daisy Rockwell, I realise that I did well to restrict myself to a few polite sentences. For, not only Rockwell’s translation has transformed it into a new text, it also comes across as a significant historical work that needs to be approached afresh.

Drawing upon her memories of the Partition, this work can be read both as a fictionalised memoir and as an autobiographical novel whose events coincide with Sobti’s life. With Delhi reeling under the trauma of Partition, the novel’s young protagonist Krishna leaves the city and moves to the princely state of Sirohi to teach in a school, and soon becomes the governess of the child, Maharaja Tej Singh Bahadur. It totally corresponds with Sobti’s life, who had come to Delhi from Pakistan after the Partition and soon left for Sirohi. After her arrival in Sirohi, the tiny state was merged into Gujarat.

The title alludes to Sobti’s journey from her ancestral village of Gujrat in Pakistan to Indian Gujarat. It has also caused inconsistency in the otherwise sparkling translation. In her introduction, Rockwell defends the use of the spelling Gujarat for both places in the title, rightly arguing that both are spelt the same way in Hindu and Urdu. However, in several instances they are spelt differently in the text, apparently to distinguish between the two places.

Sobti wrote this book in her eighties, reflecting upon the early years of her writer’s life. The book weaves the trauma of Partition with the anxieties of a young woman trying to make her career but is sneeringly treated as a refugee in Sirohi. As the novel recounts the period she spent in Sirohi, it also records the final days of a princely state that was soon to be taken over by the Indian government. Amid the churning within Sirohi, Delhi debates whether Sirohi should go to Rajasthan or Gujarat. A faraway capital is determining the people’s fate.

In this sense, it could be a wonderful experiment. A veteran writer in her final years is writing a novel about her early days, placing herself at the centre, without attempting to camouflage even the name or the places. As with many of Sobti’s works, it moves in fragments, shunning a cohesive narrative for what reads like splinters of a glass pane, slices of memory.

It nevertheless doesn’t really come through as a novel. The English translation has smoothed the many creases that marked the Hindi text, also created an academic interest in the text, but that is it.

Its significance lies in unveiling the craft of translation, a creative act that rarely gets its due. In her introduction, Rockwell recounts her experiences as the translator. At an instance in the Hindi text, Sobti mentioned a meeting with singer KL Saigal’s brother, who was capable of doing outstanding ‘turpaai’. Rockwell was confused about the Hindi word that came as a mere passing reference in the work. Gathering courage, she asked Sobti who casually replied: “Well, he did very fine hemming.” Many decades had passed by, but Sobti did not want to forget that once upon a time she had met the brother of a famous film star, who could beautifully hem garments. The writer didn’t want a tiny fragment flickering afar in her memory go unrecorded. One could read the book, placing it next to the Hindi work, just to realise the aesthetic adventure translation is.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist

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