Bond that goes beyond
The English rendering of a Marathi novel, set in a mythical town in Maharashtra, highlights the bond between culturally dissimilar friends. Is this friendship too good to be true in a caste-conscious climate?
Rationalist leader Dr Narendra Dabholkar had an uncanny eye for content that complemented the anti-superstition crusade. He felt fiction served as a tool to counter social ills and a regressive world view. As the editor of Sadhana, a weekly, he had devoted 56 pages of a Diwali issue to writer Bharat Sasne's 1999 novel Don Mitra, which mapped Maharashtra's caste realities. In 2019, 20 years since it was first published and six after Dr Dabholkar's killing, Don Mitra is rendered in English as Two Friends: A Perspective Of The Third (Inking Innovations).
This is good news in literary circles. But one cannot escape the bad too, which author Sasne and the translator Dr Vilas Salunke acknowledge. They collectively feel that specters of communalism-casteism that Dr Dabholkar had identified in the novel have grown in scale and intensity. Sasne's unidentified unnamed mythical village/township, in which two friends of different castes face unbelievable social pressure, comes terrifyingly close to real acrimonious neighbourhoods in Maharashtra where inflammatory speeches spark communal riots in which unemployed youth become agents of hate.
Two friends present a tableau of animated exchanges among characters who, as Indians, are impacted by nationwide civic unrest after the fall of an Islamic structure. The town is divided along religious and caste lines; the academia stands undecided about what to teach and what to withhold; the youth take to pelting stones and suspicion is commonplace. At the centre of this stand three friends —Manohar, a Hindu Brahmin; Kanifnath, a lower caste Hindu and a Christian who is also the omnipresent narrator and a writer by profession. His friends call him "Raddiwala", in jest, referring to the newspaper scrap he generates in the name of social commentary. The Raddiwala is the Everyman, peace-loving but unable to counter the hatred sparked by the proposed inter-caste marriage of his friends' children.
Dr Vilas Salunke
The novel beautifully locates two sore areas that define relations in the hinterland—marriage and death rituals that often coerce the fiercest liberals into conformism. In Two Friends, a proposed inter-caste marriage manages to receive the attention of distant religious and community heads who advocate against 'unions' that endanger racial purity and communal peace. A CID report declares the two friends as the cause of riots because of their inability to rein in their kids. However, the friends turn the tables by drafting a manifesto (to be published in the media) against the poison of hatred. Instead of bowing to the traditionalists, they dare a boycott of those who divide humanity. In what sounds like the ultimate warning to blackmailers, they say: If you don't want to attend our funerals, so be it, because our families will ensure adequate numbers to lift the dead bodies. The book becomes worth the while because of the silver lining it provides in the grimmest of scenarios.
The project is interesting because of the vital connect between the author and the translator, both Puneites and much-feted men of letters. Sasne, 68, has written short-long stories, novels, plays and won some 40-odd state-level awards. He was in the Indian Administrative Service at sensitive mofussil posts like Osmanabad, Parbhani and Aurangabad. He retired in 2011 as the collector of Beed. His writing has appreciated the distinct pulse of middletown India, which is not rural, not fully urban, and yet a concoction undefined. He wrote Don Mitra in 1999 when he was posted in Pune, a city he chose to call home after retirement. The translator, Dr Salunke, 79, lives a few kilometers away, which explains their daily exchanges over the two years that went into the making of Two Friends. Salunke has taught English literature, translated Marathi titles into English and rendered a similar number from English to Marathi, including Steve Jobs' biography, Man Booker Prize winning The Luminaries and Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Salunke says Two Friends was rewarding because Sasne's political-cultural view of national oneness is conveyed subtly. "In this caste-creed-class ridden society, direct advice or propaganda is unlikely to help sort issues. But a fictional landscape creates an independent world of its own, and has its own mechanism to suggest ways to resolve ticklish areas." He feels the story rings true in not contemporary Maharashtra but any Indian middletown where rationality is under threat.
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