Delhi, 1947. The city swells with Partition refugees. Eager to escape the welter of pain and confusion that surrounds her, young Krishna applies on a whim for a position at a preschool in the princely state of Sirohi, itself on the cusp of transitioning into the republic of India. She is greeted on arrival with condescension for her refugee status, and treated with sexist disdain by Zutshi Sahib, the man charged with hiring for the position. Undaunted, Krishna fights back. But when an opportunity to become governess to the child maharaja Tej Singh Bahadur presents itself-and with it a chance to make Sirohi her new home once and for all there is no telling how long this idyll will last.
Part novel, part memoir, part feminist anthem, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is not only a powerful tale of Partition loss and dislocation but also charts the odyssey of a spirited young woman determined to build a new identity for herself on her own terms.
KRISHNA SOBTI is one of the most respected writers in the Hindi canon. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980 for her novel Zindaginama, and in 1996 was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, the highest award of the Akademi. In 2017, she received the Jnanpith Award for her contribution to Indian literature.
DAISY ROCKWELL is an artist, writer and translator living in northern New England, USA. Her highly acclaimed translations include, among others, Upendranath Ashk's Falling Walls, Bhisham Sahni's Tamas and Khadija Mastur's The Women's Courtyard, all published in Penguin Classics.
I. Sobti Magic
Krishna Sobti is a magical being. Everyone knows this. From her experimental prose to her legendary parties to her unique sense of style to her male alter ego, the writer `Hashmat', everything about her is deeply considered and infused with her special warmth. I myself only had the opportunity to meet her in her nineties, but I consider myself much improved as a result. Perched on one of her sofas, strategizing when I might start asking her the meanings of particular words I wasn't able to find in the dictionary that no one else seemed to know, stuffing myself with the never-ending delicacies emerging from the kitchen, worrying that I would not be up to the task of translating her novel, I suddenly started to understand the answers to my questions without ever asking some of them at all. To sit in her presence is to open the Sobti, lexicon and immerse oneself in Sobti logic. Complex turns of phrase, confusing references, it all made sense once I was there. Translating Krishna Sobti and learning from her made me understand how to use my instincts and creativity to translate things that seemed untranslatable before, and it also taught me how read Sobti style.
II. Krishna Sobti Is Not Here to Tell You Stories
Yes, Krishna Sobti tells stories-interesting ones too-in her writing, and in conversation, but she has an equal if not greater interest in language and style. Her preferred forms have been the novella and the essay, and this is perhaps because she has sought to boil sentences, phrases and entire narratives into the smallest number of words possible. She claims she has never been a poet, but her prose resembles poetry more than anything else.
She will often use the fewest words possible in a sentence, sometimes just one, if she can find the perfect fit. The words are carefully considered, weighed out and often very difficult to define or translate into English with just one equivalent word. Sobti's use of language is experimental and central to her writing, and unlike many women authors, she is not terribly bothered if you don't understand what she means, or if you cannot entirely follow the story. She is not writing to help you understand, she's writing to reveal and learn what language can do. In the section of A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There that most resembles poetry, Sobti talks of Partition in a stream of words and phrases, interspersing her own family's experiences with observations about refugees and migrants. In these particular lines, so spare and elegant, Sobti enters the minds of the mobs, the migrants, those fleeing and those chasing, those attacking and those under attack:
Who's the sinner?
Who's the criminal?
Who is witness to the crime?
One dagger-plunging hand. Another, match-striking, lighting an oil-soaked rag.
One stands far off, gathering a crowd.
A clutch of terrified men and women holding their breath in a jungle of half-dead, frightened voices: They just came-we just went-we just died-don't make a sound. Let them pass by.
Piles upon piles of corpses, mounting ever higher.
A wake of vultures roots about.
Rings on hands grown cold; necklaces encircle throats.
Where other authors have spilled buckets of ink writing histories and novels about the Partition, Sobti attempts to use the smallest amount of ink possible, to cut the story of migrancy and violence down to the bone. Even Manto rarely managed so few words in his Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders), his ultra-short stories of the Partition.
In the present volume, we see an array of styles, experiments and genres. Think of it as a palimpsest: what Sobti is laying before us are fragments of her memories form seventy years ago. Memory is always fallible, and yet most of us can agree that certain events and episodes from our early twenties are indelibly inked in our imaginations. But it is also true that these get rewritten, overwritten and erased over time. The fragments that comprise the present volume represent all different genres: some are clearly poetry, some feel like memoir, others have the narrative structure of a novel. Some are in the first person, most are in the third-the name of the protagonist shifts with the contexts in which she finds herself the Governess, Miss Sobti, Kishni, Bai ji, Ma'am. The fragments are arranged for us in the form of a book, but sometimes feel like a multidimensional work of art: an installation, if you will. I imagine a jumpy film reel, a sheaf of letters, an old photograph album, a diary stuffed with poems.
Sobti is not here to hold your hand: it is up to the reader to make her own connections, draw her own conclusions, find her imagination sparked and go out and create more layers of text for the palimpsest. A translator spends more time with a text than almost anyone else. A translator must turn every word inside out and shake it upside down. At times when I was immersed in this text I would ask myself, Why did she put this here? Or that? Or that? What is she telling me? Sometimes the answer is simply this: She remembered it. It felt significant, so she recorded it. In this book, Sobti is more mystic than storyteller, more abstract painter than realist. At the end of the section on her visit to Bombay, for instance, she speaks briefly of the brother of the famous film star and singer K.L. Saigal:
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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