Uddhav J Shelke
Kautik on Embers
Translated from Marathi: Shanta Gokhale
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger. 2017
Pp 291 | 350
Uddhav J Shelke has published his novel Dhag in Marathi in 1960. Shanta Gokhale’s recent English translation of this modern classic Kautik on Embers rekindles Shelke’s urge for exploration of the indefinable mystique and also summons side by side the dissipating humanity and that’s what makes this novel so compelling – the characters have to face consequences.
Here is something very appealing in the flavor yet the novel is sharp and crisply elegant and represents a determined effort to see both the bad and the good in small-town life, the hatred and the humanity; it presents an epic struggle for survival and views the past not as something lost but as a treasured and yet sometimes as a painful memory.
In her translator’s note, Shanta Gokhale remarks: “Shelke’s prose was sparse and unadorned. He had no use for the self-indulgent word-love that many contemporary writers displayed.”
Shelke’s narrative with its elusive ironies works solidly in the real life scenario and he gives a fresh paint to everyday living and struggle. The writer grapples with the living of the poor with glowing eyes and a wide view of the horizon. The novel revolves around two characters Mahadev and Kautik and their children Bhima, Nama and Yasudi representing in various shades, set up the reasoning in their fruitless labour and desperate pursuit of rootless life. The village in the rural Maharashtra has the echo of the people that work at the edges of the craft and tell us to learn the world as it really is.
It seems as if Shelke wants to document the worst in Mahadev in terms of indifference, caste and prejudice as well as the people’s enmity and hypocrisy and small-mindedness. At times, it also alarmingly suggests that life is only a battle.
Even though the textures of the novel are thin and perhaps it does seem to circle around the family and their neighbours, but then everything ends to an insignificant lifeline, celebrating the life that does not signify any particular objective and the world that is just itself in all its obviousness. The austere prose with its fragility, resilience and ironies, works beautifully, just as itself, in Shanta Gokhale’ translation from the Marathi.
‘I’ll go anywhere. Whichever way God takes me’
‘Let’s go then.’
‘Why should you come?’
‘Then what should I do here?’
‘Stay with your brother.’
‘Dear Lord, did I marry to stay with my brother?’
Mahadev bent his head. Kautik said, ‘What do you say?’
‘What can I say?’
‘Where?’ Mahadev said, rousing himself.
‘Wherever you go.’
Kautik, Mahadev and their children’s life meanders during its course; and Kautik has to surrender to its realities and crumble at the end. Mahadev’s indifference is palpable towards his family and whoever trudges across the landscape of his mind. Shilke’s inquisitive text scrutinises all the characters credentials in turn.
The remorseless struggle of Kautik is transmuted into an unrealized fantasy. The sly teasing of Mahadev who wants to rescue Kautik never shares experiences as time passes into a crisis at the end. Mahadev, a Shimpi (tailor), can’t go beyond caste barrier but Kautik can go anywhere, stagger aimlessly, and do anything to feed her family. Yet a sense of belonging with Mahadev was there till the end.
Sakina said, ‘Kautik, I’m telling you for your good. Stop thinking about Mahadev now. If you go on like this, Allah alone knows what’ll happen.’
The family has to go out in the morning, knowing in their bones that there is no paradise, no petals of love to be pulled like Garcia Lorca observed in the poem ‘The Dawn’.
Shanta Gokhale rightly said, ‘However hunger has a more strident voice than caste. If stomachs are empty, the poor must do whatever comes their way’.
The desire of Kautik to protect her husband and her family also crumbles at the end, like Nietzsche’s optimism of a desperado.
‘Kautik’s face was neither angry nor calm. It was the way it always was these days. Hard like stone’.
The particular sense of not delivered once she has stumbled upon anything, lead to buying unease of the murkier life as morning offers no hope and the light is buried in darkness.
‘The tears had spent themselves. Only words remained’.
The novels canvas is stylishly minimal, like a bare room. The clutter on the daily life is stark and unmistakable. Other protagonists have formed the accessories and as if sealed off behind the edges of their lives.
At times, there is almost a sense of resignation in Kautik’s voice,
‘Nobody belongs to anybody. I tell you. There is no village folks and no neighbours.’
Mahesh Elkunchwar, the noted playwright, very aptly said of this novel ‘A magnificent work, magnificently rendered. A saga of grit, courage, deep sorrow profoundly told.’
A subtle and often personal interrogation, Shelke examines places and the space between history, experience and myth. He does not retreat back, he does not shy away and even does not censor himself in telling the truth.
The novel slides into apocalypse in this writings and revealing us to ourselves. As one reads on, it becomes evident that the narrative is not so much about drowning as about the precarious work of resurfacing within life’s filth, hunger and anguish.
A writer of great power, Shelke is not so easy on ears and his readers will enjoy reading especially for that reason. ‘Kautik on Embers’ explores the area in all its beauty and nakedness, harrowing stories that slip easily into our imagination. This novel is searching and a joy to read even though it is a reflection of a colder, more cynical and brutal reality.
Chandramohan Kulkarni’s Cover Art captures the nuances of this powerful novel. This modern classic is a must for every reader.