The Eye of a Doe and Other Stories is a rare collection of Mohan Bhandari’s stories, vaguely reminiscent of the Punjab tragedy. The stories create images that, at once, enthrall and terrify. Despite being variations on the same leitmotiv, these stories display an uncanny freshness, vigour and richness in their choice of subject matter and style. It is as though each story weaves its own tale of the times gone awry, unmasking an insanely terrifying though sensitively humane images of men and women grappling with the dread of violence, both inside and outside. A living history of its own times, this collection offers some intensely memorable portrayals of character/situations.
A passionate humanist, tirelessly digging into the rubble of contemporary history, Bhandari manages to resurrect some enduring vignettes, without even once losing his deft control over the language.
Mohan Bandari was born in 1937 in a small village, Ban-bhaura in Sangrur district (Punjab). In a literary career spanning four decades, he has produced as many as seven collections of stories, Til Chauli, Manukh Di Pairh, Kaath Di Latt, Moon Di Akh and Tan Pattan are quite popular collections. He has extensively translated and published stories and novels from Urdu and other Indian Languages. Among the awards and honours he has received include Sahitya Akademi Award, Chandigarh Sahitya Academy Award and Kulwant Singh Virk Award.
Rana Nayar is a scholar, critic, translator and theatre artists and Professor and Head of the Department of English, Punjab University, Chandigarh. His translations includes two novels, Night of the Half-moon (1966) and Parsa (2000) and a collection of stories, Earthy Tones from Across the Shores. A collection of stories written in Punjabi by Asians in Britain, is his path breaking work in translation. Besides guiding research, he has directed several plays and published several articles, reviews, translations and research papers in journals of national and international repute.
Often teasingly called the Chekhov of Punjabi short fiction, Mohan Bhandari is most certainly a major presence in this relatively minor or not so popular a field. Though a contemporary of other stalwarts such as Guizar Sandhu, Daleep KaurTiwana, Prem Prakash and Gurbachan Bhullar, Bhandari stands apart from all others in, at least, one respect. While others do occasionally permit themselves the indulgence of broad strokes, Mohan Bhandari remains almost a puritan in his commitment to the demands of his self-chosen genre.
A self professed, almost a hard-core miniaturist, he looks upon short story not just as one of the several modes of creative self-expression, but rather the only one he knows or would want to know. It’s as though, after the manner of the Imagists in English or the Haiku poets in Japanese, Bhandari and short story, too, are of apiece. Hi consistent, unsparing efforts at verbal minimalism; tireless almost poetic concern for the language and his unqualified humanism, quite simply, put him among the front runners of short fiction, not only in Punjabi but other Indian languages as well.
Mohan Bhandari appeared on the scene when Punjab was going through a major socio-cultural and turmoil upheaval. If on one hand, the Green Revolution was sweeping through its fields, on the other, the prospect of a truncated Punjab loomed large over its horizon. The expansion of the economic base, strangely enough, coincided with the shrinking of the geographical and political superstructure. (For it was in 1966 that the Punjab faced partition for the second time when, in response to a political demand of Akalis for a Punjabi-speaking state, a much smaller state was carved out of the larger entity called Punjab) Such were the times when Mohan Bhandari made his debut in 1965 with his first collection called Tilchauli. This was followed by three more collections namely, Jv[anukh Di Paerh (1967), Kaath Di Lat (1975) and Pachan (1986), which appeared in a span of over two decades.
’ Much in the manner of his role model Chekhov, who wrote sparingly, Bhandari, too, could only boast of having produced some seventy odd stories in, say, thirty-five years. Not really known for being exceptionally prolific, Mohan Bhandari writes somewhat studiously, even punctiliously. And this is reflected not simply in the way in which his stories exude both a feeling of quiet confidence and unerring control, but also in his abiding, unfailing sense of history that permeates the stories, rather unobtrusively. 1ts against this backdrop that we need to look at Moon Di Akh (The Eye of a Doe), a collection of seven rather longish stories, first published in the early nineties but printed again this year, after it won Bhandari the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998.
This particular collection marks a significant departure from Bhandari’s earlier work in that it appears to be self- consciously set against the backdrop of the Punjab tragedy. It’s common knowledge how for more than a decade in the early or late eighties, Punjab went through an extended phase of terrorist violence. This was an extremely traumatic and trying phase for the people of Punjab, who found themselves caught in the cross-fire; the random, almost chilling acts of brutal violence perpetrated by a few hundred terrorists and a more organised, coercive form of state-terrorism, a horrifying, unending spectacle of police atrocities, incarceration and torture. In none of his earlier collections has Bhandari ever come so close to touching the raw nerve or the wounded pulse of his times so deeply as he does in this particular collection. The stories tell their own tale of the times gone awry, of a people stricken with naked terror, of an entire state reeling under the shock of its own nightmare. It’s as though each story sets out to unmask a familiarly unfamiliar face of terror, in the process turning into a rich and layered narrative, surprisingly complex and varied in its range of characters, situations and the profusion of details.
In The Pigeon, it’s the implosive form of violence born out of coerced asceticism that sets the narrative on the edge. Married off to thakar (Idol of God in the temple) at a relatively young age, Shakti Devils forced into leading a life of piety and devotion in total violation of her highly instinctual, volatile nature. That hers is a divided personality is obvious from the way in which body/soul dichotomy is materialised through her personal belief that her soul resides in a pigeon. First Bhandari infuses this kind of folklorish flavour into the story and then, quite dextrously, meshes it with the historical immediacy in a manner that is vaguely similar to what Tony Morrison, the great Afro-American writer, often tries out in her novels The historical frame of the story is fairly well spread out, spanning the period between the Naxalite movement and the agonisingly long phase of terrorist violence in Punjab. Though it is first person narration, Bhandari constantly manages to throw up a situation where his narrator, Krishna, is compelled to view his own claims to certitude and truth with doubt and suspicion. By finally killing the ‘pigeon’ that Shakti Devi always loved to feed with her own hands, Krishna not only performs his own rites of passage but also manages to exorcise his burning thirst for personal revenge.
The title story The Eye of a Doe builds up the atmosphere of terror through an extremely skilful control over the language and an equally subtle manipulation of the basic situation. Set in the times of a communal riot, the story enacts itself through the eyes of an Army Major, a member of an army contingent that has orders to stand by and rush to the help of the civil administration, as and when the situation so warrants. One evening, when the narrator. Major Chaddha, and his friends are busy in their drunken revels, arrival of an unexpected guest throws not just the party out of gear, but his guests out of humour and, what is worse, his entire life into a whirlpool of guilt and remorse.
Once his guest, a fear-stricken woman, dies in his protective custody, he is left wondering if it was right on his part to have stayed away from making human contact with her when she needed it the most. What would have ordinarily been looked upon as a cowardly act of violence and infliction against a hapless woman, has now, through an ironic twist in circumstances, come to be seen largely as a heroic act of compassion, even courage. The real power of the story lies as much in its chilling effect created through staccato language as it does in raising an ordinary situation to poetic, rather surrealistic heights.
In Sharing Bhandari returns to his familiar terrain of Country v/s City; mapping out two vastly distinct cultural contexts and examining the tenuous connection between the two as well as the oppositional discourse resulting from them. Though Sat Prakash and Braham Prakash have shared much more than a common parentage, they now seemed to have moved away, not just geographically but also economically. What drives the ultimate wedge between the two brothers is an upsurge of terrorist violence in Punjab. Having chosen to stay Sack in the village, it’s Sat Prakash who suddenly wakes up to the horrors of grotesque violence staring his entire family rather hard in the face. But for his younger brother Braham Prakash, based in cocoon-like Chandigarh, terrorist violence Is merely an excuse for piling up wealth, a powerful instrument his stupendous success and prosperity; This kind of ambivalence Bhandari shows in his portrayal of violence is, undoubtedly, a rich source of irony which multiplies at every stage of narration, often reminding one of Brecht’s complex treatment of war and violence in his famous play Mother Courage and Her Children. Within this frame, he explores almost a Chekhovian theme of how vulgarity; meanness or callousness often attends upon human nature in a manner least expected to. Braham Prakash’s final act of refusal to reach out to his brother and his family in person, even in face of an indirect appeal from them does impress despite its predictability. Apparently, it satisfies our moral urgings by reinforcing our earlier impression of his being a self-centred, moral weakling.
It’s in Comb your hair, My Dear! that Bhandari ultimately succeeds in giving a human face to the little known, hard r to define sense of terror. Behind the facade of false bravado lies an intensely engaging, even sympathetic narration of a terrorist dilemma, struggling to choose between the claims of his family and those of an indoctrinated, ideological cause. A result of a long-drawn out tug-of-war with himself, his final choice not only helps redeem the humanity in him but also in defining the range and depth of Bhandari’s sympathies. Engaged in loosening the tangled knots of his life, Budda, the terrorist, inevitably draws comparison with his wife, Jioni, who untangles her dishevelled hair only when he returns home. Often the literal becomes the figurative or the metaphorical in his stories, giving to his pared down language a certain density, even allusiveness.
The Breach is a polyphonic discourse in divisiveness. Starting with the division of the hearts witnessed during the Partition by way of anti-Muslim sentiment, it races down to anti-Sikh riots of 1984, without in anyway blurring the scale or magnitude of the events involved. Harchand, the protagonist, is a double victim, who first loses his mother to Partition for being a Muslim and then, once again, loses his source of livelihood to the riots of 1984, this time, for being a Sikh. It’s a framed tale in which first a tree is breached and thrown across the bridge to stop the Muslim refugees from fleeing, and then waters of the river flowing underneath are breached, disrupting Harchand’s quiet march to domestic peace and happiness, midway. Like several other stories in the collection, this one, too, shows remarkable skill in the way in which it exploits the power of understatement or suggestiveness to the hilt. Much of the poetry that spills out of Bhandari’s stories is, more often than not, a direct outcome of such poetic compression that excites the reader’s imagination as much as it satiates it.
It’s generally believed that anthologies invariably offer some kind of a mixed deal as even the best among them are often packed with stories of uneven quality, tone and tenor. Mohan Bhandari’s The Eye of a Doe is a happy exception as, despite being variations on the same theme of violence and terror, his stories show an incredible amount of innovative freshness in their treatment of the subject matter or the choice of the language and style. And this they do rather gracefully, exhibiting an admirable degree of consistency in exploiting both depth and range as far as their conception or execution goes.
A mosaic of insanely terrifying yet sensitively humane images that haunt longer they linger, the present collection of Bhandari is, indeed, a living history of its own times. That’s why translating these stories was anything but a simple affair. It was indeed, a very challenging albeit rewarding enterprise. What really made his stories extremely difficult to translate was Bhandari’s penchant for a rather peculiar syntactic rhythm. While this may have its own formal justification, it does sometimes make its English rendering somewhat problematic. Though in most of the cases, I have very scrupulously adhered to the syntax patterns of the original, I have permitted myself an occasional indulgence in the name f clarity, precision and/or economy. Then there is that vast area of cultural plenitude, which is eminently untranslatable. I have felt it untouched, pure. And yet the power of Mohan Bhandari’s narration does come through, unscathed or so I believe. How far it actually does happen is something the judicious and discerning reader must decide on his own.
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