In the process of translating Upendranath Ashk’s 1963 Hindi novel set in 1930s’ Jalandhar, Shehar Mein Ghoomta Aina, I encountered a description of Zubeida’s pose and attire that I found quite perplexing. Ashk describes the actress’s garment as follows: “Jumper-numa kameez mein uske patli-patli gori baanhen aur jaanghon tak taangen niraavaran theen” (in her jumper-shaped/style kameez, her pale thin arms, and her legs up to the thighs, were uncovered, i.e., she wore a jumper-style kameez that left bare her pale thin arms and her legs up to the thighs). I wasn’t sure what a jumper-style kameez was, and it didn’t occur to me that she wasn’t wearing some sort of shalwar or pajama, so I couldn’t figure out why Zubeida’s legs were bare.

In a publicity still for the 1931 film 'Alam Ara', the first-ever Indian talkie, the actress Zubeida reclines upon a rocky peak, feet bare, hair loose and flowing, attired in a…now, wait. What is she wearing?
In a publicity still for the 1931 film 'Alam Ara', the first-ever Indian talkie, the actress Zubeida reclines upon a rocky peak, feet bare, hair loose and flowing, attired in a…now, wait. What is she wearing?

Often in such cases, I have to do quite a bit of research to try to figure out what the author meant – no copies of the film Alam Ara have survived, and there aren’t that many people around these days who might know what the author meant by his description. In this case, I was lucky, however: there are stills for the film available on the internet, showing Zubeida in a variety of poses, making it easier to ascertain what she is wearing.

The outfit shown in the still Ashk describes looks like a jungle-print tiered shift, or perhaps a top and skirt. But in other surviving stills, where Zubeida is shown standing, it looks like she is wearing a rather tight sleeveless dress (accessorised with interesting gladiator-style sandals as well!).

Worrying that the descriptive terms I was coming up sounded anachronistic, I decided to confer with Professor Anupama Kapse, a scholar of early Indian cinema at Queens College at the City University of New York. Professor Kapse explained that Zubeida played a gypsy-princess in Alam Ara: “…Surviving stills suggest a sleeveless top or blouse, probably what he means by ‘jumper.’ Her legs appear tied in one of the stills, with Greek style sandals in another.”

She adds that “in one of them, we can see that she is wearing an exotic two-piece jungle print dress offset by her loose, thick hair, characteristics that were vital for evoking an atmosphere of fantasy, ‘wild’ action and adventure. Zubeida was famous for her royal ancestry – her father was the Nawab of Sachin. Her attire and pose combine aristocratic beauty with the glamour of the film world. They also draw on her earlier role as a Romanian-Spanish gypsy dancer in Bulbul-e-Paristan (1926), a lavish costume drama directed by her mother Fatma Begum. Ashk’s detailed description of Zubeida’s costume is quite unusual – most advertisements for Alam Ara focus on the sound and high quality audio equipment. The dress becomes a way of recalling and imagining Zubeida’s feminine charm and star appeal. The passage offers tantalising clues for thinking about the role of fashion in’picturisin’ the earliest film songs, a moment that was nostalgically recreated in Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa (2001).”

Of course, the translator must also be mindful of the author’s style in the original piece of writing as well. It’s unlikely that Ashk would have described the outfit with the Hindi equivalent of a “two-piece animal-print dress,” nor would he have written the description “jungle-print, tiered shift,” even if he’d known such terms. Ashk was writing about the 1930s during the 1960s, and it is most likely that he had nothing to go by but his own thirty-years-distant memory.

There was no Google image search for him, and no historians of early film history to call upon in a jiffy. Though the poster, and the release of the first talkie ever, were clearly extremely memorable, the precise nature of Zubeida’s garment would have been a bit vague in his imagination, not the least because, well, let’s face it, male authors tend not to give elaborate descriptions of female attire.

Think “she wore a flowing blue gown”, versus something like, “she wore a midnight-blue strapless satin ball gown in the style designed by Christian Dior,” which would be much more likely to come from the pen of a woman author, or better yet, a pulp romance novelist or a fashion historian.

At the same time that one must be wary of getting too fashion-specific in one’s translation, it is not always best to simply translate such things literally. Interestingly, there are many terms used in Hindi which are English in origin, but must themselves be translated into different English terms for contemporary clarity. The word “jumper” is a case in point. In American English, a jumper is a type of dress that would generally be worn over a shirt or blouse, but in British English, “jumper” is another word for sweater.

In the case of Zubeida’s jungle-print shift, the former is a more apt description, though one would think it more likely that Ashk would have been familiar with the British definition. In any case, it’s hard to see how the dress looks like a sweater, and one wonders why he didn’t use the word “dress”, which he surely knew; perhaps he felt that comparing the garment with a kameez would make the description more accessible to his Hindi readership. Unfortunately, invoking a kameez in English would be misleading for a contemporary reader.

Despite the fact that Ashk has eschewed the word dress, it seems like the best description of Zubeida’s garment in the still where she’s shown standing, shod in gladiator sandals. But in the reclining-barefoot-on-the-rocks still she seems to be wearing a different outfit. This one does look like a tiered skirt and sleeveless top.

But internet hindsight is twenty-twenty. Ashk clearly did not remember a two-piece outfit. He might not have even remembered the jungle-print fabric (and if he had, what would he have called it?). As much as one is tempted to correct his faulty memory (and ample evidence of his own editing and translation style suggests he would have corrected me, were he in my sea-foam blue hawai chappals) and describe Zubeida’s attire as a “sleeveless animal-print top and matching knee-length skirt,” one cannot get lost in fashion specifics and forget the shocking revelation in the original description: the fact that Zubeida’s arms are totally bare, as are her legs, all the way up to the thigh! (Though using the word “thigh” here makes the length of the skirt sound racier than it is.

In Hindi, the postposition “tak” makes it clear that the bareness goes up to, but does not include, the thigh, whereas in English, there is more ambiguity; that particular skirt length, in English, is known as “knee-length”.)

And thus, the end result (for now) (provisionally) is:

…she wore a sleeveless, knee-length dress, and her thin, pale arms were bare, as were her legs, to above the knee…

Or perhaps, gentle reader, you have a better suggestion?

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 was published in 2016.