- Riddles of Belonging: India in Translation and Other Tales of Possession
Christi A. Merrill's Riddles of Belonging: India in Translation and Other Tales of Possession is a welcome contribution to subaltern studies, South Asian literary vernacular studies, postcolonial and other theory and cultural studies, comparative literature studies, and translation studies. Merrill's general focus is on high literary as well as popular cultural forms drawn from oral and written South Asian literatures of the north, including Rajasthani, Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit. Many of these works deploy riddling narratives. Most have ancient origins and continue to be in wide circulation, crossing time periods, languages, ethnicities, classes, and castes with each retelling and gaining new life as they do so.
Tracing multiple versions of the works as they are told and retold over time, Merrill rethinks two key concepts: translation, and the riddle. She distances her approach from that in which translation is signaled by the Western term "trans-latus," which "can be read as a carrying across" and which consequently projects the object of translation as finite and fixed, a form of "goods being transported" (42). She turns instead toward the [End Page 488] Sanskrit-derived concept of translation as "anuvad" or "a telling in turn" (43); here the object of translation is neither pregiven nor static but emerges in the act of telling-in-turn (43). While translation seems conceptually consistent over the book, the second formative term, "riddle," appears more elastic. In the first two chapters, which focus extensively on millennia-old storytelling and folklore, the riddle is a favored and precise form, and one that gives rise to irrepressible punning, playfulness, and gaming. These modes in turn are often used to probe philosophical complexities. The later chapters shift to works of more recent origin, in which the riddle as concept does less work for the text and the reading and appears on occasion even as a synonym for "conundrum" or "question."
The first two chapters focus on multiply retold tales with origins in ancient storytelling. Drawing extensively on her long-standing immersion in fieldwork in Rajasthan, Merrill addresses versions of Chouboli by the Dalit writer Salvaram, the Rajasthani contemporary writer and activist Vijay Dan Detha, the "professional storyteller" Abdul Rhaman, and herself. The next chapter turns to translations of the eleventh-century Vetalapanchavimshati (The Twenty-Five Tales of the Undead ) a Sanskrit storytelling cycle yielding up marvels of playful and ludic framing including the unforgettable riddling tale, "The Transposed Head" (which was adapted by Thomas Mann and then returned to India via Girish Karnad's take on Mann).
The next two chapters address works of more recent origin by the eminent writers in the Urdu/Hindi tradition, Sadat Hassan Manto and Premchand, each associated to varying degree with the All India Progressive Writer's Movement of the first half of the twentieth century. In her analysis of "Toba Tek Singh," Manto's widely discussed partition tale, Merrill offers a new perspective by addressing Manto's own foregrounding of the act of polyglot riddling. In the subsequent chapter, Merrill addresses Premchand's "Boot aur Roti" (a ghost story derived from Leo Tolstoy), Premchand's translation of the manifesto of the Progressive Writer's Movement, and his representation of Dalits. The next chapter retains this focus on the ghost tale, as Merrill returns to Detha, now reading him in conjunction with another oral storyteller, Bhola Ram. In the final chapter, her conclusion, Merrill refers to another Detha story of ancient origins that has seen multiple retellings over time, including one by Kabir. Here Merrill also attends to questions of transgendering and same-sex desire, issues that she consistently highlights as a powerful subtextual current in many of the ancient-origin works.
The book's strengths are many. Merrill offers brilliant and intriguing interpretations of social and literary privilege across the study, especially in her reading of tales in which the listener/riddle solver becomes the riddle poser [End Page 489] and teller in turn, with the various riddle...