- Chandrahas Choudhury
Chandrahas is a writer and literary critic based in Mumbai. He studied English at Delhi University and Cambridge University. He writes a weekly book review for Mint.
Chandrahas had reviewed Hamid Dalwai's novel 'Fuel' on his blog (28 September 2006). The same review is re-posted here with his permission-
The Marathi writer Hamid Dalwai (1932-1977) was, like many writers who came to maturity in the decades immediately after India's independence, committed to scrutinising Indian society - in his case, particularly the world of Indian Muslims - and working and campaigning towards a better world. Dalwai was a proponent not just of Muslim social reform in areas such as divorce law, but he also wanted to advance the cause of ideas - secularism, liberal humanism - which he thought were distant from the world of orthodox Muslim society in India. This subject is addressed in what is probably his best-known work, Muslim Politics in Secular India.
But Dalwai also wrote one novel - Indhan, or Fuel, published in 1966 but was only made available in English after the turn of the century, in a translation by his contemporary Dilip Chitre, one of India's most distinguished men of letters. It is a curious novel, covering difficult territory, and a little rough around the edges either in the original or in translation, but it realises vividly the world and the internal dynamics of a small town inhabited by several different communities separated by religion and caste. Its subject is religious strife, and man's inherent tribalism, which in times of crisis leads him to conceive of the most barbaric deeds. Indhan was written when Partition and its horrors were not yet two decades past, and it is a sobering reminder - no less relevant in our times - of how human beings can be brought to collective derangement by real or perceived provocations. The fuel of the title might be thought of as the massive incendiary power under some circumstances of a single human action or gesture.
Indhan is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged Muslim man (he never gives us his name) who is returning from Mumbai to his hometown in the Konkan after fifteen years. The narrator's beliefs were at odds with those of his family, one of a community of prosperous Khots or landowners. Not only is he an atheist, in the years preceding his departure from the village he tacitly supported the program of land reform that worked in favour of the town sharecroppers and against his own class interests (thus, like Dalwai, he might be thought of as standing for a new "idea if India" and for the dissolution of old hierarchies and reactionary ideas). In Mumbai he joined a progressive political party and became a well-known leader; although he has not been seen in his own village for so long, people know of him from seeing his picture in the newspapers.
Now a heart attack has left the narrator in fragile health, and he returns not just to recuperate but also to resume the relationships whose call he has ignored for so long. His father does not even recognise him; his brother has himself aged remarkably, and the narrator is struck by guilt on seeing him: "He carried the added burden of the duties I shrugged off, along with his own. His situation had been like one of a pair of bullocks pulling a cart, finding the other reluctant to budge."
In the days that follow the narrator walks around meeting people he used to know, and this allows Dalwai to lay out the town's complex demography: the former landowning class of Muslims; the Brahmins; the farmer and the barber castes, and finally the low-caste Mahars or untouchables, who have now converted to Buddhism. These communities are interdependent economically but wary of each other socially; notions of high and low, pure and impure, are still in force. However, sex is the force that dissolves these boundaries: the narrator discovers that his brother has a Hindu mistress, and that a family friend has a Mahar woman as a keep. These transgressions are to spiral later into a violent tumult.
In one of the most striking passages of Fuel, the narrator notes the changing of the seasons and watches the dust swirling around his house in the high wind:
The rains vanished and - by and by - swirls of dust took their place. The dust gathered in the air over our house and with the cold wind blowing, started settling all over the house…. The dust was going to gather over and over again, tons of it each day. It was going to spread all over the house and lie still where it fell. It was going to grow into huge heaps. Nobody would take the trouble to sweep it off. Who would sweep it? How often? And what was the use of taking such pains?…Before the next rains, people would sweep this dust away and make heaps of it in their backyards. Then, one day, raindrops would storm those heaps of dust. At first the heaps of dust would swallow up the raindrops battering them. The dust would…drink up the water from all those cold raindrops. But the water would prove too much to absorb. In the end, the dust would exude a fine tantalizing fragrance, a fragrance one would want to get one's teeth into, and the dust would disappear with the rain - just melt away - so as to return, after the next harvesting season, to settle over these houses again.
This vision of the workings of the natural world, serenely defeating all human resistance ("Who would sweep it? How often?") is very striking, and invites comparison with the closing paragraphs of Chekhov's story "The Kiss". But this passage tells us something also about the narrator's own weariness and languor, and it is paralleled later in the realm of human affairs when religious tensions break out with the same pent-up force, and the narrator, after making an abortive attempt to reach a settlement like he had in the past, bows down before the clamour swelling in his ears: "If there was going to be an explosion, let there be an explosion! If it was going to incinerate me, let me be incinerated in it too…"
Indhan reaches a climax in a riot in which outrages are visited on one community by goons recruited by the other; the narrator runs helter-skelter trying to save his own people, but of course he has alliances on both sides. An uneasy peace is enforced by the police, and the process of judicial enquiry begins. The narrator, sickened by all he has seen, leaves again for the city - the novel begins and ends with a bus ride. But even though the narrator has left his hometown behind, he continues to speak of the various players in the drama and their fates, and his narration shifts into the future tense. Is this what really happened, or is this what he is dreaming will happen? The novel combines traditional novelistic technique with modernist elements that disorient the reader.
Translation itself is not a simple process of like-for-like substitutions across languages, and among Chitre's most daring moves is to translate the Konkani Muslim Marathi dialect spoken by the narrator's community as a blend of black and country American dialect. Chitre writes that he was unwilling to render "a dialect in the source-text as standard register in the target-text", and so he has invented a kind of patois to communicate the sense of one in the original Marathi. Here is the narrator's father is admonishing him for his preoccupation with politics: "Izzis all ya'd do in ya life? An' earn nothin'? Not feed yo'self? Not feed yo' family?" This is a surprisingly successful move: when I think of the local dialects in my own state of Orissa, their rhythms are like this, with similarly crooked pronunciation.