Arshia Sattar, writer and translator, did her PhD from the department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. The renowned Indologist, Wendy Doniger, was her advisor. Arisha Sattar is a reputed authority on the epics. She has written a wonderful collection of books, for adults and children, exploring the Hindu epics.
It is her fabulous retellings of the epics for children that are under discussion here — Mahabharata ( 2020) and Ramayana (2016), both published by Juggernaut Books. To convert oral stories into print, stories that have had centuries of storytelling behind them, as well as readers have very fixed notions of how these stories are meant to be, this is not a mean task. Arshia Sattar does it well. The stories are immensely readable. They also work very well if meant to be read out aloud. Or if someone is familiarising themselves with the stories for the first time. The books have been beautifully illustrated by Sonali Zohra. In fact, the two publications also highlight the journey of the illustrator, from being relatively unknown in the publishing world, Sonali became a “name” as indicated by her name being mentioned on the cover of the Mahabharata but not the Ramayana.
My only wish is that the publishers would focus as much on stories of other faiths as much as Hinduism. When last seen, India was not a theocratic state, despite an emotional cloud engulfing its citizens in the hope that it is. We are still a “Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic” when last heard and as enshrined in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. So perhaps the publishers who ascribe to secular credentials could consider addressing the spectrum of religions practised in our magnificent country. Thereby enabling children and adults to be sensitised to what else exists in this multi-cultural society. Many of us are proud of this heritage as is evident in the fantabulous stories being documented by the India Love Project on Instagram ( @indialoveproject). It is time younger generations too were acquainted with their rich cultural inheritance.
Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar has written his first picture book for children — The Big Thoughts of Little Luv ( Juggernaut Books). It stems from his experience of being a single parent to his twins, Yash and Roohi. In his preface to the story, Karan Johar states that his family debunks the notion of a traditional family as he is a single parent to his children, born through surrogacy. His mother also helps look after the twins. It is a sweet little story that attempts to challenge the very gendered notions of bringing up kids and permitting them their freedom to explore and develop as individuals in their own right.
But I have a couple of quibbles with this book. Children are very sharp and perceptive readers. They are also very literal minded. So when Karan Johar declares that he is a “proud mom”, the illustrations of the woman in the story fulfilling the role of a mother are pretty confusing. Secondly, he insists on referring to his set of “mixed twins” which is wrong. A boy and girl pair of twins is always referred to as fraternal twins. Mixed twins are non-identical twins born to multi-racial families and differ in skin colour and other traits considered to be racial features. This muddle is carried forth in the story where in the opening line Luv says “I am confused. Everyone says my twin, Kusha, and I are just the same.” Again, this is wrong. Fraternal twins are never identical. Boy and girl twins are always fraternal. Same sex twins maybe fraternal as well. Being a fraternal twin myself, these silly lapses in storytelling are plain annoying as it is perpetuating the myth of twins being freak shows and having this uncanny ability of being same-same.
Having said that I am pleased that Karan Johar has made his foray into storytelling for children. Ever since I first read his memoir-essay about learning how to tackle his stammer with his drama teacher, I have always wondered why he never wrote more often. I wish he did. Hope he writes regularly in the future, perhaps for a slightly older readership. He will be excellent at it.
Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Hershort story collection Sleeping with Movie Stars, published by Penguin India, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms.
Girl Made of Gold is Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel, published by Juggernaut Books. It is historical fiction set in Thanjavur in the 1920s. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a young devadasi called Kanaka and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume tht Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. It is a novel that certainly leaves an impact. Even award-winning author Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni was moved to say ‘Girl Made of Gold is an exquisitely written novel, bejewlled with authentic cultural details and characters who take up permanent residence in the reader’s heart. This story of love, loss and discovery will keep you turning the pages until the astonishing end.’
Now the author is completing her second novel, set in Tanjore in the 1930s.
Q1. How long did it take to write Girl Made of Gold? Which was the initial idea in the plot that gripped you and developed into a story?
The initial idea is exactly as I tell in my Afterword: I had a few friends visiting from the UK staying with me in my flat in Madras, so I’d invited VAK Ranga Rao to meet them. He’s a great raconteur, simply full of stories, especially given his multi-faceted life experience, born into a royal family, being a dancer, music critic, film afficionado, well-read, well-travelled. He told us all this story that a devadasi had told him: a girl of her own illustrious family had turned herself into a gold statue in order to escape the attentions of a man. That story raised so many questions – why didn’t she want the man to become her patron? What was so awful about him, or about her situation that she would want to escape from it by means of such a drastic step? And if you don’t believe in girls turning themselves into gold statues, then what really did happen to the young devadasi? That story, from the moment I heard it I knew it was going to occupy my thoughts for a long time. I remember that I actually felt a shiver down my spine.
Then I discovered that such stories of devadasis are in the stalapuranas of many temples – when a man takes a devadasi’s half-chewed paan into his mouth, he becomes a great poet; when a king has a devadasi’s long beautiful hair shaved off, it grows back overnight. Within that world, a devadasi turning into a gold statue is accepted.
Q2. How many drafts did you need to create before completion?
Getting to even one full draft that I could hand to someone else to read was a long laborious process. Clearly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. By the time I actually completed my first draft, I’d been researching and writing bits and pieces of the novel for more than five years. But finally, I had managed to get the characters alive in my mind, and I could then record their actions and sentiments almost effortlessly. Or at least, with real enjoyment rather than struggle. So I didn’t need to completely rewrite many sections. The first draft felt like a huge achievement, to get the words onto the page so you can see what’s wrong, what needs editing, what needs to be filled out. It still took a year from the first draft to the finished version that is in print.
Q3. What is the writing schedule you follow?
You have to remember that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing. I was a dancer. What does a dancer do? Well, we warm up, do some basic exercises, and that’s what I try to do as part of a daily practice. I write every day for no purpose whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s just for the feel of my pen moving across the page. I have established rituals of practice that work for me, just as I did as a dancer. I write in long hand, the early stages are never on a computer. The pen has to be just right – black ink, fountain pen, cheap, so I don’t cry if I lose it, since I carry it with me everywhere. The paper has to be just right – squared paper in an A5-sized spiral notebook so it can fit in my bag. I can get very attached to a particular notebook and then if the company stops making it, it’s a tragedy – I worry that I’ll never be able to write again. It has happened to me several times over the years, so now when I find a good notebook I buy ten. No Moleskins or anything expensive – I have to feel that I can write pages and pages of the most utter nonsense without fear of wasting money.
Then, when there’s a germ of a story, I have to let myself be consumed by it, I need time with no fixed appointments of any kind. Then I’ll write intensely and with great focus for hours and hours, early in the morning, late at night, until the story is done. At some point I will feel it settle into a still vague but somewhat coherent shape. At that point I go on the computer and start transcribing my notes. After that all the writing is a process of rewriting, editing, word choice, much more analytical and conscious because the unconscious, creative work has already been done. During this second stage I go back to behaving like a human being, bathing, brushing my teeth, doing chores. I can drop into and out of this part of the process and go back to meeting the world’s demands.
Q4. Do you develop backstories for your characters? I ask as at times it seems as if you are very familiar with the characters, almost as if you are clear about their movement, their emotions, their inner thoughts. Much like you would expect a dancer to internalise a story in order to give it a strong expression.
I don’t think of it as ‘back story’, because during the time when I’m writing in long hand, I have no idea whatsoever as to what will be useful and what not. So yes, there is a great deal that turns out to be back story, but it is at a much later stage of the writing process where decisions like that are made and I come to know what goes into the story and what remains in the notebook, what needs to be foregrounded and what is there simply to make the character real for me. It’s very true that it’s like bringing a padam to life in dance, thank you for noting that. I develop a feel for the nayika as young or mature, as quick to anger, or always calm, as the kind of woman who hides her tears, or one who weeps openly, by embodying her again and again in practice. That’s how I come to know her very well, from the inside out, as it were. That’s the only method I know to make the facial expressions cohere into a nayika that has life on stage.
Q5. Devadasis occupy an unusual space in society. Social rules accord them respect and status while giving them social mobility as well. It is a complicated relationship but as you have shown in the novel, it also makes the devadasis very vulnerable. Why did you choose the devadasi storyline as the basis of your novel?
I didn’t choose that storyline so much as it entered and planted itself in me. But I was fertile ground for that kind of seed, because the repertoire of bharata natyam that I’d been immersed in for so long, was the devadasi’s bodily experience. I’d already learned padams like the one which says, ‘Why should I be afraid of anyone’s gossiping/ with a great man like him as my lover?’ or ‘Where is the nose ring you promised me?’ or ‘That cunning woman has trapped him/he won’t come back to me’. The songs suggest a world of jealousy, illicit relationships and intrigue – what could be a better inspiration for a novel?
Q6. In Girl Made of Gold there is a lot of brutality, a murder and the violent patriarchal attitude of the men towards to their women. Was it hard to write these portions of the story?
When I was working on the novel in London, newspaper stories about the rape and murder of the young girl, only eight years old, in Kashmir, were everywhere, and at unexpected moments, a sudden image of her suffering would come out of nowhere to blindside me, and I could do nothing but weep. What are verbal descriptions compared to real life cruelty? So yes, it is difficult to write of pain and violence, but at the same time, once it’s on the page, there is some semblance of relief. Those scenes of brutality in my novel are written from my own experience, or the experiences of women I spoke to. Which woman in India, or in any other country for that matter, has never been molested? I’d really like to meet her. I was molested when I studied dance in Madras, not as violently as in my novel, but it certainly gave me a point of entry into the scene. And when I went to Gokak to talk to the devadasi women there, they described with extreme frankness the horror of being forced as young girls to have sex with much older men. It’s no fun for the girl, I can tell you. And yet she would often fall in love with the man. I was always conscious that emotional truth is often messy and difficult and complicated.
Q7. Was it easy to transit from a being professional Bharatnatyam dancer to a novelist? What were the pros and cons?
I can’t regret being a bharatanatyam dancer, even though I never had much of a career. Being a dancer requires such discipline – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you sleep, all the care that is required – no high heeled shoes for example, no make-up daily, so that my skin could recover from the stage make-up. And since I wasn’t ever a well-known dancer, my performances were few and far apart, yet I still had to stay in practice, because the deterioration is so quick – miss two or three days and then take twice that long to get back to the same level. I was lucky: my two gurus Nana Kasar and Kalanidhi Narayan made the process of practicing the end in itself; they taught me to give up performance as a goal, and instead make daily practice an end in itself. This is a lesson I took with me into writing.
I felt very lucky to be a dancer when I saw the struggle my friend the painter Vasuddha Thozur had to store her work. A space had to be found to keep her beautiful paintings, while my work left no residue, stopped weighing on me the minute I was finished with it. I loved that feeling of not being tied down by what I’d already done. And the masterpieces weren’t hung on the wall, they were within me – ragamalika varnum, a Jayadeva ashtapadi, a thillana in Mohana raga, they became part of my cellular structure. On the other hand, when I stopped dancing, I had nothing much to show for decades of work. A dance piece that no one was interested in when I first performed it, can’t find a more sympathetic audience in the next generation, as books sometimes do. So that’s the big difference – a book has a life separate from the writer, while the dance and the dancer are indivisible.
Q8. In a Bharatanatyam performance, the onus is upon the dancer to tell a story from multiple perspectives. In a riveting dance performance the multiple characters stand out. In some senses, it holds true for a novelist as well. What was your experience in writing the novel, telling a story using words as opposed to being a dancer telling a story using visual expressions and hands to emote?
The experience of dancing is so immediate and flowing that is it is hard to describe exactly what’s happening in those moments of eyes, fingers, arms, legs, torso, moving in stylized ways. Not only that, an analytical approach to what’s going on can inhibit the process, and for me, the attempt has always been to silence that part of my consciousness that watches and comments, usually critically, on what I’m doing. That movement in and out of characters is an embodied melting of consciousness like a stream around rocks, and no surprise, the word for that state is ‘flow’. It’s very exciting but also risky, and what it means is that sometimes, it’s not going to be a riveting performance at all.
In my writing, I try to do the same thing, get into that state of flow, but with the advantage that once the words are on the page that critical faculty can be exercised to get rid of whatever isn’t working.
Q9. Did you at any time find that the characters were in control of the story rather than you or were you always sure how the plot would develop?
It’s a strange kind of magic the way the characters take on a life of their own – many writers have made the phenomena central to their fiction, as in Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Other’, where there is a confusion between the character and the author, or in Peter Carey’s novel, ‘My Life as a Fake’ where the character tries to kill his creator. Those are doppelganger stories, but the experience is the same even when the character is very different from the author. All of us who love reading know that feeling, otherwise why visit Baker St. to see where Sherlock Holmes lived? And if the characters in other people’s books can be so alive, then it’s no surprise that one’s own characters take on a life of their own and do exactly as they please. The plot develops out of their behaviour, and I have to wait for them to do something, and watch and listen, and write it down, rather than move them around like pawns on a chessboard, or puppets. That’s why it’s so time consuming! Characters are very stubborn and don’t take kindly to hints from the author, at least in my experience.
Q10. What were the challenges in writing historical fiction? What did the research for this novel entail? What are the examples of historical fiction that appeal to you?
The challenge of historical fiction is to be true to as many facts as you can ferret out about the times you’re writing about, and it’s very difficult to figure out very simple things – like when did people in a small village in South India start having clocks on their walls, or watches on their wrists? How would people talk about time if there wasn’t a clock? Or when cars were introduced to India, how did they get gas? There were no petrol stations. I read about a rich man who’d sit in his car and have it pushed along the street by his servants. Try as I might, I couldn’t work that wonderful little detail into Girl Made of Gold. Maybe into the next one. Little things like that make it both treacherous and great fun to write about a time period that is outside one’s own experience.
I tried to read newspapers and magazines written in exactly the times I was writing about, as well as novelists who were contemporary then. I read the District Manuals for Tanjore, Puddukottai and the Madras Presidency for the relevant years, at the British Library, and I actually went to the District Collector’s Office in Tanjore, and they let me sit at a desk, while a clerk brought me boxes of papers which I could read, actual letters about the daily affairs – droughts, harvests, crimes, the weather. I lived in an agraharam near Tanjore, and spoke to old people who remembered the period. I could do research forever if I let myself, because there is endless information that can be unearthed.
I read ‘War and Peace’ when I was a student at Kalakshetra in the early 1970s, when there was literally nothing else to do and books from the Russian Cultural Centre were cheap; I skipped over the history at first, but then I’d have to go back and read those parts too, out of boredom with staring at the walls of my room in the hostel.The voice of the geisha Sayuri in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ held me in its thrall, I was completely transported into a different culture, values and time period that became vivid and real. I’m also an avid reader of the Judge Dee murder mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty, by Robert van Gulik. Hillary Mantel has made historical fiction newly popular, but the period, place and people she writes about are simply not of interest to me, so I haven’t read anything by her, though I’ve been very inspired by her fearlessness in going against prevailing versions of history.
Q11. A mesmerising aspect of your storytelling in the novel are the sentences. I had to put the book down many times as I kept getting the sense that you were trying to replicate a dance performance in the manner in which the words were strung. Did you play with the structure of the sentences consciously?
Thank you for saying that. Whenever I get stuck I use structure as a force to make something happen. So if everything on the page is tedious, I use the rhythms of the dance korvais as a constraint: That – dit – tha num – num – num – di. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily keep that pattern in the finished sentence, but at least it gets my pen moving, and maybe some of that rhythm has left a trace in the finished novel.
Also, the most famous analogy about the bharata natyam performance, the margam, is that it’s structured as a temple. Balasaraswathi said that alaripu is like entering the temple; by the time the padams are danced, one has reached the dark interior of the sanctum sanctorum. That mapping of dance onto temple stayed with me, and I brought it to mind while I wrote the novel, it was a potent image, so if some resonance of that has struck you, I’m very gratified.
Q12. Nowadays the trend is to get stories adapted to film but do you think Girl Made of Gold can be adapted into a dance performance?
Can I confess that I would love to see the Netflix series of Girl Made of Gold? I can imagine a girl like the beautiful 14-year-old Aparna Sen in Satyjit Ray’s ‘Teen Kanya’ playing Kanaka. Someone, please, make this happen.
The dance performance would have a very different shape and purpose than the novel. For example, if it was done like a Kalakshetra dance drama l don’t think it would work. But of course there is a way to do it, concentrating on communicating not plot but emotion – so much of the emotion is drawn directly from the padams and javalis of the bharata natyam repertoire anyway. Let those songs tell the story of desire and its power, not in a linear narrative, but in a more impressionistic and multidisciplinary layered story-telling. That’s probably how I would do it.
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard is a Bengali translator, author, and professor of English and world literature. She lives in Virginia with her husband and plants. She has translated the late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Blood. Set in Britain and America of the late 60s and early 70s, it is about a highly successful Bengali physicist Tapan who settles abroad. Despite all the successes he has garnered he is unable to put to rest the trauma he suffered as a child when his father was killed by a British officer. This occurred a little before India attained Independence. Coincidentally he meets Alice in London; she is the daughter of his father’s killer. Tapan’s world goes topsy-turvy as he tries to figure out what to do since he nurses a visceral hatred for the former colonial rulers of India. It is a peculiar situation to be in given that he has more or less decided to relocate abroad and never to return to India. It impacts his relationship with Alice too who is more than sympathetic to his feelings and is willing to let the past be bygones but it is a demon that Tapan finds hard to forget. He does go to India briefly to attend a wedding and meet his paternal grandmother — someone whom he loves dearly and who had lost two sons in the Indian Freedom Struggle. So much so that the Indian politicians are now keen to bestow upon her a monthly allowance recognising her sons’ contribution as freedom fighters. It is upon meeting his grandmother, who is past eighty and who witnessed much sorrow in her lifetime, that Tapan realises it is best to forget and forgive that which happened in the past and move on. Otherwise the past becomes an impossible burden to shed. Blood is a brilliantly translated novel that does not seem dated despite its preoccupations with the Indian Freedom struggle and a newly independent India. For all the stories and their intersections, it is evident that Blood is a modern novel which is worth resurrecting in the twenty-first century. The issues it raises regarding immigrants, familial ties, free will, social acceptance, loneliness, etc will resonate with many readers. As Debali says in the interview that “As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.”
Sunil Gangopadhyay, who died in 2012, was one of Bengal’s best-loved and most-acclaimed writers. He is the author of over a hundred books, including fiction, poetry, travelogues and works for children. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel Those Days. This novel Blood was first published in 1973.
Here is a lightly edited interview conducted via email with the translator:
1 . How long did it take you to translate Blood? In the translator’s note you refer to two editions of the novel. What are the differences in the two editions?
I was on sabbatical during the spring semester of 2018 and Blood was my new project. I began working on it around the middle of January and completed the first draft in May. However, I let it sit for a year before returning to revise it.
I chose to use the second edition (1974) of Blood, rather than the first (1973), because the author made a few revisions. The alterations are minor, mostly cosmetic, and include replacing a few words in the text. These are mostly English words transliterated into Bengali: For instance, in Chapter 1, when Tapan asks Alice if she has the right glasses for serving champagne she responds, in the first edition, with “Don’t be fussy, Tapan” whereas, in the second, she says, “Don’t be funny, Tapan.” The revised second edition also corrects spelling errors and misprints.
2. The book may have been first published in 1973 but it seems a very modern text in terms of its preoccupations especially the immigrants. What were the thoughts zipping through your mind while translating the story?
To me the novel’s handling of immigrant concerns feels brutally honest. Blood refuses to romanticise the expatriate condition as exile and, instead, adopts an ironic stance towards immigrant angst, homesickness, and nostalgia. Yet, the irony is tempered with pathos in the narration’s uncovering of immigrant dilemmas. For instance, an Indian immigrant uneasy about her fluency in English chooses to stay indoors, but remains enamoured with England which she nevertheless cannot fully experience. Through the exchanges between the novel’s protagonist Tapan and his friend Dibakar, Blood also offers the realistic view that immigration is often driven by practical considerations. As an Indian expatriate myself, I found Sunil Gangopadhyay’s frank treatment of the subject refreshing.
This does not mean that western societies get a pass in the novel. Through situations both small and large the novel exposes the racist and anti-immigration views prevailing in the United Kingdom, during the 1960s. That said, Blood is also critical of racial prejudice amongst Indians. Given current debates around immigration and citizenship both in India and across the globe, the novel’s treatment of this subject remains relevant.
Connected to issues of migration and home, the novel brings to the fore complex questions about homeland and belonging, uncovering how the location of “home” has been rendered unstable through the Partition’s severing of birthplace and homeland.
3. What is the methodology you adopt while translating? For instance, some translators make rough translations at first and then edit the text. There are others who work painstakingly on every sentence before proceeding to the next passage/section. How do you work?
For me it is a mix of both. I typically plan on translating a text it in its entirety before proceeding with the revisions but this intention is usually short-lived and seldom lasts beyond the first few pages. I find it difficult to progress until the translation feels most appropriate to the context, fits the voice, and fully conveys the meaning of the original. While translating Blood I have spent entire mornings deciding between synonyms. It is like working on a jigsaw puzzle because there is only one piece/word that fits. And sometimes I have had to redraft an entire sentence (even entire paragraphs) to elegantly capture the sense of the whole!
4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project?
First, the cons, the impulse to interpret. And the pros: the joy of being able to partake in the (re-)making of something beautiful.
5. Are there any questions that you wished you could have asked Sunil Gangopadhyay while translating his novel?
Were he alive, I would have requested him to read a completed draft of my translation.
6. What prompted you to become a professional translator?
My translation-work is driven primarily by the love of the text and the desire to find it a larger audience. In the future, I hope to be able to devote more time to it.
There is also a pedagogical dimension to this. In my capacity as a teacher of world literature, I aim to expose students to the vast and rich body of vernacular writings from the Indian subcontinent, inevitably through translations. And from personal experiences in the classroom, I know that many of my students are genuinely curious about writings from around the world. Blood is a small step in that direction. It is a book I want to teach.
7. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation?
I believe the first translated book I read was one of the many “Adventures of Tintin”, The Secret of the Unicorn. But children’s books aside, the book that came to mind immediately upon reading your question is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It may not have been the first translated work I read, but it ranks among the most memorable ones. This is because while I knew that Marquez wrote in Spanish, Rabassa’s translation preserved the novel’s artistic qualities so meticulously that it lulled me into thinking that I was reading the original. It is a quality I aspire to bring to my work.
8. How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project?
Not to sound self-absorbed, but my decision is based largely on how deeply the work moves me. My first translation project involved a short story by the Bengali author Jyotirmoyee Devi, entitled “Shei Chheleta” (“That Little Boy”). It depicts the predicament of a young woman who lost a family-member in the Partition riots. The author handled the subject with great sensitivity without resorting to the maudlin. The story would not leave me alone. I had to translate it because I needed to share it, and discuss it with friends and colleagues who did not read Bengali. Similarly, Gangopadhyay’s novel intrigued me when I first read it. I thought about the characters long after I had finished the book, imagined their lives beyond the novel. I knew that one day I would translate it. It hibernated within me for years because, in the meanwhile, there were Ph.D. dissertations to write and research to publish. Finally, a sabbatical gave me the gift of time, and I just had to do it.
9. How would you define a “good” translation?
Preserving the artistic, poetic, and, of course, propositional content of the original is central to my understanding of a good translation. To resort to the old cliché, it is about conveying the letter and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the original. The translated text, I feel, must itself be a literary work, a work imbued with the beauty of the original. Additionally, readability is fundamental. Therefore, I asked family members and friends to read the draft translation for lucidity and fluency. For this reason, I am immensely gratified by your observation about Blood that, “It has been a long time since I managed to read a translation effortlessly and not having to wonder about the original language. There is no awkwardness in the English translation”.
10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
It is difficult for me to say since I never received any formal training in translation-work. To me, translation is more than just an academic exercise, it is an act of love — love for the text itself, love of the language, and the love of reading. For me the best preparation was reading, and reading widely, even indiscriminately. While my love of reading was nurtured from early childhood by my mother, I had the privilege of being exposed to some of the finest works of world literature through my training in comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Calcutta and, later, in literature departments in America.
11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
The translator walks a tightrope between the two, where tipping towards either side is perilous. A translation is, by definition, derivative, so fidelity to the original text is essential. Yet, a translation of a literary work is much more than a stringing together of words in another language. It is itself a literary work. And it is incumbent upon the translator not only to make the work accurate and readable but also literary in a way that is faithful to the literary qualities of the original.
12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; J.M. Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; and A.K. Ramanujan’s translation of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.
More recently, Supriya Chaudhuri, Daisy Rockwell, and Arunava Sinha have produced quality translations from Indian languages.
The Times LitFest Delhi ( 1-2 Dec 2018) was organised at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I moderated two sessions with the both panel discussions focussed on reading. The first panel was on how do cultivate the love of reading amongst children.
TOI, 2 Dec 2018
My co-panelists were Saktibrata Sen, Programme Director, Room to Read India Trust; Manisha Chaudhry, co-founder Manan Books; Sonya Philips, Founder, Learning Matters Foundation and is a reading specialist and Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor (Hon) to the Director Education, Government of NCT Delhi, India. The freewheeling conversation was on ways to promote reading. Every panelist spoke about their strengths and initiatives. From being a part of the government as is Mr Sharma and realising that it is critical to have a reading corner in every class and every section. So much so that the Delhi government has now allocated a handsome budget of Rs 10,000 / section to buy books.
L-R: Manisha Chaudhry, Shailendra Sharma, Sonya Philips, Saktibrata Sen and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
Fact is that even today few families can afford to buy newspapers, magazines, let alone books. So the first time many children particularly in the government primary schools hold a book is their school textbook. Few have any role models in the adults and older children in their immediate environment and as Principal Advisor to the government, Mr Sharma’s job is to introduce the love of reading. Both Mr Sharma and Mr Sen were of the view that reading is a lifeskill that is critical and needs to be learned beyond just being able to identify your name in whatever written script the individual is familiar with. Mr Sen, representing Room to Read, is involved in setting up partnerships with the governments to set up libraries. In India the Room to Read India Trust is working with 11 state governments. Ms Philips stressed on how till Grade 2 a child learns “how to read” but after that the emphasis is on “learning to read”. Ms Chaudhury with her many years of experience in publishing, looking at multilingual publishing and the critical need for children to have books in their own languages rather than only in English is what spurs her on to create new material every single day. She has recently launched two new magazines in Hindi called Mithvan and Chahak, the latter is meant for the early grade reader.
Everyone was of the agreement that it is important to create the joy of reading and align it as closely as possible to the child’s lived experience rather than alienate him/her from using complicated language in the written word. This was illustrated beautifully by an anecdote Mr Sharma shared about the complicated language used in a Hindi textbook to describe food which was a far cry from what is commonly used at home on a daily basis. Manisha Chaudhry spoke of her earlier initiatives to publish in tribal languages.
Alas we ran short of time otherwise it was promising to become a wonderful conversation on how to cultivate the joy of reading in children.
Join Sonya Philip, Manisha Chaudhury, Shailendra Sharma and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose in conversation with Saktibrata Sen – brought to you by Room to Read in the session, 'Cultivating the Habit of Reading in Children' at #TLFDelhi
The second panel discussion was on “What is India reading?”. The panelists consisted of commissioning editors of four prominent publishing houses — Himanjali Sankar, Simon & Schuster India; Ranjana Sengupta, Penguin Random House India; Parth Mehrotra, Juggernaut and Udayan Mitra, HarperCollins India. Once again a freewheeling, adda-like, conversation about trying to figure out what India reads. The role of a commissioning editor has changed quite a lot in recent years. Traditionally commissioning editors were responsible for forming reading tastes but as Udayan Mitra pointed out that at times now the editor has to commission based on events and trends too. It is a kind of commissioning that did not exist earlier.
Today readers are accessing books through multiple platforms and in various formats — ebooks and audio books. It becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain how and what anyone is reading, let along a sub-continent like India where so many languages abound and there is rich regional literature too. Measuring reading tastes as Juggernaut is doing with their app and also because they are able to control their production pipeline while platform is something few are able to do even now. Most editors and publishing houses rely on print products that once released into the market are impossible to track. Some may be sold through brick-and-mortar stores, others through online spaces and yet other copies get sold as remaindered copies and secondhand books.
Listen to the conversation. So much was said. Many important bases within the Indian publishing landscape were touched upon. So much to think about.
What is India Reading? watch the conversation live at #TLFDelhi with Udayan Mitra, Himanjali Sankar, Ranjana Sengupta and Parth Mehrotra talking to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
Noted Tamil writer Perumal Murugan published two books Poonachi ( published by Westland/ Amazon) and The Goat Thief ( Juggernaut Books ) earlier this year both of which have been translated by N. Kalyan Raman. Poonachi is a fable about a goat by the same name. It is the comeback novel of Perumal Murugan who had sworn never to write again once he had been persecuted by right wing forces. On the face of it is a simple tale about an elderly couple who take in a tiny goat kid with bleak chances of survival. Yet, the old woman nurses Poonachi back to health who goes on to prosper and be quite a boon for the couple. The story has its twists and turns but it is the dark and sinister side of the authoritarian society that comes to the fore when the couple take the goat to be tagged. Similarly the collection of short stories written by Perumal Murugan over the years deals with similar themes of social injustice and inequality experienced particularly by the poor but this time it is an exploration through relationships and not necessarily exploring a broader canvas of society/community or a village as many of his novels tend to explore. Even though Perumal Murugan’s novels are far more expansive and exploratory than his short stories ( judging by whatever little is available as translations in English) his explanation for wading into short fiction mentioned in his introduction to The Goat Thief is worth reading:
Writing a new short story within the universe of the Tamil short story, which has thrived and flourished since the 1930s, can be challenging. More than any other form, it’s the short story that modern Tamil literature has brought off its greatest accomplishments. The number of short stories written in Tamil probably runs into hundreds of thousands; of them, at least several thousand pass muster. Among those, several hundred stand the test of time and endure. If a writer wants to write a short story that will take its place among those hundreds, an independent mind, a unique perspective on life and well-honed writing skills are essential.
When I started writing short stories, I didn’t have any such awareness. As I wrote and read more and more over the years, I became conscious of these requirements. Taking them into consideration, I set aside the problem of form and started paying attention to the theme of the story. I realized all stories fall into one of two categories. The first category focuses on the problems of living according to the rules of society, while the second concentrates on exceptions to these rules. Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages.
Perumal Murgan of course has become an international ambassador for Indian Literature with his works being sold in various book markets including translations. He has begun to travel extensively on literary programmes. All of which is extremely happy news given that a few years ago he had vowed never to return to writing or have anything to do with literature. So the recent turnaround of events in his favour is very welcoming. His stories are easily read in English for they are smoothly translated.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published. Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘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?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)
When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.
These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.
Books on religion will always find readers across a broad spectrum of general readers to believers. It makes good business sense to invest in such books as there will be generations of readers interested in learning these stories while being alive to the times they are written in. So whether it is Yashodhara which is a novel with a strong woman protagonist. Shyam is a beautiful retelling of the Bhagavata Purana or the story of Krishna. Or even a collection of religious stories retold for children.
Yashodhara: A Novel about the Buddha’s Wife by Vanessa Sasson tries to recreate the times Yashodhara lived in. As professor of Religious Studies in the Liberal and Creative Arts and Humanities Department at Marianopolis College, Quebec, Vanessa Sasson is clear that she has written “hagiographical fiction” and not “historical fiction” as “scholars have yet to determine any material certainty when the Buddha lived (if, that is, he lived at all) and how much of his story might be true”. Also whatever the time period may have been 5 BCE is nearly impossible to recreate as few sources exist narrating what life may have been like at the time. She continus:
The earliest Buddhist writings that we do not possess come later, beginning around the first century CE (more or less). The stories I have spent my academic life reading are based on the memories of a world five hundred years younger than the one the Buddha and Yashodhara probably knew. I cannot begin to imagine all the changes that took place during the time period we lost.
The story I have told here is, therefore, a story inspired by later hagiographies. It is not historical fiction, but perhaps what can be more appropriately labelled ‘hagiographical fiction’ ( if such a label existed). …some of the material in this book is based on early Buddhist literature. Some of it is based on what we know as early Hindu literature. Some of it may be historical, but most of it is not. And some of it has come out of the playfulness of my mind.
Yashodhara begins smartly. There is a crisp pace to the narrative. Some of the descriptions are lovely such as that of the fabrics, the palace, garden landscapes and even that of the monks gathered. Even the conversations are entertaining. As the story unfurls it is obvious there are 21C elements such as the strong women portrayed and grooming of the young Yashodhara by her mother. Then midway the novel the pace became sluggish probably for no fault of the author entirely except that she seems to be torn into two between being too familiar with Buddhism as an academic and that of wanting to a great storyteller. It does not necessarily make the text clunky but it does make it a trifle dull for the lay reader. For Buddhists this novel would be fascinating in its attempt to tell Yashodhara’s story of whom little is known. Yashodhara definitely has the potential to be adapted for television drama.
Shyama is an illustrated retelling of the Bhagavata Purana or the stories of Krishna as narrated by Devdutt Pattanaik. He has also illustrated the book. The stories are short and neat and told in a manner that only an expert mythographer could convey. For these are stories deeply embedded in an oral tradition of storytelling so over the centuries have morphed and have different versions in existence. But in Devdutt Pattanaik’s deft handling the stories acquire a linear narrative that is easy to comprehend and can be embellished further if required in the telling/a performance. For instance take the story of Shyam and Draupadi which is about the friendship between the two but told ever so beautifully and simply stressing that friendships between opposite sexes were known, acceptable and permissible even in the scriptures.
… Shyam and Draupadi shared a special bond. She was not his beloved like Radha. She was not his wife as Rukmini and Satyabhama were. She was not his sister as Subhadra was. She was not the haughty princess of Panchala who had snubbed Karna at the archery contest. She was his friend.
It is put forth directly and in a straightforward manner with no room for different perspectives. This is the author’s many years of experience in storytelling at public gatherings and in writing. It has undoubtedly help distill the stories making them easily understood to a contemporary audience.
Every story told in the book is followed by related information placed in a box. For this particular story of the points shared one is particularly interesting. Devdutt Pattanaik says:
Draupadi identifies Krishna as sakha, or friend. Traditionally, men have male friends or sakhas, and women have female friends or sakhis. The relationship between Krishna, a man, and Draupadi, a woman and another man’s wife, is unique.
With the sumptuous Shyama Devdutt Pattanaik has surpassed himself as a storyteller. The layouts are becoming more intricate with the line drawings remaining seemingly simple yet the details are far more elaborate than in his previously published books.
Arshia Sattar has another magnificent book out for children with Juggernaut Books called Garuda and the Serpents. ( Her previous book was the scrumptiousRamayana for Children. ) The well-known stories are told simply but with all the details in place so that if ever a child wanted to narrate these stories orally, it could easily be done. The sequence of events and the action have sufficient details. For the collection she has selected the most popular stories such as Vishnu’s churning of the ocean, Garuda and the serpents, Kamdhendu the magical cow, Vali and Sugriva etc.
A secular outlook is instilled in adults when exposed too all religions in their childhood. The best way of doing so is by sharing with children some of the best stories ever told that have withstood the test of time and these are mostly to be found in different faiths. Some of the recent titles published for children by Hachette India, Scholastic India and Penguin India are still available. Titles such as Eid Storiesby Scholastic India, The Greatest Stories Ever Told by Penguin India, and Celebrate! Your Fun Festival Handbook by Hachette India are absolutely worth getting for a child’s personal collection or a school library. These books though published a long time ago are still available.
These books are a small step in making those bridges of peace and understanding otherwise willful misinterpretation of religions can lead to the establishment of hostile civil society from which recovery may not be easily done for most people are willing to accept anything as the gospel truth as long as it is in the name of religion. Exposure to other religious beliefs and practices is a way of understanding the “other” rather than perpetuating prejudices and hostile acts of violence. It is the only way forward to have a richly diverse and multi-cultural society co-existing in communal harmony.
Amazon India links to books discussed in the article are embedded in the book cover images and titles given below: