The War and Peace of Hindi Literature

Yashpal_24540Daisy Rockwell in Bookslut:

I read War and Peace a number of years ago in Allahabad, India, in March or April, when the temperatures begin to soar. Our roof-top apartment, so delightfully airy during other months, slowly transformed into an oven. This was how we learned why no landlord in India lives in the top floor of their house if they can avoid it. Frequent power outages exacerbate the situation, and by mid-day each day, the best course of action was to lie in the dark as immobile as possible and read. Napoleon's ill-advised campaign into Russia, the arrival of winter and the freeze-out of the French army provided a cooling balm to my imagination, if not my body.

I was reading War and Peace so that I might be able to continue to say, with confidence, that the Hindi novel Jhootha Sach, which means “False truth,” was “the War and Peace of Hindi literature.” It was a claim that was often thrown around, and one that I had carelessly made myself. Reading one book to find out if it can be used as an exemplar of another one has already read is ostensibly going about things backwards. But I had a particular motivation: Jhootha Sach was untranslated and I wanted to make the case that this fact was a tragedy for literature lovers around the world. Just imagine if War and Peace was sitting around in Russia, untranslated, and no non-Russian readers were able to access it? How culturally impoverished we would be if that were the case, even those of us who had never bothered to read it because of its notorious heft?

To the naked eye, it is this heft that is the most obvious shared characteristic between Jhootha Sach and War and Peace. The new English translation of Jhootha Sach (titled This is not that Dawn) is 1119 pages. Translations of War and Peace generally weigh in at around 1400+ pages. After size, there is their common theme: both novels are set during an Important Historical Event. Jhootha Sach is set during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan; War and Peace is set during the Napoleonic wars. But how does this make them different from, say, Cold Mountain? To answer that, I would have to read Cold Mountain, and, following William Shatner, I wonder if that’s just too long. Instead I will speculate: along with its zippy plot, several romances, sex, violence and a beautiful heroine, Jhootha Sach is a very serious novel. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf’s assessment of Middlemarch, it is a magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few novels in the world written for grown-up people.

But after this, the comparison begins to break down.