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What translating Krishna Sobti revealed: She did not write to help the reader understand

By February 1, 2019No Comments

Source :   –    Daisy Rockwell

The legendary writer, who died on January 25 at the age of 93, wrote to show what the Hindi language can do.


Dear Krishna ji, I was already asleep tonight when a phone call alerted me to your dehant, to the ending of your physical form. I was of course overwhelmed with sorrow, but I could almost see you looking on at my weeping with benevolent amusement. You are already off on your next adventure, whilst the rest of us are still just scratching the surface of the gifts you gave us.

So I got out of bed and went downstairs. I poured myself a glass of sambuca and dropped in four coffee beans, because somehow it tastes better that way. I broke off a piece of extra dark chocolate, lit a stick of sandal incense and offered it to Saraswati, and sat down to pay tribute to you. I know your preferred aperitif was a glass of brandy with some lemon and water, but you would have loved sambuca and chocolate, it’s a wonderful combination, and anyway, I have no brandy, so think of it as our midnight snack.

What really got me out of bed, though, was remembering how you told me of your partner Shivanath and how different your writing habits were: while he was up at dawn to write, you were always the night owl writer. No, don’t say that, owls are evil portents, you told me that too. But you liked to write late at night, so now I am sitting up late at night, writing to you.

What I want you to know, besides the fact that I think of you all the time, is that my translation of your novel is coming out next month. It will be out in time for your birthday. February 18. On that day, we will have a tea party in your honour, because no one wrote more eloquently of tea parties than you. In the meantime, here are a few words I wrote to introduce the book. I consider these baby steps towards many more oceans of words for you.

All my love, Daisy.

“A lady clad all in black was ordering a Coke. Upon inquiry, he learnt that this was Madame Sobti.

As this was the first time he’d seen her at such a gathering, Hashmat tailed her for further investigation. What really lay beneath that audacious facade? He must know what she was made of. Sturdy timber and genteel conversation, as it turned out. Hashmat quickly realised her persona concealed a vanity of terrifying proportions. She seemed to view everyone as her subjects. He was of a mind to run over and whisper in her ear:

‘The princely states are no more, Your Majesty! Do modify your behaviour accordingly!’”

— Krishna Sobti (writing as her alter ego, the slovenly male chauvinist author “Hashmat”

Krishna Sobti is a magical being. Everyone knows this. From her experimental prose to her legendary parties to her unique sense of style to her male alter ego, the writer “Hashmat”, everything about her is deeply considered and infused with her special warmth. I myself only had the opportunity to meet her in her nineties, but I consider myself much improved as a result.

Perched on one of her sofas, strategising when I might start asking her the meanings of particular words I wasn’t able to find in the dictionary that no one else seemed to know, stuffing myself with the never-ending delicacies emerging from the kitchen, worrying that I would not be up to the task of translating her novel, I suddenly started to understand the answers to my questions without ever asking some of them at all.

To sit in her presence is to open the Sobti lexicon and immerse oneself in Sobti logic. Complex turns of phrase, confusing references, it all made sense once I was there. Translating Krishna Sobti and learning from her made me understand how to use my instincts and creativity to translate things that seemed untranslatable before, and it also taught me how read Sobti style.

The most important thing I learned was that Krishna Sobti is not here to tell you stories.

Yes, Krishna Sobti tells stories – interesting ones too—in her writing, and in conversation, but she has an equal if not greater interest in language and style. Her preferred forms have been the novella and the essay, and this is perhaps because she has sought to boil sentences, phrases and entire narratives into the smallest number of words possible. She claims she has never been a poet, but her prose resembles poetry more than anything else.

She will often use the fewest words possible in a sentence, sometimes just one, if she can find the perfect fit. The words are carefully considered, weighed out and often very difficult to define or translate into English with just one equivalent word. Sobti’s use of language is experimental and central to her writing, and unlike many women authors, she is not terribly bothered if you don’t understand what she means, or if you cannot entirely follow the story. She is not writing to help you understand, she’s writing to reveal and learn what language can do.

In the section of A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There that most resembles poetry, Sobti talks of Partition in a stream of words and phrases, interspersing her own family’s experiences with observations about refugees and migrants. In these particular lines, so spare and elegant, Sobti enters the minds of the mobs, the migrants, those fleeing and those chasing, those attacking and those under attack:

“Who’s the sinner?

Who’s the criminal?

Who is witness to the crime?

One dagger-plunging hand. Another, match-striking, lighting an oil-soaked rag.

One stands far off, gathering a crowd.
 A clutch of terrified men and women holding their breath in a jungle of half-dead, frightened voices: They just came – we just went – we just died – don’t make a sound. Let them pass by.

Piles upon piles of corpses, mounting ever higher.

A wake of vultures roots about.

Rings on hands grown cold; necklaces encircle throats.”

Where other authors have spilled buckets of ink writing histories and novels about the Partition, Sobti attempts to use the smallest amount of ink possible, to cut the story of migrancy and violence down to the bone. Even Manto rarely managed so few words in his Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders), his ultra-short stories of the Partition.

In A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, we see an array of styles, experiments and genres. Think of it as a palimpsest: what Sobti is laying before us are fragments of her memories from seventy years ago. Memory is always fallible, and yet most of us can agree that certain events and episodes from our early twenties are indelibly inked in our imaginations. But it is also true that these get rewritten, overwritten and erased over time.

The fragments that comprise the present volume represent all different genres: some are clearly poetry, some feel like memoir, others have the narrative structure of a novel. Some are in the first person, most are in the third – the name of the protagonist shifts with the contexts in which she finds herself: the Governess, Miss Sobti, Kishni, Bai ji, Ma’am. The fragments are arranged for us in the form of a book, but sometimes feel like a multidimensional work of art: an installation, if you will. I imagine a jumpy film reel, a sheaf of letters, an old photograph album, a diary stuffed with poems.

Sobti is not here to hold your hand: it is up to the reader to make her own connections, draw her own conclusions, find her imagination sparked and go out and create more layers of text for the palimpsest.

A translator spends more time with a text than almost anyone else. A translator must turn every word inside out and shake it upside down. At times when I was immersed in this text I would ask myself, Why did she put this here? Or that? Or that? What is she telling me? Sometimes the answer is simply this: She remembered it. It felt significant, so she recorded it. In this book, Sobti is more mystic than storyteller, more abstract painter than realist. At the end of the section on her visit to Bombay, for instance, she speaks briefly of the brother of the famous film star and singer KL Saigal:

“She recollected the brother of Kundan Lal Saigal who lived next door to Kashinath Uncle. His face and manner were identical to those of his movie-star brother. When he had come to meet her, he had said, ‘I wanted to hand-stitch a hemmed kurta for you myself, niece, but there’s not enough time. Next time you come, I’ll show you my skill.’

Great Uncle brought out a kurta from his almirah.

‘Krishna dear, do look at this, the fine hemming this man is capable of!’”

I was confused by this passage and wondered if I was missing something. Had I misunderstood the word turpāī? Did it not mean “hemming”? Why had she put it there? When I got up the courage to ask her, she replied simply, “Well, he did very fine hemming.” And smiled: in an end-of-story kind of way. Some memory fragments are like this – we hold on to them, because they feel important. A major film star’s brother sits at home beautifully hemming garments. Do not let me forget that, no matter how many decades may pass.



Excerpted with permission from Daisy Rockwell’s “Introduction” to A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, Krishna Sobti, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Books.


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