BOOK EXCERPT

Indian Writing: History and Perspectives

An eminent poet, critic, translator, playwright and travel-writer, K. Satchidanandan is often regarded as a torch-bearer of the socio-cultural revolution that redefined Malayalam literature. His first collection of poems, ‘Anchu Sooryan’ (Five Suns) came out in 1971 and since then he has published more than 20 collections of poetry. He has also authored an equal number of collections of essays on literature, philosophy and social issues, two plays, four books of travelogues and a memoir in Malayalam, besides four books on comparative Indian literature in English. He has won 51 awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and National Sahitya Akademi Award, Knighthood by the Govt of Italy, Dante Medal by Dante Institute, Ravenna, International Poetry for Peace Award by the government of UAE, and Indo-Polish Friendship Medal by the Govt of Poland.

His latest work, ‘Positions: Essays on Indian Literature’ features a careful selection from his essays on Indian literature, written over the past 25 years. The book contains essays that look for paradigms based on Indian textual practices and reading traditions, while also drawing freely on Indian and western critical concepts and close readings of certain texts. The first part of the book discusses questions on the idea of Indian literature, the poetics of Bhakti, the concept of the ‘modern’, the location of English writing in India, the conflicting ideas of India, projected especially by the subaltern literary movements and the issues of literary criticism and translation. The second part of the book discusses the work of individual authors including Sarala Das, Mirza Ghalib, Kabir, Rabindranath Tagore, Saratchandra Chatterjee, Sarojini Naidu, Kedarnath Singh, A.K. Ramanujan and Kamala Das.

‘Positions’ contribute to the growing, yet insufficient, corpus of literary studies in India.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

THE PLURAL AND THE SINGULAR

The Making of Indian Literature

Whenever I think of Indian literature, a story retold by A.K. Ramanujan comes to mind: Hanuman reaches the netherworld in search of Rama’s ring that had disappeared through a hole. The King of Spirits in the netherworld tells Hanuman that there have been so many Ramas over the ages; whenever one incarnation nears its end, Rama’s ring falls down. The King shows Hanuman a whole platter with thousands of rings, all of them Rama’s, and asks him to pick out his Rama’s ring. He tells this devotee from earth that his Rama too has entered the river Sarayu by now, after crowninghis sons, Lava and Kusha. Many Ramas also mean many Ramayanas and we have hundreds of them in oral, written, painted, carved and performed versions. If this is true of a single seminal Indian work, one needs only to imagine the diversity of the whole of Indian literature recited, narrated and written in scores of languages. No wonder, one of the fundamental questions in any discussion of Indian literature has been whether to speak of Indian literature in singular or plural. With 184 mother tongues (as per Census, 1991; it was 179 in George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, along with 544 dialects, and 1,652 in 1961), 22 of which are in the Eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution; 25 writing systems, 14 of them major, with scores of oral literary traditions and several traditions of written literature, most of them at least a millennium old, the diversity of India’s literary landscape can match only the complexity of its linguistic map. Probably it was this challenging complexity that had forced an astute critic like Nihar Ranjan Ray to conclude that there cannot be a single Indian literature, as there is no single language that can be termed ‘Indian’.

Excerpt published with the permission of the publisher: Niyogi Books Pvt Limited.

BOOK REVIEW

Non Fiction: Manto Unvarnished

If asked to describe Saadat Hasan Manto in one word, this reviewer would unhesitatingly call him an enigma. Strange as it may seem, Manto, arguably the greatest short story writer in Urdu, failed in Urdu in his high school exams. What is no less surprising is that, incurable alcoholic that he was — he asked for whiskey while being driven in an ambulance to the hospital on his fatal journey and was obliged by his family members — he always wrote ‘786’, the numerical symbol of Bismillah ir Rahman nir Raheem, at the top of his writings, be they for broadcasting, publishing or films.

‘Fraud’ was his favourite word. He called many people — including his own self — a ‘fraud’, but as his childhood friend and biographer Abu Saeed Qureshi says, “He was a very transparent person and there appeared no gap between his internal and external selves.”

Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies of the Great Maverick, featuring translations of articles by fellow writers, publishers and two close relatives on the enigmatic personality is, by and large, quite absorbing.

The first piece is by Saadat Hasan, the ‘twin’ of Manto the writer, who predicts — and quite rightly so — that the man would die but the writer would live on. But then that is applicable to all distinguished men of letters, be they William Shakespeare, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib or Rabindranath Tagore.

One feels strongly that the finest piece on Manto should have been by his devoted, and often deceived, wife, Safia. He may have remained in love with her, but she was the one who suffered endlessly on his account. Every contributor to the volume under review has nothing but words of praise for the lady.

Writes their second daughter, Nuzhat: “My mother’s experience of life as a writer’s wife was far from pleasant. She never accepted Manto saheb’s habit of drinking excessively. And to top it all, he gave away money without hesitation … My mother used to often complain to him about his habit of frittering away money, especially when there was not enough to run the house.”

Nuzhat further reveals, “Ammi jaan used to be the first reader of father’s stories. She told us about our father’s exceptional talent. There were times when he would verbally dictate three different stories to three different people.”

The biggest tragedy in Manto’s life is recalled by his friend Krishan Chander, another well-known fiction writer. It was the death of his eldest child, a year and a half old son. Writes Chander: “The armour of cynicism that he had built up all around himself was smashed to smithereens.” According to Manto’s eldest daughter Nighat, the loss affected her father so much that he was transformed from a social drinker to an irreversible alcoholic.

The longest piece in the book is by Urdu/Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk and is rightly titled ‘Manto, My Enemy’. While admitting that Manto had an inflated ego, one cannot ignore the fact that Ashk — a less accomplished writer — liked to provoke him. Once they even exchanged blows. Ashk was Manto’s contemporary at All India Radio (AIR), Delhi, and later at Filmistan Studios in Bombay [Mumbai]. Their skirmishes were a source of amusement to those present in the rooms. Not surprisingly, Ashk and his wife were admirers of “Safia bhaabi.”

When Manto got Ashk invited to join Filmistan, he hosted Ashk in his Bombay flat for a week. A fact that Ashk ungrudgingly acknowledges is that, whether at home or outside, Manto was invariably dressed in spotless and well-ironed clothes. Manto liked to dress in a lounge suit and matching necktie as much as he enjoyed sporting kurta-pyjamas, with or without covering himself with a sherwani.

His papers were well-stacked and his books properly shelved. Everything was placed in great order in the room of a person who otherwise led a disordered life.

Back to Ashk, his judgement that “Manto didn’t seem to realise that the strongest adversaries of humans are humans themselves,” is far from the truth. Manto’s stories built around Partition are about killers, rapists and their victims. Likewise, in his tales of pimps and prostitutes, he mentions in no uncertain words that young girls are kidnapped or enticed to enter into the flesh trade.

Poet and critic Ali Sardar Jafri criticises Manto for writing “obscene stories”, but also compliments him for his ability to narrate a story effectively. Jafri eulogises Manto for writing such exceptional stories as ‘Naya Qanoon’, ‘Tarraqqi Pasand’, ‘Mootri’, ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Toba Tek Singh’, but he joins Sajjad Zaheer in condemning such “painful but irrelevant” stories as ‘Boo’ and ‘Hatak’. Jafri, however, concedes that, “From the perspective of art, Manto was unique and unparalleled. No other writer had the ability to create the impact that Manto could with the simplicity, dexterity and perspicacity of his language.” Jafri is also all praise for Manto’s “sharp and astute” characterisation and “well structured” plots.

Perhaps the most readable of all the pieces in the book is ‘My Friend, My Foe’ by Ismat Chughtai, herself a bold writer of fiction. Manto was a blunt conversationalist and Chughtai did not believe in niceties either, so when she goes to see Manto for the first time, she decides to “pay him back in the same coin.” The two start arguing with all their might. When he addresses her as ‘sister’, she protests. “If you don’t like to hear the word then I will continue you to call you ‘Ismat behen’” comes the provocative reply.

Writes Chughtai, “If Manto and I decided to meet for five minutes, the programme inevitably stretched out to five hours.” The exchange of fireworks is not to the liking of Safia and Shahid Lateef, Chughtai’s spouse.

Manto and Chughtai have to go all the way from Bombay to Lahore where the local government has filed a case against them for what they called ‘obscene writings’. Chughtai is under fire for writing one of her most popular short stories, ‘Lihaaf’, which has veiled references to lesbianism. The two writers have a whale of a time interacting with Lahore-based Urdu writers.

They lose touch when Manto migrates to Pakistan. Manto is nostalgic about Bombay and, when Urdu poet Naresh Kumar Shad visits from India, he finds Manto remembering the people and the streets of the city he had left behind, quite passionately.

Another noteworthy piece is by Mehdi Ali Siddiqui, a judge in an obscenity case filed against Manto for his controversial story ‘Upar, Neechay Aur Darmiyaan’. The accused is restless. He wants the judge to give his judgement soon. Siddiqui is, luckily, an avid fan of Manto and believes that after the death of Premchand, Manto is the greatest Urdu writer. A token fine of Rs 25 is announced, which is duly paid by one of the writer’s guarantors.

Manto and his friends later go to the judge’s room and invite him to meet the writer at the centrally located Zelin’s Coffee House, where the two strike up a friendship. Manto insists that the story is based on truth. Shortly before his death, Manto includes the story in his new collection, a collection he titles ‘Upar, Neechay Aur Darmiyaan’ and dedicates it to Siddiqui.

Noted writer and editor of the literary magazine Saqi, Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi makes a relevant point when he says, “Everybody used to be astonished by Manto’s pace, and what was even more extraordinary was that everything he wrote would be precise and accurate, leaving absolutely no scope to tinker around with even a little.”

Mohammad Tufail, editor and publisher of the reputed literary journal Naqoosh, claims to have come to Manto’s rescue more than once. Manto wants Tufail to bring out a special issue on him and says that he will contribute his own elegy. But Tufail is late; he tries to make up by writing a letter from Manto — now settled in the other world — in Manto’s style and publishing it in the special edition of Naqoosh along with several writers who knew the man who kicked the bucket at the young age of 42.

A piece by Balwant Gargi, a novelist and playwright who wrote in Punjabi, makes for interesting reading too. Gargi narrates an incident dating back to the time when both he and Manto worked at AIR. A programme scheduled on a certain day is in jeopardy because the writer has not sent the script. Gargi and other colleagues of Manto at the Delhi station know that he could suitably fill the gap. On their insistence, Manto writes a play called Intezaar and Gargi maintains that it ranks among the best plays broadcast by AIR.

Not much has been lost in the translations of Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies of the Great Maverick, but what is irksome is poor proofreading. The names of eminent people are misspelled. Can anyone be forgiven for writing ‘Jinha’ instead of ‘Jinnah’? Gujrat, the city in central Punjab, is spelled Gujarat (which is how the name of Narendra Modi’s state is written). ‘Martial law’ is written as ‘Marshall law’. The perfectionist that Manto was, he would turn in his grave if he were to see the copy of this otherwise useful book for those who can’t read the script in which the pieces were originally penned.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies of the Great Maverick
Translated by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi
Speaking Tiger, India
ISBN: 978-9388070256
287pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 20th, 2019

Listicle

Indian language translations to look out for in 2021

The year 2020 was consumed wrestling with a predicament of unimaginable proportions. However, things were not so bleak for translated works in Indian literature. Last year was especially pivotal in driving home the perseverance of translations.

Transcending the challenges posed by the worldwide pandemic, translations shone in their roles of bridging cultures and amplifying under-represented voices in Indian-language literature. Masterpieces like Pandey Kapil’s Bhojpuri novel Phoolsunghi and pioneering Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s short story collection Ratno Dholi were made available to the English-speaking world for the very first time. They also served as a reminder that our journey through the nuanced and variegated depth of our literary roots is ever-continuous. It will keep leading us to chart new territories every year.

With that in mind, we have compiled a list of the upcoming translations from across Indian languages, which are currently gearing up for their much-anticipated release. Diverse and thought-provoking, add these riches of Indian language literature to your reading list for 2021:
 

BENGALI

Kaste
by Anita Agnihotri
Translated by Arunava Sinha

Through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra, Anita Agnihotri’s Kaste illuminates a series of intersecting and overlapping crises: female foeticide, sexual assault, caste violence, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations. Translated as The Sickle by Arunava Sinha, this gripping fictional narrative tells the darkest truths about contemporary India. It is set to release this March, by Juggernaut Books.


Ether Army
by Sirsho Bandopadhyay
Translated by Arunava Sinha

This powerful novel narrates the true story of a handful of broadcasters in the port city of Chittagong in East Pakistan, who joined the Liberation war with the only weapon they had: a radio transmitter. We are hoping Westland Books releases it on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War.  


 
Mahanadi: A Novel about a River
by Anita Agnihotri
Translated by Nivedita Sen

Woven around the mighty river Mahanadi that originates in Chattisgarh, Anita Agnihotri’s novel documents the life and struggles of people through the confluence of myths, legends and archaeological anecdotes. First published in Bengali (2015), this translation by Nivedita Sen is expected to be released in May through Niyogi Books. 


Amrita Kumbher Sandhane

by Samaresh Basu

Written by the Sahitya Akademi-winning Bengali author Samaresh Basu, Amrita Kumbher Sandhane is narrated through the gaze of the protagonist, who has come to the Kumbh Mela—one of the largest Indian religious fairs —not out of any religious sentiment, but merely to see and understand people.

 

 
 
Chandal Jibon Trilogy — Part 2
by Manoranjan Byapari 

Translated by V. Ramaswamy 

While The Runaway Boy was released late last year, it introduced us to Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal with his Dalit parents and later runs away to Calcutta to earn his living, we are anxiously awaiting Part 2 of the trilogy.

 


Chhera Chhera Jibon

by Manoranjan Byapari

Translated as A Tattered Life, Manoranjan Byapari’s most recent standalone novel is about a boy called Imon who goes to jail in his mother’s arms, and is let out in his early twenties long after his mother has passed.

 
 
 
 


TAMIL

Generations
by Neela Padmanabhan
Translated by Kaa. Naa. Subramanium

Set in the 1940s around a community of Tamil speakers who live on the borders of modern Kerala, the novel offers a sensitively drawn profile of the passing of a traditional way of life into modernity and the nostalgia that comes with change. The book is expected to release this June, by Niyogi Books.

 

The Collected Stories of Imayam
Translated by Padma Narayanan

Imayam is one of the foremost and bestselling Dalit writers in Tamil, closely associated with the Dravidian movement and its politics. Speaking Tiger brings together his selected short stories in English for the very first time in this collection. We are eagerly looking forward to this one.


ASSAMESE

Five Novellas about Women
by Indira Goswami
Translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma

From the pioneer of feminist Assamese literature, here’s a cross-sectional portrayal of her lesser-known writings with a special focus on women. The lives of the rural poor, the situation of widows, the plight of the urban underclass and various social constraints under which people are forced to live, are depicted in these impactful narratives. The book is slated to release this July, by Niyogi Books. 

Incidentally, we have learnt of a collection called Tales from Assam by Ranjita Biswas, that is on the cards later this year, by Rupa Publications.


MALAYALAM

The Book of Passing Shadows
by C.V. Balakrishnan
Translated by T. M. Yesudasan

Set in a Malabar village of Christian settlers, C.V. Balakrishnan’s The Book of Passing Shadows resonates with the pathos of the human spirit caught in the travails of earthly life. Translated by T.M.Yesudasan, the novel has remained popular with readers since the Malayalam original Aayusinte Pusthakam was first published in 1984.


Theeyoor Chronicles
by N. Prabhakaran
Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Theeyoor Chronicles by N. Prabhakaran follows the trail of a journalist who visits Theeyoor or ‘the land of fire’ to investigate uncanny happenings. Interspersed with history, myths, nature, political events, and everyday concerns of ordinary people—this novel is widely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary Malayalam literature. We can’t wait for its release.


Lesbian Cow and Other Stories
by Indu Menon

The most outspoken contemporary feminist writer from Kerala, many consider Indu Menon a successor to Kamala Das, having inherited the same progressive outlook. In Lesbian Cow and Other Stories, she uses raw images, bolder language and empathetically records the lives of marginalised sections of society.

 
 
 
Collection of Stories
by Shihabudheen Poythumkadavu
Translated by J Devika

On the collection, translator J Devika says that ‘Shihabudheen’s stories are sometimes realistic, sometimes terrifyingly not…you can sense in his writing the deep anxieties of the Muslim male and all kinds of inversions…and crossings between the human and non-human universes.’ We wonder what this abstract collection would read like.

 
KANNADA

This Life at Play: A Memoir
by Girish Karnad
Translated by Srinath Perur and Girish Karnad

First published in Kannada in 2011—and being made available to English readers for the very first time—This Life at Play provides an unforgettable glimpse into the life of a towering figure on India’s cultural scene—actor, film director, writer, and playwright—Girish Karnad.

 
HINDI

Where Silence Reigned Once
by Vinod Kumar Shukla
Translated by Satti Khanna

From one of the finest Hindi writers of our times, comes another translation: Where Silence Reigned Once tells the story of a group of young kids who discover a forest where sound has long ceased to be. They call out to each other but can’t be heard. This book expected to release in April by Westland Books.


Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls
by Usha Priyamvada
Translated by Daisy Rockwell

An iconic work of modern Hindi fiction, Usha Priyamvada’s Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein is hailed for its unflinching and deeply sensitive exploration of the emotional life of a single woman in Delhi in the 1960s. One of Priyamvada’s best-known works, we are eagerly waiting for one of our very first translations in collaboration with Speaking Tiger.


I Haven’t Seen Mandu
by Swadesh Deepak
Translated by Jerry Pinto

Recovering from a long spell of recurring bipolar psychosis, the celebrated Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak finished the manuscript of his memoir, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. Indian literature—in Hindi or any other language—has never produced anything as harrowing, yet strangely hypnotic as this. It remains one of the most revealing and powerful first-person accounts of mental illness and we are eagerly looking forward to Jerry Pinto’s translation to make it accessible to English readers.


Fragments of Happiness
by Shrilal Shukla
Translated by Niyati Bafna

In Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness, an ordinary businessman from Delhi, Durgadas is apprehended for murder. Translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna, the novel explores the psychological aftermath of the event by delving into the tumult of ordinary people coming to terms with their desires and helplessness. 

 

GUJARATI

Krishnayan
by Kaajal Oza Vaidya

Kishnayan is indisputably Gujarati literature’s biggest bestseller, having sold over 200,000 copies and gone into 28 editions. This tender, lyrical novel starts when Krishna is injured by Jara’s arrow, and gives us glimpses into Krishna’s last moments on Earth. The most important women in his life—Radha, Rukmini, Satyabhama and Draupadi—appear before him. The novel is stitched together with what they meant to Krishna.


MARATHI

Battlefield
by Vishram Bedekar
Translated by Jerry Pinto

A tragic love story between Herta, a Jew escaping Hitler’s Germany, and Chakradhar Vidhwans, a Marathi man returning from England to India, the novel was originally published as Ranaangan in 1939. Translated by Jerry Pinto, this novel is a rousing investigation of nationality against the backdrop of World War II. We are looking to read this fresh translation, sometime this year.


SPECIAL MENTION

Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese
by Anvita Abbi 

Voices from the Lost Horizon is the first-ever compilation of folk tales and songs, rendered to Prof. Abbi and her team, by the Great Andamanese people in local settings. It comes with audio and video recordings of the stories and songs to retain the originality of the oral narratives.