Foreign Exchange

Two inadvertently related classics of Polish and Hindi literature

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
01 November, 2016

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.

Reduce them to plot summaries, and the similarities between the books are startling. Both are, at core, romances—Days of Longing is little else. Each follows the relationship between its protagonist and a foreign woman who is new to the place, and thus knows him first as a guide and interpreter before they become lovers. Both women—the Austrian Raina Ramon in Days of Longing, and the Australian Margit Ward in Stone Tablets—are haunted by memories of the Second World War, in which Raina survived a concentration camp and Margit lost her fiancé. Our heroes are both laconic, ironic observers of life who are transformed into passionately, even cloyingly expressive sentimentalists at the sight of the women they love. And the outcomes of both romances are telegraphed more or less from the outset of each book: they are doomed.

But regarded as novels, rather than merely as plots, the two books could scarcely be less alike. Stone Tablets is a romantic melodrama, and a novel of cultural explanation that seeks to summarise India for Polish readers. The central romance is drawn out and padded with social and political detail, yielding a 700-page novel whose action can be summarised in a paragraph. Days of Longing, in Vaid’s translation, clocks in at barely 40,000 words, and the bulk of its action takes place over a week. There is no want of specific detail: the book presents a fully formed and historically grounded Prague. But nowhere does Verma address his Hindi readers in the voice of the travel writer or the ethnographer.

Stone Tablets Wojciech Żukrowski Paul Dry Books, 737 pages, $22

Half a century after their publication, Stone Tablets and Days of Longing remain popular classics in their original languages. Days of Longing was reissued as a Penguin Classic in 2013—the translation first appeared in 1972, from Hind Pocket Books—but has yet to find a substantial English-language readership. Stone Tablets appeared in English for the first time this year, from the Philadelphia-based small press Paul Dry Books. There are no immediate plans for an Indian edition. This is a pity, for even though, unlike Days of Longing, Żukrowski’s novel is of limited literary worth, it certainly has value as a historical document, and is revealing both of the India of the 1950s and a Western perspective that is neither Anglophone nor remotely colonial. This sets it apart from the English-language novels about the same period by Paul Scott, Aubrey Menen, Rumer Godden and John Masters—Żukrowski is unconcerned with the residues of Independence and Partition or with the situation of the few remaining Britons or Anglo-Indians. (While one of his characters, Grace Vijayaveda, has an English mother, she is part of elite Indian, rather than Anglo-Indian, society.) And Żukrowski’s lens, unlike those writers’, is uncomplicatedly that of the disinterested outsider. The mere existence of a bestselling epic novel of 1950s India, later adapted in 1984 into a Polish film, that is almost wholly unknown in this country and was unavailable in English for 50 years (though it was translated earlier, like many of Żukrowski’s other novels, into Czech and German), is a story worth revisiting.

WOJCIECH UKROWSKI WAS BORN IN 1916 in Krakow, in the south of Poland. During the Second World War, while Poland was under Nazi occupation, he worked in a limestone quarry with Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, and was a clandestine member of the Polish resistance. The two would remain friends and correspondents until Żukrowski’s death, in 2000. After the war, Żukrowski became a journalist, and reported on the last days of French Indochina. His subsequent years in Delhi may have helped shape his political thinking, but it was not until Stone Tablets that he emerged as an anti-Stalinist.

The choice of a Hungarian, rather than a Pole, as the novel’s protagonist is best understood in terms of the book’s politics—both in the use of commentary on the Hungarian uprising as a vehicle for opposition to the Soviet Union, as well as an attempt to avoid any accusation of having criticised his own Party bosses. The book was finished in 1965, but its publication was blocked by censors until the intervention of Wladyslaw Gomulka, the first secretary of the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (the ruling communist party of Poland), who personally ordered its approval in 1966. Żukrowski went on to have a prolific and commercially successful career as a writer: he published 44 books of fiction and journalism.

The novel opens with the wedding, to a raja, of the improbably named Grace Vijayaveda—when it comes to Indian names, Żukrowski is on especially uncertain ground—a half-English heiress with whom Istvan Terey, our hero, has been having an affair. They make love one final time, and we encounter Istvan’s tendency to regard women with a morbid combination of passion and anxiety. But the opening is an act of misdirection: the wedding is notable only as the occasion for Istvan to meet Margit Ward. Like Grace, she is an heiress, the daughter of an Australian wool manufacturer, who has come to India to work for the United Nations as an ophthalmologist.

The novel follows the course of Istvan and Margit’s increasingly obsessive affair. At first he is her guide to the low and high life of Delhi. Appropriately enough, for a novel that aims to convey the sights of India to the Polish reader, her work treating the victims of a trachoma epidemic takes her, and thus Istvan, to the tourist magnets of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. But the romance is destined to be the victim of politics. Istvan’s bosses in the Hungarian embassy are openly suspicious of his affair with a woman from a capitalist country; and while he rages against Stalinism and imperialism, and dreams of abandoning the wife and sons who await him back in Hungary, to move to Australia with Margit, the reader, unlike his lover, senses that he never truly intends to act on these fancies. When not following Margit around the country, Istvan cultivates a diverse circle of Indian friends: from Grace’s father, the Uttar Pradesh industrialist Vijayaveda; to the struggling painter Ram Kanval; to Jay Motal (another unlikely name), who, in a delicious inversion of Żukrowski’s own position, hopes to be sent to Hungary to write a book for Indian readers, in Malayalam or English, on the greatness of the Hungarian Communist project.

Stone Tablets is a book of puzzling, often frustrating contradictions: simultaneously a sophisticated and learned political novel and a pulpy, obese love story. It is rare to encounter a novel in which fine and bad writing coexist in such regular and close proximity. The descriptive prose can be sublime, or cruelly observant:

In front of the fishbowl that was the doorman’s lodge a short servant with thin legs like a crane was sprinkling the gravel drive from a watering can, deluding himself that he was protecting it from the haze of dust that had settled on the leaves. The doorman slept with his forehead on his hand; his hair hung in glistening coils on the back of his bent neck.

When it comes to women, however, and Margit above all, the writing is a horrific compendium of juvenile sentimentality. Take this: “Incessantly, like the droning of bees, happiness sang in him: I love her neck, her lips, her little ear brightened by a streak of rose-tinted sunlight. He was choking with a tenderness beyond measure.” Or: “The shadow of a smile flitted over her opulent lips, the full lips he had smothered in kisses.”

Istvan and Margit’s love affair can be such painful going that it obscures Żukrowski’s fascinating portrayal of India. This, too, resists generalisation: it alternates between the sorts of lazy cliches presumably intended to satisfy the expectations of his audience, and the kinds of insight that speak of a genuine knowledge of and love for the country. On the former count, there are descriptions, on almost every page, of heat, dust and pungent smells; camels that move “in stately procession”; funeral pyres; and thieving servants. This aspect of the book is well summarised by the publisher’s unintentionally condemnatory jacket copy: “Draining heat, brilliant color, intense smells and intrusive animals enliven this sweeping Cold War romance.” Often the trite and the striking sit next to each other: “The odor of drains, of rotten peelings and steaming urine, beat into the nostrils. The three-story houses, solidly built below but with casually knocked together upper floors, pulsed with life.”

Against the cliches can be set Istvan’s own penetrating observations and, of even more interest to today’s Indian reader, those of his native interlocutors. Delhi “is just an oversized village. Rumors fly around faster than pigeons.” In India, “Thanks in the form of a word or a smile would be a sign of weakness, a breakdown of authority. In this country one said thank you with money.” Istvan is in the habit of provoking his hosts, often with barbs of remarkable prescience. On one occasion he argues that what India really needs is to be invaded by the Chinese:

“They would organize your life. They would teach you to work.” This at the peak of Nehru’s friendly overtures to China, with his slogan of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, and three decades before India’s industrial rise. Vijayaveda has the Indian industrialist’s familiar habit of making sweeping pronouncements. Socialism is “an antiquated nineteenth-century economic theory elevated to the dignity of a philosophy.” The Second World War was very good for India; for all the millions that died of famine, “there are enough of us left.” What is common to all these statements is how contemporary they sound. While there are dozens of references to the specific events of 1956, a remarkable proportion of the characters’ opinions would not be out of place in a Delhi drawing room 60 years later.

From 1956 to 1959,  ukrowski was a cultural attaché in Delhi, though unlike his novel’s protagonist, he was with the Polish embassy, not the Hungarian one. COURTESY KATARZYNA UKROWSKA/PAUL DRY BOOKS

IN MARKED CONTRAST to Stone Tablets, the Czechoslovakia of Days of Longing is rendered with a remarkable lack of ceremony. The setting is no more explicitly exotic than if it were some non-Hindi-speaking Indian city, such as Ahmedabad or Bhubaneswar: or, rather, its foreignness is taken as given. Prague’s geography and sights are described with the easy confidence of a local flâneur, rather than with a foreigner’s instinct for documentation: “The top of Petřín looked pink, transforming the time for a moment into a summer evening,” he says of the hill that rises over central Prague; at another point, he observes that “It had rained slightly, just enough to wash the roofs of the city clean.” The narrator’s identity as an Indian is eventually revealed—one character calls him “Indy,” the closest he comes to possessing a name. But even observations that speak to his origins do so in a manner so offhand and unobtrusive as to be scarcely visible: “I didn’t like the damp stink of overcoats that always reminded me of the stink of sweat. Snow and sweat lose their difference after mixing with people’s dirty clothes.”

Verma is perhaps best known as a short-story writer—unlike in European languages, as the literary historian Rupert Snell points out in a review of one of Verma’s collections, in Hindi the kahani, rather than the novel, has been the dominant genre of prose fiction. Verma’s first collection, Parinde (Birds), published in 1959 and written in the period immediately preceding his Prague years, is often seen as having inaugurated the Nayi Kahani or New Story movement. Nayi Kahaniwriters, such as Mohan Rakesh, Rajendra Yadav, Kamleshwar and Bhisham Sahni, created a new Hindi literature of middle-class urban life, with a particular interest in the changing relations between men and women in independent, industrial India.

Throughout his career, and despite his political activism, Verma stood apart from his contemporaries in the extent to which his books were concerned with individual psychology rather than politics or society. Days of Longing exemplifies another distinctive feature of Verma’s work: his use of European settings. This can only partially be traced to work as a translator in Prague. Verma was not the only Hindi writer to have spent time in the Eastern Bloc or in the West. Among his peers, Bhisham Sahni was based in Moscow from 1956 to 1963, translating Russian literature into Hindi. Verma’s translator, Krishna Baldev Vaid, himself a distinguished Hindi writer, moved between India and the United States, doing a PhD on Henry James at Harvard and later teaching at Brandeis and SUNY Potsdam.

But Verma’s fiction is marked to an unmatched extent by his years in Europe. As Snell writes, “Verma shakes himself free of the culture-bound contexts of much contemporary Indian fiction and writes in a style accessible to a wider readership”—“wider” meaning, here, one beyond India. At a time when writers were often expected to have firm political commitments, many of Verma’s contemporaries lamented his choice of subjects while admiring his talent. As Vaid wrote in an obituary—in the form of a letter—for Verma, published in Outlook magazine in 2005, “During those years you were often berated by your detractors for your ‘foreignness’ or ‘un-Indianness’ but even your adversaries conceded to you your artistic and intellectual rigour.”

Despite their very different approaches to their political contexts, Verma and Żukrowski’s novels share a sense of socialist scarcity. The Czechoslovakia of Days of Longing is a country in which a bottle of Slivovitz is an immense luxury; in Stone Tablets, the material contrast between Istvan’s situation and Margit’s is always apparent. Both novels use foreign cigarettes to stand in for the riches of the West; both the narrator of Days of Longing and Jay Motal in Stone Tablets use their access to these cigarettes to win favours from bureaucrats.

At times Żukrowski refers, with pleasing irony, to his own position as a Polish man writing a novel about a Hungarian in India. “We still have the old, proven system: suspicion, informing, fear,” Istvan tells Margit of his home country. “They already think differently in Poland.” Later, he tells her that his words in English are always translated from the Hungarian of his thoughts: “I am bound to that language … I feel every tremor, I express everything in it, and I am certain that I speak it unerringly even to you in our closest moments.” Days of Longing, too, is concerned with matters of translation—the narrator is employed by the state Tourist Agency as a guide and interpreter, and translates from Czech into English for Raina’s benefit.

Both translations read well, although Vaid’s is exceptional, especially by the standards of translation from Hindi to English, in its marriage of lyricism and clarity. “Literary translations,” wrote Geoffrey Wall, a biographer and translator of Gustave Flaubert, “have a life of about fifty years. After that they begin to show their age.” This is certainly not true of Vaid’s. He does, however, take a number of liberties, beginning with the unfortunate change of title—Ve Din being, literally, “Those Days”—and ending with the wholesale omission of Verma’s final paragraph, with its ambiguous last sentence, written in transliterated English rather than Hindi: “Dark and deep.”

Fifty years later, Days of Longing reads not as an artefact of a lost socialist world, but as an utterly contemporary novel of unfulfilled yearning. What is most indelible in it are the author’s many reflections on missed opportunities:

I kept forgetting it was her second visit to Prague. And whenever I remembered it, it bothered me. I wanted her to look at everything for the first time. But she seemed to be keen about revisiting places she had already seen. After knowing some people one can’t help feeling one’s met them a bit too late. When they had their first time one wasn’t in the running.

In his obituary-letter for Verma—it is a curious document, with a mix of affection, nostalgia and resentment characteristic of lost friendship—Vaid notes his reservations about his friend’s “proclivity for romantic sentimentality,” but concedes that “at your best, you succeeded in getting away with it.” It is difficult not to conclude that he has Days of Longing in mind.

While both novels rose out of cultural diplomacy between friendly socialist countries, only Stone Tablets is truly political. But despite the continued relevance of many of its insights, and the fact that it was written only a few years after the events it describes, it is best read as a kind of historical novel—of the sort written by a journalist, producing, in the phrase popularly attributed to the late Washington Post owner Phil Graham, the first rough draft of history. Part guide to India, part treatise on the individualist man’s inability to live under Communism—in the tradition of books such as the Hungarian-born British writer Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and The God that Failed—it often reads as if Żukrowski had one eye on the reader of the future who would want to know what, exactly, it felt like to be eastern European in India in 1956. Its enduring appeal is a little mystifying, given the tawdry and interminable romance at the book’s heart. But, read 50 years later in India, it is an odd, and oddly compelling, view on our own early history as a republic.