Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hindi Lessons

This is from the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai

T'TA PROFESSOR Manohar Shyam Joshi

Years ago, the venerable Reader’s Digest used to carry a series entitled ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met’, featuring first-person accounts of folksy wisdom from and inspiring actions by baseball coaches, college professors, neighbours and the like. Manohar Shyam Joshi’s T’ta Professor -- now translated into English from the original Hindi by Ira Pande -- can almost be read as a parodic inversion of this series.

The narrator here is a cynical author who looks back to the time when, in his early twenties, he worked in a school in Kumaon. The eponymous professor is one Khastivallabh Pant, “dubbul MA”, a teacher at this institution.The eccentric professor’s love for the English language, ability to get embroiled in school politics and lustful appetites are gleefully lampooned to begin with – but it’s when the narrative begins to explore variations of the professor’s life, including some disturbingly salacious exploits, that we slowly realize what Joshi is up to. T’ta Professor is not a mere character-portrait, but a mocking look at realistic modes of literary portrayal. And along the way, it also points out the distance between art and life. For this purpose, the narrator, an aging and rueful author, is perfectly chosen. Quite a long way from Joshi’s work for television, which includes serials such as Hum Log and Buniyaad.

Pande’s translation is competent, barring the unfortunate use of Americanisms that jar – the atmosphere is “pretty loaded”, people donate “slush money” and one location is “a darn sight better” than another, for example. For the rest, this bittersweet tale of a chimerical character is revealingly quirky.

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