Reading Leaves from Another Time

Phanishwar Nath “Renu”

Travelling home to Patna for Holi, due to some overly pessimistic planning on my part, I ended up at Mumbai airport a full two hours before my flight. I was there to catch an early morning flight so here I was, roaming around T1 at 3 in the night, trying to stay awake till I boarded my flight.

As always, I made a beeline to the bookstore, more out of habit than necessity. Watching me walk in, a young guy reluctantly dragged himself back to the counter. I was tempted to say that I won’t steal anything but that is exactly the kind of small talk that is uncomfortable for everyone involved. It is a truth that somehow becomes murky the second it is voiced out. The one saying it is left embarrassed, the one hearing it would like the conversation to end as quickly as possible.

Wandering around, I found a book titled “The Bihari Book of Literature”. Like all migrants, I have been having pangs of nostalgia for my roots of late. Part of it brought about the admonishings of local folks who suggest I should leave every time I make the smallest complaint about their city (“Yes Karen, I am not enjoying these traffic jams any more than you are, but atleast you can complain about them”), the other part by all the subtle ways a city reminds you that you do not belong there. From having to wait in front of flight timetables, waiting for the text to change to a language you can read, to keeping your earphones plugged out an additional 10 seconds, waiting as the first announcements are made in the mandatory local language. I know what your response to this will be, but I also know that response will be a function of where you live and where you originally are from. But I digress. Long story short, I bought the book (at a 25% discount, the only compilation of regional literature being sold cheaper in the store).

I settled in with the book on the flight and whizzed through the first hundred-odd pages. A lot of poetry, which I skipped. Not only because I think translated poetry can never capture the beauty of the original and so the entire exercise is pointless, but also because these were all written in languages I could read, making it even more so for me. But the fiction pieces I could get behind. More so for the comfort of having all these great writers compiled for me in one place than the actual quality of translations. I discovered many writers I had never heard of, read some others for the first time even though I had heard their names before in passing conversation.

However, the more I delved into the stories, the more I was taken aback by how much they surprised me. It was a peculiar mix. Some things were very familiar to me, resembling the Bihar I knew and grew up in; turns of phrases, names of stations and villages. Others, extremely alien. How a woman, left behind to live in penury by her deceased husband’s family, regrets asking for help from her mother in Phanishwar Nath Renu’s Samvadiya. Her misfortune was very familiar to me, opulence wasted away at the hands of wills and bequeaths, her reaction was not. My initial reaction was one of protest, where a woman is forced to live a wretched life, only to conform to the standards a patriarchal society imposes on her, where her own well-being comes second to the reputation of her dead husband. But the more I sat with the idea, the more I could see it happening. That was the world we came from, the world so many of us still live in, even if only behind closed doors. Is it Renu’s fault that he speaks of it?

Yes, there are parts of our history that seem dark to our sensibilities today. But is there an ethical high ground to be claimed here? The loss of community, the stripping of the familial and societal structures that were bedrocks of our existence, the vagrancy of migration, are these ethically more sound than the ways of the old? If we stack all that we gained on one side and all that we lost on the other, can we tell for sure which way the scales would tip? Yes, it does not make sense to us, what Badki Bahuriya feels, regret at having a call for help to her sasural. But our insistence of breaking away from family, giving up the homes of our elders to stay cooped up in tiny apartments in the city would not make sense to her either. So what makes us more enlightened than her? Just that we live in times where there has been progress? Has there? Truly?

In a moment of metafictional brilliance that I am probably reading too much into, Renu’s acts as a messenger himself, a Samvadiya, bringing you a story from another time and place. Perhaps that is the function of stories after all. To show you a way of life that you do not lead, introduce you to people you do not sit with, allow you to experience emotions that your privilege protects you from.

In the story, Renu dedicates a passage to exploring what are the responsibilities of a Samvadiya. It is not just to recite words off a paper, but to convey a message. He says, “It was not a job for everyone. A man was either born a messenger, or he wasn’t. It wasn’t easy to remember every single word of the message, the tone and manner in which it was spoken, and to convey it in exactly the same way.” I feel, in a way, Renu is also talking about the profession of being a writer. It is not enough to put words down on the page, that is the easy part of the job. The real challenge is to find the right words. Words that are true to the story you are trying to tell, which convey the message.

As a parting note, I do recommend Abhay K.’s rather remarkable anthology “The Book of Bihari Literature” if you want to dip your toe into regional literature from the state. It has been a rather enriching experience for me, discovering writers and perspectives from my own people that I had been oblivious to. Irrelevant of where you come from, I am sure the stories themselves would speak to you. All of us are more alike than we are different. If reading more of my people helps you understand that we are not so different after all, I would consider that a step in the right direction.

2 Comments on “Reading Leaves from Another Time

  1. A very well documented instance of how a coincidence turns into a memory.
    Rightly said, poetry is most appropriate in the language written, translated doesn’t do justice.
    You’ve captured the essence of what the book is meant to do, very nicely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *