Book Review by Rakhi Dalal
Title: Fragments of Happiness
Author: Shrilal Shukla, translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
Fragments of Happiness is a translation of Shrilal Shukla’s novel, Seemayein Tootati Hain, originally published in 1973. Shrilal Shukla (1925 –2011) was a Hindi writer, notable for his satire. He has written more than 25 books and received the Jnanpith Award, the highest national recognition for writers (2011), the Padma Bhushan (2008) and the Sahitya Akademi (1969). Seemayein Tootati Hain has been translated to English by Niyati Bafna, who has studied translation under Arunava Sinha and is currently a student of Computational Linguistics pursuing an MSc in Prague as an Erasmus Mundus scholar.
In this novel, Shukla, widely known for his satire, weaves the story of a family struggling to come to terms with its reality in the aftermath of an unfortunate incident. Durgadas, a businessman based in Delhi, is convicted for a murder and is sentenced to life imprisonment. He has two sons and a daughter. His children believe in their father’s innocence. Over time, the brothers become convinced that the murderer is Vimal, their father’s partner and a long-time friend. The story is centred on the idea of their father’s innocence and the subsequent efforts of the brothers to find the real criminal. However, the book is not a murder mystery. It does not offer a solution to the impasse that the brothers Taranath and Rajnath seem to find themselves in. And it certainly is not a story which offers closure. Rather it is an exploration of the beliefs, opinions, and nature of its characters as well as of the dynamics of relationships shared by them. The author takes on a well-to-do family in early 1970s Delhi to track the trajectory of each character as they tackle the situation.
Taranath runs a college. Rajnath takes care of his father’s business. Their younger sister Chaand is a 23-year-old researcher in the field of Chemistry. Rajnath’s thoughts and actions are dictated by his desire to restore the reputation of his family whereas those of Taranath to see his father happy. Chaand is more of a realist, who accepts the situation and is more focused upon her career and her personal life. Vimal, on the other hand, stands by the family through the trial of Durgadas and believes him to be innocent too. However, the zenith of the plot revolves around the relationship between Chaand and Vimal.
Mrinal Pande, an eminent author and journalist, dubs Shrilal Shukla as one of India’s most unique and beguiling writers. This is evident as the author treads ahead with the narrative that is crisp and advances effortlessly to portray remarkably the interplay between societal influences and individual opinions and behaviour. Speckled with spiritual and philosophical musings and satire, the narrative skilfully captures the subconscious of its characters. The characters are life-like, with their fears and insecurities governing their responses and actions. One of the most unpredictable characters is that of Julie, Vimal’s confidante and once a sex worker. She is taken aback when she comes to know of Vimal’s deliberate silence about his presence at the scene of murder in which Durgadas was convicted and adds she wouldn’t have done so in his place, that she would have spoken the truth. Vimal’s character remains beguiling till the very end, and it may unsettle some readers.
Also, quite notable in the novel is the depiction of early 70s Delhi. Connaught Place, its cafes, espressos, cinema, localities –flavours and sounds of old Delhi, reminiscent of a distinctive era that may tickle the senses of a reader. In carving the character of Chaand, the author portrays an independent woman who has the courage to make her life choices, is determined and not affected by the expectations of her family or friends. Her individuality parallels the rising class consciousness among women in early 70s which recognised the inequalities within power structures of family, tribe and region as well. With Taranath’s character, he addresses the question of religion and with that of Rajnath and his wife Neela, the restrictions imposed within the familial structures. We know next to nothing of the character of Durgadas, around whose conviction and sentence, the story is constructed. By making this choice, the author has consciously aimed to focus on recounting the ways in which different characters try to cope with adverse circumstances in their lives.
To translate such a distinctive novel by an acclaimed author from Hindi to English, while capturing the nuances of the language, is not an easy task. Bafna has done a commendable job. Although, those who have read the novel in Hindi may wonder at some points about the choices made by the translator, the overall experience is closer to reading the original work and is, definitely, a step forward in making the work reach diverse readers.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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