Recently translated into English by Rahul Soni, Shrikant Verma’s “Magadh” provides a mirror for the present by looking at the past

“Magadh” by Shrikant Verma, one of the central figures of the Nai Kavita movement, was originally published in 1984, carrying poems written that year and in 1979. During these years, Verma was involved intimately with the Congress Party, as their spokesperson and as manager of Indira Gandhi’s campaign in the 1980 elections that brought her back to power. Prior to this, he had been elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1976 on a Congress ticket.

Although a participant in the machinations of power, Verma was also an observer of its drift and futility. As poet and literary critic K. Satchidanandan writes, “There certainly was a man in him who enjoyed the glamour power gave him, but the poet within went on laughing at and being embarrassed by the hollowness of it all, the banality, the ultimate lie.”

Reading “Magadh”, brought out recently by Almost Island in a bilingual edition featuring the original Hindi and English translations by Rahul Soni, one notices in it a spokesperson’s knack for equivocation. The poems allude to the historical and mythical cities of yore — Magadh, Hastinapur, Ujjaini, Kosala, Takshashila, Nalanda — which are either not reachable or no longer recognisable. The places here fulfil an allegorical function, indicating present-day civilisational decay.

The tone of some of the poems is markedly confessional. In “A Year of Poems”, for instance, Verma writes “Jo likha, vyarth tha/ Jo nahin likha,/ anarth tha” (“What I wrote, useless/ What I did not,/ meaningless”).

Writer-translator Rahul Soni first read “Magadh” in 2007 on a friend’s recommendation and started translating it immediately. “It was the first time I ever felt compelled to try and translate something. I don’t think I have read any other collection that has affected me so much and gathered so much weight in the course of its reading. This collection is quite unique in that way,” says Soni, who co-founded and, from 2008-12, co-edited Pratilipi, a literary journal.

Despite the sparseness of text, and its directness of tone, it wasn’t easy to translate, due primarily to the syntactical flexibility of the original. “The punctuation is very idiosyncratic, and quite often non-existent. You can’t figure out where a sentence is ending and where another is beginning… How to keep the ambiguity intact was a big part of the problem of translating,” says Soni.

Then there were also the problems that repetition and rhyme in the original posed. While the repetitions have been retained, it wasn’t always possible to recreate the rhyme. “To replace the extensive rhyming in the original with other devices” was another challenge, he adds.

The bilingual edition serves as a mirror for the original and translation, making clear the points of convergence and departure between the two. These, however, are few, as the translator has aspired to a kind of invisibility in the translation process.

He compares it to method acting. “You try to get into the writer’s skin, into the voices of the text and try to understand what they think like, what they say. Except that instead of translating from a character from your imagination onto screen or action, this is from one language to another.”

Soni is currently working on a translation of Geetanjali Shree’s novel “Tirohit” and the poems of Dhoomil.

Recalling the words of David Mitchell, he says, “As a writer you can be good or terrible but you can never be wrong. As a translator you can be good or terrible but you can never be right.”

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