In 1971, Kunwar Narain’s collection of short stories, Aakaaron Ke Aaspaas (Near and Around Shapes) was published, years after the stories were written in the preceding decade, a period riven by turbulence and agitations in India and across the world. By the time the book was published, India had just emerged from the tumultuous years of the Naxalite movement and was headed towards a war with Pakistan that would reshape the subcontinent’s identities.

In the author’s preface to the collection, Narain writes, “By nature, I like to speak my mind in a calm manner, and so also prefer to speak in calm, gentle environments.” The Play of Dolls presents the stories from this first Hindi collection, translated by John Vater and Apurva Narain. Thoughtfully structured in a sequence that reflects the evolving exploration of key ideas, the stories carry the tone of “calm” in a sea of turbulence, emphasising the rational, the conversational, the internal, vis-à-vis the external world with its demands and upheavals.

The motif of puppeteering

The 16 stories in the collection are bookended by “The Court of Public Opinion” and “Near and Around Shapes”. Written with controlled humour and irony, “Court of Public Opinion” reflects deep insight into the nature of human perception and response and its vulnerability to manipulation both at the levels of individual and collective sense of agency. This motif of puppeteering and of being controlled forms a substratum for the stories, imbuing them, even if not directly or absolutely, with their ironical tone.

It is this sense of being controlled by something beyond ourselves that also creates the arena for much of the grappling and search for clarity. The titular story conveys this tension through elegant poise and counterpoise of questions and responses that draw two individuals together as well as pull them apart, a fluid world of metaphysics and reality in which a culvert on which the characters sit becomes the only real point of communication and contact between them. As the dolls are turned and tossed up, played by an invisible hand, the gaze shifts from them and extends to envelop the characters, and in doing so, also sets up an internal dialogue with readers, especially through the narrative’s gaps and ellipses.

Where opponents parry one another

The metaphor of fear, the metaphysics of life and living are explored in an almost Kafkaesque manner in stories like “Fear” and “Suicide”. In “The Other Face”, the limits of perception and the overreach of imagination are like palimpsests, one intensifying the other till the image that comes together seems surrealistic, dreamlike, as if occurring on another plane where we have willed it into being.

In “Achala and Achal”, the exploration of love and the difficulty of arriving at a conclusion continues from the titular story. In this story, experimental, thought provoking, more treatment of an idea than plot movement, love itself is not the destination; only meanings accumulating along the way, to be sorted and understood by each reader, a pact between narrator and reader.

In “A Fight between Two Men,” Narain uses gentle, fabulaic humour to present a dark commentary on human action and reaction; the propensity for violence; for the superiority of might; of vicarious enjoyment; of history’s inability to record truth as it is. The multiple layers of perception could be accommodated only with experimental storytelling. In a twist of the fabulaic form, the viewpoint shifts from squabbling humans to animals as they gape in amazement at these creatures fighting each other to death.

The universe of human interaction, then, is seen as an arena where opponents parry one another, each fighting for not only survival but also the upper hand. It could end in annihilation, as in “A Fight between Two Men” or in acknowledgement of each other’s business acumen as in “The Knife’s Edge.” In either case, the ability to bargain and fight one’s way out of the situation seems to be the only option.

This idea of sport/war between individuals, individuals and society/the world, a constant attempt to better the other, a transactional paradigm that the characters must negotiate before they can reach the truth of their human condition and its acceptance underlines many of the stories. In “The Shirt,” the one who seeks truth has to combat the world with the realisation that the world is a cage and there is no running away from it, that it both traps and lets loose, and in either condition, there is nothing to do but accept and move on. The light-heartedness of the earlier stories gives way to grimness here, as if finally arriving at a sad truth.

Yet, it is this truth that has to negotiate with itself once again as we arrive at the final story, “Near and Around Shapes”. It brings the book to a sense of closure, to acceptance and to submission, to embracing the world, the narrative arc moving from “Fear” to this last story that sheds anxiety and inhibition.

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017) was integral to the Nayi Kavita movement, but he defies categorisation into watertight compartments, writing across genres (poetry, literary criticism, fiction, essays, translation), in various forms, using history, myth, fable, moulding them to the fictional purpose and context. His writing is spare, parabolic, combining narrative economy within an acute awareness of the Indian ecosystem within which it is embedded.

In his stories, human beings are sometimes epitomised, turned into philosophical metaphors or habits of the mind rather than of action. At others, they are puppets made to dance to an unheard tune. They are also, often, actors on a stage, the object of entertainment and amusement for animals who come out on top. The sense of alienation and metamorphosis is a fluid state of being in Narain, moderated by a deep humanism.

Ear to the page

The translators have retained the flavour and fragrance of the original, most evocative in “The Knife’s Edge”, while obviously adding their own understanding of the writer’s nuances and shifts in registers. For the reader familiar with Hindi literature, the stories often come alive with an extra zing when read with an ear to the page, clued in to the intonations, as in the interactions between Big Brother and Small Brother in “The Knife’s Edge”.

However, “The Mughal Sultanate and the Bhishti”, the only story in the collection that has a historical setting, seems somewhat weighed down by the lack of a comparable register to match the mix of Hindi and Urdu that would have conveyed more clearly the social, hierarchical implications and resonances inherent to the context. Still, these problematics of approximation and closeness to the original are familiar to readers of translations; in this case, they do not obstruct the enjoyment of these stories.

The translators’ experiential account provides an insight into the process.

“Translating Narain… felt akin to the author’s description of translating Borges: ‘an adventure into the unknown’. His stories traverse social, personal, historical and metaphysical planes, all of which call upon a rich diversity of registers, moods and content, making one strategy impossible. His language is multidimensional. Along with their narrative, his stories are unique in how they communicate through charged clusters of words, and the rasa-like resonance of archetype, history and myth, which must have touched the minds of his Hindi readers at various levels. One major challenge… was to balance their manifold layers of philosophy, poetry and storytelling. Fidelity towards the Hindi and creativity with the English were both needed.”

— Introduction, ‘The Play of Dolls’.

The insertion of the original titles would have been interesting and a clearer timeline in which the stories were written would have helped understand the writer’s evolving approach and enriched the reader.

Narain’s poetic vision, coupled with an observer’s sensibilities and the placement of narrator and reader at close proximity, sets up a conversation between not just the characters and readers but also, and primarily, between the issues he writes about – bureaucratic hebetude, transactional lives, women’s exploitation, the lack of rationalisation – and the readers, such that it compels introspection or at least thoughtfulness.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and editor.

The Play of Dolls, Kunwar Narain, translated by Apurva Narain and John Vater, Penguin Modern Classics.