Tales of strength

Motherwit
Urmila Pawar,
translated by Veena Deo
Zubaan
2013, pp 244
350

Defining herself as Dalit, Buddhist and feminist, Urmila Pawar’s collection of short stories, Motherwit, translated by Veena Deo, takes a hard look at politics, family values and the issues of caste. As highlighted on the blurb, caste is an integral part of Pawar’s stories, including the 14 stories of Motherwit. After her first collection of short stories, Sahav Bot was published in 1988, she also co-authored Amhihi Itihas Ghadavala with Meenakshi Moon in 1989. Pawar’s style of writing is simple and lucid, and a message is conveyed or a pertinent comment on social structure is made, either through a wry sense of humour or philosophical musings.

Pawar’s stories are strongin tone, and powerfully presented, even through a translation from Marathi to English. The apparently headstrong and foolish mother in Mother (Aaye), for example, has a character of indomitable will who may not be   the protagonist she thinks she is. The character Jyoti of Pain (Shalya) is a woman with conflicting emotions and familial pressures to bear a son. The characters in the story Circle (Vartool) are torn between having difficult times in their lives here and their desires to leave for distant shores. And the struggles of Kundalkesha in Freedom (Mukti) is a laced with philosophy and one woman’s transition from a spoilt child to a Jain nun.

Not all stories have a surprise ending, however, some of them, like Circle, do, with a sharp look at standards of living in real world and lifestyles that may not be as different as some think, as the protagonist finds out. Having been to Mauritius, she gains a superfluous understanding of society there and instantly turns judgemental, only to have her ideas come crashing down around her shoulders. Pawar’s characterisation is crisp, giving the protagonists of each story a clear-cut identity and voice. Women as Caste (Baichi Jaat) is a story of betrayal and bigamy, and the frustration and helplessness of the women involved. Not all second wives are willing destroyers of homes, for not all of them have a choice or a say in the matter.

The little details woven into the threads of each tale, the conversations and even the pacing of the dialogue, make Pawar’s stories interesting reflections of social and cultural differences in society. The perils of jealousy and envy form the crux of Sixth Finger (Sahav Bot), and Sneha’s travails comes across as realistic. After suffering through the suspicions of her husband over an alleged affair, she loses her sense of self-worth. All in all, Pawar’s women are clever and in many cases, inspired, and they do question the submissive, servile roles they have been forced into.

However, it must be pointed out that the translation of these stories is far from perfect. After a patronising foreword and a lengthy introduction, Pawar’s stories are presented in faulty, jerky prose. There is a plethora of infuriating punctuation errors, and this is surprising considering the fact that Motherwit comes from an established publisher like Zubaan. Proofreading of the text is not a mere suggestion in this case, it is absolutely essential. There are also several awkward turns of phrase that are, somehow, lost in translation. Trying to ignore these errors is exasperating, because they cannot be ignored, nor can they be overlooked.

For example, on page 48 and 49, quotation marks are opened and never closed. One never knows, as a consequence, where the dialogue ends. The story Pain (Shalya) is actually painful to read because of the errors. Page 49 has an interesting paragraph where a quotation mark is opened, never closed, and a question mark is used where a full stop should have been used. The result cannot be commended.

The book is also sprinkled with spelling errors, as in page 71. The comma is used, overused and misused to the point of absurdity, sometimes making sentences incomprehensible. In an attempt to retain the authenticity of the vernacular, several parts of the translation attempt to retain usages like ‘three-four days’, which only mars reading pleasure. The English idiom and turn of phrase do not support the literal translation of certain usages without making them seem jarring.

It is to the credit of Pawar that the stories still seem strong despite the shaky and underwhelming transition into English.

Overall, Motherwit is difficult to read. Not because of Pawar’s tales, but because of the rendition of those tales into another language. Perhaps a better translation that does not lead like an early, unedited draft would bring the stories better to life than Motherwit does. The punctuation errors that flood the text do very little to aid the cause, nor can they present the intention of the stories as they were written in the original. Better proofreading and editing would have helped the stories live up to their potential.

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