Saturday, November 8, 2014

What this translation means

On Daljit Ami’s translation of Amandeep Sandhu’s novel Roll of Honour

By Rajesh Sharma 

There are books with souls and there are books without souls. Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour is a book with a soul.
What impregnates a book with a soul is the writer’s capacity to undergo the baptism of truth. To bear witness. To submit to the knowing that truth entails. The novel bears out that those who side with truth take no sides. Sandhu tells a very Punjabi story without succumbing to the baneful provincialism of today’s decadent cultural production.
Ami’s decision to translate the novel’s title as Gawah de Phanah Hon ton Pahilan (Before the Witness Ceases to Be) could only have been made because he was able to peer into the novel’s soul. And that happened because the ways of the two witnesses, Ami and Sandhu, crossed. Ami saw himself in the novel, saw his own life, saw his own experience of history. As a historian and documentarist reading and translating a novel, he demonstrates a felt grasp of Sandhu’s profound sense of the way history enfolds us even as we carry history.  In fact, Ami’s ‘form’ of the novel—as he describes the translation—has a longer timeline: it incorporates events that happened after the novel was published in 2012. The reason they are incorporated is that they belong to the same body of signification. History is a luxury—and a potential IED—if we refuse to identify and recognize it in the present.
Sandhu is very happy with the translation. He even asks, ‘Which is better, the English or the Punjabi?’
It is a rare acknowledgement of the quality of the translation: the large-hearted man that he is, Sandhu probably feels he wrote a Punjabi novel in English which has been ‘brought home’ (as he says) into Punjabi by Ami. Perhaps he wrote two novels, one actual, the other potential. And the potential has now found incarnation in Ami’s rendering.
Postcolonialism’s ghosts are hovering.
Borges would probably sniff a plot here:  Once upon a time there was a translation which preceded the original…
But would Sandhu allow the same latitude to another translator? From another language or continent? From another history?
There will, perhaps, never be a final word on this unprecedented experiment in literary translation. One thing, however, is clear: the novelist’s magnanimity and the translator’s courage had to meet for this miracle to happen.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

My School Teachers: Portraits in Miniature

(Written for The Teachers' Day, September 5, 2014)

By Rajesh Sharma

For days I have been rummaging my mind – its chests and cabinets, bureaus and bins, school bags, backpacks, pouches, knotted handkerchiefs, match-boxes, teeny brass caskets, rubber-headed metal inkpots, slim little corked vials of touch-me-not glass, even flyers folded into flying machines grounded like dead butterflies among spiders’ remains and lizards’ egg shells – to pull out memories long since resting, deposited and forgotten like used postage stamps and untouched coins, to blow the dust off them. I do not really know why I am doing this. It might be for ritual gratification. Perhaps it is to propitiate guilt.

Memories can be sticky, smelly things. Or they can turn into powder under the touch, like expiring bones awaiting final dissolution.

But the dust that settles on memories is gold dust. Its shimmer lends them an illusory immortality.

He tied his beard, never tucked his shirt in, taught us Punjabi, and had red eyes. ‘Do not ever take to the bottle,’ he said one late afternoon, a butter slice of the spring sun melting and sliding down his neem-green turban. We were about to leave school to go to college. ‘It has ruined me. Let it not ruin you, my children.’

That is all I remember of Master Gurmel Singh. And of the red eyes bedewed with love.

Sat Pal Master taught mathematics. A short, dark man with bulging, buttony eyes which we sometimes caught regarding us with a parrot’s wonder. His absolute precision with the kinetic geometry of physical punishment struck terror.

He tutored privately also, for money. Many boys went to his home, racing against time before the winter dawn broke. He lived in Bajwara, a nearby historical town, home – in Emperor Akbar’s day – to the legendary singer Baiju. But he also taught extra hours in school, for free. ‘Those I do not tutor privately will do better, let me tell you,’ he would warn.

Year after year he would be proved right.

Datta Sir must have been a wrestler once upon a time. His muscular arms said it. And he was happiest munching fruits and uncooked vegetables during the break. Having finished off his portion of bananas, he would ask other teachers to pass on their banana peels to him. ‘They contain many nutrients,’ we had heard him say.

Todi would sometimes take out his beating stick from the coat’s inside pocket, after the boys sent out to find a stick had returned empty-handed and smiling. He was a cool punisher: he talked – admonishing and praising with an even hand – while bringing the stick down on your palm.

The palm exploded with chilly bombs.

He shaved daily and always wore a river-blue turban. Whatever your credentials, even a minor, occasional slip would invite his severe justice.

In the streets, you knew him from the tinkle of his bicycle’s bell. Here too he was a perfectionist.

Master Beas Dev was known to wield his right hand like a dhobi’s bat. That bat landed on my back once – I was screaming through a window, the back to the door. Everybody was screaming, the teacher being on chhutti. YAAAAAAAA…what a relief!

That day, and I have never screamed.

He was like a bull dog with a bear’s paw.

Outside school, you met in his eyes a foal’s trusting innocence.

I never saw it, but he must have possessed a soft, velvet soul.

Harbans Singh Drawingiya – the diminutive fine arts teacher. Working on a canvas, he hovered so close that his moustache threatened to brush the wet surface. He had a little squint, the kind that gently fires the vanity of some self-nominated intellectuals who have looked long at ideas. Seasoned with myopia, the squint lent a strange pathos to his skull which turned at unusual angles on its perch.

He taught geometry too. When we went up, sternly commanded, to the black board to draw a figure, our minds went suddenly blank – we knew he was itching all over to thrash us. Before we could even begin, the scale would hit the bum. And a flood of mumbled curses, as often unmerited as earned, would follow and mingle in the general ridicule and laughter of the entire class. The victim would drown in shame.

A portrait of the martyr Udham Singh hung in the school entrance. Masterji used to boast it was his work.

It did not bear his signature. Perhaps the Head Master had not allowed it.

The boy who gave him, to be preserved for ever after like pickle in a funerary urn, that unforgettable, singular name, must have been fascinated by his grace.


We first saw him through this name.

The Reptile.

His face looked scaly, though it was merely oversigned by pimples, like a paper on which a teenager scribbles the dripping fruit of his discovery of the fancied bridge between signature and singularity.

His gait had poise and firmness, and a reptilian fluidity. His wardrobe bespoke of a sartorial discrimination that placed him far above the crowd of tasteless colleagues.

He was said to be a teacher of Physical Education, but he had never been seen teaching. He looked after his sprawling farm. He owned a scooter when most school teachers rode bicycles.

His heart, legend had it, had a tender pimple which bloomed at the sight of Kali Auntie, a dark spinster who entered our field of vision only during rehearsals, in the town's parade ground, for the Republic Day show. She taught in a local girls-only school. Old boys told of how older boys had serendipitously hit upon the name - Kali Auntie was the word for a black glass marble with a milky flame.

In one of the exercises, we placed our hands behind our heads and slowly bent forward, to the beat of drums, bringing our noses down to nearly touch the ground. As the noses went down, the mouths opened just enough to let out a collective Ka-a-a-a-li Aun-tie-e-e.

It rose like the murmur from a bee-hive that has been upset, on a hot and drowsy afternoon, by a naughty gang of stone-throwing school boys returning home from school.

(To be continued)

Friday, June 27, 2014

South Asian Ensemble Winter-Spring 2014


Editor’s Note

A lot of good South Asian writing is taking place outside the dominant circuits of recognition. It was our assumption when we started SAE. Five years down the road, it is a conclusion.
Leafing through pages from the past, we see many installed stereotypes crumbling. Yet much survives that seems to identify us.
            What is still awaited is a radical mobilization of the elements of the ensemble that is us and our experience, a mobilization that dislocates, disassembles and creates afresh beyond merely reproducing. This would require infusion of energies from outside the ensemble’s boundaries.
But haven’t cultures always outsourced? Isn’t imagination the great outsourcing machine? Isn’t literature always in another place, always already elsewhere?
            South Asia is a horizon that must be transcended. Only when it begins to be transcended – with freedom, without guilt, with responsibility – shall great writing again begin to find home here. De-domestication is a pre-requisite. Homelessness, a necessity.
Perhaps we should seek our singularity in losing ourselves in one’s own ways.

Rajesh Sharma

Website here: