Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
IT has a sense of an ending right from the beginning. Unlike most novels, The Crow Eaters by Bapsi Sidhwa opens with a death. The great Fareedon Junglewalla is all set for dying and will reach another level of glory through this passage. He is Freddy for short, we are told, in a style at once easy and familiar, as if we are being introduced to a friend. Then he is described in bold brush-strokes as a “strikingly handsome, dulcet-voiced adventurer with so few scruples.”
A promising, even inviting beginning. However, in the very next instance we are told of his death at 65, a “majestic grey-haired patriarch” who enters the community’s calendar of great men and women, and is a name invoked in all ceremonies performed inPunjaband Sindh. His death is not only of a distinguished individual but indicative of the slow but steady decline of an entire community beautifully captured in The Crow Eaters.
The end and the beginning chase each other as the novel proceeds. With the glimpse of the end, we are told that Freddy was “prone to reminiscence and rhetoric” in his prosperous middle years but by this time we are ready to enter the narrative of days to come and days already in the past. The end of the first chapter tells us that by such a time, Freddy was “free to face the future”. A future we face in the novel and having done so, will not be able to forget easily.
It was soon after its first publication that I read The Crow Eaters, a bit of an oddity then, a Pakistani novel in English and thoroughly enjoyable to boot. Since then, many editions have replaced the modest and simple original one and Pakistani novels have become fashionable. Yet The Crow Eaters remains at the top of the list, unique and delightful. Going through it once again, this time in Urdu, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, I found it as engaging as ever. It was once impossible to imagine that this novel could exist in any other condition. But The Crow Eaters not only manages to survive transportation into another context through translation, but at the same time remains as readable as it originally was.
It is not only its language which sets The Crow Eaters apart but its entire approach. The author’s obvious affection for the community at the heart of the novel in no way prevents her from poking fun at its all too human foibles. The humour is irreverent but irresistible. The Pakistani novel, assuming that such a thing exists, is inclined to hold its head high among lofty and abstract ideals, being mindful of all possible Sacred Cows. But Junglewalla Sahib is a lovable old rogue and not a paragon of virtue. The full-blooded mother-in-law Jerbanoo, with her hilarious ritual of washing among the “dry-cleaning” Englishmen, is a scream. Her broken attempts at communication with London policemen are some of the funniest scenes in the novel. Some of that quirky humour is lost but it is wonderful how the novel’s great sense of fun comes across in the Urdu translation.
Humour saves The Crow Eaters from rhetoric and sentimentality, both common ailments found in the Urdu novel, and here it could learn a thing or two from Bapsi Sidhwa. This added value will certainly endear the novel to those who are approaching it for the first time and in a translated form. It is evident that Professor Memon has taken great pains over the translation and as is his method, tried to stay as close to the text as possible, even to the extent of being literal at times.
In her brief preface to the translation, Sidhwa says that she had the translation read out to her and fully endorses it. The approval was also echoed by Bano Qudsia, a very different sort of writer from Sidhwa. Yet Bano Qudsia manages to extract some elements of her particular brand of tassawuf from the novel, particularly in the character of Yazdi and his love-crazed majnoon-like actions. I could not help but wonder if Sidhwa tried to return the compliment by tracing out any degree of humour in Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh? I wish she could grant a leave of absence to Jerbanoo and ask her to take her cleansing ritual right in the midst of other straight-laced novels. What fun if Jerbanoo invited herself to a cup of tea in the coffeehouse at the centre of Intizar Husain’s Basti where his highbrow characters carry out their history-obsessed conversations!
With great aplomb and in a beautifully produced book, the veritable Junglewalla Sahib is among us again, without losing his Pickwickean gusto to chaste Urdu.
“Every act of translation is also an act of self-discovery”
— Muhammad Umar Memon
You have been translating and introducing fiction writers from the world over, ranging from Milan Kundera to Carlos Fuentes. What attracted you to The Crow Eaters?
I read The Crow Eaters sometime in the 1980s; it was absolutely hilarious. I even recommended it to some of my students who found it equally entertaining. Hilarity aside, I was particularly struck by its stark portrayal of the Parsi community — and by a Parsi no less. The Parsis came out warts and all, but never strayed too far from the author’s endearing love for them and their foibles. I still remember the scene of Soli’s funeral where the touching humanity of his otherwise improbably insufferable father overwhelms the reader. My one standing complaint about our writers is that they seldom write about our minorities.
Did the style and the language of this novel pose any particular problems for you as a translator? Was it more or less challenging than some of the other books you have translated?
Indeed quite a bit. It is one of the two novels I’ve found very challenging to translate. Bapsi was transporting peculiar South Asian humour to the language of the Brits. Rehabilitating it back into Urdu was quite daunting. But Bapsi liked it when she had a friend read it to her. And Najeeba Arif, who read the draft, thought it was my best translation. Only I know where I’ve stumbled and goofed. You see, languages have unassailable boundaries. You need the agility and daring of a trapeze artist to negotiate successfully between them. But there are times when you take a fall.
There was some controversy when the original novel appeared inPakistan. Are you anticipating any reaction on the Urdu translation?
Frankly, it is a non-literary question. Why drag a work of imaginative literature into politics or ethics? I’d rather people just read and enjoyed the novel. There are plenty of “causes” to cry oneself hoarse over.
Do you have plans for translating any of the other Bapsi Sidhwa novels, particularly Ice-Candy Man?
At the moment, no. Dr Anwaar Nasir, the publisher, and Bapsi had both asked me to, but I said I needed time to think about it. I would like to finish some other projects first.
I’m grateful to Bapsi that she personally asked me to translate this novel. Every act of translation is, inherently, also an act of self-discovery. In the process you come to know your potentiality as much as your limitation.
— Bapsi Sidhwa
Readers of Urdu will finally be able to catch up with The Crow Eaters, one of the finest novels to have come out ofPakistan. I remember that when it was first published there was some bewilderment and even some resentment and anger. What kind of reactions are you anticipating from the novel’s new readers?
Many thanks for your kind words about The Crow Eaters.
It seems so long ago, but yes, there was some adverse reaction to The Crow Eaters to begin with. It was not until the book got glowing reviews in London that the reviewers in Pakistan looked upon it more kindly. A lot of Parsis were offended and there was a bomb scare at the Intercontinental when its self-published version was launched inLahore. It was the first novel ever written about the Parsis, and the community was not accustomed to seeing themselves fictionalised or made fun of. They certainly accept and love the book now.
Quite frankly, I am nervous about the novel’s publication in Urdu. I have no idea how a very different class of readers — and many more people read Urdu than English — will receive the book. After all, language does define who reads what. The more orthodox might find a lot to be peeved about — but of course this is pure conjecture.
In the brief introduction to the translation, you said that you had it read out to you. How successful do you think it is in capturing the spirit of the original?
As my friend Tariq Kureshi was reading the pages Memon Sahib had sent to me, we would both burst into laughter quite often, and at times also look at each other in awe of the translator’s skill in conveying so marvellously the linguistic subtleties within the book. After all, we’re dealing with two entirely different idioms.
Memon Sahib kept complaining that it was a very difficult book to translate. It probably was, but he has done the writing justice and I’m sure people are going to admire and appreciate his language and skill enormously. I certainly do.
What next after The Crow Eaters? Do you anticipate that this will lead to your other novels being translated into Urdu, especially Ice-Candy Man with its portrayal of Lahore on the eve of Partition?
I certainly hope all my novels will be translated into Urdu. After all, they’re all based inLahore. Even in my mind, as I was writing, I was translating into English from Urdu and Punjabi. That came naturally to me, and I realised almost at once how closely language, character and content are linked.
Decades after the publication of The Crow Eaters, how do you view it? Are you fond of it or do you feel that you have moved on?
I am still delighted with The Crow Eaters. Often, I chance upon passages that still make me laugh out loud. I remember laughing a lot as I was writing the book and being in a very good humour, for the most part.
I don’t think I will ever move ahead of The Crow Eaters. It will stay in its proper place and subsequent writings will maintain theirs.
A translation of The Crow Eaters
Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon
287pp. Rs 795