Sous presse, (Theo Damsteegt ed.) Presses de l’Université de Leiden, 2005

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sous presse, (Theo Damsteegt ed.) Presses de l’Université de Leiden, 2005

The poetics of Nirmal Verma and his stylistics:

from the grammar of indefiniteness to the subversion of gender oppositions
Annie Montaut
Nirmal Verma (Varma) has explained in numerous essays the specific function and intrinsic quality of art and literature, in particular Indian literature.1 Such theories have in the past repeatedly been rejected on the ground that they express the writer’s artificial desire to invent roots for himself in the Indian tradition in order to legitimate a novelistic style that is largely made up of foreign influences.2 The view that Nirmal Verma’s novelistic art is an adaptation of European techniques and notions is indeed quite widespread in Indian literary critique, ranging from Indranath Madan (1966: 136-138), Lakshmisagar Varshney (1970: 69ff), Candrakanta Bandivadekar (1977: 399) to, more recently, Jaidev (1993: 48f). These numerous evaluations suggest that Verma is a Hindi writer who writes in Hindi about Western (English) themes, and who structures contents and characters according to Western literary principles,3 like those which have been displayed in the late twentieth-century Western novel, where “characters often do not have names, and their motivations and feelings remain shadowy”.4

The criticisms on his work have certainly been toned down by the recent fame of the author (he was awarded the Gyanpith distinction in 2001) and his ideology of arthas even aroused some admiration, transforming him into a kind of Sartre or “maître à penser” of his generation. Yet, such enthusiasm often has dubious motivations since the wish to reinforce a Hindu perspective is an important motif for some of his supporters. However, reasoned comparisons of his theoretical essays and the text of his novels have nonetheless been rare and restricted to two recent papers, both from 2000 (Prasenjit Gupta and Annie Montaut). The latter is mainly devoted to matters of form and, like the former, deals with the contents and narrative structure of the text rather than with its style in the phrastic meaning of the term. What this texte, like the two previous papers, wille endeavour to resolve is the implicit or explicit contradiction which is at stake between the so-called purely Hindu worldview of his essays, and the Western form invested on Westernized figures and intrigues of his fiction, which is, to phrase it more adequately, the absence of a proper story, in a Western guise.

A sample of a theoretical program within the narrative offers even more insight since it is both, implicitly, a philosophical/theoretical program and the practical illustration of it, which involves the material (scriptural) devices implied in the concrete realization of the artist’s program. Such a sample can be found in Ek cith{r}{aa} sukh (A Rag Called Happiness in English translation).

I will therefore start with an explanation of the content and the form of this short sample, then develop its main formal devices by analysing some crucial extracts of the novels, eventually relating the results of these analyses to the “philosophical” background displayed in Nirmal’s essays.

Still life: a lesson of looking

In the novel mentioned above, the episode of the lesson on “how to see” is introduced by the project, if not a full fledged one, of being a writer: “I will remember, I will write it in my diary”. This is followed by an outline of a scene observed from the room on the roof top (bars{aa}t{ii}): “Bitti was hanging the clothes […] and I…” (19).5 It is quite striking to see how the three dots (quite frequent in Nirmal Verma’s fictional writing) link both first the observed scene to the “I”, and then the “I” to his favorite game (khel) which triggers the memory of the drawing lesson. This punctuation also has another effect: it makes the word stand in isolation, like an island suspended between two silences, cut off from what precedes and what follows, and at the same time connected to the neighbouring sequences as an iconic announce of the following events. Knowing that the whole structure of the novel is made to disclose, within the main protagonist, the inner “I” (mai{m}) who observes the events in the third person (“he”, vah) and is transformed into a writer by writing from memory and by reliving the events, having left the deserted scene at the end of the novel in a Proustian structure,6 we cannot overestimate the impact of this short piece of poetics within the overall economy of the novel. Such a meta-narrative injunction to “see” describes the writer’s stance in a novel aimed, among other things, at describing the genesis of the writer. Let us first re-read the passage, which carries on with the third person right after the quote mentioned above, and just before introducing us into the “lesson”:


vah apne bistar par le{t}{aa} th{aa}. kitn{ii} b{aa}r vah yah khel apne se khelt{aa} th{aa} -- jaise vah duniy{aa} ko kah{ii}{m}b{aa}har se dekh rah{aa} hai, {s}{aa}m, chat, bi{t}{t}{ii} aur {d}air{ii} – ab unhe{m} nah{ii}{m} j{aa}nt{aa}. vah unhe{m} pahl{ii} b{aa}r dekh rah{aa} hai. uske {d}r{aa}i{m}g m{aa}s{t}ar kl{aa}s me{m} kahte the –

He was lying on his bed. How many times had not he played this game with himself, as if he was looking at the world from outside, evening, roof-top, Bitti and Dairy – now he does not know them. He is looking at them for the first time. His drawing master used to say in the classroom --



dekho, yah seb hai. yah seb {t}ebul par rakh{aa} hai. ise dhy{aa}n se dekho. s{ii}dh{ii} {aa}{m}kho{m} se — ek sunn nig{aa}h s{uu}{ii} k{ii} nok–s{ii} seb par bi{m}dh j{aa}t{ii}. vah dh{ii}re-dh{ii}re hav{aa} me{m} ghulne lagt{aa}, g{aa}yab ho j{aa}t{aa}. phir, phir -- ac{aa}nak pat{aa} calt{aa} – seb vah{ii}{m} hai, mez par, jaise k{aa} tais{aa} – sirf vah alag ho gay{aa} hai, kamre se, d{uu}sre la{r}ko{m} se, mez aur kursiyo{m} se – aur pahl{ii} b{aa}r seb ko na{ii} nig{aa}ho{m} se dekh rah{aa} hai. na{m}g{aa}, s{aa}but, samp{uu}r{n} … itn{aa} samp{uu}r{n} ki vah bhaybh{ii}t-s{aa} ho j{aa}t{aa}, bhaybh{ii}t bh{ii} nah{ii}{m} – sirf ek aj{ii}b-s{aa} vismay paka{r} let{aa}, jaise kis{ii}ne usk{ii} {aa}{m}kho{m} se pa{t}{t}{ii} khol d{ii} hai. (19)

“Look, this is an apple, this apple is on the table. Look at it with attention. With right eyes” – an empty look pierced the apple like the point of a needle. It/he began to slowly dissolve in the air, disappeared. Then, then, suddenly became aware – the apple is exactly there, such as itself – only he/it has got separated, from the room, from the other children, from the table and the chairs – and for the first time looks at the apple with new eyes (a new look). Naked, entire, complete … In such a wholeness (completion) that he became kind of frightened, not even frightened – only a somewhat strange wonder seized (him), as if someone had lifted a bandage from his eyes.

What strikes the reader about the formal structure of this short passage and of the whole writing process, is the density of specific stylistic devices which allow us to read this extract as a microcosm of Nirmal’s writing: the shifting reference in the pronominal system, the repetitions, the use of the so-called short (truncated) imperfect sometimes called indefinite or poetic imperfect, the very peculiar system of punctuation, the linking of “independent” clauses or sentences with dashes rather than with commas or full stops, an abundance of markers of indefiniteness (comparisons, the approximation suffix –s{aa}, rectifications such as “frightened, not even frightened”), a number of formal devices which all contribute to create the position of aloofness (duniy{aa} se b{aa}har, alag) and the empathy which is considered, in this fragment, to be the correct attitude to look at things in order to write about them/describe them.7 It is significant enough that the passage occurs in the novel immediately after the boy’s decision to transform the experienced feeling into a written experience through the use of the diary [which is] given to him by his dead mother as an instrument precisely designed for seeing and remembering and thereby for transcending death.8 It is therefore all the more obvious that the right vision, which makes remembering possible and allows memory to be written, has to do with life and death, as art generally does in Nirmal’s perception.

Along with the formal structures of this paragraph, which are in a way seminal throughout Nirmal’s writing, some highly loaded words deserve a more detailed comment in order to locate the whole “lesson” in the global body of the author’s philosophical/aesthetical statements mentioned in the introduction (before coming back to them in conclusion). Among these are dhy{aa}n and s{ii}dh{ii}. Dhy{aa}n, which literally means “attention”, is also the word used from medieval times onwards to indicate the concentration a devotee seeks in order to meditate on a deity and reach a further state of union with the divine. As for s{ii}dh{ii}, a feminine adjective, it literally means “straight, right” but is also related to the yogic powers (cf. the noun siddha, which indicates an utterly accomplished person or some sort of saint endowed with spiritual powers) and to the inner realization of the self and of true knowledge.9 It is therefore all the more obvious that the type of perception involved in the lesson refers to a specific way of looking, whether it is named nig{aa}h, {aa}{m}kh or dekh in Hindi. We may be able to relate this perception to the ritualized dar{s}an, although the text makes no use of that particular word, neither in this passage nor elsewhere, insofar as it avoids direct explicit analogies with the religious or philosophical vocabularies. Endeavouring to reach the sacred is not done through ready-made categories in the novel but is the result of the very immanent acts and words as they get transcended into their bare intrinsic self. That is also hinted at in the frequent use of the word sunn (empty, dumb) and is further emphasized by the use of words with a rich alliteration such as s{uu}{ii} (“needle”), s{ii} (the approximative suffix), or seb (“apple”).

What is of special interest is of course the effect of this intense, absolute gaze, literally piercing (bi{m}dh) the apple to reach at its inner nature: the apple begins to dissolve in the emptiness, while the pronoun which replaces it (vah) is also the form used for the boy, making both viewer and viewed interchangeable for a moment in a first reading. Once dissolved, the apple suddenly appears in its absolute wholeness, which is paradigmatically equivalent to its nakedness, integrity/solidity, while again the ambiguity of the pronoun vah momentarily connects again the viewed object and the viewer. A special gaze is thus required for the object to appear in its very self and in its own being (i.e. undistorted by the observer), and this specific perception can only come about when someone is himself detached (alag) from all the present contingencies (other pupils, table and chairs), looks either from nowhere or from outside the world (free from worldly contingencies), and thus perceives the object for the first time. He has thus indeed been able to free his vision from habitual attachments that are socially or psychologically or historically conditioned, like a “blindfold” (pa{t}{t}{ii}) before one’s eyes. This kind of perception is also described as almost frightening although this emotion is immediately converted into another fundamental aesthetic emotion which is amazement.10 Seeing for the first time, “playing” as if one is not aware of what has previously been seen in the observed scene, is then a “game” which is as childish as it is philosophical.

As for the object (the apple) that is put before the eyes of the pupils to observe, the apple, it too belongs to the well-known training tradition of Western still-life painters,11 but this tradition is here renewed (nativized ?) by the words that are used to describe it. The apple, while disclosing its pure object-ness in a wonderful literal way, becomes part of a process. This process, the perception that unites both the perceived object and the perceiver through the act of perception itself, is a classic reference in the theory of meaning and grammar as well as in the theory of aesthetics in Sanskrit. The way the object has to be perceived also echoes the pictorial perception of Raza (2002, 2004) in his theory of bindu, the focal point, which amounts to reaching the inner spiritual truth of an object once the ocular, superficial perception is transcended by the artist’s concentration (dhy{aa}n). In Nirmal Verma’s novel, the still life is generally distorted once things are perceived correctly. It is subtly distorted into a vibrating life where things become living entities andvactive participants, and this again is a subdued reference to the classical vision of the cosmic world in Indian philosophy.12 Further on in Ek cith{r}{aa} sukh, after the suicide of an important character in one of the last chapters, when the boy is in the process of becoming an adult and a writer, and when the fusion of his “I” and his “he”13 allows a “you” to appear in the shifting process of (de)identification, objects are also described as active entities endowed with a consciousness of their own, a crucial feature in this world of inter-relatedness to connect “I”, “he”, “it”, the self, the other, the world.


vah{aa}{m} ab ko{ii} nah{ii}{m} th{aa}.

ko{ii} nah{ii}{m} th{aa}. sirf vah th{aa}, jo ab mai{m} h{uu}{m} […] durgha{t}n{aa} k{ii} bh{ii} ek {aa}tm{aa} hot{ii} hai, yah mai{m}ne [...] dekh{aa} th{aa}. dekh{aa} th{aa}, yah mai{m} {t}h{ii}k kaht{aa} h{uu}{m}, kyo{m}ki usk{ii} gandh {aa}sp{aa}s k{ii} c{ii}zo{m} ko bh{ii} pat{aa} cal j{aa}t{ii} hai aur ve apn{ii}-apn{ii} jagah se u{t}hkar tumhe{m} gher let{ii} hai{m}… aur tum unhe{m} hakk{ii}-bakk{ii} nig{aa}ho{m} se aise dekhte ho jaise unhe{m} pahle kabh{ii} nah{ii}{m} dekh{aa} [...]. (140)

Now there was nobody there.

Nobody was there. He only was there, who is now I […] Catastrophies have their own soul. This I have seen [...]. I have seen, I say right, because even the things around become aware of their smell and get up from their place to circle around you… And you look at them with dumbfounded eyes as if you had never seen them before [...].

The central episode of Ek cith{r}{aa} sukh: approximation and comparison

The scene of the fair’s remembrance in Allahabad takes place at the beginning of the last third of the novel (98-100) and features just one fragment of memory among many others, but this small piece gives the book its title. There is also another reason to regard this scene as vital in the global economy of the novel (and use it to observe its stylistic texture): it explicitly raises the question of rebirth, of being cut off from family and social support, and on the formal level it mixes short dialogues with “poetical” sequences that are equally short, which reflect a perception that is strongly reminiscent of the one depicted just before the lesson on “how to see”.

The boy, who at this point has already been living with his cousin Bitti for a few months in her bars{aa}t{ii} at Nizamuddin, feeling sometimes feverish and sometimes better, spends his time reading a book about a missionary and a panther, while observing Bitti’s friends in their theatrical amateur activities. He wanders around in the neighbourhood and remembers his days in Allahabad, the home town he left because of his persistent fever. Among the memories that continue to recur, are those of his mother’s death in the hospital in Allahabad and the memory of the excursion to the fair with his cousin, where both witnessed the strange spectacle of a dwarf who was stripped of almost all his clothes except for a few rags after having run in the cold wind of the fan in the circus tent. This spectacle was shown to them as a kind of an answer to a question raised by Bitti: “what is happiness like?”. Right after this passage and before leaving the fair ground, they step in for the last round on the giant wheel and are forgotten by the manager, who did’nt seen them when he stopped the machine.


ko{ii} unhe{m} nah{ii}{m} dekh sakt{aa} [...]. ve ad{r}{s}ya hai{m}. ve kah{ii}{m} {uu}par hai{m}, hav{aa} aur a{m}dhere me{m}, ek d{uu}sre ke a{m}dhere me{m} jak{r}e hue, {s}ahar k{ii} ro{s}niyo{m}, gharo{m}, aur {aa}dmiyo{m} ke {uu}par jah{aa}{m} kabh{ii} ve rahte the, bahut pahle, kis{ii} d{uu}sre janm me{m} […]. vah b{ii}c a{m}dhere me{m} bai{t}h{aa} th{aa}, na {uu}par, na n{ii}ce, sam{uu}c{ii} duniy{aa} se ka{t}{aa} hu{aa}.

- “bi{t}{t}{ii}, ky{aa} tum pichle janm me{m} vi{s}v{aa}s kart{ii} ho?” [...]

- “mai{m} nah{ii}{m} kart{ii}… tum karte ho?”

- “mujhe pat{aa} nah{ii}{m}…” [...] “lekin ais{aa} samay zar{uu}r rah{aa} hog{aa}, jab hame{m} ko{ii} nah{ii}{m} j{aa}nt{aa} hog{aa} ... mer{aa} matlab hai…”

Nobody can see them. [...]. They are invisible […]. They are somewhere above, in the wind and the dark, frozen in each other’s darkness, above the lights of the city, the houses, the men, where they have once lived, long ago, in some other life […]. He was sitting in the middle, in the darkness, neither below nor above, cut off from the whole world.

- “Bitti, do you believe in previous birth?” [...]

- “No, I don’t… Do you?”

- “I don’t know…” [...] “But there must sure be a moment when nobody knows you ... I mean...”

A one-page long dialogue follows, on the question whether people who are born again in a single life can change identity and life in this rebirth, in order to “leave/quit themselves”. The boys then asks his cousin what she would like to do later and she answers she would like to be like the dwarf – “clad with rags (cith{r}e)?” exclaims the boy, and his cousin answers – “they were not rags, they were happiness”.

The dialogue is followed by a description which exemplifies the often mentioned poetic suggestiveness of Nirmal’s style and particularly his “controlled epiphany, impressionistic evocation of setting […] virtually impossible to emulate”.14 Let us first try to analyse how the “evocation of setting” is produced at the phrastic level at least, since it is the level most commonly ignored in the comments on Nirmal’s poetic virtuosity. Part of the evocation occurs before the dialogue sequence, part of it between the two main dialogue sequences. In the first setting of the frame (the first lines quoted above), “high” in the sky ({uu}par), the expression a{m}dhere me{m}, “in the dark”, is repeated three times. The third occurrence, which at first glance seems to add a precision (b{ii}c a{m}dhere me{m}), in fact opens up a more precise indication of the location that apparently contradicts the very first setting ({uu}par), since it is now specified as being “neither low nor high”. The notion of “middle” (b{ii}c) then seems to trigger off the creation of an inter-space, both high and not high, a space where contradictions are suspended since it is itself transcending the differential categories (nana) in a distinctly advaitin formulation (netineti). It is from this position that the required detachment (“cut off from the whole world”) and invisibility are obtained. The two kids in the empty space are indeed ad{r}{s}ya “invisible”, and what they can still see (city, houses, men) seems to them as reminiscent of a previous life, while at the same time the outside darkness changes into a shared inner darkness (ek d{uu}sre ke a{m}dhere me{m}), transforming and balancing the outside and the inside. Repetitions are not just a pattern that is used to musicalize the narrative, they induce a subtle twisting of notional categories which is further developed in the second attempt of “setting the frame”, half way through the dialogue:

use kuch samajh me{m} nah{ii}{m} {aa}y{aa}, kintu us r{aa}t b{ii}c hav{aa} me{m} bai{t}he hue use sab kuch sac lag{aa} th{aa}, asambhav lekin sac, c{aa}{m}dn{ii} r{aa}t me{m} pe{r}o{m} ke n{ii}ce ek khel jais{aa}, jisme{m} jo dikh{aa}{ii} det{aa} hai, vah nah{ii}{m} hai, jo sacmuc me{m} hai vah dikh{aa}y{ii} nah{ii}{m} det{aa} ...

He did not understand anything, but sitting in the air of that night he felt as if everything was true, impossible but true, like a game under the trees in the silvery (moon-lighted) night, in which what is visible does not exist, what does exist is not visible.

Again the in-between position, which this time is an in-between space, in the air, is again used to create the locus where intellectual incomprehension is transformed into the feeling (lag{aa}) of truth, a realization comparable to the wonder at the dissolved apple. This feeling, which involves only un-referential pronouns (kuch nah{ii}{m}, sab kuch, jo ”nothing, everything, which”), hence relying on a basis of indefiniteness, amounts to shifting and opposing the categories of the visible and the truth (words which are each repeated several times), so as to convey a deliberate conversion of the focalized view-point, which echoes the boy’s usual game (as if he did not know, as if he had never seen). The comparative expression ek khel jais{aa}, “like a game”, emphasizes the other devices for approximation (ais{aa} lag{aa}), and builds the scenario of a game which is not really a game, and which more generally posits blurred categories in order to dissolve the very notion of clear-cut categories, to suggest that the inter-space is the only vantage point from which to observe truth. It has long been observed that Nirmal Verma makes a profuse use of such expressions as “X ko or ais{aa} lag{aa} (jais{aa})”, “X felt like/as if”, “had the impression that”, or “it was like”. The psychological interpretation of hesitation and indeterminacy, along with the simultaneous focalization on the inner subjectivity, is a side effect of the high frequency of similar expressions, which mainly create the space for an adjacent category or notion. Whether it is a metaphor, a comparison (introduced by lag{aa} or m{aa}no) or a comparative clause, all these devices present the referent as double (one signified for two signifiers), and inaccessible by means of a single clear-cut wording. It instead requires to be hinted at (suggested) by other representations, which therefore question its sheer referentiality and direct intelligibility. In a distinct yet similar way, the approximation affix –s{aa}, originally a contraction of jais{aa} (< Skt. sad{r}{s}a “looking as > resembling” < verbal root d{r}{s}/dar{s}), which in Hindi can be suffixed to nouns, adjectives, participles, to give them an attenuative or approximate meaning,15 transforms a notional category into a wider and vaguer one with blurred contours, , a notion which is therefore not precisely categorisable.

This kind of re-birth within this birth opens the way to a different, clairvoyant life, linked to the quality of being invisible and unknown to the others, detached, beyond the secure parameters of measure, society, time and space (ghar cho{r}kar).

And then right after this piece of dialogue already set in such a specifically “evocating” frame, occurs a short piece of poetic description:

vah bhaybh{ii}t-s{aa} hokar ha{m}sne lag{aa} […] [bi{t}{t}{ii}] k{aa} svar itn{aa} halk{aa} th{aa} ki a{m}dhere me{m} j{aa}n pa{r}{aa}, jaise vah kis{ii} svapn k{aa} chilk{aa} hai, jo uske h{aa}th me{m} rah gay{aa} hai, t{aa}ro{m} k{ii} p{ii}l{ii} ch{aa}{m}h me{m} k{aa}mpt{aa} hu{aa} – use n{ii}ce k{ii} taraf kh{ii}{m}ct{aa} hu{aa}, jah{aa}{m} il{aa}h{aa}b{aa}d ke itne var{sh} bek{aa}r {t}uk{r}o{m} k{ii} tarah hav{aa} me{m} u{r} rahe the…

Kind of frightened, he started laughing (…). Bitti’s voice was so light that it seemed in the darkness as some peel of a dream which had remained in his hand, shivering in the yellow/pale shadow of the stars – pulling him down, where all the many Allahabad years were flying in the air like useless bits and pieces…

How is the poetic dimension obtained here? There are no great metaphor, no elaborate phraseology, no specifically poetic words in this passage except for the vagueness of the Sanskrit equivalent (svapn) to the word “dream”. But this single sentence, further de-articulated by the punctuation (suspensive marks, dashes), is right from the beginning framed/ on the background created by the boy’s state of mind: bhaybh{ii}t-s{aa}, the very word associated with the feeling of wonder, which creates an expectation for what follows. What comes next in the dialogue is Bitti’s answer regarding “happiness” and rags, and the way it is reverberated in the narrative by the boy’s reaction. This single sentence, describing the boy’s emotions at his cousin’s answer, is both a comment on the last, crucial words and a projection of this truth onto the boy’s relationship with the world outside and the narrator’s writing. We remain in the repeated location of “in the dark”, possibly reminiscent of the great poet Muktibodh, with the recurring use of comparative clause (j{aa}n pa{r}{aa} jaise) and nominal expressions (k{ii} tarah). The voice, made the outer shell of some dream, then made immaterial, further recovers materiality when described as shivering or trembling in the boy’s hand, and this trembling is in a way a chiasmic reflection of the twinkling light of stars by means of a chiasm.16 The whole scene takes on a strange dimension (a suggestion of the metaphysical/aesthetical wonder) because words are slightly displaced, either by a trope or by an apparent inadequacy (chilk{aa}, ch{aa}{m}h): Selecting an improper word is a well-known impressionist device (the French symbolist poet Verlaine claimed this impropriety, along with unbalanced prosody), and this anaucitya so to speak, is handled by Nirmal Verma with great mastery. A dream has no chilk{aa}, but the chilk{aa} makes it physically sensible that the boy is left with a {s}e{sh}, a remainder, a left over in both the psycho-analytical and physical (the echo, dhvani of the voice) meanings. Similarly the word “pieces” ({t}uk{r}{aa}), which characterizes the most undefinen segmentable object and is a very banal word with practically non meaning except that of “broken object”, is deliberately presented as a bizarre metaphor for years. The very notion of brokenness, unconnectedness, uselessness is what matters here to re-create and give fresh life to the worn out metaphor of “gone with the wind”. Not only are they re-created however, but also distorted, since they are not exactly gone with the wind and forgotten, but are half forgotten and half part of the surrounding wind, just like the contingent pieces of the past are for the detached person.

Last but not least, as far as formal devices are concerned, the punctuation of this sentence prevents the reader from operating hierarchies in the syntactic levels and clauses. On the contrary, flat pauses, which thwart the logical demarcations between clauses and especially the lowering tone of end marks, create here not only a rhythm but also a melodic line with almost no peaks and mainly silences (…, --- ), a silent breathing, a space for internal echoes to reverberate. Assuming that standard punctuation in a written text is a marker of logical junctures and helps in interpretating logical dependencies, we are dealing here with a process of de-intellectualisation, which allows for a parallel reading with a non-logical interpretation, a relation of equivalence and not of dependence and hierarchy which best suits the register of feelings rather than that of intellect.


The incipit of L{aa}l {t}{ii}n k{ii} chat: the “atonal” punctuation and the de-temporalized imperfect

The one and a half page incipit of LTC is particular in many respects: the formal division of the book makes it an incipit of the first section (“In one breath”, ek s{aa}{m}s me{m}) rather than of the whole novel, before chapter one among the seven which make this first section, none of them bearing a title. But section two (“Above the town”, {s}ahar se {uu}par) has no title (it consists in seven chapters, with, again, no title), and section three (“Beyond consolation”, tasall{ii} se pare), has only one chapter.17 Yet this incipit bears the title of the novel itself, L{aa}l {t}{ii}n k{ii} chat. Another peculiarity is the use of the tenses and punctuation: 16 dashes (among which 6 in the first six lines), 3 dots, 1 question mark, 1 exclamation mark, for only 24 full stops. An opening in the imperfect is in no way strange for a novel, nor is the interruption of such a static and descriptive frame or background by an event in the preterite (simple past), which also appears in the novel: such preterite forms occur in paragraphs 4, 6, 8, 10, 11. The dominance of the imperfect, however, has two particularities, both related to the Hindi language itself. The first one is not stylistically marked since it is the regular habitual and actual imperfects which are formed with the imperfect of the verb “to be” used as an auxiliary (th{aa}, the, th{ii}, th{ii}{m} for gender and number variations, nominal-type variations). If such a form itself is unmarked, when it is combined with the massive use of the copula or existential verb (with the same form), as is the case right from the first sentence (sab taiy{aa}r th{aa} “everything was ready”), it specifically emphasizes the static aspect. Both copula and auxiliary polarize each other, and both are polarized also by the same auxiliary th{aa} used with a past participle to denote a resultant state: mu{m}h khul{aa} th{aa} “his mouth was open”.

The second peculiarity, which this time is stylistically marked and occurs almost only in written texts, is the alternative form of the imperfect, without copula: phail j{aa}t{ii} “expanded, extended” (phail j{aa}t{ii} th{ii}), lagt{aa} “seemed” (lagt{aa} th{aa}). Some authors use it less (Alka Saravgi for instance) than others, but none use it more than Nirmal Verma does. Given the craftsmanship and controlled mastery of his writing, this is very likely to be meaningful.

This tense is identical in form to the present (rather unaccomplished) participle, except in the feminine plural.18 This adjective-like form (nominal category) has often been considered to convey more of a habitual sense than the regular “general” or “habitual” imperfect.19 However, its occurrence in the incipit (8), quite representative of the other occurrences throughout the novel, does not particularly denote habitual processes or states.20 Its first occurrence in the fifth paragraph (hav{aa} calt{ii}) is chained directly on actualized imperfects (le{t}ar-b{aa}ks la{t}ak rah{aa} th{aa} “the letter box was hanging/dangling”, jaise[…] jh{uu}l rah{aa} ho “as if … was swinging”), which describe the actual situation at a specific moment – the time of departure. The short imperfect then describes a process that may be repeated (“every time when the wind was blowing”, “at each wind blow”) but within the short span of this specific sequence when everything is getting ready for departure. During this limited duration the door may be repeatedly flapping in the wind (to vah hilne lagt{aa}), but not more repeatedly than the previous long imperfects in the above context, and the light sound it diffuses (ek dh{ii}m{ii}-s{ii} {aa}v{aa}z phail j{aa}t{ii}) which induces the pony to look around with its tired watery eyes (apn{ii} thak{ii} {d}ab{d}ab{aa}{ii} {aa}{m}kho{m} se dekhne lagt{aa}), all in the short form of the imperfect, is definitely not connected with a specifically habitual notion.21

However, this flapping in the wind introduces a future leitmotiv of the novel and indicates the beginning of an indistinct series. Moreover, this initial occurrence, within the syntactic diptych of temporal-dependent and main clause, one clause being located only in relation with the other, therefore none being externally stabilized, marks the process, which even if it is not really habitual is in a way de-temporalized in a way. The serialization and the de-temporalization converge here to extract the process out of the actualized temporal frame of the narration. Hence its effect of “vagueness”, blurred contours, and poetic impressionism, which is both consistent with the formal nature of this tense (a participle, more nominal than verbal) andwith the other participles in collocation with the various imperfects of the text. The first paragraph contains a number of nominal and participle clauses, very loosely related to the main verb, and indeed presented either as independent clauses (sab taiy{aa}r th{aa}. bistar, po{t}liy{aa}{m} – ek s{uu}{t}kes. “Everything was ready. The hold-all, bundles -- a suitcase”),22 or as clauses hanging in a sort of syntactic vacuum due to the dashes ({t}a{t}{t}{uu} k{ii} r{aa}s th{aa}me “holding the reins of a pony”). All such devices converge to produce an interruption of the narrative sequence, by introducing a kind of pause, on a flat, atonal melodic level, detached from the running course of events. The first chapter (16) gives a more canonical illustration of the use of both imperfects, since the short form occurs there for marking habits. But, similarly, such habits are similarly no more habitual than the ones marked by the long form. Both kids Kaya and Chote wait for their father to come at night and kiss them in their bed. The whole page describes his arrival and their state of mind. The first paragraph contains two sequences in the short form, each chained on a previous long form. The first sequence centers on the actions performed by the father, the second on Kaya’s expectations and fears. In between long forms occur, although the temporal frame is exactly the same, because the viewpoint shifts towards the inner state of the children. This subtle shift (here in the viewpoint, elsewhere in the scenario described here, in the focus, the topic, the character or the actions presented in the foreground) is enough to break the continuity created by the short form as an indistinct, quasi nominal, static, theater of blurred events. The short form creates this absolute absence of saliency so specific of Nirmal’s gift for representing an impressionistic shadowy suggested world.23

One of the most representative poetic passages of the novel, when Kaya comes back at night to her uncle’s house and finds the veranda lit like a magic ship, also exhibits a similar mix of nominal clauses, dashes, and short imperfects (along with comparative structures such as mentioned above):



vah z{ii}ne ke p{aa}s {aa}y{ii}, to p{aa}{m}v {t}hi{t}hak gae. sab kamro{m} k{ii} battiy{aa}{m} jal rah{ii} th{ii}{m}.

k{aa}y{aa} ko ek bahut pur{aa}n{ii} kit{aa}b k{ii} fo{t}o y{aa}d ho {aa}{ii} – a{m}dhere p{aa}n{ii} me{m} kha{r}{aa} jah{aa}z. navambar k{ii} r{aa}to{m} me{m}, jab hav{aa} s{aa}f


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