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Resuscitating a Text

Avinash Kumar

By Pandey Bechan Sharma 'Ugra'. Translated from the Hindi by Ruth Vanita
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 103, Rs. 395.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 2 February 2007

There are three texts waiting to be discussed here: the ‘original’ Chaklet, a collection of eight Hindi stories written by Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ published in 1927 after five of them were serialized in Matvala, a Calcutta based Hindi weekly; its translation into English by Ruth Vanita titled Chocolate and also a detailed introduction by her, contextualizing both the texts in their different time zones i.e. 1927 and the present. While the emphasis on a different reading of the text within the milieu of 1927 is clearly articulated, the translator also insists on its relevance for the present context by drawing a historical genealogy of the kind of politics, especially sexual, that the text represented. As if to buttress her argument, the translator has also added two extracts from Ugra’s novels Chand Hasinon ke Khutoot and Phagun ke Din Char.   But this argument is not simply about sexual politics of a certain kind, namely homosexuality and its discussion in the public realm of the late colonial period. Rather, it is also linked to contemporary debates on literary politics, nationalism and its various strands and the overlapping, overarching notions of morality as Vanita herself argues.   To come back to the text and its author, Ugra, though known little outside the Hindi world, is a fairly well-recognized name for the students of Hindi literature. Even though he never got a consecrated place among the ‘greats’ of Hindi, he was and remains perhaps one of the few ‘mainstream writers’ who wrote bestsellers as well as received accolades from the literary establishment. Till recently, his stories (definitely not the ones presently under discussion!) were part of various school curricula. Yet it was Ugra who came under the sharpest attack during his heyday for writing and publishing Chocolate. In this context association of a figure like Gandhi with this controversy only signified the importance which literary politics still held at least for those for whom nationalism and nationalist politics meant keeping an eye on everything under the sun, rather, the Indian sun.   To summarize the basic content of the stories, they were ostensibly written with a self-publicized agenda of bringing the hidden ‘cruel realities’ like rampant homosexuality out on the surface and making public aware of its ills through a large campaign. But this very agenda was brought into question by Ugra’s detractors, mainly led by a self-professed Gandhian public intellectual like Banarsidas Chaturvedi, who ...

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