Is That a Fish in Your Indian Ear?

The language of paradox (from left) Sinha, Kiradoo, Valmiki and Agrawal,
The language of paradox: (from left) Sinha, Kiradoo, Valmiki and Agrawal, Photos: (Left) Vijay Pandey, Garima Jain

THIS CONVERSATION began not at Jaipur but in Chennai. It’s another literary festival. The first Hindu Literary Prize: the main hall is swarming one afternoon with a 100-odd translators squealing, screaming and growling. Was Ramanujan right? Ramanujan is God. No, he’s not. Which translation of Premchand got it right? It’s an orgy presided over by two famous translators — Mini Krishnan and Arunava Sinha. Sinha is the award-winning translator of contemporary Bangla essentials such as Shankar’s Chowringhee, Buddhadeb Bose’s When the Time is Right and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart. He has a day job as an Internet professional in Delhi, and endless energy for books, friends and family. He also has a gentle longing for the complete annihilation of the privileges enjoyed by anodyne Indian Writing in English (IWE). That evening, he is one step short of writing the manifesto. “In a few years,” he says, “translations will overrun the market, translations will take over. We’ll have good stuff to read, great stuff.” He gleams at the thought.

A few months later, Sinha is more temperate and says yes, there are more translations and better translations than a decade ago, but perhaps the revolution is not exactly round the corner. “Around the world,” he says, “publishers are recommissioning and reissuing translations but the big Indian publishers have not cottoned to the goldmine of translation. There is no marketing push.”

What would India be if we were reading each other more? If hot Bihari authors were crowded by groupies in Mu mbai? If the prison diaries of Kashmir were being read in the Northeast? If we gossipped about the writing of Nazir Mansuri who lives in coastal Gujarat, as much as we deified the loneliness of Philip Roth who writes standing up?

This year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is a little India — controversial, confused, hamstrung, flighty, elevating, depressing and always fuelling existential angst. It is also a great place to figure if Sinha’s manifesto for bhasha writing can be written anytime soon.

At this year’s JLF, there are 260 Indian writers of which over 40 write in Indian languages other than English, and not one of them have the glamorous aura of those who write in English. A glimpse of K Satchidanandan is not the same as a wisp of Michael Ondaatje’s beard. We, the Anglophones, have not grown up deifying Satchidanandan, who writes heart-breaking poetry in English, Hindi and Malayalam. The girl who squeals ‘Sir!’ and touches NS Madhavan’s feet after hearing him read is an exception.

A few years ago, the bhasha writers’ sessions could only be described in patronising adjectives, so thinly attended were they. This year, of course, the crowds attending the festival are so enormous that every session is, by default, a packed session. At one session, where the stately Bama Faustina and the rather less stately but always intriguing Charu Nivedita read and spoke alternately in Tamil and English, when the moderator enquired, only a dozen hands indicated that they understood Tamil. Everyone else was sitting quietly, simply enjoying the rhythms of two fantastic readers. This was a brief utopian hour as thrilling as the session in which Gulzar, Madan Gopal Singh and Mohammed Hanif read in Punjabi. (Hanif, completing his portfolio as paragon of all virtues, writes in English, Punjabi, Urdu and is now translating from Sindhi.)

Even the least literary amongst us like to talk airily about ‘the lost flavour of the original’

Giriraj Kiradoo, a 36-year-old award-winning poet, translator and editor of the bilingual (Hindi-English) magazinePratilipi, is looking happy. This is his fifth year at JLF. Two years ago, he had sworn never to do a Rajasthani session here again, annoyed at the quality of the discussion and ill-conceived panel. This year, he is cheered by the audiences, the fact that the organisers have gone beyond the canonical names and looked for interesting writers such as Rameshwar Godara, a Hindi novelist from Ganganagar, Rajasthan. “He doesn’t speak English, has not been translated into English. He is an interesting writer and it’s great that he’s here,” says Kiradoo.

Like Sinha, Kiradoo too is hopeful of great things happening in the bhasha scene. He cites two facts: one, the entry of publishing multinationals Penguin and HarperCollins into Hindi publishing (with the qualifier that they are still publishing the same old-same olds) and two, the new Hindu Literary Prize and the DSC Prize have both done away with the translation category and nominate any writing in English. (This year, two of the six books shortlisted for the DSC Prize were translations.)

Bhasha writers complain bitterly at the size and nature of the book trade (though there is said to be a mild improvement now with Hindi publishers occasionally commissioning and paying advances for books). Surender Mohan Pathak, the prolific Hindi crime fiction writer, is available everywhere in north India for a little more than the price of a railway station snack but the contemporary classics are sadly absent. Omprakash Valmiki is a civil servant and the author of several collections of short stories and most famouslyJoothan — a powerful memoir of a Dalit boyhood. He has this story about the Hindi book trade: a man from a small town in Rajasthan called him one day. “He was the father of a little girl who had read one of my short stories in her school textbook. They just couldn’t get a copy of my books anywhere close to their town. He begged me to send him a copy. I did. Even in bigger towns like Udaipur, bookshops look blank if you ask for my book. Even JLF does not have my works in Hindi, just a few translations.”

The changemakers (from left) Faustina, Madhavan, Anjum Zamrud Habib and Shyamala
The changemakers: (from left) Faustina, Madhavan, Anjum Zamrud Habib and Shyamala, Photos: Garima Jain, (Third From Left) Tarun Sehrawat

NS Madhavan, author of the novel Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal, translated asLitanies of Dutch Battery in 2011, enjoys the benefits of an exception in the bhasha book trade: Kerala. Madhavan says it is possible to make a living, a careful living, off writing if you are a Malayali writer. In Kerala, he says, literature is mainstream. Even challenging, complex fiction, such as his, has print runs of 25-30,000 copies (matched by only the most popular paperback tigers in IWE). Authors are recognised on the street. Kozhikode auto drivers know the way to MT Vasudevan Nair’s house. Books are discussed and dissed on TV. The best thing he’s read lately? Aaadu Jeevitham — a fictionalised account of living in the Gulf — by a young Malayali living in Bahrain, Benyamin. (The Hindi authors are excited by an unlikely bestseller, Akath Kahani Prem Ki, a highly readable critical work on Kabir’s poetry by scholar Purushottam Agrawal.) Madhavan is quietly but marvellously confident that the next wave of Indian writing will be in translation.

AT JLF, Hindi writer Omprakash Valmiki and Telugu writer Gogu Shyamala read from their work and speak of their experiences as Dalits. A young man stands up in the audience and says, “I am a Dalit. No one asks me if I am a Dalit when I go to a mall. Everything you are talking about happens only in the villages.” The authors are irritated and amused. Valmiki says later, almost affectionately, “I wanted to tell him that his life would be very different if he didn’t have a caste-neutral surname. I wanted to ask him if it was possible for him to marry a Brahmin girl.” At 62, Valmiki is sharp, his politics still alive and radical. He looks sardonically at the large clumps of policemen sitting comfortably in the lawns, protecting the festival from a post-Rushdie apocalypse. “Now all the writers and readers have to sit on the ground while the state sits in the chair.” Valmiki is still the victim of a generation gap, distanced from the everyday concerns and experiences of young people like the dissenter in his session. Kiradoo agrees, “Our older Hindi writers have written young people off as materialistic and useless. It is difficult for young readers to relate to some of their work. Luckily, there are at least two dozen Hindi writers under the age of 40 doing excellent work. We are publishing some, translating some at Pratilipi. I really wish people would get past Alka Saraogi and Geetanjali Shree.” Kiradoo and his partner Rahul Soni are not waiting for the grass to grow under their feet. In November 2011, they organised Samanvay, a festival so successful that not only is a second edition planned in November 2012, mini-editions are being organised in several smaller towns.

Roopda writes of the Tartar empire and Mumbai composers. He is also a successful halwai and baker

At the heart of the sluggishness in the bhasha book trade is the shocking but everyday assumption that translation is second-hand and second-rate. Even the least literary amongst us like to talk airily about “the lost flavour of the original”. (While this reporter was talking to Omprakash Valmiki, a large eavesdropping gentleman reminiscent of an undercover cop piped in: “Original is so much better. Why this Kolaveri Di kitna achha tha. Because it had Tamil in it.”)

In India, there’s a double layer of snobbishness about reading translations. An unwarranted snobbishness given how little most Anglophones read in their mother tongues or other Indian languages, which is often taught in school as a ‘third language’. David Bellos, professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton and Booker Prize-winning translator, in responding to the allegation that a translation is a degraded version of the original, recently said in an interview, “There are good translations and less good translations, but the general argument that a translation is less good than the original is impossible to support with any kind of intellectual self-respect. To put it in a nutshell: how do you know?”

It is this vague, unchallenged superiority that prevents us from reaching for a Buddhadeb Bose or Paul Zachariah or UR Ananthamurthy or KR Meera in the superbly translated English, when in our short lifetimes very few of us are likely to learn enough of a third language (and sometimes even our mother tongues) to enjoy its literature. It is a superiority we don’t extend to books translated into English from non-Indian languages. Gabriel Garcia Marquez allegedly told Gregory Rabassa that his English translation ofOne Hundred Years of Solitude was better than the Spanish original, but most of us didn’t know that when enjoying the triumvirate of Marquez-Llosa-Borges and more recently Roberto Bolaño or Haruki Murakami, or, on less-high-minded occasions, Stieg Larsson. The Scandinavian crime fiction wave is a triumph of translation, an occasion when the self-fulfilling prophecy that translations don’t sell, so need not be sold, has been thwarted.

Kiradoo imagines a world in which Phanishwarnath Renu’s ’60s story Teesri Kasam(then a Raj Kapoor film) had become a global bestseller. (“It could have, so easily with a good translation”). This would be a very different country if Indian literature was being translated furiously back and forth between Indian languages and just as furiously into one of the world’s most popular vehicular language — English. It’d be a very different India if the English media discussed the important books being released in the bhashas every year with energy and wit.

Just as importantly, the literary scene would be rather more exciting than it is currently. The rise of the bhasha writer would necessarily revise the Anglophone figure of the contemporary writer. All around is the suave, MFA-toned, super-competent, basic-black-wearing international writer whose eccentricities run only to headgear, punctuation and an occasional hipster fondness for pop culture. One of the Hindi writers Kiradoo thinks of as the next big thing is Manoj Roopda. Forty-five-yearold Roopda writes of such far flung phenomena as the Tartar empire and Mumbai composers. He is also a successful halwaiand baker. (The last generation of Hindi writers were mostly bureaucrats and police officers). Look around even in JLF and see the astonishing range from the Kabir-critiquing Purushottam Agrawal to Dalit biographer and fiction writer Gogu Shyamala.

Shyamala has a collection of 15 stories, Father May be an Elephant and Mother only a Small Basket that has just been translated into English. Her stories deftly transcend the fierce/oppressed stereotypes of subaltern writing. Shyamala is a small, cheerful woman whose English register is limited but deadly. At the festival, she occasionally turns to her young son to access a word or two but she also says without stumbling, “Patriarchy is increasing among Dalits.” A senior research fellow at Anveshi, a Hyderabad-based feminist research centre, Shyamala grew up in rural Andhra Pradesh, the youngest of a family determined to send her to school. Her family even took on bonded labour so that at least she would make it to a better life. The first girl in her village to go to school, she trekked 15 km every day to catch a bus to the nearest school. As an adult, she was first attracted and then disillusioned by the Naxal movement in her area. She’s been living in Hyderabad and writing for newspapers for a while but it was while compiling an anthology of Dalit women’s writing at Anveshi that the desire to write fiction grew in her. “I don’t think I valued myself, my particular life history and even my history sincerely until I read these women.”

Today, she writes in a dialect unusual to mainstream Telugu literature, informed by an oral tradition and her own love for storytelling. Shyamala’s writing and her sense of herself as a writer is one which will be moulded by the lives of the people she writes about, her own people. The girls she grew up with are now mostly landless labourers, their small portions of land swallowed by an SEZ. Without irrigation and barely any land, their families now spend a portion of the year in small towns in Andhra working as daily wage labourers in construction sites. When she goes home to her village, the women who she based some of her stories on, ask, “Yes, you wrote about me but will you get my land back?” It is wrong and patronising to link literary merit to the suffering of the writer but it is difficult to not take Shyamala or the grandly dignified Bama Faustina (school teacher-turned-nun-turned-radical Dalit writer) more seriously than the next well-spoken, unidimensional MFA graduate.

WHAT WOULD India be if we were reading each other more? Iftikhar Gilani is a journalist and author. One night in a Jaipur hotel, he laughs openly when he tells stories of the lives of fellow Kashmiris. These stories are of such great cruelty and injustice they have crossed over into the realm of the absurd for him. Gilani himself spent eight months in Tihar in 2002 on the false charges of spying for Pakistan. He wrote a hair-raising account of these months in 2005 in Urdu. It was Penguin Urdu’s first book. He translated it into English (along with satirist Nusrat Zaheer) as My Days in Prison. The translation won a Sahitya Akademi award. Gilani is remarkably unbitter about his months in prison and continues to tell crazy stories. “What happened to me was nothing. There is a phrase in Kashmir to describe it. Ungli katvake shaheedon mein shaamil ho jaana (Cutting your finger to be counted among the martyrs).” Everyone in the hotel elevator falls silent but Gilani continues, unsure whether one has understood his point. “On every street of Kashmir, there are people who’ve had worse things happen to them than I, but you don’t know about it because either they have not written a book or they’ve not been translated.”

Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.


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