The First Inuit Novel: Shikaryacha Bhala
The depressing news of the supposed leaders of our nation broadcasting that the slogans of a small group of university students were part of a conspiracy hatched across the border; abusing state power to have one of them arrested for sedition, inciting in the bargain, their ever-worshipful followers to thrash whoever came to hand in the very home of justice -- a court of law -- while the police treated the crime as public entertainment, made me rush back to Shikaryacha Bhala, the book I was reading. There in the icy wastes of the Arctic region, a 16-year-old youth, Kamik, was fighting against a real enemy to save himself and his people from a real danger. Nothing concocted here. Nothing imagined. Nothing that sprang from petty human minds in idle times.
Rarely before have I been so grateful for the act of translation. Imagine the journey that this slim book has made. First written by Markoosie Patsauq in the Inuktitut dialect, it was translated into French in 1969 as Le Harpon du Chasseur; then into English five years later as Harpoon of the Hunter. Last month Shikaryacha Bhala, the Marathi translation of the French was released by the French department of Mumbai University. Translated by Prof Jayant Shivram Dhupkar of the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, and guided by Prof Vidya Vencatesan of Mumbai University and Prof Daniel Chartier of the University of Quebec, the book brings to us one of the foundational legends of the Inuit people of Canada. For Markoosie it represents a fight to keep alive the memory of Inuit history that might soon be lost in the Inuit's politically enforced entry into mainstream Canadian culture. He says so in his preface: "Much of our oral history has been lost or no longer told by those who possess such knowledge of our past....This is a small part of our past. This is a story of my people."
Shikaryacha Bhala is in many ways a monumental story. Spare in detail, it raises the big questions about human existence. What in the end is the truth about human life? The answer is, our perpetual battle against nature for survival. In confronting this reality, Shikaryacha Bhala comes close to Hemingway's equally slim novel, The Old Man and the Sea. In Markoosie's novel, the threat doesn't come from sharks but from the polar bear, and the fight is equal. The bear's survival depends on hunting, and man is one of his foods. Man's survival depends on hunting, and the bear is one of his foods. The food that bear and man hunt in common is the seal which comes up through holes in the icy ocean for breath. Breath allows the seal to survive but not if either man or bear are patiently waiting beside the hole to kill and eat it.
Harpoon of the Hunter, the English translation of the novel, was published as a story for young adults, perhaps because of its young hero and his "adventures". Certainly an intelligent young adult would find it deeply absorbing. But so did I and so will readers of all ages, because it is a grippingly told story. In a sense, the first translation of the story was Markoosie's own, from the oral to the written form. It says much for his literary craft that he has not lost the economic simplicity of the original in the transition.
The novel is marked by evocative passages of description, like Kamik waking up to a vision of the northern lights, the aurora borealis. A short but vivid passage describes how a bear kills Kamik's father. Then there's the description of a hunter going berserk under the harsh brutality of the hunt. But what makes the narrative most effective is the way Markoosie entwines Kamik's story with the stories of his mother Ooramik and of the hunters who come to rescue him. At one point, Markoosie even enters the subjectivity of a bear, describing him as ambling along with nothing particular in mind except the usual, food, till he comes upon another bear who appears to have found himself some. What ensues is a fight unto death between the two animals, their roars tearing through the silence of the icy wasteland, till one is killed.
It is treasures like Shikaryacha Bhala that the act of translation gifts us, allowing our world to expand and embrace other worlds in a a truer way than does our piously intoned but rarely acted upon motto, vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
Published On : 17-02-2016