Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sorrow of the Snows by Upendra Nath Ashk, translated by Jai Ratan

Sorrow of the Snows
Upendra Nath Ashk (1910-1996)
Translated by Jai Ratan (Hindi)
First published 1971, I read 2011 translation
118 pages, satire, common man's story
Found: on sale at Crossword Bookstore, Salt Lake, Kolkata

Hasandin is a poor farmer in Kashmir who rents horses to tourists for transportation purposes and also acts as a tour guide. On this day, he hopes to get some good customers: if he can make enough money, he will be able to get his son married in addition to being able to feed his family during the winter. Since the British left a few years earlier, tourism money has decreased so much that he and other guides are having trouble making ends meet. Today, he hopes to get a rich customer who will give him a good tip in addition to his normal fees, like the British used to do.

He finds a customer: one Khanna Saheb, a shopkeeper from Delhi, who has traveled to Kashmir with his wife and son. At first, listening to this man's boasting, Hasandin believes that he has found the customer he was looking for. But then Khanna Saheb's actions start to differ from his words. While praising his own benevolence, Khanna Saheb tries to bargain the cost of his already-cheap hotel room down by one rupee. When they stop for tea, he refuses to pay for his guides' food (which is the standard practice). The disappointed Hasandin plays along,  hoping that these tourists will want to go to the more distant tourist sites the next day - which will mean more money, even if Khanna Saheb refuses a tip.

The next day, the do agree to go to the farther sites - and in fact, insist on it. Upon reaching the snow-covered pass, Hasandin tells them that the horses cannot go any farther into the mountains. Hearing this, Khanna Saheb accuses him of tricking them. With a massive headache and a growing cold, Hasandin leads them into the mountains all the way to the farthest tourist site. Then, because their bus is scheduled to leave that afternoon, they hurry down the mountain on sledges.

Partway down, Khanna Saheb says that he lost his camera stand, which Hasandin was supposed to pack. So the very ill guide trudges back up the mountain in the snow and cold, but can't find the stand anywhere. After spending a lot of money to return to the bus stand quickly, upon arriving there he is suddenly assaulted by the police and arrested. They accuse him of stealing from a tourist. Faking compassion, Khanna Saheb gives the police a pittance of his bill before leaving on the bus. Afterwards, one of the other grooms informs the police that the camera stand had been in the tourists' bag the whole time. The police choose to overlook that information, pocketing the money and throwing Hasandin in jail until his wife can raise enough money to bail him out.

Illness in literature

It isn't often that you come across a novel that talks about coming down with a cold. This one does, and in a brilliant way that makes the illness absolutely central to the plot. It illustrates the physical difficulties of being sick, even with such a minor illness, especially if your work is extremely physical and you are too poor to call in sick. Hasandin must work - if he doesn't work, he and his family won't get food to eat. So he has to put up with the fever, the headache, the light sensitivity, and the running nose while trudging through the snow on a mountain. And when things start to go wrong, he has to make decisions and remember things even though his brain isn't working properly.

His illness brings the relationship with his customers into sharp focus. While Khanna Saheb accuses Hasandin of tricking them, it is actually the other way around. If Hasandin were able to think clearly, he probably would have refused to take the horses beyond where they usually go. He would have stood his ground about what sites it is possible to see before the time limit. And he, probably, would have remembered putting the stand in the bag - giving Khanna Saheb no opportunity to accuse him of stealing. The fact that Khanna Saheb takes advantage of Hasandin's weakened state further illustrates how much power he, as the tourist, has over the poor local guide.

The literature of illness is, as I said, few and far between - especially if you look at the depiction of supposedly "minor" physical ailments. This book is one that admirably demonstrates the physical, mental, and social difficulties that can be brought on by even a cold, in the right circumstances.


Hasandin's story is a character study of a poor man trying to survive in changing circumstances. He attempts to continue the trade he knows despite the decrease in wealthy customers after Indian Independence. This forces him to work with people who treat him terribly like Khanna Saheb. His motivation? Poverty. The only way for him to make money in the rural, isolated state of Kashmir is by taking tourists into the mountains, which he does because he wants to make enough money to survive and, if he's lucky enough, to get his son married.

It is probable that Khanna Saheb is also not particularly wealthy. He is, after all, a shopkeeper from Delhi, which probably makes him low- to mid- middle class. It might be reasonable that he would not be able to pay his Kashmiri guide very much. But as a tourist, he has social and financial power over Hasandin. By accusing Hasandin of stealing, he gets out of paying the fees without any repercussions. Making this accusation and then running away means that Hasandin has no way of proving the charges false, even if that would have been possible given the difference in their social status.

If nothing else, this novel is a warning to the tourist: you can ruin these people's life. Don't assume that the locals are always trying to trick you, and be careful when you want to make an accusation. Be sensitive to what your guides are going through. They are people, too.

Why should you read Sorrow of the Snows? For Upendra Nath Ashk's concise, slightly sarcastic writing and the beautiful description of how illness and unequal power relations affect a poor laborer like Hasandin. Although the ending was a bit of a downer (ok, a lot of a downer), I enjoyed the novel as a whole. Highly recommended.

Sorrow of the Snows is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart

Further Reading: 

Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography (buy from Amazon
History of Kashmir from Wikipedia
Investigating Illness Narratives

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