The Sickleby Anita Agnihotri, translated by Arunava Sinha is a very powerful story. It is hard to believe that it is pure fiction. There are far too many instances in the book that seem like a thinly veiled account of reality. For instance:
The sugar mill owners had in fact opened up a toddy shop right here inside the toli. There may not have been taps or toilets, water for bathing, or a dependable roof over one’s head, but the men still dropped in to drink on their way back to their shanties. It was the only way to get rid of their aches and pains. …The men weren’t concerned about how the women managed to keep their households running in the toli. No matter how hard they worked, they would never have hard cash since they had taken their payment in advance. And yet they needed flour and rice, vegetables and kerosene. And it was the women who would have to do the cooking. What they did was save the tips of the sugarcane stalks, which had no juice but only leaves, from the acquisitive hands of the farmers and sell them for a little money. The inhabitants of the districts on the West turned up here to buy cattle fodder and kindling. From sugarcane leaves to slices sugarcane bristles, all of it could be sold. …
The kitchens in the banjari households are under the control of women. It is the men who say this proudly. Of course, they’re the ones who continue to keep the women behind the veil. From leaving the house to going to high or college, it all depends on the whims of the menfolk. But their writ doesn’t run in the kitchen. Many banjari kitchens don’t allow meat or fish. The men are not permitted to bring any home, though they can eat it elsewhere. But they cannot enter the house immediately after eating meat — summer or winter, a man’s wife must upend a bucket of water over his head first to purify him.
The kitchen’s in your hands — this is how the banjari men boast. In behaviour, rituals and modes of worship, they have fashioned themselves after the Maratha community. Which is hardly a tall order. Running the kitchen means that everything from fetching the water to getting hold of kerosene, vegetables, flour and rice is the headache of the women. They are shackled for life in exchange for the privilege of being able to pour a bucket of water over their huabands’ heads now and then. The implication? Whether at home or in the toli, the husband will never check on whether there are enough provisions, or where the kindling is coming from. The woman calls the man malak, for malik, her lord and master.
Somethings never change. Anita Agnihotri, an ex-bureacrat, is known for depicting social realism in her novels. One of the responsibilities she held was member secretary of the National Commission for Women. She retired in 2016 as Secretary, Social Justice Department, Government of India.
The Sickle is set in the Marathwada region of India. This novel about migrant sugarcane cutters emerged after extensive conversations with farmers, activists, women leaders, students, researchers and young girls from Marathwada, Vidarbha and Nashik. She also consulted Kota Neelima for her research on farmers suicides. The details that are in the novel range from the horrors of sexual violence where women are preyed upon by the men as the shanties that they live in are flimsy structures and do not provide any security. Another form of sexual violence is that the women are actively encouraged to have hysterectomies, so that they do not impede the work flow by absences due to menstrual pain or more pregnancies than are necessary. The drought afflicting the region, the corruption that runs so deep that economic exploitation has become a way of life, even if it is unjust, are narrated in all their brutal honesty. As Anita Agnihotri said in a recent interview to The Mint:
In our profession, we were told, ‘If you see something, don’t carry it back’,” …. “But I followed precisely the opposite advice as a writer.” Just as there can never be a “non-committal bureaucracy,” she adds, “there is no non-political writing.
The Sickle can only be read in small doses as it is extremely disturbing in the truth it portrays. This is not going away in a hurry. Hence, it is unsurprising that the anger welling up in the ongoing farmers protests in Delhi ( on other farming related issues) is summed up by the image of women farmers on the cover of TIME magazine. It was published to commemorate Women’s Day. But the equal rights and liberties that women seek is a long time coming as Anita Agnihotri shows — the patriarchal attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in society. Such systemic violence can be combated but for it to be completely done away with is still a distant dream. It is a long and at times a debilitating struggle, but it is worth fighting for.
Read The Sickle. It has been translated brilliantly by Arunava Sinha .
The well-known Hindi writer, Shivani aka Gaura Pant was enormously popular. She was fluent in four languages — Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati and English. She also knew Sanskrit. According to her daughter, the noted journalist, Mrinal Pande, Shivani wrote her first story in Bengali but was dissauaded to do so by Rabindranath Tagore, who advised her to write in her own tongue. So she became a Hindi writer.
Many who grew up reading Hindi literature have stories to share about how generations of folks would wait for the next story to be published by Shivani. Grandmothers would encourage their granddaughters to read Shivani’s stories too. But as her daughter, the noted translator and writer, Ira Pande points out, “she wrote novels and stories that had strong women characters who rebelled against all such values and social inequalities. This also accounted for her lifelong fascination with those who lived on the margins—mendicants, lunatics and lepers. Time and again, she returns in her short stories and novels to characters drawn from those to whom rigid social values cannot be applied.” ( “A Conservative Rebel: An Unusual Mother ” by Ira Pande, Manushi, No 147 or read Ira Pande’s excellent book on her mother — Diddi: My Mother’s Voice) . Nevertheless, by all accounts, Shivani’s readers were not confined to a particular gender. Everyone read her. Everyone enjoyed reading her stories. She seems to have been the Indian equivalent of Charles Dickens in her popularity and her readers shared the same sense of excitement for her next story as Victorian readers did for the next instalment of a Dickension story.
So when Simon & Schuster India announced the publication of an English translation of Shivani’s Bhairavi: The Runaway, it caused a ripple of excitement. Priyanka Sarkar is an accomplished translator and an editor and her awe at being entrusted with a novel by Shivani shines through her prefatory remarks. The foreword has been written by Mrinal Pande who observes that “As her [Shivani] reader and daughter, I meet her countless admirers all over the globe. Among them are simple housewives and professional men and women, school kids, and a surprisingly large number of diaspora Indians from India’s Hindi belt, who confess they developed a taste for Hindi after reading Shivani’s books. All of them confide how their mother, or grandmother or even great grandmother had first introduced them to Shivani’s writings and once into it they were hooked for life.”
Women writers who have this sort of strange freedom thrust on them, mostly resolve their tensions in laughter and in prose and in doing so they will, almost inadvertantly, confer the gift of free thinking on their daughters. I learnt from Shivani both as mother and reader, that women leading socially secure lives as mother and wives are not morally more credible or more capable than those who are without family or child. Till the end, Shivani remained a kaleidoscopic character for me: outwardly traditional but bold, perverse, un-beholden and totally free when she puts pen to paper. Reading Bhairavi and the strange composure and compassion in these pages that co-exists with pain and hurt, I feel it is not the moralist’s why, but a humane what, that the writer ekes out from life, holds tenderly and finally redeems from oblivion.
With the formidable combination of a tremendous writer and of a talented translator, I was looking forward to reading a fine translation of Bhairavi. Instead I was confounded and deeply saddened by what I encountered. Apparently the original novel is written in continuation and slipping in and out of the languages Shivani knew. Of course it is a challenging task to translate such a text for the modern reader but to say “for the sake of readability, the story has been broken down into chapters” was astonishing. I have still been unable to wrap my head around this fact that how can one take such liberty with a piece of work that is already recognised for its craftsmanship. Translated works are known to have been experimental in their literary form such as run on sentences or no chapters but the translators have never taken the liberty of chopping up the original text. Take for instance award-winning writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai who is known for his extraordinarly long and immersive sentences. The English translations of his text are never cut up for the sake of the convenience of the modern reader. And yet, he has won some major prizes such as the International Booker Prize. In fact with Bhairavi too, if the reader chooses to ignore the chapter breaks and goes into a sort of creative sleep and reads the text smoothly, then one gets a sense of rhythm and sense of what Shivani probably conveys in the original text. But if the reader makes the mistake of allowing the present form of the English text to govern one’s reading, it does not work.
The second remark that I came upon and troubled me greatly was “the untranslateable has been left as is and explained wherever possible”. This comment did not make any sense to me especially since I had recently interviewed the acclaimed translator Anthony Shugaar who is known for his numerous translations of French and Italian texts into English. In fact, he makes precisely this very point “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live” ( “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook”, VQR, 19 Feb 2014).
Despite reading this remark in the Translator’s note in Bhairavi , I proceeded ahead with the novel. Alas, it become a tougher and tougher task to do so. In my humble opinion, if Shivani chose to play with multiple languages to write her novel in, then the least the translator could do is to acknowledge this craftsmanship and understand the cultural context. Perhaps the best way to create a translation in the destination language is to imbue it with the cultural context, much in the way Anthony Shugaar seems to create. Translation is not merely an act of linguistic conversion. If it was only that we could rely upon neural technology and use digital tools such as Google Translate. Somewhere the distinction has to creep in between manmade and computer translations.
Having said that I look forward to the next work of translation Priyanka Sarkar does. She is definitely a translator with potential and we need more translators like her to make our rich cultural heritage visible to a larger audience.
In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.
Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.
More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.
Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.
The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is a Bengali translator, author, and professor of English and world literature. She lives in Virginia with her husband and plants. She has translated the late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Blood. Set in Britain and America of the late 60s and early 70s, it is about a highly successful Bengali physicist Tapan who settles abroad. Despite all the successes he has garnered he is unable to put to rest the trauma he suffered as a child when his father was killed by a British officer. This occurred a little before India attained Independence. Coincidentally he meets Alice in London; she is the daughter of his father’s killer. Tapan’s world goes topsy-turvy as he tries to figure out what to do since he nurses a visceral hatred for the former colonial rulers of India. It is a peculiar situation to be in given that he has more or less decided to relocate abroad and never to return to India. It impacts his relationship with Alice too who is more than sympathetic to his feelings and is willing to let the past be bygones but it is a demon that Tapan finds hard to forget. He does go to India briefly to attend a wedding and meet his paternal grandmother — someone whom he loves dearly and who had lost two sons in the Indian Freedom Struggle. So much so that the Indian politicians are now keen to bestow upon her a monthly allowance recognising her sons’ contribution as freedom fighters. It is upon meeting his grandmother, who is past eighty and who witnessed much sorrow in her lifetime, that Tapan realises it is best to forget and forgive that which happened in the past and move on. Otherwise the past becomes an impossible burden to shed. Blood is a brilliantly translated novel that does not seem dated despite its preoccupations with the Indian Freedom struggle and a newly independent India. For all the stories and their intersections, it is evident that Blood is a modern novel which is worth resurrecting in the twenty-first century. The issues it raises regarding immigrants, familial ties, free will, social acceptance, loneliness, etc will resonate with many readers. As Debali says in the interview that “As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.”
Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died in 2012, was one of Bengal’s best-loved and most-acclaimed writers. He is the author of over a hundred books, including fiction, poetry, travelogues and works for children. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. This novel Blood was first published in 1973.
Here is a lightly edited interview conducted via email with the translator:
1 . How long did it take you to translate Blood? In the translator’s note you refer to two editions of the novel. What are the differences in the two editions?
I was on sabbatical during the spring semester of 2018 and Blood was my new project. I began working on it around the middle of January and completed the first draft in May. However, I let it sit for a year before returning to revise it.
I chose to use the second edition (1974) of Blood, rather than the first (1973), because the author made a few revisions. The alterations are minor, mostly cosmetic, and include replacing a few words in the text. These are mostly English words transliterated into Bengali: For instance, in Chapter 1, when Tapan asks Alice if she has the right glasses for serving champagne she responds, in the first edition, with “Don’t be fussy, Tapan” whereas, in the second, she says, “Don’t be funny, Tapan.” The revised second edition also corrects spelling errors and misprints.
2. The book may have been first published in 1973 but it seems a very modern text in terms of its preoccupations especially the immigrants. What were the thoughts zipping through your mind while translating the story?
To me the novel’s handling of immigrant concerns feels brutally honest. Blood refuses to romanticise the expatriate condition as exile and, instead, adopts an ironic stance towards immigrant angst, homesickness, and nostalgia. Yet, the irony is tempered with pathos in the narration’s uncovering of immigrant dilemmas. For instance, an Indian immigrant uneasy about her fluency in English chooses to stay indoors, but remains enamoured with England which she nevertheless cannot fully experience. Through the exchanges between the novel’s protagonist Tapan and his friend Dibakar, Blood also offers the realistic view that immigration is often driven by practical considerations. As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.
This does not mean that western societies get a pass in the novel. Through situations both small and large the novel exposes the racist and anti-immigration views prevailing in the United Kingdom, during the 1960s. That said, Blood is also critical of racial prejudice amongst Indians. Given current debates around immigration and citizenship both in India and across the globe, the novel’s treatment of this subject remains relevant.
Connected to issues of migration and home, the novel brings to the fore complex questions about homeland and belonging, uncovering how the location of “home” has been rendered unstable through the Partition’s severing of birthplace and homeland.
3. What is the methodology you adopt while translating? For instance, some translators make rough translations at first and then edit the text. There are others who work painstakingly on every sentence before proceeding to the next passage/section. How do you work?
For me it is a mix of both. I typically plan on translating a text it in its entirety before proceeding with the revisions but this intention is usually short-lived and seldom lasts beyond the first few pages. I find it difficult to progress until the translation feels most appropriate to the context, fits the voice, and fully conveys the meaning of the original. While translating Blood I have spent entire mornings deciding between synonyms. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle because there is only one piece/word that fits. And sometimes I have had to redraft an entire sentence (even entire paragraphs) to elegantly capture the sense of the whole!
4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?
First, the cons, the impulse to interpret. And the pros: the joy of being able to partake in the (re-)making of something beautiful.
5. Are there any questions that you wished you could have asked Sunil Gangopadhyay while translating his novel?
Were he alive, I would have requested him to read a completed draft of my translation.
6. What prompted you to become a professional translator?
My translation-work is driven primarily by the love of the text and the desire to find it a larger audience. In the future, I hope to be able to devote more time to it.
There is also a pedagogical dimension to this. In my capacity as a teacher of world literature, I aim to expose students to the vast and rich body of vernacular writings from the Indian subcontinent, inevitably through translations. And from personal experiences in the classroom, I know that many of my students are genuinely curious about writings from around the world. Blood is a small step in that direction. It is a book I want to teach.
7. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation?
I believe the first translated book I read was one of the many “Adventures of Tintin”, The Secret of the Unicorn. But children’s books aside, the book that came to mind immediately upon reading your question is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may not have been the first translated work I read, but it ranks among the most memorable ones. This is because while I knew that Marquez wrote in Spanish, Rabassa’s translation preserved the novel’s artistic qualities so meticulously that it lulled me into thinking that I was reading the original. It is a quality I aspire to bring to my work.
8. How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project?
Not to sound self-absorbed, but my decision is based largely on how deeply the work moves me. My first translation project involved a short story by the Bengali author Jyotirmoyee Devi, entitled “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”). It depicts the predicament of a young woman who lost a family-member in the Partition riots. The author handled the subject with great sensitivity without resorting to the maudlin. The story would not leave me alone. I had to translate it because I needed to share it, and discuss it with friends and colleagues who did not read Bengali. Similarly, Gangopadhyay’s novel intrigued me when I first read it. I thought about the characters long after I had finished the book, imagined their lives beyond the novel. I knew that one day I would translate it. It hibernated within me for years because, in the meanwhile, there were Ph.D. dissertations to write and research to publish. Finally, a sabbatical gave me the gift of time, and I just had to do it.
9. How would you define a “good” translation?
Preserving the artistic, poetic, and, of course, propositional content of the original is central to my understanding of a good translation. To resort to the old cliché, it is about conveying the letter and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the original. The translated text, I feel, must itself be a literary work, a work imbued with the beauty of the original. Additionally, readability is fundamental. Therefore, I asked family members and friends to read the draft translation for lucidity and fluency. For this reason, I am immensely gratified by your observation about Blood that, “It has been a long time since I managed to read a translation effortlessly and not having to wonder about the original language. There is no awkwardness in the English translation”.
10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
It is difficult for me to say since I never received any formal training in translation-work. To me, translation is more than just an academic exercise, it is an act of love — love for the text itself, love of the language, and the love of reading. For me the best preparation was reading, and reading widely, even indiscriminately. While my love of reading was nurtured from early childhood by my mother, I had the privilege of being exposed to some of the finest works of world literature through my training in comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and, later, in literature departments in America.
11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
The translator walks a tightrope between the two, where tipping towards either side is perilous. A translation is, by definition, derivative, so fidelity to the original text is essential. Yet, a translation of a literary work is much more than a stringing together of words in another language. It is itself a literary work. And it is incumbent upon the translator not only to make the work accurate and readable but also literary in a way that is faithful to the literary qualities of the original.
12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; J.M. Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; and A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.
More recently, Supriya Chaudhuri, Daisy Rockwell, and Arunava Sinha have produced quality translations from Indian languages.
Krishnan worked with Macmillan India (1980-2000) and with Oxford University
Press (2001-2018) to source, edit and promote translations into English of
works by Indian writers from 13 languages many of which won national prizes and
are included in study courses both in India and in universities overseas.
She is currently co-ordinating multiple publishers to build a programme of Tamil-English translations. This is an initiative designed by the Tamil Nadu government and located in their Textbooks and Educational Services division.
1.How did you begin your career as an editor of texts translated from Indian languages into English?
it is fair to say that it began as both an accident and an affinity for things
Indian long submerged by training in English Literature! I always felt a vague
dissatisfaction with the texts I was reading / studying but had no clear idea
of how to access materials written by Indians. Nor how to relate them to what
seemed to be important intellectual tools gained in UG and PG degrees in English
Literature. In the late 1960s-early 70s when I was a student, books were not
that easily available. Because my father was with the Deccan Herald (Bangalore) I got to read the books he received for
review and that was about all. My college and university libraries did not
stock books by Indian authors.
after my post-graduation I got an opportunity to freelance with Macmillan India
in Madras. I was put to work on anthologies of prose, poetry, fiction and so
on. Quite dull work really but I kept asking my editor why she couldn’t include
some Indian writers other than Nehru, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. “The members of
Boards of Studies do not even consider other Indian writers worth teaching,” she
said. I thought to myself that if I ever got a chance I would campaign for the inclusion
of Indian writers in foundation English courses.
I got my
chance when my editor (Viji Sreenivasan) left, creating a vacuum which I
filled. I was a square peg in a square hole. A week later the Kerala Sahitya Akademi
and Macmillan India signed agreements to produce a two volume publication
titled Comparative Indian Literature
edited by KM George; with 16 chief editors and 200 contributors, it was a
stupendous work. The entire chronology of Indian literature was catalogued and described.
Ancient Poetry (all the languages recognized at that time) Modern Poetry.
Ancient Theatre, Modern Theatre. Fiction. Short and Long. And so on and so on.
It was 4000 pages and took five years to push into shape. I worked on nothing
might all those Indian language works, described in this publication be
accessed? Only a very small number of them were available in English
translation. So, since fools rush in, I designed a project of modern novels
from eleven Indian languages and tried to persuade Macmillans to invest in the
idea. They were astounded. They were textbook
publishers and I was their golden goose publishing for the school and college
market. Why waste editorial time and money on translation? So I set about
looking for support outside Macmillans. If I secured funding I would be allowed
to do the project. For seven years I went from door to door trying to convince
powerful institutions to part with some money for Indian literature. Mind you I
had nothing to show anyone as a promise of what might be possible. Only a
single failed translation by V Abdulla of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Verukal.
Finally, in March 1992, my friends Valli Alagappan, her father, Mr AMM
Arunachalam and her aunt Mrs Sivakami Narayanan who jointly ran the MR AR
Educational Society of Madras agreed to fund me. I still do not know why they
decided to help me. I had nothing to recommend me but my enthusiasm and
determination. I received a letter saying that they would set aside Rs 80,000
per book for 50 books.
No one was more surprised than my highly commercial management but there
was trouble. Though my Vice President R Narayanaswamy supported me, my Managing
Director Sharad Wasani was unwilling to let me spend a lot of time on what he
saw as an unsaleable project. When he received the forms seeking his approval
he refused to sign. I wrote him, “You are the only person in the world who will
refuse funding for his country s literature”and closed by offering to resign.
Only two people from that time left — Jayan Menon and Sukanya Chandhoke—
who will remember this.
Anyway, after Wasani changed his mind, I invited eleven eminent writers to be the chief editors for the languages I had selected for the project ( Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi) and they helped to make up lists of five post-Independence novels from their respective langauges. Because I had been dealing with 16 chief editors on the C.I.L volumes I didn’t think this strange at all but anyone who discussed the project with me was astonished at the volume of work I had undertaken. It didn’t seem like work at all to me ! At last I was getting to do what I had really wanted to do when I entered publishing 12 years before.
Many important works were published in full for the first time in English: Brushte ( Outcaste) by Matampu Kunhukuttan, Randamoozham ( Second Turn) by MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathipura by UR Ananthamurthy, Danapani (The Survivor) by Gopinath Mohanty, Subarnalatha by Ashapurna Debi, Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki and Karukku by Bama.
In all, between 1996 and 2000 when I left Macmillans I published 37 volumes. They went out of circulation a year or two after I left the company and the C.I.I.L Mysore bought the whole project including unsold stocks in 2007 with a view to republishng the entire list. It never happened because the Director (UN Singh) whose dream it had been, left the Institute.
2. What were the languages you first worked on? How many languages have you worked upon so far?
The first scripts I worked on were translations from Malayalam and Tamil. In all, I’ve worked on translations from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Odia, Hindi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, and just one from Dogri.
3. How do you select which book is to be translated especially if it is a language you are unfamiliar with?
As I said because of the work I did on Comparative Indian Literature it wasn’t difficult to identify what needed to be translated particularly if the Sahitya Akademi had not already commissioned translations. Then again once the Macmillan project took off I was flooded with advice and suggestions. The difficulty was what to leave out. A great disadvantage is that I could not and therefore did not read the critical material on any of these works. I rely a great deal on the advice of others. But when it comes to translators I use a process of running trial drafts of different kinds of passages from the selected work — one might be a descriptive paragraph, a second something very emotional or lyrical, a third passage would cover conversation – to check the translator’s strengths and where s/he might back off, or skip or be lazy. The editing process can take anything from two drafts to six depending on the competence of the translator and the cooperation between all parties. Long silences, gaps in the process are not healthy for the project nor is impatience or being a speed queen the answer. As for the reception of a translation! Much depends on how well the publisher promotes the finished product. Publishing is only 50% of the responsibility. The other 50% depends on promotion and follow-up.
4. Do you think it is necessary for an editor to be familiar with the source language? If not, how can the editor ensure that the translation is true to the original text?
Of course it is important for the editor to know the source language but then in how many languages can one gain proficiency? The editor/ publisher must appoint reviewers who will read the translation carefully to ensure (as far as possible) that nothing has been left out or distorted. Then the editor can take over and polish in consultation with the translator and author.
5. What are the kind of guidelines you think an editor of translations should be bear in mind while working on a manuscript?
Listen very carefully to the voice of the author. Does it chime with the
translator’s? It helps to have someone read out the original even if you do not
know the language while you follow the English in a parallel reading. You
cannot but help hear the inflexions and emotions as the reading proceeds.
Be respectful. Very important to gain the confidence of the translator. Make suggestions tactfully. Once the translator is convinced you are not out to destroy his work or appropriate it, he will breathe easy and work and redraft willingly. It helps to read other works from the same period and familiarize oneself with the language – bank of that time. You need to enter that world emotionally through images and atmosphere not just intellectually through words.
6. What is your definition of a “good translation”? What are the qualities it must have?
This is something I have been trying to figure out for 30 years! Sometimes a smooth read will fail to capture the imagination of the reader. Sometimes even if a translation is jerky and appears to be rushing along, it will work. I think it is a combination of inspiration and zeal on the part of the translator and very patient work on the part of the editor. The qualities? The language must bring the author alive. It must make you think “If XY had written in English instead of in Marathi this is how he might have phrased it”. Now it is all very well to say this to ourselves but to someone who is not Indian, this might still not work at all. Basically I think we should be translating first for our Indian market before trying to reach spaces and minds outside India.
7. When you began translating texts into English for the Indian market, at the time, most publishing houses ignored translations. Today the reality is very different. Most publishing houses have dedicated translation lists and even the local literary awards are recognising translators. What in your opinion are the pros and cons of this deluge of translations in the market — locally and globally?
It is extremely encouraging to see the increased interest in translations and the care with which they are produced but a worrying feature is the way publishers are responding to criteria laid out by the big literary bursaries and prizes for translation. There is a growing tendency to ignore works published more than 20 or 30 years ago and no one seems to want to do a fresh translation of a classic. Then there is the secret craving on the part of publishers to promote a translation as not a translation. So the translator’s name disappears from the cover page, a most unfair practice. I put this down to the second-classing of translations—as if they are something inferior and not worthy of being viewed as works of art in themselves.
8. Recently machine translations such as Google’s neural technology are making an impact in the space of translation. How do you feel about the impact of machine translation in the literary sphere?
Any technology which helps the human translator will be of enormous help I’m sure but I doubt whether it can supplant imagination and nuanced word choices. For mundane passages for instance this interview can be processed by Google translation but — a poem full of feeling and fire? I doubt it. An approximation would surely be possible but would it be good enough? I’ve always maintained that the translator is as much an artist as the writer of the original work.
9. Your name in Indian publishing is synonymous with translation evangelism. You have been responsible for kick-starting many notable projects. The current one being the Translation Initiative of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University (TEMU). Please elaborate more on this project.
Actually I did not initiate the TEMU project. That was designed by K
Jayakumar the first VC of the University. It was a simple plan: an advisory
committee selected works, I commissioned the translations and marketed the idea
with multiple publishers. In some cases, the publishers already had scripts on
hand; in other cases, I found the translators and did some light editing before
handing over to the concerned group. The University signed agreements with the
publishers to buy 300 copies at a discounted price and the publishers agreed to
carry the logo and mission statement of the University in the selected works. I
did not initiate any project other than the Macmillan list. In OUP I enlarged
and diversified an already extant list which had not — till I began work in
2001— published a single woman writer. Nor had Dalit or Adivasi writers been
considered. That was an arm I grew for OUP India and it has done well.
For a year now, I’ve been working with the Tamil Nadu Textbook Educational Services on a Tamil- English translation project modelled on the TEMU plan. Our collaborators in the first phase are OBS, Niyogi, OUP, Ratna Books, Harper Collins and Vitasta.
10. Can the art of translation and editing a translation be taught or is it a lived experience?
Commitment, determination and passion are crucial to sustained work in
this area. To find a forgotten work, to convince people that it must appear in
English, to struggle with the translator at its rebirth and to learn that a
major publisher in the language of the original work decided to reprint the
book (which had lain in a rabbit – hole for four decades) —- that is the best
thing an editor of translations can hope to enjoy.
Strategies in translation can certainly be taught. Translator training is certainly possible and necessary but finally the translator is on her own except for her editor and together they complete the phantom work. It might succeed. It might not. It might succeed as an aesthetic product and bomb in the sales department. But then that is the fate of any human product which is judged by both ignorant people and by those who know far more than you do. No amount of reading about tennis or watching it on television can help you to be a good player on the court!
11. Translations are most often construed as being undertaken as a labour of love with little financial resources being available for underwriting the costs involved in the task. What are the economics of publishing translations in India? What has been your experience?
Love is great but it won’t put food on the table. Translations need financial support either from a patron or from another line of books from the same publisher who sets aside resources for the translations list.
12. What do you think is the future of literary translations in the world of publishing?
The world literary mart is only just waking up to the hidden power of translations and what they do to cross-pollinate creativity across cultures and civilizations. Consider all the talk about world peace! How can this happen if cultural understanding isn’t an organic process? One way to ensure this is to expose children and young adults to writing from different parts of the world at an impressionable time in their lives. Translation can help the humanities to make a brilliant comeback in a global sense. Comparative literature is impossible to teach without discussing the central role of translation. If we are to survive all the artificially orchestrated hatred and violence and misunderstandings created by politicians and power –mongers, venues of mutual understanding need to be very deliberately developed. Cultural competence, soft –skills — these are words one hears very often but what are we doing to build that theatre of human understanding? I think that if literary translations can be included in academic programmes and introduced into high-interest professions like management, finance and public policy it would help humanize these professions and give publishers the big print runs and inflow they need to keep doing what only they can do.
Note:Women Writing in India edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha (OUP) was a reprint of the Feminist Press publication, 1993, NY and not commissioned or developed by Oxford University Press.
Book Post 49 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
is the Bengali Krittibasi Ramayan from the fifteenth century your favourite?
What are the elements in it that stand out for you as exceptional?
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.
your crafting of your women protagonists drain or enrich you as the case maybe
in understanding the character of Sita better?
immediate writing is draining because it is so consuming. But ultimately,
understanding my characters always enriches me. Certainly this is true of
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
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!
do you stop reading past narratives and create your own?
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.
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?
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!
you record your own audio book of this story? If not who would you like to have
as the voice actor?
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.
the years has your writing style changed as you tackled the crafting the inner
self of your women characters?
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.”
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.
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.
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
* * *
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.
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)
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
To open on heaven.
Wall, the murmur
of sidewalk sleepers,
the burning ghat’s
sick rose flaring
miles away, my cough
from flu and too
the bowels and
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
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