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Dawn April 9, 2006

REVIEWS: Revolution calling

Reviewed by Rabab Naqvi


IF you like reading literary fiction, you will probably enjoy The Second Nose & Other Stories, the latest translation of short stories by Hindi writer Yashpal (1903-1976) rendered into English by his son, Anand. As a well-respected Hindi literary critic, Virendra Yadav, who has written extensively on Yashpal, said on the occasion of the release of this book in Lucknow: “It is remarkable how well the translation has retained the spirit and flow of the original stories in Hindi.”

Many of Yashpal’s short stories have been translated into English before. Some stories appear here for the first time. As the publisher claims, this particular anthology is meant to give a larger view of Yashpal as a short story writer as well as provide a taste of his forthright approach to the questions of his time.

In Hindi fiction, Yashpal and Premchand are two outstanding writers. Prof Gopi Chand Narang, the eminent Urdu critic, has compared Yashpal’s novel Jhoota Sach to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As a short story writer, Yashpal can be compared to Anton Chekhov. An unflinching realist like Chekhov, Yashpal wrote in the preface of his first collection of short stories, Pinjare ki Uran, that the basis of our imagination lies in the necessities and facts of life. For Yashpal, the only reason for creation of art was the rejection of the ugly.

A prolific writer, the range of his subject is overwhelming. On one hand, he wrote about the social, cultural, and political issues of the day. On the other, he dealt with such esoteric subjects as sea pirates plundering Greek sea-going vessels on the eastern coast of India in the first century AD (das dharm). For him real art was possible only through reasoning and analysis and as such, his approach was always rational. In Yashpal’s writing the message runs deep; forthright and clear, his style is straightforward, and the plot is uncomplicated. There is none of the mind-twisting abstractionism of modern writers such as Naiyer Masud.

Initially, a militant revolutionary with Bhagat Singh and Chander Shekhar Azad, Yashpal arrived late on the literary scene. From the very outset, he began one of his life-long missions: repudiation of what he considered to be backward and unrealistic in Indian society. In his own words, he decided to “fight with bulletins instead of bullets.” And did he ever fight. He fearlessly criticised the British, relentlessly questioned the social customs, cultural traditions, religious practices and political duplicity of his time. In return for his outspokenness, he earned not only the wrath of the British government, but also Congres Party leaders and orthodox Hindus anxious to maintain the status quo.

Yashpal, as Anand says in his introduction, was able to examine the dark corner of the Indian psyche as few of his contemporaries could — the complicity of the Indians with the British. Three stories in the anthology — “Kala admi”, “The testimonial of loyalty” and “The national anthem” — are about such duplicitous characters. Saag depicts how a handful of British succeeded in ruling over millions of Indians. The fear of the white sahib made them suspicious of each other.

The northwestern frontier of India and its rampant tribal rivalry, the locale of several of his works, fascinated Yashpal. He also wrote about the customs and polyandrous family structure of Himalayan communities some of which exist even today. In “The witch”, Surju is forced to sleep with her husband’s brother. Unable to accept the multi-husband custom of her husband’s community, she kills herself for which she is condemned as an outsider and branded a witch. It was pointed out that had she not been a witch, she would not have been afraid to jump into the stream.

Yashpal wrote extensively about the treatment of women as a mere commodity. Surju suffers the centuries-old fate of a doomed woman. In “The second nose”, Shabbu’s husband cuts off her nose to save the family honour. That such mutilation, rape, and murder of women make headlines even in the 21st century is a testimonial both to Yashpal’s foresightedness and his stories, which remain relevant even today. His female characters are the most forceful projection of his desire for social reform. Damanti pays dearly for smoking a cigarette her husband gave her. (“One cigarette”). Kokla in “The robber woman” represents numerous other women living under the threat of starvation. And Phulia of “Honest bread” may sell her body, but returns a large sum of money she found because she says, “I earn my daily bread honestly.”

Unlike the other women characters in the anthology, Urmila in “Borrowed happiness” and Indu in “Ostracised” are educated, modern women. Yet, they are unable to break away from the invisible bond of tradition and choose their own destiny. Whether educated or uneducated, Yashpal’s female characters are strong, intelligent and courageous beings who are caught in a web of unfortunate circumstances not of their own making. In the “Right to grief”, a penniless woman cannot afford the luxury to mourn her dead son because she must sit in the bazar and sell fruits to buy food for the family. For some, even expressing grief was a privilege.

For Yashpal the first condition for social progress was the progress and independence of women. He questioned the hypocrisy of the patriarchal Indian society and its arbitrary dos and don’ts, which were created for the subjugation of women and have become acceptable social norms. In “Ostracised” a professionally successful woman is made to feel that, “Only a man could ... preserve the continuity of life ... Without a male her life cannot be fulfilled.”

“It’s a little-appreciated fact that no other Hindi writer’s work has as many Muslim and Christian characters as Yashpal’s novels and short stories... The other Hindi writer that comes to mind is Premchand, but Yashpal leaves even Premchand far behind in mirroring this aspect of Indian society,” says Anand. The protagonists of three stories in this anthology, “The second nose”, “Kala admi”, and “Honest bread” are Muslims. Yashpal’s best short story on Muslims, “Parda”, has not been translated into English. The last story in the anthology, “The mire of sin”, is about a devout Christian to whom a Jesuit priest gives a set of startling and unconventional instructions.

In the same vein, Yashpal questions the religious myths and superstitions and the need of the people for supplication to a deity or a faith in a combination of subtle humour and tongue-in-cheek approach, in “The devi’s blessing” and “The priest who saw God”. This anthology, a collection of 15 short stories, is representative of the spectrum of Yashpal’s writings.



September 03, 2006

REVIEWS: Breaking the shackles

Reviewed by Rabab Naqvi

Divya is the story of a woman’s struggle to lead her own life. The story is set against the background of the conflict for supremacy between Hindu and Buddhist ideologies in India in the 1st century BC. Ancient India comes alive in all its glory and vigour in this novel by Yashpal translated into English by Anand. It has been hailed as one of the great historical novels in Indian literature. When it was first published in Hindi in 1945, it caused widespread furor because of the author’s portrayal of Divya as a woman who refuses to live by the rules of a male society.

Divya, the granddaughter of the Brahmin chief justice of the Madra republic, is the most talented dancer of the state. Prithusen, Divya’s lover, is an ambitious youth, whose father the merchant prince of Madra was once a slave. Prithusen is declared as the champion of martial arts, but the Brahmin aristocracy refuses to accept him as their equal in spite of his talent and wealth.

Divya, pregnant with Prithusen’s child leaves her grandfather’s house. She is refused shelter in a Buddhist monastery because, as a woman dependent on her family, she does not have the permission of her father or her husband. In desperation, she throws herself and her child into a river. The child is drowned but she is rescued and begins a new life as Anshumala, the chief courtesan and artist of Shursen.

Divya’s repute as the dancer reaches her former teacher Mallika, the chief courtesan of Madra. Mallika, in her old age, is looking for a worthy successor, and travels to Shursen to meet Anshumala. She is surprised and overjoyed when she recognises Divya, and takes her back to Madra.

The Brahmin aristocracies of Madra are now the rulers. The Brahmin chief, Rudradhir, refuses to allow a Brahmin girl to be the chief courtesan. He asks her to become his wife and the first lady of the state. Divya turns him down because she does not want to lose her independence. By losing herself she cannot remain alive, she says. Prithusen, her former lover now a Buddhist monk, offers her the shelter of his religion. Divya again rejects the offer saying “A woman’s religion is not Nirvana, but creation.” Marish, a philosopher who has no worldly possessions and who is an old acquaintance and admirer of Divya, offers his companionship as a male to an independent female. Divya accepts.

When the book first came out, the assertions by Divya such as “the mistress of a noble family is not a free woman, she is not independent like a disreputable courtesan,” outraged many of Yashpal’s contemporaries. But over the years, a core of younger critics and scholars continued to stand by Yashpal’s revolutionary ideas.

As Kamleshwar, the well-known Hindi writer and television personality said in a television interview, “Divya proves that Yashpal’s first and foremost concern is the tragedy of unequal status of women ... Yashpal was not just a revolutionary who fought for India’s independence; his ideas and his contribution to Indian literature were equally revolutionary.”

Bernard Queenan, a three-time winner of the prestigious Nemo literary contest run from Oxford University, was closely associated with the translation of Divya. Queenan said that, “Yashpal’s literary persona is reminiscent of George Orwell, with whom he has some obvious affinities. Here again is the gritty realism of life at the level of the street, in all its dust and grime.

Here too is the biting satire of the society of his time as seen through the savage eye of the uncompromising non-conformist. And here are the consuming passion for social justice, the conviction of the ultimate worth of the individual, and the creeping shadow of disillusionment with the dictates of any doctrinaire orthodoxy ... Divya is an Orwellian fable or morality, in which the tribulations of a central figure underline the pernicious forces — religious, social and political — that attempt, but fail, to stifle the aspirations of the human spirit.” In many ways, Yashpal was ahead of his time. Discourse on women’s rights and their status in society are hot topics in India and elsewhere today.

But Yashpal came out in support of women’s right over their bodies from his very first writings. He supported birth control and family planning in his novel Dada Comrade, published in 1939, when such things were barely talked about. Similarly, he also raised the issue of social ostracism and discrimination against backward/scheduled classes and untouchables in Divya over 60 years ago

As the most outstanding writer of post-Premchand period, “Yashpal’s work has historical importance … He successfully combines politics and psychology with social realism, the two distinct trends of post-Premchand era,” said Asaghar Wajahat, Hindi writer and Head of Hindi Department at Jamia Millia in New Delhi

While Divya received critical acclaim, criticisms were levelled at it on various fronts. Despite the author’s assertion that “The basis for Divya is history, but history coloured by imagination,” many contemporaries of Yashpal could not stomach his not so-glorified portrayal of the classical period of India’s history. Many scholars found in it historical anomalies relating to political and social systems prevailing at the time. Some questioned the mixing of Greek and Indian cultures to the extent and in the regions as depicted in the novel. Others were critical of the description of clothes and festival rites as described in the novel.

Unlike most historical novels, the main character in Divya is not any famous historical figure or event. It is an example of the author’s commitment to social realism, and of his perspective on history that analyses the circumstances and issues in the context of the situation prevailing at the time. Yashpal in Divya rejects both the inequalities of the Hindu caste-system, its inherent contradictions about the position and role of a woman in the society as well as the deterministic nature of Buddhism for the realities and needs of the palpable world. He said, “History is not a matter of belief, but of analysis. History is the self-examination by man of his past.”

Pakistani readers will find it interesting that Sagal, the city where most of the action takes place in the novel and where Divya was born and lived, is the modern city of Sialkot now.


By Yashpal

Translated by Anand

Sahitya Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, 35 Ferozeshah Road, New Delhi 110001

Also available with Universal Booksellers, 82, Hazratganj,

P.O. Box 20, Lucknow-226001

Tel: 11-91-2625894, 2624135, 3919708.


ISBN 81-260-1797-X

266pp. Indian Rs135

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