Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anchored to the Past

[The following book review of Farewell Red Mansion, by Sharat Kumar, appeared, with some edits, in the Deccan Herald a while ago]

One problem with reading a translated book is not knowing whether the negatives you find in the book were there in the original or whether they crept in during the translation and editing. It’s a bit like watching a ‘theater-print’ of a movie on a pirated DVD and wondering whether the colours were faded in the original or in the DVD.

The source of some problems in this book, though, is clear. The grammar has typically Indian mistakes – ‘the’s are missing where needed; odd usages of words come in sometimes – ‘would’ instead of ‘will’. There are also places where words that are ‘not quite right’ are used – for example, “it is too late to retrieve your steps”, where ‘retrace’ was the right word. The editing and translation definitely needed to be tighter.

But at points when the storyline goes off track, it isn’t obvious whether the Hindi version had the same issues. Towards the end, an unlikeable character suddenly turns desirable with no reason or rationale – this could have been an issue in the original Hindi as well. The way the climax is presented is a surprise and a letdown. All the little problems leave you wondering what a better-done version of this story would have been like.

The core plot itself is passable. The book opens with Samar coming back to Meerut, to meet his dying father for the last time. Afterwards, he decides to sell off the family house, the 'Lal Kothi' or Red Mansion, and starts looking around for a buyer. The house is on prime property, however, and there are many buyers, each trying their own methods to get their hands on the house. Samar and one other relative, Virendra, are the only morally upright characters here, and both are depicted as being anchored to the past. The story takes you through the corruption and hook-or-crook politics rife in small-town India. The events leave you feeling squeamish, like watching a saas-bahu serial or an accident waiting to happen, and yet wanting to know what happens next.

In parallel is the story of Samar’s father, Samarendra, and his wife Rukmini, set in pre-independence India. Samarendra is a college professor and Rukmini is an activist with the Congress party. The story follows them through three or four years as Rukmini makes fiery speeches, saves prostitutes, goes to jail, praises Gandhiji, and gives birth to Samar. All the characters in this segment are idealistic, good-looking, deeply philosophical, and so on, a complete contrast to Samar’s segment of the story.

The two parallel threads serve to underline the author’s viewpoint that values in India society have degenerated in the past few decades. However, with real people having an annoying tendency of being shades of grey instead of black and white, the corruption described in the book probably existed in all eras, so the pre-independence section seems painfully na├»ve. Looking at the book from this angle turns it into a literary version of "In our days, things were so much better…!"

One of the annoying things about the book is that every so often, characters launch into unrelated philosophical and historical discussions. This works if it’s well done (such passages are popular in Hindi literature), but in this case the language suddenly turns preachy and the reader is put off.

The original Hindi book, Lal Kothi Alvida, has been the subject of a TV serial, broadcast on Doordarshan. Sharat Kumar himself also directed a film, Duvidha, based on the novel. Besides this book, he has written two management related books, and novels and short story collections in Hindi.