Library of India

Why Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk could be India’s Marcel Proust

The translator of Ashk’s epic seven-volume novel ‘Falling Walls’ explains the similarities with Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’.

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is one of those books that most literary people have heard of but few have read. The sheer size of the thing puts people off, as do the first few hundred pages, which do move a bit slowly. The fact that the pace picks up after two hundred or so pages is not enough to help many readers get over the hump of nightly dozing off after getting through another half page.

I first read Proust in late monsoon in south Delhi in 1996. The air was thick with humidity, I had research visa problems and had to remain in the capital for some time, so Proust’s endless dinner parties provided a welcome respite. I was in India to do doctoral research on the Girti Divarein novel series by Hindi novelist Upendranath Ashk.

But reading Proust was not a waste of my valuable research time; the fact was that I had quoted in my research proposal another scholar who had compared Ashk to Proust. I had asserted that Upendranath Ashk was the Hindi Proust without technically having read Proust. I had a few months before read War and Peace on a similar mission, to see if Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach (This is Not that Dawn) could be called the Hindi War and Peace. So, reading the much longer Remembrance of Things Past to compare it to the much longer Girti Divarein was just taking the comparison project to the next level.

Unlike, but alike

Even a cursory examination will make it clear that there are many things that are dissimilar between the two books. Ashk’s protagonist Chetan is a lower middle class Punjabi man; Proust’s narrator Marcel is upper middle class and Parisian. Chetan’s childhood friends include goondas, yunani quacks, ersatz street poets and assorted lafungas. Marcel mixes with petty aristocrats, socialites and brilliant composers.

Proust writes sentences that go on forever; Ashk prefers a more staccato rhythm. When Ashk flashes back, it’s usually for less than ten pages; Proust can flash back for hundreds of pages. Chetan is raised on a steady diet of beatings and neglect; Marcel is taken for strolls in the Tuileries and summers by the sea.

In fact, when one thinks of it, how can a novel of lower middle class Jalandhar, however epic in scope, be compared to Proust’s magnum opus of refined tastes and erudite observations on the nature of time? But there are actually many points of commonality.

Both are seven volumes long. Both feature a thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist, a more gullible, clueless, fallible character than the man who created him. Both are funny, in a tragicomic sort of way. Both document the experiences of one human being so exhaustively that they sweep up all the history, culture, and geography that lies within their vicinity. A personal history becomes the encyclopedic cultural history of an era.

The map of Paris comes alive before us in Proust; in Ashk, it’s Jalandhar and Lahore. Both document memory triggers in meticulous detail: for Proust, it’s madeleines; a phrase in a particular piece of music; an uneven paving stone in Venice. For Ashk, it’s a wooden flute; a Punjabi folk song; his father’s drunken bellowing. Above all, both novels explore the making of a writer, while simultaneously serving as the principal example of the real writer’s oeuvre. Indeed, both authors died before they finished their seventh volumes; their books had become synonymous with their lives.

Did Ashk know his Proust?

Proust died in 1922; Ashk was born in 1910. The English translation of the first six volumes of Proust’s novel were published in the year of his death. Ashk never read Proust, but at some point in his life, he was told about Proust’s work, and the comparisons were made. He had read some modernists – he cites Virginia Woolf in particular – but he felt just as profoundly influenced by the novel Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland, the 1915 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, who was very popular with Indian writers in the 1930s and 40s, even though his work is little known these days.

Ashk also cites as influences Premchand, Tagore and Chekhov. But of Proust he knew little until well after the first volume of his novel was published in 1947, and indeed, progressive that he was (with a small ‘p’; he fell out with the Progressive Writers’ Association early and often), he might not have had much time for the aristocratic longings of Proust’s Marcel.

My translation of the first volume of Girti Divarein finally done, I was finally able to give the book to my husband, who’d been living with the text for decades without ever being able to read it. It was by strange coincidence that this happy event occurred right before a trip to France, and that he had the opportunity to read Ashk in Paris, walking the streets of Jalandhar, Lahore and Shimla in the evenings, while visiting Proust’s haunts during the day, a literal book end to my reading of Proust in Delhi nearly twenty years before.

Daisy Rockwell is a writer, painter and translator living in the United States. She is author of The Little Book of Terror, a collection of essays and paintings on the global war on terror; a novel, Taste; and a biography of Upendranath Ashk. She has translated Upendranath Ashk's short stories, Hats and Doctors, and Ashk's novel, Falling Walls; her new translation of Bhisham Sahni's Tamas is due out in 2016.

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