Hats and Doctors

01 January 2013

ABOUT THE STORY The prolific and controversial novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Upendranath Ashk (1910-1996) was one of the titans of 20th-century Hindi literature, best known for his six-volume novel cycle Girti Deevarein (Falling Walls). Although that book has not yet been translated into English, Ashk makes a long-awaited appearance in the world of Indian literature in English this year in a book of translations of his short stories by Daisy Rockwell, a scholar of Hindi literature who has also written an acclaimed critical biography of Ashk (Katha, 2004).

The new book of translations is called Hats and Doctors (Penguin), and it showcases Ashk in all his vitality and variety—a stylistic legerdemain that parallels, in this story, the sartorial stylishness of the hat-loving yet hat-hampered protagonist, Mr Goyal. The many shades of Ashk’s humour are revealed in this gently satirical portrait of middle-class life in the new Indian republic, with its unselfconscious hierarchies (the separate spaces for middle- and lower-class patients in the doctor’s waiting room), its relish for long, morbid descriptions of personal symptoms and conditions (an attitude taken on here by the narrator too in his descriptions of Mr Goyal’s ailments and travails), and its great debates (allopathy or homeopathy?).

Rockwell writes of her translation project, “Perhaps a translator should hope that her readers will develop a taste for the author in English, so that she can bring out more of the author’s works in translation in the future. My hope, however, is the opposite: that some of these stories will induce a few readers, even just one or two will do, to turn their feet toward a Hindi bookshop one day. Out shopping in Old Delhi, they might stroll into The Hindi Book Centre on Asaf Ali Road, and say to one of the booksellers, ‘Yaar, do you have anything zabardast in stock by that amazing author, Upendranath Ashk?’”

Upendranath Ashk was one of the best-known and widely read Hindi writers of the 20th century. A volume of his short stories in English translation appears in March 2013 under the title Hats and Doctors (Penguin).