Funny Material: Translating Shrilal Shukla’s Fifty Years of Ignorance
by Matt Reeck
You may hear tell about which aspects of language are the most difficult to learn, or which elements of literature are the most difficult to translate. The relative absence of humor writing in translation would seem to indicate that this broad genre—known as hasya-vyangya in Hindi (हास्य-व्यंग्य) and tanz-o-mazah in Urdu (طنز و مزاح)—presents some real difficulties to translators. The fact that humor is rooted in a language’s materiality makes transferring humorous manipulations of that materiality to a new language particularly challenging.
Looking at humor writing in the joint literary traditions of Hindi and Urdu, we see that writing can be funny for many reasons. Humor writing can be funny because of the way that the writer typifies culture through narrative incidents to represent in exaggerated relief the status quo of a society. Patras Bukhari, one of the recognized founding masters of Urdu humor, published his seminal “Patras ke mazameen” (پطرس کے مضامین, “Patras’ Essays”) for the first time in 1927. These are primarily examples of cultural humor. Their humor is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and an earlier age of slapstick innocence. Their characters are slightly ridiculous figures, awkward or unsophisticated, despite their own pretensions and education. They represent the early twentieth-century South Asian middle-class man aspiring to be a world citizen and negotiating his British colonial indoctrination.
Humor writing can also produce its effect through a clever use of literary forms. Take Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Letters to Uncle Sam” (چچا سام کے نام خط , 1954). The humor of these nine letters develops from a remarkable use of literary form: the writer, an impoverished citizen of the new country of Pakistan, writes to the symbol of the American government, Uncle Sam. The letters offer wry, ironic, and yet precisely accurate observations about the ambivalent role of foreign powers in the development of Pakistan, focusing on how India, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. use policy and aid to help but also to hinder the new country.
In both of these cases, as in all humor writing, language is one of the central means employed for achieving humorous ends. Manto’s language is delightfully colloquial and full of brazen irony. Writing to Uncle Sam, he is the reprobate (but shrewd and cunning) nephew. Patras Bukhari’s essays are adept at turning a beautiful phrase on its head, debunking sophistication to return to the more quotidian realities of life. Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, another modern Urdu humorist (who passed away just three years ago in 2018), is perhaps most highly praised for his manipulation of language, and he is as famous for riffing humorously off of famous lines of Urdu poetry as for switching between registers. Only one translation of Yousufi has appeared to date in English: Mirages of the Mind (آب گم), a book from 1990 that Aftab Ahmad and I translated in 2014.
In Hindi, Shrilal Shukla is commonly referred to as the most important humor writer of the twentieth century. His novel Rag Darbaari (1968) is one of the most frequently read books in all of Hindi literature and a staple of high school and college exams. A strong cultural dimension exists to Shrilal Shukla’s humor writing, and the UCLA anthropologist Akhil Gupta has written that Shukla’s insights into small-town North Indian life are as accurate as (if not more accurate than) the observations of professional ethnographers. In Shukla, literary genres are used for hilarious effect. This can be seen clearly in Fifty Years of Ignorance (जहालत के पचास साल), his compilation of satirical pieces published on the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence (1997), and the book from which I have translated excerpts in Selected Satire: Fifty Years of Ignorance to be published in Summer 2021 by Penguin India. In it, one will find two-page skits of inept Indian bureaucrats, interviews with venal politicians, fake literary criticism, self-critical diary entries, stories, personality sketches, and ethnographic expeditions into the countryside.
In this essay, I would like to focus on the materiality of language as a fundamental resource of Shukla’s humor writing. Specifically, I want to talk about three broad features of Hindi’s materiality: reduplicative expressions and correlative constructions; onomatopoeia; and lexical registers and histories. Most of these ways of manipulating language for humorous ends are intuitive to speakers of the language, as they are dependent upon deeply encoded grammatical, syntactical, and morphological rules. Humor writing exploits these rules through invention. So, while humor is one of the most liberating forms of writing, with a goal of exposing or inverting social norms, it nevertheless relies upon the existence of linguistic rules to increase its aesthetic heft. Looking at these aspects of the materiality of language, I hope to shed light on how Shukla makes Hindi both pleasurable and humorous, and how he uses linguistic resources to increase the reader’s sensible experience and perhaps also their sympathy with his communicative ends.
The first feature of Hindi I would like to discuss, reduplicative expressions, has been made familiar to English readers through Salman Rushdie’s novels. Reduplicative expressions formalized in Hindi are not necessarily funny by themselves, but they provide a blueprint for invention that can easily be exploited for humorous effects. Common postpositions show a reduplicative pattern. Here are three common examples:
X ke ird-gird: around – के इर्द-गिर्द
X ke amne-samne: in front of – के आमने-सामने
X ke aas-paas: near – के आस-पास
~ X ke gird – के गिर्द
~ X ke samne – के सामने
~ X ke pas – के पास
One word is tied to a poetic sound pair without a change in meaning. These reduplicative postpositions on the left are synonymous with the simple ones to the right. Here, the reduplicative double holds no humorous effect. Yet, what can be said is that having already been routinized as a standard part of spoken Hindi-Urdu, they represent how the aesthetics of Hindi and Urdu allow reduplication as a common element of speech, and they point to a source of pleasure derived from repetition that is built into the language.
In Midnight’s Children, for instance, Rushdie takes advantage of this aesthetic to invent new—and obviously humorous—pairs: “writing-shiting,” “pumpery-shumpery,” and “joke-shoke” among many other neologistic, reduplicative expressions. The poetic reduplication in the second word holds no semantic purpose; it holds an aesthetic function as humor. When inventive reduplication is used in this way, the Hindi-Urdu listener understands that the second element is conveying a humorous intent, a tonality of irreverence, annoyance, concentration, or extra affective weight. Rushdie’s inventions mimic this nonsensical, humorous, affective possibility of reduplication in Hindi-Urdu. He tries to translate a Hindi-Urdu aesthetic into English, and these examples—funny in Rushdie’s Indian English novels—mimic the way any user of Hindi or Urdu can invent humor through reduplication.
The beginning of Shukla’s “Several Days in Umraonagar” documents the narrator arriving in the countryside on a bus. The bus is extremely crowded. The narrator is seated near the front of the bus, and he looks back to describe the cramped quarters. Goats are in the “crowd”—the “bhird-bhakkard” (भीड़-भक्कड़)—in the back. This expression is reduplicative. Even without being able to read Hindi, you can see the letters double. In this example, the non-reduplicative expression is “bhird,” a crowd. This word is often used in doubled expressions, such as “bhird-bhard” (भीड़-भाड़). The expression “bhird-bhard” combines two words: the word for crowd and the word for a type of oven used for parching grain. But, to be clear, the hint of this oven is nowhere to be found. When the reduplication uses alliteration or assonance, a poetic and sonorous value supersedes any semantic purpose of the second element. The second part is merely an aural decoration, an elaboration, and a poetic refrain for the first. Yet, in Shukla’s example, like in Rushdie’s English above, the second element is invented, and with invention comes humor. The word “bhird-bhakkard” appears in the Hindi that corresponds to the following passage, though I have moved the referent from its position near the beginning of the passage to the end, calling it a “mess”:
There were no goats where I was seated in the bus. But in the lap of my seatmate there was a chicken. The goats were in the back. Back there, if a baby goat happened to be on someone’s lap, or if a goat was resting on someone’s knee, there were also people resting their feet underneath a goat’s belly or on top of a goat’s back, as they leaned against the back of the bus. In that mess, it was difficult to say where any one person’s head was: it was heads upon heads upon heads.
Why didn’t I use a similar language game in translating the word? The reasons are several. To my ear, the word creates an enhanced sense of the “backwardness” of the countryside. It almost sounds like a bucking goat. And if the cultural idea exists in the U.S. as well as in India that the countryside lags far behind cities in its civilizational status, nevertheless my feeling is that the means for a sophisticated urbanite to make fun of the speech and manners of country folk are different in English. Reduplicative expressions that exist in English, such as hurly-burly, or herky-jerky, or others, are not indicative of registers of speech. Hurly-burly is neither a low-class or folkish word, nor is it used in reference to low-class or folkish things. Also, there is a way that forced or inventive reduplication in English, such as in Rushdie, creates an estranging, defamiliarizing, or orientalizing effect. That possible effect was something I wanted to avoid (crowd-showd sounds like Rushdie not Shukla) in a passage that is funny for other reasons than such marked interventions in English.
Perhaps another way of thinking about the aesthetic play at the root of reduplicative expressions in Hindi-Urdu could be in relation to proverbs. According to the Moroccan French-language writer Abdelkébir Khatibi, proverbs are composed of two parts: the first part being a semantic binding, post, or narrative context; and the second part being a poetic, sonorous turn or inflection on the first part, meaningless by itself (La Blessure du nom propre). Proverbs, then, like reduplicative neologisms in Hindi-Urdu are forms of aesthetic play that are pleasurable, that have an internal sonorous logic that exploits poetics tropes such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, and that can be humorous when activated in context.
In the passage we were previously discussing, Shukla also takes advantage of correlative clauses, a characteristic element of Hindi syntax and grammar, to transform reality into something a little funnier than it might otherwise be. The humorous story begins with the correlative adverbial phrase, “jahan, vahan” (जहाँ / वहाँ; where, there). This is a bulky element of Hindi grammar, but entirely ordinary. For “jahan, vahan,” as well, a good translation is often more condensed than the source language. But the fact that correlative constructions are bulky means that a deft and inventive use can induce suspense and humor. The section title is “Goats, Chickens, and Ripped Shirts.” The first sentence reads,
bas men jahan main baitha tha, vahan bakari na thi; mere pas baithe aadmi ki god main sirf murghi thi.
बस में जहाँ मैं बैठा था, वहाँ बकरी न थी; मेरे पास बैठे आदमी की गोद में सिर्फ मुर्ग़ी थी।
Literal translation: In the bus where I was seated, there she goat was not; in the lap of the man seated near me was only a hen.
Published translation: There were no goats where I was seated in the bus. But in the lap of my seatmate there was a chicken. The goats were in the back.
In fact, the correlative elements “jahan, vahan” follow the sonorous logic of Hindi and are themselves another type of reduplication. Here, the correlative clauses present a form of delay that the humor writer can take advantage of. The first clause reads, “In the bus where I was seated …” It is a dependent clause that will be linked to an independent clause in which something about the location where the narrator is seated will come into focus. But absolutely anything may follow: any sort of activity, or the presence of anyone or thing that might be expected in a bus. Reading the Hindi slowly reveals the full humor of the sentence: in the bus where I was seated, there she goat was not. Isn’t that a surprising presence? Up to the negation at the sentence’s end, we are led to think that a goat might be a natural presence next to the narrator, seated in the bus: in the bus where I was seated, there she goat was … Yet, it isn’t a presence that Shukla is pointing to, but a presumed presence that is in fact an absence. The more immediate presence is that of a chicken, and yet goats were there too, he makes clear, just further back! In my translation, I have flipped the “where, there” correlative expressions and added end-stop punctuation in an effort to create a similar sort of start/stop logic of presence and absence as in the Hindi.
The third linguistic feature of Hindi that I would like to discuss in relation to the humor of Shukla’s writing is onomatopoeia. While the humor of reduplication and correlative expressions can be difficult to separate from a general aesthetic pleasure (humor is an aesthetic pleasure), onomatopoeia is a feature of Hindi that leads to frequent unrestrained laughter. Onomatopoetic words are usually associated with animals and nature, and onomatopoetic language is also a frequent source of invention for humor writers. In “The Poetry Festival of Ghursari,” Shukla uses onomatopoeia for broad humorous effect. The narrative situation is a poorly run country poetry festival. Poets are arriving from various cities. Having been picked up at the distant train station, the poets are being transported to the site of the festival in the mode of transportation provided by the festival organizers—a ramshackle ox cart! Another reduplicative expression introduces the scene: “gaon ke nazdeek aate-aate beilon ne …” (literally: Near the village, the arriving bullocks …) This is a present participle with reduplication; the fact of the action being underway is emphasized. It situates the reader firmly in the ongoing scene. Then a string of onomatopoetic expressions follows. (Below is my translation, with the English words corresponding to the onomatopoetic Hindi words underlined.)
कड़बड़–कड़बड़ दौड़ना kadbad-kadbad daurna: to run wildly
झनझनाहट jhanjhanahat: to jingle
बां-बां ; कां-कां ban-ban; kan-kan: sounds used by bullock drivers to steer bullocks
गड़गड़ाहट gadgadahat: the heavy sound of the crude wooden wheels of bullock carts
झन–झना–झन jhan-jhana-jhan: the rough sound of a children’s anthem or song chant
भड़क–भड़ककर bhadhak-bhadakkar: to buck
हिनहिनाना hinhinana: to whinny
फेफ़ड़ातोड़ phepharatord avaaz: to scream at the top of your lungs
As the evening drew on, two ox-drawn carts pulled into Ghursari stuffed with city poets. Approaching the village, the oxen started to run with heavy footfalls. By the sound of bells clanking and clonking from the necks of the oxen, the sound of the cart drivers calling out “ban-ban kan-kan,” and the rattling and shaking of the wheels, everyone knew that the poets had arrived. The high school boys started up their band. The elementary school boys stood in rows and played a noisy folk tune with bells. The foals bucked and bucked, breaking free from their stakes. Each horse whinnied, then grabbed the tail of its foal, and together they raced out of town. One or two farmers sprinted for the community center. Ramanjore sat on the roots of the banyan tree. He stood up and in a loud voice shouted, “Hey, Pallauji! Guests have arrived!”
These nine expressions occur within eight lines. In Hindi, the passage is funny and silly. Undoubtedly, the humor is partially cultural. To see urban poets being humbled by the crude country transportation (and later by the crude country accommodations) touches on an eternal theme of Hindi-Urdu humor: the pretensions of poets. But the humor is heightened through the onomatopoetic words expressing the sounds of animals, nature, and rude country life. One or two such expressions might be expected, but the scene’s exaggerated use of such words makes clear that Shukla has racked his brain to come up with every onomatopoetic expression he could think of. My translation adopts a mixed strategy. Since onomatopoetic expressions are not as common in English, I try to replicate some of the expressions, I use transliterated Hindi in one instance, and I try to describe the scene as best as possible, with its inherent cultural humor, at other times.
Lexicon is the last material element that I will touch on here. Shukla often uses the type of “high” or Sanskritized vocabulary found naturally with Hindu references to gods and goddesses in uncommon contexts to create startling, farcical, and deeply humorous comparisons. In “Several Days in Umraonagar,” the scene is the same as before: the narrator is on board the crowded country bus. But now he needs to get off. When the bus stops where he needs to disembark, he realizes that he needs to hurry. In fact, the narrator says that getting off a bus is nothing like getting on a bus: much more effort is needed. The narrator’s chicken-holding seatmate gets up quickly, and the narrator describes him as “breaking through the encircling army like Abhimanyu.”
With this reference, we are instantly thrown into the register of canonical Hindu mythology. Abhimanyu is a mythical hero from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. He is the third son of the Pandava Prince Arjuna, the protagonist of The Bhagavad Gita. Abhimanyu fights on his father’s side in the battle at Kurukshetra. On the thirteenth day of the battle, Abhimanyu enters the military formation called the “chakravyuha,” a Sanskritic vocabulary item inherited by Hindi that is a compound word combining the words for wheel/circle/disc and military formation. Abhimanyu is one of only four Pandava warriors who knows how to enter the maze-like, circular formation, and the only one present when the opposing army of the Kauravas uses it in battle. Unfortunately, Abhimanyu does not know how to exit the confusing formation; he enters it, and there he dies. In my translation, I have simplified the deeply cultural reference to something more general, but still, I think, funny.
Shukla’s pairing of Sanskritized vocabulary (चक्रव्यूह, or chakravyuha) with an allusion to Abhimanyu generates an absurdly humorous simile. How is the chicken-holding country bumpkin like Abhimanyu, who, having entered the Kauravas’ elaborate, circular, maze-like military formation, dies inside? The literary allusion and the vocabulary choice—taken directly from the epic—elevate the register of the country scene. While similes are meant to compare essentially unlike objects (the sun is like a peach), in practice, the degree of difference is often less rather than more (a hyena is like a dog). Perhaps Shukla’s is an accurate use of similes: the narrator’s seatmate attacks descending from a country bus at a bus stop where the bus will halt for only a brief instant like he is a mythical hero who while fighting on his father’s side in battle enters into the elaborate battle formation of the enemy only to die because he cannot find the way out.
Using the three aspects of Hindi’s grammar, syntax, and lexicon that we have discussed above, Shukla adroitly exploits the materiality of the Hindi language to great humorous effect. I use the term “materiality of language” while hoping to convey in a single phrase the sum resources of a language’s syntactical, grammatical, morphological, and phonological characteristics. This materiality produces a dimension, a linguistic universe. This dimension dictates “normal” uses of language, but the laws that govern it also allow the manipulation of its rules for achieving humorous literary effects.
While it is difficult to summarize Shukla’s humor, I am reminded of one elegy published in an Indian newspaper after his death. The reader praised Shukla for his decency, and for his belief that it is possible to lead a moral life. That might seem like a strange frame to use to explain his humor. And yet I wonder if it isn’t true: his supreme skill in gathering the resources of language and culture is used to create a gentle humor, satire that includes him as the writer, and social critique that doesn’t indulge in rancor or vindictiveness, such as the potshots and hot takes that define the norms of American satirical humor today.
 I’ve written “chacha sam ke nam khat,” meaning “Letter to Uncle Sam” but in the original Urdu, they really go, “First Letter…”; “Second Letter…”; and so forth.
Matt Reeck is a translator, poet, and scholar. He won the 2020 Albertine Prize for his translation of Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel. He has won fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and during Spring 2021, he is serving as the Princeton University Translator in Residence. He has published seven translations from the French, Urdu, and Hindi.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 23, 2021