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Jason Grunebaum

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(2011 - Translation)

from The Tale of the Missing Man by Manzoor Ahtesham

[translated from Hindi]

Apart from cops and robbers, another popular game at the time was playacting cinema in the outer room of the grand house. Here, too, [the deaf and dumb cousin] Apyaya played a prominent role….

Whenever someone walked outside the door, the opening permitted the shadow to be projected onto the wall behind it…the image was small, elongated, and topsy-turvy.

This game of light-and-shadow held such magic that it never got stale. On top of that, the family elders considered real movies to be an evil thing, and only rarely, by accident, did anyone receive permission to see an actual film; therefore, this outer-room cinema was a means of entertainment just as TV is now. No need to buy a ticket, and no fixed show times. Watch as long as you like, and leave when you've had enough. The children greatly anticipated the long summer afternoons when the sun was at just the right angle, and when the outer room was free for use as a cinema. But there were also unspeakable afternoons when some grownup dropped by and dashed the children's most fervent prayers. He'd waste priceless hours talking about nothing, laughing at stupid things, chewing paan, spitting away; all the while the group of kids slouched in the corners, flashing one another quizzical glances, and growing despondent, thinking only of the approaching sunset…

The matinee idol was, of course, Apyaya. Sitting in the room and waiting for people to walk by was boring, so the audience members themselves took turns going outside to create the necessary drama for those inside to sit and enjoy on screen. Those summer afternoons were so sweltering that hawks were laying eggs in the sky, so even the briefest performance was a heavy burden on the actors. Each one quickly played their part, returned to the dark, cool room, and then it was Apyaya's turn.

It was no lie that no one could hold a candle to his performance. Audiences were spellbound by the leaps and bounds of his upside-down body projected on the wall. The sheer variety of poses and contortions and pirouettes compelled the audience to send Apyaya out again and again into the hot sun. Though lacking sound or color, these short films were non-stop action, free from shallow, ephemeral questions of what happens next, plunging deeply into a sea at once spiritual and mysterious. When Apyaya guessed his turn was over (and his guess was usually right), he'd knock at the door to come back in, body drenched, wiping the sweat from his face. The group conspired against Apyaya by saying that according to the clock he still had time left, or chased him back out into the sun with a chorus of mesmerizing bravos and other praise to signal they wanted more of his leaping and spinning and whirling. If he dug in his heels and refused, he did so knowing full well that the children would take advantage of the darkness in the room to molest him so that he couldn't sit in peace.

Excerpt in Hindi

About Manzoor Ahtesham

Bhopal native Manzoor Ahtesham, one of the most important voices in contemporary Hindi fiction, has published four novels and has won many prestigious literary awards. Zamir Ahmad Khan, the witty and urbane protagonist of The Tale of the Missing Man, suffers from a mix of alienation, guilt and post-modern anxiety. This fascinatingly devious antihero, in search of his lost self in a fast-changing India, tries to unravel the little lies that brought him to his current state, while continually weaving new ones. Ahtesham's playful narrative raises important questions about Muslim identity while richly describing a heroic quest gone awry. 

Jason Grunebaum is a former interpreter and delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kashmir, Kosovo, and East Timor, and his translation from Hindi of Uday Prakash's novel The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Penguin India) won a PEN Translation Fund award. His short stories have appeared in various journals including One Story, Southwest Review, Third Coast, and WebConjunctions, and Salman Rushdie selected his "Maria Ximenes da Costa de Carvalho Perreira" for a Best American Short Stories honorable mention. He has received fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, Blue Mountain Center, and Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and is a Senior Lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago.

Photo by Christopher J. Hacker 

Translator's Statement

It's an incredible honor to be the recipient of an NEA grant -- my collaborator, Ulrike Stark, the author of the Hindi version of The Tale of the Missing Man, Manzoor Ahtesham, and I are all humbled by this opportunity. No American publishing house has brought out a living Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation, and it is my hope that this grant will play a significant part in remedying this situation.

And it couldn't have happened to a better book. Manzoor Ahtesham has generated a lot of excitement so far in his career: as a sublime chronicler of Bhopal -- both the indoors of Muslim family life and the outdoors of a fast-changing city -- and as a writer who is equally compelling whether he's describing a cops-and-robbers game played at a deaf cousin's expense, or in his depiction of a disturbed, underground man that's worthy of Dostoevsky. For me as a fiction writer, it's been a challenge and delight trying on the skin of Manzoor's prose, working to inhabit it creatively and well. Most of all, it's exciting to think of the joy American readers will experience as they discover this great voice in Indian letters.

I am also grateful to the NEA for supporting and promoting translation as a literary art. Translating is an act of writing, to quote Daniel Hahn, but one where incredibly stringent rules apply. Translation is also a matter of survival: moving into new languages, and into English in particular, gives validation to writers around the world. Often, this recognition can make all the difference. The grant is a huge boost for this project, and for literary translation, and makes it all the more likely that Manzoor's voice, along with many others, will have their needed voices heard by more and more.