The vast popular current of Hindi has appropriated Braj Bhasha, Avadhi, Maithili and what Amir Khusrau first referred to in the 13th century as ‘Hindvi’. It has embraced all the great writers from Surdas, Kabir and Tulsidas down to Premchand — who wrote in Urdu. Hindi culture is like a carpet woven by a thousand different hands from priceless materials. However well you may think you know it, there is always something new and rare to discover. So for me with this story of Banarasidas’s life — which Chowdhury, the translator, only says is possibly the first autobiography in an Indian language but is asserted to be so on the back cover.
Banarasi was a lover of literature, a Jain and a merchant in that order. He was born in 1586 and died in 1643, spending most of his life in the region between Agra and Banaras. What “ordinary” man, in those days, recorded the story of his life? History was very much the record of the powerful, from Portugal to Peru. Associate the period in India with “memoir” and you think of Babar-nama.
For Banarasi was really ordinary. He was never very wealthy. His literary compositions seem for the most part to be reductions or retellings of earlier texts, secular or religious. He was virtuous, he sinned; deceived himself and others; stood by his friends; never showed any great physical courage. Very, very ordinary.
There lies his charm. We tend to think of lives lived more than a 100 years ago as existing in sepia tones, and conscious of their being stepping-stones to higher things. It takes an effort of will to remind ourselves that the ancients, and the medievals, and everyone in-between, thought of themselves as moderns. Certainly Banarasi’s early life story could with very little change serve as an introduction to the life of many a present-day Marwari businessman. It often reminds me of the charming innocence of the early chapters of My Experiments with Truth. Had Banarasi gone to South Africa... .
A Half Story is told in 675 verses, nearly all in two forms of couplet. (Banarasi wrote it at 55, which is half a life-span in Jain tradition. However, he died two years later.) It is simple language, and wonderfully succinct. There are many little literary tricks, and an endearing conceit runs through the text. Banarasi hides little. (He keeps mum about one sin and one success which made him rich.) This edition is bilingual, and if you know some Hindi that makes the reading very rewarding.
That is also what troubles me. Had it not been bilingual I should not have profited much. Chowdhury has opted to do a full translation, explaining every shade of meaning. Her verses are often twice the syllable length of the originals. I’m sure it was a difficult choice. Had she tried to be as concise and witty as Banarasi, half the pages would have been taken up with footnotes. But now the translation has small literary value. It is best to read Ardhakathanak in the original, with the translation as a guide.
Here is a specimen of the way Chowdhury has worked, which shows how tough her task was. It is taken from Professor Rupert Snell’s Preface.
Nau baalak huye muye/rahe naari nar doyi.
Jyon taravar patajhaar havai/ rahain thoonth se hoyi.
Literally: Nine children became died/ remained man woman two.
As trees autumn befallen/ remain stump-like become.
And in Chowdhury’s translation:
Nine children were born and died.
The husband and wife remained, two alone.
Like trees that shed their leaves in autumn,
And are left bare and leafless.
Snell’s Preface is essential reading. His knowledge of the language and culture offers many valuable insights and much required information. Chowdhury’s Introduction is also helpful. They both direct the light where it should fall: on the composer of this memoir, remarkable because he was just one of us.
“Who is the common man?” Spike Milligan asks in a novel. You go up to someone on the street and say, “You are the common man” and he’d clout you. Banarasi reminds us that we are all, individually, rare. It is also refreshing to see, again, how an artistic gift can make something extraordinary out of something common, very common.