Phoolsunghi’s English debut is a lot more than just a peck on Bhojpuri literature’s cheeks

By Shillpi A Singh

New Delhi-based academician, columnist and translator Gautam Choubey has scripted history with his literary outing — Phoolsunghi — that happens to be the first-ever translation of a Bhojpuri novel into English. Apart from being the most representative work in Bhojpuri, Phoolsunghi also happens to be one of the most loved literary works by Pandey Kapil, who is hailed as the protagonist of Bhojpuri literary movement in the post-Independence India. Published in Hamish Hamilton by Penguin Random House, the book hit the shelves earlier last week. 

The story from the soil of Bihar pans out in Chhapra where the magical, mystical, and mundane intertwine much like the lives of three characters — courtesan Gulzaribai who was popular in the region as Dhelabai; ageing zamindar Babu Haliwant Sahay, who worked as an official in the law court and had a stake in the flourishing opium trade; and Bhojpuri folk poet and singer Mahendra Misir. The timeless tale about these celebrated legends of Bihar has traversed centuries and fascinated litterateurs across ages. These dalliances resulted in three other literary jaunts of repute — Ramnath Pandey’s Mahendar Misir, Jauhar Safiyabad’s Poorvi Ke Dhah and Anamika’s Dus Dwareka Pinjara

The historical novel spanning ninety years touches upon the early years of colonial rule in India without making any direct references to the fight for independence or any social conflict or instances of religious disharmony. The plot, story, and setting spread over 16 chapters together draw a reader into the enchanting world of the lifelike characters. Music serves as the perfect backdrop in Phoolsunghi, and there is a lot of drama, action, tragedy that unfolds in the lives of these people, to keep one hooked, from start to finish. The enthralling mehfils and mujras, high-pitched abduction drama, episodes of court cases and counterfeiting notes reveal author’s attempt to make it a wholesome entertainer. The author explores various shades of romantic love, making it an emotional roller coaster ride for a reader. It delves deep into the characters through the maze of the relationships that they share with each other, crossing paths at times, and flowing like the two banks of a river in a few instances.

The novel documents the lives and times, rise and fall, love and longing, trials and tribulations of these characters, who live in and around the banks of river Saryu in Chhapra and its adjoining villages of Mishrawaliya, Sheetalpur, Revelgunj and Muzaffarpur. Like a river that flows through these cities, the plot intermittently drifts to Banaras and Calcutta, and makes pit stops in Punjab and Delhi, before returning to Chhapra. The story also traces the advent of the railway line and how dhuwankas or trains play an important part in the narrative. Phoolsunghi offers a bird’s-eye view of how the characters co-existed in harmony without being bothered by religious, class or caste considerations, and in some measures, it is also a social commentary on the lives of migrant workers. It reveals how some of them seamlessly merged in the mainstream in their adopted land while a few others, bit by melancholia trace their way back to their roots, sooner than later. The migrant’s life in a metropolis is bound to resonate with the readers, and tug at their heartstrings, especially those who have either been a migrant themselves or have witnessed something more heart-wrenching pan out in the country not so long ago. 

The Bhojpuri story is quite evocative and engrossing, and Choubey has done full justice to it. The translated work has a cinematic language to it with lively characterisation, and vivid imagery making it an endearing read. It will be no surprise to see the real characters, who inhabited Chhapra once upon a time, taking a reel avatar sometime soon and glossing the big screen, regaling the larger audience who live far, far away from this mofussil. The verses in Bhojpuri have been passionately and painstakingly translated into English by Choubey, but a reader would have benefitted from the richness of the language and appreciated it more had only a list of the originals been provided along with the glossary.   

By foraying into the unexplored domain of translating a popular piece of Bhojpuri literature for a discerning, elitist, city-bred reader, Choubey has managed to do the unthinkable, and in one go. It is a stellar act for its sheer thought and effort. He has not only highlighted the long and diverse literary culture of the language but also debunked the common perception of it being only a folk language, giving Bhojpuri its due. His disruptive effort, hopefully, might lead to many more such works being produced by the speakers and readers of the language, and in that context, Choubey’s present translation will fondly be remembered for being the first of its kind that helped to pave the path for many more.

Phoolsunghi has something for all; it serves as a timely reminder about the richness of Bhojpuri literature for the younger generation and has a multitude of joy and nostalgia to offer for the older ones. The story will transport you back to your roots so soak in the subtleties of a bygone era from a faraway land, and shore it up for yourself and your coming generations. 

(Cover image sourced from Penguin Random House’s Twitter handle)

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