Vedita Cowaloosur on Gopal Gandhi's Bollywoodised translation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy

A quick look back at mainstream Bollywood—or Hindi-language Indian film industry—of the black and white era will reveal how the cinema of that period had social conservatism seemingly ingrained in its very DNA, especially regarding its sexual mores. Quasi-puritanical depiction of sexuality and physical intimacy are stereotypes which abound in Bollywood of that age. A lady in a clinging, wet, see-through, sari was the peak (and extent!) of sensuality. Think of Kishore Kumar crooning ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si ("a girl, dripping wet") to a thoroughly drenched Madhubala in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958). Lovers' kissing was often symbolised, on screen, through a cut from a scene of the increasing intimacy between lovers, to a shot of trees or flowers shaking and swaying in the wind. Or birds soaring into the sky. Raj Kapoor and Nargis singing the famous, erotically charged, pyar hua, ikraar hua hai ("we are in love, we have admitted it") sees a quivering Nargis—standing under an umbrella with Raj Kapoor—shying away from a kiss, just before their lips could touch. Sex was suggested by someone (almost invariably a man) switching off a bedside lamp, or through a dimming of lights on the sound stage, while the scene blurred and faded out. Crushing of flowers under one's feet, or with the palms of one's hands, usually while lying on a fully-decked bed, suggested marriage consummation. Or, more charmingly, the camera would sometimes roll away from the couple advancing towards the bed, to a picture of a grinning toddler—presumably to hint at the nature of the act being performed away from the camera's lens.

This conservative picturisation was in line with the censorship clause in the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1957. This Act imposed strict restrictions on the depiction of nudity and sex in Bollywood films, because of its (supposed) incompliance with "decency and morality." Eroticism and sexual fulfilment would apparently connote a loosening of decency and morality. Consequently, sex came to be imagined as a guilty-pleasure, not to be blatantly indulged in by the virtuous. Sexual desire, sometimes exaggerated to the point of sleaziness, was instead the prerogative of the non-virtuous, because, as put (sarcastically) by contemporary film-maker Mahesh Bhatt: "good people fall in love, bad people have sex." Other than when portraying westernised or "fallen" characters (such as the villains, vamps, courtesans, or prostitutes), most films of the 1950s would treat of the subject of passion in an attitude best summed up in these lyrics from the popular 1957 song "Chod do Aanchal" from the film Paying Guest: "Let go of my veil—what would the world say?" ("Chod do aanchal zamana kya kahega"). Romance and intimacy in relationships were not to be displayed on a public platform; it had to be restrained, for fear of the judgemental and moralistic gaze of the world. Romance and raciness was thus limited to coy and covert looks that heroes and heroines gave each other, while singing soulful songs, mostly in open spaces, such as gardens, streets or balconies—where the level of physical proximity being depicted could be kept in check. Women, especially—as paragons of virtue, which made that, for decades, the Bollywood heroine remained "a virgin, in body and soul and mind; dutiful, beautiful and almost immobile in her virtue [so that] her world was divided between the safe houses of her father and her husband and the fraught wider world" —would be shown to recoil in fear and shyness at the slightest hint of physical intimacy.

The imbuement of the conservative Indian patriarchal discourse is clear in these norms, basically premised on the three following assumptions:

1. sexuality is obscene2. sexual references dishonour women3. sexuality's entry into public space disrupts social boundaries
Koi Accha-Sa Ladka, Gopal Gandhi's Hindi translation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, I would like to argue, recapitulates this very social conservatism, with the 1950s films becoming Gandhi's primary intertext for his translation.

That Gandhi's primary frame of reference is Bollywood is obvious from the numerous additional Bollywood allusions in the translation. Harish Trivedi and Rashmi Sadana have both flagged up the instance whereby, while Seth merely replicates the first line of a song being sung by a tonga-wallah ("A heart was shattered into bits—and one fell here, and one fell there"), (p. 23) Gandhi not only generously reproduces a longer stanza but also includes the name of the Bollywood film in which the song is picturised, as well as reminds his readers of who the singer and lyricist were:

(pps. 45-46)
The tonga-wallah was singing this song from the film "Pyar Ki Jeet" with great relish. These lyrics by Kamar Jalalabadi rode onto Varun who was riding on the tonga. Neither the tonga-wallah nor Varun were Mohammad Rafi... 
These additional details about Bollywood, as proposed by both Trivedi and Sadana, are assumed to form part of the cultural repertoire of the Hindi reader. While Seth's novel, as illustrated by Neelam Srivastava, is a recreation of the Nehruvian, secular and socialist vision of the 40s and 50s—with the political events of the time foregrounded and influencing much of the narrative—Gandhi's translation is conservative and assumes a broad cultural bias associated with Hindi readers: notably that the Hindi reader is a seeker of un-politicised cultural and emotional solace, and nostalgia.

It is not the case that Gandhi was hindered by linguistic or cultural restrictions associated with Hindi writing itself, for Hindi literature is not at all innately conservative. The trend in Hindi literature in the 40s and 50s was in fact progressive, with "Pragativada" (or the Progressive Movement) and "Prayogvada" (or the Experimental Movement), being the popular styles of literature at the time. The writings of authors like Sachidanand Vatsyana Agyeya, Rameshwar Shukla Acala and Harivansh Rai Bachchan form part of these movements. Even just with regards to sexual mores, Bachchan's and Acala's poems often figure female figures whose eroticism is spelt out and praised, without them being demarcated as "fallen" women. Bachchan's popular poem, "Madhushala," for example, includes such a woman, who not only sexually teases the poet but also encourages him on in his intoxication—without being branded immoral. Bollywood of the same era, however, as we saw above, did not necessarily conform to this. The visual depiction of that which was explicitly being spelt out in literature at the time was a lot more reserved. And Gandhi's translation is a recreation of Seth's novel modelled on what was, at that time, depicted, prized and prioritised in Bollywood. And what was not.

Like 1950s Bollywood, Gandhi's censor-parameters seem to condemn the depiction of homosexuality, and the cleanest cuts from Seth's text are the passages with homosexual undertones. It should be pointed out that Seth himself does not mention the term, nor explicitly describe the act of, homosexuality anywhere in A Suitable Boy. But it is impossible not to read its associations with certain of the characters, such as the Rajkumar of Marh. In the sentence that follows, the Raja of Marh's acknowledgement of his son's homosexuality is unequivocal: "I don't care how many boys he sleeps with as long as he gives me a grandson as well" (p. 704). This sentence is left out of Gandhi's translation, and the Hindi reader consequently never learns of the Rajkumar's sexual preference for men. Instead, the Rajkumar is posited as a victim of his father's lascivious and oversexed (needless to say, heterosexual) penchants by interposing the adjective ("bechara"—that is, "poor") to describe him. This is how the passage about the Raja forcefully taking the Rajkumar to Saeeda Bai, in order for him to have sex with her, is translated:

Seth:A few days ago the Raja had taken him to Saeeda Bai to make a man of him. The Rajkumar had almost run out in terror! (p. 704)
Gandhi: (p. 751, emphasis mine)
Just a few days ago, the Raja of Marh took his son to Saeeda Bai to make him into a "man." But the poor thing wanted to run away from there out of fright.
While the connotations about the Rajkumar's homosexuality are not spelt out to the Hindi reader, the latter is instead invited to sympathise with the "poor" Rajkumar for the plight his immoralistic father subjects him to.

The implications of these cuts and tampering with Seth's text become significant when Gandhi's interpolations are viewed in the light of Seth's comments on how Indian society historically depicted homosexuality, in the wake of pre-modern (or even pre-Hindutva) morality:

If you look at India historically, at the Kamasutra or the statues of Khajuraho, both of which also depict gay sex, it shows Hinduism has a tradition of tolerance. And this is true even in the tradition of other religions, like Islam—for example much Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry. One of the greatest Urdu poets, Mir Taqi Mir, was clearly writing about his love for other men. I don't think people give Indian society enough credit.
The qualities of "tolerance" that Seth attributes to India are characteristics that Gandhi does not attribute to contemporary Hindi readers. The various cuts and amendments to these passages suggest that Gandhi's preconception of the Hindi reader is that he is homophobic. Might this be because his frame of reference, Bollywood, itself only admitted to integrating homosexuality—in more than a cursory or comic way—only a few years ago with My Brother Nikhil (2005), the first Bollywood film which openly treats the subject of homosexuality without caricaturing it—and this comes much after Gandhi's translation in 1998?

Along with homosexuality, heterosexual intimacy is heavily censored. As far as the Hindi translation goes, sex might never even have been an aspect of Maan's and Saeeda Bai's relationship. The details of their lovemaking—inserted throughout Seth's novel—do not figure anywhere in Koi Accha-Sa Ladka. In fact, its very mention is omitted, so that Seth's

But Maan knew that Saeeda Bai, though hard-hearted, was—at least to him—tender-hearted; and although he knew that she did not believe that he was in any danger from himself if she refused to make love to him, he also knew that she would take it as more than merely flattering figure of speech. (pps. 301-2)
becomes Gandhi's

 (p. 346)
Saeeda Bai knew that since Maan talked about suicide, he was not going to do anything of the sort.
In Gandhi's translation, lovemaking is not the subject of this tiff between Saeeda Bai and Maan, though it is at its root in A Suitable Boy. Seth's "After they had made love, she became more than everything for him," is translated by Gandhi as  ("Now Saeeda Bai was everything for Maan"). Here, temporality, and not lovemaking, is posited as the bonding factor between Maan and Saeeda Bai. Furthermore, not just the act of sex, but its preambles too suffers the brunt of Gandhi's knife. For instance, Maan's sexual arousal becomes Maan's  (p. 169) ("dikkat"—literally, "inconvenience"). Gandhi refrains from even naming the act to the Hindi reader. The aftermath of sex, predictably, suffers the same level of censoring. Here is a passage from Seth, describing the aftermath of Meenakshi's and Billy's lovemaking:

He [Billy] began to withdraw.
"No Billy, just stay where you are," said Meenakshi in a sighing voice. "You feel so nice." Billy had been at his athletic best.
"All right," Billy consented.
After a few minutes though, as he softened, he had to pull out. (p. 1131)

This is how Gandhi translates it—and the last line, in particular, receives an interesting translation:

(p. 1095)

Now Billy wanted to get up.
"No Billy, just stay where you are!" said Meenakshi in a muffled voice. Like experienced athletes who had stepped into the arena, Billy was both soft and rough.
"All right!" Billy granted Meenakshi's request.
But just a little later, increasing relaxation forced them to disconnect.

This description of a sexual withdrawal could not have received a more thorough masquerading!

Gandhi's apparent notions about the ideological bias of the Hindi reader, also make him portray the nature of the inter-racial relationship between Kakoli and the German diplomat, Hans, in a more straitlaced manner. Gandhi does not, for instance, translate any of the episodes detailing their encounters, when they sing and play music to each other, before they are even romantically involved. Hence, the courtship of Hans and Kakoli, which leads to an engagement at the end of the novel, is completely left out of the translation, though these passages are no more risqué than the following:

Hans blushed once more and offered Kakoli a drink. Although he was expert at kissing the hands of married women, he has not kissed Kakoli yet. He did not think she would approve of it; but he was wrong (p. 451).
Hans's gallantry (such as kissing the hands of married women) is ascribed by Gandhi to his  (p. 501) that is, his "cultural traditions," presumably in order to make it more excusable, by alienating it from the Indian context and masking it as a norm of a different culture, while Kakoli's willingness to be kissed is left unmentioned, for, according to the standards set by 1950s Bollywood, unmarried girls of good families evaded physical contact—rather than pursue it. 

The third level of censoring is Gandhi's conservative—not to say archaic—ascriptions of gender roles. The woman is more subordinated in Koi Accha-Sa Ladka than she is in A Suitable Boy. Seth perceptibly portrays Kedarnath as being slightly henpecked by Veena—and content at being so. This is explicitly pointed out twice in the narrative. But Gandhi does not so much as bring up the term to describe him—hence denying Veena her position of power over her husband in his translation. Henpecked husbands in Bollywood of the 40s and 50s would only be the markedly comic characters—and since Veena and Kedarnath are not such equivalents in Seth's novel, their relationship is changed and made to "conform." The Khandelwal household, where patriarchal hierarchies are not observed in Seth's text, also revert to such a state in Gandhi's text. So, while in Seth's novel, exchanges such as the following confirm Mrs Khandelwal's upper hand in the relationship, and Mr Khandelwal's subordination to her: 

Mrs Khandelwal, horrified, turned on her husband. "Mr Khandelwal," she said in a tone of absolute authority, "do you know what you have done? Do you have any idea?"
"No," said Mr Khandelwal in fear and trembling. (p. 938)

Predictably, no such passages are translated or figure anywhere in the Hindi text. Jerry Pinto writes of Bollywood that: "It is the popular culture of note in this country: that it is still patriarchal and insensitive to issues of gender and sexuality and community." In effecting the translation thus, Gandhi not only seems to be using Bollywood as his only foil—but also fuels this discourse of inequality espoused by films of that era. 

As well as not trying to undermine their husbands, the women are also paragons of good erotic behaviour, of the sort that Gandhi imagines the Hindi reader to hold dear, portraying them as rising "above" supposedly base sexual instincts. On Holi, while watching Maan smear coloured powder on Savita's neck and breasts, Gandhi's Lata does not imagine "Maan's hands on her;" (p. 74) nor does she later fantasise on how "it would have felt like to be rubbed and smeared by the cheerful Maan in such a public and intimate way." (p. 75) Gandhi's Lata, instead expresses her reaction with an added  (chii—a sound of disgust). Lata's "chii" sums up the revulsion that Gandhi thinks she is expected, by the Hindi reader, to conjure at such unabashed behaviour. In another instance, while Seth's Lata sometimes responds to flirtations with kindness or mirth, Gandhi's Lata is shown to be appropriately affronted, as obvious in the translation of the following passage, which depicts the scene of Lata's and Kabir's first meeting: 

"Aren't you going to ask me mine [i.e. my name]?" asked the young man, his smile broadening amiably.
"No," said Lata, quite kindly and rejoined Malati... (p. 47)

Gandhi translates Lata's response as:

(p. 79)

"No." Now there was some severity in Lata's voice.
The kindness Seth's Lata displays is metamorphosed into  (that is, "severity"), considered a more befitting reaction suitable to an unwed girl, at least for a Hindi audience. What better proof of Gandhi's commitment to the "Let go of my veil—what would the world say" (chod do aanchal, zamana kya kahega) prototype than this? 

Gandhi's female characters stick to stereotypes and behave with as much "decorum" as any 1950s Bollywood heroines would have. In so doing, Gandhi's heroines stick to the standards set by Bollywood's heroines, of whom Jerry Pinto writes: "As the positive moral pole of the universe, the heroine cannot move too far from her position. She's right, she's always right, and the right-wing will keep her there."

And Gandhi's translation of A Suitable Boy, it seems, seeks to assert itself on the "right" side too, by recreating Seth's novel into a novel that would make the more conservative political wing proud, for the translation that emerges is a "cleansed" and conservative translation: set in a world where women did not transgress patriarchy, and where eroticism could be passed by without needing to be starred at in the eye. A la Bollywood of the 1950s.