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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In the City a Mirror Wandering

Upendranath Ashk

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To purchase In the City a Mirror Wandering

Title: In the City a Mirror Wandering
Author: Upendranath Ashk
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 456 pages
Original in: Hindi
Availability: In the City a Mirror Wandering - US
In the City a Mirror Wandering - UK
In the City a Mirror Wandering - Canada
In the City a Mirror Wandering - India
  • Hindi title: शहर में घूमता आईना
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Daisy Rockwell
  • With a brief Preface by the author
  • The second in a multi-volume cycle

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Our Assessment:

B+ : cleverly done, and strong both on its own and as the second in a larger novel-cycle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Indian Express . 6/4/2019 Ashutosh Bhardwaj
The Telegraph . 5/4/2019 Sujaan Mukherjee

  From the Reviews:
  • "His novel depicts an era when the city was emerging as a centre for aspiration, a new geography that was expected to erase hierarchies, a hope that was soon belied. Ashk meticulously registers the faultlines and failures of the city, his gaze illuminates its dark corners and crevices. (...) The English translation of his ambitious work marks a major event in Indian literature." - Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Indian Express

  • "Like its prequel, In the City ostensibly lacks a plot. Chetan rambles through the chowks and bazaars of Jalandhar of the mid-1930s, meeting all-too-familiar faces that appear like ghosts of a different lifetime. This socio-geography would be new to an English readership but nowhere in Rockwell’s translation does it appear exoticized or even remarkable. (...) Ashk’s use of free, indirect discourse allows him to switch between the perspective of the aspiring writer and layered memories from his growing years. (...) The English translation will allow Ashk’s novel to enter circulation within a different critical framework, where considerations beyond the prescriptive social realism of his time or canonical demands will re-evaluate his work." - Sujaan Mukherjee, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the City a Mirror Wandering is the second in Upendranath Ashk's epic six-volume novel cycle, Falling Walls, tightly centered on protagonist Chetan. While in the first volume -- slightly confusingly itself titled Falling Walls -- Chetan's life after he completed his education, including his marriage and settling down in Lahore and then a few months spent in Shimla trying to write a book is presented, In the City a Mirror Wandering follows up closely, time-wise -- he just returned from Shimla a few days earlier -- but only covers a single day-in-the-life, as Chetan is passing through his childhood hometown of Jalandhar ("after a long absence") amd, while there, figured, as he explains to one of the people he meets: "Why not take a look at my old haunts ?" Over the course of the day, and the novel, he wanders the city and encounters friends and acquaintances from his youth, and sees what has (and hasn't) become of them.
       While set on a single day, these many encounters with figures from his past allow Chetan to dredge up old memories; as in Falling Walls, much space is devoted to descriptions of events from years earlier, filling out the character-portrait of Chetan (and the portrait of small-city India in those times) more fully. While several of Chetan's personal crises -- wondering what he should do with his life; pining over loves out of reach -- are lingering ones that were also addressed in Falling Walls, here the focus is more direct and intense, crammed into the one day, a more compressed turning point.
       In the City a Mirror Wandering begins with short sections that also recapitulate the significant events from the previous novel -- and, especially, his disappointment over the loss of Neela, married off despite their mutual attraction; the novel opens shortly after her wedding. If Neela's behavior around Chetan was perhaps more playful -- she is really just a quite young girl, more child than seductress in how she acted -- it was intense and deeply-felt on his part; his disappointment at having now completely lost her weighs heavily on him. Neela remains on his mind through much of his day, and he also seeks out and catches a brief glimpse of an earlier love, Kunti, as he continues to be dissatisfied with his present-day situation:

Why did Chetan want to see her again ? Perhaps he didn't want to see her so much as to gain contact with those joyful days that had passed by as if in a dream -- yet, just as in a dream, his sweet memories had evaporated as well ...
       Chetan's wife, Chanda does not figure prominently in the novel, as Chetan is away from his family's home, where they are staying on their visit, for most of the day. However, the story begins and ends with the two in bed together, with Chetan having trouble sleeping -- and complaining, in the evening: "I've wandered about like a vagabond all day. I'm so tired, but I can't stop thinking". Certainly, this is part of his problem -- and has been throughout this day, in particular --, overthinking everything. Chanda's advice -- "Stop thinking and go to sleep" -- may seem almost too simple, but in fact is part of the solution; she offers a reminder of what he should let go -- and what he has, at his side, to hold onto. For all his pouting complaints about the woman chosen for him to be his bride, he is clearly on the verge of finding -- as he lets his romantic fantasies go -- that she is perhaps a more appropriate partner than he had anticipated The day, and its conclusion, mark a clear turning point, a more mature approach to the future, and that includes a turn to his dedicating himself to his own family and its future, specifically with his wife, whom he seems to begin to see, accept, and even value in a new light.
       Throughout the day, Chetan can not help but compare himself and his accomplishments to where he now finds his old acquaintances. If he's honest with himself, he has to admit:
He himself didn't make more than fifty rupees a month ... he passed his days in profound want and was trying to feed his ego by puffing up his own accomplishments, while all his friends were making great strides and coming out ahead of him.
       His feeling seesaw:
'This arrant fool, this totally unintelligent Laloo, who ran away from home six times, who wandered off God knows where, now sits here calmly, a successful businessman,' Chetan thought, and for a moment, he felt jealous of his indecisive friend, with his runny nose and rheumy eyes; but the next moment, he shook off the feeling. He was an intellectual story-writer after all, a newspaper man; his wealth lay in his power. And this guy was a Baniya with a dense brain ...
       As often, however, Chetan feels impotent -- in no small part because he is not entirely satisfied with his newspaper work, despite the cachet of working in a big city (Lahore) in such a role. For one, he realizes it is something of a dead-end job: even if he could get promoted, there is little opportunity to really earn much money. More importantly, Chetan's ambition has always been to be a creative writer, and though he publishes the odd story, it is not his main work. Certainly, this day of wandering is also important for him in helping lead him to the realization that he should devote himself to what he really wants, and feels called, to do.
       Among the other crises Chetan faces is one of faith, as he calls into question some of the beliefs which are so strong in his family and culture -- doubts he has long had, but which come even more to a head now. Among them he questions the concept of life-cycles and rebirth -- coming to the sensible realization that, regardless of whether there actually was such a cycle, it was better for him simply to focus on the here and now:
My attention is directed neither at my previous birth nor the next one. I want to make this birth successful and happy.
       Among his new insights is also how ill-matched his own parents were, his mother rigid and prescriptive in her religious absolutism while his father was a free spirit. For the first time, it dawns on Chetan that his condemnation of his father was perhaps not entirely justified:
He'd thought of him as a sinner, a scoundrel, a cruel man, an alcoholic and a gambler, a carouser. But what was there in the house for such an impulsive man ? He didn't believe in prayers and worship, fasting and customs and rules -- their house must have seemed an enormous void for his art-loving soul, and if he ran out of the house just as soon as he came in, was that surprising ?
       Chetan's tour of this rural Indian city and the various characters he encounters -- as well as memories of the past -- makes for an interesting picture of 1930s Indian life. Technologically still fairly backwards -- a friend works at a radio station in Lucknow, but there isn't any even in a major urban center like Lahore yet ("Plans are afoot, but it will take three or four years") -- life also moves at a slow pace; the filthy and muddy streets Chetan navigates ("with just a small amount of rain, the bazaar was no longer a bazaar, but a muddy swamp") are an all-too obvious reminder of what Jalandhar is still mired in. For the most part, life is easy-going, the characters friendly -- if some occasionally too eager to have fun at the expense of others, leading to a variety of conflicts, including physical ones. Many of Chetan's friends have found success of sorts, but everything in the city feels fairly sleepy.
       The glimpses of the past, and comparisons of then and now, also provide more insight into Chetan. So also he went through a phase of being: "very fond of beautiful boys his own age or slightly younger". Ashk is particularly good throughout in describing how the various characters act in trying to impress or engage with one another -- which occasionally leads also to significant opportunities elsewhere, as when Chetan became, via a rather circuitous chain of events, something of a cinephile and was able to watch movies for free as much as he wanted (which, however, was also just a phase).
       The old friends and acquaintances Chetan encounters are a varied group, but some also have interesting stories, notably the very smart Dina Nath (who is fascinated by medicine, and whose story provides a fascinating picture of the practice of medicine there in those times).
       Politics figures in the background, with some of the characters very active -- though Chetan remains at the periphery of this -- though, it still being the 1930s, the clash with the British colonial masters not yet coming to a head. Religious and caste issues also rear up on occasion, including a bigger one near the end of the story, the Khatris -- "in power in the mohalla" (i.e. the local neighborhood) -- and the Brahmins clashing.
       Chetan's wanderings are like a mirror in that they are revealing, to him and to the reader. His interactions and observations prod him to consider his own life and path, while for the reader they also offer more insight into the character -- including how willing he is to go with the flow, hanging out with some decidedly obnoxious characters and not speaking up or getting involved; tellingly, too, he is constantly abandoning those he meets, restlessly moving on.
       Ashk's single-day story is a clever step in this longer novel-cycle, and well-done, especially in not making it too obviously a turning point. Chetan learns his lessons gradually -- or rather, he has long been learning them, but only here do they really sink in and set. Clearly, too, Jalandhar is no longer Chetan's world -- as he himself wants to emphasize, frequently repeating how his stay is only brief, and that he is leaving forthwith -- even as he comes in contact with so much, and so many memories, that shaped him.
       Successful also as a stand-alone, In the City a Mirror Wandering is also a neat next step in this novel-cycle -- and one looks forward to seeing where it, and Chetan, head next.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 September 2019

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In the City a Mirror Wandering: Reviews: Other books by Upendranath Ashk under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Upendranath Ashk (उपेन्द्रनाथ अश्क; اوپندر ناتھ اشک) lived 1910 to 1996.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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