Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A descrying DESKription

It is 11 pm on a Tuesday night. I am sitting at the dining table in the common room of our paying guest accommodation. I am attempting to study after precisely one year; the last time was when I was appearing for the final semester exam of my undergraduate course. I am all geared up this time too – I have bought a table lamp, a tablecloth (which is the same shade as my desk at home, I now realize) and I have got my music…Radio Indigo. Yet, last time was different…last time I was at home.

I am craving for tea right now. At home I would religiously make myself some tea at around 11 every night. I don’t even like tea too much, but it had become a sort of ritual. Sometimes, my mother would make it, with all the usual ingredients – water, milk, tea leaves, sugar, ginger and strict reservations…she was a staunch believer in the 8-hour-sleep formula. I think at some point I started enjoying annoying her with my nightly routine.

At around 1 or 2 am, she would come and knock at the door of my room, breaking my academic repartee and reminding me to go to bed. It was agitating. I remember being scared by the sudden knock in the dead of the night more than once. Sometimes, I would have fallen asleep on my desk and she would have to call me repeatedly to elicit a response. I would pretend to be alert when I woke up and use the headphones as an excuse for not hearing her call. Now I don’t know why I had such a problem admitting to such a simple thing although I knew we both knew the truth.

I was dependent on my desk for any kind of job involving reading or writing…reading novels, writing letters…everything. So even in the summer vacations my family would have to visit me at my desk. Summers in Nagpur are blistering hot and my desk used to be an uncomfortable place to work with its Sunmica top and no room-cooler in the room. Every single year and every single summer-day, mother would persuade me to come to the room with the room-cooler. But I wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t function without my desk. The bed or the couch was sure to put me to sleep in less than 5 minutes and then all plans of reading and ‘value addition’ would go to the dogs. Ultimately, they bought a portable cooler on the pretext that the living room was very hot. But often, mother would wheel it to my room while I was busy reading and then she would sleep with her mind at peace.

In the late afternoons, she would make mango-milkshake or bhel and bring it to my desk while my sister would be sprawled in front of the Television. Countless summers have passed with the same routine and I never knew it could be any different…until now.

My desk was also the place where I would have once-in-3-months heart-to-hearts with my sister till the wee hours of the morning. Then there would be a familiar knock on the door. We knew she would be furious if she realized that it was 3 or 4 am. So we would conveniently set our table clock to an hour or two earlier and give each other knowing guilty smiles as we followed her to the other room. What I don’t remember is who would set it back to the right time…at least I never did!

I also remember standing in the balcony of my room after spending a few hours at my desk and gazing at the moon on most nights. I would feel the cool night breeze on my face and experience the silence of the night. It used to feel like heaven!

That was the life – in my 4X10X10 room and at my favourite desk. Today I live out of a 2X3X10 cupboard and on one side of a double bed. Its not like I mind it…in fact I am quite happy this way too. But its on errant nights like these that I want things to change. I want to prepare tea right now. I want my mother to reprimand me for that, to knock at the door even as I write this, I want to annoy her, I want to fool her. I want her to wheel the cooler in to my room (though Bangalore is not half as hot) and I want her mango milkshake. I want all this and more – to read, write letters and to chat with my sister. I am not the least bit homesick but on lovely moonlit nights like these…I want to be home.

Lost in Translation: Mahashweta by Sudha Murthy

It was the summer of 2005. I was preparing for the campus placements that were to take place when the new session began. But I had a job already – a summer job – as an editor. I was helping my teacher from school time to edit the English translation of a Marathi book. Marathi is a beautiful language, as is English. The cosmetic surgery occurs when you try and translate…and more often than not it is for the worse. You make a Plain Jane out of an enchantress. And I reiterate that after reading English translation of Mahashweta – translated by Sudha Murthy, the author of the Kannada original.
I have not read the Kannada version of Mahashweta. But I can say hands down the English version is nowhere close to it. The back cover acknowledges it to be written in ‘deceptively simple style’. I would say ‘appallingly simple’ is more like it. By this time if you have decided that I hate the book, you are wrong.
I love it. For one, I am wondering if the title itself is deliberate. 'Shwet' in Sanskrit means white and the protagonist of the novel gets affected by Leukoderma and gets white patches on her body. Nevertheless, the issue tackled is a sensitive one that is commonplace in our society. Each of the characters has been etched in great detail. Their thoughts have been elaborated well. The end, where the reader almost expects Anupama to get married to Dr. Vasant, is unexpected; she refuses to get married again…to anyone. The way the story comes a full circle when Anupama’s students decide to perform Mahashweta is characteristic of wholesome stories. But such good work begged for better language. I don’t mean Shakespearean…the story has many words and sentences characteristic of Indian English. Certain sentences are so typically film-like in their nature that you wonder if a person of Sudha Murthy’s calibre lacks the imagination to make it sound any better. The story is set in real circumstances and she is talking about real people. Their conversations could also have been that real in nature. It was a failed attempt at introducing fake romanticism in such a sensitive story. An example I can quote is:
As the day of Anand’s departure drew near, Anupama became paler and paler. Her husband was going to an unknown country, and people had been making malicious comments that she could not ignore. ‘One can have a wife here and another there as well. It seems white girls are very aggressive,’ they said.
Anupama was afraid now that something untoward would happen. Anand read her mind and said, “Anu, don’t worry. I’ll count every hour, every minute and every second till you arrive’.
‘Suppose something happens to make you forget?’
‘What a foolish girl you are! Have you heard what they say in a church wedding? “Until death do us part…” And that is my promise to you. We shall always be together. Anu, how can I ever think of anybody other than you?’
Anupama sighed with relief.
Surely, a girl of Anupama’s calibre and intelligence (as she has been portrayed to be) can be trusted not to have such apprehensions. The ‘every hour, minute, second’ thing is almost cheeky and one doesn’t expect such things from a serious and (supposedly introvert) doctor who has his mind on getting a post-graduate degree from England.
Overcome by shyness, Anupama did not lift her head.
‘Anu, the other day you gave me tickets and today I am giving you my heart. Please keep it safe.’
Anupama smiled and dimples appeared on her cheeks.
The analogy between the tickets and the heart almost makes me gag. And the whole statement is uncharacteristic of Dr. Anand, of a mature individual and of a real person.
From a social point of view, the language scores. It is so simple that even people with the most basic English skills will be able to understand it; and that is paramount given that the book has a strong social message to deliver (probably the only reason it was written). And the translation ensures that it reaches a wider web of people. But from a literary point of view, the book disappoints.
All said and done, Mahashweta makes good reading and touches the heart. It dispels false notions about one of nature’s cruelties called Leukoderma. It takes the focus away from the external factors of one’s personality and brings it around to internal factors like what the person stands for. More women should read it to find their foothold in the society and overcome dependence on their families or husbands and find identities as individuals. It is only when others know that you can’t be hurt that they will stop trying.