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Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande

Prabha Khaitan “A Life Apart: An Autobiography” Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande

I recently read Prabha Khaitan’s autobiography A Life Apart, translated from Hindi, Anya se Ananya. Prabha Khaitan was from Calcutta, belonged to a prosperous family but chose to be an entrepreneur, a leather exporter. She was also a well-known Hindi writer. According to the information on the internet, her leather business was a multi-crore business. A Life Apart is a memoir that recounts her childhood, the sexual abuse that she suffered as a child (she was advised to hush it up), her experiences in America and the culture shock she experienced but she concentrates predominantly upon her lifelong relationship with Dr Saraf. She was obviously devoted to the man and his family. She remarks “my life was divided into three areas: business, creative writing and my emotional involvement. the first two were on track but my personal life gave me neither peace nor joy.” Dr Saraf’s son had become a part of her business and yet “instead of being praised for my generosity, I had to constantly hear his sarcastic comments about my passionate involvement in business matters.” Dr Saraf would complain “You are becoming like a man. All you can think of is profit and loss.’ Then, as a final barb, he’d say, ‘And why not? After all, this is how a successful business is run.’ Namita Gokhale writes in her introduction says “Pratibha Khaitan’s writing for me, lies precisely in this unwavering, unblinking, truthfulness.”

What is curious is that Prabha Khaitan was obviously a successful independent single woman, at a time when it was unusual and rarely heard of. Yet her memoir reflects the dichotomy in her life. Instead of being a balanced view of her writing, business and her personal life, it is wholly preoccupied with Dr Saraf and ends with his death on 10 Jan 1993. The last para is:

“At the memorial meeting held for him, he was remembered by several prominent personalities for his many qualities. He was called one of Calcutta’s most eminent citizens, a philanthropoist and a brilliant doctor who was survived by his wife and children.
Of a woman called Prabha Khaitan, there was no mention.”

The translation is super. Unfortunately the translator, Ira Pande has not written a word about her engagement with the text. A pity, since it would have been a pleasure to read what Ira Pande had to say about the process. She is always so informative and interesting about translation methodologies, including about the tricky area of transliteration, transcreation and/or translation. For someone like her, who is an accomplished translator ( Diddi and T’Ta Professor ) and fluent in Hindi and English, it is always a delight to hear her discuss translations and literature. She lives it. She breathes it. Hence it was very disappointing not to have a note by her. Making a text available in English for a larger market is I think insufficient, especially when it involves a translated text. The original writer has been heard, but the translator is an equally important part of the process. They too must be given space in the printed word.

3 May 2013

Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart: An Autobiography Translated from the Hindi original by Ira Pande. Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp. 280. Rs. 395

Tales of Partition, my review of Mahmudul Haque’s “Black Ice”

Tales of Partition, my review of Mahmudul Haque’s “Black Ice”


July 19, 2012 By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Black Ice
By Mahmudul Haque
Translated by Mahmud Rahman
Harper Perennial
pp.123, Rs 199

Black Ice by Mahmudul Haque is about Abdul Khaleeq, a college lecturer in a village in newly independent Bangladesh. One day, he decides to start writing about his childhood and the memory floodgates open with such a force, leaving him withdrawn, confused and morose. His wife, Rekha, observes that he sleeps curled, with his knees drawn up and his arms folded tightly around him.

Initially, his account is peaceful and placid, with happy memories of childhood, discovering the world, under the protection of his family. As he attempts to recollect incidents from the past, the anecdotes become broken and he begins to find solace in his conversations with the local physician (a Hindu) and a friend, Dr Narbari. At first, it seems that the gentle documentation of daily life in the village is perfect. In the rainy season, “the rough-and-tumble villages take on a look of wild grace and tenderness”. But scratch the surface and there is discontentment and unease everywhere, compounded by the growing communal tension. Dr Narbari mentions casually that while buying fish in the market, he was taunted as a “malaun”, a derogatory term for Hindus.

There is confusion amongst the Muslims as well, what is their homeland — Pakistan or this new country Bangladesh? The veneer of tranquillity that the hustle-bustle of daily life in the village is as treacherous as black ice — “a rapid shift was taking place all around us. We didn’t understand any of it.”

The theme of war, consequently the notion of displacement and questions about national identity dominate Bangladeshi literature. As the translator of Kalo Borof, Mahmud Rahman says in a recent lecture he delivered: “We are migrant people”. So it is not at all surprising to have most forms of literature reflecting upon the journey back to 1971, year of independence/partition from Pakistan.

According to him Mahmudul Haque’s novels are “penned looking at the period from the eyes of the characters but remaining aloof from the story”. A very tough requirement, especially when the author has witnessed the two partitions of the country in 1947 and 1971. In fact, as a 10-year-old boy, who migrated to East Pakistan (Dhaka) from West Bengal (Barasat, Calcutta), he was lost and bewildered and actually tried to reverse the journey — Train to Narayanganj, steamer to Goalondo, train to Barasat.

Finally to settle in Dhaka, where he became a writer and is known primarily for his short fiction. He mastered the art of the local dialects and infused them into his literature (much of which is unfortunately lost in Black Ice), but the powerful story remains, with the trauma of the war upon the people conveyed acutely even when read in English. Mahmudul Haque is a storyteller who is known for his brevity, and his short fiction Black Ice is a good example of it.

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