The world of Pandey Kapil's Phoolsunghi: Gautam Choubey on translating the novel, Bhojpuri literary culture
Phoolsunghi is the first Bhojpuri novel to be translated into English and opens up the local culture and tradition to a larger audience.
In Bhojpuri veteran author Pandey Kapil’s 1977 novel Phoolsunghi, set roughly between the 1840s and 1931, after the tawaif Dhelabai slights the powerful zamindar Babu Haliwant Sahay, he builds the Red Mansion, a cage where he traps her forever. As she grapples with her new life, the novel weaves an intricate web of characters and backstories, overarchingly presenting the love story of Dhelabai and the folk poet Mahendar Misir.
While several characters including the two lovers, Haliwant Sahay, and Revel Sahib were real people, the novel’s story and empathy are Pandey Kapil’s unique perspective of personalities deeply rooted in the local cultural sensibility.
Translated by academic Gautam Choubey, it’s the first Bhojpuri novel accessible to English language readers. In a phone conversation with Firstpost, Choubey talks about his choice of text and process of translating, the literary atmosphere Kapil worked within, the folk tradition the novel represents, and more.
Edited excerpts below:
This is the first Bhojpuri novel translated into English. Could you talk about your choice of text? How is Phoolsunghi relevant to contemporary readers?
My grandfather, Dr Chandradhar Pandey, was a major Bhojpuri novelist. So I could have chosen to translate one of my own grandfather’s works, but I thought this text will provide the kind of visibility that Bhojpuri needs, because it brings together the story of [Mahendar Misir], a very popular folk artist and [is written by someone who is] probably considered the most important figure in the history of Bhojpuri literature. Not because Pandey Kapil wrote a lot. But he edited the very important Bhojpuri magazine Bhojpuri Sammelan Patrika and established the first All India Association of Bhojpuri Writers, the Akhil Bharatiya Bhojouri Sahitya Sammelan.
[It’s relevant today because] people are divided, there’s so much bitterness, and the book speaks of forgiveness, reconciliation, empathy, and these are values which are very important. That sounds too idealistic but that’s the elusive charm of this text. You get a serene feeling when you read this book. There’s no major upsurge of emotion, no major upheaval.
The book celebrates those emotions which you crave but are incapable of producing or summoning.
And although it’s a representation of Bihar in colonial times, when there’s fragmentation and hierarchy, people somehow still live together. Think of Haliwant Sahay’s haveli. It’s a space which allows some kind of social alchemy. There’s a Muslim cook, a guard of indeterminate caste, there are Doms, there’s Gulab Singh the guardman who’s probably a Rajput. Then there is Revel Sahib; and in how many Hindu households would you find the portrait of a Christian man hanging in the shrine room? So it’s this assimilated space.
And the spirit of assimilation, forgiveness, and friendship is something we really need in our times and should celebrate.
What was the translating process like? What challenges did you face?
I grew up speaking Bhojpuri. I used to think I’m very fluent in Bhojpuri, but I’m not. That is something I realised when I started translating the book. What I also realised — tragically — was that my English is bad, my Bhojpuri is as bad, and my Hindi is even worse [laughs]. And that is a humbling realisation. I took the whole exercise more meaningfully, because you also tend to learn a lot. You look for the right words.
Spoken Bhojpuri has multiple registers, there’s no standardised Bhojpuri. For example, if you have to address a young girl affectionately in my part of Bihar, which is Buxar, you will call her buchiya. We go a few kilometres further to, say Araria – both Buxar and Araria were part of the same undivided district called Shahabad, but are now divided – there buchiya will become bobi. And then if you go to Chhapra she will become babuli.
You have to understand the usage, and the best way to understand [it] is to speak to the local people. Pandey Kapil was from Chhapra. The story is based in Chhapra. So the interpretation in Chhapra would be the most authentic one. It was an interesting exercise. I never lived in my village. So now I had to speak to farmers in my village, the common villagers, and they would help me with many of the words.
The novel has several moments of high drama, but the overall reading experience is even-toned. Can you talk about Pandey Kapil’s writing style and word choices, and your approach when translating?
The book is of course dramatic. And that is a form of literature that has a strong presence. I thought I shouldn’t do anything to cool it down. There are certain portions that I found too dramatic but if you read the novel together you don’t find them as [loud]. For example, if you pick up the chapter about the nose ring and see the way he receives it and thinks of it and the way it makes its presence felt, it appears dramatic. But if you read it in the larger context, then it makes sense. Even in the original, the words are not that loud. I’ve retained that in the translation. Because it has a very serene feel.
So I thought I should translate it in a way that no reader, however feebly they comprehend English, should have to open a dictionary to understand it. I made the words as simple to understand as possible. That’s the reason I’ve provided a glossary, but there’s also words that I explain in the body of the text. So a balance between giving attention to specific words in the text and the glossary.
Phoolsunghi is steeped in the world of tawaifs, patrons, and wandering poets, and is a rich representation of Bhojpuri folk heritage. Can you please elaborate on the tradition and on Mahendar Misir as a folk poet?
This culture wasn’t exactly new. Because even when you’re not reading about the courtesans in a Bhojpuri novel, you read about them in Tagore or Bankim [Chandra Chatterjee]. So it’s not a culture we aren’t familiar with. Because you think of Umrao Jaan and other courtesans, you have these men, these zamindars, who visit them. And then when they age, they’re just abandoned. That’s also the story in [the 1972 film] Pakeezah.
But the way the culture’s been portrayed here [in the novel] is very different. Here a courtesan goes on to become a proprietor of half of his estate, and an important figure in the local community. And going by the perceptions we have today of Bihar, of [being] an extremely orthodox, conservative, patriarchal society, that society allowing a woman to rise to that stature is remarkable. So the story is familiar, but its treatment and what happens in the story, that was a surprise.
All the songs that you see in the novel are composed by Mahendar Misir. Even the ones that appear before his arrival. Pandey Kapil has used his songs. Mahendar Misir was influenced quite a lot by this whole [folk poetry] tradition. There was Kabir, Dharamdas, Lakshmi Sakhi, Dariya Sahib. This whole region around Buxar, Araria, Bhojpur, Suran, the Bhojpuri-speaking tract, it has seen quite a few folk poets. Because it’s a predominantly oral culture, these poets became popular not by virtue of what they preached but by the songs they composed. And with 1857, we see nationalism, patriotism, anti-British sentiment in these songs. So all of that must have shaped Mahendar Misir’s consciousness.
And Bhojpuri songs in general, they are about migration, because at that time migration was the reality. They are about the rhythm of everyday cultural processes. And many folk songs are caste-specific. I think we need to read more into these because perhaps what is missing, that tone of resistance, that tone of protest in Phoolsunghi or any other mainstream Bhojpuri novel, you might find in those folk songs, mostly sung by the underprivileged caste. In fact, yesterday somebody had called me up and he was sharing a particular song which is about the complaint of a deer. A deer is hunted by a character in Ramayana and turned into a toy and the mother of that deer looks at the toy and thinks of the fawn. So you don’t find those sentiments in mainstream published works.
And courtesans, most of them are originally from the Delhi durbar. Once it disintegrated, they moved to Lucknow and other places like Benaras, Chhapra, Muzaffarpur. So the courtesans brought along a certain culture, music and dance forms, and other forms of entertainment. They didn’t just preserve these forms but also introduced them in places where they did not exist. Now they’ve now been marginalised. Modern India hasn’t taken care of these practitioners of dance and music and it has completely disregarded courtesans in that sense. And the surviving members are now often treated as prostitutes.
In as much as Phoolsunghi is a love tragedy, what does the novel reveal about the cultural understanding of, and rules about, love?
Love is not very carnal. In the relationship between Mahendar Misir and Dhelabai, it’s clearly platonic. They barely get to confess. At the very last moment, when Dhelabai cannot contain it anymore, she tells her grandnephew to go and bring him from the jail. So as long as it remains platonic, it’s acceptable.
Number two, the courtesan must eventually shed being a courtesan, and turn into something which comes closest to Dhelabai. So you see the last song [in the novel] is called ‘O Blessed Bride’. At the last moment there is recognition that Dhelabai was not a courtesan but in fact a wife to Haliwant Sahay and a beloved of Mahendar Misir. The original [song] is ‘O Suhagi.’ So she’s no longer a courtesan, she’s a suhagan.
Not being a courtesan also means [she has to] stop dancing. It is okay for courtesans to sing, but dancing is something which has degraded their worth in public estimation. So there were courtesans who could sing and dance. Then there were courtesans who could only sing. And then there were those who only danced. So the ones who only sang were at the top, followed by the ones who could sing and dance, and then at the bottom were the ones who only danced. So for them it’s about moving from dance to restricting themselves to songs, and that too devotional songs. Dhelabai, in the end, is singing only bhajans. And has stopped being a courtesan.
Pandey Kapil started his career as a Hindi writer before switching to Bhojpuri. What do you think prompted this shift? Can you talk about Hindi and Bhojpuri literary traditions during the time that he was writing and what this shift meant?
Haliwant Sahay was his [Kapil’s] distant relative. They both come from Sheetlapur. So he was telling a story about his own village. He had a government job, so in that sense he was very stable. And his father Pandey Jagannath Prasad was also a novelist, he’s written the wonderful Gaon Ghar Tola.
Pandey Kapil switched to Bhojpuri for the love of Bhojpuri and no other reason.
In fact, the sad part about being a Bhojpuri author, and to some extent even a Hindi author, is that you can’t rely on the remuneration that is paid. The whole idea of sales is non-existent. People publish books and keep it at their own place. Then they go out to meet a relative, so they take a few copies along. And they circulate it. And if somebody wants, they’ll pay some money. It’s a book culture where you are the investor, publisher, and in some cases, the courierer of the book.
Hindi literature still constitutes, apart from the aspirational [aspect], this kind of stature, because that’s the literature that they have immediate access to. Back in his times, a lot of Bangla literature was also available in Hindi, now the volume of translation has somewhat diminished. I don’t think many Hindi speakers or Hindi professors would be as familiar with Bangla novels of the day as they would be with Bangla novelists from the 19th or early 20th century. The confluence between Bangla and Hindi literature which was thriving at one point has slowed down, forcing Bhojpuri authors now to turn more to the Hindi writers. But earlier, for example, in the representation of Mahendar Misir, you also see shades of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas. Sarat Chandra is enormously popular in Bihar. You’ll find him in every bookstore. Even those that sell only textbooks, they would also have a few copies of Sarat Chandra. So that was one influence [for Kapil]. Hindi literature is another influence.
And Pandey Kapil’s household was quite a place. Whoever came to Patna, all the major authors, [visited there]. Some even say that [Hindi author Phanishwar Nath] Renu edited his [1954 novel] Maila Anchal along with Pandey Kapil.
And Bhojpuri literature does not borrow, for example, from modernism. The kind of modernism we see in the Nayi Kahaani Movement which centres especially on working women, that we don’t see in Bhojpuri writing much. Because that’s not their reality. In the countryside in Chapar you may not find too many working women. So when Hindi literature deals with the theme of working women and in a sense places a whole literary movement around that image, Bhojpuri doesn’t feel compelled to follow that. So it has got its own [concerns]. For example, you’ll find constant references to the 1857 revolt. And Kunwar Singh is a major figure, he’s also mentioned in this novel. And Rajendra Prasad is another important figure.
So it’s close to Hindi but has still chartered its own independent course.
Phoolsunghi was first published in 1977. What literary atmosphere did that novel come into and what was it adding to the corpus of Bhojpuri literature?
Back in the late 70s, when the book was being published and others were also writing, and my own grandfather was around, that was perhaps the best period for Bhojpuri literature. If you look at the books produced during that period, right from the cover to the production quality to the theme, they are exploding around the 70s and 80s. They added some political consciousness among the Bhojpuri-speaking people, and we attribute some of that to Jayaprakash Narayan, a political figure also from Chhapra who lived in Patna. That type of progressive agenda we do not find prior to the 70s and it diminishes after the 90s.
So when you speak of women and women empowerment, if you notice, the word that is used for prostitutes in Bhojpuri is randi, which is a very derogatory word. You won’t find the word used even once in the whole novel. She’s referred to as baiji, a Hindi honourific. Now there’s another novel based on the same story, [Ramnath Pandey’s 1990 novel] Mahendar Misir. There, throughout the text you’ll find this word recurring. I’d counted, it’s about 56 or 57 times. Which is appaling. Because this, in a sense, is a measure of the decline. The first Bhojpuri novel, in fact, celebrates a woman’s right to decide who she wants to marry. It’s [Ramnath Pandey’s 1956 novel] Bindiya. She falls in love with a man from a lower caste, they marry, and eventually the father helps them elope. So from that progressive beginning, to the strengthening of the progressive agenda in the 70s and the 80s, we witness this sharp decline toward the 90s. So he inhabited that progressive moment in Bhojpuri literature. It was a wonderful time.
With the two novels, one can see how over 20 years, nationalism and ideas of purification seeped in...
Truly. Because authors, if they become apologists, then they are no authors. Back in the 70s and 80s, authors were still authors.
The other problem was, this novel [Phoolsunghi] was published in 1977, during the Emergency, and Pandey Kapil was a government employee. So he couldn’t have taken a militant stance. The novel speaks of reconciliation.
But then there’s also people around the same time who are writing against the government. There’s a lot of anti-establishment sentiment in Bhojpuri literature. And why not? It’s one of the most economically backward regions of the country and people do feel cheated at times. So you have a strong strain of that anti-establishment sentiment. But that sentiment has blunted over the years. Perhaps it’s on the rise again now, people are exploring those themes now. I can see that from the collections that I’ve got. If you inhabit a language territory which has been neglected historically, then of course that sentiment has to come out very strongly.
Can you talk about the contemporary Bhojpuri literature scene?
Of course. After translating this novel, people suddenly know me [laughs]. I would often reach out to them [for help with translating], and now people send me books. They bring out excellent books. Several people are writing short stories. Most of them are about rural life and changes to rural life, like the arrival of new technology. Some are also about migration and people who are in the city but are looking back at the villages and the lives that they have lived there. These are the things people are still grappling with.
That creative flow has returned over the past few years. There’s a great deal of excitement now. Over the past five to six years, there has been a decline in the Bhojpuri film industry. People have once again turned to literature. That is very good for Bhojpuri, the image of Bhojpuri.
— All photos courtesy Gautam Choubey except where mentioned otherwise
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