In 1866, Claude Monet—at the insistence of Gustave Courbet—made a figurative painting of his lover Camille Doncieux, who would later become his first wife, dressed in a dazzling green silk dress. The way he captured the slightly stiff and radiating hues, shades, and nuances of the silk made Camille simultaneously a mythical and a modern woman. She is of the old and the new times. In 1936, Amrita Sher-Gil painted an almost melancholic portrait of her cousin, Sumair, dressed in a green-pink sari, her emerald, or peridot, earrings contrasting against her heavily rouged cheeks. The way the light bounces off her shoulder, making the shade of green seem lighter than it is, transforms her into a demigoddess, touched by something not of this earth. Much earlier, in 1665–67, Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Red Hat, in which a young girl wearing a deep ruby-red fur hat, dressed in a lapis lazuli robe and pearl earrings, gazes directly at the viewer. Light falls on her face, making both her skin and her pearls gleam softly. She seems like a woman of two times, or two earths. These three women seem connected by a vague quality of timelessness, but is Camille Doncieux the nineteenth century’s Girl with a Red Hat, is Sumair the Indian Camille, or, inversely, is Camille the French Sumair? Are both of them modern versions of Girl with a Red Hat or is Girl with a Red Hat an earlier avatar of Camille or Sumair? Is it necessary to identify one with another to understand the pain and beauty underlying their (and our own) existence?
A few months ago, as I was translating Bhuwaneshwar’s short stories from Hindi into English, I asked a similar question of myself when I had to describe him—a writer close to a century old—to an Anglophone reader as “kind of absurdist,” knowing well how that description was insufficient and perhaps historically inaccurate as well. Absurdism in Western literature arose in the 1950s and '60s as a result of postwar disillusionment, but Bhuwaneshwar wrote most of his stories in the 1930s, and died almost anonymous, ill and among beggars, somewhere in Varanasi in the 1950s, perhaps 1957, though the exact year of his death remains disputed. He wrote his most iconic short story, “Wolves,” considered by many to be the first modern Hindi short story, in the year 1937. It tells of a caravan being constantly chased by wolves in the middle of the night. Nothing stops the pack from reappearing, and any pause—any victory—is only momentary, temporary. When talking about it, I didn’t know what to compare the wolves of his stories to. Were the two types of wolves usually found on the Indian subcontinent—the Tibetan wolf and the Indian gray wolf—reminiscent of the Eurasian or Arctic wolf? What kind would an Anglophone reader envision when they read of wolves? Is just “wolf” not enough to imagine the horror of being eaten alive by any of them?
Perhaps not, as I resorted to comparisons again when, talking about Rajkamal Chaudhary (another Hindi writer I am translating) to yet another Anglophone reader, I compared his montage-like writing to Godard’s films, or to Nouvelle Vague aesthetics, in general. It doesn’t escape me that sometimes a reader of a particular language may feel more comfortable approaching something new with a familiar reference in mind, but a point of reference sometimes—mostly?—takes on the aura of a benchmark, a standard, the absolute original to which the newer work (which may, ironically, be older than the work it is being compared to) must keep a subordinate position.
We must acknowledge the influence of the assumed supremacy of Western culture here. Colonialism accounts for at least part of this bias, of course. But inherent in this power imbalance are nuances: French may be considered literarily superior to English, but Hindi, for example, or Urdu, will never be offered the same courtesy. Non-Anglophone literary histories may or may not matter, depending upon their respective geographical histories. Sumair may remind us of Camille, but Camille will almost never remind us of Sumair. The pearl earring in Girl with a Red Hat will not remind the viewer of expensive pearls of Basra.
And then there is the essential question of why must something be like another? Why must two works be compared at all? When we look at Sumair, must she resemble our grandmother for us to appreciate her beauty? Must Camille’s eyes remind us of something? Could they not just remind us of her and her eyes alone? I wonder if, when we meet new people in our lives, we categorize them as kind-of other people. And if we don’t do that, if we make new spaces for every new face we encounter, why can’t we do that with books? Essentially, it is a meeting with a new person.
Which writer reminds us of other writers is influenced by the delicate balance (and imbalance) of ancient and modern power structures. However, perhaps it’s better if books remind us of the lives we lead rather than other books, if writers allow us to encounter ourselves rather than other writers.
© 2021 by Saudamini Deo. All rights reserved.