At first glance, this award-winning epic is off-putting. First published in Hindi in 1979, the new English translation is some 452 pages long without the maps, glossary or translator’s notes required to read it. Perseverance, however, yields rewards in the shape of an all-encompassing sweep through pre-partition India, its many-faceted society and richly hued landscapes.
The novel, whose title means “a saga of life”, is set in the early 20th century in Shahpur, Gujrat (in the formerly undivided Punjab). Here members of different castes and religions live happily side by side, presided over by the Shah family, moneylenders and landowners whose haveli forms the centre of village life. The patriarch, Shahji, and his younger brother, Kashi Shah, take responsibility for resolving community issues and disputes. As an educated man with contacts in nearby Lahore, Shahji is also the conduit of news and political events. These snippets are debated most nights by the village elders who lie in cots on Shahji’s verandah, smoking hookahs, telling tall tales and unsavoury jokes.
Meanwhile Shahji’s wife, Shahni, masterminds celebrations for the year’s festivals along with births, deaths and marriages. As a senior female, she also mentors the younger women of the neighborhood.
While there are plenty of stories told in Zindaginama, the novel itself has no particular storyline. Nor is there a specific hero or any noticeable character development. Author Krishna Sobti has thrown the conventions of fiction out of the window and instead taken a polyphonic approach to her creation. The voices of myriad characters (each with an individual tale) are interwoven with other texts, such as religious praise and secular songs, Sobti’s own poetry and a good smattering of myth and legend.
In the first edition, these texts appeared in their source languages (Persian or Sanskrit) along with a dappling of Punjabi and Urdu, among others, in the main narrative. Recreating that multiplicity in a single tongue (English) is a challenge which translator Neer Kanwal Mani handles with grace, exchanging slang and swear words for flowery descriptions when required to reflect the tone of the original. On occasion, and when it’s not necessary, a translation is not provided, giving the reader a chance to speak for themselves the alluring words and rhythms of classic compositions.
This multiplicity is both the novel’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The sheer variety of characters and situations presented is comparable to leaves on a tree: tiny parts which together combine into a single, moving and growing entity. In fact, this is the original title of the book, Zinda Rukh, which means “the living tree”. But such a structure (the narrative mainly takes the form of conversations) makes reading an uphill struggle. Among all the different names and minor players, a reader becomes lost very quickly, especially without much description of appearance or backstory. A list of dramatis personae would have helped.
However, by the final chapters, Sobti has begun to focus on the impact of World War II and the revolutionary movement on village life and the pace picks up. Shahpur’s mothers are at first happy to send their sons into battle: the salary and rations are generous. When their boys never return, questions start to be raised about the British, their rule, and ultimately how Indians treat each other. With the threat of partition increasing on a daily basis, attitudes start to harden. The curtain falls on the previous utopia of tolerance.
Hope though, is not completely extinguished. Zindaginama paints a compelling and credible picture of a self-supporting people intimately connected to their history and the natural world which sustains them. This life force, Sobti appears to be saying, is stronger than any external division and will ultimately survive it.