Westland Books Posts

Anjali Joseph, “Keeping in Touch”

Award-winning writer Anjali Joseph’s Keeping in Touch ( Context, Westland/Amazon) is about Keteki and Ved Ved, both of whom are in their late thirties. (Ved is Ved twice over as the first Ved is the title for a doctor. The second is his name meaning “knowledge”.) They met at the airport while waiting for their respective flights. Coincidentally, one of the projects that Ved is assessing in India for a potential investment has a manufacturing plant in Upper Assam, very conveniently it is close to Keteki’s ancestral home in Jorhat. After a one night stand, Keteki heads off to Guwahati and Ved to London. They exchange phone numbers. Ketkei is a designer. Ved is a venture capitalist. They come across as mildly bored, disengaged with their world, their professional commitments are completed more than successfully but they remain dissatisfed, they seem to be unaffected by anything that happens around them and are always available for a party with like-minded souls. They seem to live lives that would be the envy of many — parties organised at the drop of a hat, jet setting between the UK and India as and when they feel like it, travelling within India upon a whim, an ease that is available to the single and unattached, without any other responsibilities. Even having sex seems to be a “time pass” activity. Yet, slowly and steadily, via text messages, unexpected as well as planned meetings in London, Guwahati and Jorhat, Keteki and Ved begin to get to know each other. It is almost as if they are behaving like teenagers, who are infatuated with each other, but for some reason are unable to express it clearly in words to each other. Although to be fair, Ved does say to Keteki’s uncle that he would like to spend the rest of his life with his niece. Keteki and Ved keep in touch but are unable to make a commitment until Ved decides to quit his job in London, puts his flat on rent and moves to Guwahati to be closer to Keteki. She too has for the moment moved base to the city to be with her aunt.

Anjali Joseph excels in these middle class stories. It is almost as if it is in the spirit of Jane Austen, to polish the two inches of ivory. There is the hustle bustle of the outside world in terms of social engagements and conversations, much of it polite chatter. But the focus of the story remains firmly upon the two main characters. The desis in Keeping in Touch are equally at ease in India or abroad. They have the mobility and grace to move in diverse social circles. Interestingly, this novel is probably a fine example of a new brand of diasporic literature that blends the cultures of the two lands deftly and unapologetically. It is evident in little details such as the use of Assamese words in the course of conversation or to describe dishes. Thankfully not once are these italicised in the text or over explained. Instead they are placed as they are meant to be on the page and the reader has to accept them.

As always, Saurabh Garge’s cover design is perfect. The lone, empty boat, marooned on the river bank is a symbolic image for the two lovers described in the story. It is intriguing. For those wishing to pick up a book based upon its cover, well they are in for a satisfying read.

Keeping in Touch is a very old-fashioned love story in a modern setting. It is beautifully told. It is impossible to put down. It lingers with you long after the book is over.

Read it.

18 June 2021

On Tarana Khan’s “The Begum and the Dastan”

Tarana Khan’s debut novel, The Begum and the Dastan, ( Tranquebar, Westland Books) is historical fiction set in the late nineteenth century. A fictional recreation based on broad facts known about a Nawab’s family, probably Rampur, although the story is set in a fictional township called Sherpur. ( Here is the backstory: https://www.shethepeople.tv/books/tarana-husain-khan-excerpt-raffat-begum/ “Raffat Begum: How a begum’s emergence from the harem changed the lives of Rampur’s women”, 4 March 2021 ) 

The novel begins in the twenty-first century, around 2016, when Ameera asks her grandmother to tell her tales about her grandmother, Feroza Begum. Then the story begins set in 1896. Most of the novel is about Ameera’s great-great-grandmother, Feroza Begum, although in the novel she is referred to inaccurately  as “great-grandmother”. ( Read an excerpt:  https://scroll.in/article/988872/womens-day-fiction-what-a-little-girl-learns-about-her-great-grandmothers-life-in-a-harem) It is about the abduction of a married and pregnant Feroza by the young nawab — Nawab Yunus Ali Khan. The nawab was known for his roving eye and Feroza was known for her beauty. But when the sawani festival organised by the Nawab, Feroza threw a hissy fit insisting she be allowed to join other women in the zenana. Her father gave in to her demands despite his misgivings about the Nawab. He insisted on Feroza being chaperoned by her stepmother and her maids but man proposes, God disposes. The nawab sighted a beautiful Feroza on his grounds and had her whisked away to his harem. 

The Begum and the Dastan is about Feroza, her husband giving her talak/ divorce under the impression that she wanted it when it was actually the manipulative Nawab who had set it all up. There are many, many more details. Feroza is initially set up as this headstrong, obstinate, demanding firstborn. A trait that she exhibits even in the Nawab’s harem except that after a while the forces of patriarchy take over. It is demeaning, humiliating and slowly breaks her, although the fire within her continues to smoulder. The novel extends itself by narrating a little more about the next generation and the crumbling of this dynasty. 

“The dastan” or the story is narrated by Mirza Ameeruddin Dastango, nicknamed ‘Kallam Mirza’. He is the storyteller whose job is to narrate stories, to the best of his abilities, despite being in an opiate stupor. His brother had been appointed the court dastango upon the demise of their father. But it was Kallam Mirza’s tales spun beautifully twice a week that had the audiences mesmerised. 

Kallan’s narrative style, drawing on the witticism and idioms of the Sherpur gullies, had endeared him to his audience who came from all classes, cared little for the Persianised Urdu couplets of his contemporaries, loved his passionate romancing, his tongue-in-cheek humour and somewhat oblique irony. His narrative was the tilism, the magic. While his famous brother, Mirza Aleemuddin, had succeeded his father as the court dastango, Kallan, unlettered was of the masses. Most listeners paid any amount depending on their station in life, keeping the annas and paisas at a predetermined place, generally in a taaq or alcove in the wall. The nobleman-host paid much more. 

The women folk, prohibited from attending the opium-riddled mehfils, were his invisible audience, peering from behind half-opened doors of darkened rooms, their eyes fixed on the expressions and gestures of the dastango, stifling giggles and sighs. 

The story he spun was of a despotic sorcerer, Tareek Jaan, and his grand illusory city, the Tilism-e-Azam,where women are confined in underground basements. Slowly Kallan Mirza’s tale intertwines with the one that the dadi narrates to her granddaughter. Lovely premise, to a potentially lovely story. In many parts of the story it is evocative of a particular style of living that is still elusive. Little is known about it. More so, because Tarana Khan attempts to tell the story from the zenana. It is the women’s quarters, a part of the household that is not easily accessed by men and certainly not by the public. It is a perspective that can be easily exploited to share much more than the court settings and the hustle-bustle outside. There is so much potential to enrich a story, particularly historical fiction, via the women’s conversations, the gossip, the manner of running a household, the internal mechanisms and of course the gupshup over cooking or while selecting fabric to make the prettiest of dresses.  

The literary device of having three narrative threads — Feroza Begum’s life, Kallan Mirza’s dastango and Ameera listening to her Dadi narrating Feroza Begum’s story — requires a dexterity that is not always evident in The Begum and the Dastan. As a plot it is an enticing thought but its execution needs to be crisp and sharp. A reader should be able to discern from the dialogue that this specific section belongs to the dastan or to Feroza Begum or Ameera. There has to be a shift in the tenor, in the details, in the mannerisms etc. Instead it all seems to blur into one monotonal narrative. There are no variations in the rhythm of storytelling. 

Tarana Khan has established her writerly credentials on food history. Her writing style is exquisite for its detailing. Her articles are fabulously absorbing to read for they are a sophisticated blend of the past, her insight, a generous dollop of storytelling, followed by an old recipe, redone for a modern audience. With this expectation in mind, The Begum and the Dastan, has been eagerly awaited for a very long time. It has been whispered about in Indian literary circles for a while now. Tarana’s regular writing shows her acute awareness of the modern sensibilities but it is missing in the patchwork of a novel. There are parts of the novel that are beautifully told but then there are others that are hastily written. The women could be a little more nuanced. The characters built well. The relationships. They are thin. They lack the oomph one associates with well-written historical fiction — richly told, detailed with multiple layers. As for food descriptions, they barely exist! (More on that later.) 

Historical fiction is a specialised literary art form. It is not the mere placement of a story in the past that makes it historical fiction. Salman Rushdie speaking to Paul Holdengraber in March 2021 about historical fiction. He said, “history is alway partially legendary, plenty of room for the fabulous imagination to work. What I have always believed about historical novels is that they end up being as much about our time as they are about their own time. We are looking at them with the interests and concerns of our time. and those interests and concerns find their expression in the past. We see them in the past. So to write about the past is also to write about the present.” To a degree this is echoed by Alexander Chee in his interview with Edward Carey where he says, “I think of historical fiction as being an argument with history, and with culture.”

With historical fiction, the author has the creative license to do whatever they please, but within the parameters of historical accuracy to important details. Within the framework, the author can then take leaps of imagination to do whatever they like. It is permissible. But I shake my head in disbelief when I begin to find a slip such as the use of an oxygen mask in 1911 whereas the mask as we know it today was not invented till 1919 and put into medical use till 1941. It is true that Haldane had by 1919 developed a prototype and by the late nineteenth century nasal catheters were being used to administer oxygen, but masks were certainly out of the question. One slip like this and I begin to doubt the entire edifice despite the innumerable footnotes ( a distraction) in the novel. Then there is the acute disappointment at not being entertained by descriptions of food especially when reading fiction by a food writer. Instead to make things worse, food served to Feroza is described as bland that is spiced up by her maid by adding powdered red or yellow chillies. I expected more. I expected richer, sensuous descriptions of food, that added a dimension to the myriad relationships depicted in the pages — British/Indian/Mughlai; Nawab and his wives /harem; the various levels of women who existed and were served food from the court kitchens; the food served to courtiers/ guests; the banquets at celebrations; food served at naming ceremonies of the babies etc. And of course juxtaposed with the food conversations of Ameera and her dadi in the present age. Or the food descriptions of the dastango. None of this exists. Food and food ceremonies are an essential part of our life. To ignore this aspect of life is an inexplicable oversight. Read Jahanara Habibullah’s memoir, Remembrance of Days Past: Glimpses of a Princely State during the Raj that is also set in Rampur and has terrific descriptions of food.

I continue to have mixed feelings about The Begum and the Dastan even though it has been more than two months since I read the book. The possibilities in this story are immense but fall short of one’s expectations knowing how talented Tarana Khan is as a writer. I look forward to her next novel. 

3 May 2021

“The Nameless God” by Savie Karnel

The Nameless God by  Savie Karnel is an extraordinary novel for little kids. It is simply told. Set in Dec 1992 but in a nameless town where communal tensions erupt after the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December. It is a story about two friends — Noor and Bachchu — who find themselves caught in the communal riots that have broken out. On the eve of the riots, the boys had created a nameless god of their own and very sweetly, not knowing what items to use to decorate their makeshift altar, had gathered items associated with Hinduism and Islam. The boys saw no wrong in assimilating the two cultures they were intimately familiar with.

It is a story set in the near past but is so obviously a story that is affecting our present every day. It is a simply told story about very tough subjects that are not always openly discussed with children — religion, communalism, politics, secularism, the Constitution etc. At the same time, the basic messages of friendship, respect, kindness, humanity and India’s syncretic character come through strongly in the novel. It is obvious it is in our citizen’s DNA. And yet children are being slowly indoctrinated by the toxic prejudices of their elders. This has to be countered by sharing histories that are being scrubbed out of the public conscious and are being rapidly replaced by new ones that are being created. This is done effectively in The Nameless God.

This is a powerful story by a debut novelist with a strong voice, Savie Karnel . The author does not mince words. A story that will resonate with many and should be adopted by schools as a middle grade reader. It must also be translated and made widely available in the local languages. We need more of our own stories and histories being made available to school children than bombarding them with stories from other lands especially about Nazi Germany. Those too must be heard but we are at such a critical juncture of our nationhood that books like The Nameless God are essential to kick-start difficult conversations. It is time.

30 Jan 2021

“The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani” and “Maryada”

The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani by Kishwar Desai ( Context, Westland Books), is a biography of the famous Bollywood actress, Devika Rani. It is a biography that Kishwar Desai has put together after poring over thousands and thousands of the actress’s personal correspondence. It creates an image of woman who was a strong individual, had an identity of her own, knew her mind and was very sure what she wanted out of the film industry. She was then the only, and perhaps even now, actress/filmmaker/producer and owner of a film studio – Bombay Talkies. She was known internationally in the 1930s, a feat that is hard for many to achieve even today, nearly a century later!

The Longest Kiss is informative and an absorbing read even if one is unfamiliar with the Bollywood landscape of the 1930s to 1940s. Bombay Talkies produced some of the better-known films of its time. It helped launch careers of many actors such as Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. Kishwar Desai captures the tumultousness of setting up a new business, in what was then uncharted waters, but the manner in which Devika Rani supported her first husband and business partner, Himansu Rai is astonishing. There are glimpses of the tough life she had and the balancing act she had to do often especially with Himansu’s failing mental health and irascible temper. Apparently in private he would take it out on Devika Rani, at times leaving her unconscious and yet she persisted in supporting him and working hard to preserve their business. Often she was also the leading lady in the films they produced together. Having said that she ensured that Bombay Talkies ran smoothly, the women actresses hired found it to be a safe haven and a respite from their domestic drudgery, the employees found it to be professionally run and the presence of the German cinematographers were more a blessing than an interference. So much so when the British arrived at the height of World War II to whisk the Germans away to detention camps, Bombay Talkies continued to work smoothly as the Indians had been trained well by the Germans and Devika Rani ensured that there was no break in the production schedules. Of course, Kishwar Desai details a great deal of the financial ups and downs the firm faced and how deftly Devika Rani steered it through. The actress even survived successfully a revolt within her firm and the board and continued to make films that were a critical and a commercial success. It was later that she was introduced by Bharati Sarabhai to the former Russian aristocrat and painter Svetsolav Roerich. They got along famously well and the rest as they say is history. This too is documented fairly well documented by Kishwar Desai except that it forms a very slim portion of the book. Devika Rani died a wealthy woman, a far cry from the days with Himansu when she had to starve herself or hide the fact that she did not have sufficient clothes to wear.

This is a fascinating book that was fifteen years in the making and will forever be referred to by cinema buffs, researchers and historians curious about India’s past, and of course feminists who would be keen to review how a young woman, newly returned from Britain, left her mark on the film industry in this astonishing manner. All this despite the trials and tribuulations she faced at home, Himansu was known to beat her but she hid it from public, he had reduced her to penury and she had pawned her jewels to help him maintain his illusion of a successful man. There are so many wrongs in this and yet so many women readers will recognise the eternal truth of being caught in this bind of being themselves while being “supportive” of their male partners. There is this particular sentiment that wafts through the book that is difficult to pin down. It is a feeling that develops within the reader curious as to why Devika Rani despite all odds chose to stay with an abusive partner like Himansu even if the rationale of sharing a business interest is offered. Of course, the love that Svetsolav and she had for each other was a blessing. Even so, this steadfast loyalty to Himansu is inexplicable.

Kishwar Desai writes ( p.430):

It was ironic that all these years, she had longed to be looked after. In all her relationships, she had wanted a mentor,a father figure to replace the one she had lost so early — but the men in her life would always lean on her, instead. Somewhere, then, did she always feel unfulfilled? Perhaps it was the loneliness. . . .

I had to take a break from this increasingly bewildering feeling about Devika Rani as to why she stuck it out with Himansu and I was not convinced by the argument that it was loneliness. While on a break, I picked up Arshia Sattar’s lucidly written collection of essays about Maryada, or ‘boundary’ and ‘propriety of conduct’. It is a complicated concept especially since the one version that has held supreme is the idea of ‘maryada purshottama’ or the ‘ideal man’ as the defining virtue of Rama in the Ramayana. But in her essays, Arshia Sattar sets out to explore how the Hindu epics are driven by four ‘operators’ — dharma, karma, vidhi ( fate) and daiva (intervention by the gods). How these especially the various kinds of dharma are fulfilled by individuals by the choices they make. In Maryada ( HarperCollins India) Arshia Sattar tries to delineate the various ways in which these can be achieved or even recognise how others apart from Rama practise this concept. In her concluding remarks in the essay on “Ayodhya’s Wives” where she tries to understand Rama’s arguments about love, she writes:

Rama indicates that Dashratha, too, has acted out of love for Kaikeyi, as Rama is about do now for his wife Sita. Acts of love have to be the most subjective, individual choices that anyone can make, for surely no two people love alike. And yet, Rama feels compelled to transform these acts of will, acts located deep within the sweetest and most expansive spaces of the human heart, into choices that lie within the framework of dharma such as the one that controls him and his father, both as kings and as husbands.

Acting within the constraints of dharma, taking on the roles and walking the paths that have been circumscribed for an individual who is a man, a king, a husband, a son, a brother, minimizes the potential these personal choices have for subversion. …Free will has been eliminated from the discourse of right and wrong, and once again, dharma has been instrumental as the basis not only of action, but also of choice.

It may be a bit far-fetched to think that Devika Rani was at some level following the ideals of the faith she had been brought up in and was whether self-consciously or otherwise fulfilling her dharma. Who knows? And we shall certainly never know. But it is this very fundamental concept of choices that a woman makes that is at the core of the third wave of feminism. Perhaps this angle could have been explored further if Kishwar Desai had chosen to exploit her strength as a novelist to create a thinly veiled fictionalised biography based on facts as David Lodge had done in his novel Author, Author that is about American novelist Henry James. For now I have reservations about The Longest Kiss kind of a biography that oscillates between sharing documentary evidence, especially of the financial aspects of running Bombay Talkies, and ever so often delving into the fiction when imagining the romance between Devika Rani and her husbands, does not quite come together seamlessly. The non-fiction narrative is absorbing to read even if it is based on facts that are never footnoted in the text. So why disrupt the flow of reading with romantic episodes that do not sit well in the text? It does not make any sense even if Devika Rani was a romantic at heart.

Having said that Kishwar Desai’s biography of the actress will be considered as a seminal piece of work even if my Eureka moment of attempting to understand who Devika Rani was by reading some of Arshia Sattar’s brilliant essays. But isn’t that what reading is all about? It raises questions reading a book and that may or may not get answered by reading another one?

Read the books for yourself and judge.

12 Jan 2021

“A Bit of Everything” – panel discussion, 11 Jan 2021

Debut novelist Sandeep Raina will be in conversation with literary stalwarts Anita Nair and Omair Ahmad on Monday, 11 Jan 2021 to discuss his novel A Bit of Everything. It is a conversation organised by Westland Books and India International Centre, New Delhi. The moderator will be Janani Ganesan. It should be interesting to hear the panelists as this is probably Anita’s first public appearance since she was appointed #UNHCR’s high profile supporter, to help create trust, awareness, and advocate about the situation of refugees in India. It could not be at a more relevant discussion since a significant proportion of Sandeep’s novel is about refugees, circumstances that make people leave their homes in search of “better” pastures, unexpected situations they find themselves in and attitudes of others towards refugees. Ultimately how does it affect the refugees themselves. So many questions are raised and need to be addressed. Omair too is known for his astonishingly powerful and award-winning novel Jimmy The Terrorist. Although writing ten years apart, Sandeep Raina and Omair Ahmad share much common ground in their literary creations on what affects them as writers, what exists as realities and how do ordinary folks negotiate these violent landscapes and learn to survive. They do it in their inimitable gentle, courteous and pleasant way but are equally passionate about how painful and senseless many of these events are.

Log in folks. Watch it.

Update: here is the link to the recording:

5 January 2021

Interview with Nandini Krishnan, translator of Perumal Murugan’s novel “Estuary”

Award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s latest novel Estuary has been translated by Nandini Krishnan. Estuary is a curious book. Flat in its tone but the preoccupation of the government clerk Kumarasurar for his son, Meghas’s, welfare is universal. Many parents will identify with it. Perumal Muruagan captures the parental anxiety very well. Bulk of the story revolves around Meghas’s request for a fancy smartphone that Kumarasurar may or not be able to afford. It sort of is in step with Kumarasurar’s general anathema towards electronic devices. It is illustrated well in his locking up the government issued computer into a cupboard instead of using it. It is only when he is introduced to the vast possibilities browsing the Internet can unleash that Kumarasurar begins to understand the younger generation’s fascination with smartphones too. The enthusiasm of the younger man for edevices rubs off on to his father, a Luddite where digital technology was concerned, and transforms Kumarasurar into a new man.

Estuary is a commentary on society and a gentle dig at people who are immune to external influences and refuse to evolve. Estuary drives home the point beautifully that as the elder person you must evolve even if it means graciously acknowledging your limits. By stonewalling and refusing to understand the needs of the younger generation, you will merely alienate them and perhaps lose them forever. In a peculiar way Estuary is a bildungsroman but not of the young man Meghas but that of his father. So the metaphor of “Estuary”, the mixing of the salt water with fresh water, works beautifully in the conclusion of the book, when tables are turned where the father now hankers after the smartphone unlike his son. 

Estuary is contemplative and relatable. But as with many translated works, credit has to also be accorded to the translator. Namely, Nandini Krishnan. I am unable to pinpoint what exactly it is, but her translation really soars. The sentences click. There is a rhythm but it is ever so slightly different to that of reading a text written originally in English. Yet the translation is breezy. At no point does one get the feeling that the translator is getting carried away with their art and losing the author. On the contrary. Her respect for the storyteller and his story comes through. I do not even know how to explain that any further than except urge others to read the book. Of course there are instances in the book where the dreariness and monotony of Kumarasurar’s anxiety gets to the reader. The dullness of the storytelling is an art in itself and probably intentionally created by Murugan. At such moments in the novel the only reason for reading further is the exquisite quality of translation. 

Nandini Krishnan is the author of Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013) and Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018). Perumal Murugan’s Estuary is her first translation from Tamil. She lives in Madras, among nine dogs, eight cats, and several thousand books!

Here is an interview with her conducted via email:

Q1. How long did it take to translate Estuary

It’s hard to calculate the man hours, but going by the calendar, I started in November 2019 and the novel went to print in May 2020. I’d promised V K Karthika, Publisher, Westland Books, that I would have a first draft ready in a month so that Westland could publish the following summer. And so, I pushed aside all my other writing projects and dedicated myself entirely to the novel. Of course, I had read it twice already, and had perhaps translated it in my head to some extent. I must have spent between five and eighteen hours on Estuary each day, depending on the sections I was doing. I had a break until they got back to me with a line edit and copy edit, and that was another intense period of immersion in Asuralokam.

Q2. What was your methodology in translating? For instance, did you translate it in snatches, refine and then proceed or did you first translate the entire novel and then edit it further?

Actually, all of the above!

I had a very tight self-imposed deadline, and I had to translate at least one chapter a day, more if I could. If I had doubts or dilemmas about which words to use, I would shortlist my options in parentheses to deal with later.

I’d take a few hours off to get mauled by my dogs and then return, entice my kitten off my laptop with food, and start restructuring and rephrasing each sentence after comparing it with the Tamil original.

Once I was done with all forty chapters, I took two days off, and then spent a few more days re-reading and editing the entire novel.

By the time it came back to me with a line edit, I had made a new document with notes on which words I must replace in the first draft, after yet another re-read of the original and my translation. So my second and third drafts were done with at least four windows open at once on the computer. While I was waiting for a final copy edit, I read the Tamil novel for maybe a fifth time, so I ended up doing a fourth draft of the entire novel before it was typeset.

Q3. Do you pause and read other translations while working on a project? 

As you can probably tell from my previous answer, I don’t really have a pause mode. But I can’t eat or sleep or even sit without a book in hand, so I’m always reading. Some of the books I read while working on Estuary—and indeed my own books—were or are, inevitably, translations.

Perhaps I’m a little more tuned in to a translator’s role in my reading as well, now that I’ve translated a book. While reading Banaphool’s Wildfire (Seagull Books), translated by Somnath Zutshi, I found myself analysing the translator’s craft in particular—something I haven’t consciously done before.

Q4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in the translation? 

I used to be fond of saying that I’m in something of a trance when I write fiction, that I write intuitively and it feels as if I’m simply a medium for a story that wants to be told. But I began to rethink this when I heard Akhil Sharma—a writer I admire hugely—talk about how only writers can sense the craft in his novels, at the Festivals des Écrivains du Monde, 2014, in Paris. He went on to analyse some of his sentences, and the use of a particular word instead of a synonym. For the first time, I found myself applying this principle instinctively, and could relate to what he’d said. This exercise really develops your language and craft.

I also feel being in such a long relationship with a work of literature in another language makes a certain cadence percolate one’s own language and enrich it. I can speak only one language so that it can be understood by its native speakers—English—but I read many, and therefore I can access various literatures in the original. I find that each new language adds a layer of nuance to one’s thinking and a lilt to one’s vocabulary in other languages, rendering one’s writing more versatile and one’s imagery more vivid.

I’m making the first of many references to Vikram Seth in this interview, but I think the beauty of his English has a lot to do with his being not just a polyglot, but also a translator.

The only “con” is the sense of heartbreak at the end. As mother of a houseful of dogs and cats, I can make something of a comparison to fostering a fur baby. You love this little puppy that needs you for nourishment, and he or she loves you too, but then you’re always aware you’re not the parent and that you eventually have to let go.

Q5. Did you have to consult Perumal Murugan during the translation? 

I have a funny story to tell you. The first time I spoke to him about the translation, he asked me, “Andha pagadiye aangilathule konduvara mudiyumaa?” which means, “Will the pagadi translate into English?”

And it was a most inauspicious start because I had to ask sheepishly, “Sir, what does ‘pagadi’ mean?” He explained that it was parody, and then said, “You must have heard people say ‘pagadi-ya pesuvaan’—he is sarcastic—surely?” I had to admit I never had. I did a quick survey around my house and told him none of the Tamil speakers in my family had heard of the word either, and he began to laugh. He must have thought about how different the milieus in which we were raised are. My only brush with rural life has been through cinema and literature. And although I studied Tamil for thirteen years in school and college, I find it easier to translate Sangam poetry than contemporary literature because the syllabus was partial to the former.

Now, Perumal Murugan uses certain words and describes certain traditions which are so particular to a region that even Tamil dictionaries draw a blank. So he was often my only dictionary and encyclopaedia. I also consulted him when I had to make a choice between two phrases or idioms—I would translate the English literally into Tamil and ask him which he preferred.

I had the advantage of having read nearly all his Tamil novels and several of his short stories, because of which I’m tuned in to his style and rhythm. I’ve met him in person often, and I can hear his writing in his voice, which helps me render it with some authenticity into English.

Q6. Has your translation been absolutely faithful to the original Tamil text or did you (with the concurrence of the author) have to tweak portions of the novel? 

That’s a layered question, and it deserves a layered answer.

Let me assemble the first layer with an example. The opening lines in Tamil are:

Yaman azhaippu urudhi

Magan azhaippu aridhu

Now, even if you don’t understand Tamil, you can feel the music and sense the significance of wordplay in those lines. This is a crucial aspect to carry into the translation.

Azhaippu” can mean both “call” and “invitation”. “Aridhu” means “rare”, but also has the connotation “precious”. This is another crucial aspect to carry into the translation.

It would be impossible to be absolutely faithful to the sense of irony and the semantic meaning of the first line. If I were to write “Yama’s invitation is certain”, the reader would be bewildered. I eventually went with “The call of Yama is certain”, but this doesn’t contain the wryness of the Tamil sentence. So I would have to find a way to bring that into the next line.

I also had to bring in the musicality of the two sentences, almost a couplet. If I were to write, “The call of Yama is a certainty. A call from one’s son is a rarity”, it would sound like those cringe-worthy traffic police slogans—you know, “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers” or “Rash driving is crash driving.”

I had three options for the second line—“A call from one’s son is rare”, which is faithful to the semantic sense; “A call from one’s son is cause for celebration”, which is faithful to the emotional connotations; “A call from one’s son is an event”, which was the Goldilocks mean for me. It conveys the meaning and emotion; it has almost the same syllabic count as “The call of Yama is certain”. The last word of each sentence is dental, with emphasis on the

“t” and “en” sounds. And the second sentence contains the wryness that I wasn’t able to bring into the first, so the “couplet” works in translation.

Now, for the second layer—there are various vocabularies to be translated, because the third-person narrative is not always the author’s voice. Sometimes, it is a disguised first-person narrative. When the third-person narrative describes a character’s thoughts, it often assumes the voice of that character. I had to translate that character’s vocabulary accurately.

There are lyrical passages and empathetic ones and scholarly ones and playful ones, all of which carry Perumal Murugan’s signature. Then, there are passages in Kumarasurar’s voice. This man is a government employee who believes he is a gifted poet. But Perumal Murugan does not appear to think too highly of Kumarasurar’s poetic sensibilities. When Kumarasurar’s thoughts are narrated, his whimsical self-indulgence is interrupted by another tone—imagine a man who spends most of the day typing letters that probably go something like, “Dear Sir/ Regarding the statistics requested by you, kindly find enclosed forthwith the numbers as also a circular issued by the Department of Revenue regarding…/Kindly acknowledge receipt of the same.” The drudgery of this, the monotony will naturally seep into his thoughts too, and this is illustrated by flatness in tone. As for Mangasuri, she probably spends most of the day watching television soap operas and devotional programmes, and therefore she has a tendency to make dramatic pronouncements and perhaps imagines her reactions to be replayed twice. Meghas is clearly a caring son, but also has the impatience, quickness, and dry humour of an intelligent teen dealing with wide-eyed parents.

This is why the foreword is so important—when Prof. Murugan speaks of “deviance”, he could be referring to this little game he has played, where not just the vocalised dialogue but the internal dialogue too is in the voices of his characters.

And the voice of the narrator is not uniformed either. Sometimes, the author has a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes, he is seething with rage. And in the tightness of his clipped sentences, one feels the immense pain and fear he underwent during his years of exile.

So to be truly faithful to the novel, I had to extrapolate the lives of all the characters as well as the author himself, and rent some space in his head for the duration of the translation.

Q7. In an article you said that there were portions of the text you had enjoyed so much that you could recite them from memory. I found that such an extraordinary comment. As if you were more than just a translator but channelling it before making it your own and yet very clear that it was a Perumal Murugan story. So, what are your favourite sections in the novel? Does it have to do with the story or the style of storytelling? And the fondness that you have for these sections remain true for Tamil and English or only in Tamil? 

I’m gratified by what you said about the translation. I haven’t quite articulated my modus operandi to myself, but you put it quite beautifully.

Initially, my favourite sections in the novel were perhaps the ones I translated for Kannan Sundaram, Kalachuvadu, Perumal Murugan’s Tamil publisher, to pitch to prospective English publishers, even before the translation was commissioned—the opening chapter where Kumarasurar goes on his morning walk, his analysis of the seven questions he asks his son, their visits to these draconian colleges with over-the-top controlling mechanisms for their students, reports on selfies causing accidents, and the chapter where Kumarasurar has a psychotic episode. But one sentence hit me so hard I had to put the Tamil novel aside—it is the moment when Kumarasurar goes to bring Meghas home on the last day of school and hears of a “curated cemetery”. The paragraph about students passing away in college and their families not being informed about it comes out of nowhere, and it breaks the reader. I would not call it a “favourite”, because one would have to be particularly perverse to enjoy that scene, but I felt a great sense of responsibility because the English paragraph had to be as powerful.

Having completed the translation, I think my favourite chapter is the one which describes Kumarasurar’s second visit to the estuary. I’m satisfied that I have captured the tone, imagery, mood, and undercurrents in this very complex portion, and it is my greatest triumph with the novel.

To explain why I like these sections so much, I have to make an admission. When I read the Tamil novel for the first time, I kept searching for the Perumal Murugan I knew and couldn’t find him. It seemed such a mild novel, without the bite of his previous work. The premise seemed so light. I knew I was missing something, because Perumal Murugan wouldn’t write a simple story about the generation gap. So I read it again, and only to realise that was not the subject of the novel at all. It is, in some ways, a microcosmic, twenty-first century parallel to A House for Mr. Biswas, a quiet yet searing contemplation of the wrenching failure of an unremarkable life, the devastation of a man who was once the talk of town at the notion that he might be the only one who imagines that he is important.

It took me, an avid admirer of Perumal Murugan, two readings and a lifetime’s consumption of his works to understand the essence of the novel. His English readership has only received him in translation, and so far, his plots have stood the test of language. This novel is a work of art which is carried as much by style as by story. These sections were the ones that brought this fact home to me, and they were my own pookkuzhi—trial by fire. Because, unlike Prof. Murugan with me, I would have only one shot with the reader. And both he and Kannan had placed a lot of faith in me by insisting that I be the translator. I had to repay that trust by conjuring the same magic in English, and by fighting over every word on behalf of the writer.

I was terribly nervous until a brilliant review by Saudamini Jain in the Hindustan Times reassured me that my job was done. So, with a smug little pat on my own back and a sheepish smile, I can confess that I like the sections in both Tamil and English.

Q8. How do you assess/ decide when to take on a translation project? 

To be honest with you, money is an important consideration. Respect and transparency are others. I’ve taken on two translation projects so far, and both were largely because of how beautifully both editors wrote to me and how my interactions with them made me feel.

This is particularly relevant because I’ve had unpleasant experiences with representatives from tight-fisted publishing firms who’ve tried various tactics to get me on board. It feels almost like you’re being sold insurance, really. Or dealing with an HR person who’s trying to convince you to stay on after a pay cut. “See, you have to look at the unquantifiable factors. Think of what this could do for your career.” “Our profits have taken a beating this year. We need people like you to pitch in at this critical time.” “Think of this as a service you’re doing a profession that you love.” “This is actually a much better deal than anything we’ve offered anyone else.” “You need to be realistic here.” “If you don’t want it enough, I can’t do anything except say we’re sorry to see you walk away from an opportunity.”

This is yet another reason I admire Vikram Seth—he has never allowed the publishing industry to dictate his worth to him, and he has justified every penny spent on him. He has taught writers that weighing one’s efforts is not mercenary. I also owe Jeet Thayil for this—he’s one of the kindest, most generous people I know, and perhaps an unconscious mentor to writers who are just about finding their feet. From him, I’ve learned not to be embarrassed about asking for what ought rightly to be offered.

Q9. How would you define a good translation?

A good translation must strike a fine balance—it should not read like a translation, but should also carry some of the flavour of the original. The reader must hear the syllables of a language that is not-quite-English and yet not explicitly so. He should feel he is exploring, but never be lost. I guess it’s like holidaying in an exotic country and staying at a resort that caters mainly to tourists.

Often, the choice or arrangement of words can give the reader a whiff of an unknown language. For example, if I were translating from French, I may go with “armoire” over “cabinet” or “cupboard”, and “boudoir” over “dressing room”, because these are French words assimilated into English. If I were translating a Hindi novel, I wouldn’t change “Dadima” to “Granny” or “Jiju” to “brother-in-law”. If it were a Delhi novel, I’d make sure I used “By god” instead of “I swear” and “Mom-Dad” instead of “my parents”.

If you read the first few pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, you feel the place might as well be London as Cairo. This is perhaps because most of his early works were translated by teams—someone would translate it literally, someone else would correct the grammar, and yet someone else would Anglicise it for a global readership. The work that kept coming to mind when I visited Egypt was Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Bulding. It was translated by Humphrey T. Davies, who has been based in Cairo for decades.

Q10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator? 

A translator is really a writer who is fluent in more than one language. I don’t believe writing can be taught. Perhaps one can find the tools to be a better writer, but it is also an instinct, a flair. One can always tell which translators are creative writers in their own right.

If you’ll forgive yet another analogy, I might liken a translator to an artist who is creating a portrait. One’s craft must come into play, but the artist must not encroach into the territory of the creator of the original. He cannot make the model’s nose sharper, and cannot afford to miss a single sinew. The artist may be Picasso, but this is not his palette for expression.

Often, translations fail either because the translator is not a writer or because the translator is a writer whose footprint contaminates the original author’s.

A case in point is Salma, whose novels and poetry in Tamil have not been done justice in English. Many of her translators focus on the “shocking” aspect, without contextualising her work within their milieu. The shock value is incidental to Salma’s craft. It is also a pitfall to see her work through the prism of one’s own politics, of gender or religion. It would be far more important for the translator to ask himself: “Can the reader hear the language of a Tamil Muslim household?” “Should I say ‘death’ here or retain ‘mowthu’ or use the uncorrupted Urdu original ‘maut’?”

Q11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?

No. I think poor translations exist because most publishing firms sacrifice literary value at the altar of profit margins.

A skilled translator will find ways to make any sentence work. If you think about it, even books written in English but set in a milieu where English is not spoken contain the dialogue in translation—such as Junot Diaz’s entire oeuvre and a fair bit of J M Coetzee’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. An example that comes to mind right away is a line from Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, where two friends are speaking to each other:

‘You should get a walking-stick, Mini,’ said Khuku. ‘It’ll be much easier for you. Your leg,’ and in Bengali the words ‘tor pa’ sounded so affectionate, as if she were referring to her leg as if it were her daughter, ‘won’t have to take the weight.’

I remember reading this when I was in college, and thinking “If I ever have to translate the phrase kaadhal-kathirikka, this is what I will do.” Google Translate will tell you I’ve written “love-eggplant”.

We’re fond of repeating received notions, like “English can never have the beauty of the mother tongue” or that the elegance or poetry in prose is lost in translation, without analysing them for truth. As someone with no real “mother tongue” and a passion for languages, I feel English is the most beautiful language I know, because it absorbs something of every other language I learn—it is my home, which somehow accommodates souvenirs from around the world.

Q12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?

My favourite translator is Vikram Seth—he translates not only between languages, but between genres and disciplines and art forms. Who else would marry music and calligraphy and poetry (as he does in The Rivered Earth)? His Three Chinese Poets, from which I recently read poems, is a revelation to me—he dismantles and reassembles poems to stay faithful to rhythm and sense and imagery. He seems to be my gold standard in everything, no? J But we had poems from Beastly Tales when I was in Class 6 and 7, and I can never forget “Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks/Insults or complaints or bricks/Stilled the frog’s determination/To display his heart’s elation.”

In terms of translated texts I admire, I thought Aniruddhan Vasudevan achieved the near-impossible with his translation of Lara Fergus’ quite stunning My Sister Chaos. He translated it into Tamil as Izhappin Varaipadam, and the sections I read were just as stunning. Mr Kalyan Raman’s translation of Ashokamitran’s Manasarovar carries all the heartache and intensity and ethereality and complexity of the original.

I’m not sure it would be fair for me to speak about translated texts whose source language I don’t read, but I enjoyed Srinath Perur’s translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar-Ghochar, Rimli Bhattacharya’s translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak, Arunava Sinha’s translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee, all of Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk, and all of Howard Goldblatt’s translations of Mo Yan.

6 August 2020

“Chorashastra: The subtle science of thievery”

Chorashastra: The subtle science of thievery is an oddly gripping novella by award-winning Malayalam writer V. J. James. Absurdly imaginative storyline that within a couple of pages seems to be so believable that it is impossible to put the book down. A thief breaks into the house of a professor who has spent his days salvaging ancient texts, long forgotten or overlooked by scholars of present times. On the night of the theft, the professor is poring over an ancient manuscript called Chorashastra that holds within its pages mind-boggling tips and tricks for thieves. The professor persuades the thief to become his disciple. And thus begin a series of ridiculous adventures for the thief. This is a story easily read during these surreal times. Perhaps a plotline that will fascinate readers after the pandemic is over too. Read it at face value or search for alternate meanings. It is a choice left to the reader. It is certainly a plot that will not be easily forgotten. It has been translated smoothly from Malayalam into English by lawyer Morley J. Nair, who is now based in USA. Meanwhile V J James works as an engineer in a space research organisation.

There is a fascinating interview between two legendary award-winning contemporary writers, Benyamin and V J James at the end of the book. An excellent element to include with the novella as Benyamin asks all the questions one wishes to have asked V J James!

Good stuff! Worth reading.

26 June 2020

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