“You will be the Katherine Mansfield of Hindi”

A writer recalls her journey out of and into language

Sara Rai’s father, Sripat Rai, was a Hindi editor and critic, sometimes writing stories under the pseudonym Akalank Mehta. all images courtesy sara rai
Sara Rai’s father, Sripat Rai, was a Hindi editor and critic, sometimes writing stories under the pseudonym Akalank Mehta. all images courtesy sara rai
31 December, 2018

“KATHERINE MANSFIELD. You will be the Katherine Mansfield of Hindi.”

My father spoke slowly, placing an emphasis on each word. He seemed to be listening to a voice in his head. “Go on, write it down,” he insisted, as though afraid he would forget the ten words if they were not written immediately. His eyes were on my pen as it hesitated above the notebook. Did he really expect me to write that? It was an ordinary day and I still remember it. A crow-pheasant strutted about on the lawn, its tail feathers gleaming black. A dog barked and then there was quiet. I could hear the pressure cooker whistling, even though the kitchen was at the far back of the house.

He said this in March 1994, a few months before he died. He had lately moved back to our Allahabad home, after having lived in Delhi for more than twenty-five years. When he arrived at the Allahabad railway station one winter morning, all he had with him were a few clothes in an old suitcase, an Onida television tied in a checked tablecloth, and a sheaf of papers that he held close against his grey zipped-up cardigan, the only one that he now possessed. I had recently returned from Melbourne, where I had been living for the past five years. It was while I was there that I began to write fiction in Hindi.

My father’s hair was uncombed. Clean-shaven all his life, he now had a beard born of negligence. His nails were long and yellow, and a wilderness had taken over his eyes. He had grown senile. He would stand about in doorways, having forgotten what he had come to the room for. After my mother died, he stood by her bed and looked at the quilt bunched up on it as if he suspected that she was underneath it. Never interested in food, he developed a sweet tooth. He ate the rasgullas that were bought for him from Hira Halwai with a focussed pleasure. He wiped his hand afterwards on his white dhoti. This was a father I did not know.

When I was in my late teens and still undecided over which language to write in, he had told me that the language one is born into, one’s mother tongue, can be the only medium for creative expression. The irony of his statement about Katherine Mansfield, which would not have escaped him earlier, now escaped him entirely. After all, I had started writing in Hindi largely because he had said that fiction can only be created in one’s mother tongue, and here he was setting up a New Zealand-born English writer as an ideal. But I could not say this to him, looking at the changed person he had become.

For most of his life, my father, Sripat Rai, had been a Hindi editor and critic. Off and on, he translated from Hindi. He had written a few stories under the pen name Akalank Mehta, and those were in Hindi too. I did not know about the stories till after he died. I read a couple of them when they were published after his death in the memorial issue of Kahani, the journal he had edited. I realised how disappointed he must have felt after he wrote them. He was fond of saying that a failed writer becomes a critic. The weight of his literary expectation came, eventually, to rest on me. He seemed happy that I was showing an inclination towards writing. “She will go far,” he told my mother after reading the first story that I sent to him from Melbourne.

My father’s statement about the mother tongue stayed with me when I started writing, late, my fiction in Hindi. Another thing that I barely acknowledged even to myself was that I felt something like shame whenever I thought of writing in English. It seemed wrong that a granddaughter of Premchand should be doing so. Our family had a certain linguistic pride. I knew that Premchand was famous, but I had not yet realised the extent of his popularity. In the Hindi class at St Mary’s Convent School, where I studied in Allahabad, the teacher would point me out to the other children when we came to the Premchand story, and everyone would turn to look at me. These were moments I would dread from the beginning of term. This was only the beginning.

The fact of Premchand, that I was his granddaughter, followed me everywhere. Everyone had a story to tell about their personal engagement with his fiction—the shopkeeper who said she went to dusty bookracks overhung with cobwebs in a dark, neglected village library in Bihar to find his books with the help of a candle; the long-time cook in my father’s Delhi house, Ramchander, who wept over Premchand’s story “Alagyojha”—Divided Hearths—which he read between cooking meals; the cyclist whom my family and I met at a wayside tea stall in Gopiganj, where we had stopped while driving to Varanasi, who recited whole passages from a favourite story. The list was long, for everyone seemed to have read him. However, it was this very ubiquity, the reverence and love that he inspired in people, that made of him something too large for me to comprehend in the early years of my life. It led also to a paradoxical feeling that, without having read it, just by being related to him, I had somehow inhaled his writing. The reading happened much later.

The connection with Premchand was only one of the things that contributed to my confusion about which language to write in. And the question was never quite settled for me. I had been born into Hindustani, the mix of Hindi and Urdu that we spoke at home. We were forbidden to speak in Hindi at the English-medium school I went to, and transgressions were punished with a fine. We were embarrassed to speak in English at home. I did not know which my first language was. It felt more natural to be speaking in Hindustani. But the books I read were in English. The Hindi textbooks we came across in school, despite the rare interesting story, had seen to it that we stayed off Hindi literature for a long time. It was only later, when I was in my twenties and my father needed some help in sifting through the hundreds of stories that were sent for publication in Kahani, that I found myself reading Hindi literature. I could write more freely in English, being accustomed to it from school (so much so that, in the 90s, when my early stories started appearing in Hindi, someone asked me whether I had written them in Roman script). As a four-year-old, I was on the lookout for simple ways to convert Hindi words into English, for I could not speak it yet—“khilao-d,” “baithao-d,” “sulao-d” (fed, seated, made to sleep), as if merely adding a “d” to the Hindi word made it English. The preoccupation with language went back a long way. The first story I ever wrote was in English, titled “Lucky Horace.” I was eight years old and the story was modelled on the Enid Blyton books that I had read when I was very young.

While still a teenager I had started translating into English stories from Hindi and, later, some from Urdu and some from English into Hindi. I now see that this was all a process of fumbling, of groping for a language that could be my own. I would wake up of a morning and start writing in English, or even wake from a dream in which I found myself writing in English, much after two of my short-story collections had been published in Hindi. I was in a constant state of migration. It was only later, much later, that a startling realisation came to me: it was possible to write in both Hindi and English.

One language did not cancel out the other. This had not occurred to me as I flitted from one to the other language, my restlessness not finding the necessary repose in either. The situation was further complicated by the Urdu factor. The Hindi taught at school, heavily influenced by Sanskrit, was the punishing, burdened language that we never used in speech. What I wrote in, indeed could write in, was Hindustani.

My feeling of being a migrant was not confined to language alone. I had a sense of self that was transitive at a deeper level. Used to reading from an early age, my bookish life set me apart from the people around me, particularly school friends and those I came in contact with outside the home. I seemed to be always travelling, from my world of books and the thoughts that they set in motion within me to the provincial world of Allahabad. The books I read formed the core of my deeply intimate self, and I wanted to keep it secret. I felt that if I talked about them I would be exposed, as if I had undressed in public.

The stitching and unstitching of sentences that Rai’s mother and aunt constantly engaged in was one of her first lessons in the use of language.

I was very aware of being a linguistic, literary and social itinerant. I belonged to a middle class that was still marked by colonial and feudal attitudes, I had an English-medium education, I wrote fiction in Hindi, which connected me to a circle of Hindi readers, but few of my English-educated friends read it. I was constantly moving between languages and from Hindi-reading friends to English-reading ones or those who read nothing at all, in either language. To add to the mix, there was the Shia Muslim background of my mother and the secular Hindu one of my father, as well as the polished Urdu of my grandmother that on occasion could switch to a coarser idiom when she spoke with a servant. (“Will I wash my ass with this?” she, with her habitual acerbity, once asked a maid who had brought an insufficient quantity of water for her daily ritual of vazu before she started her namaz.) And then there was the Awadhi of the servants at home. At school, the German nuns had a clipped English accent, and they were strict about enunciation, down to the syllable on which the stress should fall in particular words.

And even as I write this, I find myself wondering why I felt the need to write about writing at all; why is it that I choose to do so in English, when my fiction is primarily in Hindi? Could it be that I need the perspective of linguistic distance, or is it that some things are better expressed in one language rather than another? To an extent both are true, and yet neither is. Premchand did not write fiction in English. English, however, was the language he often used to draw up the extensive notes that he made before actually writing the stories. Can it be that the economy of English lends itself better to the conceptualisation and framing of a piece of writing?

When I was writing my stories that were based on local experiences of living in places like Allahabad or Delhi, the texture of things around me seemed to get woven more easily on the loom of Hindi. Yet when writing about the stories, about the complex process that goes into creating fiction, English was the language that came naturally to me. I had, after all, done most of my reading in it. Suddenly, it all fell into place, for how else is a literary sensibility formed except through reading, which may have little or nothing to do with one’s experience? I was writing about the local but the lens that I was looking through, so to speak, was ground by the English language. It was yet another linguistic migration.

The migration could not have been particular to me. There certainly were other writers who wrote in Hindi or Marathi or Bangla, and read books in English. But I had not read anyone else’s account, and wondered what someone else would have made of it.

MY MOTHER, ZAHRA RAI, and her sister Moghal Mahmood both wrote stories that were published in Hindi, but which were first written in Urdu. They were as talkative as my father was silent. They were linguistic conspirators: they had even invented a code language, with the addition of an “f” after every consonant, and they used it when they did not want anyone else to make sense of what they said. They would speak very quickly and the “f” sound, occurring so frequently in their speech, gave it a feathery quality, as though a breeze were rustling the leaves of a tamarind or gulmohar tree. The sisters talked all the time about the easy flow and refinement of Urdu, and recited couplets to suit every occasion. They found fault with the Urdu used by the poet Faiz, whom they admired greatly, excusing what they thought was unidiomatic, saying that this was because he was from Punjab. (They thought the Urdu spoken in Uttar Pradesh was “purer.”) The balance of a sentence, and the way a line could get “broken” by the use of an undesired word, was something they often spoke about. It strikes me only now, when they have been dead 24 years, that the parsing and unravelling, the stitching and unstitching of sentences which the loquacious sisters constantly engaged in, was a first lesson in the use of language.

Rai’s mother, Zahra Rai, wrote stories in Urdu that were published in Hindi.

My father wrote his critical pieces in a Hindi I found difficult to follow. He had spent some years in Calcutta and was a fluent Bangla speaker. If he found out that someone could speak Bangla, he would converse with them only in that language, rather than in Hindi. Bhojpuri was the language he was born into, the one he always spoke with his mother, Shivrani Devi. Whenever anyone from his village of Lamhi turned up, he would, like a fish released from an aquarium, slide into his natural element, into the waters of a river that flowed right back to his childhood.

Although she wrote short stories in Hindi, when writing about writing, such as in her diary, English came naturally to Rai.

It is perhaps a necessary condition of living in India that one’s awareness of language is permeated by a multiplicity of sounds. Anything written in one language must feel the presence of others: this too drew me to Hindi, in which it seemed possible to write by ear, to catch the sound of the spoken. What this meant was that one could use in a story, for instance, snatches of heard conversation that were sometimes in a different dialect or language. So not only could one change the register in Hindi, but also layer the writing with resonances from other languages. Writing could more easily be adapted to the milieu one was dealing with. Speech changed across classes, but the class barrier was not easy for me to cross. English, with its middle-class orientation, seemed even less up to this task. So it seemed to me that writing in English would be limited in its scope right from the beginning. The same process that limited the reach of writing in English also made the world beyond these middle-class homes inaccessible to be written about. Catching a swear word or an exclamation as it flew across the linguistic sky, a street vendor’s cry enriched with layers of cultural memory was hard enough in Hindi; in English it seemed impossible.

Being a woman writer excluded me from other experiences that, had I been a man, could be taken for granted. For instance, it would be difficult for me to walk around a provincial North Indian town at night, to see it while it slept. It is often the case in provincial cities that women are not visible and treated as if not there at all, especially if accompanied by a man, to whom whatever is said is addressed. But then, paradoxically, a woman is also too visible, instantly noticed and stared at. It would be hard for someone not used to local norms in Allahabad to understand how the presence of a woman at a paan shop, for example, can make other customers as well as the shopkeeper uncomfortable. Women eat paan at home, but they are not expected to be seen at paan shops where men hang about, discussing local politics and the small incidents that make up the life of a small town. So a chance for the ear to tune into the colloquial, the fine gradations of street speak, the hum and buzz of the everyday, is lost. But, truth to tell, at the time I started writing I did not think clearly about all this. I only worked with an intuitive understanding of writing and what it involved. It seemed to be just something that one did, that one fell into. I had realised even as a child, though without verbalising it, that this was what I would be doing. It was just the problem of being able to begin.

That was where the difficulty lay. A whole range of cultural signifiers seemed to be givens, to be kept in mind while writing—the specificity attached to names, to caste, class and regional backgrounds. For instance, Mr Srinivasan or Mrs Gupta or Mrs Kashyap or Mr Jhunjhunwala would have their particular background, their speech moulded to a different geography of palate and tongue, their food, their style of dressing would be of their own kind. A talking parrot in a Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim or a Hindu Kayastha household would have its own distinctive speech. It was more than a question of choosing one language above another. I had led a rather privileged life in Allahabad, where the bungalows were far apart and there were few people to interact with. There was no class of society that I could honestly say I knew well. I was on an island and seemed to be the sole inhabitant. Instinct told me that a writer lived within me, but it appeared that the writer had neither the material to write about, nor the language to write it in.

In all the years that I spent not writing, there was ample time to think—about words, their interactions with other words. And while I was fumbling to find my voice, I realised that the Sanskrit-derived Hindi word “shabd” meant both “word” and “sound.” This seemed serendipitous to me. The first time I learnt about its two meanings, the word drew for me a connection between written language and language that was only sound. The creaking of the wheels of a bullock-cart in Chhattisgarh, on which I got the chance to take a ride; the hollow sound of a hand-pump being worked; the whistle of a train engine—these were part of a language of sound that did not lead to further meaning. It was simply itself. Somehow this had implications for me as a writer.

It occurred to me that the double meaning of shabd created for me a bridge between the heard and the written, that the craft of writing is auditory as much as it is visual, that a sentence or a paragraph when it is written, must be heard as well as seen.

ON THE MORNING when he made the memorable Katherine Mansfield statement, my father and I were sitting on the front veranda. The ground outside was sodden, the air saturated with moisture. It had been raining, though it was not the rainy season. The Mary Palmer growing right outside the veranda had pink and white blossoms. The rain had shaken loose the flowers and they had collected in the shallow water-race that ran round the house, looking profuse yet forlorn. Termites had silently been eating the books in the glass-fronted bookshelf in the drawing room that opened out onto the veranda. The spines were intact, but the pages had been hollowed out in the shape of ridges and terraces. I had spread them out on the veranda floor, pages open, to air them. There were a lot of books. Most of them were my father’s, left behind in the Allahabad house when he had moved to Delhi; he had given away the ones he had there.

There was Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, a battered illustrated Arabian Nights, the Everyman’s Library edition published in 1929 of Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut and Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, and two of the twelve volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, published by Chatto and Windus in 1941, with my father’s name, the date and the place where he had bought the books, written on the fly-leaf in his decorative hand—May 9, 1946, Lahore. The bright orange dust jacket of a collection of Marcel Proust’s writings, chosen and translated by Gerard Hopkins, had been eaten away by termites. What was left of the book crumbled first into paper flakes and then to dust when I tried to leaf through it. The fat volume of Gitobitan, containing the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, was intact, as was the English translation of Premchand’s Godan by Gordon Roadarmel, published as The Gift of a Cow by Allen and Unwin in 1968. My father stood in the midst of these books, like a battle-weary king looking at his ruined palace.

Some of the books that lay open on the veranda—Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland among them—were the ones I had grown up reading. The books in the drawing room were housed in two shelves with sliding glass fronts and in two teakwood cupboards. The cupboards were built into the wall on either side of a blocked-up fireplace, whose mantelpiece was of pale pink terrazzo. The doors of the cupboards tended to get stuck. When pulled open, there rose from inside a smell of fresh varnish, even though it was years since the painters had finished their job.

As a child I had developed a fascination for the written word, regardless of where I saw it. I read train time-tables, dictionaries, cinema hoardings and shop signs. Allahabad roads had signposts with their names on them—Thornhill, Clive, Elgin, Hastings, Edmonstone—and each name seemed to have a distinctive colour and shape. I read the graffiti on the exposed brick walls that we passed on the slow train journeys that we took between Allahabad and Benares, or between Allahabad and Delhi. My eye caught the names of the stations, written in black on a sunflower-yellow background in three languages, Hindi, English and Urdu: Handia, Jangiganj, Kachhwa Road, Madhosingh, Raja Talab, Manduadih. The names stayed in my visual memory long after the train reached its destination.

It was while travelling through the bookish landscape which I first became acquainted with in childhood that I made an extraordinary discovery. All the books were about me. They were set in locations thousands of miles away—St Petersburg, London, New York, Paris or Rouen—and yet they spoke of things that I could have said. This was something that stirred me into restless excitement. Could I create a fictional world of my own?

Many years later, while reading Proust’s essay “Days of Reading,” I came to understand how inextricably reading and writing are linked:

The lazy mind can get nothing from pure solitude, because it is incapable, unaided, of getting its creative activity to work ... What, then, is needed is some sort of intervention, which, though it may come from elsewhere, does stir the requisite consciousness in ourselves, an impulse having its origin outside ourselves, but received into the very centre of our personal loneliness. This ... is the true definition of reading, and it fits no other activity.

The books that I read also led me to put on a certain weary pose, a kind of melancholic despairing stance that I associated with Kafka which, given my circumstances, was quite absurd.

In my bookish life, the characters and landscapes in the novels that I read were more real than the people we actually met. It was an imaginative world inhabited by fictive characters and their milieu, and became a barrier between me and the world I lived in. No one else seemed to care about books or writing, and I was not interested in the things that mattered to them. The questions that plagued me (“Will I ever be able to write? And if not, what then?”) would have sounded laughable to them. At the age of 20, I wrote in my diary:

One needs to be alone to write. If you want to write, there is just one way—write. Acquire the habit of writing. Only when this initial stage is crossed, does the eye become discerning and the brain perceptive.

It is impossible that I can go on like this much longer. Dreaming, struggling to stop dreaming, and also to give expression to the many voices in my brain. Writing has become a question of life and death.

But as things stood, I spent years searching for the writer in me who was nowhere to be seen. It was like having a star-crossed lover. The writer and I could never meet. I would look at the shape of my hands to see if they looked like a writer’s. I stared into my eyes in the mirror, wondering if they would reveal to me the writer that I was convinced I was, though there was little evidence to support this idea.

Rai always dreaded being pointed out as Premchand’s granddaughter by her Hindi teacher.

When my father asked me to write down the words about Katherine Mansfield, one of my Hindi short-story collections had already been published. But that was where my writing aspirations seemed to have ended. I had not written a thing in months. And here was my father, asking me to do something more than just writing those words down. Something too large for me to grasp, something that I kept trying to escape from and that kept escaping from me, slipping through my fingers like glittering particles of mica. I wanted to hold on to it even as I wanted to flee from it. My flight from the act of writing fiction went on for years. I could not face it; I thought that writing was all about not writing.

After my father died, I wrote in my story “Biyabaan Mein”—In the Wilderness—about the struggle of writing fiction:

I try to write. I want to focus my attention on writing. But my mind is empty like the sky that stretches in front of me. Sometimes groups of broken sentences, indistinct faces, the rags of days long past move across my mind in a procession. I am unable to grasp the forms and mould them into something that is whole. The images fly away into the sky like birds.

It took me a long time to realise that the process of writing begins much before one has put anything down, that one has, so to speak, always been writing. It was while chasing butterflies in the garden as a child or watching a tortoise-shell cat slink away into a dark alley that the writing was taking place. Like an invisible letter written with lime juice that only shows up when a hot iron is put to it, the impressions that have been written on to the memory all the while that life is being lived are revealed in the catalysing moment when pen meets paper. The city buried underground and long forgotten about is chanced upon, and not without a shock of surprise. And so it was, that years after the house of my childhood had slipped into oblivion, I found myself writing:

Suddenly there was an army of mice in the house. The signs of their presence could be found in all the rooms, and especially in the storeroom. The scraps of nibbled paper, the pieces of roti, the mouse droppings inside the cupboards, under the chairs and behind the black iron trunk, were evidence of their being around.

When I wrote those words, the colour of the light from that buried time, the clinking sound of the bunch of keys that my mother carried tucked into her sari, the whole breathing quality of the house as it was then, came back to me as though the past could never quite be past.

RECENTLY, I found the ten words that had been uttered by my father almost twenty-five years ago, written in the orange notebook I had been using at the time, the long letters sloping to the left, the handwriting uncertain.

Sara Rai has published three collections of stories and one novel in Hindi. Her work has also been published in German, Italian, English and Urdu. Her most recent translation is Munshi Premchand’s Kazaki and Other Marvellous Tales. She lives in Allahabad.