Book Excerpt | ‘The Play of Dolls’ by Kunwar Narain | Penguin Random House India | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

from The Play of Dolls by Kunwar Narain (Penguin Random House India – 2020)
translated from the Hindi by John Vater and Apurva Narain


Like some scary and dirty insect, it crept into the room and, settling over my papers, sat down, maybe with the intent to nibble at them, and eat them up. I had a mind to pick it up and throw it outside. But it was unimaginably grotesque. I thought, I’d ask my helper to toss it out – and if one helper wouldn’t do, then several. Maybe it sensed my plan. But, surprisingly, it seemed completely unafraid, and undeterred by this too. I was looking at that weak little thing, unable to fathom the source of its audacity.    

Despite the expression of anger on my face, there had been no change in its arrogant composure. On the contrary, its crude daring seemed to take on even greater proportions. It was looking at me as if I was powerless to do it any harm, whereas, if it wanted, it could destroy me all in a moment with a mere flick of its fingers. That a beast like it should hold in its hand the power to destroy a human being like me – the very thought filled my heart with aversion, and my spirits sank. 

Until now, it had displayed none of its power; but even then its mere existence was slowly taking on the form of an inexplicable terror. There were only two beings in the room – me and it, but I got the feeling that only ‘it’ knew who posed the bigger threat to the other. If it were up to me, I would have liked for it to stay away from me at any cost, because there was no relation at all between us other than that of loathing. Its sheer proximity to me was itself a warning that I should guard myself against some unforeseen danger. 

All of the sudden, it moved from its position and reached the door. The door was closed. It felt relieved at this. Its manner of movement struck me as incredibly ominous. Amongst its legs, one seemed to suffer some defect; it moved a bit lop-sided, like a crab. From its movement, it was as if all the surroundings moved too, and, for the first time, I sensed that its entry had filled the room with a strange kind of fleshy, carnivorous odor – a smell that I was not used to, and which intimated, in some context or the other, violence and inhumanity. And also this, that it had dwelled among mostly bloodthirsty beings, and could be completely unaware of human attributes like pity and compassion. Its method of dealing with situations must have just involved primal impulses like either attacking or saving itself from attack. Its first response toward any foreign object must have been the same as that of every feral animal’s – that is, for its ears to jerk up in distrust; to become wary of that object, and to gauge its strength. If felt to be weak, then to very deviously, with padded footsteps, leap upon it and finish it off, or bring it under its control; and if stronger than itself, to flee with all its might.       

Returning, it dominated the papers again. I noticed it was only showing interest in pages that had writing on them, not in the blank sheets. From this it seemed that its gaze was actually on the ink, not the papers. It examined each letter by licking it, but it seemed most letters were not to its liking; it wasn’t finding material to its taste in them. I was watching its red and fierce eyes very attentively, which were almost fastened up against the page. From those eyes, it didn’t seem that they were nourished by paper or ink; because the single-mindedness with which it stared at the writings was one with which, not written things, but things about to be slaughtered, are seen. 

It wasn’t as if it didn’t find even one paper to its liking. It was separating some of the papers from the rest, for some unclear reason. It’s possible it wasn’t especially pleased with these papers either; just that, in the absence of anything better, it may have decided to make do with them.

By now, one thing had become completely clear: that in reality it wasn’t as weak, as it appeared. Its shape and size might not have been especially large, but it definitely possessed some hidden power, on the back of which it was sitting so haughtily in front of me. Poisonous fangs inside its mouth, or concealed claws that were sharp and lethal, like a wild cat’s. It is equally possible that, like a rhino or boar, it trusted its thick skin, or, like snails, had some thick shell it immediately withdrew into when attacked. But I quickly discarded this possibility, thinking that no one would have come to me expecting an attack. It was more likely that it would be the attacker. Then, from its entire conduct, it didn’t seem to be afraid of me. On the contrary, its entire demeanor was such that I should fear it.    

Undoubtedly, it continued to act so as to agitate me into assailing it, and thereby give it a chance to reveal some secret strength it had. It scattered the papers around with such callousness that my mind fired up with unbearable rage. I was trying hard to estimate its true strength, because by now I’d almost accepted that, by viewing it as weaker than myself, I’d made a fatal error somewhere. This conclusion had a negative effect on me because, for the first time, I sensed how intensely nervous I was. Until now, I believed I was safe from things like it, because I stayed far from them – but now I found that keeping my distance from those things held no meaning. It was only if they kept their distance from me that I would be safe…

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), an iconic figure in Indian literature, is regarded as one of the finest writers and thinkers of modern time. He read widely, across literatures and disciplines, and blended an international sensibility with a grounding in Indian history and thought. He has written in diverse genres of poetry and prose, including three epics recognised as classics of Indian literature, poems across eight collections, translations of poets like Cavafy, Borges, Herbert and Rózewicz, two short story collections, criticism, essays, memoirs, and writings on world cinema, ideas and the arts. His oeuvre of seven decades, since his first book in 1956, has evolved continuously and embodies, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex. After over five decades in Lucknow, where a major part of his writing was done, he moved to Delhi. Widely translated, his honours include the Sahitya Akademi Award; Kabir Samman; Warsaw University’s honorary medal; Italy’s Premio Feronia for distinguished world author; India’s civilian honour Padma Bhushan; the Senior Fellowship of India’s Academy of Letters; and the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award. A reclusive presence, he has published selectively; some works remain unpublished.

Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain’s son and translator into English. His first book of translations, No Other World, was published from India and the UK. A new volume of poetry translations is due this year. His work has appeared in several literary journals. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he also consults in the international development area, and has had interests in ecology, public health and ethics. He writes in English. Well travelled, he has lived in India and abroad, and is now based in Delhi.

John Vater holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. He lived in India while researching Hindi literature as a Fulbright-Nehru student scholar, and in 2018 was selected as an emerging translator from the US to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency in Canada. His translations have appeared in Ploughshares, the Asia Literary ReviewWords without Borders and Exchanges. He currently works as a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.

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