Manohar Shyam Joshi
Rs 299 PP 144
To make one’s central character a failed and cynical old writer is actually quite a smart move. To make him the first-person narrator as well covers all bases. If the writing is bad, well, he is a bad writer. If the tone seems ugly or even offensive, well then, he is an old hack, isn’t he? And if he is in the process of telling you about one of the novels that he didn’t write, one of those that grew old with him, it is perfectly valid to tell you funny incidents that do not make you smile.
Manohar Shyam Joshi’s protagonist in T’ta Professor, Mr Joshi, is that literary burnt-out case. His does not seem to be a loss of faith or aphasia. He seems to have suffered from a literary form of premature ejaculation. Telling a story to a friend rids him of the desire to write it down. And such is his short-sightedness that he never comes close to the discovery that all writers must make at some point: that the fun of writing is what happens in the head; then comes the drudgery of putting it down in the dreadful silence and solitude that is the act of writing.
Joshi’s Joshi arrives in a remote Kumaoni village carrying with him all the prejudices of the city and the additional freight of the avant garde writer who feels contempt for everyone except those who write in his style. There he encounters Khashtivallabh Pant, ‘dubbul MA’, the village schoolmaster. Unlike Oliver Goldsmith’s villagers, the “gazing rustics rang’d around” are not amazed.
They call him T’ta Professor — after his favoured form of farewell — a mocking honorific that suggests they are not quite sure of the value of his multiple degrees. Pant’s opponent in the literacy sweepstakes is the principal of the school, Shobhan Singh, with whom he has an English vocabulary duel, fuelled by Joshi, who seems to be acting out of the malice of the bored.
Is it translator Ira Pande’s fault that none of this seems to come alive? Or is it simply as dead in the original? Humour is difficult to translate because a lot of it is not in what you write but how you write it, how you nuance the words, what lies beneath the choice of an idiom. None of the excesses — the dictionary in the dung, for instance — achieve the robustness of folk bawdiness and just when you are tiring of the whole thing, you begin to read a story that could have come out of the house of Bernarda Alba.
The bizarre thing is that it begins in what is an adolescent exchange of ‘first time’ stories. Joshi-Pande’s Joshi invents a story of such callowness and such incredulity that you can see why he failed as a writer. He cannot plot something as simple as a stolen moment, cannot invent something as ordinary as an empty storeroom in which his invented widowed aunt can initiate him into the mysteries of masculinity . Finally, and things begin to get close to funny here, he invents a white woman from a porn novel borrowed from a friend.
“When I returned to Sunaulidhar, I spent many evenings among the ruins in the forest regaling T’ta Professor about my sexual adventures with Isobel. This time, no matter how hard he tried, T’ta could not pick holes in my stories'.”
In return T’ta Professor begins to talk about his growing up in a house full of widows. There unfolds a tale of chilling verisimili tude.
You begin to feel as if the whole edifice of Joshi's prejudice and contempt is crumbling to reveal what happens in villages, how women live together, how a mother may forget to offer love, how another widow, an aunt turns from ersatz mother to seductress with the simple offer to an adolescent, an offer freighted with Freudian resonance: “Want to suckle, Lala?” Even Joshi cannot resist the lure of this story. But because he is not telling it to us, only writing the requiem for it, we must thirst. He tells us that he feels disgust when T’ta Professor starts using foul language to describe the “main point”. We want to feel that disgust.
And suddenly the whole point becomes clear. This is Joshi lampooning the whole social satire school of Hindi writing. It is a careful, clever, subtle defence of art for art’s sake. It is the story with no meaning that we want, not the story that ticks the boxes — linguistic problems, inter-caste marriage, corruption and compromise in education — of literary fashion. As sleight-of-hand, you’ve not seen better.
Jerry Pinto is a Mumbai-based writer and is the author of the National Film Award-winning, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.