Skip to main content

Teardrop tales

By March 26, 2019No Comments

Source : Hindu Business Line – BLink    –    ADITYA MANI JHA


The modern-day view of Upendranath Ashk places him alongside the greats of Hindi literature. But during his lifetime, he was at the receiving end of harsh criticism

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. The part that most people leave out, however, is that after a while both acts get tiresome and, eventually, just plain insufferable. About a hundred pages into In the City a Mirror Wandering (ICMW), Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Upendranath Ashk’s novel Sheher Mein Ghoomta Aaina, we come across the most crystalline depiction of this sentiment. Chetan, the protagonist of the novel (who is and is not Ashk), has by now understood that his once-mentor Hunar Sahib is a plagiarist and a charlatan who fleeces aspiring writers. To his surprise, he comes across a poem by his friend Nand Lal ‘Nishtar’ in a literary journal. It is the same poem that Hunar Sahib had all his pupils write under their own names and published in little-known journals.



“All that was different was that ‘Nishtar’ had replaced ‘Chetan’; otherwise it was the same poem. Chetan was astonished at how much he like it at the time, and that he’d actually submitted it for publication. And all those poems and couplets — they were devoid of feeling, of experiences; just simple exercises that hadn’t been touched in the slightest by real life and which rang completely false, like Hunar Sahib’s own life.”

The book is the second part of Ashk’s magnum opus, the six-volume novel Falling Walls (Girti Deewarein). In the previous volume, also called Falling Walls, we meet Chetan as he stumbles from failure to failure in 1930s Jalandhar, Lahore and Shimla. Falling in love (or, at the very least, intense, all-consuming lust) with every other woman he meets, unable to entirely shake off the toxic influence of his drunkard father, by the end of the novel, Chetan is limping back to his native Jalandhar. ICMW starts literally hours after Falling Walls ends, and follows a day in Chetan’s life, as he wanders around Jalandhar, meeting friends, rivals, wrestlers, hakims, bullies, poets and con-men.

The anecdote mentioned earlier, about Hunar Sahib, is symptomatic not only of the Falling Walls series, but also of the life of Ashk (1910-96), his history of literary feuds, and his vision of what it meant to be a writer. The modern-day view of Ashk — helped, no doubt, by Rockwell’s translations of three of his books — places him alongside the greats of Hindi literature.

But during his lifetime, he was at the receiving end of harsh criticism, especially from those who felt his work was difficult to follow, filled with extraneous details, and, because of the narrator’s obvious delight in fantasising about young women, “obscene”.

On his part, Ashk used the introductions to his novels to fire back (or even to start the odd firefight) with abandon. Anybody was fair game — critics, writers he didn’t like and protégés fallen out of favour.

It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss Ashk as a loose cannon. In Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography, published by Katha in 2004, Rockwell explained the background to the author’s cantankerous ways and his painfully clear persecution complex. There was, Rockwell maintained, at least partial truth to many of Ashk’s pet peeves, his theories about how and why the Hindi literary establishment first hated, and then ignored him.

Ashk had, in his boyhood, started writing in Punjabi and then Urdu, which was in ’30s Punjab the natural outlet for a literary young man (“Ashk” was his Urdu nom de plume, meaning “teardrop”). After meeting Munshi Premchand, Ashk was convinced that he should write in refined Hindi rather than Urdu. This was the time the All India Progressive Writers’ Association was looking at the writer (Rockwell said) as someone between a revolutionary and a social worker (roles that Ashk remained at a hilarious distance from).

Mahatma Gandhi and the nationalist movement also insisted on the use of Hindi, an idea that appealed to many writers because it represented the promise of mass appeal. As Rockwell put it, “What could be better than patriotism combined with practicality?” As a Punjabi man writing in Hindi, however, Ashk faced snide comments (especially from writers in Allahabad, the “mainland” hub of Hindi literature) about ‘being a decent writer despite being from Punjab’ and so on.

Ashk’s subtle experiments with autobiographical writing — not just through the Girti Deewarein series, but also his five-volume memoir Chehre: Anek (Faces: Many; 1975-85), where he writes about himself in the third person — also placed him at odds with the Hindi literary establishment. His style and his influences did not fit the narrow regionalist criteria viewed as signs of literary greatness. This “movementism”, as Rockwell calls it, was informed not only by parochial literary concerns, but also by larger social phenomena such as the rise of the Arya Samaj and the nationalist movement.

Today there is no doubt that Ashk is required reading for fans of Hindi literature. And if you can’t read Hindi, there’s always Rockwell. She has been translating and writing about Ashk for over two decades, an extraordinary engagement with one person’s works.

In Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, the protagonists wander for years in search of an elusive, all-important poet, only to find a semi-coherent mad prophet, concerned more with apocalyptic visions than literature.

Rockwell’s quest for the real Ashk, on the other hand, has been considerably more fruitful.

Aditya Mani Jha is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.