India Posts

“Qabar” by K. R. Meera

Qabar or grave, is a novella by award-winning writer K. R. Meera ( published by Westland Books). It is a curious story. Is it possible to share the story briefly. No. Suffice to say that the dark parallels drawn between a woman’s existence and that of a Muslim in a very patriarchal and Hindu-dominated society, respectively, are very disconcerting. For the characters, it is akin to being dead while alive, confined to their qabar. Resorting to elements of magic realism or preying upon classic myths of witches and djinns, does not in any way ease the reader while trying to comprehend Qabar. The competent translation by journalist/author, Nisha Susan is very good. She achieves the balancing act by slipping in Malayalam words into the English translation without making the text jarring to read.

Qabar is a pleasure to read.

19 Jan 2022

All India Radio / historic moment

This morning I finished recording a panel discussion on “Children’s literature in India” at All India Radio, the national radio channel. After the fabulously animated session was over, the producer informed us about the magnificent history of the table that we were recording at.

This table is where the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, made his “Tryst of Destiny” speech.

This table is where Mahatma Gandhi appealed to the nation to stop rioting. It was the one and only time that he visited the AIR studios — 12 Nov 1947.

This table is where Emergency was declared.

All India Radio has ensured that it is preserved and used. In all these decades they have never changed the bar from which the microphones hang.

Needless to say, all of us had goosebumps, by the time the producer finished his story.

Perhaps the producer was so pleased with the outcome of the recording. He really liked it. Truly, I am glad he did not tell us earlier. The moment he did, all of us jumped out of our seats. It just seemed surreal to be at the same desk where so many defining moments of our country’s history had played out. Apparently, most of the AIR employees are told this when they are training for their posts. But most do not share it with their guests as they are usually in a tearing hurry to leave after the recording.

Or

Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of our conversation where I shared a lot of our publishing history with reference to children’s literature. Made a point to connect it with developments in modern India. Maybe the producer was responding to the histories we were sharing? I do not know. It just happened so spontaneously.

I have no idea why were singled out for this precious piece of news. But this is a privilege indeed to be at the same table that has witnessed so much of modern Indian history.

Below are photographs of display cabinets in the foyer of AIR showcasing sound recording equipment.


25 Nov 2021

On Sridhar Balan’s “Off the Shelf”

Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.

The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.

Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.

Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)

Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.

This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.

31 July 2020

Interview on Radio France International with Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint

In March 2020, India was slated to be the Guest of Honour at the Paris Book Fair. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, it was cancelled at the last minute. But in anticipation of the book fair, the French Institute in India had begun preparations in 2019. One of these initiatives was to organise a tour for a delegation of French journalists in November 2019 to meet publishing professionals. During this trip, Radio France International journalist, Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint interviewed many people, including me, across Delhi. Mumbai and Kolkata. Her half-hour programme giving a bird’s eye-view of publishing in India was broadcast on Saturday, 26 June 2020.

Taslima Nasreen’s “Shameless”

In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.

Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.

More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.

Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.

The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.

6 May 2020

“Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi” by Sudhanva Deshpande

Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi is an account of the left activist Safdar Hashmi who was brutally murdered on 1 Jan 1989 at Jhandapur, Ghaziabad. Safdar Hashmi was 34 years old. Jan Natya Manch was staging a 30-minute play called “Halla Bol” on the road when the actors were interrupted by some politicians who wished to cross. Hashmi requested them to return in a little while. They seemed to listen and turn away except they returned bearing iron rods. They attacked the troupe leaving Safdar Hashmi very badly injured. He had been hit on the head many times. By the time of his death Hashmi had been hugely influential in street theatre with his group called Jan Natya Manch or Janam. He was a member of the CPI ( M).

In Halla Bol Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the earth-shattering events of the day. He was one of those who took the injured Safdar Hashmi to hospital. Working “backwards” from the opening scene of the murder of Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the main highlights of Safdar Hashmi’s life. Both men share similar qualities of being street theatre practitioners and a political activists. So while this book is promoted as a biography, it falls more into the category of a memoir and an unusual one at that — a collective memoir. Through much of the book Deshpande is able to rely upon memory as in many instances he bears witness to the events that occured but for many others he interviewed many people who knew Safdar Hashmi and/or had worked with him. There is a veritable army of people mentioned in the text and acknowledged at the end of the book too. It is a democratic inclusiveness of all those who knew Safdar Hashmi — as a man, a colleague, a relative, a theatreperson, a political activist etc. Deshpande’s account while highlighting that Hashmi used the arts for communicating his politics. As cultural critic Kunal Ray mentioned in his review of the book, “Street theatre is political. It began as a workers’ movement against capitalism. As a medium of performance, it facilitates direct conversation or confrontation with the audience or onlookers defying the restrictions and gentility of a proscenium space. It also undermines the hierarchy of the performer and the audience. Street theatre is democratic and Safdar Hashmi believed in a vision of the arts that is secular and people-oriented. He also believed in an art advocating social justice. It is therefore impossible or perhaps unpardonable to think of Safdar without his politics.” ( Kunal Ray, “Review: Halla Bol – The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande”, Hindustan Times, 24 April 2020) . Interestingly enough National Street Theatre is 12 April which is also Safdar Hashmi’s birthday.

Nandita Das, Sudhanva Deshpande, Moloyshree Hashmi et al reading out the first two scenes of Halla Bol in Mumbai, March 2020.

Halla Bol is an interesting testimony of a life well lived and rudely cut short by hooligans. It may be considered a biography but is more of a primer on theatre in India with a fascinating account of the evolution of street. More importantly an amalgamation of traditional forms of artistic expression that was combined with drama for a public performance. Today we take this for granted, whether watching a play, reading a book or even watching a film. In the 1980s it was still a brand new concept and had the desired impact upon the audience, mostly workers for Jan Natya Manch performances, and who suddenly did not feel alienated any more from cultural performances as plays like “Halla Bol” used vocabulary, situations, dialogue etc that was familiar — “Just like us”. Safdar Hashmi was undeniably sharp, intelligent, a hugely gifted artist, a visionary and knew how to combine smartly political acts with creative expression. Yet there are moments in the book which make it seem like a hagiography since all those interviewed or reminiscing about Safdar Hashmi continue to miss the man fiercely. In a biography one expects there to be a distancing between the author and his subject offering a perspective to the reader but this does not always happen in Halla Bol. Nevertheless this book is a treasure trove of memories, a people’s history of theatre movement in India, evolution of street theatre, documentation of various attitudes towards performing theatre, empowering future generations of theatrepersons by enabling them to be confident in borrowing elements from traditional forms of theatre/ folk art and making it their own. Within months of its publication the book has been translated into quite a few Indian languages. It is a seminal book on Indian theatre.

Read Halla Bol

4 May 2020

Guadalajara International Book Fair 2019: Guest of Honour, India (Nov 30 – Dec 8)

India was the guest of honour at the Guadalajara International Book Fair 2019. The Publishers Weekly carried some promotional articles on the engagements — Guadalajara 2019: Introducing India, the Guest of Honor! and India Rights Catalog and Participating Publishers .

The following images taken at the fair by the Indian delegation were shared by the National Book Trust, the government agency, responsible for the collaboration.

19 Dec 2019

Indo-French Collaboration: Paris Livre 2020 and New Delhi World Book Fair 2022

Picture by Arpita Das, Founder-Publisher, Yoda Press

On the morning of 11 November 2019, Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Institut français India/Embassy of France, invited a few of us Indian publishing professionals to address the visiting delegation. The aim was to give the French visitors a bird’s eye-view of the Indian book market with specific aspects highlighted such as regional language publishing, literary prizes, and literature festivals.

I had been invited to address the gathering on the publishing market of India. I chose to dwell on the characteristics of the publishing market in India along with some important points to consider from the point of view of the French publishers.

In March 2020, India will be the “Guest of Honour” at the Paris Book Fair and in January 2022 France will be the “Guest of Honour” at the New Delhi World Book Fair. This reciprocal invitation for this collaboration was announced during the official visit of President E. Macron in India in March 2018 when he met Prime Minister N. Modi. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. The delegation consisted of journalists and cultural experts: Eve Charrin (Marianne and Books), Gladys Marivat (LiRE magazine), Lorraine Rossignol (Télérama), Sophie Landrin (Le Monde correspondent for India and South Asia — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives), Catherine Fruchon (Radio France Internationale and editor-in-chief/ host of the show Littérature Sans Frontières ), Christian Longchamp ( Artistic advisor and playwright, and co-programmer of the annual multidisciplinary festival ARSMONDO, Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg), Sébastien Fresneau ( VP Book and Entertainment Events at Reed Exhibitions France and General Manager of Livre Paris, the Paris Book Fair) and Néguine Mohsseni ( Press Attachée, Institut Français, Paris).

Here are some of the salient points of the roundtable.

Indian Book Market

India is geographically deemed as a sub-continent. It is large. Politically it is a federal structure with a centre and state governments. The population is over 1.3 billion people. 22 languages are recognised officially by the Constitution of India and English is not one of them; instead it is the lingua franca. Interestingly language spoken changes ever so slightly every 20 kms, making it impossible to consider India as a homogenous book market as there are so many languages and scripts to consider.

The Indian publishing industry consists of multiple players. There are publishing agencies like the National Book Trust and the Sahitya Akademi (the organisation for literature) that were established by the government, soon after Independence in 1947. Apart from these the well-known multi-national players exists and a number of independent publishers. Of late the self-publishing market is a growing segment that has resulted in a lot of people getting their works published and new vendors are being established.

Bookselling happens through brick-and-mortar stores as well as online such as Amazon and Flipkart. Online retail allows many customers/readers to access books from Tier 2 and 3 towns which was not possible earlier. According to Nielsen BookScan, the estimated value of the Indian book industry is approximately US$6.3 billion. It has been more or less at this position since the last Nielsen report of 2015. This is for various factors, most immediate being – GST (July 2016) and demonetisation (Nov 2017). Despite this the book market in India is undoubtedly growing and there is a book hunger. Again this is for multiple reasons, some of them being that more than 60% of the Indian population is under 35 years age, making it young, mostly literate[1] or still studying, so in need of text/books. The K-12 segment constitutes the largest segment of the Indian book market as 50% of the population is below the age of 25 years old. The next segment of interest would be the trade list that consists of MBS (Mind, Body, Spirit) children’s literature, women writing, literary fiction, general fiction (mythology, historical fiction, fantasy, romance, commercial fiction etc.) narrative nonfiction (history, biographies, commentaries, memoirs etc.), cookery books etc. The children’s literature market cannot be ignored for in the past decade it has grown phenomenally. This is not just for the school textbook market but for leisure reading. Some of the factors contributing to its growth have been the presence of school book fairs, literary weeks in schools and writing retreats for budding authors, initiatives started by Scholastic India and now adopted by many other players. Also the insistence of many schools to include supplementary readers and/or books for leisure reading alongside the prescribed curriculum. Also, ten years ago, one of the most popular book festivals for children called Bookaroo was established. Since then it has spread not only to other parts of the country but overseas too. The reading public in this country is growing and this is obvious by the rapid rise of piracy with many of the print editions available at vendors holding large piles of poorly published editions to sell at crossroads and temporary stalls seen on pavements.

Book fairs are very popular too. Unlike some of the international book fairs where the focus is also selling of rights, most fairs in India function as retail outlets. A book fair becomes an occasion for customers to throng the stalls buying their supply of books. The customer profile could vary from individuals, families to institutions browsing looking for titles amongst the front and backlists and often scrummaging through at the remaindered/second-hand bookstalls too. The biggest of these is the New Delhi World Book Fair but then there are many regional book fairs organised too.

A major contributing factor to the book hunger in this country has been the extraordinary growth in popularity of literature festivals beginning with the mother of them all – “Jaipur Literature Festival”. It is organised over a period of five days in January and has many parallel sessions with domestic and international speakers. This model has been emulated across the country with versions of it springing up. Apparently more than 80% of the half million visitors that visit JLF are below the age of 29 years old. This demographic seems to be more or less consistent for other litfests in the country with more and more of the young visible in the audience.

Advancements in digital technology have enabled readers/writers to access books from overseas, participate in online discussion groups, access literature on their phones/pen drives/ebook readers etc. And those that like reading the ebook, then purchase the print copy too. Increasingly it is happening in many scripts.

An indication of the robustness of the publishing are also the increasing number of business conclaves. Four of the prominent ones are the CEOSpeak Over Chairman’s Breakfast organised jointly by the National Book Trust and FICCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce), PubliCon organised by FICCI, Jaipur Book Mark organised by Jaipur Literature Festival and Jumpstart organised by the German Book Office.

Apart from this there are many literary prizes, including specific ones focused on children’s writing, women’s writing, fiction, debut authors, translations etc that have been launched. Some are very lucrative, even awarding the translator, handsomely.

All said and done, the Indian book market is really many markets within a market!  

French Book Market

The French book market is smaller but equally robust. Some of the key characteristics are its Fixed Book Pricing, its protection of the brick-and-mortar stores from online players like Amazon and the prominent book fairs like Paris Book Fair. Also publishing translations of World Literature into French.

Indo-French collaboration

The French Book Office’s presence in India has helped foster Indo-French collaborations in the book industry. From sponsoring visits of Indian publishing professionals to France for specific book-related events and vice versa to actively promotes translations and publications of French authors into Indian regional languages under the aegis of the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore). French books translated in 2018: 75 titles including 1/3 supported by the Embassy of France. In addition to this the French Institute recently established the Romain Rolland Prize that translates French literature into a regional language. Apart from this consistent soft diplomatic initiative with the active cross-pollination of literature and cultures, the Institut Francais in New Delhi, now facilitated the crossed invitation from the governments of France and India regarding the book fairs. India is the guest of honour at Paris Book Fair 2020 and France will be at the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2022.

A great literary feast awaits the literary communities in both nations!


[1] According to the Census of India, the definition of “literate” in India is that person who can sign their name.

17 December 2019

“The Jamun Tree” by Krishan Chander

Or listen to Yasmeen Rashidi, The Wire, narrate it: https://thewire.in/books/watch-icse-drops-krishan-chanders-1960s-story-which-questions-centralised-governance

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

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