NEA Literature Fellowships

Christi Merrill*

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(2002 - Prose)

from A Straw Epic by Vijay Dan Detha
translated by Christi Ann Merrill

Sources: Rajasthani version of "Trnbharat" in Baton ri Phulwari. Vol. 8 (Borunda: Rupayan Samsthan, 1982) and Hindi version of "Trnbharat" in Uljhan. Trans. Kailash Kabir. New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1982.

A Straw Epic

clashes spark in day-to-day affairs,
a little friction-fire flares,
from a tiny ember grows an endless blaze,
from a mustard seed a mountain range.

Ram grant peace and harmony to all at the needful hour, particularly in that unnamed village near Santari where once upon a time a band of Banjaras set up camp. Fifty strong, these were sturdy young men, each one bigger than the next. They carried lathi clubs tipped with tangled silver wire, as long as they stood tall.

One day a Banjara walked to town to buy loaves of raw cane sugar from the Baniya's provisions store. The merchant was delighted to have a simple-minded peasant as his first customer. You always knew how your luck would run by the first sale of the day. And this particular merchant was the kind of Baniya who could tip the scales enough to cheat a customer like this out of a kilo or two, just as his father and his grandfather had done before him.

The Banjara examined the loaves and grumbled, "The sugar's wet."

The Baniya laughed good-naturedly and replied, "It's monsoon time. Sugar and salt do tend to get a little moist. But if you have any problems, you know you can bring it right back."

The Banjara expected the merchant to say something like this, but kept up his end in the tug-of-war haggling. After a little more back and forth, the Baniya opened up the burlap bag and began weighing out loaves of sugar. The Banjara kept his eye on the scale, watching the pivot and pans as the merchant added more loaves. But what chance did the Banjara possibly have against the crafty Baniya.

Suddenly the Banjara noticed a wisp of straw stuck to a loaf of sugar. Such a tiny sliver would never affect the weight, but the Banjara just couldn't let it go by. He snatched up the piece of straw and flicked it against the wall.

Well, where there's sugar, there'll be flies. Everyone knows they don't wait for an invitation to sit down to a feast. As soon as the straw hit the wall, two or three of them darted over and began licking the sweet coating. They were so absorbed in their snack, they never noticed the lizard creeping up behind them. One quick strike and the lizard had gobbled down two flies in a gulp while the other flew off. One's fate, the saying goes, can never be postponed.

The lizard sat still, alert, meditating on digesting his meal. Suddenly the merchant's cat blinked her eyes open and noticed the lizard sitting there stuffed full of flies. She began to plan her attack. Her eyes narrowed as she prowled closer to her prey.

Now, no one knows how long dogs and cats have been enemies. All we can say is that the Banjara's dog played his part. He leapt on top of the cat as soon as she came near him. And what kind of self-respecting cat would let herself get caught that easily? Not this one. She spun around quick as lightning and leaped into the stock area of the provisions store.

Round and round she raced through the store with the dog close at her heels. Vessels tumbled from shelves, clay storage pots toppled and shattered. Bags of rock candy, granulated sugar, dried peppers, spices and lentils spilled out onto the floor. Oil oozed from vats and collected in thick puddles. All the Baniya could do was sit there and watch helplessly as his losses mounted.

He was an orthodox Jain, pacifist since birth. But he abandoned his principles for just long enough to hurl an iron weight at the dog. Usually his aim wasn't so good, but for some reason that day the weight sailed through the air straight into the dog's forehead. Blood suddenly gushed down into the dog's eyes. How could the Banjara possibly take it?

Had it been his own forehead, he may have managed to stay calm. But seeing blood dripping down the face of his dearest and most trusted companion, his veins tightened. He took one mighty swing across the counter with his lathi club and caught the merchant full in his back. What they say is true: There's no getting up after a Banjara's hand comes down.

The merchant may not have been able to get up, but he could certainly call out for help from the floor. The Baniyas who ran shops nearby heard him and came running, the loose ends of their dhoti trousers gathered in their hands. But their heroism dissolved as soon as they saw the victim of the Banjara's fine lathi-work writhing on the ground. Who in their right mind would get close to such a barbarian? They decided to stay inside their shops instead, lobbing stones from behind the doorways.

Soon the random volleys turned into a constant shower of stones. The Banjara could no longer duck and dodge out of the way. Despite his agility, one or two weights had smashed down on his head. Thin streams of blood started trickling down his neck.

The dog looked up into his master's face and dashed off towards camp at once. The Banjara knew exactly where the dog was going, but until help came, he made a resolve not to let the disgrace of cowardice poison the honor of his mother's milk. He looked down at the blood seeping through his shirt and turned into fury itself.

He ran shop to shop slamming his tangled silver wire lathi down on the Baniyas. He smashed an arm and then another's thigh. Split someone's forehead wide open then cracked someone else's ribs. Their skulls burned hot as live coals. Stars danced before their eyes. Screams, groans, blubbering, the bazaar pulsed with agonized cries, louder and louder. The Banjara's lathi fever grew, hotter and hotter. Today was the first time he had ever had a chance to test his mettle.

But the Baniyas relied on their own brand of strength. They calculated that the scent of battle would bring the Rajput warriors out for a fight. And when it comes to smarts, no one can compare with Baniyas. They made sure their bodies could be heard hitting the ground as they fell. And just as expected, as soon as the Rajputs smelled spilt blood their muscles grew taut and their veins tight. A moment later the early morning bazaar glistened with the shiny metal of unsheathed talwar.

The Banjara's battle fervor boiled like lava. Now that death was inescapable, he threw himself into a fearless rampage. What else could he do? Swinging his lathi club wildly, he fended attacks from every side, breaking talwar after talwar in half. The Rajputs looked down at their useless weapons and ran to get spears and daggers. They fell on him again from every side. The sharp blades showered down like heavy monsoon rain. All alone, he wouldn't be able to defend himself much longer, every inch of his body slashed or stabbed. Even as he stumbled toward death he brought down seven or eight more men.

The band of Banjaras came running behind the dog in time to see their brother's body crumple to the ground. The sight of his mangled corpse made tears of blood spring to their eyes. They split into a ring like hungry cheetahs. The lanes began to hum... as if death himself were doing his silent tandav dance... to the clicking of talwar, daggers and lathis... to the final gasps of the dying. Rivers of blood flowed in the gullies. The road was covered in corpses.

Seeing their companions toppled, the whole village turned out shrouded for battle. The Banjaras were trapped in the middle. Escape was impossible. To kill was victory, to die heaven. The piles of corpses grew.

Inside the Baniya's store the piece of straw was still stuck to the wall. A few flies buzzed around it, tempted by its sweet smell. Another lizard sat there waiting for a chance to pounce. Outside not a single Banjara was left standing. No one left from their side even to bring back word. But they took down with them three-hundred warriors.

Christi Merrill is an assistant professor of South Asian literature and postcolonial studies at the University of Michigan. Her translations from Hindi, French and Rajasthani and essays on translation have appeared in journals such as Genre, Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, The Iowa Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Parabola, Poetry Review, Exchanges: A Journal of Translation, and Indian Literature: Sahitya Akademi's Bi-Monthly Journal. In addition to translating a collection of Vijay Dan Detha's stories, she is currently writing a book on the theory and practice of translation entitled Figures of Translation: Postcolonial Riddles of Literary Identity and Displaced Humor.

Translator's Statement

I started translating Vijay Dan Detha's work over a decade ago and liked his stories so much I wanted people to be able to read them in English. I thought of the project as a kind of apprenticeship, a way for a young writer to learn the craft of the trade from a master. I never anticipated the ongoing creative challenges I would face, nor the impossible, important questions that would be raised in the process. Translating his stories made me feel more particularly the daily injustices people struggle against in Rajasthan, and the ways those struggles become complicated as you move between an Indian language and the language of the former colonizer. I learned to appreciate too how the right turn of phrase contained all the inherited wisdom storytellers and writers like Detha count on for cultivating hope. How to render such culturally resonant prose in English?

I went to the University of Iowa with a battery of such questions, and two MFAs and a PhD later understand there are no simple answers, but that the asking is what makes the difference. The translation process leads us to recognize some of the most complex but urgent questions we're presented with in this globalized world. I know now from teaching literature that students crave the kind of perspective well-translated literature offers, but that there needs to be more such work available. This is only possible with greater recognition of translation. I am grateful to the NEA for the rare support they have given translators over the years. In my case, the award has enabled me to devote my next year to completing this much-forestalled collection. It has been such a joy to share the good news with Detha and the eager editors and readers I have been in touch with!