Musafir Cafe: Divya Prakash Dubey

Image result for musafir cafe


There is a type of female stock character, often used in cinema, referred to as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Free-spirited, eccentric and often self-destructive, this character exists to teach life lessons to the main character, often a brooding, soulful male protagonist. In Musafir Café, Divya Prakash Dubey uses, not one but two such characters. The two females sweep in one after the other and deliver the “hero” to his dreamy aspiration—leaving his nine to five job in the city to set up a “travellers café” in the hills.

Dubey borrows the names of characters from the highly popular 60’s novel, Gunahon ka Devta. He retains the basic plot while modernizing the story to reflect current times. Unlike the submissive and tragic heroine of the older novel, the women in Dubey’s story have careers and are independent. Also, in tune with today’s urban milieu, men and women seek marriage partners online and premarital relationships are commonplace. The author, however, creates an unrealistically emancipated world where single mothers and live-in relationships come without any practical problems or social constraints. The modern twist has a farcical end with the male protagonist Chander living in harmony with the two women he loves running a free hotel for travelers in Mussorie.

The airy and periphrastic storytelling that lends well to sentimental videos that Dubey creates for YouTube becomes tedious in a book. The characters in Musafir Cafe, too, remain silhouettes throughout the novel as the author fails to dive into their inner thoughts and feelings.

Narrative drive is the quality in writing that keeps the reader riveted. While dispensing measured information about the character and plot plays an important role for interesting storytelling, any forced attempt to create irony or suspense by withholding information that the protagonist already knows from readers leads to loss in the narrative drive. In Musafir café the fact that Chander knows that he has a son is concealed from the reader. This feels unnatural and more like a ploy to dupe the reader.

The Musafir Café feels like a forgettable “remixed “song—a vintage track set on new music while cashing on popular nostalgia.

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Scene 75 by Rahi Masoom Raza

download (1)On one of the pages of Rahi Masoom Raza’s novel, Scene 75, Amjad Ali, the protagonist of the novel, walks out in a huff from a Sindhi businessman’s home.  The Sindhi has bluntly refused to rent out a flat to Amjad because Amjad is both a Muslim and a film writer. Outside, the narrator tells us, night has fallen. There is a long que of subsidized-kerosene-buyers at the baniya’s shop. A poster of the film Shor is stuck against a wall. Next to it is a picture of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Chemboee ki gali me raat tahal rahi thi. Samudra ki taraf se aani wali hava thandi thi. Baniye ki dukaan me mitti ka tel lene walo ki bheed thi. Saamne vali deewar par Manoj Kumar ki film Shor ka poster laga hua tha. Aur us poster se sata hua shrimati Indira Gandhi ki tasveer vala bada poster tha. Indira ji muskura rahi thi Aur Bambai Congress Committee janta ko Chowpati aakar pradhanmantri ka bhashan suunne ki daawat de rahi thi.

The reference to films and politics, although innocuous, bring out an unmistakable irony in the paragraph. Shor was an extremely successful Hindi film released in 1972.  It had several social messages such Hindu-Muslim harmony, safe working conditions for mill-workers and respect for women, presented in the typical dramatic style of the decade. The idealism in the film contradicts social reality. The contradiction seems even starker if one considers the public’s extreme fascination for films during that time. The image of Indira Gandhi and the crowd waiting for kerosene exposes another social fault line. The Garibi Hatao (abolish poverty) slogan of 1971 and Gandhi’s nationalist economic policy had little effect on poverty and the supply of essential items remained scarce. This paragraph exemplifies the mood of the novel. The narrator’s commentaries on subjects surrounding the main event are almost allegorical in nature and give a social and political dimension to the novel.

Rahi Masoom Raza, was a noted author, lyricist and Hindi film dialogue writer. In this novel, the Bombay city especially its film industry, is a backdrop to the insincerity, depravity and deception in society. Raza begins the story with Amjad Ali and three other men who share a single room in a guest house while they search for work in the city. Soon, however, many more characters and their stories get intertwined with the lives of these men. There are no ideal wives, good husbands or model children here; the men are lecherous and the women manipulative. The middle class is film obsessed and sexually frustrated. Everyone finds escape in clandestine extra marital or pre-marital relationships. Familial propriety, class rules and religious biases do not hold ground when it comes to sex. Mothers and daughters have the same lover; women seek other women; and mistresses use servants for sexual favours. The frankness and pessimism which pervades this novel is reminiscent of the great Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto’s naturalistic style.

Naturalism as a genre is more of a philosophical position rather than a literary device which studies human lives objectively and as governed by baser instincts and passions. While Scene 75’s portrayal of the middle-class could qualify it as a realist novel, its focus on human vice and misery tilts it towards naturalism. Raza does not unravel the chaotic web of self-centredness and hypocrisy or offer any neat conclusions even at the end of the novel. The protagonist dies but the city and its hectic pace do not stop. People trudge on: indifferent and purposeless.

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Masala Chai by Divya Prakash Dubey


In a Ted talk titled Hindi is Cool Yaar, in Bangalore earlier this year, the author of the short-story collection Masala Chai, Divya Prakash Dubey, excitedly pointed out the market potential of Hindi books. “Out of the 13 crore newspapers published in India, 6.5 crore are in Hindi. This puts the market share for Hindi publications at a phenomenal 50%,” Dubey said.  Evidently, the author, an MBA graduate of Pune’s Symbiosis Institute of Management and currently employed as marketing manager in a telecom company, views writing through a business lens. An article on, a website about entrepreneurship, states that Dubey’s ingenious marketing skills were the reason behind the success of his first book, a novel called Terms & Conditions Apply. In the article Dubey is quoted saying that he wrote the novel over 14 “weekend sessions” and that his target audience is the average reader who read Hindi comics as a child.

Supporting his choice of “simple conversational language” for the book, Dubey says that a common sentence in Hindi usually includes words from many different languages.  It is true that Hindi is a pluricentric language with several dialects and many versions. Its spoken form Hindustani incorporates a large amount of vocabulary from Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, Dravidian languages and Chagtai. Even in its literary form, Hindi is far more permeable and permissive than many other languages.  But this does not justify the large number of English words one finds written in Roman script throughout Masala Chai. Used indiscriminately both in dialogue and narration, these English words could be easily substituted with Hindi ones. One finds phrases such as “friends ke through” and “bhabhi ne bade hi normally kaha”. The words “friends”, “through” and “normally” written in Roman script do not enhance readability in any way. It in fact makes the Hindi in Masala Chai impoverished and graceless.

Throughout literature, writers have used slang and profanities with great effect to reinforce the setting, infuse a feeling of reality and add vigour to the story. Colloquial words and phrases reveal important details about the character’s background and life. Yet when used excessively, colloquialism can make the writing awkward and trivialize the plot. The incessant use of colloquial words in Masala Chai such as the oft repeated banda-bandi for boy and girl is jarring.  The author also uses unnecessary euphemisms for sex.  While one might forgive a phrase like “main tumhe feel karna chahta/chahti hoon” because it occurs in dialogue, the narrator saying “usne yamini ke saath neend me hi romance karne ki koshish ki. Yamini ko waise bhi subah wala romance pasand tha,” is unpardonable.  A straightforward reference to sex would have made the writing sharper and more refined.

The stories in Dubey’s Masala Chai are further marred by long and avoidable expositions. The needless philosophy is presented in badly constructed and meaningless phrases such as “chup chaap kiye jaane vale lecture se canteen ka shor hi kabhi kam to kabhi jyada rahat deta rahta hai”; “gusse me shayad kabhi ansoo na nikalte ho lekin bahut gusse me aksar ansoo nikal aate hai”; and the pretentious “Gaurav balcony par aakar agla din dhoondhne laga” (the reader is subject to this phrase twice in the story)The book also has spelling errors and typos. Words such as clean-shaved and caste (written in English) have been misspelled as cleen-shaved and cast. This lack of attention both at the level of writing and publishing is disappointing.

The stories in the book try to candidly portray the gender relations of today’s fickle digital generation, but they turn out to be rather one-dimensional. Most of them revolve around sexual discovery and characters seem preoccupied with finding romantic success. I also noticed a subtle sexism in Dubey’s stories. The female characters are not sketched out well. Referred to as bandi, the women in the stories are portrayed as mysterious and frivolous creatures who serve as the protagonist’s romantic interest. It makes one wonder if this male orientation is a reflection of the author’s own sensibilities or if he is simply catering to the taste of his male readership.

New Hindi writers are aspiring to achieve the phenomenal commercial success that English popular fiction has witnessed in India in the last decade. This has led to an increased emphasis on marketing and promotion and a quick casual approach to writing and editing. Hindi books may be selling more copies, but the lack of care on the basic aesthetics of writing does not make Hindi “cool”.

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In conversation with Nikhil Sachan, Author of Namak Swadanusar and Zindagi Aais Pais

Nikhil-SachanNikhil Sachan is a young Hindi writer and a business consultant based in Gurgaon. His  first book, a collection of stories, Namak Swadanusar received much acclaim. 
It was included in BBC Hindi’s list of “remarkable Hindi books” of 2013. While most of his contemporaries write stories centered around college romance, room-mates and career choices, in Namak Swadanusar, Sachan explores the violence, both real and psychological, that arises from the inherent inequity in society: between child and adult, woman and man and rich and poor.  Born in Kanpur, Sachan studied engineering at IIT BHU (Benaras Hindu University) and completed his MBA from IIM Khozikode. In this interview he talks about the process of writing, his interest in theatre and cinema and what he feels about commercial fiction.

19-07-2015, Gurgaon

KM: The protagonists in your stories are the vulnerable and the voiceless: children, poor women, a background actor, a sex worker, etc. The stories portray rather starkly and matter-of-factly the intolerance, inequity and exploitation in society and are somewhat dark and disturbing. Where do these stories come from?

NS: So, I would say that whenever I start a story I do not finish it in a short time. When I pick up an idea, I live with it for a couple of months. First of all, the idea has to be a hard-hitting one and I need to feel strongly about it to be whole-heartedly involved. I really cannot say why all the stories in my first collection are dark and disturbing because the second book has many happy stories. I can say my stories are of two kinds. The ones about kids are mostly happy and the ones about adults are generally not. I loved my childhood. Maybe I do not enjoy being an adult myself. It can get stressful and depressing. So if you want to trace it, I can say it comes from a longing to be a child again. Again, coming back to the process of writing. When I am fascinated by the idea, I keep thinking about whatever I am doing. I make notes on my mobile. I write the drafts and pointers and leave it for a while and then pick it up again. Writing is a meditative process for me. Research is also very important. For example, Tehzeeb, was a story based on the Afghani custom of Bachaposhi, according to which parents who do not have sons dress up one of their daughters as a boy. I was fascinated by the idea and wanted to use it for my story. I researched a great deal for it and read several articles and watched many documentaries. Unfortunately my publisher thought nine stories was enough and dropped this one from the final list. I did not insist and hence this story is not a part of the collection. The story Mugaaltey is about a prostitute. I can probably link it to the fact that I had been reading Manto (the famous Urdu writer) a lot those days. Manto has written many stories on prostitutes. I wrote Mugaaltey as a play. It was a 45 min monologue and was very well received. I then converted it into a story. During the rehearsals, the interactions with actors and their improvisations helped me discover new perspectives. I thought there was scope (for improvement) so I rewrote it as a story. When I am interested in an idea, I keep working on it.  I can say the stories come from my involvement with the idea for a long period of time. Writing is all about rewriting.

KM: Three stories in the book are told from the child’s point of view. Through the child’s naïve eyes an entire new world opens up. A bias that an adult accepts as the norm can be explored and societal issues can be viewed with a new perspective. Truth in a child’s voice has a poignancy the adult narrator will find difficult to achieve. For a writer how difficult or easy is it to use a child’s point of view? What are the challenges you face while writing a story from the child’s perspective?

NS: Basheer Badr says it beautifully, “Bacchon ke chote haaton ko chaand sitaren choone do chand kitaben padh ke yeh bhi hum jaise ho jayenge.”  Children have an innocent yet truly powerful insight and observation. Adults too see the same things but they are in denial (smiles). It is probably more advantageous for them to ignore reality.  A child protagonist helps me convey powerful messages, simply and easily. It is a little challenging to maintain the balance between playfulness and maturity that writing such stories demands. But, children are strong protagonists and I enjoy writing from a child’s point of view. I would love to write all my stories from a child’s point of view but I want to keep a little balance for my readers so that the reception is a bit wider.

KM: Good writing demands that slang and expletives be used judiciously and as naturally as possible and not to shock or provoke readers. The reference to sex/ bodily functions in its vulgar slang and the character’s use of cuss words in your stories add authenticity to the setting and characters. Were you at all inhibited about using these words? Did you ever worry that your parents may read the book or what would people you know think about it?

NS: I was not worried about it at all when I was writing my first collection Namak Swadanusar. It has many cuss words and bold themes. It is all real and authentic. Your protagonist and narrator will use the language according to their setting. At six or seven years of age I too used these words. Books regarded as contemporary classics such as the Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer Kashinath Singh’s book Kashi ka Assi (on which Chandra Prakash Trivedi, director of TV series Chanakya and movie Pinjar, has made a movie titled Mohalla Assi) also uses language which many may find objectionable. My book too, has offended a few people. I got a 14 page hate mail from a reader in Allahabad. He sent it to my publisher and mentioned his two cell numbers and two addresses, one of Allahabad and one of Mumbai. He said he wanted to receive confirmation on both addresses that his letter was delivered to me. He listed each and every word and phrase he found objectionable in the book. He was offended by the language and the subjects. He said that I had corrupted literature with such language and themes. While one can ignore reactions of a few readers, you cannot disregard the opinion of those close to you. Comments of those close to me made me wonder if these words and themes were necessary for me to write a good story. I tried to entirely do away with them in my new collection. My second book does not even have one cuss word. Zero! But, when it was published I was disappointed. I had restricted myself and it did not make me happy. My third book will be much bolder.  You have to be honest with your story.

KM: In Bajre ka Rotla the story begins with two boys defecating in the open fields as is common in rural India.

NS: Baajre ka Rotla was my first story that is why it has this rawness. Here again, I was captivated with the idea that there could be two kids who are totally oblivious to the political, social and economic upheavals of their surroundings and are only worried about how thick their poop is (chuckles). I was at that time reading a lot about communism and capitalism and everything found its way into the story.

KM: In your view, is the portrayal of Indian society and culture by Indian writers who write in English different from those who write in Hindi (I am talking about literary fiction here)? Do you think Indian literature in English is made exotic and dressed up to suit a western audience? Do you think there is any difference in terms of literary standards, style and content as well?

NS: Our culture has undergone enormous changes. We use English phrases to express our feelings. We find it odd to say Main tumse pyaar karta hoon. “I love you,” sounds better to our ears. The standard of Hindi literature is comparable to the best works in any other language in the world. But, it has lost connection with the people. It no longer speaks to them. Hindi has suffered from the academicians who patronise it. They have clear boundaries of what can be written and who can write it. They write for each other’s approval. They do not accept and appreciate anybody from outside their circle. For Hindi to flourish, the gap between books and readers has to be bridged. When I started writing, I too liked to use shudh and klisht Hindi. It was fun. But I wanted my book to be in a language people understand. I have used seven different dialects in my new book. I read a lot of Urdu and Punjabi literature. Incorporating different dialects has made my language richer. I have been able to appeal to a large readership without comprising on quality. Hindi is a language people want to hear. How can we say that Hindi literature is not received well in a country which loves Hindi movies? We are crazy about Hindi but do not read Hindi books. Why? Because they are not written in a language that we understand!

KM: Like Indian films, do you think we are now seeing books defined as commercial or art-house (literary fiction vs popular fiction)? What do you think of this trend?

NS: It is necessary to have cheap literature. You need to read a bad book to appreciate a great one. Bad books are beautiful in their own way. Take Hindi pulp fiction for example. Thrillers written by Ved Prakash Sharma and Surendra Mohan Pathak have sold millions of copies. These books are so gripping that you want to finish the entire book in one sitting. Isn’t that a brilliant thing? The reach of these books is awe inspiring. They are available through a great distribution system to all villages where Hindi is read. Even if we look at Chetan Bhagat’s books, whatever we may think of the quality, his books have initiated an entire generation into reading books. There was inertia about reading and writing in the young before he came along. Hopefully the young people who started with his books have gone on to read better books. In films, Kanti Shah’s C-grade movies are now considered cult for their extreme lack of aesthetics and hilariously bad plots and acting. I and my friends watch them if we want a few laughs. I believe there is nothing called a bad art form. Any expression is a form of joy. Ghazals are popular today not because of Ghalib or Mir or Faiz. That art form would have been forgotten had it not been for Gulzar, Basheer Badr, Sahir Ludhyanvi and the like. Many people cannot go to Ghalib directly. They need a stepping stone. Literary criticism and discussion has its own place. But, personally, I do not want to be judgmental about something from which a large number of people derive their enjoyment and happiness.

KM: What kind of books do you read? Which are your favourite books? What are you reading nowadays?

NS: I love to read Urdu poetry. I like Bashir Badr, Kaifi Azmi and Nida Fazli. I enjoy Manto’s stories. In Punjabi writers I like Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poems and am fond of Ismat Chugtai’s works. As far as world literature is concerned I like  Joseph Heller, Orhan Pahmuk, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass. Among Hindi writers, I think Shri Lal Shukla’s Raag Darbari is a classic one should definitely read. In contemporary Hindi writers Kishore Choudhary is one of my favourites. He lives in Rajasthan and works for All India Radio and has produced some amazing work. I am missing some important names because I tend to forget names. Yes, Uday Prakash is brilliant.

KM: Many universities offer Creative Writing programs. To what extent is it possible to teach someone to write better fiction or poetry? Do you think that young writers in Hindi will benefit from such a course if it were to be offered in Hindi by a university in India?

NS: Yes, it will definitely be of value to young writers. But, I feel you need to tap the mind of a child. When I was in 6th, my teacher gave us an assignment where we had to write a poem using the words he gave us. I wrote something. I don’t recall the poem now but I remember that my teacher really appreciated it. I enjoyed the exercise so much that I began to write more. It is important to encourage children to write and express themselves.

KM: In an article in you are describe as “not just another IIT-IIM author”. Do you think readers have begun to identify an IIT-IIM author with a certain kind of writing? Do you feel you have managed to break that stereotype?

NS: People from IIT IIM colleges are ambitious. They know how to convert their dreams into a final product. They have connections. It has led to a particular type of book in the market. That is where the stereotype comes from. But like all stereotypes it is not always true.

KM: You hold a regular office job as a business consultant and you have a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering. How do you balance your creative interests with your rather conventional and demanding professional life?

NS: I was confused for a long time. My school principal told me that I could be a good journalist and so I quit my Engineering coaching for a while. It greatly worried my father. But eventually I did complete my B.Tech. I moved to Mumbai after my Engineering to try my hand at film writing. My friends were already writing scripts for films there. Within a few months I realized that I needed certain comforts to write. I could not write under the pressure of trying to earn a living through writing. Once that was sorted, I got back to a mainstream job. I enjoy my current job. After a few wrong turns, working with some large consulting companies, I now work for a start-up. My first book was written over 7 to 8 years but my second book Zindagi Aais Pais took considerably less time. I was able to complete it only because of sheer discipline. I wrote for an hour every day.

KM: What other interests do you have apart from writing?

NS: I love cinema. All genres of cinema. Majid Majidi, the Iranian director is my favourite film maker. I like writing about Cinema. I used to write a blog called Filmistani. I enjoy theatre. Most of my stories start off as plays and I turn many of my stories into plays. My weekends are mostly spent watching plays at Siri Fort auditorium and when in Mumbai I definitely visit Prithvi theatre.

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Neela Scarf by Anu Singh Choudhary

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The Young and Pensive

Realist fiction brings human experiences and emotions into sharp focus, blurs out the accompanying din of everyday life, and transforms the quotidian into the extraordinary. In fact, short stories of this genre, because of the brevity they require, often hinge on the delicate balance between the voiced and the unspoken, the real and the theatrical, and the essential and superfluous.

Virginia Woolf, one of the foremost writers of the twentieth century reflected that it was necessary to eliminate “waste, deadness, superfluity” from fiction writing. Amit Chaudhuri, a prominent Indian English author and academic refers to Virginia Woolf’s remarks in an article in the Guardian and agrees that a realist writer needs to, “not present a complete picture of a life or an event, not dutifully serve up fleshed-out characters, not explain everything: to do business, aesthetically, with unfinishedness.” Some of Anu Singh Choudhary’s stories in Neela Scarf fail on this account. Otherwise perceptive and intense, they slow-down and stagnate when the narrator tries to capture every thought, list every emotion and explain every event.

Stories in the book are by the author’s own admission about real people, friends and relatives she has known closely. She peels away the smooth surfaces of urban middle class lives to reveal guilt and resentment. Stories such as Roommates, Cigarette ka Akhiri Kash, Please do not Disturb, Neela Scarf and Live-in, as their titles suggest, center around the tribulations of youth. These, however, are not frivolous stories. They are a serious account of the inner conflicts experienced by young people from small-towns in India as they make the difficult transition to adulthood and try to find their place, both literally and metaphorically, in big cities or in new romantic relationships or marriages. But, these stories, in spite of the sincerity with which they have been written, begin to flounder as they progress. We find the narrative descending into bathos with the narrator’s constant contemplation of the character’s feelings and thoughts.

Neela Scarf has some wonderful stories too. The astute portrayal of human failings in stories such as Sahyatri, Kuch yun Hona Uska and Mukti shows her exceptional understanding of our inner world. Here her characters are acutely aware of their flaws but often find it difficult to overcome them. The protagonist in Sahyatri is a rather fastidious young journalist who is unable to apologise to his co-passenger for his rudeness even after he finds out that she is physically disabled. In Kuch yun Hona Uska, a school teacher discovers an impudent student’s troubled family life and tries to be less judgmental about her students; and in Mukti a retired Air force officer comes to believe that taking care of his ailing wife is the only way he can atone his past transgressions. Three other stories (out of a total twelve in the book) are set in rural Bihar. Here, the idyllic rhythm of rural-life and a sprinkling Bhojpuri adds mellowness to an otherwise a stark portrayal of gender and caste inequity.

Anu Singh Choudhary is often clubbed with the new generation of commercially successful Hindi writers, many of them corporate executives, writing popular fiction, who are re-igniting the reader’s interest in Hindi literature with their contemporary themes and a keen focus on marketing. But, with a M.A in Hindi from Lady Shriram College and a diploma in Journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, Choudhary’s superior sensibilities are reflected in the literary quality of her book. It is heartening to know that Neela Scarf has also done well commercially. It created a record of sorts by becoming the highest ever Hindi book to be preordered online. The author’s new book Mamma ki Diary, probably one of few Hindi books on parenting, is also garnering acclaim.

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Geetanjali Shree: Short Stories

 geetanjali shreeWriters are essentially non-conformists. The very nature of their work requires them to constantly challenge the conventional world view and offer the reader original expressions, new metaphors, novel ideas and fresh perspectives. The convent educated daughter of a civil servant in India, Geetanjali Shree’s choice to write in Hindi itself can be considered unconventional. Uninhibited in her selection of subjects and with an unbridled energy in her writing, fifty-eight-year-old Shree is clearly one of the most audacious Hindi writers of today. Shree’s stories emphatically underscore her feminist ideology and her socio-political consciousness.

In the first story in this collection, Anugoonj, the narrator equals a housewife to a cripple and makes the unequivocal assertion that working outside home is as essential for a woman’s psychological well-being as it is for her social and financial freedom. The story begins rather benignly on a cool monsoon evening when the protagonist Munia having dozed off on the verandah awakens to find that she is being lovingly carried indoors in her husband’s arms. Munia’s days, starkly different from her amorous evenings, are dull and lonely. A bored Munia looks out from her backyard and sees other housewives gossiping, preparing pickles, and laying out papads and her uneasiness increases. The narrator says, “It is then that she became acutely aware of her impotence just as a cripple becomes conscious of his incapacity when he sees another cripple”. Shree’s writing because of its veracity and outspokenness provokes a discussion on a subject that seems to have lost relevance in the post feminist era where even the word housewife has found euphemistic replacements.

Many of Shree’s stories exist at the midpoint between fantasy and reality. In Peela Suraj, a woman official on a visit to Geneva to attend an international conference is strolling around the town one evening when she is unexpectedly caught in the rain. Old ghosts of her past, childhood fantasies entwined with real memories, come pouring down as she tries to wait-out the rain under a tree. Shree makes compelling social statements with surreal plots, unusual characters and extraordinary settings. March, Ma aur Sakura, one of Geetanjali Shree’s most famous story, is an extraordinary tale of emancipation involving the seventy-year-old Ma. Ma, the mother leaves home for the first time in her life to visit her son in Japan. Over the course of her stay, Ma gets increasingly fascinated by the Sakura blossoms and impatiently waits, along with the rest of Tokyo, for them to bloom. When finally they flower, she takes her son along to a park to celebrate the season. She is overtaken by ecstasy. Rooted in small but delightful details of her restricted daily activities at her son’s home in the foreign land, the writer gives the story a fantastic haiku like leap towards the end juxtaposing the image of the dull and timid Ma in the first part of the story with that of an enthusiastic and lively woman.

Ma imagines that in a previous life as a little girl she had lived in the hotel overlooking the park. She feels that the little girl is gazing down at her from a room high-up in the hotel and she takes a sip of Sake from her son’s hip flask and dances to Karaoke music under the Sakura trees. These evocative encounters between real and imagined in Shree’s writing are extremely gratifying for the reader as they grant them the heightened experiences they seek from fiction.

In an article in The Caravan magazine written in English and titled “From the Polyphonic World of Hindi Fiction” (/,1), Shree writes, “Fiction is always more than its content. It is structure, it is texture, it is cadence, it is language.” Shree’s work swells beyond visual depictions and the sounds and rhythms of her writing fill our senses. The stories become more vibrant when she uses phrases like, “Aag, dhu-dhu jalti”, “Batti, jhak se on hui”, “chai sud sud peena”, “barish pad pad girti”. In the introduction to this collection of stories writer Shashibhushan Dwivedi has described her choice of words as “anokhe chamkile shabd,” striking and radiant. The fakkadpan (playfulness) and ravani (vitality) in her work says Dwivedi differentiates her from other writers of her time.

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Pathar Alpathar by Upendra Nath Ashk

pathar alpatharFiction is often studied within a context of politics and culture. It is on the framework of history that literary theorists stack writers, delineating eras and establishing prominence of some authors above others. Dominant political ideologies influence publishing, readership and criticism, consequently leading to the tacit exclusion of contrarians from literary canons. Upendra Nath Ashk has been one such contentious figure in Hindi literature. A talented and prolific writer, he was singularly dismissed by critics throughout his life time.

To understand Ashk’s place in the world of Hindi literature, his biographer Daisy Rockwell has examined the literary history of Khadi Boli and the yardsticks used to define great literature. Khadi Boli Hindi or Modern Standard Hindi (MSH) written in Dev Nagari script was, “an overlay to a host of other language and literary traditions in the Hindi heartland,” writes Rockwell. A scantly spoken dialect in Western Uttar Pradesh, Hindi was propagated by reformers and nationalists to provide a common linguistic identity to the culturally fragmented population of Northern India. It became the main language of communication in North India only by the turn of the twentieth century. For formal and literary purposes, Hindi was purged of Persian influence and Sanskrit words were added to its lexicon during this time making it a symbol of national and cultural pride. Rockwell states, “The history of Hindi in the nineteenth and twentieth century is a history of movements, and that very fact has been used by historians of Hindi literature to characterise the literature as a movement in and of it self…The rhetoric of andolan and seva commutes to Hindu literary production a spectrum of values that range from that of revolutionary activity to social service.”

Ashk’s most known work was a five-part series Girti Divaren, a semi autobiographical novel that ignored conventional plot based format to create a unique episodic narrative. In spite of its originality and its detailed description of ordinary lives in the Punjab, the book was not well-received. The self absorbed middle-class protagonist and the record of his mundane and often purposeless minutiae of his life were seen as an aberration in the nationalist and reformist environment of the Hindi literary milieu of the early to middle twentieth century.

Critics and indeed the readers of that period had certain demands from fictional writing. Writing had to have purpose. The novels and poems of that time provided society with role models with their idealistic heroes, glorious historical stories and humanist messages. The language used was difficult and highly Sanskritised. The noted poets of that period such as Jaishankar Prasad, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Maithli Sharan Gupt wrote nationalist poetry in chaste Hindi. The abstruse language propped up the status of Hindi. From a mere dialect, it became a language of erudition. Premchand broke the façade of idealism with his realist novels in simpler Hindi that portrayed the underbelly of a fractious society. The activism of his novels and his almost ascetic personal life, however, remained well within the mainstream of Hindi literary traditions. Upendra Nath Ashk stood apart. Not only did the Girti Diwaren series with their meandering narrative seem to lack moral or social message but Ashk’s acrimonious attitude towards his peers also overshadowed his work. Ashk was outspoken about his differences with his colleagues. He recounted his arguments and made disparaging references to his critics in the introduction of most his novels. Some of his novels had unflattering characters modeled on his contemporaries and in fact a book offensively titled Manto Mera Dushman (Manto My Enemy) had a detailed account of his fall-out with the famous Urdu writer Manto.

Hindi readers from the Hindi heartland especially those belonging to my parent’s generation often mention Ashk’s Punjabi background with disdain. This fact is corroborated by Rockwell in the biography. Ashk remained a misfit in the genteel culture of Allahabad (his adopted home) throughout his life. Rockwell writes that his contemporaries believed that as a Punjabi he lacked the necessary literary background in Awadhi and Braj Bhasha. There were detracting comments also made about his accent and his proficiency in Hindi by critics.

I read Ashk’s novel Pathar Alpathar after reading about the controversies surrounding him and his work, especially the Girti Diwaren series. I was surprised to find Pathar Alpathar different from what I had assumed to be Ashk’s style. A rather short and plot based novel, Pathar Alpathar, is staunchly progressive. Rockwell, in the biography, points out that much of Ashk’s work had progressive messages but these were expressed in metaphorical ways which were often ahead of their time. Here, in Pathar Alpathar, it seems that Ashk has adopted the conventional route and given us a short hundred page novel with a well defined plot with clear social relevance.

While news-media and non-fiction often bring to light the problems of marginalised groups and communities, fiction dignifies and humanises the masses by bringing into spotlight individual lives from a blurry sea of statistical references. These imagined accounts of personal hopes and dreams also create larger narratives of political and social nature. In Pathar Alpathar, the author tells the story of a day in the life of a poor horseman Hassandin against a background of class conflicts in Kashmir. Hassandin hopes on that particular day to find a wealthy tourist who would use his horse to trek all the way to Alpathar Lake up above the valley of Gulmarg and earn a generous bakshish in addition to the standard fee. The day is a microcosm of Hassandin’s life. Ashk deftly uses the narrator’s voice to present Hassandin’s Point of view. The narrator, However, does not see from Hassandin’s eyes. He hovers along a little above Hassandin giving us two perspectives at once: Hassandin’s immediate monetary concerns and the larger issues such as the scramble for dwindling resources in Kashmir and the fragile communal balance. Thenarrator records Hassandin’s changing emotions incisively: the hope Hassandin feels when a rich tourist picks up his horse for trekking up the hills, the misgivings soon after as he is able to assess his miserliness, the sense of duty which carries on Hassandin in spite of his doubts about receiving any bakshish; and finally his resignation at the inevitable exploitation.

The more-fortunate wonder, often complacently, how the poor cope given their precarious existence. In Pathar Alpathar, it is Hassandin’s faith in god which gives him the resilience to endure life’s travesties. For Hassandin god remains a benevolent and paternal figure even when the outcomes are not favourable. God is not an abstract concept for Hassandin. He has a personal relationship with god and believes that god could be persuaded by imploring, appeasing or offering inducements.

Knowing about the condescension Ashk faced due to his Punjabi roots in the Hindi literary circles, I found it amusing to find that Khanna Sahab, the miserly tourist in the novel, is a Punjabi who speaks Hindi with a natural flair. Instead of the typical gregarious and bighearted Punjabi stereotype, Khanna Sahab is shown to be shrewd and petty. The character becomes more forceful because of its incongruity. Ashk skilfully inverts the stereotypical traits and makes a subtle statement about the prejudices in his real world. Ashk may have written Pathar Alpathar in a conventional format but it too contains flashes of his irreverent and ironic style. Published in 1950s the novel has been republished recently by Harper Hindi, Harper Collins’ Hindi imprint. An English translation by the well- known translator Jai Ratan, Sorrow of the Snows, is also available. I found the Hindi original delightful because of the starkness in the dialogues. The language used by Hassandin and Khanna Sahab clearly shows their contrasting milieus and conflicts arising from it. Ashk’s novelistic techniques in this regard are congruent to Mikhail Bakhtin’s literary theory on dialogism. Writing about Bakhtin’s theory in Ashk’s biography Daisy Rockwell says, “The novel thrives on the points of contact between languages and genres because it is only through the contact of two languages or two varieties of speech that differences in ways of talking about things become apparent.” The literary explanation aside, for the reader the different textures of Hindi in Pathar Alpathar, Hassandin’s pidgin Hindi sprinkled with Urdu words and Khanna Sahib primly spoken Khadi Boli give an immediacy and wholeness to the novel.

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