The Play of Dolls
Kunwar Narain's unusual short stories broke new ground and rejuvenated the genre when they appeared on the Indian literary landscape in 1971. Half a century later, in vivid English translation for the first time, they seem just as far-reaching: sometimes in the novelty of their insight, sometimes in their transcendence, sometimes in the world views they together uncover.
By turns allegorical, satirical, poetic, poignant, playful and bizarre, Narain's layered, often deceptively simple tales unravel the existential and moral bewilderments of a society navigating the cold, cruel worlds of its own creation, while also allowing hope in the truly human. These bold, sometimes comic, often experimental and metaphysical stories weave love and otherness, fantasy and history, tenderness and silence, leaving us both restive and redeemed at once.
Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), an iconic figure in Indian literature, is regarded as one of the finest writers and thinkers of modern time. He read widely, across literatures and disciplines, and blended an international sensibility with a grounding in Indian history and thought. He has written in diverse genres of poetry and prose, including three epics recognised as classics of Indian literature, poems across eight collections, translations of poets like Cavafy, Borges, Herbert and Rózewicz, two short story collections, criticism, essays, memoirs, and writings on world cinema, ideas and the arts. His oeuvre of seven decades, since his first book in 1956, has evolved continuously and embodies, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex. After over five decades in Lucknow, where a major part of his writing was done, he moved to Delhi. Widely translated, his honours include the Sahitya Akademi Award; Kabir Samman; Warsaw University's honorary medal; Italy's Premio Feronia for distinguished world author; India's civilian honour Padma Bhushan; the Senior Fellowship of India's Academy of Letters; and the Jnanpith, India's highest literary award. A reclusive presence, he has published selectively; some works remain unpublished.
Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain's son and translator into English. His first book of translations, No Other World, was published from India and the UK. A new volume of poetry translations is due this year. His work has appeared in several literary journals. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he also consults in the international development area, and has had interests in ecology, public health and ethics. He writes in English. Well travelled, he has lived in India and abroad, and is now based in Delhi.
John Vater holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. He lived in India while researching Hindi literature as a Fulbright-Nehru student scholar, and in 2018 was selected as an emerging translator from the US to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency in Canada. His translations have appeared in Ploughshares, the Asia Literary Review, Words without Borders and Exchanges. He currently works as a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.