world literature Posts

Interview with translator Debali Mookerjea-Leonard

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.

Debali Mookerjea-Leonard

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.

Blood is published by Juggernaut Books ( 2020).

3 May 2020

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

Picture by Arpita Das, Founder-Publisher, Yoda Press

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

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

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

Here are some of the salient points of the roundtable.

Indian Book Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French Book Market

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

Indo-French collaboration

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

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


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

17 December 2019

Agni Sreedhar’s “The Gangster’s Gita”

The Gangster’s Gita by Agni Sreedhar is a slim book. It is a conversation between a hit man and his victim. They are waiting for the appointed time of the killing which will be indicated by the hit man’s boss. While biding their time the two men start conversing. The “victim” is a hit man too. So call this conversation a kind of swapping professional notes or just sharing thoughts as the end draws near. Even so the calm and composed manner in which it is narrated, even by making allowances for the written word, the last few pages come as a jolt. At times it feels as if it is two men merely chatting across the lawns of the farmhouse where the hostage has been spirited away and not that the victim is standing on the balcony of a locked room looking down upon the hit man who is sweating it out doing his daily routine of exercises. For inexplicable reasons they start conversing, knowing full well that their breaking their profession’s codes of conduct. It is not advisable to become too familiar with each other in this nasty business.

Set in the Bangalore underworld of the ‘90s, The Gangster’s Gita—published in Kannada as Edegarike is set to become an instant cult classic in English. The writer is an ex-gangster, Agni Sreedhar, who also won the Sahitya Akademi award for his memoir — My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. His column in a Kannada paper was called “Editorial from Behind Bars” which he wrote while incarcerated in Bellary jail. Apparently in the literary circles of Karnataka it was well known that before Agni Sreedhar strayed into a world of crime, he was a voracious reader and deeply influenced by Albert Camus and Carlos Castaneda. Once he famously asked a friend to get him Camus’ The Outsider to re-read in jail.

It is impossible to share the gist of the freewheeling conversation between the two men except to say that this book is worth reading. Also it is hard to distinguish how much of this is fiction and how much the truth. An extraordinary book. It is a book that will travel well overseas too as a fine example of World Literature. It exists. Read it. Mull over it. You will not regret it.

9 Dec 2019

On translations of the Bible, Diarmaid MacCulloch

[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.

Extra: Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2012 Gifford Lectures on the “Silence in Christian History”. These lectures were later gathered in Silence: A Christian History . [bwwpp_book sku=’97801431258150000000′]

Diarmaid MacCulloch All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2016, rpt 2017. Pb. pp. Rs 699

31 March 2018 

 

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017

“The Communist Manifesto” and its publishing history

While browsing through the fine collection of titles of Penguin Little Black Classics I was interested to note that title 20 was The Communist Manifesto ( 1948). Of the entire collection which is a magnificent sweep of literature through the ages and different nations it is curious to see the manifesto included. It was probably included for its impact globally as it is amongst the most widely read and disseminated texts worldwide even a 170 years after it was first published. In fact Leftword Books published a collection of essays on the manifesto called A World To Win  (1999). One of the essays is on the publishing history of the manifesto in India ( available at this link  for free download with the publisher’s permission). It is a fascinating account of how the manifesto was first published in British India. The first Indian translator of the Manifesto had an interesting career. Soumyendranath was the grand nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. It is fitting that the Manifesto got published first in Bengali, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil, as it is in the centres where these languages predominate that the Communist movement first struck roots. The early Communist groups were based in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore and Madras. Later it was translated into Malayalam, Gujarati, Oriya, Hindi and Punjabi. In the fifties and later, the Manifesto was published regularly in different Indian languages by Progress Publishers, Moscow.

 

No wonder Penguin Random House included The Communist Manifesto in its Little Black Classics series.

27 February 2017 

 

 

James Wood and Tim Parks, two critics, two books

Tim ParksTwo prominent literary commentators and critics — James Wood and Tim Parks— have release books within months of each other. Both the books are compilations of previously delivered speeches and/or columns. James Wood’s The Nearest Thing To Life is a collection of Mandel lectures delivered in April 2013 at the Mandel Center for the Humanities, Brandeis University. It also contains a lecture delivered in February 2014 at the British Museum in a series run by the museum and the London Review of Books. Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From is a compilation of essays first published in the New York Review of Books.

Both the critics have chosen to write part-memoir, part-reflective essays but very germane James Woodto contemporary conversations about publishing, writing, reading and literary criticism. Since these were written over a short period of a time, published more or less immediately, these observations encapsulate a period in publishing history which would otherwise get lost in the deluge of information available online. To read these essays printed and bound as a book allows one the pleasure of absorbing the ideas at one’s pace. There is a range of issues they cover — reading, what constitutes good criticism, what is the hallmark of a good writer and critic, what constitutes disciplined reading, of literary prizes, storytelling and the notion of “home” that surfaces regularly among writers including these essayists, both of whom are Englishmen but reside in other countries — Tim Parks in Italy and James Wood in America. This eternal question about what constitutes “home” turns their attention on world literature. It is also fascinating to discover the strict Christian upbringing both the critics had which they consciously chose to move away from  — it requires tremendous grit and determination to transcend this — to read literature as acutely as they do, is astounding.

At a time when discussions about global literature, significance of translations, accessing new literature and cultures and cross-pollinations of literary traditions and techniques dominate, to have two prominent critics discuss world literature is significant. Tim Parks’s fearlessly exquisite essay, “The Dull New Global Novel” ( NYRB blog, 9 February 2010. http://bit.ly/1PnbidG)  and James Wood engaging essay in “Secular Homelessness” based on his impressive close reading of literature for the New Yorker ( Essay and podcast available at “On Not Going Home” LRB, Vol 36 No. 4, 20 February 2014. http://bit.ly/1PnbABm ). Reading literature especially fiction gives a literary critic formidable insight into socio-eco-political scenarios, raising questions, but connecting dots of daily life that would otherwise pass by us in a blur little realising their import. For instance the conversations about world literature and “tangle of feelings” as evident in world literature are closely aligned to issues about emigration/ immigration/ exile ( voluntary and otherwise), idea of home, the global village becoming a repository of many cultural influences  instead of being culturally homogeneous and undisturbed for many years, what are the politics of translations etc. Both critics, Tim Parks and James Wood, dwell at length on this as illustrated by a couple of extracts from the essays:

Tim Parks

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

James Wood

What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily. Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times. Sebald, a German writer who lived most of his adult life in England (and who was thus perhaps an emigrant, certainly an immigrant, but not exactly an émigré, nor an exile), had an exquisite sense of the varieties of not-belonging. He came to Manchester, from Germany, in the mid-1960s, as a graduate student. He returned, briefly, to Switzerland, and then came back to England in 1970, to take a lectureship at the University of East Anglia. The pattern of his own emigration is one of secular homelessness or homelooseness. He had the economic freedom to return to West Germany; and once he was well known, in the mid-1990s, he could have worked almost anywhere he wanted to. 

Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end. This is a powerful motif in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer who came to the States from Sarajevo, in 1992, only to discover that the siege of his hometown prohibited his return. Hemon stayed in America, learned how to write a brilliant, Nabokovian English (a feat in some sense greater than Nabokov’s because achieved at a steroidal pace), and published his first book, The Question of Bruno, in 2000 (dedicated to his wife, and to Sarajevo). Once the Bosnian war was over, Hemon could, presumably, have returned to his native city. What had not been a choice became one; he decided to make himself into an American writer.

These books are a precious addition to my personal library.

Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From Harvill Secker, London, 2014. Hb. pp.250 Rs 599

James Wood The Nearest Thing To Life Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 140. Rs 599

15 May 2015