Foreign Exchange

Two inadvertently related classics of Polish and Hindi literature

01 November 2016
Nirmal Verma, like the unnamed narrator of Ve Din, spent many years in Prague, first as a student of Czech, and then as a translator.
INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
Nirmal Verma, like the unnamed narrator of Ve Din, spent many years in Prague, first as a student of Czech, and then as a translator.
INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

TWO NOVELS THAT APPEARED within two years of each other in the mid 1960s—one set in Czechoslovakia and written in Hindi, the other set in north India and written in Polish—are like literary half-siblings. It is difficult to think of two books simultaneously so alike and so dissimilar. The first, Nirmal Verma’s Ve Din (translated into English, by Krishna Baldev Vaid, as Days of Longing), was published in 1964. The setting is Communist-era Prague, the narrator an Indian student. Wojciech Żukrowski’s Kamienne tablice (Stone Tablets, in the English translation from the Polish, by Stephanie Kraft), appeared in 1966. Its protagonist, Istvan Terey, is a Hungarian consular official in Delhi in the mid 1950s.

Both novels are products of an era of cultural exchange between India and the Eastern Bloc that began in the 1950s. Verma, like his nameless narrator, spent many years in Prague, first as a student of Czech, and subsequently as a translator. In 1959, he was invited by the Czech Institute of Oriental Studies to initiate a programme of translation of modern Czech fiction into Hindi, and he lived in Prague until 1968. Żukrowski was a cultural attaché in Delhi, like Istvan Terey, though, unlike his protagonist, he was with not the Hungarian embassy but the Polish one, from 1956 to 1959.

Verma and Żukrowski were both Communists who grew disillusioned with the Soviet Union after its violent suppression of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Verma left the Communist Party of India in protest, and whatever socialism he retained dissipated in the face of the material deprivation and social repression that he witnessed in Prague in the 1960s. He returned to India convinced that socialism and communism did not hold the answers to his own country’s problems and, from the Emergency onwards, was a vocal critic of Indira Gandhi. Żukrowski, who lived in a society in which the range of views a writer could express was circumscribed, never fully broke with Communism. But in the 1960s, the two writers occupied essentially identical positions on the anti-Stalinist Left.

Keshava Guha Keshava Guha is a writer based in Bengaluru.

Keywords: literature translation Hindi Cold War Nirmal Verma Wojciech Żukrowski Ve Din Stone Tablets Polish
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