translated literature Posts

“In Search of a River” by Saroj Mukherjee

I am deeply unhappy with this storybook for children. In Search of a River is about the friendship between a tribal boy, Hanumant, and a city boy, Bharat. A significant angle in the story is that Hanumant is portrayed befriending a wild snake, so much so, he even gives the reptile milk to drink! In Hinduism, snakes are venerated. The concept of Nag is age-old. Even Western writers of children’s literature such as Rowling borrowed the idea of a Nag and used it in her Harry Potter series. At so many levels this story is absolutely wrong. First of all, it is a myth that snakes drink milk. Snakes drink water when dehydrated, not milk. In fact, drinking milk may even kill the reptiles. Secondly, I am afraid in the age of the Internet, when selfies and tricks on camera are recorded for nanoseconds of social media fame, a story for little children revolving around snakes is unacceptable. Also, at a time when there are innumerable conversations about inclusivity,  diversity, and representation, in literature, the idea of playing fearlessly with wild snakes is a dangerous idea. Inadvertently, it borders on validating the notion that it is fine to touch reptiles in the wild. No, it is not. There are sufficient examples on the Internet of individuals trying insane tricks with snakes and many reptile experts/herpetologists cautioning people from such antics. Primarily,  to safeguard the human’s life from a snake bite as many are unable to distinguish between a poisonous and a harmless snake. Lastly, disturbing a snake in the wild is not advisable. Many campaigns across the world warn humans from the danger as well as to let the reptiles alone, in their habitat. 

A storybook such as In Search of a River is not recommended. Perhaps, if the author, Saroj Mukherjee, and her daughter, Tilottama Tharoor, who has translated the story from Hindi, had chosen to write a short note distinguishing between fiction and reality, then maybe the book could be circulated. As of now, NO. The only reason that I can think it was even published and had a book launch at a prime children’s literature bookstore in Delhi is because every literary mind involved in the creation of the story, belongs to a prominent writer’s family. If true, it is unfortunate. One would have expected a tad more awareness, particularly from a family with a rich literary lineage, in making a story written for an older generation, acceptable to a contemporary reader.

Next time, I hope there will be a little more sensitivity and accuracy shown in writing fiction for children. It is imperative that children’s literature is written with the seriousness that it demands.

3 May 2022

Sayaka Murata “Life Ceremony”, transl. by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Award-winning writer Sayaka Murata has sold more than 2 million copies of her book Convenience Store Woman and it has been translated into more than 30 languages. After which she published the English translation of Earthlings but in Japanese she has written over ten novels and many short stories. Life Ceremony is her first collection of short stories. As with Murata’s previous English publications, the translator is Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Sayaka Murata’s fascination with science fiction as a young girl has resulted in a unique form of storytelling. It is impossible to tell at times if the stories are set in the present times or in the near future or in an imaginative realm. “Present times” because some of the stories in Life Ceremony can be disturbing but also the actions of a cult group. Nothing can be put past human oddities. Murata has a knack of exploring human emotions to certain basic situations such as an engagement ceremony, attraction between couples, marital relationships ( hetero or same sex is not the point), procreation, love etc. But it is the angles that she explores — the traditional Japanese ceremonies that are upturned on its head such as the title story which is about a “life ceremony”. It is meant to be a wake but with a difference. Cannibalisation is encouraged where the human meat of the dead is prepared for a feast. Everyone tucks into the hotpot, the stir fry and much else that is prepared with human meat. Guests are then encouraged to find their partners amongst those seated around the table and copulate for the preservation of the human race. The children born are usually left at a centre where they are well looked after. Otherwise, parents can bring them as well though it is never clear who the father is. By today’s standards this is a bizarre concept that is very recent, less than thirty years, but no one in society finds it unethical or immoral.

Life Ceremony ( published by Granta) brings together many of Murata’s themes — social taboos, exploring sexuality, gender, love and of course, conforming to Japanese traditions. In “A Clean Marriage“, the asexual relationship of a married couple while they had multiple sexual partners outside the marriage is explored. It is not as if it is a polyamory concept but that the couple were prepared to cohabit but not necessarily be each other’s sexual partners until they decide to have a child. When they do have to have sex, they take the help of medical experts! Social and cultural taboos are explored in the “A Magnificent Spread” and “Eating the City”. The list is endless. But it is the manner in which Murata challenges the reader to think out of their comfort zones and explore imaginatevely the “what if” angle. “A First -Rate Material” is about transforming parts of the human anatomy such as bones, teeth, hair and even skin into furniture and other decorative items. The skin can be converted into a form of material that can draped like a veil or a curtain. Creepy!

A question that begs to be asked is what does the translator Ginny Tapley Takemori feel like while engaged in these translation projects? How have the stories changed her as a translator? Has working closely with Sayaka Murata influenced her translation craft? There is a surreal magical element to the quality of these stories that possibly existed in the original stories but the translator is the medium who conveys the very spirit into the destination language. The very Japanese-like nature of conformity and obedience remains at the core of the stories.

Life Ceremony is an incredible book. It leaves the reader incredulous. It is what stories are meant to do —pull the reader into the story but also make them think of the immense possibilities. It is going to be a very long time before the reader’s ability to see hair, human skin, bone, frozen foods, chemically-engineered food, fusion food, parallel realities, gendered conversations and relationships can return to an even keel. The stories in this collection are read easily once the reader’s moral compass is firmly put away. There should be no scope for judgement upon the actions of the characters or the fantastically wild imagination of Sayaka Murata.

Life Ceremony is worth reading once it is available in July 2022.

4 March 2022

“Alpha” by T. D. Ramakrishnan, Translated from the Malayalam by Priya K. Nair

…the fundamental knowledge that is acquired should be transfered to the next generation through our genes. When animal instincts are thus transmitted, why aren’t intellectual capabilities inherited?”
“That is because mankind’s collective intellectual achievements are monumental. Only a very small part of the immense knowledge gained by society is stored in the brain of an individual. Most of us retain only relevant information about our chosen field of expertise and even that would be a tiny percentage of the existing knowledge in that particular field. Even an extremely intelligent geologist or a doctor would have assimilated only a small part of all existing knowledge. Knowledge is recorded and preserved in millions of books and computers to be used when needed. A man who learns to drive a car doesn’t genetically pass on this ability to his progeny; he has to teach them. In the same way, education from a qualified teacher is an important aspect of growing up. This limitation of the human brain has been confirmed by this experiment. This is a problem for geneticists. Even if a highly intelligent person’s cells are used to create a baby, knowledge needs to be imparted to the child as it grows up. The human brain might be a supercomputer that works quickly and as accurately in relation to the available data. So if you deliberately do not feed the computer of data or deprive it in a language that the computer understands, it will helplessly deteriorate just as the evolved modern-day humans will become like cave people.’
p.116-117

Alpha by award-winning T. D. Ramakrishnan ( translated from the Malayalam by Priya K. Nair) is his debut novel about thirteen people who live on an island called Alpha for twenty five years. It is published by PanMacmillan India. It is an experiment conducted by anthropologist professor Upelendu Chatterjee at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The twelve members of his team were from different Indian states and faiths. The experiment was unique in that the investigators had to be their own subjects. The professor had discovered this remote island that was not to be found on any published map. The people he took on this experiment were academics, bureaucrat, artists, painters, doctor etc. They were young, knowledgeable and were enthusiastic practitioners of their discipline. The professor was clear that if they were to accompany him to Alpha, then “They would have to give up all knowledge gained since the uncertain emergence of their lives. Go back to zero — the beginning — and from there start once again. In other words, alpha, beta gamma.” The professor plans the experiment meticulously. So much so that he leaves instructions with one of his students to search for the island in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, the student, Professor Satish Chandra Banerji, himself falls ill and is paralysed, so he persuades in turn one of his students, Avinash, to go in search of this island and ascertain if there are any survivors. When Avinash arrives at the island, he discovers three of the original team have survived. But there is also a small community of forty-seven people — men, women, and children. He brings home the three survivors — Malini, Santosh and Urmila.

Alpha turns out to be an experiment that went horribly wrong. The participants had to follow strictly the rules imposed by the professor including avoiding all learned language, speech, and therefore communication of ideas. They also had to forget all their knowledge about medicine, anthropology, science, arts etc. It made for a very chaotic but also carnal form of communal living. There were no rules for social and moral conduct and yet there were the rules as stipulated by the professor. Also, over a period of time, a peculiar hierarchy had come into place, where the professor by virtue of being the seniormost by nearly a generation was given his special cave dwelling and accorded a respect that was not necessarily reserved for the others. All individuals were meant to be treated at par. When the next generation was born, they had no knowledge of the previous generation’s skills and accomplishments, nor did the parents deign to teach their kids any skills. They were left to fend for themselves. It was back to a primeval form of living. Base. Violent. No rules. No authority except for the authoritarian professor.

T. D. Ramakrishnan wrote this book in 2003. The author is an Indian Railways officer. Perhaps it is a coincidence that this novel was written soon afer the Godhra riots of 2002 that were sparked off by the burning of a railway carriage. Yet, the story itself is set between 1973 and 1998. It begins at the time of the former prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. But the lens that fiction provides for contemporary society cannot be ignored. The uneasy commentary provided by the author that centuries of learning, culture and knowledge are completely disrupted by authoritarianism is a worrying idea. Once the damage is inflicted, how does society recover? Is it possible? Or does the island in the story become a metaphor for real life that such a society if forever marooned, it regresses and will take a long time to recover or be at par with rest of civilisation.

Interpreting Alpha as an allegory is perhaps doing it a disservice but it is hard to read it in any other manner. Otherwise reading it as a straightforward story results in asking many more questions than the story itself posed. The author pushes the limits to every boundary, especially that of time, knowledge, life skills, and brain development in speculating its impact on the individual and society and what does it mean to be human?

Alpha is a peculiar story. It is powerfully told. No wonder it achieved the success that it did in Malayalam. This is the first time it has been translated into English. Read it. It is going to be talked about for a long, long time to come. It is not going to be easy to forget. Try it.

21 Feb 2022

“Sin” by Wajida Tabassum, translated from the Urdu by Reema Abbasi

This is a Muslim Syed girl from a family where liberties for women were thought odious. My father forbade us to attend school and purdah was our bounden duty. My parents passed away when I was three years old and a paternal uncle persuaded our grandmother to educate us. She relented, keeping a lidless eye on each of us.

My third sister was bright and obstinate, with great love for books. She listened intently to every story, which slowly became an obsession. At only three, she forced Nani to enroll her in a school. As time went by, she read, and with her passion came to a gradual swell.

Several magazines — Shamaa, Jamalistaan, Ariyavarat, Kaamyaab and more — could be found in our house. I leafed through them, attentive OR clutching on to every word. The groceries were wrapped in pages torn out of magazines and I read every line on them. They were more exciting than journals. I took them into obscure corners to scan through the incomplete stories. It felt like all the knowledge in the world was mine.

I have a Master of Arts degree and the impulse to know every word ever written soars as despeerately as it did when I was a girl in the fifth standard. However, my passion was tied to our situation. To us, money was a lofty reverie, like a gulp of the sun. The desire to go to markets, exploer bookshops and buy literature caved before our meagre means.

….

I could not buy a book. When I asked for one, she refused and said that such books were unsuitable for girls from aristocratic families. Nani had vowed to keep us away from them … .

Books were my source of light and warmth.

… A book was always with me. My novels snug in school books, I basked in their language and immersive imagery through the exams too. …

books became my refuge and my friends. In school, my performance was seen as exemplary and pleased teached accepted my many requests for books from the library. These became the happiest days of my life. I would go through a book in two hours and would immediately pick up another one.

….In Hyderabad, the rules of our library were rigid and the shrunked stock of books hit me the hardest. Once a week, a girl could get one book at a time. ….
One morning, I was humming in class and a girl at the opposite desk said, “Wajida, please sing a little louder.”
My were were fixed on Munshi Premchand’s Godaan in her hand.
“On one condition,” I replied.
“What?”

“I will sing for you if you lend me your book,” I negotiated.

She agreed. I sang.

The next moment, her book was in my hands. Soon after, books flowed to me. I sang to get them and girls from other classes began making similar deals with me — books for songs. I was relentless. The world spread out in an immense space, crowded with writers and varied themes. The ones I read in my harsh circumstances brought smiles and pride. However, as I write these lines, I am sad to think that this, like a sip of air, was a trivial scale.

Wajida Tabassum’s ( 16 March 1935 – 7 December 2011) was an Urdu writer. She was known for her “audacious and semi-erotic stories and her formidable power of storytelling”. She was born into an aristocratic family but her parents lost their wealth and died very young too. By the time she was three, Wajida Tabassum was an orphan. Her maternal grandmother, Nani, brought up the eight children. These were tough times and they were poor. Wajida Tabassum was a voracious reader with a flair for writing and she put it to good use by contributing short stories to magazines. Soon, she was being spoken of and as she mentions in her autobiographical essay, “Meri Kahaani” ( My Story), that soon the very same relatives who had earlier shunned them, were now readily acknowledging her.

Sin is a collection of nineteen short stories translated by Reema Abbasi ( Hachette India). It also marks the first time that Wajida Tabassum’s stories are being translated into English. According to the translator, the four sections in thevolume deal with “dark, debauched and tragic aspects of life and are structured on the theme of the ‘deadly sins’, namely, lust, pride, greed and envy. The stories are translated competently though at times certain Urdu words could do with a little more explanation through the context. Unfortunately, I did not maintain a list while reading but kept wondering about the meaning of the words. Having said that, the stories are well translated. Structurally to place “My Story” in the middle of the book is a very good idea as it provides a break from the stories. In many ways, the stories seem bold by contemporary standards of writing as well. But clubbing so many together seems to diminish their oomph factor. Perhaps, if they had been arranged chronologically, according to the date of publication, then the growth of the writer would also have been evident. For now, the stories are enjoyable but in small doses.

Once the stories are read, then Wajida Tabassum’s rant about be open to stories rather than being led by the nose becomes obvious in paragraphs such as this about endorsements. She is so clear about her views.

In our literature, forewords have become customary. I feel they lean our readers in a certain direction, which is worrying. Why do we need a renowned name to endorse our work to the extent that critique is printed onthe dust cover? I have many letters from celebrated writers, who applaud my work. Many of them are dear to me. They would compose a preface in an instant. But I disagree with the idea. The foreword to me is a diversion for the reader’s mind and a tool of cheap publicity. When someone wants to move ahead, they should walk without a crutch. Even if they means taking an uneasy road to the last stop.

This kind of sharp clarity is required in more and more writers of today. Perhaps the resurrection of a powerful women writer such as Wajida Tabassum in English will ensure that not only is she read far and wide but she inspires and influences new generations of writers to share their opinions in an equally forthright manner.

Sin is definitely a collection of short stories worth recommending.

2 Feb 2022

“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

“Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men” by Katrine Marcal, translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming

Bestselling author Katrine Marcal’s latest offering, Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men ( William Collins, HarperCollins India) is very clearly about the importance of women in contributing to specific economic systems that have gone on to transform social behaviour/history. It has been a sexist understanding, recording and reading of histories that have credited men with the success of certain innovations, whereas Katrine proves with her detailed readings of some of the historic global events has been that the contribution of women was undeniable. Unfortunately, it was not understood sufficiently, recorded or interpreted by men who designed, controlled and managed systems. Take for instance, the absurd case of the seamstresses and Nasa’s inability to approve the space suit, even though they could see that it was far superior to the rest. Their internal assessment recorded that no other suit even came a close second. Yet, because there were no engineers on the job, recording the designs that the women were creating using 4,000 pieces of cloth and using a single-hole sewing machine to ensure precision of their lines, NASA rejected the space suit. It was only after the manufacturing company chose to hire a team of engineers to “translate” a perfectly understable sewing job into gobbledygook, that the NASA top brass was satisfied and gave their approval to the space suit which was eventually worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon! Meanwhile the seamstresses themselves scoffed at the pages and pages of material and said they did not have the time to wade through it. The point the author makes is that because sewing was considered a “soft” skill, irrespective of the fact that it had existed for as long as civilization, but was mostly perceived as a woman’s expertise, it was dismissed. It did not have the masculine touch of being presented in technical jargon and thereby making it seem worthwhile. I was reading about Benz and his invention of a horseless carriage and how he was stupid about exploiting it commercially. It required the brilliance of his wife, who sneaked out the car from their garage with her teenage sons, and then drove it to visit her mother, 90 miles away. They drove at the top speed of 16 miles/hour, with many breakdowns along the way. One of them requiring her hat pin to fix. In another when the brakes were heating up, she stopped at a cobbler and asked for a leather strap to be put around the brakes. She reached her mother’s home triumphantly 15 hours later. Many of her innovations of that day are still used in cars. And also thanks to her proving that the horseless carriage could be driven and was safe, the machine became a commercial success. But no one remembers her name, they only remember her husband, who soon became the second half of “Mercedes Benz”.

Her name? Bertha.

How is that for a gendered perspective on an age-old story?!

There are many more such stories in the book. Also a fascinating overview of recent theories about economies from a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. Katrine Marcal dissects these popular statements/books by male “thought leaders” such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb et al. She concludes that it is imperative to include women in narratives because the moment it is done, the ground beneath us shifts and a new and a truer history emerges.

Katrine has a nuanced reading of the importance of women in history. She has really done a fine job of rescuing women and done them a massive service. She has balanced the accounts as it were to show how integral they are part of any economy. They are equal contributors in making society successful and businesses successful, thereby being essential contributors to the economy. There is a wonderful account in this book on the history of venture capitalism and whalers of the nineteenth century and how many of those concepts have been transplanted decades later to modern businesses. Sadly though, in more cases than one would like, these venture capitalists continue to igmore the contribution made by women to various economies. This is a gender balanced reading of economic history. By this narrative, Katrine is trying to upend the sexist narrative of economy that has been passed through generations and conveyed as the absolute truth.

It is a good book. Much along the lines of what Angela Saini has done for science, Katrine Marcal has done for women and innovation.

1 August 2021

“My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan” by the Frontier Gandhi, translated from the Pashtu by Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada

My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan by the Frontier Gandhi ( Roli Books) has been translated from the Pukhto by ex-bureaucrat Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada. This book recounts the life of the freedom fighter till 1947 when the subcontinent gained its Independence from the British colonial rulers. Considering Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan ( as some Indians like to call him) lived till 1988, nearly 47 years of his life is missing from this text. Nevertheless it is an important book as it maps a part of history, especially of a community, of the North-West Frontier of British India ( now in Pakistan), of which not sufficient is known. Along with Mahatma Gandhi and like his non-violent movement, Frontier Gandhi too started the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement from 1930-47. They were the key allies of the Congress who formed three governments in the NWFP. The original Pashto edition was first published in 1983 when Bacha Khan was 93 years old.

This is a seminal piece of writing. It has to be respected for the text that was created when Frontier Gandhi chose to dictate it. It captures that moment in time and has an authoritative air about it. Definitely, a tenor as if it is being spoken out aloud for the benefit of a larger audience. Whoever took the notes and compiled it into this book, probably never fact checked or assessed the manuscript for internal consistencies.

For instance, these conflicting comments about weddings and consent. P. 2 “We do not marry our children to wealth as we consider decency, capability and dignity more important in a marriage. Nor do we marry them without their consent.”

P.33 “Our weddings are very joyous occasions. With the coming of age of a boy in the family, a search for a fiancee for him would begin. No one asks for the consent of the girl or the boy.”

It makes him an unreliable narrator if he slips on a simple fact like this but it is also hard to doubt his testimony about participating in the freedom struggle that has been recorded in this book.

Important book!

1 August 2021

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