Cutting near the aching nerve

Cutting near the aching nerve

He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1973. Film buffs, too, might know of him as one of his stories, Kairee — meaning raw mango — was made into a movie by Amol Palekar. In the introduction of one of his short story collections, Kulkarni quoted August Strindberg: “Shallow people demand variety—but I have been writing the same story throughout my life, every time trying to cut nearer the aching nerve!” The line sums up Kulkarni’s approach to writing perfectly, for one way or the other, all of his stories revolve around the theme of immutable fate and man’s struggle to make a mark against it.

Through his career, the settings and style of the stories evolved — ranging from rural Maharashtra, to ancient Greek myth, to imaginary fantasy lands. The same over-riding theme, however, comes through in various guises: When characters are confronted by an odd situation, we find them stopping to think over their lives, trying to understand how they got here, whether any of their efforts made any difference in the larger scheme of things.

The overall structure of the stories becomes a setting, mere preparation for the characters to launch into the expected train of thought. When the philosophical nugget is well-camouflaged, the story reads smoothly, while in other cases the setting is just too unbelievable or the sentiment too forced. Probably the best two stories here are Full Circle, and Kairee, both dealing with life and loss in rural Maharashtra. Kairee is narrated from the viewpoint of a young boy sent to live with his aunt after the death of his mother. Full Circle is about a recently widowed woman, coming face to face with her husband’s true character through interactions with his relatives.

On the other hand, the stories set in a Greece-like land, like Iskilaar and Death of a God, carry their morals on their sleeve — the sudden shifts into monologue stop the flow of the story completely. The end result is somewhat patchy — while Orpheus works, the remaining don’t really. It could be a fault of the translation though.

The theme of older people left to fend for themselves re-occurs several times. These stories work more like character studies with minimal narrative arcs, and reveal a more sympathetic side of Kulkarni as compared to the impersonal Greek stories.

Vilas Salunke, translator of this collection, has selected a good variety of stories. These cover all of the phases in Kulkarni’s career, and vary from four pages long to novella-length.  However, the translation is rather inconsistent. Whereas there are sections that are very neatly done, several literal replacements (“She nodded her head negatively”) and Indian English usage (“Why should I unnecessarily accept the beating, tell me?”) have crept in, and these ruin the overall experience of reading. Also, considering that this is the work of an Indian writer, there was no reason to cut out most of the Marathi words that would have given it the flavour of the place. Bhajji, for example, didn’t need to be replaced by “Fried yellow gram-balls”.

Overall, A Journey Forever is a good introduction to a renowned Indian writer, which hopefully opens the gates for more stories to make the journey from Marathi to the larger markets of English. It also points to the pressing need for more enthusiastic translators from all the Indian languages.

A Journey forever
G A Kulkarni
Translated by Vilas Salunki
Leadstart, 2010,
pp 332, Rs 350

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