When I first met Rajee Seth I was overwhelmed by her gentleness. Then I read her work and its ruthlessness stunned me. Since that day, I have never stopped wondering what kind of autobiography Rajee Seth would write? Perhaps a woman of such powerful extremes withholds her greatest creation in her own life story. In introducing a woman litterateur I wondered how I would do justice to all those frontiers which her gender makes distinct and are usually the least expressed or visible part of the creative process. Rajee's personal life is a good starting point which may reflect some of the experiences which contribute to her distinct writing style. She found her career as a writer late in life. Rajee's first short story was published in 1974, when she was 39, shortly after another late life resolve — to return to academia. She completed her M.A. in 1972 in English Literature from South Gujarat University and a proficiency in Comparative Religions and Indian Philosophy that started an inevitable journey back to the world of letters, which she had abandoned when the rigours of middle class domesticity had usurped her creative soul as an elder daughter-in-law of a feudal U.P. family. She must have required much grit to transgress ingratiating female roles with an endurance which shielded the creator even as it fed her. But it was a quiet struggle. Battling on the invisible fronts of aesthetic and creative vision, she absorbed the anguish, violence and melancholia of life lived in invisible realms.
It was this invisible, to which Rajee dedicated her artistic enquiry. To unveil the invisible as her primary literary obsession. And many of her visible frontiers have to do with the female courtyards of life, especially since most of life is lived there—in relationships, expectations, social and emotional negotiations, "I am strangely preoccupied with how little we see the hold of the invisible on every part of our lives. Instead the visible is feted, mourned, lauded and eulogised. I think that the invisible has the most intense impact on our lives and holds the key to our lasting impressions of any incident," she explains. Like in The Invisible Hand the estrangement of lovers, or the inevitability of the man's disloyalty is not Rajee's focus. She scratches beneath the platitudes to unearth the design of time, which veritably lodges itself as the most invisible block between any two lovers and its invisibility is its amnesty to blame. The pattern is repeated in every story and it seems as if she weaves her story far away from the event into some cloistered truth, where no one searches for reality.
Her stories are also the reflections of a woman, who sees her world through the isolated predicaments of her many roles, often conflicting. Her experience of female worlds tells of many dilemmas and haunting anguish under the innocent cover of family life. But Rajee is always searching for that unspoken, unseen in every event. In Who is She, the protagonist Mini, purges a past relationship through the commonplace act of burning a packet of letters but Rajee's invisible is the woman confronting the reader with a startling moral premise. As in a séance, Mini calls to spirits of women of generations past, who had set the tradition for this purging, as an integral part of a woman's moral lot, simply because she was now married to another man.
This does not mean that Rajee doesn't feel trapped by the debate in Indian writing around 'women's writing' and 'feminist' writing. Her stand is perhaps best reflected by a statement that Doris Lessing once made in London while addressing an audience when she asked if she was a feminist: "How can any writer who is a woman not think and write like one," she said And Rajee's Against Myself is a poignant testimony to her stand. Shorn of fractured truths, Rajee gently lets us into a world where the worst scars of a woman's sacrifices lie, where the male ego doesn't even recognize its victims, where the real battles between genders are man and lost. Mother's Diary, Beyond the Blind Alley, Who is She? are forays into this very feminine and not so visible terrain.
Her test as a creator is that her vision doesn't restrict herself 110 any single experience. You Too, The Invisible Hand, His Piece of Sky stalk other frontiers (invariably. veiled) of life's forces, of human dissolution, of lurking polarities.
I have always wondered about the great debate on how much a writer reveals oneself in his or her work and how much must be traced to in an autobiography. But Rajee's stand on autobiographies is unambiguous. "I think that a writer says more about himself in what he of she creates than any attempt to record their chronological life. There it is an expression of their world view, their moral order, heir pain and joys in a more substantive way than any biography can ever be," says Rajee.
So while we look for her in the man and women she crafts, her writing reminds one of the tireless sculptor, whose tools carve and shave until every hidden nuance can be sighted, in what once was the faceless mass of routine existence. In Face-to-Face the writer will not spare the mistress, who is desperately struggling to retain the bondage of her servant. Neither her farcical liberalism, nor her pitiable efforts to sell the servant boy the dream of an ideal domesticity — hers. Rajee does not even allow her the shreds of her recently acquired self-worth nor her gossamer thin dictums preaching rebellion. Nothing wan, or half-hearted will do for her so she strips her protagonist in her own eyes simultaneously delivering her to the reader's conscience, where he is face-to-face with himself. And if you're looking for it perhaps this is where her moral order is so unmistakable.
Albert Camus said, amongst many of his ominous literary truisms, that, "In order to be created a work of art must make use of the dark forces of the soul." Rajee too enjoys stripping through human guards, farcical fronts and moral righteousness to unveil the cowering man unwilling to face his or her own depravity. Perhaps that is why her stories are said to have a human universality which reclaims them from a culture or context specificity.
Dr Prabhakar Shrotriya, the noted Hindi literary critic, places her writing in a lineage of eminence which begins with Jainendra Kumar, and continues through Sachidanand Vatsyayan and Nirmal Verma. "But the critical measure which puts Rajee in a class of her own," says Dr Shrotriya, "is her rendition of the terrifying realisation of times's urgency, forever overlapped, in the haste of generations rushing to emerge, which is matched neither by Agneya nor Nirmal Verma." The old, paralysed man in His Piece of -Sky was awaiting death, in the solace of a silver of blue sky, visible from his window but the neighbours couldn't wait to build and block it off. "Whether an emotion, an event, or a person -- no one wants to wait for anyone else to think or act. Rajee has expressed this all consuming ferocity of time, better than anyone in her generation, and with her superb craft she has presented it so convincingly," says Dr Shrotriya.
Born in. Nowshera (Pakistan) in 1935, Rajee has lived in U.P., Gujarat and now lives in Delhi. She has always written in Hindi. "I was born in the North-West Frontier province, my mother tongue is Punjabi, I have lived my adult life far away from Punjab and Hindi is my language of education and creation. Amidst all this where is the source from which my creative self-emerges, from what language, which culture?" asks a writer who is deeply preoccupied with the creative process. A woman with a repertoire, she is an essayist, poet, novelist and translator. She has translated 100 letters of renowned German poet Rainer Maria Rilke into Hindi. Its first appearance in Hindi won her much acclaim. She has received many honours and awards for her contributions to Hindi Literature.
But the honours belie the quiet, unassuming air which marks her public and private self. "What is written and published is over for the creator? Purged out of her system and she has no real relationship left with it. There is so much that needs to be written, that I must say. and yet perhaps I never will," she says wistfully. In the cloisters of life there are many paths that she still chooses to walk alone and will not purge them through art. Perhaps for a very feminine reason of not wanting to cause hurt to those whom she has known and loved.
And I have wondered often. why I choose to translate Rajee seth above all others. Actually I first thought of translations when her stories. I also read a bad translation which annoyed me of what it took away from her text. But for the first time, language took on a dimension I had never addressed. Its power sod perfidy both opened up strange quarters. She also gave culture specificity to literature which was a novel experience for me, whose literary preferences had unabashedly been foreign.
It was an awakening of my literary self at many levels. For the first time I looked carefully at the strange bedmates that translated works made, with the genre called Indian Writing in English. A whole new bridge between cultures, between languages, between women of different worlds. But translating her intense and complex work was never easy. Her rich language and innovative metaphors stumped every linguistic resource I thought I possessed. One thing I know for sure: my language can never do justice to the richness of her text. Her Hindi reflects the sophistication of a classicist.
I must also add here, that the whole experience has been a very humbling one. The difficulties of a translator crossing the terriers of an Indian language into English, where the cultural ethos is also at such divergence, has opened up a whole new sea of travails. I would therefore like to apologise to the reader in advance for any awkwardness or obtuseness in the text which in no way reflcts on Rajee's work but is solely my flawed effort as a translator.
Finally, a writer should be introduced in her own words. Eloquent, if a little mystical, she says of her own work — "A creator's truth is her effort. Her indebtedness to life is creative endeavour, with all her skill, her constancy, her sensitivity. The effort to pour out from within herself the share of her vision that belongs to the world. And her only possession is her lone faith in her labour. Finally, this faith alone will witness this private journey; be its compassionate companion."
Rajee Seth was born in October 1935 in Nowshera (Pakistan) and did her Masters in English Literature as well as obtained proficiency in comparative religion and Indian Philosophy. Her writing career started late in life and her first short story was published by the famous litterateur Sachidanand Vatsyayan 'Agey' in his magazine Naya Prateek in 1974. After that started Rajee's long and illustrious career as a short story writer, novelist, poet, critic and essayist. By now she has published eight story collections and three novels. Her major novel titled Tatsam has won her many honours and awards. Tatsam was acclaimed for its extraordinarily rich language and subtle tapestry of human interactions. Her work has been translated into English, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati and Telugu. A powerful translator herself, Rajee has also translated 100 letters of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke into Hindi. Her work in other genres is in the pipeline. A prolific essayist, Rajee's work is an intense blend of the subtle and the brilliant. Jasjit Purewal (translator) was born in November 1957 and got her degree in Economics from the University of British Columbia, Canada. She joined the Indian Express as a journalist in 1985, writing on both financial and political matters. An active researcher on women issues, she has been involved in various projects on women including violence, literacy and credit.
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