Dalit Posts

Interview with editor and translator, Mini Krishnan

Mini 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?

Well…I think 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.

Seven years 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 else.

But where 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.

5 November 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

An interview with the fabulous YA writer Supriya Kelkar on her debut novel, “Ahimsa”

I interviewed Supriya Kelkar for Scroll on her debut novel Ahimsa published locally by Scholastic India — “How Supriya Kelkar wrote a novel about Indian independence that children around the world relate to“. It was published on 2 September 2018. I am c&p the interview here too. The link for the book on Amazon India is embedded in the book cover given below.

*****

Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsa is about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.

Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:

Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali?
I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.

The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it
The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.

What changes did you make in the book over these years?
I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.

Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require?
I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.

In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits?
That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.

Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.

The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these?
It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.

Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.

How much research did Ahimsa require?
A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.

Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.

For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.

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Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.

It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers?
I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.

In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.

Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.

I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.

That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.

What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways?
I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.

One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.

Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you?
Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.

There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.

The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.

I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.

Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies?
I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.

A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.

Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.

Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement?
It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.

As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.

How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it?
Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295 

3 September 2018 

Nandita Haksar’s “The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship”

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  by lawyer Nandita Haksar is a unique memoir that intersperses two passions — human rights and food.

She belongs to a community of meat-eating Brahmins — the Kashmiri Pandits. Her ancestors came from Kashmir in the beginning of the twentieth century and settled in the plains of Hindustan. Very soon they forgot the culture, the rites and rituals and even the language of the Valley. The men learnt Urdu and Persian, while the women were taught Hindi and, on occasion, Sanskrit. The men greeted each other with an adaab-urz-hai but women were always greeted with a respectful namaskar. Once the Kashmiri families migrated they integrated many aspects of the cuisines of the plains, such as those of Lucknow, Allahabad and Delhi.

Nandita Haksar employs her sharp skills as a human rights lawyer to dissect cultures and bigotry. She rightly observes that ” In India, upper-caste Hindus do not inter-dine with Dalits, Muslims and tribal people, because of what they eat. Perhaps this is the distinguishing feature of Indian society and culture.” It still happens.

Later she adds ” The recent attempts to impose a ban on eating and trading beef, and the promotion of vegetarianism, have brought into focus the fact that the caste system and the ideology which sustain it is still alive. The question is how do we, who believe in democratic values and espouse liberalism, resist the imposition of this vision in our country?

The liberals, including a section of the media, have opposed the beef ban largely on the ground that it violates the human rights of an individual to choose what he or she wants to eat. However, the ban on beef is not merely a question of the violation of an individual’s right to liberty, dignity  and equality. But when millions of people are collectively denied those human rights, then we need a stronger political discourse to challenge their exclusion. ”

Some years ago in an article on “Dalit Literature in English” I had written “The recent banning of beef in India also deprives Dalits of their primary source of protein. Beef is cheap and easily available. The Dalits belong to a section of society that cuts across religions. What is astounding is that the quantum ( and relentlessness) of violence against this community is impossible for any sane individual to comprehend and yet it is practised daily.” One of the fiercest responses to the article said my assessment was wrong. Banning beef would not deprive Dalits of food.  I stood my ground and said it was an unnecessary hostile act not recognising a critical source of protein was being taken away from a community and probably plunging the already very poor people further into poverty and despair, but I was only scoffed at. The late Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Woman’s Testimonios discusses this at great length in her book. So when Nandita Haksar makes these associations and link human rights with the basic act of accessing food I agree with her 100% and only wish more people saw it in a similar fashion.

While I was writing this article, journalist M K Venu wrote on Twitter in reference to the Alwar lynchings and Muslims being repeatedly attacked by gau rakshaks that:

The successful right to food campaign in India led to establishment of systems to ensure food security. For instance passing of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ( NREGA) in August 2005, the introduction of cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools following a Supreme Court order in April 2004, and finally the passing of the National Food Security Act, 2013. “But even these achievements have been undermined by the controversies over beef and vegetarianism and have served to divert public attention from the most fundamental issue: food security for the poor who cannot afford even one meal a day and the wretched condition of farmers and their families, so many of whom have been driven to committing suicide.” This crisis is related to the globalization of the food industry and the so-called safety laws that in effect criminalize the small dhabas and the street vendors who provide affordable food to millions of people. This is food fascism.

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  is absolutely fantastic for food is not only a repository of cultural norms, local wisdom ( in terms of what is the best dish / spice to have that would be most suitable for the person) but of course it is a rights issue too. To deny someone the right to their cuisine is a violently hostile act. At the same time to accept the local cuisine offered while travelling whether you like it or not is the height of graciousness and civil behaviour. This is exactly why  the anecdote Nandita Haksar shares about her friend who is a vegetarian and yet quietly eats the meat so lovingly served to her by the host at the Hashimpura wedding celebrations was an incredibly graceful gesture upon her part.

A few days ago designer Orijit Sen posted on Facebook about eating Kozhukatta on a Kochi street. Steamed rice dumplings with a sweet core of coconut and jaggery. Immediately he had a flood of responses on his timeline talking about variations of exactly same dish. There were folks writing in from Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, and even Parsis. It was fascinating to observe how food united everyone. Orijit Sen was prompted to respond “Amidst all our diversity and contradictions, I seem to have chanced upon one of those simple beautiful things that connects us all on this subcontinent!” Something that comes across so well in Nandita Haksar’s book too — the animated conversations that involve food whether designing a wedding menu to organising a meal at home or even visiting the local gurdwara for a langar!”

The July 2018 issue of the National Geographic’s cover story is on “Building a Better Athlete“. It is basically about how sports scientists are working closely with the finest sportsmen to help them excel known barriers of performance. In it is quoted Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, who says the key to breaking performance barriers is to “keep athletes healthy. If they stay healthy, everything else falls into place.” This had me wondering why is that we only look at these frames of reference in absolutely exceptional specimens of human race and apply these rules of living for them alone? Why can we not shift these very same frames of reference and apply them to ordinary families? Won’t it be very liberating for many, especially women who are foisted with the responsibility of feeding their families, to feel that investment in their health, with local produce and that which is familiar to their cultures is perfectly acceptable and in fact a great way of living?

If this argument is extended to the micro-level of seeing how a family unit works. Apply it to women and see if they are taught to eat and look after themselves perhaps there won’t be so many instances of illness in many families. Off late it is not unusual to hear of instances where urban poor women are being encouraged to attend nutrition camps where they can learn how to manage household budgets by buying less and less milk as the prices skyrocket. So the women are taught how half a litre of milk can be stretched in providing nourishment value by setting curd, preserving the cream (if any) of the boiled milk etc. Or even using cheaper substitutes like soya milk. [ With today’s inflation rates I do not know if this holds true any longer!] Or adapting their old family recipes so that they do not require milk, dahi or cream as ingredients, instead they could substitute it with cheaper ( not necessarily healthier) ingredients. This is a horrific act of violence being perpetrated under the garb of nutrition camps for in the process of managing household budgets women are being forced to forget skills they have acquired / inherited and instead adapt to the local requirements. This is undoubtedly an inherent act violence as the woman is inadvertently put under familial/ economic pressure to provide regular sumptuous meals despite spiraling costs of ingredients and since she is mostly voiceless these acts go unnoticed. It is a very complicated and insidious act of violence that gets slowly embedded and perpetuated in the long run.

The scrubbing away of collective memories of local cuisines that define a community and are more importantly repositories of information about ideal foods to be consumed in different seasons using local ingredients, ensuring the people remain healthy and it is also cost effective in the long run. This is echoed in film director Jean Renoir sharing in his memoir ( Renoir, My Father ) about his father, the Impressionist painter Renoir, describing the varied smells coming from different houses in their neighbourhood. Every fragrance was that of a distinct region of France and easily identifiable but now both father and son were ruing the fact that dishes and flavours had more or less become homogenised. They were referring to the homogenity of smells but the passage in the book also is a wistful reminiscing of how much has been lost in the name of progress — the standardisation if you will of French cuisine. It is much like the different knowledge systems and the value accorded to them as Nandita Haksar mentions in reference to the two young boys of her acquaintance — Ashwin Mushran and Adani. Her nephew 18-year-old Ashwin is unable to make her a cup of hot coffee but is able to write a remarkable 10,000-word essay on Tolkien! Whereas 10-year-old Adani, her host’s son on a field trip to the north east of India, had not only killed a bird with his sling, but plucked and cooked it as well as made rice to accompany it — all in the short duration she took to get refreshed after a long journey!

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship is meant for those who love social and family histories; love cooking; love reading recipes and collecting them too. It is also meant for those who cherish an India which celebrates its diversity and the richness of its varied local cultures that are embraced willingly by its citizens, irrespective of which region or community they hail from. This is the idea of India most citizens believe in!

Read this book. It is unforgettable!

Buy the paperback edition and Kindle edition

24 July 2018 

 

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 

“Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit” by Manoranjan Byapari

Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit  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.

So from 1977 till 1981, my time was spent reading Katha literatures, folk literatures, translated literatures, travelogues, religious books. Some praised my dedication to books, some taunted me. I ‘bypassed’ all. None of their words many impact on me. 

Once released he still had to earn his bread and butter, so began pulling a rickshaw. He would inevitably carry a book to read while waiting for passengers. One day he was parked outside the college where Mahashweta Devi taught. She emerged and sought a rickshaw and it happened to be Manoranjan Byapari. He had to quickly put aside the book he was reading — Agnigarba ( The Fire Womb).

A collection of short stories where every character was a known and familiar face to me. Every story had at its centre a protagonist who was a labouring man, who was a representative of the protest of that class, who was unwilling to accept defeat and who fought till death, then rose again to continue the fight. I had a particular affection for this author. Having been once accidentally drawn into the Naxalite movement, I had spent much time with them and heard the story of the martyred Brati, a character in her novel Hajar Chaurasir Ma ( The Mother of 1084). This book had endeared the writer to the Naxalites, who spoke of her as a maternal figure to them. Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us. 

As luck would have it, the passenger was none other than Mahashweta Devi. Manoranjan Byapari still had not a clue but it was during the course of the journey that he asked her the meaning of a word he had read in the book — jijibisha ( the will to live) and struck up a conversation. Mahashweta Devi was impressed at how he had taught himself to read while incarcerated in Presidency Jail under the tutelage of mastermashai. She asked him to contribute to her journal “where working people like you write”. Just as she was leaving she gave him her address, to the shocked amazement of Manoranjan Byapari. He could not believe it that his passenger was the famous writer Mahashweta Devi.

The rest they say is history. Mahashweta Devi gave him his writing break. Since then he has published many novels, short stories, essays, and his autobiography, of two volumes, the first volume which has been translated and published by Sage-Samya. He has won the Anaya Samman given by the television channel 24 Ghanta, 2013, and the Suprabha Majumdar Smarak Puraskar of the Bangla Akademi of West Bengali in 2014.

In January 2018 he was invited to attend the World Book Fair (WBF) held in New Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival. At the WBF he was in conversation with Sanjeev Chandan*, journalist, author and social activist, and Anita Bharti**, teacher, writer and Dalit rights activist.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, Manoranjan Byapari was on a panel “Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy” along with Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, and Sukhadeo Thorat. They were in conversation with Pragya Tiwari.

According to the translator, Sipra Mukherjee,

Byapari’s prose is urban and modern. Translating the language used by Byapari, therefore, did nto pose the many problems that are often faced when translating Dalit literature, where the language embodies its marginalization palpably in the earthiness of its dialect which cannot be kept in translation, which tends to be standard English. His prose is often driven more by action than by emotions. . . .

The English translation is shorter than 25,000-30,000 words than the original Bengali version but this has been done with the concurrence of the writer.

Now Manoranjan Byapari is so well-known as a writer that he shares an anecdote that happened in Hyderabad.

Once on an invitation I journeyed to the University of Hyderabad. I boarded an autorickshaw from the station, bound for the University Guest House. The driver of the auto was educated and well-informed. Upon hearing that I was from Calcutta, he wanted to know if I had heard of this writer from my city who drives a rickshaw, has never been to school, but who writes books. 

Read an extract from the autobiography on making a bomb.

Interrogating my Chandal Life will undoubtedly be a significant book in the landscape of Dalit literature. This despite the storytelling being written with a flourish that can prove to be fairly distracting with its verbosity. It is much like the writer himself who when speaking on a public forum is full of wisdom and fascinating insights but ever the performer— perhaps some of it has seeped into the written word too. Nevertheless read this seminal book for the history of Bengal and the plight of dalits it charts through Manoranjan Byapari’s testimony.

Update ( 3 Sept 2018): Manoranjan Byapari has signed a multi-book deal with Westland, an Amazon company. The figures have not been revealed but one of the translators working on the project is eminent Bengali translator Arunava Sinha. ( “Former rickshaw-puller inks big book deal“, TOI, 2 Sept 2018)

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

 

*Sanjeev Chandan is Editor of the leading feminist magazine Streekaal and founder of Marginalised Publications, an independent publisher that publishes Dalit-Bahujan literature and academic works on cultural and political issues. Formerly, Mr. Chandan was Hindi Editor at Forward Press, a bilingual magazine that looks at issues and interests from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective. His collection of stories, 546veen Seat ke Stree, was published recently.

**Anita Bharti is an author, a teacher and a well-known critic of Dalit literature. One of her important contributions is the book Samkaleen Nariwaad aur Dalit Stree ka Pratirodh, which received the ‘Savitribai Phule Vaichariki Samman’ award from Streekaal magazine in 2016. Another important work is the collection of poetry that she has edited – Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein. Ms. Bharti has been honoured with several awards, which include the Indira Gandhi Shikshak Samman and Delhi Rajya Shikshak Samman.

 

1 May 2018 

Ashok Shahane and Arun Kolatkar

Speaking Tiger Books has recently published the South Asia edition of Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and bilingual literary culture . In the long term it will prove to be a seminal book for its analysis of not only Kolatkar’s contribution to modern Indian literature but also for its context of Indian publishing. Marathi publishing has been a vibrant space for a long time. In fact Bombay Modern discusses at length about the importance of little magazines and their critical influence upon writers by providing a new space for literary writing. Significantly Anjali Narlekar points out:

The writers and editors of little magazines in Marathi and English not only moved in a shared cultural and literary space but were aware of the work done ni the other Indian literatures by the little magazines. One way to examine these interlinks is to look at the network of pathways at the core of regional, national, and international influences. 

A connection of common influences arcs across the English-Marathi divide between many of these poets. If Mehrotra brought Pound and Ginsberg to bear upon the newly independent Indian society in his English poem, Kolatkar also translated Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” into Marathi for Shahane’s Aso in 1963… .Three prominent examples from the period will illustrate the interconnection across the two worlds. The first is the close literary collaboration between the Beat writers and the Bombay poets. It is a known fact that Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky read their poetry on Alkazi’s terrace in 1962 on their visit to Bombay, but the Beat poets were also interacting with both the English writers and the vernacular writers in Bengal and in Maharashtra, like Ashok Shahane and Kolatkar in Bombay. Shahane published Ginsberg’s poetry in English and in Marathi translation in Aso as well as the work by Orlovsky in its original English. Shahane also wrote a poem in the little magazine Timba where he mocks the rabid fervor generated by religious personalities like the Shankaracharya. Shahane trivializes such religious zeal with a seemingly frivolous comparison and connection with the Beats and with Hollywood:

the world is a dream

the Shankaracharya has said

as Allen reported

Arjun was the last man

and maybe also Burt Lancaster

“Allen” here refers to Allen Ginsberg, and in this poem, Shahane self-confidently accepts the long way home when he states that he learned Shankaracharya’s teaching through hearsay from Ginsberg. It shows the defiant refusal to accede to claims of monolingual affiliations. It is also  a little-known fact that Ginsberg’s poem “September on Jessore Road” first appeared in Bombay, published by Ashok Shahane. When the Bangladesh War began in 1971 and Ginsberg wrote the poem, Shahane printed and distributed copies of it and gave the proceeds to Bangladesh aid committee set up in Bombay. Followed closely, such circuits of the global invariably lead to the space of the local. 

The poets Arun Kolatkar (Left) and Raghu Dandavate (second from Left) and Shahane (third from Left) were part of a group that would meet every Thursday afternoon for its kattas.

The second example is Arun Kolatkaris Jejuri, which includes poems that traverse repeatedly across linguistic lines. The poem “The Priest” from Jejuri appeared in Marathi on pages 88-89 of the 1977 special issue of Rucha on Kolatkar even as a book of poems in English, published by the small Clearing House Press, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize that year. The history of this book of poems manifests the entangled nature of the multilinguistic sabottari worlds. Initially one of the poems from the Jejuri collection appeared in the English little magazine Dionysus ( edited by Abraham Benjamin and Shirish Pradhan) , which promptly lost the manuscript of the collection of poems.  It was then rewritten in English and appeared in full in A.D. Gorwala’s Opinion Literary Quarterly in 1974, then was apparently shown to Arun Khopkar ( who published a poem from it in Rucha in 1977, when the English book of poems was published), adn eventually appeared in a Marathi book of poems posthumously in 2011. Dilip Chitre’s work demonstrates a similar catholicity in its publishing spaces: his translations from the French poets appeared in the Marathi Satyakatha ( December 1963), his translations of the Marathi poet Mardhekar in the English little magazine Poetry India ( 1966), and translations of the Marathi Tukaram in Mehrotra’s English little magazine fakir ( 1968). 

Aso

A crucial third way in which the little magazines provided a mixed space for writers emerges when one considers the presence of Dalit writers and editors in the sabottari years. The iconoclastic philosophy of the little magazines borrowed its energy from the foundational rage of the Dalit writers in its refusal of tradition in most of its manifestations, be it in vocabulary, imagery, poetic structure, or representative realisms. The little magazine movement was clearly influenced by the Ambedkar revolt in the 1950s and the subsequent Marathi publications of writers like Shankarrao Kharat and Baburao Bagul in the early 1960s when the first Marathi little magazines started appearing at the same time ( Shahda in 1955 and Aso in 1963). the little magazines also provided a space for many rising Dalit writers to showcase their work. There is a synergy between the two movements  that is important to note. The sabottari poetry is notable for its emphasis on the material as well as the textual. The angry materialism seen in the poems of Chitre or Kolatkar is comparable in terms of literary technique with much of Dalit literature’s emphasis on the body. 

Ashok Shahane, HASHIM BADANI FOR THE CARAVAN

There is much, much more to discover in this fabulous book. Interesingly enough Caravan magazine’s July 2017 issue has published a magnificent profile of Ashok Shahane. It is worth reading for its insight into little magazines the weekly meetings of the Bombay poets and how as Shahane a close friend of Kolatkar was entrusted with the manuscript of Bua. ( “The Man Who Wrote (Almost) Nothing” Ashok Shahane’s deep imprint on Indian modernist literature )

Kolatkar also gave Shahane a warning: “He said to me, you will probably have to wait 30 years — a generation — so that the intolerance outside decreases, before you can publish it. Now 12 years have passed, and the intolerance has increased, not decreased.”

” I don’t think society will be able to accept it now,” he said. “Conservatism has increased. And from conservatism has come intolerance, and from that various things. Now, how many years I’ll have to wait I don’t know.” 

There is a story Shahane likes to tell about the medieval Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar, regarding the relationship between the word and the world. Dnyaneshwar said that when we look for the sliver of the moon, the branch of a tree becomes useful as a guide to our eyes. Words are that branch, not the sliver of the moon itself. 

“What is literature? Literature has nothing to do with the real world. I mean, at the same time it has everything to do with the real world,” he said. “You need readers who can maintain this balance. Literary matters will stay in literature, and the interpretation will stay in your mind. You won’t come out and fight in the street. At least this much I expect. But I don’t think I can expect that. Someone will take offence, and then, things will unravel.” 

18 July 2017 

 

 

Perumal Murugan “Pyre”

“…if we start this festival here with this impurity in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha.”

Kumaresan, who had stayed quiet until then, suddenly lost his patience. ‘ I have married her,’ he snapped, barely concealing his irritation in his voice. ‘What is it that you want me to do now?’

‘Look here, Mapillai. Until we know which caste the girl is from, we are going to excommunicate your family. We won’t take donations for the temple from you, and you will not be welcome at the temple during the festival.’

( p. 132- 34)

Award-winning writer Perumal Murugan shot to fame with his novel, One Part Woman, translated from Tamil into English. Unfortunately it was the sort of fame he could have done without since he was unnecessarily persecuted by lumpen elements that took offence at his novel. He was forced to publicly announce that he would no longer be writing. Yet there was one more novel – Pyre. A slim one revisiting his pet themes — male protagonists, social structures, caste, rituals and ordinary and believable people. Pyre is about Kumaresan who leaves his village in search of work where he falls in love and elopes to marry his beautiful neighbour. Alas this marriage is not welcomed in his village instead they are ostracised. Curiously enough Perumal Murugan never mentions the castes explicitly. There are enough indications in the book that the bride, Saroja, is a Dalit or the caste formerly referred to as “untouchables”. A sad practice that continues to be prevalent in India.

Pyre or Pookkuzhi was first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications. On my behalf Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu asked Perumal Murugan if in the original text he had ever mentioned the castes. He confirmed he had never done it. The English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan by a brief introduction that dwells upon the novel being about caste and the resilient force it is, the unusual reliance of Perumal Murugan on direct speech, the difficulties of translating Tamil dialects used extensively in the story such as Kongu and  Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s own habit as a translator to first draft a “very idiomatic translation”. But once again there are no references to this being a story involving a Dalit girl. So I posed a few questions to the translator.

  1. How true is the English translation of Pyre to the original Tamil? The English translation of ‘Pookkuzhi’ is very true to the original — nothing has been changed or consciously re-interpreted.
  2. How did you work on the translation? Only with the text or did you keep asking Perumal Murugan for assistance? I worked on the translation over several months. It took a lot of time mainly because my graduate school work grew more demanding. I did a first draft, in which I tried to keep the translation as close to the Tamil syntax as possible. So, necessarily, that would read quite a bit awkward in English. Perumal Murugan was, at the time of translating Pookkuzhi, caught in the middle of the tyranny whipped up around Madhorubagan. So I wanted to give him his space and approached Thoedore Bhaskaran for help with questions about Kongu Tamil. He was most kind. But at the later stage, I was able to consult Perumal Murugan.
  3. Did the author “tweak” the text for the English translation? In the Tamil edition does Murugan mention any of the castes? The English translation does not mention any but it is obvious that the caste angle is the basis of the anger in the story. PM didn’t tweak the text for English translation. ‘Pookkuzhi,’ in the Tamil original, does not have explicit caste names or place names. There are some recognizable markers and cues, but it does not take names. The caste angle gets foregrounded without explicitly naming castes. Through conversations, through references to people’s faith in caste hierarchy and practices, the novel manages to put caste and the difficulties of inter-caste marriage at the center.
  4. Is the “Tholur” mentioned in the novel in Kerala or Tamil Nadu? ‘Tholur’ mentioned in Pyre is, according to the plot of the novel, in Tamil Nadu. I don’t think it is an actual place, but a middle-sized town Perumal Murugan creates as a setting for Saroja and Kumaresan’s meeting and romance.
  5. Is Saroja a Dalit? Again, it is never explicitly mentioned, but the story itself and how she is perceived and treated point us in that direction.
  6. Why did you not include a more detailed introduction to the translation? I didn’t include a more detailed introduction, because I think there is an immediacy and accessibility to the narrative, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of it. I didn’t want to assume that the readers needed such a mediation besides the translation itself, which is, in itself, an act of mediation. I do hope I will soon be able to write about the process of translation itself and how it works for me. So far, despite the labour and the time involved, translating has been sort of a zen place for me.

Pyre is a novel that is not easy to provide a gist of except to say it is one of those books that will forever haunt one especially the dramatically chilling end. It is seminal reading. It is stories that like this that bring out the rich diversity of Indian literature.

Perumal Murugan Pyre ( Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan ) Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 399.

6 June 2016

 

Kancha Ilaiah on “Why I am not a Hindu”  (From Stree Samya blog)

Kancha Ilaiah on “Why I am not a Hindu” (From Stree Samya blog)

This is a blog post that I have taken as is from the Stree Samya Books blog. The link is: http://stree-samyabooks.blogspot.in/2013/03/why-i-am-not-hindu.html

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy
Kancha Ilaiah
demy octavo pb 3rd rpt 2009 163pp ISBN 81-85604-82-7
rev. ed. with Afterword Rs 300

‘In Kancha Ilaiah’s conceptual universe, you feel the pain of life. In his ideas, you sense the vulnerability of battling unpredicatable waters. But in his intellectual adventurousness, you also sense the gaiety of robust combat and the fun in the fight.’~~Sagarika Ghose, Outlook

Kancha Ilaiah writes with passionate anger, laced with sarcasm on the caste system and Indian society. He looks at the socio-economic and cultural differences between the Dalitbahujans and Hindus in the contexts of childhood, family life, market relations, power relations, Gods and Goddesses, death and, not least, Hindutva. Synthesizing many of the ideas of Bahujans, he presents their vision of a more just society.
In this second edition, he presents an Afterword that discusses the history of this book, often seen as the manifesto of the downtrodden Dalitbahujans. He talks of its reviews as well of the abuse he has received from its detractors. He reminds us of the need of an ongoing dialogue. As he says, he wrote the book ‘for all who have open minds. My request to Brahmins, Baniya and Neo-Kshatriyas [upper class Sudras] is this; you learnt only what to teach others: the Dalitbahujans. Now in your own interest and in the interest of this great country you must learn to listen and to read what we have to say.’

‘The most gratifying thing for me was that it [this book] was listed as a millennium book [by The Pioneer] along with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilaion of Caste. Moreover, it has been translated into several Indian languages. In a way it has become a weapon in the hands of Dalitbahujan activists.’ [Afterword]

Kancha Ilaiah is professor and director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad and an activist in the Dalitbahujan and civil liberties movement.

He is the author of Untouchable God published by Samya in 2012,God as a Political Philosopher:Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism, and Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism.
Published By:Samya
Enquiries: 16 Southern Ave, Calcutta 700026 tel:033 2466 0812/ 033 6519 5737
email streesamya.manager@gmail.com website: www.stree-samyabooks.com

Jerry Pinto’s facebook status message (repeated from Oct 2008)

Jerry Pinto’s facebook status message (repeated from Oct 2008)

3066 EM and the big HOOM

    Jerry Pinto’s facebook status today ( 13 Sept 2012, 6:30PM IST).

Uploaded with his permission.

Written in October 2008
Dear All,
I just wanted to say that I went to a reading of the Sahitya Akademi and I came back with a little more utsah.
Dilip Chitre, speaking first perfect Hindi, then elegant Marathi and then English, named names. He asked whether creative writing could happen in times of terror. He asked whether it was reflected in our writing and whether we could choose to ignore it. He talked about the BJP and he named Thackeray and the Bajrang Dal and the terrorists and the naxalites. He said this with the air of a man who has nothing to lose. I was weeping at the end of his speech because I felt that I belonged to a tribe of people, writers, who still dare.
Then came Sunil Gangopadhyay. He read out a poem which had a title that said something like Now, we can’t laugh at each other’s beliefs. It was a badly translated poem but it talked about his tarakkipasand friend who now wears a ring because his health is bad, about his Marxvaadi friend with a huge Ganesha over the door, of his sense that the revolution has failed because we can no longer laugh at each other’s beliefs. It was a brave poem and one that made me think. I wish you could all have been there.
Later in the day, a Gujarati short story writer read out a short story about a Hindu woman catching a train and feeling terrified by the burqewaali next to her. And at the end of the journey, the burqewaali thanks the Hindu woman for being in the train because it is so difficult to travel alone. The train compartment is filled with the smell of her sweat and the hariyaali of the peas that someone is shelling and the fisherwoman’s tokri.
And there was a brilliant poem by a Manipuri writer named Sinha. He opens his window and the five elements wander into the room. They are earth and fire and air and water and ether. They announce they are there to kill him. “I want to die with an Indian bullet,” the poet says, “Kill me with an Indian bullet because I love Bharat.” We do not have Indian bullets, the elements answer because India does not make great guns. Indians don’t make anything well. Ask them to make plastic flowers and they make toothbrushes. What’s wrong with toothbrushes, the poet asks. “Well you can’t put toothbrushes in vases,” they reply. It was bizarre, it was allegorical, it was heartening.
A Hindi poet tells the fanatic, “Those matches you are carrying in your pocket? To burn someone else’s house? Don’t look now but they’ve set fire to your clothes.”
I was happy to be there.
I wish you could have been too.
Let’s shatter the silence.
Around Dalit injustice and atrocities committed on Hindus in the Valley and the branding of every Muslim as a terrorist and the attacks on Christians.
Peace! Shanti! Shalom!
Jerry
PS: All translations mine. I will try and get originals but poets are not techsavvy in the main.