Translations are probably as hard to critique as they are to write, because more often than not, the flattery of one language cannot match the deception of the other. For someone who isn’t familiar with Urdu, or the aesthetic that makes up most of Urdu writing of the country, there is pretty much no pre-emptive state of mind that a text can be approached with. With the exception of Sadat Hasan Manto, who is now, thanks to a handful of good-to-great translations, one of the most popular writers the subcontinent has spawned, most of Urdu literature’s readers have passed on from generation to generation like the writing has. There is therefore, opportunity and at the same time trepidation in introducing a cadre of writers to a readership that is loyal mostly due to its reservations than a vertical sense of engagement. Joginder Paul’s (who died in April this year) Blind, translated from Nadeed in Urdu by his daughter Sukriti Kumar Paul, might just test the elasticity of that band of reservation.
Blind, as the title suggests, is about the blind, of the blind and up to a point, by the blind.
It is a metaphor in development, an allegory perhaps for a timeless country, and a timeless country for unspecified people. And therefore relevant in today’s time, more than it ever will be. There isn’t necessarily a strand of narrative worth mentioning, but there is a premise and it is wonderfully held together by the codpieces of allegory that enter and leave the novel, almost like a conversation delightful for the many cracks it fails to fills at times.
Baba is the old man in charge of a home for the blind, where Bhola, Sharfu, Roni and other characters live. The inhabitants of Baba’s facility confer upon him the status of a figure they look up to, and among themselves they discuss and deliberate on things that are of their world, often postulated by the writer as vehicle to our time. Baba inexplicably gains sight, and in his understated desire to make the most of this happenstance, he fiddles with the powers of democracy – literally – and puts himself in a place, from where sight and life become difficult to hold on to.
Firstly, the strength of Blind is its premise and its attempt to slowly realise a metaphor that gives the book its cogency in the latter half. There are nearly so many idiomatic ponderings on the idea of seeing and looking, sight and blindness, darkness and light that at times the metaphor can seem lost, looking for a voice that can normalise the context for the reader. But then, that is perhaps also the point. The study of each character is a thread from which emerges a truth that is both new and abortive in its attempt to define the greater scheme of things.
In the middle of the novel there is a scene described by Paul with such satirical darkness that forces one to consider the many semiotic translations of sight as commissioned by real-world contexts for those who can, or choose to see. Paul’s writing, at times, reminds of other Urdu translations in where the prose is embittered with a sense of displacement, as if this is the language of anguish, pain and existentialism. Blind, axially attends to the basic principles of setting and pacing a book, but more often than not, relieves itself of the format, as if to urge the reader to read from within a cortex shared, more by the principles of wandering, than finding your way.
To call Blind a satire would be to undermine its many humanly invocations as it addresses inability, from the precept of a world both undecided and unmoved by the division that identifies one as disabled. Blind’s weaknesses, however, lie in its latter half, where the metaphor that Paul has so admirably built, starts to unravel as he tries to interpose the destination of his allegory with the idea that most supplies it its value – a failed state. Baba, though divided within, chases power and finds it in the cauldrons of democratic power – in a strictly political sense. From there on in, the book reads like a dotted line, marked only by relativity, in turn failing the reader who in his mind by then, may have built his own structures to absorb that idea with. The latter half of the book, could, and at times does feel like a simplification, a lighting-the-torch moment in a tunnel, where the brilliance of finding one’s own feet would have been far greater.
There is, nonetheless, the idiomatic equivalent of a diary in the book. Short, smart intakes of wisdom make up for the overlapping inexistence of a variable, an agency of thought that freshens the text, but is exempted here mostly to follow the greater line of ideas. But such is the sense of perspective introduced by Paul that the formidability of the following lines exists outside the pages of the book as well:
I’m not innocent, but thankfully everyone around me is blind
If the thief is too honest and shy, rather than laying siege to a stranger’s house, he besieges his own heart and steals whatever he may find there
A person with eyes goes blind with suspicion because he sees the surface with his eyes and the depths with his doubt
A blind man is blind, Sharfu, and so is the blind man’s god
Justice is a blind man’s stick – it falls where it falls
If not, perhaps, for his inclination to hold the hand of the reader to educate him or her about the unintended consequence a text, rife with warping conjectures like that of a mathematical graph, the novel might have carried through as a singular, more potent redress of the theme at hand. That said, Paul delivers on his premises and ideas alone, and presents a book, the depths of which can only be understood by clinging to the seam of the text, rather than flagging bottom-page as the point where you reconsider the merits of reading. Most readers may find the elliptical construction of the text here as an obstacle to arriving at their comfort zone, from where every book seems linear. But, be patient, give it a chance and you might just be delightfully triggered into a higher state of conscience, even if you can see – which doesn’t (mean) much, or does it?