FICTION: A PROMISE GONE SOUR

August 25, 2019

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Can you really like the translation of a book you did not like when you first read the original? This is the question I was confronted with as I finished reading A Promised Land, translated by Daisy Rockwell. It is yet another marvellous rendering in her series of brilliant translations from Urdu and Hindi, which includes works by Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni and Krishna Sobti. The work she has chosen this time is Khadija Mastur’s posthumous novel Zameen and it has made me sit up and take notice of a book conveniently forgotten by most readers and critics.

As in Mastur’s literal career, A Promised Land follows on the heels of Rockwell’s superb translation of Aangan, still rock solid in its reputation as the masterwork of its author. Mastur was an accomplished writer of short stories and Aangan had raised the bar high. In his comment quoted on the book’s inside cover, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi describes Aangan as “one of the iconic modern Urdu novels.” Zameen could hardly claim such a distinction.

I remember reading Zameen when it was first published, a few years after the death of its author. It did cover new ground and was biting in its political view, but somehow it lacked the finesse, the elegance and the brooding sadness of Aangan. The comparison between the two books was unfavourable, but to give Zameen its due, it had a nervous energy of its own. But, did the author complete it or was this supposed to be a working draft? The novel did seem hurried over, as if some parts of it were meant to be developed further or marked for revision by the author. I recall a conversation with Hajra Masroor — Mastur’s sister and a master of the short story in her own right — where she vehemently denied that Zameen was unfinished or in a draft stage. She insisted that the book was exactly as its author had intended it to be. In spite of this, over the years, the book has attracted far less attention than its predecessor. I wonder if its fortune will change and, with this new translation, it will find more readers. As far as I can say about myself, it caught me by surprise and I read it with a new enthusiasm.

Daisy Rockwell’s superb translation of Khadija Mastur’s posthumous and oft-neglected novel makes it even more compelling

The novel opens with the screams of a half-crazed man desperately searching for his daughter, and we note every scream piercing Sajidah’s heart. This is post-Partition and we are in the Walton Camp for refugees in Lahore. Sajidah is one of the several thousands of hungry and destitute women and men seeking a sanctuary, living in makeshift tents and collecting food from the daily rations brought for them by generous volunteers. She is meanwhile silently searching for a young man from her childhood days, Sallu, whose name is etched on her heart. She mourns the death of her mother and watches her father resort to lying in order to lay claim to bigger financial status in the promised land. However, before any of his schemes can materialise, her father dies and Sajidah has no recourse but to accept going with Nazim, who works in the rehabilitation office and whom she had earlier seen chatting with her father as he made his claims. On the persuasion of Nazim’s sister Saleema, she starts living in a rather strange household without appearing to be fully settled. Another young girl, Taji, brought here out of sympathy, begins to function as a servant to the family and ultimately as a sexual object abused by Kazim, the young man who will soon achieve his goal of becoming a successful bureaucrat.

Taji is very clearly delineated and leaves a strong impression long after the book is finished. The ruthless Kazim wants to turn Sajidah into another toy for himself, but she accepts the hand of Nazim in marriage without really loving him. What she does feel towards him, in fact, is pity.

Nazim lands in prison for his political beliefs and Sallu, the young man from her dreams, makes an appearance as a weak-willed and opportunistic person seeking favours from the commissioner Kazim has become.

It is towards the end that you get a sense of a change in Sajidah’s feelings as she begins to think of Nazim with something approaching a liking, if not love. Like Aaliya in Aangan, Sajidah accepts her position in life and brings the book to a conclusion, even though she does not appear to be as well-conceived a character as Aaliya. While Aaliya had missed out on finding love, Sajidah finds solace and attains some sort of fulfilment. But although she is the centre of the tale, she is less convincing in herself, at times as sketchy as some of the other characters, drifting through one event after another. In spite of some bumpy patches, though, a swift flow of narrative is one of the main features of the book. More than the individual characters, however, it is the forces of greed and corruption which are shown as taking over the “promised” land and this theme gives a compelling force to the novel.

Rockwell is recognised as one of the leading translators of South Asian fiction with a remarkable capacity to recreate and transform the spirit of the original in highly readable English. As one can expect, this novel is highly successful as a translation and, in her deft hands, becomes easily accessible to a diverse groups of readers. Rockwell addresses the issue of readers from diverse locations requiring different perspectives in her ‘Translator’s Note’ at the beginning. There are only minor points where one may differ from her. For instance, she writes, “they say that after 12 years even a horse’s luck will turn. And I am human after all.” Clearly, the correct expression should have utilised the word ghoora, meaning ‘rubbish’, instead of reading it as ‘horse’. Checking the original, I found the 1995 edition of the book published from Lahore making the same mistake by printing ghorra [horse] instead of the word ghoora. So the fault stems from the original. In spite of the incorrect word, the essence of the sentence is still there.

Unlike her previous practice, especially in The Women’s Courtyard, Rockwell has not written a critical introduction and one misses her interpretation of the characters, the location and the theme of this novel. Still, it is to her credit that she has brought attention to this sad and poignant, but neglected novel. In her translation, the novel has become even more compelling.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer. Among his recent publications is a collection of essays on Manto. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 25th, 2019