Wednesday, June 23, 2010

BHAU PADHYE—the unsung 'voice' of Mumbai

Portrait of a giant of 20th century Marathi fiction

first appeared in different form in the Wordstar section of the features magazine GENTLEMAN, December, 2000
under the title "His Characters' Voice"

- by Jayant Deshpande

Bhau Padhye (1926-1996) was born to write. And far more than a vision, Padhye had a voice: he spoke through his characters’ voices. His narratives had potency. Here was a distinct way to write about the raw passions and simmering tensions in a huge metropolis like Mumbai.

Padhye’s work is in the best traditions of social realism. The great 19th century Russian novelists were his models, but nowhere has he imitated them. He remained a 20th century metropolitan novelist with an Indian sensibility. His sources were not literary, and though socially relevant, his fiction didn’t trumpet any ideology.

The sweeping indictment of the ‘family’ as the story Family opens is the voice of the doctor who tells the story in a self-righteous tone, with touches of wry humor.

Padhye’s first novel, Dombaryacha Khel 1(1960), was based on the strike by thousands of mill workers in central Bombay organized by the socialist trade unions. Subsequent novels and stories embrace the growing, urban industrial culture; its domestic conflicts, its vices and social tensions, its sexuality, its throbbing city life, its romance. Padhye’s canvas was large: he saw things in the epic realist manner of the Italians, and had their earthiness and ribald sense.

At bottom he loved humanity, and was happy mixing with people of all kinds and ages, seeing things through their eyes, sharing their attitudes. He was not a self-conscious literary artist; he avoided the podium of seminars and literary meets. But man’s unavoidable immorality gave him no hope. The irony of life was an integral part of his vision.

Set in the rich milieu of life in Bombay, Padhye’s stories seem simple enough, but the often disturbing themes of moral and physical decay, madness, terror, perversion, rape, prostitution, violence, callousness, gross injustice can be hard to digest. They give the reader serious pause.

The story Five Gardens begins innocently. A big ball rolls to a stop near a park bench, where a poor, tired couple is sitting. Aba Tukrul picks it up and the child playing with it stops in its tracks, startled. He reminds Mai of her grandson. Then a bitter dialogue unfolds, revealing a sordid past: Mai, a whore, curses her husband, Aba for using her to get ahead; for alienating and making their children suffer in shame. At the end Mai resorts to violence—unexpected violence.

In Weda 2 six college boys are fixated on their middle-aged teacher, Mrs. Banavalikar. After a college social they walk her home, each staring at her body, mad with longing; she unwittingly invites them in and they end up sexually abusing her. She reacts in shame, then anger, and goes mad. Much later, she returns to the college. She begins her lecture, then stops and confronts one of those boys. He gets scared and runs out, but breaks down in tears.

The language in these stories is explicit. Padhye was not seduced by exotic surfaces that gloss over the teeming world underneath, inhabited by real characters and real events. He didn’t insist that the reader be literary, but his fiction made no concession to popular taste; it was meant to move, not entertain; to observe, not judge. He saw things as any ordinary person with insight might see them. Padhye not only put Mumbai on the fictional map, but also went the furthest in doing so. Indeed, so well did he capture this city that the late Dilip Chitre once opined: if there were no trace left of Mumbai a few millennia hence, Padhye’s books could recreate today’s Mumbai in the reader’s mind. He produced a steady stream of novels, short stories—and journalism: apart from politics, he wrote perceptively on Hindi cinema; in Sajati Hai Yu Hi Mehfil he brings film-chat and cultural criticism on the same plane by assuming the role of a typical cinema-goer, thus giving weight to a fan's gut reaction and spontaneous comment.

Padhye wrote in an idiolect: a hybrid of various dialects of spoken Marathi and a film-inspired Bambaiyya Hindi—a seemingly unliterary style. This gave his characters and situations a certain punch and credibility. Images and graphic descriptions of people and things crowd his fiction, becoming even more vivid with his cinematic eye. He could also combine a comic manner with serious intent.

As a writer, Padhye’s was an urban, cosmopolitan sensibility—his curiosity cut across all boundaries of caste, creed, race, sex or class. He was a true Mumbaikar, immersed in the city’s teeming life. Nothing that happened in a particular community was alien to him. Those were his sources; they made his work classical in spirit: rich in narrative, eventful and dramatic. The fantasy, romance and sentimental accounts found in most Marathi fiction seem insipid by comparison.

His fiction brims with life, and very often, tragedy and death. I cannot think of any Marathi writer who had, or has, the fictional range that Padhye had. His characters come not just from the middle-class into which Padhye was born, but from the many walks and haunts of life in a big metro: slums, chawls, dargahs, government offices, corporate offices, small businesses, lower and middle class homes, labor unions, hospitals, courts, college campuses. Yet he was drawn more to those from the middle and lower classes. They don’t just struggle to survive, but aspire to a better life, and crave all the pleasures it brings.

With unfailing instinct Padhye inhabits the lives of the unseen, the unsung; he speaks their language, tells their stories. At the same time he doesn't ignore the humorous and tender moments in their lives.

A character often begins a story, in his milieu, and his voice determines the narrative, as in Murgi 3. The realism is inherent, not an ornament thrown in for effect. Nor is the depiction of sex gratuitous. The situations can seem bizarre but, somehow, plausible. And though Padhye’s fictional world sometimes borders on the surreal, it shuns fantasy. Rather than ‘invent’ or imagine characters, he ‘discovers’ them; they already exist. Padhye fleshes them out and they take on a life of their own.

I discovered Bhau Padhye when reading a book of short pieces in Marathi titled Chavya 4, by Dilip Chitre. That whetted my appetite. When I turned to Padhye's books the feisty, vivid, speech-oriented diction compelled me to read any work of his I could get my hands on. Padhye can immerse the reader in a situation right from the start; one has the sense of being directly involved. I found the stories so engaging that they lifted me, effortlessly carrying me along to the end.

Murgi made a deep impression on me. As I began to read it, I fell instantly under Padhye’s spell. It opens with a sensual description of the rustic slum-dweller, Keru:

Keru picked up the leg of chicken and held it between his teeth. He took a chunk out of the meat, and with his tongue shoved it behind. Saliva oozed from the corners of his mouth and settled into the shallow pits under his lips. Then Keru stuck out his tongue and wiped up the juices.

The chicken is an apt metaphor for Keru’s sexual urges. One can almost picture the scene: Keru gleefully polishing off a chicken leg in his usual crude and sloppy manner; he might treat a woman the same way. Further on, there’s a dose of cynical humor. After all, Keru has his eyes on this girl, Padi, and wants her badly:

Lousy kids! What kinda sarees are these punks gonna buy her? The kinda sarees they buy her I’ve given to whores to wipe their periods! Movies, they take her to movies, these bastards! You think you can get girls by showing them movies! Hell, you’ve gotta dress up a girl with jewellery and ornaments. But where’re these sonafabitches gonna get the money for that!…Ha! Ha! Ha!

Towards the end, when he starts to make love to his wife Padi, a girl young enough to be his daughter, he fails to get an erection. Humiliated by her laughter, he stabs her in the stomach:

The laughter stopped. There was a sound. Like the one a chicken makes when a knife falls on its neck. Then all became still. Her tits were really beautiful. Like electric bulbs. Her hair was soft as silk. Her face was just like a flower—like a very fresh flower! He held her body ever so tight. Now life was beginning to stir below his waist….!

What a macabre ending—the metaphor is sustained. I sat, stunned.

Several years ago Dilip Chitre wrote in an essay*, using Five Gardens as a great example, that "A classic work of literary art is seamless. The flow at its beginning sustains its momentum till the very end." This could also be said of a story like Murgi.

Similarly, Padhye’s novel, Vaitagwadi 5 held me in its grip from beginning to end. It portrays a man who is at his wits’ end as he tries—in vain—to find a place to live in Bombay; his repeated failure explodes at the end.

His classic novel, Vasunaka 6 (1965), rocked the boat on account of its alleged obscenity. In a series of stories Padhye narrates, through the gang member Pokya, the exploits of a sex-crazed gang of youths who frequent "Vasunaka" to harass women. These were only symptoms of sexual repression, but they pointed to a much deeper social malaise. Pokya also gives us portraits of characters from the greater community of Valpakhadi in Bombay that sustains this gang. In the story Samna Padhye observes the limits of his character-narrator, and yet reveals a portrait of society that's not intended by him. Here’s Pokya speaking:

Chamya and I were returning after watching a matinee at the Arora. A hubbub had broken out at Vasunaka. The members of our group were sitting there like they did every day. Right then a police van came by and picked up all our members. We suddenly froze. Fuck, someone must’ve complained….for sure! Just couldn’t think of what to do. If we went to the police station, and they had our name on file, we’d be caught red-handed………She’d come with a complaint about some kid. That’s her business. Isn’t the whole world her enemy? Let anyone touch her, or make a pass; she’ll cut a path straight to the police station. The police know her taunts too. So they don’t take her seriously either. Why would they? It’s okay to complain once or twice in the name of decency, but day in and day out? The police also had doubts: "She must’ve come on to them too; why else would these kids harass her?" You know what they say, you don’t clap with one hand!

Padhye’s oeuvre is varied and substantial. I’ve offered slices of it that I hope will goad the would-be reader. Though not a celebrated figure, Padhye had many readers, including writers, journalists and critics. If a major part of his work had been published in English translation, as it appeared in print, he would’ve had many more readers in India, and perhaps beyond. Chitre edited an anthology of Padhye’s best short stories (1995), and prefaced it with penetrating insights into his fiction. He feels indebted—and lucky that the first world-class Marathi fiction writer was also his contemporary.

Ironically, Padhye endured privation for most of his life, and died practically in penury. It is said that writers do it for love. By any reckoning, Bhau Padhye’s heart was in the right place.

William Faulkner once said that a writer’s obituary and epitaph should read: "He made the books and he died." This is the obituary that might have been written on Bhau Padhye, who died in 1996 at age 70, had it not been for the timely intervention of another major writer, Dilip Chitre. Chitre has literally rescued Padhye from being consigned to oblivion, from that dungeon reserved for unsung writers. Padhye would have merged with the living dead, headed for Dante’s hell if Chitre had not resurrected him by carefully assessing his literary worth. Chitre recognized Padhye’s importance as a writer, and placed the highest value on his work. He has even gone so far as to consider him the greatest Marathi novelist of the twentieth century. A claim that to my knowledge still remains unchallenged.
 Can we hope that a comparable figure will emerge in the coming century?


1. Dombaryacha Khel : An Acrobat's Act
2. Weda : Mania or, literally, Madness
3. Murgi : Chicken
4. Chavya : Keys
5. Vaitagwadi : Exasperation
6. Vasunaka : a place name, but suggestive: literally Sniffer’s Corner

* Artistic Amplitude, by Dilip Chitre, in Biblio: A Review of Books, May-June, 1995. Condensed and excerpted from the author's introduction to Bhau Padhye Yanchya Shreshtha Katha (The Best Short Stories of Bhau Padhye), Lok Vangmaya Griha, Bombay, 1995.
Note of Acknowledgment:

Dilip Chitre (1938-2009)—the well known poet, translator, painter & film-maker— who lived in Mumbai for many years — is by far the best critic of Bhau Padhye we had, so I've referred to him by name a few times. My views and comments on Padhye owe a great deal to Chitre’s seminal writings in Marathi and English, though I’ve also tried to develop my own response as a reader and translator. This portrait reflects both aspects. However, the translations included here are mine.
Posted here with the permission of the author.
- Avadhoot.
This essay can be read here too.

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