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Of childhood memories and Aai’s unforgettable life lessons

The evening prayers in the ashram are over. Cowbells tinkle sweetly in the distance. The residents of the ashram sit in a circle, their eyes fixed on Shyam, who has promised them a story as sweet as lemon syrup. And so Shyam begins.

While on some evenings he tells them of his boyhood days, surrounded by the abundant beauty of the Konkan, on others he recalls growing up poor, embarrassed by the state of his family’s affairs. But at the heart of each story is his Aai-her words and lessons.

Narrated over the course of forty-two nights, Shyamchi Aai is a poignant story of Shyam and Aai, a mother with an unbreakable spirit. Here, we are sharing an excerpt from the book where Shyam reflects on the relationship between his parents and how they had both taught him important life-lessons.


It was Bhau’s custom to go to the temple after he finished his puja at home. That was the signal for us to lay the plates for lunch. We would serve everything else before he came back except for the rice. When we saw him coming, we would call out, ‘Bhau’s here, Aai. Bhau’s here. Serve the rice.’ Bhau would bring back holy water from the temple. We would have that and then settle down to lunch.

That day, Aai had made a dish from sweet potato greens. She used to make tasty dishes from the leaves of all kinds of vegetables like pumpkins and ladies’ fingers. She would say, ‘Anything can be made to taste good if it’s tempered with a couple of spices and the right amount of salt and chilli powder are added.’ She was right, of course, because whatever she made did indeed taste good. The culinary deity seemed to dwell in her fingers. She would pour her heart and soul into everything she made.

However, that day was a little different. There was no salt in the vegetable dish she had made. With all the work she had to do, she had simply forgotten to put it in. Bhau didn’t mention it, so we didn’t either. Bhau’s self-control was unbelievable. Every time Aai offered him another helping of the vegetable, he would say, ‘This is excellent.’ He neither added the salt that was served on his plate nor asked for any. Aai said to me, ‘Don’t you like the dish? You’re not eating it the way you normally do.’ Before I could answer, Bhau cut in with, ‘Now that he has started learning English at school, he’s not going to enjoy these rustic vegetables.’

front cover of Shyamchi Aai
Shyamchi Aai || Sane Guruji


‘Not at all,’ I protested. ‘If learning English is going to do that to me, I don’t want to learn it. Please don’t send me to school.’

Bhau said, ‘I said that only to make you angry. When you get angry, I know all is well with the world. You like jackfruit, don’t you? I’ll get one tomorrow from Patil Wadi. If I don’t find a tender one, you can have the pods boiled and spiced.’

Aai said, ‘Yes, please get one. We haven’t had jackfruit in a long time.’ Bhau went out to the verandah for his routine walk and prayers. After that he spun yarn for his sacred thread. The spinning disc was made of clay. The house rule was that all of us should know how to spin yarn.

Aai had finished clearing up and had now sat down for her lunch. I was sitting nearby. She took her first mouthful of the vegetable and discovered it had no salt. ‘Shyam, there’s no salt in this dish. None of you said so. Why didn’t you tell me? How could you eat this saltless dish?’

‘We said nothing because Bhau said nothing,’ I replied. Aai was very upset.

‘How did you eat this?’ she kept asking. ‘No wonder you didn’t have much. Otherwise you would have single-handedly finished half the lot. You like your vegetables. I should have known then. But what’s the use of saying it now?’

Aai was full of remorse for her mistake. She believed we should always give people the best we can, whatever it is. She felt she had been careless, not paid enough attention, lost her concentration on the job. She had done wrong and she refused to forgive herself.

Bhau had said nothing because he hadn’t wanted to upset her. She had spent so much time at the hearth breathing in all the smoke and fumes just to make food for us. Why find fault? Why not accept what was made as tasty? Bhau believed it was wrong to hurt the person who had cooked for you.

‘Friends, it is for us to decide who the finer human being was. Was my father the finer human being because he ate an unsalted dish as if it were the best he had ever eaten in the belief that it was better to control one’s tongue than hurt another’s feelings? Or was my mother the finer human being because she was upset over serving us something that wasn’t perfect, asked us why we hadn’t complained and wouldn’t forgive herself for her mistake? According to me, both were fine human beings.

Our culture is founded on self-control and contentment as well as on doing work as perfectly as possible. I learnt from my parents that we should aspire to both these virtues in life.’




Salma’s women live fragile lives but dream of hope

Salma’s women dream of a better world and better lives. Caught up in their circumstances, this simple dream seems more and more distant. Read an excerpt from Women, Dreaming, translated into English by Meena Kandasamy:


Parveen runs as though her head is falling apart. Seeing Amma, Hasan and a few others chase her, she runs even faster. The panic of being captured makes her run without paying heed. She runs bounding across walls, past open grounds, she runs and runs…

Waking suddenly out of this nightmare, Parveen was very relieved that no one had caught her. Drenched in sweat, lazy and reluctant to get out of bed, she started thinking about the nature of her dream, what she could recollect of it, the dregs of an earlier life that tormented her now in the form of fantasy. She hated it. She pinched herself to make sure that she had really got away – and that made her overjoyed – then she once again raided her memories.

Meanwhile, downstairs… ‘Her mother has come to visit Rahim’s wife,’ Hasina heard the violent disdain in Iqbal’s voice. Absorbing her husband’s words, Hasina gathered her loose hair, tied it up in a bun and slowly made her way out of her bedroom. Because she could not see anyone in the living room, she shouted, ‘Parveen, Parveen,’ her voice loud enough to display her authority as mother-in-law.

Parveen shouted back, ‘Maami, here I come,’ as she rushed down the stairs. Hasina saw Subaida trailing behind her daughter. Responding to Subaida’s muted salaam with a loud and prolonged ‘wa ‘alay- kum al-salaam,’ Hasina sat down on the sofa.

When Subaida asks her how she is doing, her tone is reverential, its politeness exaggerated. Hasina’s cold response – ‘By the grace of Allah there is no dearth of wellness here’ – comes across as slightly menacing. Although Subaida is upset that Hasina hasn’t asked her to take a seat, she hesitantly stoops to perch on a corner of the sofa.

Parveen is annoyed and angered by her mother- in-law’s tone and manner, but she quickly pacifies herself, refusing to show any sign of being perturbed.

Front cover Women Dreaming
Women, Dreaming||Salma

‘You took the stairs to be with your daughter without first paying your respects to me,’ Hasina remarked. Subaida, registering the reason for Hasina’s displeasure, attempts to placate her: ‘You were sleeping, that’s why I went to talk with Parveen. It has been two weeks since I saw my daughter, you see, so I was very eager…’

This makes Parveen even angrier, to watch her mother plead and try to make peace in such a cringing act of deference.

Perhaps because Hasina had just woken from a nap, her face appeared to be bloated. She had not parted her jet-black hair, merely tied it up into a loose knot, not a hint of grey visible. Parveen compared her mother’s veiled head; most of Amma’s hair had gone white although both women were of the same age.

‘Here, I have brought some snacks,’ Subaida extended a bag that she had brought with her towards Hasina, who rejected it casually.

‘Why? Who is there to eat them here?’

Parveen ground her teeth in anger – this was all too much to take.

‘So, what happened to your promise of buying a car for us? This Eid or the next one?’

Parveen caught the sarcasm in Hasina’s sudden barb. She looked towards her mother to see how she would react.

Parveen could not forget that this was the same Hasina who on the day of Parveen’s marriage to her son had said, ‘She is not your daughter – from this day, she will be my daughter, she will ease my pain of not having given birth to a girl.’ She wondered if her mother, too, was ruminating on something similar that Hasina had told them in the past…
‘It has been three months since the nikah. When are you going to make good on your promise? Your daughter doesn’t understand the first thing about how to conduct herself. She appears to be unfit for any sort of domestic work, as if she was a college-educated girl. Even after I’ve got a daughter-in-law, I’m the one stuck in the kitchen.’

Subaida regretted having come here. Parveen was meanwhile chastised by Hasina: ‘Why are you standing here like a tree – go and fetch some tea for the both of us.’

Parveen moved towards the kitchen. She was curious to know what excuse her mother was going to provide for the demand of a car – but she also knew that she did not have the strength to listen to her spineless words. They must not have promised a car. Why should they have sought an alliance like this? What was wrong with her? Why did they arrange this wedding? She understood nothing.

She filtered the tea into a tumbler. She carefully stirred only half a spoon of sugar in her mother-in- law’s cup, knowing that she had to keep an eye on her sugar intake.

Though Parveen had eagerly awaited her mother’s arrival, her foremost instinct now was that Amma should leave here immediately. She had wanted to share as many things with her as possible, but now she decided not to confide in her at all. She only wanted her mother to return home peacefully.

With shaking hands, she extended the cup of tea towards her mother-in-law, then served Amma, looking at her intently for some clue.

Hasina, taking a sip and grimacing, remarked: ‘Hmm, it’s too sweet. Why have you poured so much sugar into this? There’s nothing you can do properly. In three months, you have not even learnt how much sugar to add in your mother-in-law’s tea. Go, add some milk to my cup and bring it back.’

Her harsh tone made Parveen feel crushed. She worked out that her mother’s response about the car must have displeased Hasina. She could see from her mother-in-law’s face how embittered and angry she felt.

The house wore a dreadful silence.


Women, Dreaming is a beautiful and painful read, both heart-breaking and hopeful at once.

The Trials and Travails of Corporate Culture, An Excerpt from ‘Shikari: The Hunt’

‘Shikari’ by Yashwant Chittal is set in the concrete jungles of Mumbai and weaves together the high-stake conspiracies of the corporate world. Through Nagappa’s story Chittal reveals a fiercely competitive arena where Man’s primordial instincts surface, and the line between the hunter and the hunted is often blurred.
Here’s an excerpt from the book.
As the situation he found himself in began to make some sense to Nagappa, he recalled K, the hero of Kafka’s novel The Trial that he had read years ago. Just like it had happened with K, somebody must be spreading false rumours about him. Or why would this bizarre order from the personnel and administration manager come yesterday morning, when he was getting ready to go to work? The thought unnerved him.
You have been suspended with immediate effect due to serious charges against you. You will be informed of the charges at the earliest. You have been ordered not to attend the office till such time
that we inform you about them. The order was very clear. And it had come with a piece of advice: With the view that you are not adversely affected in any way in the event of the charges being proved false, it is in your interest to apply for a month’s leave immediately.
Nagappa had sent in his leave application. But he now faced the predicament of having to hide from others the real reason for his forced leave. He wracked his brains for a plausible explanation he could give, but couldn’t think of any. And then there were these ‘charges’. The more he tried to think what they could possibly be, the more intriguing the whole thing appeared to him.
For a moment, he wondered if it was all a terrible mistake. He couldn’t somehow bring himself to believe this was really happening to him, because he was to leave for America in a couple of months for higher training—something he had dreamt of for years. And now this, when he was eagerly waiting for the day.
A thought occurred to him: Was being selected for the training the very reason for this sudden turn of events? As time passed, he became convinced that was the case. What had started as a vague suspicion began to appear like the truth. This meant Phiroz still harboured that old hatred towards him. This’s surely part of some vicious plot hatched by that Machiavellian manipulator . . . that evil politicking bastard . . . the son of a bitch Number One! Nagappa thought. Things would become clearer if he could somehow find out what the charges framed against him were. Now he could do nothing but wait for further information from the personnel and administration manager.
He found the wait unbearable. He became suddenly and acutely aware that he had nothing to do. He shuddered. The question of what to do with his time had never bothered him before. But now, empty hours stretched before him, directionless. He recalled reading in a book on psychology that one of the greatest problems the human mind finds difficult to grapple with is the structuring of time.
Suppressing the waves of amorphous panic that threatened to engulf him, he tried to define it and give it some shape. But the more he tried, the more it seemed to gain an upper hand. He shook inwardly, uncontrollably. He spent the day analysing each passing mood and thought and recording it. And his chronicling continued:
Comment 1: This is the second day of my forced leave. The thought that came to me as I woke up: If I keep thinking about this problem, I might either end up in a mental asylum or committing suicide. Both are ways of running away from the situation—attempts at alienating myself from the world.
Is the constant act of analysing the meaning of life a sign of a profound inner search or of losing faith in life—in one’s very existence? Isn’t embracing life with enthusiasm and living with a sense of commitment a natural instinct? Isn’t it the very wellspring of life’s process?
Why does this question, that doesn’t seem to bother millions of other living beings, constantly trouble me? Maybe it’s not because of my philosophical bent of mind, which I secretly take pride in, but because I have no zest for life. I think the very wellspring that energizes my being has run dry. Maybe it’s meaningless to search for the meaning of life. How can you search for something that doesn’t exist? This so-called ‘meaning’ is something we’ve invented. And then, how is creativity possible when there is no zest for life? How can the creative impulse spring in this arid desert?


Forsaken Nests —Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan is one of the well-known names of Tamil literature. He has garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success on his writings. Many of his writings have been translated in English and have won accolades. His book ‘Seasons of the Palm’ was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Award in 2005.
 Murugan, in this piece tells us what pushed him to become a writer.
 My family background could not have been the reason for my becoming a writer. I was a first-generation learner. Both my parents, and their forefathers, were illiterate. After a few years of school, I taught my father how to sign. Signing, for him, meant writing his name. He would write each letter very slowly, leaving a playground of space between two letters. At first he did not know how to pronounce these letters. He took months to learn. He felt it would be beneath the dignity of his school-going sons if he were to remain an illiterate, and so he deeply desired to wipe away that shame with just his signature.
The first time he signed his name was on my report card. That day, his face shone brightly with pride. He never asked about my marks or my ranking. For him, the happiness of signing alone would suffice. My brother would forge my father’s signature, but I did not have that kind of courage. We used to call our father’s handwriting ‘hen scribbles’—like the footprints of hens that pitted the ground when they wandered about, without any discernible form or pattern. To this day, one such signature of my father’s is preserved in my tenth-standard register.
I have never had occasion to regret my being born in an illiterate family. Rather, it was an advantage. I enjoyed absolute freedom as far as my education was concerned. I was free to study; I was also free not to study. No one asked me why I studied Tamil often or told me to study mathematics instead. I alone decided the standard till which I would study. While selecting a field of study of my interest, there was no interference. Nothing can equal the joy one feels at the freedom to make one’s own decisions when young. And because I was born to unlettered parents, I enjoyed the peak of such happiness.
After completing my tenth standard, I myself decided on the branch of study I would pursue in the eleventh standard. Though I had secured more than 80 per cent in the core subjects, I opted to study Tamil literature instead of pursuing science or a technical education. My father willingly accompanied me wherever I wanted to go. If anyone asked why I wasn’t studying something else, he would simply say, ‘It’s his choice.’ This being my ‘educational background’, I cannot ascribe my interest in writing to any of my family members, including my grandparents and parents. I myself struggled and learnt to swim in the great flood. And that happiness still lingers in me today.
How the vocation of writing possessed me can be traced to my childhood. There were not many houses in the place where my family lived. Our household was just one among four on a dry, rain-fed stretch of land called ‘Mettukkaadu’. Unlike in other places, farming in the Kongu region demands more than just a few hours of work and a supervisory visit to the field once in a while. In fact, one had to struggle on the land along with the cattle, night and day. Hence families lived in single tenements on their farms. Along with our grandparents as well as two paternal uncles, we numbered four families in all, and we lived close to each other. Some other houses were also there, scattered in the distance.
I was the youngest boy among the families residing there. Those born after me were all girls. There were no playmates of my age. The difference in ages between the older boys and myself was such that I had to call them anna (elder brother) or mama (uncle). A boy playing with girls would be branded as girly and, in any case, boys looked down upon the games of girls. Hence I had to invent games and play them all by myself. I had to imagine playing and conversing with many people, and I even role-played those other people. I had a lot of uninhabited open space at my disposal. Otherwise I would withdraw into myself like a snail if anyone came near me. I barely spoke in public. I was very quiet, a good boy who did not know of mischief.
But in my lonely private terrain I was an adventurer doing all kinds of things. A circular rock in the middle of the farmlands became my regular playground. When the crops stood high and tall around me, I grew more enthusiastic about my private world. For instance, I very much liked the oyilattom—a folk dance staged during temple festivals. Of course, in the middle of a crowd, my body would freeze up; no force could loosen it. But it would become elastic once I reached the rock. The little sparrows living amid the millet crops and the big birds in the sky would move away, either in awe or in fear. However, one day, while I was dancing in my haven, a tree-climber scaling a palm tree in the vicinity happened to witness my antics. In no time he spread the word about my dancing. After that, I could not show my face in public. From then on, the rock was abandoned. That is just how bashful I was.
An unbridgeable solitude and the fictional world that I created in my private space together have propelled me towards writing. Apart from my textbooks, the magazine Rani was the only book that I got hold of by chance. ‘Kurangu Kusala’ and the children’s segment were the sections I really enjoyed. I started composing verses in line with those in the children’s segment. I sent those songs—rhyming ‘Little, little cat; beautiful cat’—to a radio station a few years later. Most of them found a place in the programme Manimalar broadcast by the Trichy Radio Station. The station would not announce in advance whose songs would be aired so I could never be sure whether my rhymes would be broadcast. And if they were aired, I had no one to share the news with. I did not reveal any of this to others for fear of being ridiculed. But these broadcasts boosted my confidence and eventually helped kindle my desire to publish.
I also had a habit of writing long stories modelled on the children’s series ‘The Secret of the Magical Mountain’ and ‘The Princess of the Hill Country’ that were published in Rani. Tunnels figured prominently in my stories. I loved the image of a shy, fearful person walking through dark tunnels all alone. I would imagine a variety of tunnels; myriad figures would appear as stumbling blocks on the way; those things were dear to my heart.
This was how I came into the world of writing. Even at a young age I could perceive writing to be a way of expressing myself. Still, I have been known as a writer in public only these twenty-five years. If I were to count my published works, there are ten novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. I have compiled a dictionary on the local dialect. Some collections of essays have been published; some others compiled. If all my essays get compiled, then there might be some more books.
One who journeys through my works may happen to identify certain common features. I think most of these would relate to my childhood attitude. When I take a step back and view my work from a distance, I discern that by presenting an observation that has occurred to me, perhaps I could give readers an idea of my childhood. For instance, references to the house are made here and there in my works. But the reader cannot reconstruct the house out of these references. My works don’t have elaborate descriptions of the house, nor are the house and its parts at the centre of the scheme of things. All that my writings needed was the expansive open space. The house as an entity is not suited to fill in the open space. Rather, the house could be seen as an eyesore troubling that space. This attitude can be seen at its peak in my novel Koolamadhari, where the expanse is all pervasive. My childhood idea of the house was only that of a granary—used to store the grains for a year’s requirements. Cooking and sleeping were done outside the house. Even the stove used to be outside the house. A portable charcoal oven was used for cooking during the rainy season. Sleeping took place either in the yard or in the goat pens and the mangers. Though I have become accustomed to the middle class way of life, to this day, I like the open space the most.
Birds do not inhabit nests. They build nests, out of necessity, during the reproductive season. They require the protection of the nests for laying and hatching their eggs and till the nestlings spread their wings to fly. Then the nests are abandoned—forsaken on the trees, fallen on the stones, empty holes left behind after the chicks have grown up. I feel as though my childhood dispositions lie embedded in me in the form of such deserted nests. And it feels right to say that my works encompass such nests.
Translated by: V. Premkumar
Get copies of Seasons Of the Palm, Current Show, and Pyre here.

Subh-e-Azadi, An Anguished Evocation of the Pain of Partition

Faiz Ahmed Faiz is widely regarded as the greatest Urdu poet of the twentieth century and the iconic voice of a generation. He is best remembered for his revolutionary verses that decried tyranny and called for justice. In his poem, Subh-e-Azadi, he expressed the anguish and disappointment of Partition and the cost that the Indian subcontinent paid for freedom from the British rule.
Subh‐e Azadi
Yeh daagh daagh ujaalaa, yeh shab gazidaa seher
Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin
Yeh woh seher to nahin, jis ki aarzoo lekar
Chale the yaar ki mil jaayegi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil
Kahin to hogaa shab-e-sust mauj ka saahil
Kahin to jaa ke rukegaa safinaa-e-gham-e-dil
Jawaan lahu ki pur-asraar shahraahon se
Chale jo yaar to daaman pe kitne haath pade
Dayaar-e-husn ki besabr kwaabgaahon se
Pukaarti rahi baahein, badan bulaate rahe
Bahut aziz thi lekin rukh-e-seher ki lagan
Bahut qareen tha haseenaa-e-noor ka daaman
Subuk subuk thi tamanna, dabi dabi thi thakan
Suna hai, ho bhi chukaa hai firaaq-e-zulmat-o-noor
Suna hai, ho bhi chukaa hai wisaal-e-manzil-o-gaam
Badal chukaa hai bahut ehl-e-dard ka dastoor
Nishaat-e-wasl halaal, o azaab-e-hijr haraam
Jigar ki aag, nazar ki umang, dil ki jalan
Kisi pe chaaraa-e-hijraan ka kuch asar hi nahin
Kahaan se aayi nigaar-e-sabaa, kidhar ko gayi
Abhi charaag-e-sar-e-raah ko kuch khabar hi nahin
Abhi garaani-e-shab mein kami nahin aayi
Najaat-e-deedaa-o-dil ki ghadi nahin aayi
Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahin aayi
 —Faiz Ahmed Faiz
The Dawn of Freedom, August 1947
 This light, smeared and spotted, this night‐bitten dawn
This isn’t surely the dawn we waited for so eagerly
This isn’t surely the dawn with whose desire cradled in our hearts
We had set out, friends all, hoping
We should somewhere find the final destination
Of the stars in the forests of heaven
The slow‐rolling night must have a shore somewhere
The boat of the afflicted heart’s grieving will drop anchor somewhere
When, from the mysterious paths of youth’s hot blood
The young fellows moved out
Numerous were the hands that rose to clutch
the hems of their garments,
Open arms called, bodies entreated
From the impatient bedchambers of beauty—
But the yearning for the dawn’s face was too dear
The hem of the radiant beauty’s garment was very close
The load of desire wasn’t too heavy
Exhaustion lay somewhere on the margin
It’s said the darkness has been cleft from light already
It’s said the journeying feet have found union
with the destination
The protocols of those who held the pain in their
hearts have changed now
Joy of union—yes; agony of separation—forbidden!
The burning of the liver, the eyes’ eagerness, the heart’s grief
Remain unaffected by this cure for disunion’s pain;
From where did the beloved, the morning breeze come?
Where did it go?
The street‐lamp at the edge of the road has no notion yet
The weight of the night hasn’t lifted yet
The moment for the emancipation of the eyes
and the heart hasn’t come yet
Let’s go on, we haven’t reached the destination yet
—Translated by Baran Farooqui
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Demystifying Faiz Ahmed Faiz- 6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Poet

Faiz Ahmed Faiz is one of the greatest Urdu poets of the twentieth century. He is loved and remembered for his revolutionary verses, his delicate subtlety, and his soulful poems of love.
The Colours of My Heart, translated by Baran Farooqi, celebrates some of Faiz’s greatest works. It also includes an illuminating introduction to Faiz’s enchanting life and legacy.
Here are 6 little known things about the poet who continues to inspire us:
He studied philosophy and English literature in Lahore and finished an M.A. in Arabic.
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Naqsh-e-Fariyaadi (The supplicant’s portrait), his first collection of poems, was published in 1941. All his collections are small, and even they contain some unfinished poems.
He was even deprived of writing material during the period of his imprisonment. His poems were smuggled out of prison or sent out with his letters and circulated widely.
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The poem expresses disappointment on two levels: The Partition and the carnage that accompanied it.
Faiz was also active in the trade union movement. In 1951, he also became the vice president of the Trade Union Congress, the labour wing of the Communist Party of Pakistan.
Faiz marked this recognition as a humbling experience.
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So, which is your favourite Faiz poem?
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In Conversation with Krishna Baldev Vaid

We recently spoke to the author of None Other, the august 89-year old Krishna Baldev Vaid. He is well known for his books The Broken Mirror, Steps in Darkness and many more.
Below are a few questions we asked Vaid to know more about his writing process.
When you get an idea for a book, how does it form into a story? Please share your writing process with us.
It differs in details from piece to piece, from novel to novel, from play to play but essentially, it assumes the urgency and intensity of an obsession that elevates me to a level of receptivity, that is extraordinary if not abnormal, to intuitions, perceptions, choices of words and phrases and puns and euphonious effects, in short a style suitable to the occasion. The emphasis is never on story as such. My stories, both short and long, are never mere stories; my novels and plays do not aim at telling intricate and interesting and eventful stories. They do not require a well-designed plot. They create an atmosphere, an alternative reality, if you will, a universe of words and sounds and suggestions and characters that are both familiar and strange, normal as well as abnormal, mundane and magical, real and unreal, just as in dreams and nightmares.
Do you have any writing rituals that you follow?
I am afraid I do not have any writing rituals except perhaps a room of my own, a closed door, a wall in front of me, a space to pace up and down, silence, sometimes low and slow classical instrumental, preferably sarod, music. I tend to make fun of writing rituals in my novels and stories such as ”Bimal Urf Jayein To Jayein Kahan” (”Bimal in Bog” in English) and ”Doosra Na Koi” (”None Other” in English).
When I was young, I had a somewhat romantic association with writing and artistic rituals. In old age, every elderly movement and gesture and activity automatically and inevitably becomes ritualistic. You don’t need any other rituals.
How do you pick books that you want to translate? Is there a reason behind that choice, such as for Alice in Wonderland?
I am not a professional and a prolific translator into English or Hindi. I think I have translated more of my own stuff in Hindi into English than other writers’—alive or dead. I tend to believe I would have been less of a self-translator into English if there had been an active band of good professional translators into English from Hindi. Perhaps, in that case, I would still have used my bilingualism for doing some selective translations of some modernistic Hindi fiction and poetry as love’s labour or out of a sense of duty; I don’t know.
Two of my dear friends, Nirmal Verma and Srikant Varma, asked me to translate two of their novels, ”Ve Din” (Nirmal) and ”Doosri Baar” (Srikant), and I complied because I liked their work, but I did not ‘pick’ them. In the case of ”Alice in Wonderland”, I chose it for translation into Hindi because of its status as a classic, not only as a children’s book but for ‘children’ of all ages and, I believe, nationalities. I used to read it to my three little girls as they were growing up. Besides, the only great version available in Hindi was a great adaptation by a great Hindi poet, Shamsher Bahadur Singh—”Alice Ascharya Lok Mein.” I wanted to do a translation of the complete original text. The third major translation of an important book-long Hindi poem that I did was ”Andhere Mein” (”In The Dark”) by Muktibodh. I selected it because of my admiration for it as a modern classic by a great Hindi poet who died in splendid neglect except as a cult poet for the discerning younger Hindi poets, without a published collection of his own poetry.
I chose two plays of Samuel Beckett—”Waiting for Godot” and ”Endgame”—in 1968, before he became a noble laureate, because Beckett was my favourite modern writer. I wrote to him for permission while I was a visiting professor in English at Brandeis university. He wrote back a brief but gracious post-card from Paris after a couple of months, granting me permission even though he assumed I’d do my translation from his own English version of those plays written originally by him in French. I wrote back thanking him and mentioning that his assumption was correct even though I assured him that even though my French was inadequate, I’d also take into account his French original of the plays.
In addition to these three Hindi books, I also translated some Hindi poems and stories of some important Hindi writers, only one of whom—Ashok Vajpeyi—is alive: Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Srikant Varma, Muktibodh, Upendranath Ashk, Hari Shankar Parsai, Ashok Vajpeyi. All these have been published in English magazines but not collected in a book.
The only other notable translation into Hindi that I have done was commissioned by the French embassy in Delhi—it was Racine’s ”Phaedra”. I told them my Hindi translation would be from a standard English version of the original French and that I’d consult the original French with the help of my inadequate French. My Hindi version was published by Rajkamal Prakashan and was staged in Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, and Delhi under the direction of an important and renowned French director, M. Lavadaunt.
How do you decide which language to write in and which one to translate into? And why?
This decision was made by me rather early in my life during my final year of M.A. in English at Govt. College, Lahore when I was only nineteen years old and living under the menacing shadow of the partitioned independence of India into two countries, India and Pakistan. My heart was set on being a creative writer, a fictionist. I already knew that I would have to do something else for earning a living if I wanted to write on my own terms without making any compromise with anybody. I did not want to write in English, even though I was fairly good in it and knew that I’d get better, because I didn’t consider it as an Indian language and did not dream in it. I didn’t want to choose Punjabi as my medium of creative expression, even though it was my mother tongue, because I didn’t consider it rich enough. The choice was between Urdu, which I was also good at thanks to my proficiency in Persian, and Hindi which I had almost entirely taught myself thanks to the similarity of its and Urdu’s grammar and syntax. With more of Hindi reading and the help of a good dictionary and with an openness to Urdu and Persian for the enrichment of my vocabulary, I could forge a style of my own that might even be better than standard stultified Hindi, or Urdu for that matter. I soon was able to achieve a style of my own free from the stiffness of both standard Hindi and Urdu and also the simplistic hotch-potch of the so-called Hindustani.
English is the only language I can translate my own Hindi books into; my own kind of Hindi is the only language that I can translate any English book into. Since I translate only what I like and want to and since I do not do it for my living, I do not do much translation. And now I am approaching the end and the final goodbye to all this.
Does the translation process differ when you are translating a book by an author other than yourself?
Yes, it does. If the other author is alive, you can refer your questions and problems and enigmas to him/her if he/she is easily accessible. If the author is dead or distant, metaphorically or really, you may either use your own discretion or consult an expert in that language or on that author.
If it is your own stuff that you are rendering into another language that you know well, you have only to refer to yourself for all questions and problems and enigmas and uncertainties. So in one sense you are free and self-sufficient but in another sense you are as lonely as you were when you were writing your original book. Of course, if in the course of self-translating if a new flash comes to you, you may as well take advantage of it without any compunction. You may end up adding to and subtracting from your original book. This addition and subtraction may help or harm the book but you are greater liberty in this case. Some writer friends of mine feel absolutely free to change their original books while translating them. Qurratullain Haider, an Urdu writer-friend who is no more was one such novelist of great merit. I did not read her own free self-translations into English but I did read several of her Urdu novels and was aleays charmed and impressed.
In my own case, when I was doing my own novel, ”Bimal Urf Jaayein To Jaayein Kahan”, into ”Bimal in Bog” for my friend P. Lal’s publishing outfit, Writers Workshop, I gave myself the freedom to welcome new ideas and flashes and linguistic arrangements and puns, etc., so that I had no objection when he changed ‘Translated by the author’ to ‘Transcreated by the author’. Even otherwise it seems to me now that all good translations are, to varying degrees, transcreations.
Are the themes of your writings related to your life experiences?
Perhaps, what you really meant to ask was: Are your novels and stories and plays autobiographical? But let me first answer your question as you phrased or framed it. The themes of one’s writings are always related to one’s life experiences. Even one’s entirely imagined themes are related in some way or other to one’s life experiences because one’s imagination is also shaped and determined by one’s own life experiences. Besides, all human experiences have an element of underlying universality that is a unifying factor which overrides apparent diversity. At the same time, every autobiographical detail undergoes an alchemical transformation in art. The tree or the flower you see with your eyes in real life is never the same as the one you describe or paint or sculpt or sing in your novel or paint in your picture or sculpt in your sculpture or sing in your music. The same is true of any feeling or emotion or action or happening, come to think of it. Even the most autobiographical detail undergoes a change through the alchemy of imaginative and creative writing.

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