Bengali Posts

Women in Translation, Aug 2019

The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.

There is a thriving literary culture that has existed in the subcontinent for an exceptionally long time in all the regional languages. Of late many of these texts are being made available in English so as to be accessed by a larger readership. Sometimes new translations are commissioned such as Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard although a translation by Neelam Hussain of Simorgh Collective exists too.

Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.

Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.

The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.

Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.

The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.

Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.

While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.

Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:

…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.

There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.

The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!

18 September 2019

An interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakurni about “The Forest of Enchantment”

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni and I first met some years ago when I had to interview her at CMYK bookstore, Mehrchand market, New Delhi. Ever since then we have remained in touch and I have enjoyed reading and interviewing Chitra’s books published over the years. This time too I read The Forest of Enchantment and discovered that the book was unexpected. Given below is an extract from our email correspondence as a background to the interview that follows.

Dear Chitra,

It has been such a pleasure to read your latest novel, The Forest of Enchantment. It was unexpected too. Over the years you have raised readers expectations to create strong women. Women who learn to make choices while in the prime of life or later while reflecting upon their lives as they age. The reader is privy to the heroine’s inner thoughts and formulates for his/herself an image of a strong woman. In the long run perhaps these heroines offer a role model of behaviour to many of your readers. I do not know for certain but I am sure it does have an impact when a hugely successful author like yourself is read worldwide. This was obvious in what you did in Palace of Illusions too. As the author you had inserted yourself many times in the narrative (at least that is how I recall it) but allowed the heroine her ground too. To my mind that was the turning point in your writing. Surely and steadily your heroines through a combination of action and inner thought processes began to evolve and offer a new generation of readers a fresh new way of approaching life. More so when modern life is not so stable anymore and inevitably cuts across cultures and continents. Physical movements happen (a truth many women learn to accept as part of their life’s journey), so the experience of migration while traumatic itself is an experience that the woman has been “trained” from girlhood to foresee and brave. It will happen. It has to happen. At least for millions of those women who are taught in childhood that marriage is a social milestone they must cross. But it is the marital life that you excel in detailing, Chitra.

Then you create The Forest of Enchantment. In the first few pages I felt it was a writer’s treatise on how to approach a retelling of a well-established story. It is oh! so tricky “converting” an oral tradition into the written and fixed narrative on the printed page. Your opening pages are like the opening invocation to the powers-that-be before embarking on a spiritual journey or like a prayer seeking blessings before telling the story as you wish to. It is a story to make your own. It left me with a mixed bag of feelings. Your retelling of Sita’s story comes precisely a decade after your super bestseller about Draupadi, The Palace of Illusions. I was expecting a Sita more along the lines of Draupadi. Gently strong — a quality that one does tend to associate with the two women. And then you create a woman who at first glance comes across as compliant, ever humble and always giving of herself. Exemplary qualities for any individual to possess, irrespective of gender, but these are what Sita is classically associated with. You imbue your character Sita with them as well. The story crafted reiterates this at every step of the way. To read this novel immediately after the #MeToo movement as a reader in the modern age has a disquieting impact. Then I decided to read it from your perspective of writing it. I have no idea if that last sentence makes sense. I decided to drop all my expectations of this book based on your previous heroines and read trying to align myself with your meditative discipline of writing and focused attention to detail, hoping I will learn something new. Perhaps I did. Perhaps I did not. But what I did discover was that it is best to pay heed to Sita, feel to some degree what she experiences, and it is like coming to terms with the battering women get through life. They learn to make their choices but also compromise a lot in the long run for the peace of those around them especially their husbands. It is a conservative approach that many enlightened women may not agree with but at some levels I suspect I understand why you chose this option. Was it a conscious choice to capitulate to an acceptable version of Sita rather than challenge it any way as say Volga has done with her retellings? As I said in my opening remarks that The Forest of Enchantment was unexpected. Nevertheless, it did give my much to dwell upon for which I have to be ever grateful to you.

****

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s reply:

Thank you dear Jaya for reading so carefully and for your very thoughtful comments and questions. I have lots of answers. And also for your support of my work and your friendship from ever since we first met.

Fondly, Chitra

****

1.      Why did it take you so long to write about Sita considering you wrote about Draupadi a decade ago?

Sita is a very different character. Where D is flamboyant and direct and headlong in the way she fights injustice, and not above doing wrong things herself when overcome by anger and the desire for revenge, Sita is an old soul and much more complex in her approach to problems. I had to grow myself to understand her particular kind of strength, because I had grown up resisting her as an icon. But hers is the strength of endurance, of never giving up or giving in, no matter how few external choices are available. It is the strength that flourishes and makes space for itself even in the most hostile of environments–much like a tree that grows amidst rocks and stones. It does not stray from its principles. Together, D and S provide Indian women with two complementary ways of being strong and self-respecting in the world. Sita’s way may not seem as exciting at first, but upon reflection one realizes, I hope, that it is the way more suited to, and more doable, for most women–in India and in the world. Because often we, too, are struggling to thrive in unhospitable circumstances. And we, too, would like to be good human beings in the process.

 Sita isn’t defiant by nature, but when faced with dire situations she is perhaps stronger than Draupadi is. For centuries, patriarchy has chosen to interpret her quietness as meekness. I hope I’ve managed to show in my novel that it isn’t so. What is it but her inner strength, and her conviction, that prevents Ravan from harming her once she is in his power? What but her inner strength allows her to stand up to Ram and say that he cannot dictate how she will lead her life, even if he rejects her? She is the one who calls for the fire into which she walks at the end of the battle in Lanka. She is the one who pulls herself together when abandoned in the forest, to promise herself and her unborn sons that she will bring them up as the best of princes–and the best of men, who will know how women should be treated. She is the one who refuses to compromise and speaks her mind in the court of Ayodhya before she chooses to leave this mortal earth and the happiness of queenship, family, husband and children.  She does it because she has deeply-held values and stands up for them. And she does it without anger or vengefulness because she has come to realize that these are destructive–and ultimately useless–emotions. I don’t think Draupadi could have done it.

It took me ten years of contemplation to realize all this. 

2.      Why is the Bengali Krittibasi Ramayan from the fifteenth century your favourite? What are the elements in it that stand out for you as exceptional?

The Krittibasi Ramayan is much more interested in Sita’s inner life and gives us more of her thoughts than Valmiki. It portrays little intimate moments in her life.  It portrays Ravan as a more nuanced character. It also doesn’t shy away from depicting disquieting scenes like the mutilation of Surpanakha in a way that makes us question the act. I was attracted to all these things. 

3.      Did your crafting of your women protagonists drain or enrich you as the case maybe in understanding the character of Sita better?

The immediate writing is draining because it is so consuming. But ultimately, understanding my characters always enriches me. Certainly this is true of Sita’s character.

4.      Sita is beloved to many. Hindus consider her to be the epitome of an ideal woman.  As a result did the creation of her character for The Forests of Enchantment become a tough negotiating act for you? How do you retell a story that has been told for centuries and yet make it so much your own?

Yes, exactly these reasons made this a challenging book to write. As I read and re-read the Ramayana, I felt that we haven’t understood Sita properly. We’ve interpreted her actions in the way that patriarchy finds most useful. I tried to make the story my own by examining–and feeling–Sita’s motives. One simple instance: when she “follows” Ram to the forest, she is generally judged to be a “pativrata” who follows her husband wherever he might go. But really, when you look at the scene in both Valmiki and Krittibas, she is going against what all her elders are asking/telling her to do. Ram, Kaushalya–everyone–says, please stay in the palace. She says, “No. I want to be by the side of my beloved. I want to live the same life, experience the same adventures. I love him and refuse to be parted from him.” It is an action of great agency and rather romantic. So, ultimately, Sita is also very human. Another example: The things she says to Lakshman when she thinks Ram is in danger when he goes after the golden deer! The way she accuses him of desiring her!

5.      When do you stop reading past narratives and create your own?

When I feel they have missed something important. But in the case of our epics, it is important for me to stay with the original story line. Otherwise readers might (rightly) say, “You are just making up this story. It has nothing to do with the ‘real’ Sita.” It is also more challenging to transform the reader’s understanding of a character without changing much of anything external about her life and, instead, illuminating her thoughts and motives. This is why, although I really enjoy and admire writers such as Volga, I don’t want to write that kind of story.

6.      On p.2 of the novel Valmiki says “I wrote what the divine showed me.” Is this a sentiment that you share too with regard to your writings?

I truly believe I couldn’t write even one word without divine help. Like a flute that makes music only when the master musician blows into it. But sometimes the holes are blocked (ego? ignorance? lack of effort?) and the music doesn’t come out sounding so good. Then I have to rewrite!

7.      Will you record your own audio book of this story? If not who would you like to have as the voice actor?

No, I have no interest in doing that. Better to have a professional. I’d love to know who readers think would be a good narrator. 

8.      Over the years has your writing style changed as you tackled the crafting the inner self of your women characters?

Yes, it changes with each book. It has something to do with the subject matter and the narrator. I can’t really explain it. I spend a lot of time in the first chapter trying to find the book’s “voice.”

9.      How have your readers responded to the two books published exactly a decade apart but both dealing with the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics? Any noticeable shifts in readers responses to The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantment?  

Some readers like Draupadi better, some like Sita more. Many write to me that they have re-read Palace numerous times. But more (hundreds!) of women have written to me saying the story of Sita in Forest has made them weep and changed something deep in themselves. I am grateful for that. 

10.  Your fiction is known to explore the different aspects of love. Do you have a testament of love?

Forest is particularly focused on trying to make sense of the amazing and complicated emotion of love. I think my current understanding of love is what Sita realizes at the end of the novel: love and forgiveness have to go hand in hand. (This doesn’t mean that you will accept wrongdoing, only that you forgive the wrongdoer. In any case, I believe more and more than vengeance is a hugely harmful emotion). And that the best, truest love is between mothers and young children–because they want nothing except to make each other happy. 

10 July 2019

An extract from Snigdha Poonam’s “Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing Their World”

Today, 21 February, is International Mother Language Day as declared by the United Nations. In India the dialects and languages spoken change every 20 kms. India is a country of 22 official languages; and a total of 19,500 languages or dialects that are spoken in India as mother tongues — not all of them even have scripts. Around the world, the rural and villages’ folk societies have depended on the oral traditions for centuries for information dissemination from generations to generations. Interestingly, more than 55 per cent of all Web content is in English even though only around 20 per cent of the world’s population speaks English, and just five per cent of the world speaks English as their native language. ( Osama Manzar, “How a Script-Agnostic Media Can Empower The Illiterate“, News Central, 20 Feb 2019).

A conversation that happens over and over again in India is whether English is to be given importance or not. A few days ago in a passionate and well reasoned out Facebook post, Bengali Dalit writer, Manoranjan Byapari wrote saying that he did not quite agree with his fellow writer from Telengana, Kancha Ilaiah with regard to the status English was to be accorded. Apparently at a recent literary festival where the two writers had been invited to a panel discussion together, Kancha Ilaiah asserted that every Dalit should learn English. In fact he said English should be taught along with the regional language in primary school. Kancha Ilaiah’s rationale being that having written in English his books had been published worldwide and the issues he raised, given due hearing. Whereas Manoranjan Byapari disagreed saying that a Dalit is inevitably so impoverished that he is often wondering where his next meal will come from or worried about the roof over his head, he can be least bothered with English, a Gentleman’s language. So he was not in favour of the imposition of a foreign language along with the mother tongue in schools. Ironically Manoranjan Byapari’s original post was written in Bengali but was accessed, circulated and discussed once it had been translated into English by Arunava Sinha and shared on his Facebook wall.

This particular post of Manoranjan Byapari written in Bengali and translated in English has been shared many times. It has become the focus of many animated and fascinating conversations about languages, mother tongue and of course, English. While all the discussions have raised very valid points, it is perhaps advisable to familiarise oneself with the sentiments of the younger generation. Indians below 25 years old constitute nearly 50% of the population. Award-winning journalist Snigdha Poonam’s book Dreamers which profiles the twenty-year-olds in India’s small towns has a chapter entitled “The English Man”. It is about a former cowherd/milkman called Moin Khan who realises that English is the way ahead. At the age of seventeen he had never spoken or read English but a decade later he was conducting “coaching classes” to learn the language. Like Moin, there were many others of his generation, who have recognised the critical importance of learning English, it is the language of socio-economic and legal affairs. So knowing English is acquiring a value-added skill and will be the preferred language of communication as opposed to those who prefer to rely solely upon their mother tongue. And in order for a language to survive, it must be spoken, otherwise it will become endangered and finally die. But as Snigdha Poonam highlights in Dreamers English is rapidly perceived as the language of social aspiration and economic freedom and thus learned by the young adults.

Following is an extract from “English Man”, Dreamers ,quoted with permission of the publishers and author:

*****

English makes a side entry into this universe; all this coaching will come to naught if you can’t answer questions in English. If you are lucky, you can choose to write your answers in a regional language, but you can’t crack an interview in India without explaining to a suited man in English why you deserve the job. So for every five coaching institutes offering proficiency in maths or reasoning, there is one simply selling ‘Spoken English’. Or these days, just ‘Spoken’. And the people who ‘speak’ are ‘The Speaking People’.

That, at least, is what they are termed by the American Academy of Spoken English, a fast-growing chain of coaching centres seizing the market for upward mobility. It’s a branding brainwave the organization is visibly proud of. And going by the rate at which The American is spreading through the interiors of north India—from slums in Delhi to hilltops in Dehradun—the message seems to have worked. The American has four branches in Ranchi alone, the largest of which is suitably perched on Lalpur Road. A big red arrow indicates a turn off the main road. One day in March 2015, I took that left turn. Five youngsters were waiting in a queue at the reception, where a man not much older than them was taking a father and son through the rates for various ‘packages’. I could see his face on a newspaper clipping stuck to the wall behind him. Three youngsters were poring over a pamphlet on a sagging sofa in a corner, the only other piece of furniture. The anxiety level in the room was rising by the second. ‘What can I do for you?’ the man asked me when we came face to face. I asked him about the courses on offer. ‘Basic Communication, Personality Development, Group Discussion, Interview,’ he rattled off, each capital letter loaded with the weight of practice. ‘Why should I join The American?’ I asked him. ‘Because we believe that anyone can speak English.’ From this brief exchange we had in English, Moin Khan knew I wasn’t really there to learn spoken English. Crossing his arms on the table, he asked me what it was I actually wanted from him. I said I was there to understand spoken English as a tool for life improvement. I told him I wanted to attend a course in Basic Communication. We made a deal: He would let me attend his classes for spoken English if I paid the fee (`1800). ‘Come with me then,’ Khan motioned me out of the room and up a flight of stairs, ‘I have been teaching a new batch. It’s a good place for you to watch the process. People who join this course don’t know their ABC.’ What I had to do at my end of the deal was to keep my mouth shut in class.

* * *

Moin Khan didn’t know his ABC himself until ten years ago. He was seventeen years old when he heard about the free English class. He remembers where he was at that point: in the village market, selling balloons. He hadn’t spent much time in a classroom. His family’s income came from their two cows; from the time he could handle a pail, Khan spent most of the day delivering milk from one doorstep to another. In the evenings, he spread a sheet on a pavement and sold things—‘firewood, toys, anything.’ Not in a position to waste precious daylight in a classroom, Khan enrolled in a local college where he had to show up once a year—to sit for the annual exam. He knew a few things for sure: that he would have an undergraduate degree in arts at the end of the three years; and that he had no idea what he was going to do with it. He knew that people could become rich and powerful through education; and also that he didn’t have that option. Moin Khan could neither become a software engineer and join the new elite, nor enter the administrative service and join the old. His father didn’t have the money to hand that Vinay Singhal’s had, which allowed access to a coaching centre in Delhi—or even to one on Lalpur Road.

But there was one respectable job he could land without taking an entrance examination—at a call centre. It was the ultimate cheat’s guide to the white-collar world. All he needed to do to get in was speak English. Not the English of English literature or that of official project reports, but a cut-price version called, simply, Spoken English. It required of its user barely the ability to speak a set of sentences to get through basic communication in a globalizing India. Spoken English was going to be the operative language of the new India, the currency of communication at ‘multi-cuisine restobars’, shopping malls, airport check-ins.

21 February 2019

Extract from “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution”

The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury is an interesting tribute to a short lived but intense literary movement in West Bengal that has left an lasting impact around the world. Their well documented relationship with the Beats poet is also analysed in The Hungryalists. This book will become one of the go-to reads on The Hungryalists precisely for the very reason that little documentation of the movement exists in English as these poets mostly wrote in Bengali. So to transcend languages and cultures requires a bridging language which is English.

The Hungryalist or the hungry generation movement was a literary movement in Bengali that was launched in 1961, by a group of young Bengali poets. It was spearheaded by the famous Hungryalist quartet — Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. They had coined Hungryalism from the word ‘Hungry’ used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poetic line “in the sowre hungry tyme”. The central theme of the movement was Oswald Spengler’s idea of History, that an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food. . . . The movement was joined by other young poets like Utpal Kumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Falguni Roy, Tridib Mitra and many more. Their poetry spoke the displaced people and also contained huge resentment towards the government as well as profanity. … On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The court case went on for years, which drew attention worldwide. Poets like Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Malay Roychoudhury. The Hungryalist movement also influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu & Urdu literature. ( “The Hungryalist Movement: When People Took Their Fight Against The Government” Md Imtiaz, The Logical Indian, 29 June 2016)

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With the permission of the publisher here are two short extracts from the book:

Like everywhere else, the shadow of caste hung over the burning ghats as well. There were different burning sections for different castes. The Indian poets accompanying Ginsberg were usually Brahmins. Being there and smoking up was in itself an act of defiance, which normally nobody but the tantrics indulged in. Sunil, who had brought in his dead father here not too long ago, even joked about the place. Later, Ginsberg would go on to write:

I lay in my Calcutta bed, eye fixed

On the green shutters in the wall, crude

Wood that might have been windows

in your Cottage, with a rusty nail

and a ring iron at the hand

To open on heaven. A whitewashed

Wall, the murmur of sidewalk sleepers,

the burning ghat’s sick rose flaring

like matchsticks miles away, my cough

from flu and too many cigarettes,

prophet Ramakrishna banning

the bowels and desires—

War was on everyone’s mind. Ginsberg spoke extensively on what he called the ‘era of wars’. ‘There are as many different wars as the very nature of these wars,’ he had told his fellow poets. Following the death of Stalin and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an uneven calm seemed to have descended, only to be followed by skirmishes here and there. Issues of sovereignty dominated East and West Germany; the Kurds and Iraq were at loggerheads; closer home, the Tibetans were, of course, still struggling to ward off the Chinese invasion of their lands.

Without much ado, Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky and Fakir, arrived one Sunday at the Coffee House looking for Bengali poets. The cafe was abuzz with writers, editors and journalists. Each group had a different table—some had joined two or more tables and brought together different conversations on one plate. But somehow, everyone seemed to have an inchoate understanding of the business of war and what it spelled out for them in the end.

Ginsberg’s arrival was something of a coincidence, Samir mused. Contrary to what one would think was a far-fetched reality, especially in bourgeois Calcutta, a significant number of young Indian students had around that time begun applying for undergraduate courses in American colleges and universities. Times had fundamentally changed, of course. Where once an aspiring middle-class Bengali academic might have chosen to pursue his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge or some university in the Soviet Union, the new mindset now included American universities as the next lucrative biggie to venture forth into. Typically, one would hear snide remarks and private jokes about it in inner circles—about the disloyalty apparent in such choices and more. But those with aspirational values had learnt to live with it, was Malay’s understanding.

Even amid the erratic crowd and the loud voices that drowned everything in coffee, Ginsberg commanded attention. Samir had recalled to Malay:

He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer. Much later, we came to know that there had been suspicions about him being a CIA agent, an accusation he was able to disprove. In the end, we just warmed up to him, even liked him. He became one of us—a fagging, crazy, city poet with no direction or end in sight.

All around the Coffee House, there were discussions on war. Would the Chinese Army march up to Calcutta? Would the Indian soldiers hold out? During one of these discussions, Ginsberg spoke with conviction: ‘People who want peace must intervene now, before it’s too late. But, no one will, I’m afraid. Let’s have debates if you will, let’s get talking. Let the Nehrus, the Maos and the Kennedys of this world come together, sit across and talk. Who are we without a debate?’

******

Very early on, the Hungryalists had announced, rather brashly, their lack of faith and what they thought of god. To them religion was an utter waste of time, and they made no bones about this. In fact, in one of their bulletins, they had openly denounced god and called organized religion nonsense. Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.

*****

A tribute to the Hungryalist movement was uploaded on YouTube. It is in Bengali. Here is the film. In the comments Malay RoyChoudhury has also replied.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 190 Rs 599

Further Reading:

Ankan Kazi “Open Wounds: The contested legacy of the Hungry Generation” Caravan, 1 October 2018

Juliet Reynolds “Art, the Hungryalists, and the Beats” Cafe Dissensus, 16 June 2016

A new book chronicles the radically iconoclastic movement in Bengali poetry in the 1960s” Scroll, 8 Jan 2019

Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu’s intervention on copyright at Jaipur BookMark, Jan 2019

Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, was invited by Neeta Gupta, Founder, Jaipur BookMark, to participate in the JBM Copyright Roundtable.T

 It was held at Diggi Palace and the keynote was delivered by Michael Healy. The other participants were Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Alind Maheshwari, Arpita Das, Claudia Kaiser, Kannan Sundaram, Maggie Doyle, Michael Healy, Phillipa McGuinness, Prashasti Rastogi, Safir Anand and Urvashi Butalia, moderated by Naveen Kishore.

The cue given to the panelists by JBM was: Copyright underpins everything we do as an industry and without it all opportunities quickly recede. The principle of copyright is threatened at a global level and to a degree we have never seen before. This is true in India as it is in many countries. This session is a call to publishers, literary agents, rights managers, lawyers, authors and international book fair organisers for the protection of copyright.

Kannan Sundaram gave a short speech putting forth the concept of nationalising prominent Indian writer’s works rather than restricting them to a copyright life arguing that this had been done for Tamil poet Subramania Bharathy. Whereas in the case of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore the copyright period had been extended by a decade so that Visva-Bharathi University, the main benefactors of Tagore’s literary estate could continue to earn royalities for a few more years.

Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu

Here is the complete text of Kannan’s speech delivered at Jaipur BookMark. It has been published with permission.

****

Thank you JBM, Neeta Gupta for this opportunity to share my views.

I will be making a few remarks on copyright issues in Indian languages in general and Tamil in particular.

The premise of this panel that copyright is facing a threat in contemporary times is not entirely true of many Indian languages. I would not generalize the publishing context of all Indian languages. Every Indian language publishing has its own eco system. However, in most languages the adherence to copyright has never been strong.

I know that Malayalam market is an exception. There could be other languages where copyright is adhered to but that is not the overall picture of Indian language publishing. In Tamil copyright has been an option not a rule. It may have been extended to popular authors, authors who would fight it out, but not to most authors who had no clear understanding of copyright acts. In Tamil publishing adherence to copyright regulations is improving only now. Writers are fighting back using social media and prime time debates in television on copyright are happening. And there are publishers who appear on TV and argue why they cannot pay royalty!

While copy left is an idea and an aspiration for many in the world, in the state of Tamil Nadu it has been practiced legally in some instances for some decades now. This is a practice that is unique to the state of TN. So we have had an opportunity to access copy left in practice.

For over 60 years now the government of Tamil Nadu purchases copyright of an author by paying a lump sum money to the copyright holder and then puts it out in the public domain. This process is referred to as ‘nationalization’.

 This practice was initiated after a controversy surrounding the rights of our national poet Mahakavi Subramania Bharathy. Responding to public demand that no one can own the rights of a poet who was perceived as belonging to the people, first the Tamil Nadu government bought the rights of Bharathy’s works in 1949. Then in the mid-fifties it was nationalized, that is gifted to the people. (If you want read this story I recommend the book ‘Who owns the Song?’ by A.R. Venkatachalapathy).

I would like to quickly compare this to the story of a nationally treasured writer Rabindranath Tagore. Visva-Bharathi University had an iron clad hold over Tagore’s copyright through the term and then succeeded on extending copyright for 10 years!

Following up on the new tradition established for Bharathy, various Tamil Nadu governments over the years have nationalized the works of over 130 writers. It started as a trickle and then became a sludge. When any of the governments in India decide to patronize culture, it usually starts well but the rot quickly sets in and then it typically goes to the dogs. What started as a process of national honour to outstanding personalities of Tamil literature has now gotten entangled in nepotism, patronage and corruption. I would not be able to recognize the names of a quarter of the nationalized writers!

What are the pros and cons of this nationalization process?

Most Tamil writers do not bother to assign copyright when they create a will for their belongings and property. It not valued by them or their families since it typically brings in little money. Therefore, posthumously it often becomes complicated for any publisher that wants to publish them. Nationalising a writer’s works clearly this all up nicely. The family gets some money and the publishers are free to publish the works. This as far as I can see is the only pro of this process. The honour is not there anymore since writers are nationalized with little discrimination.

The cons are many.

  1. If it is a bestselling author, there is a price war between publishers undercutting quality of the books published drastically.
  2. Most of the books of authors that have been nationalized remain out of print. This obviously is because their works are not valued turning the process of nationalizing their works irrelevant. Also if the author is a slow and steady selling, thena publisher with exclusive rights might do limited editions but when there exists the possibility that somebody else too might publish it and eat into the limited market, then there is little initiative to publish it.
  3. When copyright goes, no one exerts moral rights of work. This may not be the legal position but that is how it works in practice. This means publishers take liberties with the text. They feel free to edit, delete, change, condense and adapt the text in any way they like.

One publisher who publishes only nationalized books dedicates all the books to his mother. After sometime this publisher realized that the readers do not understand that he is dedicating all the books to his mother but wrongly assume that all writers are dedicating their books to their own mothers. So now the dedications are accompanied by photographs of his mother! A very commendable sentiment but ethics of it is debatable. Since no one can represent a nationalized book or can sign a contract, essentially any possibility of translation becomes very slim.

Thank you!

3 Feb 2019

French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains: An interview with the ambassador about plans for translations of French literature into Indian languages and collaborations at books fairs.

I interviewed the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. The interview has been published in the online news portal Scroll. The text of the interview has been c&p below while the original url is here.

What’s brewing between Indian and French publishing? French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler explains
The Ambassador of France to India, Alexandre Ziegler at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019.

Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year to announce the winner of the 2019 Romain Rolland Book Prize. Recognising the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English, the Indo-French jury takes into account the quality of the translation and the publication itself while selecting the winner.

The award comes with an invitation to the Paris Book Fair 2019 in March for the publisher of the work and an invitation for the translator to attend a one-month residency in France.

This year, the longlist included essays as well as fiction and a very strong contribution from Indian languages apart from English, with four translations into Malayalam, two into Hindi, and one each into Tamil and Bengali. The winning title was The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, published in France by Le Seuil, in India by Kalachuvadu, translated into Tamil by SR Kichenamourty.

Publisher Kannan Sunadaran, Kalachuvadu. Jury member Chinmoy Guha with R. Cheran, poet.
Jury members Annie Montaud, Renuka George, Michèle Albaret

The Romain Rolland Book Prize is just one of the actions of the French Institute in India to support translations of French books in India. It runs the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme and also launched a special training programme for translators this year. The first step was a one-day translation workshop focused on Indian regional languages, which took place on January 22 at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and brought together more than 60 participants from various universities in Delhi. Ros Schwartz, the acclaimed translator, conducted the workshop. The long-term translation programme is part of the roadmap leading up to, on the one hand, the Paris Book Fair 2020, where India will be the focus country, and on the other, the New Delhi Book Fair 2022, where France will be the guest of honour.

Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, 25 January 2019

Ziegler, who has been the Ambassador of France to India since 2016, spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival about these initiatives. Edited excerpts:

Why was the Romain Rolland Prize instituted and what is its main focus? Does France have similar prizes in other countries too?
The Romain Rolland Book Prize is a translation prize that aims to support publishers and translators involved in the translation of French titles into Indian languages. The purpose is to find the best book and to be able to negotiate for it on best possible terms while also promoting texts in translation. My feeling is that we speak about strategic and economic partnerships, of which both are growing well but we still have to invest more in culture.

In this age of machine translations, we often forget the human touch of a translator is critical. Translators are at the very core of the relationship between books and the world. What we have realised through our interventions is that it is not just texts in English and Hindi but we got very good texts from other languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, too. It makes one realise that languages are very crucial to reaching out to other cultures, not necessarily in entire diversity of language. This is very reassuring for us.

The second Romain Rolland Book Prize is being awarded because of the quality of text. Creating the prize happened organically through the ongoing Tagore programme to recognise translations. We wanted to reinforce the initiative. As a result we are also co-organising a translations workshop with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first one happened in January with acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz.

France has an active book trade, bookstores and book fairs. How receptive are the French to literature from India? Recently you released Over & Underground, a joint production between French and Indian writers and illustrators. How successful are such literary experiments? Does the cross-pollination of such cultural experiences help foster bilateral relationships, not necessarily confined to the literary domain?
Translation of the work of Indian authors in France has experienced several waves. Today there is a renewed interest among the French public for Indian authors. The dynamism of Indian publishing, its diversity and India’s international outreach have created a new curiosity for India and its authors and thinkers. The example of Over & Underground shows the combination of creativity between Indian and French authors, poets and illustrators. These co-publications need to be further encouraged and that is what we are working on.

Cross pollination of cultural experiences is exactly what we strive for to strengthen the ties between India and France. Books and other expressions of cultural diplomacy are a significant part of fostering bilateral relations.

What is the size of the French book market ? What are its characteristic features such as which genre sells the most, are print books preferred to ebooks, what is its growth rate etc? Is digital publishing making inroads with French readers?
The French publishing market is worth 4 billion euros, 300 million of which is in e-books. Overall, the French reader prefers printed books but there is a real growth in e-books. For consumer books, it represents only 3% of the market but for the B2B and books on law or medicine, this market reaches 9% with an annual growth of 10%. The e-book is also directly linked to the presence or absence of bookstores. E-books sell better where bookstores are not available.

The time of traditional reading has decreased but a recent survey conducted in November 2018 shows that 69% of the French population is connected: they read online but not necessarily literature! Each day, the French spend an average of 33 minutes on a computer and 52 minutes on a mobile phone. Reading is therefore omnipresent on other platforms but basically there is an attachment to the printed book in France: an average 5000 copies are printed but real successes vary between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. This is the case of [Michel] Houellebecq’s latest book, which will reach 400,000 copies. The trend is also to publish more titles each year. The number of prints is hence lower today than it was ten years ago.

France is known for its robust independent booksellers. Globally independent bookstores are finding it difficult to thrive but not necessarily in France. It is a remarkable success story. Do you have any interesting case study/report to share about how these independent bookstores have managed to continue?
There are about 1,000 independent bookstores in France. All those located in city centres are working well with an annual growth rate of 0.8%. This is a stable figure. Since 1981, the single price of the book has also allowed these bookstores to diversify. 37 countries, including 11 European countries, are currently applying the single price on books.

Recently the French Book Office (FBO) participated in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). What was the response from the locals to your participation? Did the FBO gain significant learnings from its presence at the fair? 
The French Institute in India invited four publishers of children’s literature and social sciences, and organised four professional panels. The exchanges between Indian and French publishers were very constructive but the NDWBF is not the ideal place for professional meetings. On the other hand, the invitation of a French author whose work has been translated in India and invited for a dialogue with an Indian author would allow exchanges with a wider audience. But our four publishers were very satisfied with their discovery of the Indian market and the prospects for collaboration in social sciences and children’s literature.

In 2003 I attended the Salon de livre Jeunesse at the invitation of the French government. It was extraordinary to see the throngs of children attending the book fair and buying books. I would be curious to know if the children’s book fair continues to be as popular. If so what are the kinds of books for children and young adults that are trending in France? Would you consider collaborating on projects for children’s and young adult literature with Indian publishers?
The Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse in Montreuil attracts a large number of visitors each year. In 2018, for the 34th edition, there were no less than 179,000 visitors in 6 days, 4,000 more than in 2017. So I think we can say that children’s publishing is a booming sector in France. The dynamism of publishers and all those involved in books and reading contributes greatly to this success. Access to the fair was free for a good number of visitors and it is a real desire for cultural democratisation. As well as the multitude of actions that take place throughout the country and throughout the year around reading: meetings, workshops, debates, readings, competitions, prizes, etc.

Children’s literature in France is a market that knows how to renew itself, to question itself and, finally, to innovate. Thus, the early childhood segment develops real nuggets with sounds and materials to touch. The album is full of creativity with an incredible diversity of illustrators. The documentary is now close to coffee-table books by offering books that appeal to adults and children alike, whose aesthetics are so neat that it gives one pleasure to open and read them. As for fiction, from its first readings to “young adult” literature, publishers are increasingly perfecting their skills by offering books of high quality, covering all the themes that may interest young readers.

Would you consider instituting a prize similar to the Romain Rolland Book Prize for children’s literature as well?
We are in fact planning to consider children’s books as potential winners of the Romain Rolland Prize. This will be discussed in Jaipur with the jury members.

How well are translations of world literature received in France? How have you fostered and continue to manage a cross-pollination of literary traditions in France and India?
The French market is also influenced by Dan Brown and other Anglo-Saxon authors. But the phenomena of great success such as Elena Ferrante (Italian) or Arundhati Roy also shows that the French readership is open to world literature beyond Anglo-Saxons. This is why we believe that Indian authors have their rightful place in the French market.

Do you have any details that may be shared publicly of a road map planned for the 2020 Paris Book Fair where India is the guest of honour? What are the significant features of such an extraordinary event?
We are hoping to select many writers including children’s and young adult writers, across genres, as well as initiating new translations. We do not want only established writers to be invited to the festival. We would prefer to have a range of outreach programmes too. For instance, conferences, debates, collaborations with libraries, bookstores, universities etc.

What are the events planned at the 2020 Paris Book Fair? Anything exciting that the Indian publishers and readers should be aware of?
The Syndicat National de l’Edition and the National Book Trust have just signed the partnership agreement on 22 January 2019 for Livre Paris 2020. This book fair is a meeting place for the French public and Indian authors. We would like to organise panel discussions between French and Indian authors. For example we could have our two Nobel Prize winners in Economics enter into a dialogue. We also wish to encourage translation of Indian authors who have not yet been translated into French in order to introduce the French public to new young authors from all over the Indian Union. We also hope that this meeting will foster professional exchanges between Indian and French publishers. Several steps are planned. Pre-meetings in March 2019, a breakfast networking at Frankfurt between French and Indian publishers; invitation of French publishers to Jaipur 2020 and a professional training session on publishing that we would like to organise in India at the beginning of 2020. Not to mention the translation training programme that we recently launched with Jawaharlal Nehru University.

3 February 2019

An extract from Manoranjan Byapari’s memoir: “Making a bomb”

Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.

Here is an extract from the book describing the time he made a bomb. This is being published with the permission of the publishers.

*********

Next morning, after our breakfast of parched rice, onions and chillies, Ahbali looked at me and said, ‘It’s your responsibility now. The powder is ready for the bombs. Tie up as many as you can.’

I stared at Ahbali in amazement. How had he known that I could tie bombs? Had I told Meghnad at some time? And then he had told Ahbali? I looked at the raw materials brought in and, making a quick calculation, I said, ‘This should make about twenty, I think. But how will I make so many alone?’

‘There is nobody else here who can do this,’ he said in a pleading voice. ‘You must try and do it. This is a job that will need bombs. We could have two thousand flies buzzing around us. The sound of the bombs will help to keep them away.’

I said, ‘But you told me the man was a scoundrel. Why should others come to help him?’

‘He is a scoundrel,’ replied Ahbali. ‘And they will not come to help. But we have seen, the richer the person, the more powerful the person, the more the people who surround them. Once we reach there, though, all of these people will vanish. They will stand at a distance and shout. At the most they will throw a few stones. We have seen this time and again. But it will not do to be too confident and go unprepared. We have to be careful. I have brought about fifty cartridges. With these twenty bombs, we can handle five thousand people.’ He paused for some time and said, ‘I have made a recce of the place. If we can just collect the jewellery worn by the women, it will add up to about a kilo.’

Bhuto’s sister had prepared the powder and Bhuto had sieved it through a piece torn from a mosquito net. Bhuto’s wife had neatly laid out a seat for me in a corner of the stable. Not just Bhuto’s family, but the whole village was now pushing towards a single yearned for goal. They had just had dedicated their minds, their hearts, their bodies to a dream. None of them knew anything about politics. Political philosophy and political theory about villages surrounding the city and the need to destroy class enemies were unknown to them. But they did know that they wanted to kill those who had stripped their women and brutalized them. In some sense, their desire appeared to me to be similar to that of the Naxals.

No hesitation or indecision clouded my mind any longer. If it were a sin to help so many people concretize their dream of revenge, so be it. I was willing to commit this sin again and again. I sat down to the job with a crowd of villagers standing or perched on the haystack as my audience, mixing the seemingly harmless reddish and white powders to construct a deadly instrument, one that when hurled at the enemy, would tear their bodies apart with a thunderous sound. In a large enamelled plate, I mixed the powders together with shards of glass, tiny sticks from fishing nets and iron ball bearings. As they watched me at my job, I could sense their intoxication mounting. Will kill them all. They have a lot to answer for. All I had taken was a bunch of bananas, and they beat me for a whole day. And then threw me in jail. I rotted there for two years. My wife ran away unable to bear the hunger. Will get them now.

Livid with anger, he struck a match to light a bidi. He did not get to the bidi. A spark flew onto the plate before me. There was an ear-splitting sound, and a huge ball of fire went up in billowing white smoke. The thatched roof of the stable was engulfed in blazing flames and splinters flew. Some who had been sitting on the haystack watching me were hurt. Their hurt was slight but people panicked and tried to rush out. The bomb that I had been holding in my hand fell to the ground and exploded. If the seven prepared bombs lined up at a distance caught fire, the blast would destroy all. There was complete pandemonium.

I managed to run out with difficulty and collapsed outside the stable. My right side which had been near the plate was charred. Burnt skin hung from my face and my hands and, peeping through the burnt skin, white as egg in colour, was my flesh. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder hit my nostrils.

Hearing the sound of the explosion and the shouts, Bhuto, Meghnad and Ahbali rushed out of the house. I was thrashing about on the ground, screaming in pain. But they had no time to tend to me right then. They rushed for water with whatever they could lay their hands on. Thankfully, the pond was right next to the stable. The fire was controlled before it spread any further. They picked me up then and lay me on a mat inside the house. Someone shouted for alcohol to be brought. They held it to my lips, ‘Drink. The pain will subside.’ I gulped down a large mugful of country liquor. The pain did subside, for within ten minutes, I lost consciousness.

Manoranjan Byapari  Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit (Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550 

World Book Fair, 6-14 January 2018

Ever since the World Book Fair moved to January instead of the second week of February there has been a tremendous growth in the number of visitors. Year-on-year there are long queues of people waiting patiently to enter the enter the fair grounds at Pragati Maidan. This year the fair was held in only a small area of the exhibition grounds as much of Pragati Maidan has been demolished. It will be a few years before the new buildings are built. Meanwhile the publishers were placed in some halls and tents. The visitors to the fair walked alongside workers in hard hats and enormous Caterpillar diggers shovelling earth to create mountains taller than the exhibition halls. There were potholes in the roads and a general mess everywhere. Yet it did not seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm to buy books. As in previous years there were buyers trailing suitcases on wheels to pack in the books they would buy. In fact a senior publisher I met during the fair said that the shift to January has been a boon for them as their sales grow better and better with every year.

The World Book Fair is organised by the National Book Trust. It began in the early 1970s when it was a bi-annual affair before being made an annual feature. It began with the intention of making books accessible and popularising reading. Over the years it has slowly acquired some characteristics of a trade fair with its specific B2B meetings, a Rights Table, panel discussions, an increasing number of international visitors etc. This year the guest of honour was the European Union. The business collaborations that happen unexpectedly at the fair are incredible. Such as this of third-generation publisher Raphael Israel. An Indian Jew who met his Palestinian clients at the fair couple of years. It is now one of the happiest business relationships! 

Yet at the heart of it the book fair remains a B2C fair with visitors coming from around the country to buy books. In India there are bookshops but not enough to cater to the vast multi-lingual population. The presence of online retailers over the past few years has helped foster the reading habit among many especially in tier-2 and tier-3 towns. This was a sentiment expressed by many publishers participating in the fair. This time there were definitely larger number of customers many of whom were browsing through the shelves to discover more for themselves. While browsing online is convenient and helpful, algorithm driven searches do not necessarily help in discovering a variety of books for the readers. This is where the display cases at fairs and bookshops help tremendously.

There were visitors of all ages and even people using walking sticks or in wheel chairs braving the potholes and dust swirling around. It did help greatly that the winter break of schools had been extended due to the excessive chill. So families came to spend their day at the book fair, browsing, buying and having a picnic. Surprisingly the crowds came even during the designated business hours so that by the afternoon it was impossible to walk through the crush of people. Over the weekends the crowds were incredible. Publishers of children’s and young adult literature were delighted with the response. Sales were unprecedented for many whereas others managed to break even. Comments such as this were often overheard: Child telling parent “Don’t say you will buy the book online. Buy it now!” Sales of the trade and academic publishers were brisk as well but some reported poorer sales than last year citing the poor location as the major reason for lack of visitors. The Hindi publishers were satisfied with the response with some saying that the usual growth of sales of 15-20% which is commensurate with the growth of their publishing y-o-y was evident. Interestingly enough this year there was a significant presence of self-publishers. Sadly though this year there was a very low turnout of Indian regional language publishers. Curiously enough the stalls of the few who participated such as the Bengali, Marathi and Urdu publishers, their signboards were written in Hindi!

This was the first time that audio books made their presence felt. For example, the Swedish firm Storytel is partnering with publishers in Hindi, English and Marathi. An audio tower had been placed in the stall of Hindi publishers, Rajkamal Prakashan, where 60 audio books could be sampled. Apart from this there was evidence of newcomers who had put up stalls showcasing their storytelling websites/apps/storycards that had a digital audio version too. These were individual efforts. It was also rumoured that other bigger players could be expected to make an entrance into the Indian publishing ecosystem. Perhaps they will announce their presence at the next world book fair, January 2019?

Undoubtedly the local book market is growing as there are still many first generation buyers of books in India. Despite the vast variety of books on display it was the backlist of most publishers which was moving rapidly. Pan Macmillan India for instance had a corner dedicated to their Macmillan Classics that were very popular. Interestingly the branded authors such as Enid Blyton, Bear Grylls and J. K. Rowling had entire shelves dedicated to their works. At a time when most authors are jostling for space to be seen and heard, these generous displays by publishers for a single author were a testimony to the significance and influence they wield with readers. Obviously the long tail of backlists are good business. Repro is collaborating with Ingram to offer Print On Demand ( POD) services. These work well for those with significant backlists that need to be kept alive for customers but to avoid excessive warehousing costs and tying up cash in stock, it is best to offer POD services to customers. The demand for  a backlist title of a specific publishing house is fulfilled by vendors who use the marketplaces offered by online retailers. The cost of the title purchased is higher than if it had been part of a print run but this arrangement works favourably for everyone concerned.

While browsing through the bookshelves it was not uncommon to notice readers either standing absorbed in reading or sitting peacefully crosslegged on the floor reading through the books they had shortlisted. What was remarkable was how serenely they sat despite the crowds milling around them. If there were displays on tables as at the DK India stall and the regional language stalls, people were standing and reading calmly.

 

Happily a large number of younger customers thronged the fair and buying. Even though some publishers said that few people haggled for discounts the crowds at the secondhand and remaindered stalls had to be seen. There was such a melee. Books were being sold for as little as 3 for Rs 100! While publishers were not amused at the presence of these remaindered stalls doing brisk business, customers were delighted that for a small amount of money they could buy a pile of books.

All said and done it was a satisfying book fair. Hats off to the National Book Trust team for running it so smoothly and efficiently every year!

 

30 January 2018 

 

 

 

Interview with Sugata Ghosh on OUP India’s Indian Language Publishing programme

I interviewed Sugata Ghosh, Director, Global Academic Publishing, Oxford University Press on their newly launched Indian Languages Publishing Programme.

Please tell me more newly launched Indian Language Publishing programme? Who is the target audience — academics or general readers? How many titles / year will you consider publishing? 

The Indian Languages Publishing Programme was initiated with OUP’s desire to expand its product offerings to an audience whose primary language is not English. OUP’s existence in India as an established academic press spans more than 100 years. In this long span of its existence it has published a pool of formidable authors and widely acclaimed academic and knowledge-based resources. Our only limitation in a diverse country such as ourselves was language –– though we have been doing the dictionaries and in other Indian languages. In a glocalized world however, limiting ourselves is not an option. As readers change, so should publishers. The increasing demand for resources in Indian languages is not so new; the changing economic and socio-political climate has long been the harbinger of this change. Today we are only heeding its call by beginning publications in these languages. In the first phase of the programme, we have shortlisted two major Indian languages Hindi and Bengali, and a basket of our classics for translation into Hindi and Bengali. We aim to hit the market with 12 such titles by January of 2018. Our target is around 15-20 titles per year to begin with.

Does this imply it is a separate editorial team? Will you have in-house translators? Over time will the list expand to include contemporary stories from regional languages?

We currently do not have any extra resource helping us with the programme. We plan to have new editorial members for both the languages, they will be on board by next year, depending on how well the programme takes off. We do not plan to have in-house translators. We are only working with freelancers and individuals and plan to do so in the future. We might collaborate with other publishers to help seek translators and develop the translation programme further. We have no plans of expanding into fiction at the moment. We are sticking to non-fiction, academic, and general interest titles.

The first phase is of course translation heavy as we begin to establish ourselves in the market, however, there are new acquisitions currently underway for the coming years. As the programme develops, a healthy mix of translations and new books in Indian languages will be made available in both print and digital formats. While beginning with these two languages were accessible, given our resources, our long-term plan is to venture into new Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi etc. For now we are  taking one step at a time to build this programme with the mature languages. When the time comes to include new languages, we will do so.

Our core audience remain the same as our English language books, mostly students, teachers, scholars, researchers, civil society activists, think tanks, as well as general readers. While researching the market for Hindi and Bengali books, we realized that reading habits differ from one to the other. While the Hindi heartland is more inclined towards reading books that are lucidly written around a given issue, free from academic jargon, Bengali readers are more accustomed to reading academic titles spanning multiple disciplines.

Our publication lists will be tailor made to suit its respective audience. To customise specific language lists we will select titles for each market on the basis of the theme of the book, its appeal to readers in the respective language, style of translation, etc. Also, as our books start selling from next calendar year, we will begin accumulating and analyzing appropriate sales data. This data will help us understand what we are doing right and what not – in some ways at least. We will accordingly make decisions on the titles we are doing for each group.

However, we are always ready to experiment and jazz things up a little if the need be. It is in the themes, topics, subjects etc. of the books we will publish and the forms with which we will experiment.

What is the focus of the Oxford Global Languages project and how long has it been running?

The Oxford Global Languages (OGL) project aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available online. The OGL programme targets learners of all age groups. In short, it is a digital dictionary of diverse languages. OGL is part of OUP’s core publication programme –   the programme aims to build lexical resources for 100 of the world’s languages and make them available wildly, digitally. It includes curating large quantities of quality lexical information for a wide range of languages in a single, linked repository for use by speakers, learners, and developers. This project began in 2014 and launched its first two language sites, isiZulu and Northern Sotho, in 2015, followed by Malay, Urdu, Setswana, Indonesian, Romanian, Latvian, Hindi, and Swahili. Many more will be added over the next few years.

How are these two programmes linked as well as maintain their distinct identities?

The global languages programme is aimed at building large lexical repositories for diverse language speakers across the world. Our programme will feed into this programme by helping coin new terms and as well as borrow terms from the resources that would have already been developed and stored in these repositories by experts in different languages. The two programmes thus seamlessly merge into each other as they together help develop a given language. We expect that these two projects would also help multiple stakeholders, for instance, translators, new authors, students, researchers, speakers, etc. in constantly enriching their reading and writing skills.

 

The new terms will be initially in Hindi and Bengali (such as say post-modern, ecology etc. ) that are being coined by translators or new authors, over time with frequent use, will get incorporated in dictionaries such as OGL as well as borrow terms from the resources. Similarly, terms that will be developed by OGL could be borrowed by translators or new authors in their works.

OUP India for many years ran a very successful translations programme that published regional language authors in to English such as Karukku and then the monographs (?). How will this newly launched programme be any different? What are the learnings from the previous programme which are going to be incorporated into this new launch?

The existing translations programme from Indian Languages to English was aimed at enriching the English speaking and reading world with the diversity in our regional literature. This programme translates works of fiction and non-fiction from diverse languages to English and it has been immensely successful in creatively rethinking our societies through exceptional works of regional and folk literature.  We will not create any new imprint, all books in all languages will be included under the Oxford banner.

The Indian languages publishing programme does not aim to publish fiction or poetry at all. It will only publish non-fiction/academic works both in translation and new works in Indian languages. Our core and traditional strength has been — academic, nonfiction and general reads titles, also a bit of translations into English. This is a mandate that we follow in every part of the Press, globally – and we do not see any change during the immediate future. We will definitely do books on Film studies, yet again only non-fiction titles.

The take away from the earlier programme is that translations are always tricky business. Translations of academic titles are tricky for multiple reasons, including:

  • Unlike English, formal writing styles for Hindi and Bengali are still being developed.
  • Lack of terms for new concepts in Indian Languages.
  • Essence of the original is at times lost in translation, retaining authenticity is tricky.

It is true that some things are always lost in translation, there is no way around it. We are trying to compensate this loss by rigorously reviewing our manuscripts by external peer reviewers —- scholars, academics, researchers, journalists, translators, who are well versed in English and Hindi or English and Bengali, with background knowledge in the disciplines of the books they are reviewing.

Such reviews are helping us develop the language further, making it lucid, readable, and accessible. Similarly, for the new books that we plan to publish under the Indian languages programme will be reviewed for their academic authenticity, clarity in expressions etc.

How many languages are you launching it in? What is to be the focus — academic, trade and children or is will OUP stick to the niche area of academic titles?

As already mentioned earlier, we are beginning with two languages, Hindi and Bengali. The focus will be serious non-fiction and academic. We are breaking the boundaries of our usual core competencies and planning to attract readers that fall outside it as well.

As an academic publisher whose business model relies considerably upon peer review, will such a rigorous process also be instituted for this project?

Yes of course, we plan to stick to our professionalism and ethical way of doing business. Language no bar. Quality is our top most priority and from our experiences in the English language programme, we understand and appreciate the value of peer reviews. The time and effort that goes into developing each manuscript in such a way is worthwhile.

How will OUP India create a demand for these titles as you are venturing into a territory that is not easily identified by readers and institutions with OUP’s mandate?

OUP as an academic press and publisher of quality knowledge resources is well identified by students, researchers, scholars, teachers across the length and the breadth of the country. Not only our academic books but our school and higher education books are frequently refereed to and stand out in quality from the rest. To say the least, we are a household name in the country. Also, we already cater to a group of readers whose primary language is not English by publishing classic texts such as those by Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Veena Das, Austin Granville, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Ramachandra Guha to name a few, which are used by students and teachers and readers across disciplines. Indian language editions of these rare classics are not easily available and students end up either reading from summary notes made by teachers or poorly done translations. Therefore an audience for our books already exists, we only need fill the gap by doing what we do best, publish quality content.

Our plans for attracting new readers have also already been discussed above. There does not exist much resources, academic and otherwise in Indian languages, as publishers we should be encouraging new authors to read and write in their native languages. We hope that our enthusiasm for this programme will also enthuse our stakeholders, mostly readers, writers, thinkers, learners, distributors. Our aim through this programme is to create new and diverse public spheres and reach out to as many readers as possible in its wake.

Will these books only be offered in print or will there also be a digital version available too?

Digital versions of our books will also be made available along with print versions and we are ensuring that we are able to launch the two simultaneously – to start with in Hindi.

If  you are making classical texts from the regional languages available in English will OUP India also encourage translations from its English list into the local languages? If so, how will these projects be funded or will also these be fostered by OUP?

Our programme involves translating English titles into Hindi and Bengali within the programme. We also have plans to translate from Hindi and Bengali to English thereby ensuring that there exists a free flow of thoughts and knowledge between languages. We also hope that as we establish this translation programme, we are able to encourage close associations with groups of individual experts, institutions, and organization to develop a network of people enriched in the art of translation, such that our native languages are not lost to oblivion. We aspire to give diverse languages a new lease of life in the long-term.

Will you explore co-publishing arrangements with local publishers to drive this programme?

We are open to ideas and appropriate opportunities – that fit our quality aspirations, as well as the mission of the Press.

To maintain a quality and a standard in the translations will OUP consider empanelling translators whose skills will be upgraded regularly or will you commission work depending on the nature of every book?

We empanel translators based on their subject and language competencies and these are constantly developed in the process of translation itself with the help of continuous reviews.

What are your expectations of this project? How will you measure the success of this new project?

We expect this project to enrich readers, writers, speakers, and learners of diverse languages in our country. We also hope for it to become as successful as our English language publication and to be recognized as formidable publishers of quality books across languages and disciplines. The long-term plan is to grow and develop in these languages simultaneously with our own growth as a truly global and diverse publisher.  We believe that success for such programmes can be measured in the publishing world by the kind of impact we have on our users and readers. If we inspire new and existing readership and help grow interest in good and quality content, we think we will have succeeded.

24 Oct 2017 

Meeting Arundhati Roy at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 25 Aug 2017

On Friday 25 August 2017 The Bookshop held a lovely interaction with award winning writer Arundhati Roy. The Bookshop is a warm space that magically transforms a literary evening into an electric engagement. Personal invitations had been sent to the select audience. There was no structure to the event which was a pleasure.

Arundhati Roy plunged straight into a conversation. She began the evening remembering the late owner and legendary bookseller K. D. Singh. She then read a long passage out of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness . Hearing an author read out from their own novels is an unpredictable experience but in this case turned out to be extraordinary. Despite the novel being varied and politically charged in many places, reading it alone, a reader tends to respond to the text. Listening to Arundhati Roy narrate it last night was revelatory as she has a soft lilt to her voice which brings out the rhythm and structure of the storytelling, softpedalling to some extent the political punch, but never undermining. Hearing her read out aloud was like being lulled into a level of consciousness where the magic of storytelling overtook one and yet once it is was over it was the politically charged experience of the episode from Kashmir which she chose to narrate that lingered on. It probably would be worth getting the audiobook which the novelist has recorded herself. On the left is a picture taken by Mayank Austen Soofi and tweeted on 17 May 2017 by Simon Prosser, Publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House.  On 24 August 2017 a digital companion to the novel was released called the Re: Reader. It is being hosted on a website of its own. According to the report in the Hindu, “The Re:Reader can be accessed on a smart phone by logging on to its website. The visitor is greeted by a ‘floating menu’ of different chapters, each with its own set of animated icons, sound effects, music, and a carefully chosen excerpt.

“Re:Reader has snippets of text from the 12 chapters of the book. Animations show the text in a new light; music brings the period to life, and with portions read by Arundhati Roy, it makes for a dreamy, heady ride. But none of these bits of ‘media’ are presented as ‘content’ for independent consumption. They are there to tempt, to intrigue, to transport the viewer to the Utmost world, not to reveal or substantially replace it.” Later this innovative reading experience may be converted into an app.

At The Bookshop interaction Arundhati Roy mentioned how when she writes fiction she does not let anyone, including her literary agent David Godwin, know that there is a work in progress as she is unable to handle the questions about when it will be ready for submission. Also knowing full well that once she hands over a manuscript there is frenzied activity and she needs to be prepared for it. Interestingly when the manuscript of this novel was finally completed to her satisfaction she lay down on her couch and wept for hours.

Given the small group sitting in a circle around and at the feet of the author made for a lovely intimate gathering allowing for conversation to flow easily. Sure there were many in the audience who were awe-struck by the celebrity they were enagaging with and yet the vibes were peaceful. It was an evening where Arundhati Roy shared insights about her writing and editing process, some of which I scribbled down in my edition of the novel.

There are many parts of the book which need a book of their own. 

This book is fiction as much as my first novel The God of Small Things was. I use every part of myself to write fiction. Experience informs your writing. Fiction is trying to create a universe which if it were unreal what would be the point of creating it? 

When asked if it was an “autobiographical novel” she said “What is an autobiography? These questions do not matter if this autobiographical or the truth. The character in fiction is more real and eternal than the real person.” 

While writing fiction my body feels very different. With non-fiction there is a sense of urgency. In fiction I am just at my own speed. It is almost like cooking — it takes as much time as it takes. 

When asked about editing her manuscripts she replied “ I don’t draft and redraft sentences which some people attribute to arrogance. I think of structure and characters take their own time to deepen. These are people I want to be able to spend rest of my life with. I don’t write sequentially. I already have a sense of it. It is a combination of control and release.” 

On the structure of this novel she said: “This book is much more complexly structured. It is like a big metropolis in the fluid world. It has its old parts and its pathways. It has its democracy. The crowds have faces in it. When you see the narrative as a city then you are going down blind alleys.”

On writing: “The way things are here and now I would not want to write it scared. Just write.” She added ” Factual knowledge has to be charged. My instinctiveness works the best for fiction.” 

On the parallels being drawn between Anjum and Mona ( made famous by Dayanita Singh’s photographs), she said “Anjum is not Mona but she is in Mona’s situation. Mona is definitely not a political person unlike Anjum.

Arunava Sinha, journalist and established Bengali to English translator, posed an interesting question to Arundhati Roy. He asked if she had had any interesting questions from her translators. Apparently the Polish translator has been flummoxed by sentences such as “evil weevil always make the cut” whereas the French translator has found the “Acknowledgements” the toughest such as “who queered my pitch”. As for the Hindi and Urdu translations she is working upon them line by line.

While discussing her author tours as was done over summer she says she felt as if she herself was a tourist living in Jannat for she visited 20 cities in the space of 24 days. Surprisingly she returned home with no jet lag whatsoever! The reception to her book has been tremendous and she has been reading and promoting the book to packed audiences. In Buffalo, for instance, she was to address a 1000-strong audience and surprisingly not a single copy of the book was sold at the venue since every single member of the audience was carrying their very own dog-eared copy of the novel. Another anecdote was about Kashmir which forms a large part of this novel since “you cannot tell the story of Kashmir in a footnote”.  She has recently returned from a visit to the state where she met Khan Sahib, an old friend, who had scribbled in his copy of the book extensively with comments trying to figure out the references in the book. What was even more incredulous were the visitors she had coming by all night asking her to autograph their editions of the book.

All in all it was a fabulously magical gathering.

26 August 2017