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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

To Each his Stranger


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To purchase To Each his Stranger

Title: To Each his Stranger
Author: Ajneya
Genre: Novel
Written: 1961 (Eng. 1967, rev. 1982)
Length: 119 pages
Original in: Hindi
Availability: in To Each his Stranger - US
in To Each his Stranger - UK
in To Each his Stranger - Canada
  • Hindi title: अपने अपने अजनबी
  • Translated by the author and Gordon C. Roadarmel

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Our Assessment:

B : creative if also fairly obvious existential tale(s)

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The setting and characters in To Each his Stranger are perhaps not what a foreign reader expects from a Hindi work of fiction: the main characters are named Selma Akelov (née Dahlberg) and Jokke, while others are named Paul Soren and Jan Akelov (though a Jagannathan admittedly does show up at the end), and the setting of much of the story seems distinctly Alpine, with the concluding scene in a town "the Germans took over", clearly during the Second World War. Maybe the Scandinavian-sounding names aren't quite such a stretch for an author who translated the works of Pär Lagerkvist into Hindi, but the implied locales can be disorientating. No doubt, this was also Ajñeya's intention -- though more for his original audience than the later Western one: To Each his Stranger is not meant to be a European novel, but rather uses European names and locales in a Brechtian attempt at alienation (Verfremdung), tackling a universal subject and themes that his audience is (likely overly) familiar with in an Indian context, but jolting the reader out of a passive, complacent reading by situating and re-presenting them in this way.
       Nevertheless, To Each his Stranger is also clearly influenced by the existentialist European novel, confronting the issues of death and the meaning of life head-on (though also from a distinctly Indian perspective). The story presents several extreme situations, and the main characters die; significantly, however, they both do so at least in part on their own terms.
       The story begins shortly before Christmas. The tourist Jokke and local Selma are the only two people in a wooden cottage near a ski slope when it is buried under an avalanche. A bit off the beaten path, it's distinctly possible they won't get out before March, when the snow might be expected to have melted sufficiently. Jokke is traveling with a friend, Paul, but he went off on another mountain that day and they arranged to meet later, and even if he searched for her there's no guarantee he would be able to find the buried hut.
       Ajñeya's premise isn't entirely realistic: he suggests their is sufficient light and that they can heat the cottage (but no one can see the smoke from the chimney ?) and they have sufficient supplies to hold out to the spring (but never mind the small issues like how they dispose of their waste ...). But then this isn't meant to be a realistic novel: the point is to isolate the characters in an extreme situation, allowing them to mull over their mortality -- an issue hard to get out of their minds not only because they are entombed, but because Selma is clearly, terminally wasting away.
       They do, indeed, wind up stuck there for quite a while -- and so, for example, Jokke finds:

But it is all a lie -- nothing is left -- we are not left; one can't even say that we had been there so that we could be left ! Death -- death -- death -- that is the one and only expectation, whether there is snow above or not -- whether there is cancer or not ! Is there any difference between what Selma can expect and what I can expect, just because she has cancer and I don't -- or because she has proof of the relationship between cause and effect whereas I don't even have that ? Am I not more helpless, more pitiful, more dead ? Don't I have the greatest cancer -- that cancer which we call life ?
       No doubt, characters who moan about suffering 'that cancer we call life' can be tough to take, and Ajñeya doesn't add much new to this familiar lament -- at least not until he doubles down with a story-within-the story. Yes, not only is Selma slowly dying in this isolated cottage, cut off from the rest of the world -- but long ago she endured something similar (though without the terminal disease). Decades earlier, she had a shop on an arched bridge. The river below flooded annually, cutting them off from their surroundings, but those who lived and worked on the bridge usually stuck it out. The floods of 1906, however, were accompanied by an earthquake that broke off the ends of the bridge. Their boats were washed away, and: "On all sides was thundering, untamed, unfathomable water, as far as the eye could see" -- and:
in the midst of all this pounding and smashing and devastation, the middle part of the bridge remained incongruously standing, suspended on three pillars, with three or four shops on top of it, and three or four people living in them.
       Beside Selma (then still Dahlberg) there was only a photographer, and the souvenir-shop owner, Jan Akelov -- as the name suggests, clearly Selma's future husband. Given the situation, they confronted their mortality -- with a very different Selma still focused on her business (charging Jan for food) rather than considering the larger picture. Eventually, however, she found:
     This was the end. There was nothing more to ask. And there was nothing more to say either. There are turns in life beyond which there is no need for a road -- sometimes there is only a blind alley.
       Resigned, Selma bottomed out:
There was nothing else anywhere ! There was nothing else ... no questions ... no answers ... no certainty left because there was no hostility left. There was no flood outside and there was not even the flow of time. Only a meaningless broken bridge -- from where to what and to when ! A meaningless broken bridge which was she herself -- she, Selma, going from nowhere to nowhere -- who, if she existed, did not know for how long.
       Yes, To Each his Stranger is heavily symbol-laden -- and too often Ajñeya can't keep himself from spelling it all out much too clearly .
       Selma's account of her bridge-experiences is her dying story and gift to Jokke -- and, of course, it and its lessons weigh heavily on the much younger woman. And then there's the conclusion on offer that Jokke then carries with her:
     There is no freedom of choice anywhere. We choose neither our friends nor our strangers ... we are not free, not even to choose our own stranger.
       But Ajñeya doesn't stop here, either (no question you get quite a bang for your buck from this story): Jokke is plucked from her snow-tomb, but the world is still as it always is (though the fact that apparently the Nazis at some point march into town probably doesn't improve the situation). You have to hand it to the author: he knows how to lay it on nice and thick:
Estranged faces, estranged voices, estranged gestures, in an estrangement that involved not only the self-protection of keeping others at a distance, but also an inability to establish contact with each other: an estrangement from their people and their world; an estrangement from the value of life.
       For those waiting for the happy end, well, it's there -- even if it only amounts to a happy ending of the gloomiest existential sort. Yes, Jokke -- by now embracing another identity -- "I -- Mary -- Mother of God -- Mary, Mother of God -- whored by the Germans" -- manages to at least find in death the freedom that otherwise proved so elusive. It seems she wants it both ways -- "Jokke died, though. Mary never dies" -- but what's important is that she has grabbed at least the illusion of free will with her final acts.
       To Each his Stranger is weighed down by its message(s) -- quite a burden -- but there's some art here, and some appeal to Ajñeya's directness. The isolated incidents are utterly contrived -- but there's no question that Ajñeya gets his point across. There's also an interesting cross-cultural element beyond the locale, as Ajñeya uses Western trappings and beliefs -- Christmas, New Years, as well as Jokke adopting the Christian god-mother identity of Mary -- while the existential-philosophic musings of the characters also have a distinctly 'eastern' bent (most notably in the idea of eternal life in the form of re-birth, rather than the Christian notion of death and afterlife). And the shadow of the Nazis -- never identified as such, but hard to miss -- adds a nice sinister note, too.
       To Each his Stranger is flawed fiction of the more interesting sort, a curiosity that, despite all its weaknesses, still engages on several levels

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 February 2013

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Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Hindi-writing Indian author Ajñeya (अज्ञेय) -- actually Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan (सच्‍चिदानन्‍द हीरानन्‍द वात्‍स्‍यायन) lived 1911 to 1987.

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