Chronicling the Falling Middle Class Walls of Punjab

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Upendranath Ashk
Falling Walls
Translated by Daisy Rockwell
Penguin, 2015, pp. 486, Rs. 499.

Comparisons have often been made between Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Upendranath Ashk’s Girti Deewarein, and with good reason. Both novels run into seven volumes, are semi-autobiographical, rely on a host of associative memories relived through a complicated series of flashbacks, both have somewhat earnest protagonists who are struggling to become writers and in both cases the writer died while he was still writing the seventh volume of his magnum opus.

Also, both Remembrance… and Girti Deevarein are urban legends: more talked about than actually read, for few can claim to have read all seven of these densely written epics.

Of course there are the differences: Proust documents the life of a well-to-do upper-class Parisian while Ashk chronicles a lower middle-class Punjabi with little money to spare for the small luxuries of life. If it is the dainty Madeleine cake served in his aunt’s well-appointed parlour that becomes a memory trigger to a privileged childhood in one, there is the harshness of an alcoholic father’s curse-laden voice that brings back a host of painful memories in the other. But underlying both memories and common to the narrative style of both novels is a relentless detailing, a piling up of images. Nothing is too small or too insignificant: the exact shape of an eyebrow, the names of mohallas, streets and bastis, the way light falls at a certain time of the day in a certain place, everything is recalled in its exactness and entirety. And it is this that makes both riveting reading.

Ashk is fortunate to have found Daisy Rockwell as his translator for not only does she have the stamina and tenacity to take on this mammoth cycle of novels but also seems to have a rare devotion for Ashk himself. Not the most affable of souls, he was famous for his run-ins with fellow writers, most notably Manto, for whom he wrote Manto Mera Dushman (‘Manto My Enemy’). He was also known to be prickly if not outright contentious about his own writings and how others viewed it. Yet 20 years ago, Rockwell came down to Allahabad as a research scholar, met Ashk, interviewed him at length, wrote her doctoral thesis on his work and has continued to translate him ever since. In between, she has also pursued a parallel career as a painter and written a volume of essays on the global war on terror as well as a novel of her own. Asked what draws her to Ashk time and again and why, like a homing pigeon, she comes back to his work after circling the literary skies, she points to its intrinsic appeal for any creative person. In revisiting Girti Deevarein and its long-drawn out tortuous journey of self-discovery, she says she finds a reflection of her own search for creative expression.

Upendranath Ashk. Photo courtesy of Neelabh

Upendranath Ashk. Photo courtesy of Neelabh

The first of the seven-volume set, translated by Rockwell as Falling Walls, is the story of Chetan, a young Punjabi man born in a poor mohalla of Jalandhar who escapes the drudgery of a school master’s job by fleeing to Lahore where he hopes to become a writer and also eke out a living by working in one of the many newspaper offices that flourish in the city. Despite all its minutiae of time and circumstance, all the explicit details one young man’s life, his trials and tribulations, his intellectual and sexual urges, his marriage to a dowdy young woman he doesn’t especially care for somewhere, Falling Walls somehow becomes compelling reading simply because it transcends the personal and particular. In its slow unfurling of a mind looking to expand its horizon, in its insistent exploration of the darkest recesses of the human heart it no longer remains just the story of one young man.

Also, given its richly textured narrative, its setting in provincial Punjab and its depiction of a Punjabi youth struggling to find his feet in a literary world dominated by Urdu writers, it chronicles a world located at the cusp of change. The reformist movement spearheaded by the Arya Samaj, the arrival of a new breed of ‘service-class’ people, namely those who work in the newly-established colonial enterprises as station masters, construction supervisors, overseers as well as those who provide a host of ancillary services to an emerging native middle class such as teachers, dentists, dry cleaners, etc. provide a startlingly new list of dramatis personae. Chetan is both witness and participant in this change. He sees and approves the inroads made by the Arya Samajis in reducing the burden of tradition. He encourages his newly-wed bride to drop the veil, resume her education and generally free herself from the shackles of the past. An earnest, even occasionally self-righteous young man, he condemns depravity in others though he himself is prey to all manner of deviant urges. Ashk is nothing if not brutally honest in his portrayal of all that afflicts a young man raised by a devout mother and depraved father in an atmosphere of utter suppression of the most natural of human impulses.

What emerges, then, from a reading of Falling Walls – and it must be admitted that the first 20-odd pages are heavy going till the insistent pull of the novel holds you captive and makes you read all of its 486 densely-packed pages – is the arresting portrait of a young man wanting to become an artist. That Ashk is not James Joyce and Chetan is not Stephen Dedalus nor is Jalandhar remotely close to Dublin is another matter.

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on literature, culture and society and translates from Urdu

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