Uncle Pai: The Man Behind the Iconic Amar Chitra Katha by Rajessh M. Iyer— I began reading this biography of Anant Pai with interest (published by . Instead it borders on being a hagiography and capitulating to modern sensibilities. It would have been a tremendous effort if the author had made an attempt to make it a biography with gravitas, researched the period, the genre and the subject of his book a little more diligently. For instance, elaborated upon the debate triggered by well-known historian Sumit Sarkar in 1993 as the comics promoting a Hindu cultural ideology that helped fundamentalist organisations. The author dismisses this as “this couldn’t be farther from the truth”. It is at such points in the book that the reader wishes a little more effort had been made to research the history of ACK and the phenomenal role of Anant Pai. Instead frustratingly, nothing more is forthcoming. Plus, added a bibliography of materials consulted. I am disappointed as I enjoy reading biographies and always hope to learn more about the period of time in which the person lived. With Anant Pai, it is always a pleasure to read about his legendary contribution to India’s publishing history with the creation of the Amar Chitra Katha comics. These are a series of illustrated stories in the comic book form that are synonymous with tales from the Hindu epics but slowly evolved into also sharing folklore, tales from Indian history, Jataka Tales, stories about Akbar & Birbal, Tenali Rama etc. They were known to be simultaneously published in multiple Indian languages using the model of syndication. Some of the earliest artists and writers who were commissioned to create stories were not amused as their copyright was taken away. Whereas Pai himself stood to gain from the sales of the comics as per the deal struck with the owners of IBH. He was offered a monthly payment as well as a percentage of the sales, making him part-stakeholder in ACK. A win-win situation with hindsight but at the time of signing, Pai accepted the deal on pure faith that he had a good idea of making perennial favourite stories available as comics, modelled upon the popular American series “Classics Illustrated”. Unfortunately, I abandoned reading this book when I came upon the chapter on “illustration styles and Anant Pai’s background”. In It, the author, chooses to dwell upon the Hindu cultural sensibility, the influence of Raja Ravi Verma and calendar art as being some of the prime motivations for ACK’s characteristic style of drawing mythological figures. Years ago, I read a comment by Uncle Pai in an essay where he categorically stated that there had been innumerable influences upon his artwork but there was no denying that he also turned to the big names of Hollywood of the day as models for his characters. “Uncle Pai” does not even so much as have a passing reference to the popular cultural references that may have impacted ACK’s sensibilities. The book could easily have soared as a publishing history but it seems to lumber on. Plus, the boxes of information scattered throughout the text make it very cumbersome to read. They are tantamount to throwaway lines that are too laborious to develop as ideas in the main narrative. Ideally the points and comments made in these boxes should have been incorporated as one text. It would have made for a smoother narrative.
Here’s hoping that the second and revised edition of this book is much improved for we could do with a good biography of the legend Uncle Pai.
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 Booker Prize is to be announced on Monday, 14 October 2019. This time it consists of very well established writers and previous Booker winners like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. The other writers shortlisted include Elif Shafak, Chigozie Obioma, Lucy Ellmann and Bernardine Evaristo. Every single title shortlisted is unique and that is exactly the purpose of a shortlist — to highlight the variety of writing, experimentation in literary forms and the author’s ability to tell a fresh new story.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie is a modern enactment of Cervantes Don Quixote and involves a salesman of Indian origin, Ismail, who travels across America on a quest — in search of his beloved, a TV show host. It is at one level a bizarre retelling of the popular story with big dollops of magic realism also thrown in. But most importantly it is the commentary offered on the global rise of despots, notion of dual identities, migrations, what it means to be a refugee in modern times, status of women, patriarchal ways of functionining, sexual harassment etc. It is like a broad sweep of events set in three nations — USA, UK and India. At the same time it is a commentary that is very relevant to the socio-political turmoil evident globally. These are also the three countries that Rushdie has lived in and migrated to. So Quichotte in many ways is a triumphant storytelling but it is also a sharp commentary on contemporary events that are taking a horrific turn. In many ways this is a sad reminder for someone like Rushdie, a Midnight’s Child, born soon after India gained independence from the British in 1947 and wrote about it in his Booker winner and Booker of Bookers The Midnight’s Children. He has witnessed modern history for more than seven decades and to see history more or less come full circle with the rise of fascism and blatant acts of genocide, construction of concentration camps in the name of detention centres for migrants is a more than unpleasant. It requires a storyteller of his stature who has himself lived under the very real threat of death while the fatwa issued against him for writing The Satanic Verses existed, to write confidently and offer his commentary on modern times. If the garb of magic realism, a quest and relying upon many literary references that at times allow Rushdie to offer his thoughts while making Quichotte seem disjointed, well, ce’st le vie — it is a reflection of our reality and needs to be articulated. Read this extract from the novel. Also listen to this fascinating podcast on the Intelligence Squared website where Salman Rushdie spoke to BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in front of a live audience in London on 29 August 2019.
Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds is a reference to the time the brain waves continue to be sent after a person has been declared clinically dead. This is the duration during which the novel’s protagonist, a prostitute called Tequila Leila, who has been killed and whose body has been placed in a sil, reflects upon her life and her friendships. It is a stunning book for its immediate preoccupation with refugees as epitomised by the small circle of friends of the narrator. It is also a story that touches upon gender issues, patriarchy, censorship, rise of fascist despots, freedom of expression, marginalised groups, sexual freedom etc. While it is a novel that raises many issues, it is unlike Quichotte, restricted to Turkey and its immediate vicinity. In an interview to the Indian Express, Shafak said, “The novel is one of our last democratic spaces“.
Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is described as a one-sentence, 1000-page novel, which seems daunting to read, but it is the interior monologue of a woman. A narrator who merges her thoughts as most women do while contending with their daily mental load of managing responsibilities and offering commentaries upon the world around them. She flits between her immediate preoccupations with general reflections upon global politics, especially Trump. While reading the novel there are moments that one punches a fist in the air to say, “Yes! Ellmann got this right about women and their reflections.” Then there are other moments where one wishes that like James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript written in colour-coded crayons, Lucy Ellmann too had figured a way of colour coding her novel by making the perceptive observations of a woman being highlighted for at times the meanderings into political landscapes and beyond can be a tad tedious. Lucy Ellmann’s writing style in this novel has often been compared to James Joyce by critics for whom the author had a fantastic reply in an interview she gave to The Washington Post:
Thrilled. But again, to me the connection seems remote. Many reviews have mentioned that my father was a Joyce scholar. Actually, my sister’s one too. But . . . I’m not! My father [ Richard Ellmann] did talk a lot about Joyce when I was growing up, when my mother didn’t put her foot down. But mostly, I tuned it out. I regret that now — especially when people come to me with their Joyce questions!Still, I think it’s weird for reviewers to bring up what my father did for a living. How often is the parentage of male novelists in their 60s mentioned?
Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a “novel” about 12 black women characters, most of them British. As an example of literary experimentation in terms of form, using blank verse as prose, to tell loosely interconnected, intergenerational, stories is fascinating. There is a rhythm that is mesmerising and lends sections of this novel to performance poetry. These are voices that suddenly make apparent the distinctions that exist amongst individuals in that “broad” spectrum of “black British women”. There are many instances in the book that make the women across generations offer their opinions about living in a patriarchal society, the position of women and the challenges it offers on a regular basis. Many of these questions are often raised and discussed even by feminists and many other ordinary women who do not necessarily wish to be labelled as feminists. The fact remains these are issues linking women across the world. Yet while the author’s heart is in the right place of creating this landscape, too much energy seems to have been invested in crafting the form rather than ensuring that the women’s conversations are at par with the magnificent form. At times, their observations sound too thin or as the Guardian review puts it aptly, “naive”. This mismatch in quality of craftsmanship and getting the tenor right of the women character’s preoccupations was not to be expected in such a talented writer. Evaristo is widely tipped to be one of the favourite of bookies and critics, like John Self in The Irish Times, in tomorrow’s announcement of the Booker Prize.
The only other writer on this year’s shortlist, apart from Rushdie, to have won the Booker Prize is Margaret Atwood with The Testaments. It is a sequel to her iconic book The Handmaid’s Tale which went through an immense revival achieving almost cult-like status in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It led to a TV adaptation where Atwood had a cameo role too. The red and white dress rapidly became a symbol of resistance in many a young woman’s mind. Atwood wrote The Testaments while the buzz around The Handmaid’s Tale was rife. It is undoubtedly a smoooooooooooth read and is justifiably so the “dazzling follow-up” to The Handmaid’s Tale as affirmed by Anne Enright in her review in The Guardian. Nothing less is to be expected from Margaret Atwood, the High Priestess of modern sisterhood, as she so marvellously creates this story even with its painful moments. It is a story that can be read as a standalone or in quick succession after The Handmaid’s Tale but the skill of Atwood’s storytelling comes to the fore in this novel. It is also probably easier to read, stronger in the punches it delivers and richer for its details, given that it is very much a product of modern times where many debates regarding women, their rights and freedoms within a patriarchal social structure are being questioned. The audience is now receptive to such tales. Hence it is no surprise that bookies are tipping this to be the favourite to win tomorrow’s Booker Prize.
Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in the form of Igbo storytelling. It is a kind of storytelling associated mostly with male storytellers. It merges many well known traditions of storytelling and is mostly anecdotal, relying a lot on folklore elements. It is a form that was used by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart too. Obioma has been referred to in a New York Times article as the “heir to Chinua Achebe”. Nonso, a chicken farmer, is the protagonist in An Orchestra of Minorities who travels out of Nigeria and gets involved in many adventures including becoming the victim of a scam. It can get a little convoluted as presumably this Igbo art form is mostly meant for oral performances and not meant to be read as the printed word, a form that exerts its own set of rules and demands upon the reader — most noticeably being that of making limited allowances for digressions and purple prose. This constant tussle between the two forms of storytelling — Igbo and the English literary tradition of the novel— makes for a challenging read with only flashes of brilliance. Perhaps Obioma who has been most fortunate in having both his novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize will win this prestigious literary accolade with his third novel and not succumb to being “three times bridesmaid never bride”.
Literary shortlists serve many purposes. Most noticeably of showcasing the variety of literature available in that particular year of the prize announcement. These shortlists are increasingly becoming relevant to the socio-political events that seem to influence writing and reading patterns too. Within this context, the 2019 Booker shortlist is a formidable gathering of experienced writers. Everyone, even the most seasoned of writers, likes a win and the value of this prize is £50,000. Irrespective of how the bookies are placing the writers for tomorrow’s win, it will in all likelihood be a close call between Rushdie and Shafak. If Evaristo wins, it will only be because of the jury taking into consideration hyper-local factors of being a black woman writer in UK particularly during the Brexit phase. It would be perfect if Rushdie wins this prize once more, making it a hat trick for him at the Booker. He deserves to win for his literary fiction such as The Midnight’s Children and now Quichotte have not only documented critical moments in modern history but these novels are timely and relevant for the wisdom they impart. The characters in Quichotte are migrants like Rushdie and many others, “the broken people …are the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth“. Quichotte offers much more than just looking at a narrow canvas of one topic or one region but broadens the horizons to highlight many of the issues gripping the world are not bound to a nation state but are spread like a rash globally. What is even more horrific is that Rushdie has in his lifetime of three score years and ten witnessed crimes against humanity that one thought were rid off but seem to have returned with despicable vengeance. Quichotte is a triumph of literary craftsmanship as Rushdie is writing about these moments in history that he has witnessed while maintaining a firm grip on imbibing and merging many forms of literary traditions and storytelling to formulate a new one. There are far too innumerable to list in this round up. Suffice to say that if any novel in the shortlist deserves to win, it is Quichotte.
India is a sub-continent. In terms of the book market there are many markets that reside within it. The vast variety of literature that exists in the Indian regional languages is a testament to this fact. For some years now translations from various regional lanaguages into English has been growing. Three of the recently published translations are from Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada. These are Outcaste by Matampu Kunjukuttam ( translated from Malalayam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan), Kalpakam and Other Storiesby K. Savitri Ammal (translated from Tamil by Sudha Ratnam) and No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories by Jayant Kaikini ( translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana).
Outcaste ( Brushte) is an extraordinary story recounting the sensational excommunication of the high-born Namboodiri Brahmin Kuriyedathu Thatri and a large number of her lovers ( some say 64!) from the Hindu kingdom of Kochi. It is a true incident that rattled the aristocracy as well as the Brahmins. Although this incident occured in 1905, more than a century later it continues to haunt the imagination of Malayalis. Interestingly Thatri’s lovers belonged not only to the most powerful families of the Malayali Brahmin aristocracy but also were Nair and Sudra men. It was a scandal that was written about in the papers such as Malayala Manorama.
Mayampu Kunhukuttan wrote the novel in Sanskritized Malayalam. According to the translator Vasanthi Sankaranaryanan this encapsulated the grandeur of lifestyle of the Namboodiris and the practices that prevailed amongst them and the Nairs while also lacing it with the acerbic wit of the Namboodiris. While the story itself is fascinating for it evokes a historical moment when attitudes towards women were conservative despite the Namboodiris and Nairs following some matrilineal customs. The novel was first published in Malayalam in 1969 and translated in to English for the first time by Palgrave Macmillan in 1997. At the time the formidable editor Mini Krishnan was responsible for the list. In fact the novel was also adapted for theatre. Now that list is defunct but fortunately select titles from the Palgrave Macmillan backlist such as Outcaste have been resurrected. Aleph’s publication of it is timely. The issues raised in the story as well as the depiction of the strong women characters and the revenge wrought on her paramours by Thatri do not in any way seem dated. In fact the astounding events gain relevance in modern times with the conversations revolving around women and of course the #MeToo movement. While the story itself is gripping the presence of detailed footnotes while explaining the context/customs to the reader can also prove to be very disruptive to a smooth reading experience. Nevertheless Outcaste will be talked about for a long, long time to come.
Kalpakam and Other Stories by K. Savitri Ammal was first published in Tamil in 1958. While the primary focus of the stories is on upper-caste households in the early part of the twentieth century, it is the women characters that are unforgettable. Many of the situations, the predicaments depicted such as conversations about marriage ( “Sarasu’s Marriage”), finding the appropriate bridegroom (“Kalpakam” and “Remarriage”), the social pressures of being a childless woman (“Parvati’s Decision”), balancing career and love at a time when the concept of working women was considered unusual (“An End Unforseen”), treating single women irrespective of age as free labour ( “Dilemma in Kindness”), the idea of love and freedom of choosing one’s partner (“A Journey to Rangoon” and “Kalpakam”). Many of the situations described are very similar to scenarios women of today find themselves in. Take for instance the social attitudes towards single women of perceiving them as commodities rather as individuals with their own free will, barbed comments towards childless women and the insistence on getting married at the appropriate age. The gentleness of K. Savitri Ammal’s writing, with its even tenor of tone while sharing a story, however disturbing it may be, is conveyed beautifully in the translation by her grand-niece Sudha Ratnam. Not being familiar with the original language of Tamil in no way hinders the fine reading experience of the stories translated smoothly in to English. The translation seems to retain the flavour of the period when the stories were first written as evident in tiny details of using “Chennai” and “Madras” interchangeably without in any way being adamant about transfering phrases in Tamil in to English as is — a characteristic trait often found in translations of Indian regional language texts into English. The emphasis in this translation seems to be on the pure joy of reading about another culture through its stories in a more-than-competent English translation — it is a translation imbued with love.
Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories won the DSC Prize 2018. It is a collection of his short stories written in Kannada over the past few decades. They begin in the 1980s and some are as recent as a few years ago. These are stories of ordinary folk, ordinary situations, every day predicaments that exist in the vast melting point of Mumbai. It is a vast metropolis where the vast gap between the haves and have nots are stark. Mumbai is associated with vast crowds, masses of humanity moving from one place to the next. Whereas in Jayant Kaikini’s expert hands even the ordinary nameless person has a distinctive personality and identity. Some of the stories are moving, some are haunting, some are full of kindness and warmth, some are disturbing but the one common feature they all have — the stories are unforgettable. The stories were jointly selected by the translator and author. There is an essay included in the book about the translation process. It is insightful for the snippets of conversation shared between the author and translator particularly in translating “the flavour of speech, the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhani speech which is the cultural vernacular of Bombay and is signalled prominently in all the stories.” Tejaswini Niranjana continues “In the flow of plain Kannada writing, these hybrid phrases are signposts that function in such a way as to mark, in Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s phrase, a sort of territorial realism. Jayant an I argued about how much of this to translate into English. After he complained about my frugality, I put back some of the phrases I’d removed or translated out. But I also worried about the book what we were setting adrfit in the world, away from Bombay, and the fact it would acquire readers without proficiency in Hindustani. I solved the problem by doing parallel translations — leaving in the Hindustani word but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning. This way, nothing goes completely unexplained, even as the public language of the city makes itself heard in the sentences.”
The Indian book market is also known for its vast variety of original literature in English as well as for many international titles. It is a market that is growing at a phenomenal pace with a growing number of readers, particularly many young people, but it is also a price sensitive market. So for publishers to offer good literature while being acutely conscious of the pricing structures will always be challenging but it does not deter them from creating it.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. In today’s Book Post 26 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.
I recently contributed to How to Get Published in Indiaedited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.
Here is the essay I wrote:
AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher. My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi. These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.
In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.
To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!
The Daryaganj Sunday Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.
From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.
In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.
By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.
Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.
As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses.
The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting!
[bwwpp_book sku=’97802412540040000000′] Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s latest book All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation is a fascinating account of the Reformation, a period that was turbulent and very significant in the political history of England and formation of the Anglican Church. All Things Made New is packed with information. There are many aspects discussed but a truly fascinating one is that of the translation of the Bible being made available in vernacular languages in Europe — exemplifying the critical importance translations held centuries ago! By dwelling on Tyndale’s translation methodology MacCulloch provides insight in to a specialised skill that is a critical combination of a passion for the languages, writing talent, exceptional scholarship and patient dedication to the craft of making a text available in a different destination language. Reward mostly lies in the reception the newly translated text receives. Making important texts available in other local languages also ensures that the information travels across geo-political boundaries. The cross-pollination of ideas in this manner cements their transference across cultures and regions to disseminate discourses, probably bringing socio-political changes in its wake, in different nation states while giving an identity to the main idea enshrined in the text itself — in this case Christianity.
This is well illustrated in the following extract from the opening lines of the chapter on “The Bible before King James” which also mentions the Tyndale translation of the Bible, considered to be an influential text in the making of King James version (KJV) :
In the fifteenth century the official Church in England scored a notable success in destroying the uniquely English dissenting movement known as Lollardy. One of the results of this was that the Church banished the Bible in English; access to the Lollard Bible translation was in theory confined to those who could be trusted to read it without ill consequence – a handful of approved scholars and gentry. After that, England’s lack of provision for vernacular Bibles stood in stark contrast to their presence in the rest of Western Europe, which was quickly expanding, despite the disapproval of individual prelates, notably Pope Leo X. Between 1466 and 1522 there were twenty-two editions of the Bible in High or Low German; the Bible appeared in Italian in 1471, Dutch in 1492. In England, there simply remained the Vulgate, though thanks to printing that was readily available. One hundred and fifty-six complete Latin editions of the Bible had been published across Europe by 1520, and in a well-regulated part of the Western Church like England, it was likely that every priest with any pretence to education would have possessed one. …
The biblical scholarship of Desiderius Erasmus represented a dramatic break with any previous biblical in England: when he translated the Ne Testament afresh into Latin and published it in 1516, he went back to the original Greek. When he commented on scripture, his emphasis was on the early commentators in the first five Christian centuries ( with pride of place going to that most audacious among them, Origen); his work is notable for the absence of much reference to the great medieval commentators. This attitude was fully shared by William Tyndale, the creator of the first and greatest Tudor translation of the Bible, although Tyndale’s judicial murder at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, and indirectly Henry VIII, prevented his work reaching beyond the New Testament and the Pentateuch. Tyndale came from the remote West Country Forest of Dean on the borders of Wales, and it is not fanciful to see his fascination with translation as springing out of the market days of his childhood, listening to the mixed babble of Welsh and English around him. His is the ancestor of all Bibles in the English language, especially the version of 1611; Tyndale’s biographer David Daniell has bluntly pointed out that ‘Nine-tenths of the Authorised Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s.”
There was no reason why this pioneer should have had the talent of an exceptional writer as well as being an exceptional scholar, but the Forest of Dean man was a gourmet of language; it pleased him to discover as he moved into translating the Old Testament that Hebrew and English were so much more compatible than Hebrew and Greek. He was an admirer of what Luther was achieving in Wittenberg in the 1520s, and visited the town during his years of exile at the end of that decade, but he was also his own man. When creating his New Testament translations, he drew generously on Luther’s own introductions to individual books, but as he came to translate the Pentateuch, the Books of the Law, his own estimate of their spiritual worth began to diverge from Luther’s strong contrast between the roles of law and gospel, and the plagiarism of Luther’s German ceased, to be replaced by his own thoughts.
Surreptitiously read and discussed during the 1520s and 1530s, Tyndale’s still incomplete Bible translation worked on the imagination of those whose so far had virtually no access to public evangelical preaching in England. …By the time of Tyndale’s martyrdom in 1536, perhaps 16,000 copies of his translation had passed into England, a country of no more than two and a half million people with, at that stage, a very poorly developed market for books. And this new presence of the vernacular Bible in Henry VIII’s England entwined itself in a complex fashion around the king’s own eccentric agenda for religious change in his realm, as the monarch, his leading churchmen and secular politicians all puzzled over the meaning of the king’s quarrel and break with the pope in Rome, which had begun in matters remote from the passionate theological claims of religious Reformers.
The popularity of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible at the time of the Tudors proved how important it was to communicate and be accessible in local languages as it was also used for political gains by Henry VIII. This exercise served the dual purpose of introducing the Anglican Church liturgy to the masses but also promoted the political intent of Henry VIII by viewing royal supremacy as the natural condition of the Church. The intimate symbiotic relationship between politics and culture is a universal truth that has not changed in all these centuries. Even now translations and books are viewed as the softest (also cost-effective) way of making inroads into new territories/cultures/regions, making it easier for foreign governments to piggyback upon the cultural impact for strengthening of political and economic bi-lateral ties via diplomatic channels.
Translating important texts is not a new idea. It is now being revived as evident in the translation movement of significant literary texts that is rapidly gaining traction in world literature today. Texts of all genres from different cultures are being rapidly exchanged and published mostly in English to ensure they travel faster worldwide. Increasing presence of world literature in global publishing is disruptive as illustrated by their significance being recognised by international prizes. For instance the merging of the Independent’s translation prize with that of the Man Booker International Fiction Prize to launch the prestigious The Man Booker International Prize which recognises “quality fiction in translation”. ( The longlist for 2018 ) Or for that matter the newly launched JCB Prize for Literature presented to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author. “It has a particular focus on translation, and hopes to introduce readers to many works of Indian literature written in languages other than their own.” The presence of a growing body of translations is bringing a change in literary discourses globally by being inclusive of diverse narratives.
My mother, Dr Shobhana Bhattacharji, taught the Odyssey for many years to her undergraduate classes. She would return home to tell my brother and me the stories as well. I still recall the neat little chart she created of the adventures of Odysseus and how beautifully structured the epic was —- split into two neat halves of storytelling. These adventures have remained with us over the decades. The love for the epic she has now transmitted to my daughter as well who while getting ready for school every morning wants to hear the next episode of Odysseus’s adventures.
Recently I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epicand loved it. I gave it to mum to read since I knew she would enjoy it immensely. I was right. The moment she finished it she gushed about the book as being the best she had read in recent years — and mum reads a LOT! So I asked her to write a blog post on it.
Decades ago I was dragged kicking and screaming into teaching the Odyssey. I had no idea what to do with it. It was repetitious. It had no point. Nothing in the literature I was used to teaching was like it. These were soon to become famous last thoughts. I discovered the Cambridge History volumes on Troy, or what was not Troy. I learnt about the clay tablets that had some information about administration but Homer’s heroes didn’t figure in them. I discovered the lovely story of the Iliad-obsessed German Schliemann who – at a time when Homer’s stories were thought to be merely stories—believed every word of the description of places in the epics, and using Homer as his guide he uncovered Troy. Only it was not Troy but one of the many cities built above what was possibly Priam’s glorious city. When I finally visited Troy, our knowledgeable young guide was almost in tears as he showed us the deep trenches Schliemann had dug at the site to get to the ‘real’ Troy, ruthlessly destroying valuable archaeological treasures that had no meaning for him. To my delight and amazement, there really are windy plains around Troy where the Trojan War was fought for ten years. I read M.I.Finley’s The World of Odysseus, and everything about the Odyssey became clear. Its social structure, economy, ship-building, the oikos, burials, marriages, gifts, hospitality, looting, war. Everything that made up the texture of Odysseus’ world, that is, but not the nitty gritty of the tale itself. What did the gods have against Odysseus? Why does Athena pop in and out of his life? What exactly were the arabesques created by the relationships of gods and men? Jenny Strauss Clay’s The Wrath of Athena explained a lot of that and more, especially the tales within tales, such as how Odysseus got the scar on his thigh, why boars’ teeth form a motif in the epic, and why Odysseus is such a wily teller of tales. Most of all, she showed how the Odyssey is a story about the cleverness of man, of how much man can do without the gods who are largely unconcerned about mankind. There is a magnificent sarcophagus in the National Museum in Beirut with a relief of the most moving moment in the Iliad when the grieving Trojan king Priam begs the arrogant Achaean hero Achilles for the body of his son Hector whom Achilles has killed in battle. Instead of allowing Hector the funeral rites due to a hero, Achilles has desecrated his body, dragging it behind his chariot round and round the walls of Troy so that Hector’s elderly parents can see this terrible dishonour being inflicted on their first born son. On the top of the sarcophagus are two giant, half reclining gods who gaze serenely into the distance, unmoved by the human misery below, all of which they have caused. I would have been blind to its meanings had I not read Homer, Finley, Strauss Clay and a host of others. In short, I was and still am besotted by Homer’s epics. As I grow old and wear the bottom of one trouser leg rolled to accommodate the plaster on my foot, and books of complete enchantment become more and more infrequent, I return to Homer. I read as many translations as I can find. I read Pope’s translations over and over again with more happiness than I have words for. I read re-workings of the stories, some recent ones pretty thin, others pretty good.
I have just read An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. Mr Mendelsohn teaches at Bard College in New York. One year he decided to offer a undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey. He’d been deeply interested in Homer and Virgil for decades, but had not taught the Odyssey before. To his surprise his 82 year old father–a retired Maths professor–asked if he could attend the seminars. Daniel Mendelsohn was slightly hesitant at first. He knew his dad’s contempt for the humanities and had a feeling that he could never measure up to his father’s expectations of him in anything he did. But he said OK, and there was this 82 year old sitting a bit apart from the seventeen year olds but never absent from class, neither physically nor mentally. Mendelsohn talks about his initial difficulty in getting the students interested in the subject. His dad growling every now and then that Odysseus is no hero (he cries, he cheats on his wife, he is helped by the gods through every difficulty) is not helpful. The kids giggle, amused by Mendelsohn senior’s comments and their teacher’s discomfiture. But over the weeks, the students become more involved. They have insights that are new to Daniel Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn senior (Jay) also has new ways of looking at the Odyssey which the son may not agree with but the young students listen with respect, and add to what Jay says. With each seminar, the seasons change a bit and Daniel Mendelsohn begins to find similarities between the Telemachus-Odysseus son-father story and his life. He talks about his growing up, his parents, grandparents, siblings, his teachers — one of whom was the very Jenny Strauss Clay who so influenced my love for Homer, and whom Daniel consults during a knotty period in the semester. Quite unobtrusively, with the tiniest of nudges from Mendelsohn, you realize that his account of his life is like a modern retelling of the Odyssey. It is beautifully done. The pace is slow and graceful, like Homeric verse, and as packed with detail. Another of Mendelsohn’s old teachers suggests that when the course is over, he should he take his dad on a theme cruise retracing the journey of Odysseus. He does. The cruise takes ten days to cover the journey Odysseus took ten years to complete. The last stop of the cruise was to be Ithaka but that is cancelled. Passengers are understandably disappointed. The captain knows that Mendelsohn has translated all of Cavafy’s poetry, so he asks him to step in and talk about Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka.” Mendelsohn senior is not only impressed by his son’s talk, he actually tells Daniel as much. It is as if Odysseus has admired Telemachus. Daniel thought his dad hated travelling. But on the cruise Jay unfurls, in a manner of speaking. He loses his habitual sour expression and makes friends. He is the life and soul of the evenings. He loves the Great American Song Book, knows the words to every song, and soon has the passengers singing along with him around the piano. Jay loves it all but after seeing Troy he mutters to Daniel “The poem exceeds the place.” Indeed it does. The father dies a year after the course is over. In the early days of the course, Jay would drive from New Jersey to Bard, but then he began to travel by train. Daniel thought this was because he found the traffic too much. Jay’s complaining about the traffic in exactly the same words over and over again since Daniel was little had become as much of a formula as Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn, but he was clearly slowing down and driving was may have become a problem. After his death, Daniel Mendelsohn discovers that several of his students used to meet the old man at the station. He had found out their train timings and would wait for them. They would chat about the Odyssey in a sort of parallel seminar, occasionally sharing their discoveries with the class in the regular seminars. One of the many things I liked about the book is that Mendelsohn translates the Odyssey himself. It sounds fresh and fits well with whatever point he’s making. And then there are his many digressions into the etymology of words that one has to linger over. So much learning and compassion and yet there is nothing heavy handed about the book. Quite the best thing I’ve read in years.
Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2017)