Hindi litterateur Harivansh Rai Bachchan was born in Allahabad in 1907, and acquired immense popularity in the 1930s through Madhushala, a long poem inspired by the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Some three decades later, by now well established as a major figure on the Hindi literary scene, Bachchan wrote the first of four volumes of his autobiography, which was to earn widespread praise from critics and readers alike. In the Afternoon of Time is creative abridgement of these four volumes, translated into English for the first time.
These intensely personal memoirs span several generations, tracing the history of Bachchan's forebears, who came to live in Allahabad from a small village in Uttar Pradesh. With a bittersweet tone that recalls the lyricism of Madhushala, the author draws a portrait of provincial life in the first decades of the century, and describes with remarkable candour the struggles, joys and heartbreak of his early life. The narrative dwells at length on the death of his young wife and the ensuing trauma; remarriage, and a teaching assignment in the English department of Allahabad University; his Ph.D. Work on W.B. Yeats in Cambridge; a long stint as Hindi officer in the Ministry of External Affairs; an interlude in the Rajya Sabha; and the meteoric rise of his elder son Amitabh in the world of Hindi cinema.
In his brilliant translation, Rupert Snell has succeeded in communicating the power and intensity that made the original work a classic in the genre of autobiographical writing in India.
About the Author
Hindi litterateur Harivansh Rai Bachchan was born in Allahabad in 1907. He acquired immense popularity in 1930s through Madhushala, a long poem inspired by the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He remains one of the most influential figures in Hindi literature of the twentieth century.
Dr Rupert Snell is Reader in Hindi at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has published a variety of studies on Hindi language and literature and his interests include both medieval and modern works. He is currently translating contemporary Hindi poetry and also writing a study of the seventeenth-century court poet Biharilal.
The true justification of biography has been defined as 'to give its readers an expanded sense of possibility in the lives they are still engaged in living'.' Autobiography has an additional and more self-reflexive purpose: to relive the past, and in so doing to interpret it-the prerogative of selective memory allowing author and commentator to reside in a single person. The autobiography of Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan is a memoir whose own subjectivity is acknowledged in the very title of its first volume, translating literally as 'What should I remember, what should I forget?'; and in the present reduction of the original four volumes of Hindi memoirs to a single volume in English, the author's prerogative of selectivity has been further assumed by the translator (albeit with the generous blessing of the author himself)-with the question, 'What should I retain, what should I delete?' hanging constantly in the air.
The writing of this autobiography extended over a period of twenty-two years from 1969 to 1991. Ten editions of the first volume, seven of the second, and five of the third had appeared by the time of the publication of the fourth and last, in which frequent reference is made to the contexts in which the earlier volumes were written. Dr Bachchan's original intention had been to complete the memoir in three parts, and indeed the third volume ends with an apparently final 'signing off'. The long fourth volume, partly motivated by the enthusiastic public reception of its predecessors, introduces a more detailed and discursive style of narrative, perhaps reflecting the recentness of the events described; it also has a distinctiveness of tone and technique that has been recognized in the translation by designating this section as an 'epilogue'. In compressing four books into one, it has also seemed desirable to restore a balance between the various periods of the author's life, so that a smaller proportion of the long final volume has been retained in translation. Some internal time references reflect the period in which each respective volume was written, and have been allowed to stand-an example being in chapter nineteen: 'I doubt if much progress has been made in primary education during the twenty-two years since Independence'.
Alongside the usual process of abridgement and condensation, three specific changes have been brought about as a matter of deliberate editorial policy in making this abridged translation, Firstly, Dr Bachchan's continuous narrative broken only by occasional spacings in the original-has been divided into chapters, which seem both a natural and a necessary convention in an English work; chapter divisions and their titles have been dictated straightforwardly by the narrative itself, and the temptation to indulge in allusive titles has been resisted in all cases except chapter twenty-six, whose allusion to the opening phrase of the Bhagavad Gita has multiple reference within that part of the autobiography.
Secondly, since none of the four original titles of Dr Bachchan's Hindi works could double as the title for the abridged whole, a new composite title had to be found. After numerous possibilities had been contrived, enthused over, and rejected, the .final title suggested itself more or less spontaneously from a collection of Victorian verse. It is a phrase from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson (a writer quoted in another context within the present autobiography), in which the poet, scion of an engineering family, notes how his poetic calling represents a departure from the more vigorous forms of livelihood followed by his ancestors. The full text of the poem, with its original italics, is as follows:
'Say not of me that weakly I declined'
Say not of me that weakly I declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.
But rather say: In the afternoon of time
A strenuous family dusted from its hands
The sand of granite, and beholding far
Along the sounding coast its pyramids
And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
Smiled well content; and to this childish task
Around the fire addressed its evening hours.
Though the analogy with Dr Bachchan's situation is only approximate, something in the tone of Stevenson's poem seemed of a piece with the present autobiography and its author's strong sense of the continuities and discontinuities of dynastic history. This idea was borne out when-with some trepidation-I suggested 'In the Afternoon of Time' to Dr Bachchan as a title for his autobiography in its English dress. To my immense relief, Dr Bachchan responded, 'Bahut achchha hai-I like it,' a response whose bilingual wording not only vindicated the choice of title but also justified the use of an English poet's words for the title of a Hindi work by an Indian scholar of English in its English translation by an English student of Hindi. The third conscious change has been the omission of nearly all the considerable amount of Hindi poetry (both that of the author and that of others) quoted in the original volumes. The intrinsic difficulty of translating verse is a partial explanation for this policy, but not the whole story: more fundamentally, experiment showed that however naturally the Hindi poetry may sit within the Hindi narrative, once reworked in English it seems an overly self-conscious departure from the prevailing prose register.
A simple system of transliteration has been used for Indian words and names, with established spellings followed wherever ascertainable. The spellings 'Jumna' and 'Ganga' have been followed because the currents of these streams run through the soil of the narrative so intimately as to make the Sanskritic 'Yamuna ' and Anglicized 'Ganges' seem variously remote and inappropriate.:' In the specific case of romanized Hindi film titles, the conventions of the Bombay cinema industry (yielding such inscrutable spellings as 'Laawaris' and 'Kabhi Kabhie') have been honoured.
Montaigne's prefatory address to the reader appears in Hindi in each of the first three volumes of the autobiography (but not the fourth); I have taken the English version from the English text of Montaigne's essays" assuming this to have been Or Bachchan's original. By contrast, the English epigraphs appearing at the head of each of the four sections, and English poetry quoted passim, appear in English and Hindi in the original four volumes. In one instance-the bizarre encounter between Nirala and Pant recounted in chapter nineteen-the autobiography narrative has been supplemented by a few lines from an earlier source," to which Or Bachchan refers the reader. On a very few occasions, a word or two has been added to explain some reference to the English reader: for example, in chapter eighteen, Pant's work Jyotsna has been defined as a drama, and the quatrain from Tulsidas is an expansion of the couplet in Or Bachchan's original.
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