I admit I am spoilt for choice. There are so many books that I want to write about, and I remember I have promised I would introduce a woman writer. And considering the events that have lately been disturbing the Indian literary scene, I am referring to the harassment of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan by right wing forces, I guess I need to write about a book which documents a similar incident somewhere along the plotline. Therefore, my next choice is Shanta Gokhale’s Tya Varshi (Marathi) or Crowfall (English).
I have more reasons why I should write about Shanta Gokhale in a blog about translations. The writer has translated her own novel from Marathi to English.
The book therefore has not gone through the sieve of creativity of another wordsmith or the nuances of a mediator language. Perhaps that is why it reads like an excellent original, and qualifies as an outstanding translation.
A little history here: Marathi is the language of the Indian state of Maharashtra located on the west coast of India and its literature is one of the richest among Indian languages, especially its theatre tradition. In case you cannot instantly recall the map of India to mind, just think Bombay or Mumbai as you know it now. This island which was once a part of the dowry of a Portuguese princess (Catherine of Braganza) to Charles II of England, was once called ‘the island of good life’ or Bom bahi ‘the good way’. Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra.
However, Gokhale writes about a year in which Bombay or Mumbai does not have much good to remember. The title of the Marathi edition is ‘Tya Varshi’ which means ‘That Year’. Gokhale definitely refers to more than a period here; she starts her narration with a violent scene from the infamous riots in Mumbai in 1993-94 and concludes with the news of the tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean in 2004. However, her theme is quite detached from political violence or natural disasters: which is the Mumbai art and music scene and its cultural tensions.
Gokhale is a renowned art critic and knows what she is writing about; her familiarity with the scenario comes out in the writing as deft sketches. However, that is not the entire story; it is only the setting and the playground of a couple of the main protagonists. Call it Mumbai redux or Middle Mumbai, Shanta Gokhale butts into the life of three painters, a teacher, a musician and a journalist, all in Mumbai, and observes their life for a year, and goes on to narrate the story of a totally different character, Sindhutai Joshi.
Sindhutai, is the mother of two of the protagonists, the teacher and the younger painter, and lives away from them. As in any Indian book, marriage or absence of marriage is a hot topic between the mother and her off spring, and painter does marry the journalist later on. But it’s the mother who surprises her children as well the reader with her deep involvement with one Dr. Bhaskar, a new entrant on the scene. No, it’s not love. The physically absent father of her children, known as Anna, is ever present in the story thread. So is his crony Bachchu Kaka, as also the non-entity Prakash who eventually flies to the top of social lists and most importantly a tribal woman called Girji, who is a practitioner of the ancient art of Worli. There are plenty of sub-plots to chew in the thread, and each story has its place.
The opening act of Anima, the daughter of Sindhutai, tearing up her diary is significant because this is a document of grief. Her beloved spouse died in the riots, and she had been using her journal as an escape mechanism. Each of them has his or her private hell, some of which are intertwined with another’s heaven. Then there are misguided religious odysseys, a world of art which is uneasy for genuine art practitioners and people who experiment in art; and where mediocrity rules the charts, and moral policing becomes the norm of the day. It’s an insider’s view.
The end is not happy, at least not for all, but what defines happiness? Who defines it for you? We are bound to think of a lot more, like how relationships happen and are defined and how even a mother may become inaccessible to a child, and remember this happens in an Indian context. Unthinkable, yet happening definitely! A lovely book, this! Witty, satiric, economical, yet it sketches incredible pictures of each life that passes through its pages.
Crowfall is an unforgettable book.
Bio: Shanta Gokhale is a Mumbai-based Marathi novelist, playwright, translator, bilingual columnist, theatre historian and critic. She has two novels, one play, a critical study of Marathi theatre and five translations to her credit. She has also written screenplays for several films and documentaries. Her Marathi novel Rita Welinkar published in 1992 and Tya Varshi published in 2005 won the Maharashtra State Award for the best novel of the respective years.