Recently turned 92, Usha Priyamvada remains one of Hindi literature’s most long-established and celebrated writers, with her newest novel, Arkadipt, releasing just this year by Rajkamal Prakashan. As Priyamvada moves farther into the ninth decade of her life while continuing to write, she is mirrored in the opposite direction by South Asian literature’s possibly most famous translator currently – the 2022 International Booker Prize winner Daisy Rockwell – who has now successfully rendered the first two novels written by the author in the 1960s into English.
While Priyamvada’s debut 1961 novel, Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls (Pachpan Khambe Laal Diwarein) quietly had its English debut in 2021 shortly before the grande fête surrounding the International Booker the following year, her second 1967 novel, Won’t You Stay, Radhika? (Rukogi Nahin Radhika?) represents very different points in both the author’s and translator’s trajectories.
Usha Priyamvada’s first novel was written in a phase of her life prior to her departure from India, one in which no warp nor weft of diasporic life appears in the fabric of the plot; one where the entire plot unfolds in the environs of a doppelgänger in Lady Shri Ram College of Delhi University. But by 1967, much had changed, and so had her protagonists – protagonists who are often independent and educated women treated roughly by even the privileged corners of Indian society they sometimes inhabit.
After all, India and Delhi itself had changed: the South Block of Raisina Hill was now occupied by Indira Gandhi instead of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru; Zakir Hussain of Jamia Milia Islamia fame was the new Republic’s first Muslim president. In the larger literary world, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de Soledad) had seen the light of day, growing into the classic it is seen as today. What, then, should we expect from a novel born in this changing world?
An unrecognisable home
We are introduced to Radhika, a young woman newly returned to India after a period of studying in Chicago, hoping for a reconciliation with her art historian father whom she had disobeyed a few years ago by leaving the country with an older American reporter. Radhika’s decision was triggered by her father’s decision to marry a younger woman, driving a wedge into the close relationship she had built with him in the wake of her mother’s death. Chicago seems suffocating, but the promise of liberation in India proves to be a far cry from what she imagined.
Nothing had changed. Everything was the same as it had always been, back when Radhika had known it so well. That was how she remembered it: Delhi dust, hazy evenings, grimy foliage, rough pavement. Radhika saw and recognised it all.
And so begins Radhika’s journey with a complicated series of emotions that accompany her return, a mood which Rockwell dubs the “rasa of ennui” – not quite simple melancholy, but also boredom with the choices life offers her: the possibility of a regular boring marriage and the offer of regular boring profession. Yet, Radhika lies on the takht in her rented Delhi barsaati, peering and seeing through the falseness in front of her; the hypocrisy of the men in her family, the hypocrisy of other occupants of Delhi’s elite gatherings.
After a long silence, he asked, “Did you get your degree in journalism?”
“No, in fine arts,” said Radhika.
“Really!” replied Pravin with surprise. “I heard your former husband was a famous journalist, that’s why I thought…”
“How interesting!” Radhika said in an American accent. “What part of India are you from?”
“The northern part.”
Then Radhika started replying to his Boston English in Hindi. After a few sentences, the situation grew comical. Pravin must have noticed this as well, for he said, “I’ve got out of the habit of speaking Hindi.”
“It’s only natural.”
“Our children don’t know any other language besides English.”
“You must be proud of that.”
Pravin stared at her briefly and then turned to the woman seated on his other side.
Readers familiar with Usha Priyamvada’s work will identify the leitmotif of ennui, as Rockwell describes it, as something found in many of her books and protagonists. Many of these characters, often women, appear to exist between conventional stages of life, or at stages of their lives where there is no predictable next step to be taken.
Where Priyamvada’s Radhika lies on her takht and occasionally takes sleeping pills to cure her boredom, the protagonist of her short story “Neend” (Slumber) takes a morbid step further towards drug overdose. Where Radhika tackles bouts of ennui, the same basket of emotion quickly takes a rougher turn for Maya from Priyamvada’s 1969 story, “Chutti ka Din” (The Holiday), who after accepting a “respectable”’ job as a Hindi instructor in a provincial town, finds nothing to fill her lonely free day of the week apart from unhospitable relatives and a pile of uncorrected homework.
To those interested in the longing for home experienced by the diaspora à la Jhumpa Lahiri, Won’t You Stay, Radhika? promises a rich tapestry of rumination over what exactly an individual misses when away from their homeland. Radhika doesn’t simply ruminate over the past; she remembers the past’s textures, through food, through once-familiar sights and sounds that return as long-forgotten friends. One could even argue that she constructs those sights, beautifully rendered by Daisy Rockwell into English, even better than her later Anglophone kin from the clan of diaspora writers.
Radhika must have made countless journeys on that railway line, but it had felt strange to see so many familiar sights over the course of the past night. She had stoically left all this behind and gone abroad, where, if she recalled anything from her home at all, it would have probably been something about special holidays, or the flowers. But the memories of these small, unremarkable things must have remained in her subconscious, otherwise why would she be so filled with nostalgia on seeing them again?
Hindi in English, but do the English-walas really care about Hindi?
In many senses, Priyamvada’s writing speaks as a representative of a much earlier tradition of diasporic writing, one that resides outside – yet is not necessarily written by writers from a particularly different economic class – the largely Anglophone diaspora stories that arrive on our bookshelves. Jhumpa Lahiri, of course, is often read as a famous example of a later generation of diaspora writers, even though she did not truly spend her childhood in India.
In contrast, Priyamvada spent a large portion of her life in the storied citadel of Hindi literature on the banks of the Ganga and Yamuna: Allahabad (more recently dubbed Prayagraj), where she was acquainted with Firaq Gorakhpuri and Amrit Rai. Yet, despite the long decades of working, living, and teaching in the United States, Usha Priyamvada continues to write her fiction in Hindi, for an audience based primarily in North India – an admirable decision in a time when Hindi-speaking elites from the homeland think it more prestigious to shift their loyalties to English (if they still read at all, that is) and turn their nose up at translations.
The translator as curator
For Daisy Rockwell, the release of her translation of Radhika marks her first novel-length translation published after Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, at a moment when readers, and (hopefully) publishers begin to grant enough importance to South Asian literature in translation.
To stay true to that promise, do we not, then, deserve to give the translator their rightful spot in the limelight? Rockwell’s personal commitment to translating women’s writings from Hindi and Urdu has brought several “lost” classics works to the fore. While Tomb of Sand remains her most famous translation, perhaps more amongst us should see it as the beginning of a reading journey; an invitation to dive into her other completed and forthcoming translations of Usha Priyamvada, Khadija Mastur, Krishna Sobti, and Nisar Aziz Butt – strong women and brilliant writers, all.
But of course, the trail doesn’t end at reading literary translations. As Rockwell herself has called for on previous occasions, it is essential that as readers, we also move towards reading broadly in our own languages, reflecting on the great dynamism we have lost out on by increasingly distancing ourselves from our mother tongues; be it Telugu, or Urdu, or Punjabi.
Perhaps it is finally time to dust off that old copy of Mohan Rakesh or Nanak Singh that is waiting to be read.
Won’t You Stay, Radhika?, Usha Priyamvada, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, Speaking Tiger Books.