More often than not reading a translation, however good, leaves a lot to be desired. Even if the interpretation is as true as possible to the source material, certain things do tend to get lost in the process and this is the unmistaken feeling that engulfs you the moment you lay your eyes on Kautik on Embers. Translated from Marathi by Shanta Gokhale, the book is the English rendition of Marathi writer Uddhav J Shelke’s seminal classic Dhag that first came out in 1960.
The titular Kautik is the protagonist whose family is crushed by poverty and who has to struggle to keep her flock together. In a sense, the title captures Kautik’s fight for survival but unknowingly it also sets up a mood that the original title Dhag gives. Daunting as the translation might have been, something that Gokhale also mentions in her note. While Gokhale’s friend and playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, forthrightly told her that the translation did not have the force of the original, Kautik on Embers not only conveys Shelke’s searing portrayal of poverty and discrimination that continues to haunt villagers in Maharashtra but to a great degree also gives the readers a fair idea of the strength of the writer’s terse prose.
The story of Dhag and Kautik on Embers might seem familiar, and even antiquated, but it continues to remain relevant even six decades after its publication. The story revolves around Kautik and how she in the absence of any initiative from her husband Mahadev, who often falls sick, has to fight poverty and keep their dignity intact. The Shimpi (tailor) by caste family is allowed to do only certain kinds of work if they cannot do their own. Kautik’s children, Bhima the rebel and Nama the obedient, suffer, and young Yashodi follows the endless cycle where the next generation’s hardships also begin at a young age.
In a paper on Shelke, Anand Patil mentions that while writing Dhag in the late 50s, Shelke was dealing with the recent past that demanded a very realistic mode. In any case, the book was a thematic extension of his own short story Maay (Mother) that was published in Satyakatha, the then Bombay-based magazine. The story depicted struggle of a mother who passed through insurmountable ordeals and it was Madhukar Keche, a poet in Amravati, who told Shelke not to waste Maay’s great content on a short story. Besides, Shelke, who also hailed from a Shimpi background, took inspiration from his struggles. He finished the draft in 1958-59 but no one was willing to publish it.
In the end, Shelke assured the publisher, Popular Prakashan, that he would not take any royalty if the book did not win any award. But it went on to bag a state government award. In fact, the book was often compared to Pather Panchali and the socio-economic context of Shelke’s prose made it resonate more with readers. Gokhale’s one worry while translating the prose was to not loose the original spirit. Right at the onset, you get an idea that Gokhale has managed to keep the soul of Dhag intact where lines such as the one where while making bhakris (flatbread) of coarse millet capture the local colour: “They might be accompanied by vegetables, and then again not.”