I’ve made a long-overdue start on Indian language fiction. I’ve finished three of the five Ponniyin Selvan books (in English translation), read Parineeta (again in translation), and am currently reading Premchand’s Nirmala (in the original).
The interesting thing about Parineeta is how different the original book is from the movie. In the book, the hero doesn’t flout parental authority and break down the boundary wall. What actually happens is that the girl’s uncle dies and then the guy’s father dies. Immensely received that he doesn’t have to face the prospect of his father’s wrath, the guy goes and tells his mother that he likes the girl. The mother is delighted. This is the end result of twelve chapters in which everyone suffers from inner conflict and sulks, but does nothing about it. The Bongness of the whole situation is overwhelming.
As for Premchand, a mere two chapters show why he is compared to the Great Russians in the little biography that precedes the book itself. All his characters are miserable people, tramelled upon by an uncaring world. I wouldn’t go so far to say that Nirmala is ‘a grey study of hopeless misery, where nothing happens until page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decides to commit suicide’, but when an author begins a chapter with ‘विधवा का विलाप और अनाथों का रोना सुनाकर हम पाठकों का दिल दुखाएंगं’1, you begin to get the feeling that here is someone who firmly believes that the brighter side of life does not belong on the printed page.
Ponniyin Selvan could not be a greater contrast. I does not tackle burning societal issues the way Parineeta (bourgeois conformity) and Nirmala (dowry) do, unless of course you consider the royal succession of the Chozha empire a burning societal issue. The characters in Ponniyin Selvan may be evil schemers at worst, but they are cheerful evil schemers. And compared to the characters of Nirmala and Parineeta, who mostly sit around in gloom while bad things happen to them, they are hives of activity- escaping through secret tunnels, thirsting for Veera Vaishnavite blood, making sea crosses to Sri Lanka, falling in love with princesses… the list goes on.
This is easy to explai, of course. An author living in Madras, with all it entails- cheap accomodation, tasty grub, bajjis at Bessie beach and South Indians as far as the eye can see- cannot help being cheerful. It spills over into his characters. On the other hand, someone from Bongland or HTland, determined to draw a realistic portrait of life will find nothing to portray realistically except social evils and gloom. It’s just the way it is.
1: This roughly translates to ‘The author shall now make the readers’ hearts ache by relating to them the lamentations of (the) widow and the weeping of orphans’. It sounds even more depressing in the original Hindi.