Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The Sa Re Ga Ma Pa programme in all its avatars has been a milch cow for Zee. Marathis love music. And everybody loves children. So this edition of the programme in particular has garnered viewers from every corner of the country and the world. Monday and Tuesday nights have become very special. You can see that on the mornings that follow, when walkers round Shivaji Park animatedly discuss the previous night's performances.
Over the last couple of months, the children's popularity has zoomed so high that they have become something of an "item". They are invited as a group to all kinds of dos to sing and be blessed. Zee must be very happy with the publicity it gets. The organisers must be happy because, if the li'l champs are singing, crowds will automatically come. And the parents? It's difficult to say. Some might have reservations; but they go along. We aren't used to standing up to money power even on behalf of our children. However, there must be some parents at least who believe that their children are fortunate to be getting all this "exposure". Zee is repeatedly thanked by them for running the programme, forgetting that Zee is living off their children! Two shows ago I noticed that all five children looked under the weather. For the first time ever, they sang below par.
All along, the judges have admonished the children against letting their success go to their heads. "You are terrific singers and all that but we would like to tell you and your parents that this should not be allowed to interfere with your childhood. You must guard that." Oh yes? Then why was an assault launched on their childhood last night?
It was Republic Day. Time to celebrate what India means and can be made to mean. Time to admire our Constitution which has given us rights which many the world over do not have. But that was not what the children were allowed to celebrate. They were not given the right to sing their own favourites to celebrate the day. They sang songs about Shivaji and soldiers who die fighting for the country. They were taught these songs by Pandit Hridaynath Mangeshkar who sat between the judges and gave a lengthy exegesis on every song that was sung. Mothers of army and air force men were special invitees to the show. They were called upon to speak about why their sons had chosen to join the armed forces and how they had dealt with their death when it occurred. The little singers stood beside the anchor for the entire length of every speech that was delivered. Our children are trained for adult preaching. They are also trained in self-preservation devices. But all the same, I'd like to pass on one that I used pretty effectively during such crises in my childhood. I'd recite the last stanza of Jabberwocky to myself, making "it" stand for the tormentor of the moment:
One, two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went gallumphing back.
Monday, January 26, 2009
As I stood staring, other walkers stopped to stare. None of us had noticed the tree before though it looked many years old and must have been around for years. It was tall and handsome and didn't look like the sort that shed its leaves any time of the year. But it wasn't the kind that would catch your attention in a line of trees either. But that red fruit was something else.
Eager to know what it was called, I called up my botanist major (40 years ago, First Class, University of Bombay) niece. It's a tall, well-built tree with of long, deep green leaves hanging in clusters of six and fat fruit as large as tennis balls hanging behind the clusters, I told her and waited for her to throw a Latin name at me. My niece hummed and hawed and then said, "Oh?"
I drew a similar blank on Google. Perhaps I didn't know the key words that would get me the information I was looking for--namely the name of the tree, its origins, it's...Anyway what I was looking forward to now was future developments. I watched the red fruit grow black, then split, while still hanging on the tree. At some point the fruit must have fallen off; because one morning it wasn't there.
A new year dawned and now I waited to see the flowers. A rough calculation based on the mango suggested that there would be roughly three months between flowering and fruiting. So if I had seen the fruit in October, the early buds must have appeared in March or April. They didn't, not in March or April 2008, nor any of the months that followed. Then suddenly in September 2008, I spotted small green fruit hanging on the tree. I reported this to my niece. She observed, cryptically, "The fruit must be the flower." It was my turn to say "Oh"?
So okay, that's Nature's way, I told myself; but why chase a miracle for information? The idea was to wait for the magic of that red to happen again. I waited and looked and waited and looked. People asked me what I was looking at. I told them, "You see the green fruit on that tree? It'll soon turn as red as a parrot's beak."
I'm not sure if they were impressed by the prospect. But through October, November and December they kept inquiring kindly after the colour of the fruit. It had remained obdurately green. It is green even now as January ends. I'm not going to ask my niece why. I now believe the fruit will stay green for 12 years and burst suddenly into colour one fine morning. October 2007 was the last time it happened. October 2017 will be the next. I will wait.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
I couldn't agree with him more. "Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe" could not have been conceived and performed on any other soil but this, and by nobody else but Tendulkar, who has consistently let down his female protagonists as he lets down Leela Benare here..
The climax of "Shantata ..." presents the moral world-view of the Indian male, expressed in the overheated speeches of Sukhatme and Kashikar who are playing the counsel for the prosecution and the judge respectively in Benare's mock trial. The speeches are all about the sanctity of motherhood and the danger that free (and therefore easy) women like Benare spell for society.
When I first saw the play forty years ago, I remember thinking vaguely that Tendulkar understood the plight of women in our society. But now I think otherwise. Tendulkar had no real understanding of women. In putting women in situations where their vulnerability was maximally on display, he claimed he was only reflecting reality. Which reality? Reality is not some kind of objective phenomenon out there that remains unaltered, whoever the observer. Like a photographer, a writer too frames just that slice of reality out of the whole that interests him or serves his purpose. What a writer excludes from that slice tells us as much about his purpose as what he includes.
I propose that what Tendulkar includes and excludes in "Shantata Court Chalu Ahe", suggests that he is not really interested in Benare's reality. He is more interested in the reality of middle-class society vis-a-vis socially constructed gender roles. As a progressive writer, he is filled with revulsion by the moral power they put into the hands of narrow little men and women. The mock trial is thus a re-enactment of the village or caste panchayat meetings we read of everyday which sentence women to brutal, humiliating punishments for contravening community and caste rules.
The mock trial is a reflection of that. But Tendulkar does grave injustice to Leela Benare by not allowing her to speak out against the rabid shredding of her character by the court. If this is indeed a "mock" trial, and she is "the accused", she would have to make a statement. If the mock has become real, and everybody is giving vent to their actual feelings, then she too should have the opportunity to do so. But neither of these things happens. What happens is an internal monologue, one of the best-known in Marathi dramatic literature, but external silence. Her silence confirms her "guilt". The predators shrug the whole thing off as "just a game" while Leela Benare sobs uncontrollably, her spirit broken.
In her introduction to "Vijay Tendulkar: Five Plays", an Oxford University Press publication, Arundhati Banerjee makes a significant comparison between Nora's last speech and Benare's monologue. She points out that Benare's monologue "lacks the note of protest that characterises the speech of Ibsen's heroine. It is more a self-justification than an attack on society's hypocrisies. It is poignant, sensitive and highlights the vulnerability of women in our society."
Nora admits to her crime, but while doing so, she also puts her finger on the social forces that drove her to it. This new awareness of what she is vis-a-vis the world, gives her something precious that she has never had before, that she hadn't even dreamt she had a right to -- self-esteem. Benare on the other hand, whose self-esteem is already shaky when the play starts, loses it completely when she allows the court to corner her into admitting that she has "sinned". All she can say in that famous internal monologue is that her private life is her own business. Others have nothing to do with it.
But they do, don't they? Our society has everything to do with the lives of women, particularly single women. Indira Sant's devastatingly funny/angry poem "Ekti" (Woman Alone) tells us how much the world concerns itself with who the single woman is, where she comes from, where she goes, with whom she goes, why she laughs and why she cries.
Sant's abstraction of the single woman continues to live in the face of the world's interference. Tendulkar's heroine attempts suicide. That is the reality he has chosen to reflect.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Around the time these reports came in, I happened to be reading "Aydaan", the memoirs of dalit writer and activist Urmila Pawar. Though she grew up barefoot and occasionally unwashed, her parents somehow always managed to put two square meals in her and her siblings' stomachs. But hunger was a permanent condition of her community. ("Will hunger-fires forge a poem? Will music die in the fire of hunger?" asks the poet Namdeo Dhasal.) Mothers, ever resourceful, found a way to satisfy the hunger of their wailing children. Pawar tells us how it was done. The mother gave the child a scrap of coarse grain bread, difficult to chew, and asked her/him to "dip" bits of it in an empty cooking pot as accompaniment. Magically the child's hunger was satisfied.
Another technique that one of Pawar's readers told her about was to feed a bawling child in the usual way but with an empty hand. The child opens its mouth and closes it with every "mouthful". After a while the child stops crying. I have no explanation for the effectiveness of the "empty hand" technique except to hazard the guess that no child, however hungry, has the lung power to cry for ever. But I have found an explanation for the effectiveness of the "empty pot" technique, thanks to Dr Yash Paul of PGI Chandigarh. We must remember here that a piece of coarse grain bhakri is a very slow thing to eat.
Dr Yash Paul, whose patients are well-fed, advises them to spend 15 to 20 minutes eating one chapati, and 50 minutes over a whole meal of cereals, veggies, dal and salad. Slow eating gives the satiety centre in the brain time to suppress the hunger centre, producing a feeling of fullness before you reach out for a second helping. The result is loss of weight and decreased risk of heart disease.
That's not all. There's an added bonus to the "Yash India Technique" which should fetch Dr Paul a Padma Shri at least. He has discovered that slow eating controls "the Alpha Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone and Malonyl COA expression, thus reducing the stress hormone in the body, which in turn leads to lesser darkening or decreased melanin deposition in the body". In plain words, this means our national dream is realised. We come up with "a clearer and fairer complexion in two to three months". Dr Paul now awaits an international patent for the technique.
If our poor had time to spare from foraging for food, they too could get a patent on their centuries-old techniques for beating hunger. This would be at least as useful in today's world as the "Yash India Technique" for the over-fed.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
"Hagandari" may be translated as "shit valley", though Moleswoth's Marathi-English dictionary puts it in a more roundabout way as "A place of general resort for the disburdening of nature".
Those who have some acquaintance with village life in Maharashtra, know that there are places on the outskirts of villages marked for the disburdening of nature. In recent times, we have seen two village-based Marathi films, "Valu" and "Dhudgus" in which villagers go singly or in groups to disburden nature, carrying what are known as "tumbrel-s". These are empty provision canisters to which wire handles have been attached for convenient carrying of water. There is no water on tap in hagandaris.
Middle-class urban people are squeamish about this part of village life. It falls outside our poetic imagination of rusticity. An aunt of mine hated "Valu" because it showed the village priest bound off to the hagandari after every meal because he couldn't resist having helping upon helping of his wife's spicy chutney. My aunt didn't think that was funny. Nor did the priest's wife, as it happens.
To return to Raigad, one fine day a bunch of government officials (or maybe there was just one powerful one) decided to liberate their district from this shameful practice. On this particularly creative day in their lives they even thought of an effective way to do so. It doesn't matter that the idea was lifted from "Lage raho Munnabhai". What mattered was that they weren't planning to beat the shit out of people as government officials tend to do--you know, simply send havaldars to people's homes with lathis and people shit their pants within four walls leaving hagandaris spic and span. No. Their plan was to use the womanpower at their command to do it with flowers. Anganwadi workers from villages selected for the pilot project were to be the angels of cleanliness.
This was how the plan was executed. Anganwadi workers got up at four in the morning, trudged to the hagandari approach road with flowers and a loaded camera. They said "Good morning" to all prospective disburdeners of nature, handed over a flower to each and took a snap, politely requesting her/him to look out for their mugs in the papers the following day. The same routine was repeated after working hours. By the time the women returned home, they had no time left for their housewifely duties. This caused much domestic rage, proving that working women are like dholkis, to be beaten at both ends.
It was the domestic crisis in the selected villages that stirred the local branch of a trade union to lodge a protest. The campaign was cut short. The cart has been stored away. Long live the hagandari. But two questions remain. Are these creative officials looking at the possibility of providing the village with some horses? Like are they planning to build public toilets for the villagers' convenience? Or are we to assume that toilets exist but villagers still insist on disburdening nature in the open in order to keep the toilets clean?
Question number two. What did the villagers do while the campaign was on? Did they find that flowers were an effective way of stopping up the passages of nature? I see some horticultural entrepreneurship possibilities there.
Friday, January 9, 2009
So we had our moment back then when we were centre stage, shouting "Enough is enough. We want to be safe. We want change." We got change. The Chief Minister resigned with bad grace. The Home Minister resigned without ever understanding why people found his reaction about small ills befalling big cities so shocking. He thought the statement had a nice balance about it--bade bade sheher in the first half, balanced by chhote chhote hadse in the second.
What we got in exchange for Vilasrao and R R were Ashok Chavan, of the supposedly clean image, and Chhagan Bhujbal of the supposedly unclean one. Ashok Chavan's image has since been questioned while Bhujbal's image has remained stable.
We the people have now been pushed to where they the politicians think we belong--off-stage, looking on. And what we see on the political stage is the old national game of Changing Hands (with its sub-games such as hand-in-glove, hand-in-hand, hand-in-pocket etc). This is how the game is played. The players stand in pairs holding hands. When the whistle goes each one quickly lets go of the hand he is holding and snatches one that looks stronger. But the man with the stronger hand had earlier held this one's hand and wishes to have a different hand experience so he snatches his hand out of player 1s to attach himself to player 3. This upsets player 4 who had not only hoped to hold player 3's hand but also to sneak his spare hand into player 1's hand without the referee noticing and thus emerge winner. Left without any hand to hold, the player who thought he would be the winner is out. Yes. He's out.
Narayan Rane is out. And he is sulking. I recall an old children's rhyme that was meant to put sulkers in a good mood. It went (translation from Marathi mine with certain liberties taken to overcome problems that are too complex to go into here) "Pussy cat is sulking, sitting in a nook. There comes her husband, she giggles khukhukkhuk." Versions of this rhyme are now being chanted to Narayanrao but he has still not gone beyond the first "khuk" which he hopes will be interpreted by the media as a contemptuous cough rather than the beginning of a giggle.
Expectedly, nobody is chanting any rhymes to us. Our time is over. We ensured that it would be, because we thought changing ministers was the answer to our problems. That change had a cathartic effect. A catharsis brings about temporary relief accompanied by loss of accumulated steam. Had we retained some of that steam, we could have used it to push for a sustained public debate on our electoral system. If that can be changed, much will change. Else everything remains essentially the same.
The terrain around writers and artist has become like a minefield. Every time they take a step this way or that in the fond belief that they are free to do so, they risk having that very idea blow up in their face.
The Times of India dated January 6, 2009, carried a report on its front page headlined, "Artist faces heat for depicting 'nude Shiva' ". On January 5, eight activists of an organisation that styles itself Hindu Janajagruti Samiti--they do not go around the country protesting against dowry, child marriage and female foeticide-- barged into Jehangir Art Gallery and "forcefully" removed a painting of a nude Shiva from Delhi-based artist Nitai Das's show. As if that was not enough to satisfy their lust for moral power, they forced him to remove four other paintings of nudes.
Jehangir Art Gallery has a waiting list that is several years long. Artists from all over the country wait patiently for their precious one-week show to happen. They expect connoisseurs to come and appreciate their work, collectors to buy it. They do not expect some sidey organisation that has taken upon itself the mission of 'saving' our culture, to storm in and start disrupting the show.
The frustrating thing about the Times of India report was that the reporter had not felt the need to ask the gallery what its security was doing while Das was being terrorised in this fashion? Was it not the gallery's responsibility to intervene on his behalf and show the intruders off its premises for misbehaviour? Or does its responsibility end with hiring out its space and collecting rent for it?
Instead of asking the gallery the crucial question about its responsibility, the reporter did something that was completely useless. She asked a couple of artists for their quotes on the issue. The 'who, where, why and how' of reporting has been junked by today's journalists. The solid information that these questions once provided has been replaced by these ubiquitous quotes. So Jogen Chowdhury said the following: "What is the nakedness of Shiva whose lingam is worshipped everyday by devotees? People have no understanding. The government should come in to protect artists."
Guess what the Janajagruti people would say to that if they were interested in verbal argument? They would say, of course we worship lingams. But lingams are in temples where everything is sacred. Moreover, they are not attached to Shiva's body. That makes them abstract symbols and therefore inoffensive.
Atul Dodiya's quote on the other hand, lands us in a patch of quick sand. "I'm all for freedom of expression," he is quoted as saying, "as long as the intent of the artist is not to provoke." How do we gauge the intent of the artist? Which authority can be relied upon to tell us exactly what s/he intended at the time of painting? Or do we put the artist, Das for instance, through a narco test to find out if he intended to provoke us, or more specifically the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, when he painted his nude Shiva? The Janajagruti people will say, why bother with all that when we have a simpler and less expensive test? The proof of the artist's intention lies in how we feel. If we feel provoked, the artist must have intended to provoke.
The disturbing thing in this case is that not a single voice was raised in protest against it. It was not too long ago that artists came out in full force against the BJP and VHP for having a fine arts student of M S University, Chandra Mohan, put behind bars for offending them with "derogatory" pictures of Vishnu, Durga and Jesus. Are we too tired now to protest? Have we begun to accept attacks on artists as part of the system, just as we have come to accept corruption as part of the system? If so, the next step might very well be that we will practise self-censorship in order to avoid trouble.
This happened recently in the case of an exhibition of modern art that was taken around Maharashtra with the express purpose of acquainting the general public with the history of modern art. Yet, after some deliberation, one of the most important figures in this history was left out of the show. M. F. Husain. There could not have been a more resounding victory for cultural terrorists than this.
Friday, January 2, 2009
Aydaan is a generic term for all kinds of containers woven out of cane. Practitioners of skills like these belong to particular communities. Urmila Pawar belongs to the Mahar community of Maharashtra, the community from which Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar rose to become a leader of dalits. Pawar grew up in the rugged hills of the Konkan. That is where she begins the story of her life.
I've read the original book in Marathi. It is a powerful narrative that throws the deprivation of Pawar's people in our face in a language that challenges our squeamish sensibilities. The middle-class squirms because it sees its carefully nurtured ideas of what constitutes decency, shredded to bits. Pawar's fellow dalits squirmed when the book was published because a woman had dared to reveal the gender divisions within the community that made women the further exploited amongst the worst exploited of our country. "Untouchable" is not a word or concept that the civilised world finds easy to understand.
It is such a narrative as this that the translator has attempted to present to the non-Marathi reader. The failure of the attempt is what I want to comment on.
Translation is no longer a question of simply doing. It has become a subject of academic study and theorising.I must admit that I have never occupied myself with the study of translation theory. I go by the utterly unacademic principle of trying to convey the voice of the author as well as I possibly can, to a readership that cannot hear it in the original. This is a huge responsibility which takes days and days of struggle with single words, phrases and lines to fulfill. It is not only the dictionary meaning of words that should concern you. You must listen to their sound, comprehend the associations they carry,get a sense of their texture, tone and rhythm. Most importantly, the translator must forget herself. Like an actor does with a character, she must enter the skin of the writer in order to see and feel the way that person sees and feels. That is what keeping faith with the original means.
Constance Garnett who laboured so long and hard over her translations of the Russian greats--we are all indebted to her because it was through her that many of us first discovered Tolstoy and Dostoevski--did them a service which was also a disservice. She sanitised them in order not to offend Victorian sensibilities.
Vladimir Nabokov in his essay "The art of translation", lists three crimes that translators are prone to commit: "The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and is thus excusable. The next step to hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; ...The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion, as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days."
I wouldn't go so far as to recommend such a severe punishement for the translator of "Aydaan" (I consider her translation of the title as "The Weave of my Life", particularly felicitous), but I would say with certainty that she has committed all three crimes Nabakov lists and one more. She has turned a pithy, punchy 271 page book into a 320 page book because she could not find crisp enough equivalents for the Marathi in English.
All of Nabokov's three translation crimes are present in the following sentence, for example, occurring towards the beginning of the book. The line that should have read, "You press on to the top of the Mirjole hill onto the flat plateau where the sky rests, with the tall, massive jambhul tree rising against it", becomes "After climbing atop the hill of Mirjole, we would step onto the plateau, where there was a huge jamun tree, so tall that its top almost touched the sky."
Crime one, inaccuracy. The jambhul tree does not "almost touch the sky". It stands against the sky, indicating, along with the word tall, its impressive height.
Crime two, skipping words, ideas, etc. What happened here to the sky that "rests" on the plateau? That idea has simply disappeared.
Crime three, patting things into a shape that falls in with conventions. The translator replaces the breathless pace of the original with a more sedate pace. Also translating "jambhul" as "jamun" is wrong. There is no equivalent for the Marathi jambhul tree in English. So, in accordance with general practice,the original word should have been retained and, if necessary, explained in a glossary. Why translate the word into another language that is as much Greek and Latin to the intended reader as the original? Does our national language cross international borders when it doesn't even cross those within the country?
As for sanitisation of the text, here is the best example. A line that should read, "Come on you brats. There's one more hill to go. You want to pee or shit, go do it now, or you'll shit your pants climbing." This becomes, "Come on kids, we still have to climb one more hill. If you want to pass water and stuff, do it now. Otherwise you will do it in your knickers while climbing the hill."
"Pass water"? The last time someone did that was probably half a century ago.
The introduction to "The Weave of my life" talks about the empowerment of women. Those who believe in women's empowerment should not themselves deprive women of their language. Language is power. When Urmila Pawar talks of peeing and shitting, she is using the words her people used, knowing full well that they are not seen as "polite" words in "polite" society, particularly when used by women. That she does so, that she shows us her people's lives as they are, without apology, is her power. And she must be allowed to keep it, even in translation.