THE latest addition to the prestigious international series of Penguin Modern Classics is the novel Girti Deewarain by Upendranath Ashk, translated from the Hindi and described on the back of the book as the work of “one of the titans of 20th-century Hindi literature”. Inclusion in such a series means that it will be widely read all over the world, including Pakistan. Whenever I see Girti Deewarain celebrated as a Hindi novel, I nearly miss a heartbeat. What a missed opportunity for Urdu wallahs who have failed to acknowledge and appreciate this superbly crafted and meticulously detailed, larger-than-life novel. Ashk was born in Jalandhar but it was in pre-Partition Lahore that he established himself as a short story writer a few years senior to his friends, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi, and to Saadat Hasan Manto who was to become his arch rival. It was on the suggestion of Premchand that he turned to Hindi as it was economically more viable a language to be writing in.
However when Ashk visited Pakistan in the twilight years of his life, he told me in an interview that he prepared his first draft in Urdu and this is how he first wrote the story of his life and his major novel in Urdu. But he could not find a publisher to meet his terms so the novel was published in Hindi and went on to become a widely read but controversial classic. The author revised his original Urdu version, brought it up to date and published it in 1983. This was when I first read it and immediately came under its trance. I have always wondered why this magnificent novel has been overlooked by readers and critics who complain about the paucity of good novels, but whichever language you read it in, Girti Deewarain will not fail to impress. It is as if an entire microcosm of old town lanes, teeming with people of all kinds suddenly comes alive.
There can be several kinds of walls and all of them are not likely to crumble into a heap of words. The name of the novel is intriguing and one wonders which walls the author is referring to. He explains in the introduction that there are “multiple walls of frustration surrounding every aspect of lower-middle-class life”. Without giving away the story, he goes on to say that “along with the thick walls, there are thin ones too; these hem in the mind of the hero and they fall, they push away the darkness in his mind, allowing the light of his awareness of reality to illuminate the recesses of his inner being. Because walls in the heart and mind break soundlessly and fall slowly, their rumbling is not heard.” Beautifully put, this could serve as the epithet to the entire novel.
The very first sentence of the novel strikes a definite chord and conveys the gritty, rough-hewn quality of the entire narrative: “Chetan was fed up at last. And so, one day, he set out quietly for Basti Guzan to catch a glimpse of his future wife”. The story moves with him as he covers the short distance with a rather grim determination but does not miss the small town people and the many things to see, including girls coming out of the school and bracing themselves for the ogling and leering crowd. Chetan finds another girl far more attractive than his intended who is rather plump and ordinary for his liking. He can convey his unhappiness to his mother but not to his strict and authoritarian father who is a drunkard to boot. Chetan learns to hide his true feelings as he allows himself to drift along the course his family had determined for him. He is an aspiring author who has to struggle to make some money from hack writing for newspapers and cheap publishers.
Chetan’s ambitions know no bounds and he dreams of writing a big novel even though he has limited talent, apparently. A notebook containing the working draft of his novel is literally swept into the gutter when he slips on a sewerage line while walking in the rain in a way which anybody would find humorous other than the protagonist himself.
Chetan’s world is meticulously recaptured through fine and seemingly trivial details which make the background come alive. A multitude of minor characters crowd the main narrative. Chetan’s inner world is not described and we do not get any inkling of what goes on inside his mind in the modern psychological sense. His inner feelings are conveyed through memories.
“Along with the thick walls, there are thin ones too; these hem in the mind of the hero and as they fall, he slowly becomes more successful at seeing and understanding life; as they fall, they push away the darkness in his mind, allowing the light of his awareness of reality to illuminate the recesses of his inner being. Because walls in the heart and mind break soundlessly and fall slowly, their rumbling is not heard.” — Excerpt from the book
While his own motives are not clear, he moonwalks from Jalandhar to poor localities in Lahore and Shimla, observing a wide array of people and incidents with camera-like precision. Is he a camera, like Christopher Isherwood of The Berlin Stories? Or a “mirror walking down the road”, literally shehar main ghoomta aina, a phrase which he used as the title for one of his subsequent volumes and attributed to the master French naturalist Stendhal who used it as his definition of the novel as a genre. Chetan and his world are the basis of the story but Chetan himself is a rather fluid and somewhat opaque centre. It is on a rather poignant note that the story reaches its climax.
Ashk writes with a clear hand and is served well by Daisy Rockwell as she recreates a compelling narrative. Anyone who is still hesitant and in a quandary to invest so much time in a thick volume would do well to begin with Rockwell’s riveting introduction. The author of an illuminating critical biography of Ashk, which I find very relevant to Urdu studies, and the translator of a previous volume of his short stories (also available in Penguin), she explains that it took her 20 years to translate it and she describes it as “one of those books that stay with you for decades and won’t let you go.”
In a remarkable statement she declares that the novel has “written” her life. She steers clear of making tall claims of universality for it, since “Falling Walls is a profoundly specific portrait of a time and a place that couldn’t be mistaken for any other”. She recounts that the novel is many things, “a cultural history, a literary picaresque, a Partition novel (in its reconstruction of an undivided Punjabi past), a bildungsroman and a work of satire”. Her fascination with the novel is grounded in her own experience and her relationship with it: “what it has been for me, in particular, is a guide to finding one’s artistic voice and medium”. This is very close to the spirit of the original as it is first of all, the story of Ashk trying to find his own artistic voice and a relationship with his experience. It is to his credit that he makes a story out of his artistic quest, a story which many people can relate to, even those who do not share his background. Rockwell goes on to discuss the Proustian element, Ashk’s quarrelsome relationship with his critics and links with Progressive modernism. My one complaint is that although she explains that Falling Walls is a standalone novel, the first part of a sequence which includes seven novels, all with Chetan as their protagonist and continuing his wanderings in the same cities as in this novel, she makes no effort to describe the rest of the sequence, which would have served readers well — such as myself — who are not likely to read the rest of the books. Not unless Rockwell undertakes the translation of the other novels.
The translator’s preface is complemented by the author’s introduction in which he recounts his initial inspiration and how the novel originated in a casual conversation with Fayyaz Mahmood at the Maktaba-i-Urdu, Lahore. The story would have been worthwhile in itself but Ashk goes on to censure the different kinds of critics he has met and decry the influence of Ratan Nath Sarshar or Romain Rolland. Out of favour with critics and readers today, Rolland’s multivolume Jean-Christophe used to be popular, and Nirmal Verma, the most sophisticated among Hindi writers has written memorably of the influence it had on him when he read it as a young man. It is interesting to note that Ashk repeated the same story in the specially written introduction to the Urdu edition but left out the tirade against his critics. Rockwell has done well to retain it here as it brings out the person who wrote the novel, an unforgettable character in his story who breaks the frame to come out of it, and like the Ancient Mariner, compels you to enter another story.
The reviewer is a writer and translator. He teaches liberal arts and Urdu and is the editor of the literary journal Duniyazaad.
By Upendranath Ashk
Translated by Daisy Rockwell
Penguin Books, India