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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.