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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Modern home design trends that are radically changing living spaces in India

From structure to finishes, modern homes embody lifestyle.

Homes in India are evolving to become works of art as home owners look to express their taste and lifestyle through design. It’s no surprise that global home design platform Houzz saw over a million visitors every month from India, even before their services were locally available. Architects and homeowners are spending enormous time and effort over structural elements as well as interior features, to create beautiful and comfortable living spaces.

Here’s a look at the top trends that are altering and enhancing home spaces in India.

Cantilevers. A cantilever is a rigid structural element like a beam or slab that protrudes horizontally out of the main structure of a building. The cantilevered structure almost seems to float on air. While small balconies of such type have existed for eons, construction technology has now enabled large cantilevers, that can even become large rooms. A cantilever allows for glass facades on multiple sides, bringing in more sunlight and garden views. It works wonderfully to enhance spectacular views especially in hill or seaside homes. The space below the cantilever can be transformed to a semi-covered garden, porch or a sit-out deck. Cantilevers also help conserve ground space, for lawns or backyards, while enabling more built-up area. Cantilevers need to be designed and constructed carefully else the structure could be unstable and lead to floor vibrations.

Butterfly roofs. Roofs don’t need to be flat - in fact roof design can completely alter the size and feel of the space inside. A butterfly roof is a dramatic roof arrangement shaped, as the name suggests, like a butterfly. It is an inverted version of the typical sloping roof - two roof surfaces slope downwards from opposing edges to join around the middle in the shape of a mild V. This creates more height inside the house and allows for high windows which let in more light. On the inside, the sloping ceiling can be covered in wood, aluminium or metal to make it look stylish. The butterfly roof is less common and is sure to add uniqueness to your home. Leading Indian architecture firms, Sameep Padora’s sP+a and Khosla Associates, have used this style to craft some stunning homes and commercial projects. The Butterfly roof was first used by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who later designed the city of Chandigarh, in his design of the Maison Errazuriz, a vacation house in Chile in 1930.

Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Skylights. Designing a home to allow natural light in is always preferred. However, spaces, surrounding environment and privacy issues don’t always allow for large enough windows. Skylights are essentially windows in the roof, though they can take a variety of forms. A well-positioned skylight can fill a room with natural light and make a huge difference to small rooms as well as large living areas. However, skylights must be intelligently designed to suit the climate and the room. Skylights facing north, if on a sloping roof, will bring in soft light, while a skylight on a flat roof will bring in sharp glare in the afternoons. In the Indian climate, a skylight will definitely reduce the need for artificial lighting but could also increase the need for air-conditioning during the warm months. Apart from this cleaning a skylight requires some effort. Nevertheless, a skylight is a very stylish addition to a home, and one that has huge practical value.

Staircases. Staircases are no longer just functional. In modern houses, staircases are being designed as aesthetic elements in themselves, sometimes even taking the centre-stage. While the form and material depend significantly on practical considerations, there are several trendy options. Floating staircases are hugely popular in modern, minimalist homes and add lightness to a normally heavy structure. Materials like glass, wood, metal and even coloured acrylic are being used in staircases. Additionally, spaces under staircases are being creatively used for storage or home accents.

Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Exposed Brick Walls. Brickwork is traditionally covered with plaster and painted. However, ‘exposed’ bricks, that is un-plastered masonry, is becoming popular in homes, restaurants and cafes. It adds a rustic and earthy feel. Exposed brick surfaces can be used in home interiors, on select walls or throughout, as well as exteriors. Exposed bricks need to be treated to be moisture proof. They are also prone to gathering dust and mould, making regular cleaning a must.

Cement work. Don’t underestimate cement and concrete when it comes to design potential. Exposed concrete interiors, like exposed brick, are becoming very popular. The design philosophy is ‘Less is more’ - the structure is simplistic and pops of colour are added through furniture and soft furnishings.

Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)
Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)

When building your home, it is important to use strong and durable materials. A value-added premium product with high compressive strength, Birla Gold cement is used to make tough, impermeable concrete that sets quickly, lasts long and minimises cracking. Its durability will ensure that your dream home always looks new and the steel structure inside remains protected. Birla Gold offers variants that are optimised for different needs. The unique hydraulic binding properties of the Birla Gold Premium cement variant prevent seepage, making it resistant to even corrosive water, especially important for houses in coastal cities. The Birla Gold Royal cement variant provides very high strength and is perfect for the foundation. As the video below says, with the different varieties of cement that Birla Gold offers, you can build the home of your dreams.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Birla Gold Premium Cement and not by the Scroll editorial team.