The Girl with the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a non-Brahmin, who finagles his way as a student into the department of Hindi: one of the most corrupt in the university, and a “den of Brahminism.” He does so after falling utterly for Anjali, a Brahmin girl, who, through simple bad luck, could find a home in no other department. The narrative chronicles exactly how the powers-that-still-be in India have harnessed globalization to further consolidate power over language and culture at the most local of levels. It’s also a love story, and a tale of students protesting the corruption of the Indian university system.
In this excerpt, we see Rahul, along with the only other two non-Brahmins in the department, witness first-hand a the spectacle of cronyism and mediocrity that characterizes many departments of Hindi in India.
This translation from Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol is accompanied by a brief interview with the translator, Jason Grunebaum. That interview can be found here.
The look of the Hindi department today was utterly different. It was as if a sick, old-fashioned Brahmin, dressed in dirty rags, the kind who carries out holy rituals in Haridwar or Allahabad, had just returned from the spa center, suddenly cured. A brand new man, having enjoyed a steambath, facial, color treatment, and full cosmetic makeover. Now he’s wearing a snazzy checkered shirt: a smiling old swami.
Or it was like the rich old count from Tolstoy’s story who preens himself before departing for the grand evening fête, affixing the special spring-loaded wig to keep his drooping face lifted up, and, arriving at the party, flirts with the beautiful, wily and available young women who burn with the lust of unbridled social ambition. So—today the Hindi department had been decorated. Plants and flowers had been placed everywhere. In addition to the decorative plastic plants, the botany department had provided marigolds, hazaaraa, gurahal, dahlias, kaner and other seasonal, scentless western flowers brought from their gardens, and crammed together with the rest. The girls had been given the tasks of threading the flower garlands for the guests and serving them the little plates of snacks.
When Rahul arrived at the department with Shaligaram and Shailendra George, Anjali was with the other girls of the department. She was busy making garlands of white jasmine. She gave Rahul a quick look that concealed a smile.
The common room of the department had been emptied of furniture and transformed into an auditorium. Four chairs sat atop a white cloth, which had been spread over four low platforms pushed side by side. The chairs had been brought from the room of the chair of the department, S.N. Mishra. They were big, with vinyl and foam cushions. In front of them were three tables covered by a white cloth, on top of which rested a huge bouquet of flowers. A shiny, yellow silk banner hung on the wall behind displaying lovely red Devanagari lettering that read:
“In Homor Of Acharya Tribhuvan Narayan Mishra.”
The “n” in “honor” had become an “m,” and it was shocking that no one had noticed. Rahul thought to himself that Hindi teachers can’t even proofread. Shailendra George informed him that of the four seats, the first one was reserved for Vice Chancellor Ashok Kumar Agnihotri, the third one was for the Head of Department S.N. Mishra, the last one to the left was for Padmashree Dr. Rajendra Tiwari, and on the second from the right, in between the Vice Chancellor and Head of Department, would be seated the former senior professor at Banaras Hindu University, Tribhuvan Narayan Mishra. He was an eminent scholar of mannerist Hindi poetry and compiled a volume of the so-called best verses of Bihari’s “Satsai.” He was the powerful strategist who maneuvered behind the scenes, influencing every country-wide university post in Hindi, or editorial post in Hindi newspapers. Omnipresent member of every interview committee. Consultant to hundreds of Hindi foundations.
Department chair S.N. Mishra and Dr. Loknath Tripathi had left for the train station to receive Acharya Tribhuvan Narayan Mishra in the Vice Chancellor’s black, air-conditioned Ambassador car. Following behind were some senior students and some pet pupils.
A few minutes later the Marutis, Santros, Zens and Maitzes began pulling up in front of the department. Hindi professors, readers, and lecturers came out of the cars. The down payments for the vehicles had been made with university funds, and bought on low-interest, easy payment loans. These instructors, who make twenty-five to thirty thousand rupees per month and hardly teach three or four months per year, now drove around in automobiles. They played the stock market. Their children were abroad to settle down. They strategically took trips and constantly went on strike for increased wages and expense allowances. Regardless of their different intellectual or political slants, the instructors had one common goal—rupees and promotion. All higher thinking and all academic priorities were subsumed by this one point.
There were exceptions to this, and the faces of these creatures had taken on distinct characteristics. They were like a handful of grains that had survived, accidentally, amid a vast pile of chaff of dead ideas and ideals. They were neglected in all possible ways. Buried under that towering mountain of chaff were the leftover seeds of some vanishing academic species. Sometime in the future an archaeologist would study these fossilized grains to determine which century and which decade they dated from. More than a dozen professors and instructors stood in the hallway, spilling out of the Hindi department waiting for the black Ambassador to arrive. Classes had been rescheduled. The eighteen first-year MA students and the sixteen final-years all stood together. The three departmental peons ran back and forth.
Sixteen teachers. Thirty-four students, ten of them female. And three peons. This made a total of fifty-three human resources. Only three of the thirty-four students were non-Brahmin: Rahul, Shailendra George, and Shaligaram. Of the three peons, one was a Yadav. Of the sixteen teachers, twelve were Brahmins, two were Baniyas, one Kayastha, and one Rajput. This was the demography of the Hindi department, the composition of its population.
Finally, at eleven thirty-two, the V.C.’s black Ambassador pulled up to the steps of the department. In the back seat was the chair of the department, S.N. Mishra sitting next to Acharya Tribhuvan Narayan. In the front seat next to the driver, Guddan Dubey, was Dr. Loknath Tripathi, looking content. Guddan Dubey was V.C. Agnihotri’s nephew. A fake driver’s license was procured for Guddan before giving him a permanent job as driver.
Guddan sprang out of the car and opened the back door. Loknath Tripathi emerged with a toothy smile. The professors and instructors standing in wait flashed their teeth in return. The commotion and clamor began. The department chair came around from the other side, folded his hands in supplication, and exhibited a very weak smile. Rahul made a mental note that Drs. Srivastav and Singh managed only half-smiles, and that with great effort. It was clearly like pulling teeth for them.
Acharya Tribhuvan Narayan Mishra was seated in the car near the stairs leading up to the department. Then the back door of the Ambassador opened. Out came the former academic from Banaras Hindu University, eminent mannerist Hindi scholar, and current Professor Emeritus, Acharya Mishra, now ready to scale the steps of the Hindi department.
That’s when the scene took shape.
First, one real, worldly human foot emerged out of the open door of the black Ambassador, then another. He wore a white dhoti made of homespun and matching black natural-fiber sandals. His fingers were spread. He had dark, shiny legs. Greasy, as if he’d been rubbing them with ghee. As soon as those feet touched the ground, the uneasy, half-closed eyes on Dr. Loknath Tripathi’s round, pudgy face gave the signal. It was as if his eyebrows danced for a moment on his forehead.
First was Padmashree Dr. Rajendra Tiwari to reverentially touch the esteemed feet. After him, it was Dr. Shukla’s turn, followed by Jha sahib, Pandey ji, and Dr. Pant. Dr. Vajpeyi polished those dark hooves with his excited forehead. Dr. Aggrawal scoured the feet with his nose and cheeks. Dr. Dangwal combed his hair with those holy toes.
Then came the turn of the students, who put on a surrealistic scene.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, this was an extremely authentic and original post-modern view of Hindi literature.
Rahul, Shailendra George, and Shaligaram stood off to one side, at a distance from this sacred ritual, as if they were sweepers or untouchables. Dogs and the fallen were prohibited from the ceremonial site by precepts of holy writ.
As the flabby, squat body of Acharya Tribhuvan Narayan Mishra began ascending the stairs, adorned with a light yellow kosa-silk kurta, his shoulder draped with a white, neatly folded, starched angocha sprinkled with arrowroot, first-year M.A. student Vijay Pachauri Anand, beside himself, began to dance rapturously like Mirabai.
“Hooray for our Derrida! Hooray for our Derrida!”
“Hooray for our Bau-dree-la! Hooray for our Misra!”
“Hooray for our Misra! Hooray for our Misra!”
It was difficult to say whether Pachauri was in fact singing like some ecstatic Baul, but when Rahul asked Shailendra George, “Did you hear that?’ Shailendra George and Shaligaram answered in unison, “Sure, we caught something. It might have been Pachauri singing.”
“Just watch! He’ll get a faculty appointment very soon. Mark my words!” Who was it who’d said that?
Rahul sat in the very last row. The singing of the welcome song and the flower garlanding had concluded. Padamshree Tiwari gave the introduction for the Acharya. There was a dire need for the department chair’s speech to be translated into Hindi from whatever language he was speaking. He used countless words like clerihew, zenzizenzizenzic, eleemosynary, sferics, wrixle, infundibulum, haruspex, etaoin shrdlu, wrele, therianthrope, bathykolpian, mithridate, and xenization. In the middle of the introduction he stopped to recite something which sounded like a mantra. When at the end of the speech he declared, “It is through the grace and blessing of our eternal creator that the most highly esteemed Acharya Tribhuvan Narayan Mishra has today awoken each and every fiber of our bodies with feelings of joyful ecstasy by virtue of the intercourse he is having with us,” some of the boys in the audience could barely suppress their laughter.
Acharya Tribhuvan Mishra recited what amounted to a tome detailing his participation in the World Hindi Conference in London, the Kabir Centenary Celebration in Germany, and, in New York, the Hindi conference to welcome the Prime Minister. Then he mentioned the new treatise on Kabir he was writing, according to which Kabir had renounced Islam and become a Brahmin.
He offered his crystal-clear proof: Kabir was opposed to conversion and circumcision. In support of this supposition he recited one line of a Kabir poem and gave his interpretation of it:
“Therefore he lived Hindu.”
V.C. Agnihotri gave the farewell address. He was overwhelmed by the Acharya’s erudition. He implored the Acharya to convey his request to the Central Minister for Human Resources that practical subjects like journalism, media, internet, translation, etc. to be added to the curriculum of the Hindi department. The Acharya stood up right in the middle of Agnihotri’s speech, asked to have the University budget prepared immediately, and, amid the thundering applause, gave his assurance he could secure its approval in under a month.
. . . Sure, they’ll teach those subjects here. Medieval gorilla, parasitical Pandey and purohit. They’ll start a website dedicated to horoscopes, palmistry, wizardry, and astrology. Hindi journalism will become a medium of hocus-pocus, fire ritual, and mantra chanting, and a place to learn how to become a clever ass-kisser to the powers-that-be. And translation will be nothing more than to Sanskritize English words . . .
What a bind. On the one side the Western powers, on the other side, Brahmin pandits. Is freedom of language any less of a question than political freedom, Rahul thought.
“Western power and Brahmin pandits are just two sides of the same coin!”
“What!? Did you say something, Rahul?” Shailandra George said, taken aback.
“No, I was just wondering if the samosas and gulab jamun were ever going to make there way over here,” Rahul answered.
His eyes continuously scanned the crowd for Anjali. She was sitting somewhere in the front row. Rahul noticed that Abha, Anima, Renu and Seema had entered the room during the Acharya’s speech.
Anjali was the daughter of a State Minister, after all. If she wasn’t sitting in the front would she really come to the back row where he was? Feelings of simultaneous want and defeat closed in on Rahul. Just then the peon Kailash Yadav thrust a paper plate in front of Rahul’s face. The warm smell of hot samosas rushed into Rahul’s nose. In the front rows, the snacks were being served by Sharmistha, Lata, and Chandra.
As people milled about in front of the department building, and the V.C. and the Acharya readied themselves to set off for the guest house in the black Ambassador, a Tata Safari pulled up. A six-foot-tall, white-kurta-pajama-clad, smiling, mustachioed man got out. Behind him were three more dressed in pants and shirts. The smiling moustache man had a cell phone in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other. He came forward, touched the feet of the Acharya, and gave him the bouquet. Then he shook the hand of the V.C.
“That’s Lakhan Lal Pandey, aka Lakkhu Bhaiya,” Shaligaram whispered into Rahul’s ear. “Head of the town council.”
Then Shailendra squeezed Rahul’s hand. “That’s Lacchu Guru, aka Lakshpati Lal Pandey’s older brother.”
Rahul was stunned.
Right then S.N. Mishra and Dr. Loknath Tripathi glanced at the three boys whispering among themselves.
Balram Pandey’s eagle eye was also trained on them.
Something like a frightening little black moth rested like a moustache below his nose, below those eyes.
Rahul, Shailendra and Shaligaram, all shuddered.
The recipient of major Indian awards, Uday Prakash has been publishing fiction and poetry for over two decades in addition to an active career as a journalist, translator, playwright, producer, director and writer for film and television. Jason Grunebaum is senior lecturer in Hindi at the University of Chicago and holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. He won a 2005 PEN Translation Fund award for his translation of The Girl with the Golden Parasol.
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