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Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Kannad Professor and "Manvi Ni Bhavai" :V Y Kantak

  Tushar Bhatt  

    May can be mercilessly hot in Baroda.Although it is already past 4.30 in the afternoon,the city as if lay under a heat haze,with traffic thinning to bare minimum.A man of medium height,in long-sleeved white shirt and trousers comes into the cool environ of the air-conditioned office,mopping sweat from his head of receding hairline.
    Under the thick eyebrows,his sparkling eyes are sunken in the sockets,the only signs of age that Prof.V.Y.Kantak shows.
    Many others at 85, when I first met him in early 1990s, would have remained indoors.But not Kantak.His quest for divining the inner meaning of life is driving him even now to look at the world around with alacrity,rarely found in men half his age.
    A sprightly man,with a firm voice, a lively interest in the world around, a life-long experience of teaching,reading and writing in English,combined with a mental agility that is able to transcend mere words,format and story element,were as if waiting in the wings all these years.They have come in to play a role in Kantak in adding to the list of world class novels a gem of Gujarati literature rendered into English.
    Manavini Bhavai,the celebrated novel by the Late Pannalal Patel,has at last become available for the non-Gujarati reading to sample the richness of the regional literature,its cultural ethos.
    It has been waiting for nearly half-a-century for Manavini Bhavai first came out in Gujarti wayback in 1947.By now,it has gone into as many as 13 print-runs.Late Pannalal Patel,its author,was given the Jnanpith award for 1985 for it.
    But,the much-acclaimed piece of literature,rated as the most powerful portrayal of Gujarat's rural life,had to wait till 1995,to come out in English.It would,perhaps,have taken a bit longer had it not been a chance suggestion some four years ago that triggered the literary interest of Prof Kantak, a retired don of the Maharaja Sayajirao University here.
    A low-profile,self-effacing teacher of great eminence,Prof.Kantak gave the translation to the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi to publish,and did not think much of a follow-up to let the larger world know about it.Mr Arvind Patel, son of late Pannalal,took the translation,published under the tital Endurance,brought it to this reporter along with new editions of several of the late author's other works in Gujarati.
    The blurb on the flap of the English version of Manavini Bhavai is rather miserly,about the translator.It makes for a terse reading of four sentences:"V Y Kantak(1912),eminent academic and critic,retired from the M.S.University,Baroda,as Professor of English.He has been working there almost since its inception.He has also taught at the Utah University,in the U.S.A.and was for some time Professor of English Literature at CIEFL,Hyderababd.He has written extensively for various literary journals in India and elsewhere."
    Even a brief meeting with Prof Kantak would underline the inadequacy of the introduction,for the professor not only possesses extra-ordinary depths of knowledge about literature of the world,but also has a sound backing form a powerful insight into philosophy,erudition in half a dozen languages and profound understanding of both the western and the oriental thoughts,the first emphasising the reality as perceived in the world outside an individual and the other stressing the world within an individual.
    Pannalal Patel,one of the leading figures of Gujarati literature,who died on April 6,1989 at the age of 77,himself got a belated recognition in the country when Manavini Bhavai bagged the 1985 Jnanpith award for him.Many have likened Pannalal and literature of early days to Maxim Gorky.
    Like Gorky,Pannalal had also graduated from the university of life and had excelled t portraying in words powerfully life around him.He wrote graphically,and yet with a simple beauty and directness of prose.Man was at the centre of the best that was ever written by Patel and yet it was no fanciful flight of imagination in individualism totally divorced from the contemporary society around the author.Pannalal never cme out as an escapist in the struggles of ordinary people he wrote about. "Man", he once said," is not evil as such. Hunger is.And worse evil than hunger and poverty is begging."
    Pannalal's characters,such as Kalu and Raju in Manavini Bhavai,were intensely human,drawn from the rural world of north Gujarat,speaking their own language,reflecting their own hopes,fears and frustrations,but never despairing of being alive.
    Yet, Pannalal's reputation as a wordsmith largely remained confined to Gujarat,even after he came into limelight natioanlly after the Jnanpith award.That there was little awareness in the rest of the country about it underlined the tragedy of contemporary Indian literary scene as well.A man who was not well-versed in English and the art of advertisemet for the self,Pannalal in his lifetime never managed to bridge the gap; not that he cared either.
    Kantak's translation of Manavini Bhavai at long last mercifully tries to fill the gap.Were Pannalal alive today,he would have perhaps called it a divnine co-incidence.Recalls Kantak: "Some four to five years ago, the son of a professor colleague,now living in the U.S.A. suggested to him a translation into English of Manavini Bhavai. I had not read it till then,although I have been in Gujarat for years.I read it,liked it and Endurance is the end-result."
    Kantak came to Gujarat wayback in 1947,the year Pannalal's book was first published in Gujarati. He had been,by then teaching English for 11 years at Wilson College in Bombay.Some friends goaded him into joining a vast educational complex that was being set up at Vallabh Vidyanagar by late Bhailalbhai Patel,popularly known as Bhaikaka,and his colleague. "I and an old-time colleague,Dr.Aloo Dastur,came to Vidyanagar,setting up a college there. In the initial days,I rememebr we even used to take part in the voluntary labour at the construction site.Such was the enthusiasm Bhaikaka could generate."
    After three years,in 1950,when the M.S.University was set up,Kantak moved to Baroda and rose to become the first Dean of the Arts faculty and retired in 1972.He then went to the USA and taught at Utah University before going on to Hyderabad,to call it a day for teaching sometime in 1977.He has been in Baroda eversince,occasionally writing here and there,delving deeper into philosophy,his yearning to unravel the mystery of reality as compelling a motivating force as ever.The translation of Manavini Bhavai into English also formed part of that quest only.
    Pannalal's novel has been hailed widely as a modern classic,modern in the sense that it was a major achievement in a fictional mode that Pannalal himself started with in his 1941 work,Malela Jeev.Set in village life of north Gujarat,it is a fictionalised account of the great famine of 1900,remembered as the most ravaging calamity of Chhapaniya after the Vikram Samvat 1956 in which it occurred.Pannalal was a self-made writer and wrote it in a simple,direct style,devoid of any literary artifices or sophistication,and yet he was never "crude" or"raw"The story of a love affair between Kalu, a rustic village youth and Raj,a woman with immense mental power,the novel progresses on parallel tracks;it talks of the tragic lives of the two lovers,their endurance in the face of all adversities and the will to survive it all,as also of a people who were were devastated by the great famine,enduring similarly.It created waves in Gujarati literature,impressing readers as well as the pundits.Noted film actor and director,Upendra Trivedi,made a film based on the novel,and it won a Silver Lotus in the regional film category at the 41st national film festival a couple of years ago.
    It moved Trivedi as it did Kantak.Said Upendra Trivedi; "Time is the hero,nature its leading lady and the famine the villain.Man's battle against the famine,the shortage of food fodder and water,the miserries all around,are enough to crusrh his spirit.Yet,man fights on,often hanging on to the the fragile threats of non-existent hope.The saga of Kalu and Raju too was equally moving."
    Says Kantak: "Pannalal achieved a break-through in writing this powerful work.It was not only set in rural background,used the idiom familiar to the rustic folks,and still it was neither crude nor raw,neither did lack in intellectual content.With a complete artisic control,Pannalal made powerful probes into the basics of the human condition.Apart from imaging a peasant culture with ancient roots in its effort to cope with nature's callousness and human perversities,the novel has the distiction of fictionalising a historic catastrophe,the great famine known as Chhappaniyo.It is the tale of a man wedded to the soil in a raging tempestuous sort of conjunction from which a few chancy drops of 'nectar' can still be salvaged."
    For all this,it was no easy a job to render the novel into English. Kantak says: "One addresses the task of translating into English the idiom and speech-tones of the well-grounded dialect of this novel of the Indian peasantry's life-style,with considerable trepidation." He has tried to retain,as far as possible, something of the naive simplicity and force of the direct immediacy of utterance implicit in it. Still,Kantak,the life-long university don and critic,is not making any claims. I am aware that howsoever one may try,the brevity,the compactness,the brilliant staccato effect, are inevitably lost."
    He says "I have tried to avoid anything like a special stylstic feature that might call attention to itself in the English that is used. I hope the 'Englishing' conforms to the norms of the ordinary English that is current in India, without obscuring altogether the down-to-earth quality of Pannalal's art." One thing that gave Kantak a lot of troubles was the rendering into English of the songs and lyrical strains used for group-singing at marriage ceremony and other occasions.He rendered these in unrhymed iambic verse or less in keeping with the singing quality of the original pieces.
    How did Prof.Kantak go about translating it? "I read it very carefully twice as a whole novel ,and then again read it meculously chapter by chapter as I went on rendering it into English. There were revisions too, especially in songs and lyrics.It took me some two years to do all this."
    About the ethos of the novel Manavini Bhavai,Kantak says he is deeply impressed. "It is obvious that the Kalu of the famine sequences,towards the close,strikes one as a different Kalu from the puny,sentimentalism-prone, schoolboyish young man that the earlier Kalu was.What transformed him ? It is no doubt the natural process of maturity in the first instance. But the peculiar toughening of mental fibre and inner growth come from his respnse to two things -- the impact of Raju, and late, of the Chappaniya.Of these,Raju over-shadows everything in the novel.She is the heart of the story.She makes her young man. You almost hear the potter slapping and patting the maleable mass,and see her at the wheel,nudging,pressing, coaxing,as she spins the mass giddily into a shape.And, all done as though unconsciously,without any sort on design."
    He continues: "Raju on the one hand, and the Chhappaniya on the other,bring Kalu to the boil, to maturing. Raju's role, in subtle ways,is that of a "mother" too,in addition to being a beloved. It is this vista,this simutaneous perception of the dream girl-- the soul mate (italics) mater (italics over),mother earth,prakriti,the one manifest in the other.Perhaps this, more than anything else spells the Indian experience.The secret of the endurance she instils in Kalu is the kind that is implcit in prakriti,nature, itself."
    For Kantak,an image of the Indian reality comes to life between the two intensities,represented by Raju and the Chhapaniya,as if acquiring name form-- Namrup. "It is possible the perceptive might catch a glimpse of that elusive entity in the blundering innocence of a Kalu," says Kantak " More likely,they will see it all the more clearly in the eloquent silences of a Raju.And in the process, the 'drollness' of the tale,too,will have taken on a certain subtle singificance."
    The reference to the drollness is to the original title's word Bhavai,literally speaking bhavai would mean a droll story,implying superfluousness.When he gave the original title,Pannalal himself was aware of the ordinary,literal meaning.In the foreword to the Manavini Bhavai,dated April 25,1947,the late author said that in addition to the literal meaning,bhavai would also imply in certain situation a reference to the worldly affairs or property,as was depicted in the Gujarati saying,Be Dhoran Ne Be Chhoran,A Aapni Bhavai (Two cattle head and two children,that is all what is our property in this world). Or,in another saying, Kheti A To Bhai,Zazan Manavini Bhavai (Farming,my brother, is a droll story of many people together).
    The unarticulated question is: Could this, as Kantak puts it,"what appears merely droll in the eyes of modern humanism -- be hiding a profounder insight underneath?" It does,making the apparent droll saga assume contrary meaning.
    To Kantak, it was part of a personal journey of the innr landscape, an"experience". He says,without much ado:"I think I am satisfied with what I have done." He is not bothered if the translation attracts much notice,or not,wins acclaim or is ignored. He had done his job and was happy with the resultant volume.Alas, he is no more and a hunt to locate his family did not yield.Maybe,they have moved away, maybe our memory is too weak to


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