Category Archives: Women in Translation Reading 2017

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg. Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak

51oe4dOcMOL Title: Swallowing Mercury
Author: Wioletta Greg
Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak
Publisher: Portobello Books
ISBN: 9781846276071
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 146
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does one describe a book that gave you so much joy as you read it? It has been a while since I read anything like “Swallowing Mercury”. I think this book just made me realize that there is still a lot of hope and faith in the world, though it does have its own set of problems, having hope and faith I mean. Greg’s characters are unique, literally that with their eccentricities, and yet the naivety about them is endearing to make you smile and wish them happiness. “Swallowing Mercury” is that kind of book – it leaves you with a tingling feeling – I don’t have any better way to put it.

This book was read by me as a part of the Women in Translation Month – August 2017. I am so glad that I got to know of this book through this initiative. At the core of the book is Wiola, who lives in a close-knit agricultural community (this by itself is charming. There is a sense of old-world feeling to it which cannot be ignored and that’s the major portion of the book which I love the most. So Wiola also has a black cat named Blackie (you can’t help but love the tongue-in-cheek reference). Her father who deserted the family is back and is now a taxidermist. Her mother is a strange one (but then who isn’t when you come to think of it), who frequently warns her about not entering certain rooms and that one must not kill spiders or there will be storms. Might I also add that all this takes place in Poland.

“Swallowing Mercury” has this fable like quality attached to it. There are also a lot of fables in the book per se as Wiola is a Catholic girl, growing up on them and not to mention, superstitions. Greg’s writing has this feeling of wanting to finish the book (given it is so short anyway) and yet to pick it up immediately after.

The translation from Polish by Eliza Marciniak is beautiful – the book is written in fragments and yet the subtle transition of Wiola from a child to an adolescence is so lucid and more so the background of politics, morality, violence and faith makes it even more intriguing. Trust me when I say that you will not be able to put this book down – there are so many layers to it and more than anything else you get so engaged in the Polish life as a reader that you are almost melancholic as it ends.

The Crooked Line by Ismat Chughtai. Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi

413WM8yVqeL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_ Title: The Crooked Line (Tehri Lakeer)
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi
Publisher: Feminist Press
ISBN: 978-1558615182
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation, Feminist Literature
Pages: 393
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When I got to know of Women in Translation month toward the end of July, I knew that Chughtai would have to be one of the authors that I would read. Chughtai is something else. I can never use the past tense for her, because she lives on and on and on through her works no matter how cheesy it might sound to you. I recall the first time I had heard of that name and most people in my college only associated her with “Lihaaf”, her most popular short-story on love between women. But there is a sea of work that Chughtai wrote and while most of it is fairly popular, it isn’t as famous as her short stories. Her novellas, novels and even her memoir, Kagaji Hai Pairahan (loosely translated to a life of words) are stunning. Everything she wrote will go down in history.

My relationship with Chughtai’s works is of fierceness. I always associate the word fierce with her and her heroines. Their inner lives as captured by her remain as probing and mysterious as they were when first published. There is no recipe for emancipation in her books. Her heroines don’t try to break free from their worlds in ways which are extreme, but work around them. I don’t mean this as a good or a bad thing, it is just how things were then, when Ismat Appa was growing and observing the world of women around her.

“Tehri Lakeer” one of Chughtai’s most autobiographical work (translated wondrously by Tahira Naqvi as “The Crooked Line) tells the story of Shamman and her world, the women in her family – from her mother to her sisters and cousins, to her time at a boarding school and experiences there and how she grows into a woman on the brink of India’s independence, at the same time fighting her inner battles. “The Crooked Line” is about Indian women living in purdah (the world Shamman is born and grows into in the first part of the book) – her Amma who is callous enough to let Shamman being taken care of by her sisters. Her Bari Appa (oldest sister) who is a premature widow and uses this to her advantage time and again in the family. Her cousin Noori who very early on understands how to wield power over men. Chughtai’s characters may appear weak and subdued but don’t be fooled. They are strong and yet know when to appear weak.

The world of purdah disappears as Shamman grows up, with its own set of rules and it all comes down to how women control men around them. Shamman, now educated sees herself different from her family and is almost alienated by them. She doesn’t even understand her place in the modern world and is somewhat stuck in a limbo. Ismat Chughtai’s characters are also known to traverse paths of identity confusion more often than not. Be it Masooma (from the novel of the same name) or even Bichchoo Phoophee, they are always stuck, always searching and breaking paradigms in their small ways. Shamman does the same and is seeing the world change drastically – be it through her friend Alma, who has a child out of wedlock and is unable to love it fully or abort it – or through Bilqees, the femme fatale who uses men and is always surrounded by them, without knowing if she loves them or is just using them.

This is also a constant in the book – women who are neither here nor there. Women who were in purdah had no control and women who have the freedom don’t know what to make of it. In all of this is Shamman’s role as a headmistress (which reminded me so much of the Brontë sisters) and her relationship with the gossiping colleagues to her own sexuality as and when it blossoms, Chughtai’s feminism is not contained or a listicle of sorts. It is the kind of feminism that questions and makes you very uncomfortable while asking those questions. She isn’t apologetic and neither are her characters. Tahira Naqvi’s translation from the Urdu is top-notch as she keeps all phrases and words intact, where they should be. There is also a glossary behind for those who might need to refer it. This was perhaps the last Chugtai book that I had left to read. Knowing me though, I will go back to her works, almost every year. She was truly a woman of gumption and it reflected in her writing all the way. Read her. Breathe her works. And I would be very envious of you, if you haven’t read her at all, because there is so much there for you to read and adore.