When Mangalesh Dabral steered away from Urdu words when translating Jaya Ganga into Hindi

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This Number Does Not Exist, yeh number maujood nahin hai. The lines between Mangalesh Dabral’s verse and reality blurred for Paris-based Indian writer-filmmaker Vijay Singh last year, around this time, when the Hindi poet was claimed by COVID-19. Having never met the poet-translator — who had translated poets/writers such as Pablo Neruda, Zbigniew Herbert, Bertolt Brecht and Arundhati Roy (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness/Apaar Khushi ka Gharana) — for Singh, 69, Dabral will remain only a telephone voice. One with whom he had deliberated on love, life, death, poetry, music, rivers, mountains.

Thirty-six years since Singh’s debut French novel Jaya Ganga: le Gange et son Double (1985), reprints/translations (Jaya Ganga: In Search of the River Goddess, 1989), and a Hindi film (Smriti Mishra-starrer Jaya Ganga, 1996; available on Cinemasofindia.com), comes its first Hindi edition (by Rajkamal Prakashan) and an English reprint (Rupa Publications), released recently.

Vijay Singh Soul search: Indian writer-filmmaker Vijay Singh. (Source: Sanjay Acharya)

In the early 1980s, Singh, a PhD student at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, wrote a fact-cum-fiction article on the caste-class intersectionality of modern Indian society and polity, which was published in the French daily Le Monde. That landed him a book deal with Editions Ramsay publishers, to sketch a portrait of India, to be released at the 1985 Festival of India, an event that showcase the country’s rich and diverse culture. An inexplicable fascination for the writings of the surrealism master André Breton (especially Nadja, 1928), and his exposition of “sensuality… love, chance encounters”, had taken the Jawaharlal Nehru University history student to Paris, where, he met Breton’s artist-writer wife Elisa, and, through her, the intellectual crème de la crème.

The book commission prompted Singh to embark on a Ganga yatra, from Gomukh (Uttarakhand) to Gangasagar (Bay of Bengal), a pilgrimage-cum-romantic-odyssey, albeit without forethought. “Till today, there’s no proper navigation till Allahabad (Prayagraj),” says Singh, who’d changed 200 boats, and travelled by Jeep, over six months.

There was no directional help at hand. “No sadhu, no guru I met had done this journey,” he says, “The book kind of ends in Benares; my journey from there on was less difficult. Ganga has been very kind to me.” The journey “showed (him) the Hindu underbelly the Western rationalist had consigned to the dustbin of history”. Among other things, he met people who couldn’t pay Rs 150 to cremate the dead, so they tied it to a stone, and when the river receded, the bodies surfaced, and the dogs attacked — it isn’t just a post-COVID reality. With Ganga as a narrative thread and metaphor, Singh marries spirituality with surrealism. Fiction and poetry meets memory, travelogue, reportage, letter, history. Jaya Ganga, an instance of automatic writing, is an “empirically, realistically verifiable fictional search,” he says.

The story follows the semi-autobiographical young Paris-based writer Nishant who, haunted by Jaya’s memory (part-real, part-fantasy), undertakes a journey along the Ganga, and plans to write a book on it. On the river banks, he meets Zehra, a poetess/nautch girl, falls in love, rescues her from the brothel, instils hope of a better future together. Nishant is a soul in limbo, torn between the past and the present, ephemerality and physicality. The elusive Jaya is the Bretonian “convulsive beauty” (like Nadja), in whose quest lies the author’s search for

Jaya Ganga, the book, carries backstories, intertextuality, and inadvertent humour, like a tea-shop conversation, where people authoritatively declare an atom bomb has killed thousands in Bhopal, a reference to the 1984 gas tragedy. Dabral, a man of simple words, was alienated by some of the “baroque-like”, “flowery prose” in Jaya Ganga. “Double adjectives”, which work in English, “become a catastrophe in Hindi and French,” says Singh, whose preference for reported speech met Dabral’s emphasis on the dialogue format.

Dabral also steered away from using Urdu words (rihaish/residency, shaista/civilised), which were used in the film. “He bequeathed the language back to the actors of history, whom I had distorted by writing in English and French,” says Singh. Dabral, whose poetry includes untranslatable English words, was not a linguistic puritan. In Jaya Ganga, the untranslatable lines were either deleted or, the pathniye (readable) ones, reimagined. For instance, in Nishant’s letter, Dabral turned “You are the miracle by which leaves change colours/The magic by which Ganga wears her sparrow-veil” into “Pattiyon ke rang badalta chamatkar ho tum/Aik sammohan apsara ka devavtar ho tum”. After Dabral’s immaculate rendering, Singh wants to get his Whirlpool of Shadows (1992) translated into Hindi. “Among all my books, this (Jaya Ganga’s Hindi edition) is the first one which is the closest to the French edition.”

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