Nath Ji and his wife Pyari pass their days with the help of props – reading the newspaper, watching TV, preparing meals, washing dishes. In a new house built late in life, they struggle to hold at bay a staggering loneliness. It is a loneliness that appears in different shapes in this new translation of Hari Krishna Kaul’s stories, For Now It Is Night.
In the story of Nath Ji and Priya, ‘The Lights on the Other Side’, as in ‘A Moment of Madness’, (both from a collection originally published in Kashmiri in 2001), loneliness spirals around a son who has gone abroad to make his fortune. Yet the reader knows that something else also weighs down the couple, something that cannot make a tangible appearance in the story but that attaches itself like a dense weight to everything they say or do. If they feel abandoned, it is not only by their son, but also by their neighbours, their friends, by their city, and perhaps, most painfully, by history and life.
The reader senses their isolation – and worse than isolation, their shame – which teaches them to conceal, from each other and even from themselves, their ardent yet unspeakable desire for a place where they would not feel irreparably misplaced. The intensity of this desire, however, is revealed only at the end of the story. Pyari, who had earlier given up eating mutton after hearing that the meat of ageing cows is often sold as mutton – who had felt revulsion and disgust at the very image of cow slaughter – takes a different position at the end of the story: “Having one’s throat slit is better,” she observes, “than being abandoned”. If earlier she had found her moorings in relating to the cow as a sacred and symbolic creature – and through the cow, in relating to the Hindu community – now she spontaneously identifies with the cow as an abandoned creature, one from whom care and fellowship has been withdrawn. Yes, death seems kinder than such abandonment.
The sense of having been forsaken merges quietly with the shame of encountering one’s essential superfluity. These short stories by the towering Kashmiri writer, Hari Krishna Kaul (1934-2009), translated from Kashmiri by Kalpana Raina, Tanveer Ajsi, Gowhar Fazili and Gowhar Yaqoob, bring into view a figure of the Batta, the Kashmiri Pandit, that one never encounters in popular Indian discourse about Kashmir. Compulsively replaying shrill enmities and self-righteous pieties, apparently impervious to shame, this discourse has systematically eliminated all the layered complexity that Kaul’s stories bring to our attention.
Old or young, Kaul’s Batta often finds himself playing a dubious role in both his private and his public life. Regardless of whether the story centres around hostility between father and son (as in ‘Curfew’ or ‘A Late Winter’), or around a young man desperately seeking recognition and success (as in ‘Twins’ and ‘Dogs’), or indeed, any other theme, the reader is always conscious that there is something else impinging on the situation, bloating and contorting it. Kaul’s skill lies in never attempting to define this “something else.” Like his protagonists, who are aware that the most important things cannot be spoken, he stages this weight as a natural phenomenon: the weather in Kashmir. The cold, the snow, the wind, the rain, the sun, the heat…those immutable forces to which the fragile human body must always adapt lest it perish – these become emblematic of something peculiar to Kashmir. Kaul writes as if what oppresses Kashmiris is no longer something historical, human and contingent, but something irrevocable and unyielding. Yet even as he writes in this way, he knows the duplicity of doing so. Yes, let us blame the weather, he says ironically.
Let us consider, for example, ‘A Song of Despair’ from the collection Haalas Chhu Rotul (1985). The story mocks a generation that prided itself on breaking traditional conventions, that questioned the authority of the father and everything that such authority represents, but that, over time, moulded itself in exactly the same image of the father it had earlier resisted. The narrator, presumably a young man, recounts how, perched on his windowsill on a hot summer night, he watched a series of scenes unfold in a house across the street. As he recounts what he saw, he intersperses his observations with recollections of the past. By the time we reach the conclusion, we know that this is not just a story about Sri Kak Tikoo, Kishan Chand and Roop Ji; that it has assumed allegorical proportions for the narrator himself during the very act of narration; and that what oppresses him is the relentless hold of caste and religious prejudice, the inevitable return of the unyielding father, and above all, his impotent rage against a political class that cynically repeats precisely what it had once defied.
Defiance and transgression appear to him in retrospect as nothing but self-serving claims to power. Yet none of this can be explicitly articulated or acknowledged. Instead, this is all the narrator says: “I felt as if I would scream. [. . .]The night had begun to fade, but my restlessness had not. Usually, if I couldn’t sleep through the night, I would at least close my eyes at dawn. But tonight sleep was certainly upset with me, hiding far away. The heat, and humidity too, hadn’t ebbed. Summers are like this: the days burn you and the nights boil you; the evenings suffocate you and the mornings bring no relief.” The cyclical return of the unendurable is thus transposed on to the weather – the extreme, relentless, exceptional weather of Kashmir. If one detects irony here – the author’s gentle mockery of the narrator’s self-deception or self-protection – this irony nevertheless remains enmeshed in despair. We are aware that the story sings not just Khan Sahib’s or the narrator’s, but also Kaul’s, song of despair.
Quotidian encounters, insults and conversations assume an epic proportion in another story from the same 1985 collection, a story titled ‘That Which We Cannot Speak Of’. The Kashmiri Pandit who doesn’t deceive himself understands very well that what appears as unprovoked aggression on the part of working class Muslims is at least partly produced by an enduring pact among educated, middle-class Muslims and Hindus. The obscenity of this pact, which silently reserves and distributes resources within its limited circle, cannot escape those kept outside the circle. (Indeed, one should pay attention to the entire system of front rows and back rows, front doors and back doors, those let in and those kept out, that structures many of these stories). The narrator of this story is aware of this, and yet he is unable to plumb the depths of his own aversion to the barber Magga, who, by the sheer force of his aggression, pushes the narrator to confront his own corruption, as well as that of his community.
As the story progresses, we descend deeper and deeper into a thicket of compromises and spite – a web of negotiation interwoven with a web of mutual suspicion. Thus the very act of storytelling is presented here as one that inevitably betrays secrets that the narrator would rather have withheld – in the act of telling, “blunders” are made and what should be hidden is clumsily brought to light. But what is brought to light is never an explanation or a meaningful revelation, only more and more stories – a sequence of related, interconnected shapes each of which withhold their final meaning.
In his often-cited 1936 essay on the storyteller, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin presented us with a paradox. He wrote that storytelling has declined because our ability to communicate our experience, which is of the essence in storytelling, has waned. Yet it is not easy to understand what Benjamin means by such communication, since the stories to which he refers as models are those that do not in fact communicate a meaning or a moral to the reader. What they communicate, instead, is a plot without any attempt at psychologisation, so that the listener is provoked to ruminate, to puzzle over what has happened. The function of stories, Benjamin seems to say, is to bring us closer to the enigmas of human history – enigmas of which death remains both the limit and the custodian.
If Hari Krishna Kaul’s stories often withhold explanation, this does not only render the stories more memorable, more capable of being deeply absorbed by the listener or the reader, as Benjamin suggests in his essay. It also lets the reader be absorbed precisely by their stifling insularity. That is perhaps why these stories make no attempt to breach this insularity by explicitly connecting the Kashmir they describe with a wider geopolitical domain. By the time we read the last stories of the collection, from a collection published in 2001, it becomes apparent that the claustrophobic insularity that some of the other stories obliquely critique has itself become, for those exiled from it, a lost and desired object. This may be why such insularity must be kept intact, at least for Kaul’s generation of Pandits.
Although translations of fiction are almost always a labour of love, in reading translations one rarely feels that the translation itself is a gift to the original. By this I mean, not that the translation extends the life of the original, or brings to it a new readership – that, of course, most translations do. I mean, rather, that the translation itself somehow intervenes in, rearranges, addresses, the very anxieties that traverse the original. Without offering any facile hope or resolution to the loss or despair of which these stories speak – indeed, precisely by staying close to this despair (For Now, It Is Night) – the translation is nevertheless able to enact and hence generate a kind of community that only appears as an absence in these stories – namely, a community of Kashmiris, both Muslim and Hindu, who, even if they might have left Kashmir, have abandoned neither Kashmir nor those who, like Kaul, kept attentive vigil over its vicissitudes.
There is much more that could be said about these stories – for example, about the wry humour that leavens them, the spirit of Kafka that sometimes seems to flash across a story, the impress of the great Akhtar Mohiuddin on Kaul’s writing, and the rigorous economy of the translation. There are many questions I puzzled over as I read: was Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ on Kaul’s mind when he wrote ‘The Mourners’? Are these stories taught in Kashmir today, and if so, how are they taught? What do contemporary Kashmiri readers make of the thinly veiled allusions to homosexuality? Had Kaul read Ismat Chughtai? What were some of the most difficult phrases and words to translate into English? Other readers will doubtless ponder over their own questions as they read these stories. I only hope that there will be many such readers, for the labour of love that has produced this beautiful translation will find fertile ground only if we read, reflect upon, and in turn translate these stories into our own thought-worlds.
Simona Sawhney teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Delhi.