Rabindranath Tagore in Translation

Remembering the Bard of Bengal

“Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
In to that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake!”

― Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali: Song Offerings

Rabindranath Tagore, author of the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ of Gitanjali became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913). The prolific artist enticed the Bengali audience with his wide-ranging poetry, stories, paintings which overturned the conventional ideas and practices in the society. Tagore’s assertive viewpoints on nationalism and his understanding of the feelings and emotions of the Indian woman and the attitude towards them in his works were remarkable. The tendency to question and contest ways of the world lead to the discontent with the formal education system. Thus, In 1901 he founded an experimental school in rural West Bengal at Shantiniketan, where he sought to blend the best in the Indian and Western traditions, which became Visva-Bharati University in 1921.

Tagore is also referred to as ‘The Bard of Bengal’. He modernised Bengali art by rejecting rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic limits. It was not just the structural alterations that Tagore initiated but also the thematic concerns. His works moved towards a stronger sense of realism by liberating the Bengali novel from its bondage of historical romance. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke of topics, political and personal, and were popularly known for their lyricism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. Tagore’s novels are a radical statement of his unusual viewpoint which were ahead of the conservative times of 19th and 20th century India. Gora (1909), Ghare-Baire (1916), Choker Bali (1903) are some of his best-known novels. There have been several attempts to translate Tagore’s body of work into English, making it accessible to non-Bengali readers. In fact, Tagore himself translated many of his works into English.

Here’s a quick glance into some of Gurudev’s most popular novels:

CHOKHER BALI (1903)

Chokher Bali was truly a norm-defying novel with a narrative shaped through passion, desires and an intricate network of relationships. Tagore’s novels condemned many taboos and unjust customs which deprived widows of their rightful existence; confined to live a mournful colourless life. Chokher Bali presents the woeful conditions of Hindu widows and the emergence of a new type of woman in quest of self-fulfillment through Binodini, the protagonist of the novel. An extra-marital affair with a widow and the closer depiction of female friendship in the novel created a ripple in the society by shattering the conventional identity of a widow as well as unsettling the idea of a successful married life.

GORA (1909)

Tagore’s longest novel, Gora, is a complex narrative with a rich philosophical debate on religion and politics. The concerns raised in the novel about the imagination of a nation seem very contemporary and compels one to question their concrete beliefs about a nation. The protagonists in the novel portray through their personal principles, a struggle for values in one’s own tradition. The novel accommodates questioning of various binaries like tradition and modernity, elite and the poor and presents an intersection of caste, religion, gender with nationalism.

GHARE BAIRE (1916)

The novel standing true to its title literally captures the concerns of the home, the outer world and the inter-relationship of both these spaces. The power dynamics within a household and the conflict between true and false patriotism within the nation form the prominent thematic thread of the novel. Influence of Western culture, as well as the revolution against it particularly in Bengal owing to the Swadeshi movement and the Partition of Bengal, comes across through personal narratives of the characters in the novel. The position of women in the Indian freedom struggle is examined through the woman protagonist who through the development of the novel undergoes a transformation. Tagore negotiates the various ideas of a ‘modern woman’ within a nationalistic scenario.

SHESHER KABITA (1929)

Shesher Kabita is considered a landmark in Bengali literature. The novel primarily is about man-woman relationships and the institution of marriage. Tagore yet again shows a masterly command of the trysts of human relationships. The themes of love, trust, passion, lust, and companionship keep the narrative intact. Tagore has brilliantly weaved poetry with prose in this novel. The fusion of the two forms adds to the creative beauty in exploring the ideas of platonic love. Tagore’s choice of ending the novel in an unconventional manner suggested a new way of looking at relationships.

As we celebrate the birth of this multifaceted and revolutionary artist today, let us revisit and cherish the timeless contributions which altered the way our society and world thinks. Remembering the literary genius who weaved beauty and purpose in the most beautiful way.

Tribute

Goodbye, my dear friend

We met in 1965, remember? In the MA English Literature class, taught by many luminaries, among whom the most brilliant were Nissim Ezekiel and Dr RB Patankar. You and Yasmeen Lukmani and I would traipse over to Dr Patankar’s room in the university building at Fort to hang around. That’s what it was. Hanging around, with cups of tea, and Dr Patankar sitting across the table, his fingertips together, and a characteristic half- smile lighting up his face. Often Dr MP Rege dropped in too, and our debates rose to some other level. How we argued. We were allowed to do that in those glorious days when ideas could be freely exchanged and challenged. You once said to me, “I wonder how you would look with your mouth shut.”

I could have said the same to you. We all talked too much, testing our ideas, revelling in new ones that the professors so generously shared. Dr Patankar and Dr Rege both wrote incisive blurbs for your first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis.

Years before it was published, you had called me. Come and spend the day at my place you had said. You had sounded secretive. When I arrived, you took me directly to your writing desk. You pulled out the chair for me. You said, “Sit and read this. I’ll give you lunch. Then you can go back to it.” “This” was a sheaf of some hundred pages of Saat Sakkam Trechalis. I’m not sure the title was in place, but everything else was. I was bowled over by what I read. Was it a novel? I didn’t know. You didn’t know. But it showed signs of being one.

Saat Sakkam Trechalis was a tough novel to write and an equally tough one to read. I was teaching at HR College when it was published. You stood outside the staff room door beckoning to me. You were distressed. Nobody had reviewed the book. Could I please? You had already talked to the editor of a mainline daily who had agreed to carry the review. When it was published, Kumar Ketkar wrote a letter to the editor telling us both off for being so “bourgeois” and “out of touch with things that really mattered”. He was at IIT then and an already fullblown or blossoming Marxist.

Years afterwards your cousin Shobha offered to translate the novel. She had already done two drafts. Both had left you dissatisfied. You came to me with the third. For seven days we sat together going through her translation word by word, phrase by phrase. It is a good translation, I said. You sighed the sigh of every author who finds the translation of his work not quite there. But it can’t be Kiran, I argued. Language isn’t a neutral medium. A language brings in its own tonalities. You sighed again, but called it a day. Shobha was taken off the hook, the translation was published and you and Tulsi gave me a lovely doria sari, which I wore for years afterwards.

Those were years when the cultural agencies of Britain, America and Germany held interesting seminars and book discussions. We were invited to one such discussion with the American theatre director and critic Harold Clurman. Mahesh Elkunchwar was also there. The participants were seated in two rings round an oval table. You and I were in the outer ring. In front of us in the inner ring was Pearl Padamsee. In the course of the debate you got very agitated and wanted to have your say. You took a long stride over the inner ring to grab the mike on the table, creating in the process a bit of slapstick comedy, which left everybody bemused. First, in your lunge for the mike, you dropped your chappal in Pearl’s lap and then went on to express yourself at great length in a mumble that nobody understood. Forty years on, I still felt a trifle nervous when you got up to speak at a St Xavier’s College seminar. But I needn’t have worried. For by then you had become an international figure and learnt that the first step to being understood was to open your mouth when you spoke. Your speech that day was brilliant.

Like Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and many of us back then, you were bilingual. Your next book Ravan and Eddie was in English. Nobody else writing in English could have given us such a consummately tragi-comic view of chawl life. Indo-Anglian writers did not know the Bombay you did, nor did they have your inimitable way of looking at life and its absurdities. No wonder you made it your mission in recent years to fight for the health of the BEST bus service. The BEST bus was uniquely Bombay. Your Bombay.

Your wit was always irreverent, and bawdy to boot. I remember the first reading of your play Bedtime Story at Dr Shreeram Lagoo’s place in Worli. Nothing like it had ever been written for the Marathi stage before. We laughed uproariously. We loved the wit, the crazy ideas, the tremendous scope it would give to directors and actors. But no directors and actors were forthcoming. The Marathi stage, even the experimental variety, tucked its tail firmly between its legs and fled. Did you learn your lesson from that experience? I wish you hadn’t. Because the play you wrote after the destruction of the Babri mosque had neither the delicious surprises nor the wit of the first. Rekha Sabnis put a lot of life into her production of it, but it still didn’t work. I told you so and you were hurt. Even offended. But perhaps I was forgiven when I loved Cuckold and said so in black-and-white.

The last book I read of yours was God’s Little Soldier. It was perhaps your first book to be panned. You were distraught. You asked me to write about it and I did. A book that large might not work as a whole, but might have large chunks that do, illumining the whole. I found many such in the book and wrote about them showing how the novel could be read through them.

After that I lost track of your work. We continued to meet on and off at various events. The last time we met was at Darryl D’Monte’s funeral, in March this year. We grieved over his going and recalled the time when he and I were putting together a special issue of the Times of India devoted to Bombay in commemoration of the newspaper’s sesquicentennial, in 1998. Among the writers we had invited to contribute to the issue was you. You did what only you would have done. You sent us an essay about Mumbai’s lepers. Darryl was horrified. We can’t use that in a celebratory issue he said. I returned the essay to you with great regret. You were not amused.

A #MeToo cloud was hanging over you when we met. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. As a friend I had to hear what you had to say. You didn’t know what had hit you. You defended yourself with conviction. I reached for your hand and held it tight. I am happy that, for once, I allowed the friend rather than the critic in me to respond. The body memory of our clasped hands consoles me now.

Shanta Gokhale is an acclaimed novelist, playwright, translator, critic, columnist and theatre historian.

The above tribute was originally published in The Mumbai Mirror on Saturday, September 7, 2019

 

 

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

Queer Literature

Queer literature from India you haven’t read, but probably should

To read queer literature from India is, to a large extent, to read between the lines. Since the augment of notions of colonial morality in the subcontinent, there has been a systemic erasure of queer voices. What remain today are largely texts that merely hint at the love and relationship shared between same-sex companions. Talking about this systemic erasure Ashwini Sukthankar, in her Introduction to Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India says ‘terms historically used to describe women who love women – such as sakhi and saheli – have been purged of their eroticism over time and reshaped into harmless descriptions of female friendship, so that today we find ourselves banished from language itself, literally at a loss for words.’ Still, some texts remain preserved in our history that not only vaguely allude to, but rather openly declare, the pervasiveness of desires other than normative heterosexual ones.

This listicle aims to bring to light a few of these groundbreaking and provocative works of Indian language literature. It explores chronologically works of literature from India’s past, written by people who might or might not themselves have been queer. We then delve into two contemporary translated works written by LGBTQ+ individuals. These texts become important because they call attention to this country’s journey into queer selfhood, and highlight the importance of reclaiming queer literature as our own.

 

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
Indira (1873)

Indira is a novella written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who considered to be Bengal’s greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. The story of Indira revolves around the protagonist’s passionate and intense friendship with Subhashini. Although Indira is a married woman; she maintains a lifelong love for her friend. The novella is rife with subtext regarding the attraction the women feel for one another, as well as unflinching descriptions of their physical proximity. Indira, through the course of the narrative, finds herself wondering, ‘Can there ever be love like this? Can anyone ever love like Subhashini?’.

 

Suryakant Tripathi Nirala
Kulli Bhaat (1939)

Regarded as one of India’s best known Hindi language writers, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala wrote novels, poetry as well as essays. In Kulli Bhaat, Nirala chronicles his lifelong friendship with Kulli, who’s attraction to the poet as well as his sexuality are alluded to but never explicitly stated. Throughout the novel Nirala humanizes and empathizes with Kulli, despite other people’s reservations about him.

 

Ismat Chugtai
Terhi Lakeer (1945)

Chugtai is most popularly known for her short story ‘Lihaaf’, where a young narrator witnesses a relationship between two women. The story caused an uproar, and Chugtai was charged with obscenity and was forced to face a court trial. Terhi Lakeer follows the life of its middle-class Muslim protagonist called Shamman as she navigates the trials of life, female spaces and the politics of India’s Independence movement. In the novel, Chugtai alludes to the fluidity of female sexuality, especially in the chapters wherein Shamman finds herself attracted to her young female teacher, Miss Charan.

 

Sachin Kundalkar
Cobalt Blue (2006)

Originally written in Marathi, Kundalkar’s novel Cobalt Blue was translated into English by Jerry Pinto in 2013. The novel is about Tanay and Anuja ¬– siblings living in Pune who fall in love with the same man. The coming-of-age novel beautifully casts a sympathetic gaze at homosexuality in an oppressive and hostile society. Kundalkar, who himself identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, lends to the narrative a keen understanding of what it means to be a gay man in India.

 

Vasudhendhra
Mohanaswamy (2016)

Vasudhendhra’s Mohanaswamy is a Kannada novel translated into English by Rashmi Terdal. It is regarded as the first work of gay fiction written in Kannada. A collection of short stories, Mohanaswamy talks about the lives of gay man in India, chronicling their trials and tribulations. Vasudhendhra unflinchingly records the experiences the queer community in India who do not have the privilege of having access to English as a language.

Contemporary works of queer writing in India have largely been confined to the space of Indian writing in English, set only in urban metropolitan spaces. However, queer voices in India have existed across time periods, regions and languages. These novels attempt to bring to light these voices which have so often been relegated to the margins of Indian literature.

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.

 

Khwabnama
by Akhtaruzzaman Elias

Translated by Arunava Sinha

Published in 1996, Khwabnama captured the variegated experiences of the people of Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) during the turbulent times of the 1947 partition. Best known as critically acclaimed author Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s magnum opus, the novel also delves into the socio-political realities of that period—the communal riot, the rebellion of the peasants against the landlords and the conflict between different ideologies, among others. The English translation by Arunava Sinha will be released in July by Penguin India.

 


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

A Silent Place
by Vinod Kumar Shukla
Translated by Satti Khanna

Originally published in Hindi as Ek Chuppi Jagah, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s evocative novel tells the story of a grief-stricken forest that has been stunned into silence. It then follows the adventurous journey of a group of children as they devise schemes to restore the song of birds and murmurs of human voices into the forest. Translated as A Silent Place by Satti Khanna, the book also explores a profound human philosophy through the children who endeavoured to help the forest overcome its muteness.


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. 

Hindi Literature

The story behind the translation of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s first novel Maila Anchal

Known as the first ‘regional’ novelMaila Anchal  narrates the life of an Indian village with a kind of sensitivity that was missing from the rigid, stereotypical portrayals in earlier novels of the period. Indian Novels Collective came across this rare document (below) carrying the preface and introduction to The Soiled Border – a translation of Renu’s first novel Maila Anchal – by translator Indira Junghare.

Indira Jhungare shares the story of translating the novel and enlightens us with the various themes the novel carries. She also highlights the struggles faced while translating the regional dialects and idiolects while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the meaning and style of the novel.

Here are some interesting facts that you can find in the extract below:

  • Phanishwar Nath Renu was nicknamed ‘Rinua’ by his grandmother. The name was later changed to Renu (dust), which also became his pen name.
  • The village Maryganj around which the novel is centred, was named after an English woman Mary, the wife of an Indigo-planter Martin, who had lived there for past 35 years.
  • Maila Anchal consists of languages ranging from standard and colloquial Hindi to regional dialects such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Nepali, Bengali and the tribal language of Santhali, making it a difficult book to translate.

As of 2015, Indira Jhungare was the Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Linguistics, University of Minnesota

Translation Lists

Six must-read translations of Bengali novels

The Bengal renaissance that began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on modern Bengali literature. During this period of social reform and intellectual awakening, there was a push towards modernity through critical analysis of orthodox aspects of society and religion. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Bengali novel, which drew upon both Western and local literary traditions. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a key literary figure in the renaissance movement, remains the most well-known Bengali writer in India. His most popular novels include The Home and the World and Chokher Bali.  

Here is a list of Bengali novels that are easily available in English translation.

Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Translated by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji

Published in 1929, the novel first appeared serialised in a Calcutta periodical a year earlier. It tells the story of the Roys who live in rural Bengal and later move to Varanasi in search of a better life. Bandyopadhyay’s evocative narrative paints a vivid picture of rural life and the scenic beauty of the Bengali countryside and captures the loses the family faces on their journey to the city.

Shesh Prashna by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
Translated as The Final Question by the Department of English, Jadavpur University

Set in the expatriate Bengali community in Agra, the novel follows the life of Kamal, a young Anglo-Indian woman who challenges the traditional position of women in society. She is independent, lives and travels alone, and enters into relationships with different men. With its focus on female sexuality and its anti-patriarchal stance, The Final Question remains as relevant today as when it was published in 1931.

Hajar Churashir Maa by Mahasweta Devi
Translated as Mother of 1084 by Samik Bandyopadhyay

Written as a response to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, the novel deals with the pain and frustrations of Sujata whose Naxalite revolutionary son has been killed by the police. With her son’s identity reduced to that of corpse no. 1084, Sujata struggles to make sense of her son’s choices and her position in society. Set across the course of a single day, the narrative interweaves the past and the present to explore Sujata’s complex relationship with her son and society and her journey towards acceptance.

Tithidore by Buddhadeva Bose
Translated as When the Time is Right by Arunava Sinha

Situated in Calcutta during the first half of the twentieth century against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement and the threat of war, the novel revolves around Swati, the youngest daughter in the Mitra family. Swati rejects her brother’s colleague offer to marry her and instead finds herself attracted to Satyen, a professor at her college. They share a love for literature and communicate mainly through letters. The lyrical, slow-paced narrative, with its focus on domestic life during a period of political upheaval, provides for an immersive reading experience.

Pratham Pratisruti by Ashnapurna Debi
Translated as The First Promise by Indira Chowdhury

Set across the late eighteenth and early twentieth century in Bengal, the novel follows the dreams and struggles of four generations of women. Through The First Promise, Debi explores the impact of colonialism on caste practices, the move from the village to the city and the subsequent change in family structure, women’s rights issues, and social and educational reforms.

Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay
Translated as Those Days by Aruna Chakravorty

The novel blends history and fiction to create a vivid picture of the elite in nineteenth-century Bengal. Set against the backdrop of the Bengal renaissance and the Revolt of 1857, it tells the story of the wealthy Mukherjee and Singha families in a rapidly changing society in Calcutta. Several historical figures, from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the reformer and writer to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the poet populate the narrative, which adds to the social realist elements of the novel.

About the blogger
Priyanka Lindgren has a background in linguistics and refugee studies. She is passionate about world literature, in particular, 20th-century South Asian literature in translation. She is the Culture Editor at The Lead, part of the International Women’s Initiative. She blogs about books and South Asian identity at thesouthasianreader.wordpress.com.

World Hindi Day

Six translations of Hindi works that are a must read!

To mark the first Hindi Conference held in Nagpur between January 10-12 1975, World Hindi Day is celebrated every year on January 10. Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in India. The rich and diverse culture the country represents is extensively reflected in classics of our regional literature. Hindi novels, with its immortal themes, are often neglected by monolingual Indian because of their inability to read Hindi as fluently as English. Translation of regional Indian languages thus holds a paramount position in the accessibility of Hindi literature too.

On this World Hindi Day, we celebrate our loved language by bringing to you six Hindi Novels which have been made accessible to an English reader in translation.

Godan By Munshi Premchand
Translated as The Gift of a Cow by Jai Ratan and P Lal

Godan, written by Munshi Premchand in 1956, is one of the greatest novels of modern Indian literature. The novel is an important social documentary dealing with the poor economic conditions of the Indian peasants. It revolves around the social deprivation of a poor couple and the importance of a cow in the village context. The characters – Hori and Dhania – have since become immortal icons of social and class struggle. The realism, artistry and tenderness with which he has created the characters here, particularly that of Hori, are unparalleled and unsurpassed in Indian fiction.

Raag Darbari by Shri Lal Shukla
Translated by Gillian Wright

Raag Darbari, published in 1970, is a commentary on the disconnect between what we practice and what we preach. Rangnath, a history student visits his village and stays there to notice the stark differences between the ideals he learnt at university and the practices of his uncle, the village head. One of the most hard-hitting satires of modern India against the myriad instances of manipulation, abuse, and machinations of power struggle, Raag Darbari remains one of the most telling narratives of the chasm between libertarian ideals and social dogmas.

Gunahon ka Devta by Dharamvir Bharati
Translated as Chander and Sudha by Poonam Saxena

This passionate love story revolves around the intertwined and inseparable viciousness of marriage and caste hierarchy. Chander is from a lower caste than Sudha and that is why he doesn’t dare ask for Sudha’s hand in marriage from her father. While Sudha seems to be ‘modern’, she cannot stand up to the social pressure to get married to the man of her father’s choice; Chander also forces her to abide by the wishes of her father. This, then, is the turning point in the novel but it is also through this tragedy that the story becomes appealing to the readers; making it a bestseller till this day.

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni
Translated by the author

Tamas is the ‘reflective response’ to the partition of India and Pakistan. Partially based on true events that Sahni witnessed himself in the communal riots during India’s Partition in 1947, the novel follows the life of people from both communities – Hindu and Muslim, and from various classes and backgrounds, as tensions in cities build up. It presents a snapshot of a violent and fractured period in Indian history and through fictionalization allows the reader to inhabit the minds of those who perpetrated and suffered through its worst crimes.

Mitro Marajani by Krishna Sobti
Translated as To hell with you Mitro by Gita Rajan and Raji Narasimhan

Mitro’s mystique is well summed up by her mother-in-law Dhanvanti: “No one can fathom this girl. When she’s good, she’s better than the best. When she’s bad, she’s worse than the worst.”

The vampish bahus of soap operas are nothing but inferior versions of this hell-raiser, who is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating characters in Indian literature. Its an unapologetic portrayal of a married woman who brooks no limits to her sexuality is as compelling, pertinent provocative today as when it shook the Hindi literary world in 1966.

Adha Gaon by Rahi Masoom Raza
Translated as A Village Divided by Gillian Wright

Rahi Masoom Raza’s honest and controversial novel unfolds during the latter years of the Raj and the first decade of Independence and portrays the rival halves of a zamindar family, their loves, fights and litigations. It attacks the creation of Pakistan and explores the abolition of the zamindari system and its impact at the village level. This is a semi-autobiographical work set in the author’s village of Gangauli, in Ghazipur district on the fringes of Avadh.

Dr Raza becomes the voice of millions of Indian Muslims, who had nothing to do with the making of Pakistan and who refuse to leave the place they call home.