Monday, 30th October 2017

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WORDS FOR SUMMER - Does one write 'ice lolly' for an 'orange bar'?

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 3.05.13

Visiting Lucknow last week, I stayed in a neighbourhood called Mahanagar. In the 1950s and 1960s, when this residential extension to the colonial city was built, the name must have seemed appropriate. Lucknow, then, was much more important than other provincial capitals like Bangalore or Hyderabad or Jaipur. It wasn’t an Indian metropolis — that category was reserved for the big four: Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras — but as the capital of India’s largest state, Lucknow was at the heart of republican politics and it wasn’t ridiculous to think that it was a metropolis in the making, a Mahanagar.

Now the locality’s name is either a taunt or the forlorn memory of an aspiration. For nearly forty years, Lucknow has been the post-colonial town-planner’s cautionary tale. The bits of it that aren’t slum-like and ruined are garish and tawdry. Its built heritage, its urban fabric has decayed continuously under every political regime with one exception, the last period of the Bahujan Samaj Party rule, when Mayavati, besides building her pharaonic parks, revived colonial Lucknow’s beating heart, Hazrat Ganj, and raised hope of a more general urban revival. But Uttar Pradesh’s electorate, nostalgic for the freedoms of lumpen anarchy, returned the Red Caps to power and normal dysfunction resumed.

If the signboards in Mahanagar are a reliable guide, the organized private sector has passed Lucknow by. All of Lucknow seems to want government jobs, clerical or officer class. The city’s growth industry is the exam-coaching business. Brilliant, Rau and Lingwal advertise on billboards their guaranteed methods, their grateful alumni and their ace teachers. Thus Shashank Sir teaches Maths and Reasoning, Noor Alam Sir teaches English, Md Shadab Sir teaches Geograohy (some inexpert typist’s pinkie missed ‘p’ and hit the adjacent ‘o’), Balram Pandey Sir teaches History while the doubly distinguished Dr Manoj Tripathi Sir teaches both Science and Technology.

Mahanagar was built as a residential neighbourhood, so these billboards sit on domestic boundary walls. Behind these signs crouch homes converted into coaching schools via a small investment in plastic chairs, tubelights and blackboards. Each school has a specialization: Lingwal Classes is expert in English and Interviews; Dwivedi Tutorials focus on younger clients, schoolchildren approaching their Class X ‘boards’ while other coaches smooth the student’s way through the SSC, Bank P.O., Clerk and CSAT exams.

In front of these signs, along Mahanagar’s little roads, the energy invested in cramming for this alphabet soup of competitive examinations, has done nothing to arrest entropy. The roads are heaped high with malba, the detritus of homes long built or razed. In between these mounds, some old enough to count as landscape, sit the heralds of the north Indian summer: the daabwala, the kakriwala and the pannawala.

I carefully avoid all of them and give my custom to a Kwality-Walls ice-cream cart. Sucking on the orange bar (untouched by human hand and packed in a sealed wrapper), I marvel at the robustness of provincial constitutions which allow Lakhnavis to drink streetside panna and live.

Like all middle-aged desis, I am condescending to myself. Forty years ago in Delhi, before gentrifying middle-age caught up with me, I drank panna and ate kakris at roadside stalls without thinking twice. Now the pannawala and the kakriwala merely supply food for thought. And the thought is this: when Indians write in English, should they translate kakriwala into standard received English so it makes sense to a New Zealander or English-reading Swede or Malayali, or should they, for the sake of being true to their bilingual selves, just use kakri and panna and leave the reader to figure things out using context or through some gloss on the term cleverly slipped into the narrative?

The case for translation is self-evident. When English novels by Indian writers are translated into Arabic or Hebrew, I’m certain that panna is explained as a sweet and sour raw mango crush or the word appears in a glossary at the end of the story. Glossaries are a bad idea because they qualify fiction’s wonderful claim to making self-explanatory sense to everyone. The armed settler in Hebron and the Hamas militant in Gaza have a right as readers to have panna explained to them within the narrative; they shouldn’t have to google the word or guess at it.

I don’t think any Indian writer can or does object to panna being denatured in the course of translation into another language. But that isn’t the point; the question is should he, while rendering his world into English, do the denaturing himself? Should idlis become rice dumplings and dosas become savoury crepes? Should a kakri become the cucumber’s scrawny desi cousin? While this will remain a matter of individual writerly judgment, my answer would be ‘no’.

One reason is simply the example of others. I don’t think Jewish American writers worry about anglophone Indians not understanding bar mitzvah or Kaddish when they use them, unglossed, in a story. In the same spirit, we should be willing to use Vishnusahasranama without translating it into ‘the thousand names of Vishnu’. Not to be competitively obscure, but because in our bilingual lives and our desi heads, we hear it and think of it as Vishnusahasranama. It sounds right to me and it would be wrong to be untrue to my ear in order to be clear to strangers.

For the Indian writer in English, a useful rule of thumb might be ‘will this sound right to someone who speaks my dialect of English?’ Perhaps it comes down to numbers; if you think there is a critical mass of speakers who use your dialect, you’re more likely to have the confidence, the swagger, to use its vernacular terms in an English narrative. I can’t imagine a contemporary Indian writer translating ‘masala’, but I imagine leaving it untranslated would have been harder to do a hundred years ago.

For Indian writers, the development of an indigenous publishing industry in English over the last twenty-five years is hugely important because it both expands and consolidates a primary desi readership (including editors who are, after all, merely a special class of readers) that normalizes usage which, to English or to American eyes, no matter how discerning, might have seemed mannered or exotic.

There are choices to be made even when the words aren’t borrowed from Indian languages. I’ve just written about eating an orange bar; if I were writing this for a British newspaper, would ‘ice lolly’ have been better? And while Mahanagar is certainly a neighbourhood, in the context of Indian usage and urbanization, ‘residential colony’ is, in many contexts, a better description of Mahanagar than neighbourhood could ever be. I sometimes step around ‘colony’ and find a synonym for it because it seems like a babu-ism; this is almost certainly a mistake because historically particular terms convey experience in a way that generic terms do not.

Walking past the Mahanagar house that is now the coaching institute where Noor Alam Sir teaches English, drawing hard at my cold orange bar as it melts in the glare of the afternoon sun, I am more than ever convinced that the point of writing isn’t to make things familiar; it is to make them strange.