Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vijaydan Detha: between the folktale and the short story

Every reader of literature makes a conceptual distinction between a folktale and a short story. Folktales have protagonists who are often generic, distinguished by their birth (a prince) or their profession (a potter). In the world of the folktale, creatures change form or come back to life from the dead, the characters are buoyed by boons or buffeted by curses, and good usually wins over evil in a way that is narratively satisfying.

The short story is a more modern form, and can be seen both a response and a rebuke to the folktale. It privileges psychology and interiority, believing that the drama of the human mind is just as striking as that of worldly action. It also disdains magic, although it frequently invents fantastical and imaginative premises of its own. Morally, the short story is not committed to upholding virtue or goodness; narratively, it is not committed to always finding a clear resolution. A folktale is something that can be repeated and retooled; a short story, if its essence is to be kept, can only be read, privately or aloud, because it is the linguistic creation of an individual imagnation.
Can a piece of narrative prose then be both a folktale and a short story? To have done so seems to be one of the achievements of the octogenarian Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha. As Detha’s splendid American translator, Christi Merrill (who works on Detha in tandem with the poet, folklorist and translator Kailash Kabir, who has himself translated Detha's works into Hindi), observes in her introduction to Chouboli and Other Stories, Detha’s writing involves both conservation and creation, notation and invention.

For decades, as part of the work his organisation called the Rupayan Sansthan, Detha has been bringing together, as AK Ramanujan did, all the folktales he found told around him, and writing them up in the same language – Rajasthani – rather than the Hindi of which Rajasthani is often considered a poor cousin, thereby preserving and dignifying not just a corpus of oral literature but also the language in which it has been passed down over time. Chouboli asks us to understand it as a double act of translation: first by Detha from oral Rajasthani into the written, and then by Merrill and Kabir from the written Rajasthani into English.

Many of these stories retain a trace of their origins in performance – the presence of an audience is implied in them in a way that written texts, aimed at the single private reader, are not. Merrill begins one story with a chougou, or a nonsensical rhyme intended to put listeners into a mood for storytelling. Some stories also make mention of the hunkara, or "the grunts and hmms of approval that turn a telling into a two-way communication, a community event."

"Just as eyes look more alluring outlined with coal, and a brow looks prettier decorated with a tiki in sindur red, so is a story better told with hunkara," declares the narrator of the cycle of stories called "Chouboli", in which a prince (actually a young woman in disguise) wins a haughty princess's hand with the power of his stories, which he tells in isolation, with only the princess as an audience, but with many objects around him, such as beds and necklaces, offering the hunkaras that send the story bounding forward. Many of the stories begin not with some significant fact about a character or event, but with some remark or claim about the nature of storytelling itself. "Nothing happens to a story if all you do is listen," begins the story "A True Calling". "Nothing happens if all you do is read, or memorize word for word. What matters is if you make the heart of the story a part of your life. This story is one of those."

At the same time, Detha likes filling out the oral stories of his culture – stories about princes and princesses, cunning thieves and shape-shifting tricksters, who in a modern scheme would qualify as "flat" characters – with realistic touches and literary flourishes of his own, making them a reflection on manners, morals, and human nature that is recognisably the work of an individual mind. When the narrator of a story says that "There's nothing in the world more sacred and more wonderful than freedom", that is recognisably an emphasis of the writer.

The other great pleasure of these stories, for the English reader in particular, is the little swirls of local and proverbial detail folded into their situations. When a group of men each renounce a particular food, "someone gave up touri root, another kaddu squash, and a third cucumber"; a jeweller fascinated by a female form fashions "a set of thick mothiyou bracelets for each of her wrists and churau armlets to slide above her elbows." A character is reprimanded for picking on somebody without reason with this proverb: "When the potter isn't getting along with his wife, it's the donkey's ears he pulls."

Merrill prudently does not bother to find (inevitably distorting) English equivalents for words like "leela", leaving us to confront directly the connotations of a line like "The leelas of wealth are certainly most unusual." Ramanujan thought that the folktale was infinitely adaptable, “a travelling metaphor that finds a new meaning with each telling”, and in Detha’s work the folktale sporadically seems to find in itself the energy to find not just a new meaning but a new self.

Certainly, in the best of these stories, "Duvidha" or “The Dilemma” (filmed by Amol Palekar as Paheli in 2005), a human predicament is so convincingly portrayed that we slow down our reading, wanting to savour the complexity of the situation. A pair of newlyweds are seen returning to the man’s village. They stop to rest beneath a tree, where a ghost resides. The ghost is so taken by the girl’s beauty that he falls in love with her. Strangely though, the husband, who should be experiencing something similar for his wife, is so caught up in the mercantile mindset of his community (Detha explicitly says he is a bania) that he can think only of trade and profit. Shortly after, he sets out on a journey of five years because it is an auspicious time for business.

The ghost, still pining, sees the man heading away, engages him in conversation and learns of his story, and decides to take his form and replace him in the household he has left behind. But he is so much in love with the girl that he cannot bring himself to be duplicitous with her: he confesses everything. In turn, the woman, who has always been seen as an object and without desires of her own, cannot bring herself to reject this most extraordinary love from the beyond. The ghost and his beloved live as man and wife in the community for four years, when suddenly the real husband comes home. “All the wealth in the world cannot bring back time past,” writes Detha, and his story appears to side with those people who value time and human relationships over material values.

Although they are frequently diverting, not all the stories in Chouboli work so well. In "The Dilemma", the ghost finds that he is in such a difficult situation that he has to "walk the fine edge between truth and untruth as skillfully as wise Yudhistir himself", but between the folktale and the short story there is not a fine edge but often a yawning gap, and this is not so easily traversed. While these stories are often diverting, sometimes there is only so far a folktale can go, and to a modern sensibility some of the characters can seem too flat. Even so, this is definitely narrative work worth experiencing, especially when complemented by the insights of Merrill’s own introductory essay, on the work of translation and on the possibilities of an Indian English that contains words and concepts from other Indian languages. “Armies march to the beat of drums,/ stories, to the rhythms of ohs and hmms”, goes one sing-song phrase or chougou in the book, and there are certainly many moments worthy of ohs and hmms in Chouboli.

Many of the interpretative and linguistic cruxes of Detha's work are explained by Merrill in her essay "What Is A Translator's True Calling?" And here are two of the stories in the book: "A True Calling" and "Untold Hitlers".
A larger overview of recent Indian literature in translation is here.

1 comment:

Vetirmagal said...

Thanks for introducing Rajasthan stories to us South Indians. I will certainly try to get that book.

BTW I would rather rmemeber Mani Kaul's Duvidha!