When we can find an Indian Shakespeare, even if it happens to be a certain Kalidas who predates the bard by a millennium, would it be difficult to locate an Indian Marcel Proust? Daisy Rockwell, an American academic, translator, writer and painter, traces the French novelist to a location as improbable as the blighted streets of pre-Independence Jalandhar. Translating the late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk’s novel Girti Divarein , the first of a seven-volume collection, she finds it similar in many ways to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past .

Are modern Indians condemned to a derivative discourse, forever lagging behind the West in social and political expression? When you read Rockwell’s translation, you cannot fault her for her Western lens. Falling Walls is a keenly modern novel Ashk was inspired to write after he came to know of Virginia Woolf. It is a rambling account of a lower middle-class boy’s life in Jalandhar and Lahore as he struggles to become a writer, trying to break free of stifling society, oppressive conventions and disabling poverty. In his ambition to find a personal space for creative expression, Chetan reminds one of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man . In pre-Independence India, Chetan’s was a very European endeavour — what political thinker Sudipta Kaviraj might call ‘the invention of private life’.

The autobiographical novel mirrors Ashk’s own pursuit of the European style. He wanted to depict the inner mind of the characters, admiring how Woolf had told an entire story by way of a morning walk in her novel Mrs Dalloway . Ashk’s act of writing the novel was a struggle to be modern, like Chetan trying to break free of his context, for he was breaking many literary conventions of the day. He was insistent that whatever was expressed was done through the characters’ lives, events, conflicts and entanglements and not through long speeches and debates. He wanted to let the novel speak through descriptions and not be didactic like what was mostly being written at that time.

But Proust?

Those who rush in expecting romantic reveries, longwinded sentences, exquisite reminiscences and immersion into fine prose will be a bit disappointed. Ashk has no pretensions of the sublime, or the aristocratic elegance of Proust. But he too rambles, finds moments that trigger long flashbacks, and has written seven volumes to tell the autobiographical tale of a writer. He records his life in such abundant detail that it turns out to be the history of his time. You glimpse Proust in Ashk especially in his sideways incursions into character’s lives without showing any hurry to get the plot going.

Protagonist Chetan is the consciousness of Ashk. Chetan’s yearning for a modern life reflects in Ashk’s conscious experiment with a modern form — a rambling, self-absorbed novel that makes a point to show, not tell. However, at the core of this modern novel is the realisation of its own derivativeness. There are numerous descriptions of dyers, folk poets, streetside storytellers, poetry jams on the sidelines of the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan, blacksmiths and other craftsmen, and a soda-bottle maker — as if Ashk is fumbling to find his native creative lineages. It’s a highly self-conscious novel, where many characters look like disguised ideas. Chetan’s elder brother, an idle card-player, is a voracious reader of novels. He reads indiscriminately, Premchand as well as pulp. In the standstill, cramped life of a poor neighbourhood in Jalandhar, it indicates a hunger for newer worlds and faraway places — anything that offers an escape from the hopeless stagnation around. Hunar Sahib, a nationalist poet, a scamster with shady antecedents and Chetan’s window to the literary world of Lahore, is an expert plagiarist who passes off couplets of famous poets as his own to unsuspecting admirers like Chetan and his brother. He seems to stand for Ashk’s struggle to be original while writing in a borrowed Western style.

Rockwell’s immense research shows in her deft translation, where nothing jars as she effortlessly conveys the local colour. There are no irritating explanations that would put off the English reader and amuse the Hindi one. She moves the Hindi text towards the English reader but knows how far it can be pushed from its terrain. Therefore, her translation will speak to the Hindi as well as the English reader. This novel must be read, not least for its description of our forgotten literary cultures and a subaltern history of pre-Independence times.

Dharminder Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist