Falling Walls

How does an ordinary person go about becoming an author? This book holds some secrets to that much-desired dream in the British Raj.

This is India, right after the British Raj grants independence to the country. You meet a young man, Chetan, interested in becoming an author but he is unable to do so, except this is in the 1930s. He tries very hard to find some absolution from it all, as George V rules India but no matter how hard he tries he just cannot. Penned in 1947 (and recently translated into the English Language), Upendranath Ashk’s novel is a stark reminder of the harsh realities for the people of the country, when imperialism dominates India. Although, without a doubt, there are many colours and mannerisms of people from Britain and its colonies there, it doesn’t very much account for any change of circumstances, because you might as well, imagine all of them in the same boat, sans the roots, the class struggles, the cultural values and the ethnicities.

The novel is good at touching upon subjects close to the struggles faced by an ordinary Indian, as he hikes through mud-caked sewerage systems and filthy alleys, in a British colony. Chetan is from Jalandhar and he has travelled from some of the most destitute alleys of Lahore (and Jalandhar) right into Scandal Point, Shimla. In these places, he encounters entertaining characters, such as a man who quit his job at a tandoori restaurant to become a famous newspaper owner, a poet who lives his life partly in art and partly in the flesh and ending up nowhere constructive, and a poet who arranges Urdu poetic recitals, that proves to be a lucrative temporary business. This is a private account of lower-middle class ordeals in India in the ‘30s because it offers a unique insight into the secret turmoil of a hopeful writer it makes for a very interesting read on the social history of India, in the times of the British Raj.

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The author of the book was a local to Jalandhar and spoke Punjabi fluently, but he wrote his poetry in Urdu. In his spare time he warred with a fellow poet whose shining star never faded away in Lahore at the time, despite “electrifying” English prose on inhumanity becoming humane, and he dying penniless, debt-ridden, driven out by the author from All India Radio (where Ashk held stints at employment, before making his way to Filmistan Studios) and thinking he was on the same page as Ashk in terms of writing skills. As resurgence of interest in partition literature takes hold of the consciousness of many around the globe, Ashk’s old enemy sprouts into a writer, who’s on the ascendant even though the author of this book has more penned volumes to boost about; the work is also diverse and can rightfully be acknowledged as a “rising star” in Indian literature, except this is all happening during the Raj.

Ashk is Upendranath’s pen name and he first met fame writing plays in Hindi, and later on he makes Allahabad his home. The city is recognized as a fortress of literature written in India’s native tongue, and over here the author faces Indian class struggles of attempting to establish his own publishing house, in a field populated by evermore colourful and local stars on the ascendant. In his own country, Ashk began to be looked upon as an outsider because he spoke Punjabi (instead of Hindi) and was never given due credit for that simple error of ways in linguistics. Not particularly diplomatic, he was bad at handling his critics in the public, and Ashk demonstrates his angst over all the many obstacles littering his path in his writing. The first translated book is part of a seven-volume hefty writing project, titled “Girti Divarein”, where Chetan, a 21-year old shifts jobs. Chetan is at first a school teacher in Jalandhar. Then he spontaneously becomes a journalist in Lahore, interested in only narrow-minded journalism, during which he habituates in an environment which unintentionally harasses his thoughts on the British Raj, and this is further followed through with an episode where he is an assistant to an untrustworthy Ayurveda practitioner.

There is no humour in the book because most of it is filled with his dreams of becoming a writer but his desperation at chasing a dream he cannot have is darkly comedic. Chetan has no experience of reading a novel but he desperately wants to write one, and most of his attempts at accomplishing his dreams are peppered with episodes that meet a dead end brick wall. Chetan’s life is coloured with failures: he sings publicly and it is an experience not worth writing home about, he performs as a woman in a play, and although it is not a major role, the protagonist ruins the play in totality. Somehow Chetan cruises through all these many setbacks because he has no emotional attachment with any of his failures, nor the intelligence to comprehend the sentiments that come with setbacks, even though he certainly has the mouth to chatter about it endlessly.

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