English Posts

Guest post: Rohini Chowdhury, translator of “Bosky’s Panchatantra”

Guest post: Rohini Chowdhury, translator of “Bosky’s Panchatantra”

( I invited Rohini Chowdhury to talk about her experience in translating Bosky’s Panchatantra for Red Turtle. She translated Gulzar’s verse rendition of Panchatantra.

She is a widely published children’s writer, and an established literary translator. As a children’s writer, she has more than twenty books and several short stories to her credit. Her published writing is in Hindi and English, and covers a wide spectrum of literary genres including translations, novels, short fiction, comics, and non-fiction.

Rohini’s primary languages as a literary translator are pre-modern (Braj Bhasha and Avadhi) and modern (Khari Boli) Hindi, and English. She has translated the seventeenth century Braj Bhasha text Ardhakathanak, into modern Hindi and into English; both translations were published by Penguin India. Ardhakathanak is the autobiography of the poet, merchant and philosopher, Banarasidas; written in 1641, it is widely regarded as the first autobiography in an Indian language. Her translations include the Hindi novel Tyagpatra [The Resignation] by Jainendra, one of the leading Hindi novelists of the modern period, into English, also published by Penguin India.

Rohini was born and educated in India, and was a management professional before moving to London in 1997. She is widely travelled and brings in the nuances of the cultures of Asia, Africa and the West in her writings.

Bosky's Panchatantra by Gulzar, Rupa Publications, Rohini Chowdhury (transl)Gulzar Bosky’s Panchatantra Translated by Rohini Chowdhury, illustrated by Rajiv Eipe. Rupa Publications (2013)  Pb. Rs. 195

 When I was first asked to translate Gulzar’s verse renditions of stories from the Panchatantra, I was both excited and curious. Excited because I would be translating Gulzar, and curious because these were familiar tales, that I had grown up listening to; also, I had earlier translated several of these stories from the original Sanskrit Panchatantram. Moreover, these stories had been told and retold a hundred times before, in varying forms and formats, by writers and translators of all colours, and I wondered what new twist or angle Gulzar could possibly have given them. The excitement and curiosity were soon replaced by apprehension: Would I be able to do justice to the tales, or would my own familiarity with them stand in the way of my translation? And then, it was Gulzar that I was translating, and translating the work of a living poet of his stature brought its own demands— the quality of my translation had to match the greatness of his reputation, and please the poet as well!  As if these doubts were not enough, the tales were meant for children, and children, as anyone who has had anything to do with them will tell you, are far more demanding and discerning than adults. So there I was, faced with a trio of unprecedented challenges— an overly familiar subject, the text written by a famous and much-revered poet, and meant for children!

But I need not have worried, not about the ‘overly familiar’ at least! As I worked through the tales, I was drawn into their magic once more, and this time the magic came with the added sparkle of Gulzar’s wit and lively humour. Gulzar’s gentle imagination had fleshed out the original tales with dialogue and descriptions, and added events and happenings the way one does when telling a well-loved story to a child several times. The humour and the detail made these stories uniquely Gulzar’s, familiar yes, but new as well!

Gulzar Sahib approved my translation of the first story, and I breathed a sigh of relief. So the second worry was gone too! I could now focus on what, in any case, is any translator’s primary concern— to transmit the original in as accurate and as interesting a manner as possible to her audience, which, in my case, would be made up mainly of children.

Gulzar’s Panchatantra stories are in Hindustani, that inimitable mix of Hindi and Urdu that is so rarely heard these days, the tales related as he would have related them to his daughter, Bosky, when she was little. My main challenge now became to transmit the tones and nuances of his sparkling, softly flowing, idiomatic Hindustani into the much staider, crisper English.

Each language brings with it its own context, social, historical, cultural, so that when we move from one language into another, we also move worlds.  Translation therefore becomes a negotiation between languages and cultures, and the translator, as mediator, must address the issues that arise in such a negotiation: How accurately must the translation follow the original? Which words may be kept, which must be discarded? How best may an idea that is intrinsic to the original culture but alien to the other be transmitted? Can it be transmitted at all? I, too, asked these questions as I sat down to translate Gulzar’s stories.

Gulzar’s use of idiom makes the stories easy to read, but difficult to translate without taking some liberties with the original. Take, for example, the Hindi phrase, ‘jhoot ke pair nahin hote’ which translates literally into  ‘falsehood has no feet’.  In Hindi the phrase makes perfect sense, in English, not so much, not without further explanation of some sort. We finally settled upon ‘A lie never goes very far/For it has no feet at all’.

Certain cultural and social norms which are easily conveyed in Hindi, are almost impossible to convey in English, and compromises are inevitable. Consider the Hindu practice whereby a woman may not address her husband by name. This is conveyed perfectly in Hindi but in English translation, the cultural context is by and large lost. Take the tale of Manram Swaroop, the Brahmin. Though he had a wonderful name, no one ever used it: the entire village called him ‘Panditji’, and his wife, of course, would never address him by name:

His wife would call him

‘Hey, sir!’

‘Ho, sir!’

‘Do you hear me?’

That’s how she would address him…

Though technically correct and adequate for the purpose of telling the story, the translation does not and cannot in itself capture the social and cultural implications that are implicit in this tradition, unless it be accompanied by further explanation, either in the main text itself or in footnotes. But any such explanation would have made the text heavier, and given that my translation was not a scholarly exercise but aimed at young readers, I decided to skip the explanation.

Puns and double meanings are ever the translator’s bane and Gulzar’s gentle and clever play on words throughout the text presented another challenge in translation. Unfortunately, in some instances, this was inevitably lost in translation, though sometimes English actually enhanced the humour of the original. In the tale of the singing donkey, for example, English gave me the facility of playing with two words ‘donkey’ and ‘ass’ to convey the two meanings (the animal, and a fool) of the single Hindi word ‘gadha’.

Gulzar’s stories are in free verse, and therefore, to stay as close to the spirit of the original as possible, I wanted my translation to be in free verse as well.  Translating into verse constrains the translator even further for verse demands economy in the use of words, so that the translator must use words not only effectively, but both efficiently as well. I found myself writing and rewriting, cutting and pruning and editing, till the lines fell into place just so. An arduous exercise, but worth the effort.

Of course, as I worked, every decision I made— the words I used, the phrases I chose to explain or leave to the readers’ understanding, the ideas I chose to convey or glossed over briefly – was influenced by the fact that this work was meant for children.

One might ask, and I asked myself this: why should a translation aimed at children require more care from the translator than a translation aimed at adults? The answer, I realized, lay in the responsibility I feel when writing for children. Children are demanding readers, they absorb and observe, criticize and comment with a great deal more engagement and involvement than do most adults. They are also our future, and therefore, whether it is an original novel or story, or a translated work, children deserve the best that I can give.

London, 11 Sept 2013

(C) Rohini Chowdhury

Email: rohini.chowdhury@gmail.com

 

Guest Post: Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, and Tomoko Kikuchi, translator discuss “Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh”

Guest Post: Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, and Tomoko Kikuchi, translator discuss “Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh”

neerav sandhya ka shahar cover

Last month I heard about an interesting translation project — Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh. It was a Hindi translation (2013) of a Japanese publication (2004)– Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni. It had won the Grand Prize for manga at the 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival and, is probably the only manga comic that deliberates upon continued suffering of the second and third generation victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the year 1945. It has been published by Vani Prakashan in India. Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan and the translator, Tomoko Kikuchi, have shared their thoughts about this process. Aditi will be participating in the Book Souk, Jumpstart. ( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home ) Logo

 

 

 

Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan 

Three challenges entail a literary translation project undertaken by any publisher. The first and the most basic is staying true to the core and the essence of the original text under translation. The second is doing justice to the cultural idioms and paradigms as expressed in the original, while maintaining its relevance in the new audience. Third and most importantly, ensuring that the original text does not turn out to be anachronous for the new audience, who most likely do not share a similar history. The third challenge naturally applies to historical works from another culture, language or era or those dealing with long lasting impacts/influences of historical events.

Having worked extensively on translations in various world languages (including but not limited to English, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, German, French and Japanese) and with world renowned literary stalwarts (such as Zwigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymbroska, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, Salman Rushdie, Tasleema Nasreen et al) in the past, one would assume Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni would have been a fairly standard affair.

However, just like every translated work which is a product of extensive research, meticulous referencing and sheer volumes of literary acumen,Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni proved no different. In fact, it unveiled a fourth and new challenge, hitherto not faced by us. This had to do with the art form that Manga comics are and the added visual dimension which they brought to the table. All of a sudden, ‘being true to the original’ developed a new meaning. With visuals being the ready reckoner window to the heart and souls of characters in the comic, the treatment of cultural idioms, anachronism had to be more accurate with very little scope for exercising literary liberties. Page

Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni is a ‘slice of life’ account of the far reaching social, psychological and physical setbacks for the Japanese youth caused by the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 68 years ago. The culmination of journey from Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni to Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh required meeting the aforementioned challenges. It was imperative to have a translator on board who had a deep understanding of the Japanese culture and also had exposure to the Indian cultural paradigms and Hindi language itself. The translator of the book, Tomoko Kikuchi, a young Japanese woman who studied Hindi at JNU and completed her Ph. D. in Hindi literature at Kendriya Hindi Sansthan, Agra was the steering force behind the project.

Even with the right translator on board who could translate sans use of a bridge language like English, we often found ourselves standing on the crossroads with the cultural idioms of Japan and India during the project. For example, the female protagonist in the first part of comics refers to her same-aged male friend with a Japanese pronoun that translates to ‘aap’ and not rather casual ‘tum’ in Hindi. Despite the awkwardness of the formality that the use of ‘aap’ would bring in, the translator chose it over ‘tum’ because according to her, it reflected the real dynamics of such friendships among young people in Japan fifty years ago. As the story continues in the second part, ‘Sakura ka Desh’, the new gen-Y Japanese girls are not shown referring to their male friends with an ‘aap’, exerting their equality by using their names or ‘tum’.

We discussed this and many similar issues at length with linguistic experts like Dr Rekha Sethi (Assistant Professor, Hindi, Delhi University). We finally concluded that although we were well intentioned in remaining honest to the original text and avoiding superimposition of indigenous reflections over it, the possibility of linguistic improvisation at few places, could not be overlooked. Translating a Manga comics in Hindi was a daunting yet fulfilling task for our editorial department. Publishing prose or poetry is always much easier than comics. We treat comics as an art form that involves synchronizing the editorial team towards exploring deeper layers of narration, conducting intensive research on the subject matter and above all, paying attention to what translator has to say. Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh is the result of this process.

Authored by Fumiyo Kono, Neerav Sandhya Ka Shahar: Sakura Ka Desh (2013) is originally published as Yunagi No Machi Sakura no Kuni (2004).

(C) Aditi Maheshwari 

Tomoko Kikuchi, Translator 

Tomoko Kikuchi, skv No2, GBSSS Gblock, GBSSS DDAFlat, 22 Aug 2013दो साल पहले मैंने सुप्रसिद्ध जापानी सचित्र पुस्तक “हिरोशिमा का दर्द”(NBT) का हिन्दी अनुवाद किया, जो छोटे बच्चों को परमाणु बम की त्रासदी को बताने के लिए सर्वोत्तम पुस्तक है । उसके बाद मैं सोचने लगी कि उसी संदेश को भारत के युवा पाठकों तक कैसे पहुंचाया जाए । अक्सर युवा पीढ़ी युद्ध या विश्वशान्ति के विषय से विमुख रहती है । उन दिनों मुझे संयोग से जापानी कॉमिक “नीरव संध्या का शहर, साकुरा का देश” का परिचय हुआ । 2004 में जापान में प्रकाशित उस कोमिक ने मुझे सहसा आकर्षित किया और मुझे लगा कि कॉमिक्स का रूप भारतीय जवानों को भी जरूर आकर्षित करेगा ।
अनुवाद की पुस्तक को प्रकाशित करने के लिए पहली शर्त है कि यहाँ के प्रकाशक को ढूंदना, जो बहुत मुश्किल काम है । इस पुस्तक के लिए मैंने कई प्रकाशकों के साथ बात की, आखिरकार वाणी प्रकाशन से मुलाक़ात हुई । माहेश्वरी जी ने मुझे सहसा यह जवाब दिया, “जापानी कोमिक्स का हिन्दी अनुवाद एक नई कोशिश है, बहुत दिलचस्पी है ।” यह सुनकर खुशी से ज्यादा मुझे हैरानी हुई, क्योंकि तब तक मैंने एक भी प्रकाशक से ऐसे सकारात्मक और स्नेही बात नहीं सुनी थी । इस प्रकार माहेश्वरी जी की कृपा से पहली शर्त पूरी हो गई । बाद में जापान फाउंडेशन की सहयोग योजना के तहत प्रकाशन के लिए कुछ आर्थिक सहायता भी मिल सकी ।
अनुवाद करते समय दो भाषाओं से संबंधित संस्कृति और इतिहास का पूरा ध्यान रखना होता है । पाठकों को अपरिचित संस्कृति से परिचित कराने के लिए अनुवादक को दोनों को जोड़ने वाले पुल की भूमिका निभानी होती है । सीमित जगह में पूरी सूचना डालना बहुत मुश्किल है । इतना ही नहीं, कोमिक्स में एक विशेष प्रकार का प्रयोग भी है, जिसमें आवाज और भावना को लिपिबद्ध किया जाता है।
मसलन, जब कुत्ता आवाज़ देता है तो हिन्दी में भौ भौ कहा जाता है, पर जापानी में वन वन । ऐसी आवाज भी है, जिसका जापानी भाषा में शब्द उपलब्ध है और हिन्दी में नहीं । जब कोई हैरान हो जाता है, तो जापानी में उस मनोभावना को “गान” उच्चारण से अभिव्यक्त कर चित्रों के साथ अंकित किया जाता है , परंतु हिन्दी में इस प्रकार का कोई प्रयोग नहीं है । जापानी कोमिक्स के अनुवाद में इस प्रकार की बहुत सारी समस्याओं का एक एक हल निकालना पड़ा, आपको भी पुस्तक देखने पर जिसका अंदाज होगा ।
अनुवाद में एक संकट यह भी था कि एक तरफ कोमिक्स का संवाद एकदम बोलचाल का होता है, परंतु दूसरी ओर मेरी भाषा एकदम पीएच. डी. की है । इस स्थिति में समन्वय लाने के लिए डॉ रेखा सेठी जी ने मेरी बहुत मद्द की । कभी उनके घर में, कभी आई. पी. कॉलेज में लंबे समय तक बैठकर हमने एक एक संवाद का सही रूप ढूंढ़ निकाला । उसी दौरान अनजाने में हमारे बीच भारतीय और जापानी संस्कृति का काफी आदानप्रदान हुआ होगा ।
(C) Tomoko Kikuchi 
28 Aug 2013 
Guest post: Paro Anand, storytelling in multiple tongues to children

Guest post: Paro Anand, storytelling in multiple tongues to children

 

In Nov 2003, Paro Anand and I were invited by the French Government to attend the salon de livre jeunesse. It was a wonderful trip. While there Paro was invited to tell stories in a French bookstore. I was fortunate to attend the session with Paro. It is nearly a decade ago and I have some wonderful pictures from that particular evening, including one of a child sitting under a table listening to Paro with his mouth open. Subsequently Paro has narrated stories on various platforms, to multi-lingual audiences. In the post below she shares some of these experiences.

Logo I decided to ask Paro Anand to write this note after realising that Jumpstart 2013 would focus on “Speaking in Tongues”.( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home) It is a platform meant to discuss children’s literature across languages and address the idea of bibliodiversity. What better way to do it than hear from a practitioner of the trade, who has done exactly this…told stories in multiple languages to various audiences around the world. Unfortunately Paro Anand will not be attending Jumpstart this year.

 

Paro Anand telling stories in English, Hindi and Punjabi to a French-speaking audience in a Parisian Bookstore, Nov 2003.

Paro Anand telling stories in English, Hindi and Punjabi to a French-speaking audience in a Parisian Bookstore, Nov 2003.

Storytelling is all about language, about words – right? I thought so too. And if someone told me that it was possible to tell stories to an audience who did not understand a word of what you were saying, well, that would be absurd. I thought so too.

Except that I have been put into this situation on several occasions – four times, in fact. The first time was early in my storytelling career where I was faced with an audience of Telugu-speaking children to whom i was a ‘firangi’. I flung my body into service and mimed and acted out every word. They got it. Well, most of it.

The next time was in a bookstore in Paris. I had a few animal stories prepared, but the young, French-speaking audience was totally unfamiliar with English. So i told the story in Hindi – and Punjabi. I peppered it with a handful of French words and the kids were singing Punjabi songs by the end of the session! Armed with that success, I repeated the experiment in Geneva, Switzerland, this time along with an Indian storyteller who also spoke German and French. I performed in Hindi and Punjabi and she answered my questions in German and French. It’s not as if the kids only understood half the session. They had a grip on the story as a whole and many said they’d enjoyed hearing a story in another language. I asked which part they liked best and they said the lion’s part. Not the French part, just the lion’s part!

But the crowning glory in multi-language crown was doing a session with a Zulu South African performance teller called Gcina. We met for the first time on stage with the audience already assembled. I had no idea which stories she was going to tell, I did not know her work and she did not know mine. But the kids were Hindi speaking so she needed a ‘go-between’. We were both game, though and that’s all that mattered. She launched into her story using English with a bit of Swahili where it would be apparent what the words were and I mirrored her action for action, word for word. It was magical, for me most of all. By the end, the audience was shouting out the Zulu words and Gcina was answering in Hindi!

Which only goes to show that it’s the heart and soul of a story that we absorb, the words are only a vehicle. I have personally enjoyed hitching a ride on an unknown vehicle and discovering where that journey will land me.

27 Aug 2013

(C) Paro Anand

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Prof. Alok Rai, writer and translator

Alok Rai 2Prof. Alok Rai, Ex Faculty, Department of English, University of Delhi.

Born and bred in Allahabad, Prof. Alok  Rai grew up in an affluent Hindi – Urdu environment which explains his strong linguistic background. He holds a graduate degree in modern English literature and became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. At, the University College of London, he had written a Ph.D. dissertation on George Orwell and later he has also published books on the said author while also writing on the formation of modern Hindi. As a translator his translation of Nirmala was published by Oxford University Press many years ago. He has been involved with the business of writing, with language in society. His interests include, Modern English Literature; cultural processes in modern North India, with particular reference to issues of language and literature.

He is also the grandson of the legendary Hindi writer Premchand. Years ago when I was guest-editing the special issue of Children’s and Young Adult literature of The Book Review I asked him for a review of series of biographies that had been published in Hindi by Children’s Book Trust. ( Chirsmaraniya Mahaan Vyaktitva Vol 1-9, Illustrator: Sahana Pal Children’s Book Trust, 2001) I no longer have the bibliographical details with me but I discovered that the review had been posted online. ( http://www.orchidapps.com/goodbooks/node/5968#.Uhs0T5Jgdsl ) . I am reproducing the review as is. 

We hate poetry, Keats wrote, that has a design on us. This set of short “inspirational” biographies, published by the Children’s Book Trust – with an average of 5 or 6 worthies per each one of nine volumes – goes well beyond design. This is, as the criminal lawyers say, “intent”- as in “loitering – and the intent is deadly serious. Because of course the underlying purpose of the series, indeed of such series, is nothing less than the abduction of the young, seizing their minds well before they have reached the age of consent. Even more crucially, of dissent.

There is a tendency in our gerontocratic civilization to treat matters pertaining to children as being not very important. There is no reason, here, to run through the familiar complaints about the priorities that enable aging gentlemen to acquire toy phalluses at enormous state expense even as they can’t find the funds to provide schools, or meals, or medicines for millions of children. And yes, of course, I know that there is a distinction to be made between the said aging gentlemen and the good men and women who have collaborated in this CBT project of providing these inspirational biographies – and of course I’m joking when I accuse them of “criminal” intent. But there is a serious argument here: what we do to our children, whether with the connivance of the NCERT or without it, is crucially important. And while this CBT series might seem a somewhat modest vehicle to bear the burden of a serious argument, at least there is no danger here of offending Their Lordships, and so understating the seriousness of the issues on which They have pronounced breezy obiter dicta.

But let us get over the grosser matters first. No one can assemble a list that is universally acceptable, and while one may quibble about why X or Y is or isn’t one of the persons chosen for such hagiographic, inspirational treatment, the actual CBT list is, for better and worse, catholic and random. There are sundry 19th century figures – Gokhale, Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Syed – and lots of the other kind. Muslims? – aforementioned, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Kidwai, Azad –and I wouldn’t expect Jinnah here anyway! (No Nehru or Gandhi, either, by the way.)  Women? – Vijayalakshmi Pandit (!), Annie Besant, Kamla Nehru, Ba. Writers – Bankim, Bharati, Iqbal – and scientists – Meghnad Saha, Bhabha, Visweshwarayya. Lots of politicians, of course: whatever would we do without them? More importantly, whatever shall we do with them?  I might have said that the inclusion of Savarkar and Shyamaprasad Mukherji in this august company is surprising – but it isn’t, is it?

It is also not my case that there is no room for inspirational stories in the necessary socialization of the young. Indeed, I would argue that it is the neglect of this essential dimension of education in our schools that is both a cause and a symptom of the coarsening of our society, the rampant desensitization that emboldens a Modi or a Singhal or a Togadia to gloat over the grief of the victims of Gujarat in the hope of reaping an electoral advantage. Persons – and so, a collective, a civilization of persons – is distinguished by the texture of their moral anxieties, by their unique sense of moral occasion, and by the narratives in which the implications of their defining moralities are laid bare. Nothing very complicated, this is Arjuna at Kurukshetra, being lectured to by his charioteer – endlessly kitschified, this still fulfils an essential sustaining function. Just as the moral conflicts that are regurgitated by Bombay melodrama do. We are the kind of people who notice, so to speak, moral conflicts. And that indeed is exactly where my problem with this inspirational gallery assembled by the CBT lies. Quick clarification: whether or not our society is rapidly descending into anomie, into a moral vacuum, is not at issue. The question is, how is this situation to be addressed? Are the self-proclaimed and much-touted doctors really equipped with a cure – essentialized religion, 100% proof ! – or are they themselves only symptoms of the malady, and more likely than not, will only exacerbate the situation by their crude ministrations? My answers to these question are, respectively and respectfully, no, yes, and yes.

Elizabeth Taylor, the well-known philosopher, once said, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”  Well, there aren’t many vices on offer here – but there is a serious danger of OD-ing on virtue!  OK, cut to the chase – obviously, every “life” is a selection – children discover very early on that you can’t even tell a single day in its entirety. So, my problem is not with the fact that the biographies here assembled are selective – but rather with the understanding that motivates the selection. The way I understand it, inspirational narrative works through the common narrative experience of identification: above a certain minimal level of complexity, the reader/listener is enabled to identify with a number of characters or, modishly, subject positions, with good and bad, with high and low, so that one can experience moral difficulty, because it is only out of moral difficulty that one develops a sense of moral complexity. Children’s fables about always  being good and always telling the truth and always always respecting your elders are treated by children with the contempt they deserve.  The trouble with these monsters of goodness is that no one can identify with them – one may be forced to admire them, or one admires them, but one cannot identify with them: they inhabit a mythic realm far above the muddled worlds in which we must live. So, what’s wrong with that? They are models of goodness, towards which we aspire, right?

Wrong! In fact, such “heroic” biography has been the staple of fascist pedagogy: larger than life characters who never never do anything wrong, except to draw some significant moral lesson from it, so that their narrated lives are a relentless accumulation of virtue – virtual money in a virtuous bank, so to speak. However, this dread moral lesson works rather paradoxically, because its highly coloured universe succeeds only in communicating not the possibility of virtue for us mere mortals, but its impossibility. The humanist alternative to such fascist “heroic” biography is biography that enables us to identify with the common humanity – common to reader and narratee, to mahaan vyaktitva and child reader – by showing the great man also as being vulnerable to human frailties etc. The possibility of virtue. We are enabled, ideally, to redeem the ordinary life we live by aspiring to live it differently. “Heroic” biography – the mode that I have designated as fascist, both by association and tendency – on the other hand, encourages one to turn to such biographies as necessary and necessarily mythical for a life that is rendered unredeemed and unredeemable. That is the sense in which such simple-minded, direct reaching after unalloyed virtue, through the instrumentality of selective biographies is not just naïve and pointless, it is positively harmful:  even worse than the TV that our poor children would rather watch. And who can blame them?

26 Aug 2013

(C) Prof. Alok Rai

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Prof. Alok Rai will battle it out along with three other renowned experts at the forthcoming JumpStart festival

( http://www.jumpstartfest.com/home ) during the session entitled ” The Great Language Debate”. It promises to be provocative – even revolutionary – ideas about the future of our languages and cultures. Are we building a healthy and sustainable ‘bibliodiversity’ for the next generation? Or are we creating a whole generation of linguistic exiles, neither ‘at home’ in their mother tongue nor in English? Can we move towards a common language without ‘flattening’ culture? 

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Fish in a dwindling lake

( This was a review commissioned last year, but never published. So I am uploading it today on my blog. 26 June 2013)

Fish in a Dwindling Lake is a collection of short stories written by well-known Tamil writer, Ambai. It consists of short stories and four long stories. Interestingly the short stories are merely titled as “Journey”, but the longer stories stick to the motif of the journey. The narrator is usually a universal “she”, who is never given a name, probably making it easier to discuss various positions and responsibilities of women. To bracket them as merely as a wife, mistress or a reliable widowed aunt would be doing injustice to the characters created. They do occupy these socially defined and recognized spaces, but Ambai’s strength as a storyteller shines when she is able to describe their lives or an incident or a conversation or a journey that they undertake, but in a manner that shows these strong women have the quiet ability to question and make their choices and be at peace with them. For Bimla in the title story, “Journeys had become the symbols of her life. Journeys with objectives, journeys without; meaningful journeys, journeys made of necessity; journeys which were planned, but never happened; journeys which broke all decisions; journeys which had become rituals.” The stories raise questions about human relationships, sexuality of a woman and the fact that there is nothing wrong in discussing it or being aware of it. In “Journey 5”, Gomati Ammal invites her childhood friend, now a renowned professor, to move in with her after she is widowed. They belonged to the same village near Tirunelveli, but belonged to different castes. Plus, her family was paying for his education. She pleaded with him when they were young to elope and get married, but he refused and married a classmate of hers. But once she was widowed and her children were settled abroad, she wrote to the professor, “I have lived all these years in accordance with your wish. Now at least let me be with you?” So they worked out a convenient arrangement where he visits her twice a month. “He is never asked at home, why and where he is going. Neither does she say anything when she sees me. After all she is a woman who studied with me, isn’t she? Isn’t she my friend?” Using the personal pronoun or naming the protagonist instantly distances the reader from the experiences of the character, although there is an instant recognition and empathy with her. But with a character in the third person it is possible to share minute details that usually remain confined to a woman’s domain, but strike a universal chord, as the pregnant girl in “Journey 4” says ironically, “only a wife knows what goes on inside a house”.

These stories were first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu. The publisher, Kannan Sundaram says that the English edition has “translated and published all the stories in the Kalachuvadu edition in the same order of stories with the same title. The first story in the Kalachuvadu edition has not been included as it was included in another collection of Ambai stories in English earlier –In the Forest a Deer.” For the translator Lakshmi Holmstrom, “The current collection of eleven short stories translated from Tamil; it showcases Ambai’s technical skills at her mature best. Her style can be elegant, witty and lyrical by turns. … Some of her short stories work through ironic juxtaposition of incidents, or through repetition of images, as in poems. The longer stories, on the other hand, while still using the repeated symbol or motif, are intricately constructed, moving back and forth in time almost cinematically, interweaving different kind of texts and narratives.”

Ambai is the nom de plume of C. S. Lakshmi, a renowned feminist, who established SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women). So it is probably possible for Ambai to jot down these varied instances in a woman’s life since she is immersed in these stories 24×7. In an email to me after the publication of this anthology, she said that for a storyteller “stories are all around one. We must just open ourselves to them.” Hence, the title story “Fish in a Dwindling Lake” is about Kumud, her relationship with her extended clan and friends. But it also works beautifully by tracking the life of Kumud, who quietly and steadily, as happens with women, adapt and survive since the instinct for self-preservation is extremely strong. So like the fish in a shrinking lake, she may have to struggle to survive but will always find sufficient oxygen to live. This is an anthology worth reading.

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 250 pp. 150

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007

( As the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been the patron of Sahitya Akademi. The following are extracts from a speech he delivered extempore at the awards for 1962. These are given to books of outstanding literary merit published in the Indian languages during the preceding years. This has been reproduced in the Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Editors are Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas. They have edited four volumes of stories, essays, speeches published in the institute’s journal, Indian Literature for fifty years. Many of these have been translated into the English language. A pleasant surprise was to discover this wonderful speech by Nehru and another one by Aldous Huxley on “Literature and Modern Life”, delivered in 1961.)

“…Sahitya Akademi deals with all the languages of India and tries to encourage them and to bring about as much as possible, not a synthesis of them, but a mutual understanding and comprehension of them by translations from one language to another. ….

Really the growth of the Indian languages took place afresh about a hundred or hundred or twenty years ago. That period coincided with the introduction of printing, etc. in India and it was influenced naturally by ideas which had come to India through the English language mostly, through other languages too. The modern world gradually crept into India and that influenced our languages. And the modern literature in these languages is naturally much affected by the modern world, modern problems. That is as it should be. And so we find an interesting aspect of this questions, that, in a period when English was more or less the official language of India under the British Rule and was affecting large numbers of our people, the coming of English affected the Indian languages in a different way by indirectly encouraging them, because English happened to be the vehicle through which we came into contact with the new world. And, therefore, modern ideas, modern concepts began to enrich our languages through English or because of our knowledge of English, and our languages grew. I have no doubt they will grow. Even now they are strong and very effective languages and a large number of books are being published, books of merit. I have no doubt this will grow. But to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” ( p.319-320)