Govind Mishra’s The House of Five Courtyards provides occasion for one of those kneejerk declamations about work in translation on its very first page, when the mellifluous and charmingly Indian “chik-chi, chikh-chikh, tick, toon-tick-tidding, chi-chiya, chi-chi-chi… kutock, kutock” of birds rising in harmony with an ahir bhairav is rudely interrupted by a rooster that actually crows “cock-a-doodle-do”. One decides, as one does in these cases, to shoot the messenger – in this case, Masooma Ali, who translated the novel from Hindi.
This, as it turns out, would have been a grave mistake. The errant foreignness of that rooster is one of the few moments of being snapped to attention in this book, and given the tedium of the rest of it, one is actually grateful. Here is a novel so utterly cliché, so incapable of making up in charm what it lacks in innovation, that to pin its failure just on how it was adapted into a different language would ring hollow.
The novel opens in Benaras in 1940, where a large family share their lives together in a massive mansion of five courtyards, its three lynchpins the advocate Radheylal, the elderly matriarch Badi Amma, and the imposing Badh Baba, the banyan tree. Its inhabitants are not atypical of such settings: Sunny abandons his studies for the sarangi, and then abandons music for the mendicant life. The boy Rajan recites a patriotic Urdu verse in school and is caned for anti-imperial sentiments. The dignified courtesan Kamlabai visits often for musical soirees and is considered one of their own; when an in-law of Radheylal’s house seeks her services as a brothel madam, she turns him away with a subtle reminder that he has married into her family.
Radheylal disappears into the underground of the independence movement. The ties of the next generation to the house of five courtyards dissipate more and more: in Kanpur, Rajan and his wife Rammo occupy a small flat with their children, Shyam educates his children in English and lets their Hindi lapse, and the house is eventually divided up and let out to tenants. All the makings, in short, of a saga about a changing world.
It isn’t that we, as a collective readership, have grown jaded of sagas – there is a timelessness to them that bears, if not begs, many renderings by many voices. It is simply that Mishra has injected no identifiable colour, humour, magic or humanity into this narrative. Its characters lack idiosyncratic appeal, and even the pathos of the end of an era, which the writer says in an afterword is what inspired this book, is not adequately transmitted. Perhaps it is Ali’s interpretation that makes this book so lackluster, but perhaps it is not – as with all translated works, only the sufficiently bilingual will ever know. And who knows, perhaps in the original, the rooster also crowed “cock-a-doodle-do”.
The House of Five Courtyards won the 1998 Vyas Samman (a lucrative award for Hindi literature), the same year in which a plethora of similar novels filled with extended families, sprawling chronologies and nostalgia for “Indiannness” flooded the market in a variety of languages – the Arundhati Roy afterglow. Few matched Roy’s masterpiece; all attempted to. The success of Mishra’s novel seems, at best, to be a product of the same, and as with other such products, its glow has not survived the decade. If there is anything that sets it apart from its numerous counterparts in English, it’s only that it doesn’t resort to the easy exotica that characterized many of them. Ironically, this may have made the book so bad that it would no longer have been boring – which, ultimately, is far worse the crime to the reader.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.