Review: Storywallah by Neelesh Misra’s Mandali
A young girl journeys into her mother’s past to reluctantly connect with her dead mother’s old lover; in a dusty hinterland town, a manager on a coal-mining project falls in love with a dancing girl; an ageing widow struggles with time warp and her need to build a bridge with her daughter-in-law.
These and others like these are what Storywallah, a collection of Hindi stories, is all about. Storywallah, the peddler of stories and his “mandali”, which translates from Hindi as a troupe of performing artists, aptly defines the handpicked selection of writers by Neelesh Misra, lyricist, radio storyteller, journalist and writer. Misra mentored these writers and featured their stories on his radio show ‘Yaadon Ka Idiotbox’. Theirs are the tales emanating from small town India, the voices and choices of provincial characters. The 20 works in this collection penned by writers like Kanchan Pant, Jamshed Qamar Siddiqui, Chhavi Nigam, Umesh Pant, Manjit Thakur, Anulata Raj Nair, Ankita Chauhan, Shabnam Gupta and Snehvir Gusain are tales of loss and longing, of patriarchal stereotypes versus quasi-feminism, of hope and hopelessness, nostalgia and modernism. The settings range from Kosi to Jabalpur, Asansol to Bhopal, Nainital to Dalhousie, and Alipur to Madhopur, among others.
Some of the narratives like ‘Munjhi’s Palace’ make a case for seemingly strong-willed women. Here, a rustic Rajasthani girl disdainfully breaks ties with her man when he mistrusts her. The female protagonist of ‘A Divorced Girl’ on the brink of a second marriage walks away when asked to quit her job. “Gaurav’s forehead was furrowed with confusion. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. Divorced women don’t say no.” Similarly, for the young widow of ‘Amaya’, “there were so many restrictions on her. If she resisted she got trouble. If she agreed quickly, everyone behaved well with her.” When she eventually defiantly wears a coloured sari, it is because she has had enough. These women who toe the patriarchal line most of the time decide to stand up, be assertive and speak up for themselves at crucial junctures.
Another strong leitmotif is that of the return to one’s roots or nostalgia for the home of one’s childhood. “Your children will never understand the taste of guavas grown in your own courtyard,” Shivshankar’s mother says when she visits him in the city in ‘A Bird In Flight’. Distraught by the impending sale of his former home, he returns one last time to spend his last ever night there. It is the kind of sentiment that many who have migrated to bigger cities, sacrificing childhood homes at the altar of pragmatism, have encountered. In ‘Home’ a middle-aged NRI is tortured by regret and yearning for the house his father sold to secure the funds to enable him to travel abroad. The poignancy of nostalgia is interpolated with the need to make good for lost time or mistakes.
And then there’s love, that many splendoured thing. A young couple relearns love in the time of marriage in ‘Yellow Roses’ and an old widowed pair, withstanding the social taboo of daring to love in the winter of life, find it in each other in ‘Together’. There is romance on a holiday adventure in ‘The Muffler’ and there is the quirky other-worldly love between a mortal and a spirit in ‘Satrangi’. In ‘Overcoat’, an old overcoat, its pocket filled with memories of a love suppressed by an older member, reveals a family secret to a young girl.
Among the pieces that stand out is Shabnam Gupta’s ‘Ayesha’, a story of the heart-numbing pain of a father whose little girl has disappeared, and his near futile search for her. Kanchan Pant’s ‘Our People’ visits the burning space of communal tensions in the life of a young girl, its searing impact on her family and life in the aftermath of riots. Both are stories of acute loss. But where there is life yet, there will be hope.
These stories were all written for a radio format and Neelesh Misra’s sonorous reading resonates with listeners in the language and idiom that is familiar to them. It is evocative and speaks to them. The same story translated into English (read an unrefined form of Hinglish) in a print format does not pass muster. Translation is tricky business. Only a master craftsman can transport the native essence of any language effectively to another one. In the hands of lesser talents, linguistic nuances get left by the wayside.
In ‘Storywallah’, the translation comes across as stilted. One can almost read the original sentence in Hindi. “That year was the worst of my life. I broke inside.” (’The Seal’) Or “I reached home in a scattered state that day…” (’Nails’). Glaring linguistic errors abound whether it is in the wrong usage of prepositions or just an overriding usage of Indianisms. A better translation could have helped tide over the medium mismatch. ‘Storywallah’ is a brave attempt by an interesting initiative. But the medium doesn’t fit and much is lost in translation.
Sonali Mujumdar writes, speaks French, and enjoys travel. She lives in Mumbai.