An interview with author Jayant Kaikini and translator Tejaswini Niranjana

When Jayant Kaikini bagged the DSC Prize, his work (translated by Tejaswini Niranjana) became the first translation to win the award

Updated - February 03, 2019 02:08 pm IST

Published - February 02, 2019 04:00 pm IST

As the countdown to the announcement of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature began in Kolkata on January 25, each shortlisted writer was asked to read out two paragraphs from their books. Jayant Kaikini came on stage and said only one other person would understand what he was about to read in Kannada — his wife. The audience laughed. The translator of Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories would not let this pass without comment. Before she began to translate, Tejaswini Niranjana said: “He forgot to mention that one other person would have also understood!” to cheers all around. When Ruskin Bond read out Kaikini’s name as the winner, it was a special moment for regional literature — the first time in the prize’s eight-year history that a translated work had won. Backstage, as as autograph-seekers queued up and we hurried through questions, Kaikini couldn’t stop smiling. Excerpts from an interview with the writer and translator:

A Kannada writer has won the DSC Prize for writing stories on Mumbai. What attracted you to the noisy metropolis?

I grew up in Gokarna in Uttara Kannada. People of north Karnataka are always looking at Mumbai as the city to escape to. When I was old enough, I travelled to Mumbai too, in search of work. As a bachelor I moved frequently — I think I had 11 addresses! — and lived all over: Mulund, Ghatkopar, Andheri. I saw first-hand how the city lived and breathed. It is a city of survivors and I collected a lot of stories by observing life around me.

Yes, the stories are about cafés and chawls, slums and movie-halls. You have shorn the city of its glamour.

I am interested in ordinary people living extraordinary lives. If you know Mumbai, it is a city craving for space. Everyone makes do with little, and all they are thinking about is survival, and the smartest way to go about it. It is an accommodating and hardworking city. Living in Mumbai is a liberating experience. There are so many challenges that issues like caste, gender don’t come in the way. No one seems a stranger, they are like friends in an open collective bath.

When were they written?

Some of the stories were written when I lived in Mumbai, others after I shifted to Bengaluru. They belong to the pre-smartphone era. There was no touch-screen barrier between people. I visit Mumbai regularly. The essentials of my Mumbai remain the same. Due to minimalist living conditions, by default it becomes a spiritual space. Everyone is like a line drawing of Mario Miranda or R.K. Laxman — not a painting or mural.

You grew up in Gokarna, a temple town, in a region famous for its Yakshagana tradition; and your father was a Leftist. How has this — god and Marx — informed your writing?

Yakshagana is an intellectually driven, holistic, liberating art form which has groomed the sensibility of each mind in coastal Karnataka. It has music, dance, visual aesthetics blending into an impromptu interpretative narrative. It opens up multiple windows. As kids we would be more interested in peeping into green rooms and watching simple folks of our hometown like our teacher, tailor or vegetable vendor get transformed into a gorgeous Arjuna or other characters in front of tiny mirrors. It was as if these ‘yakshas’ were emerging from those mirrors.

Gokarna is a town with countless temples. Some gods are poor, some very rich. We used to play hide-and-seek in empty temples and so god was more a playmate, a dost . My father Gourish Kaikini was a teacher and a humanist. He was influenced by M.N. Roy. He was interested in everything, literature, poetry, theatre, music, cinema, that could help an individual evolve as a better human being. I remember once he preferred to attend the launch of a simple fishing boat of a student than to receive an award in Bengaluru. His simple transparent acts have deeply nurtured me.

You started off writing poems... why did you move to the short story form?

I write poetry, short stories, essays, plays, lyrics simultaneously. There is no deliberate shift to forms. Each form has its own sukh-dukh and restlessness. But I think you can see the signs of a poet in all these forms, as I am driven by metaphors and images.

Are you happy with the translation? How difficult was the process?

Tejaswini is first a poet and we have known each other for a long time. The stories in Kannada came out at different times. We picked the best we could agree on. I am happy, particularly because a piece of regional literature can now have a wider readership. I am happy the translator gets equal treatment in this prize. This will surely give an impetus to many more translations.

What are the issues you are obsessed with now?

I shall keep writing. Writing is a mode of thought for me. Senior writer Yashwant Chittal used to say about himself: “I don’t write what I know. I write to know.” I belong to the same school. Like a car and its battery, writing and the writer both get mutually recharged only when they are working.

Tejaswini, what made you want to translate these stories?

Well, as Jayant says, I have been reading him for long and these are some of my favourite stories. It so happens that I am doing a book on Mumbai’s classical music history. It was interesting to translate a collection of stories on the city.

It wasn’t particularly difficult once we had picked the stories but it took time to be published. I had wanted the book to be called Mumbai Stories and so that’s part of the title.

What does winning the prize mean for translated works?

It’s a shout-out to all translators out there. Our regional literature is rich and it’s wonderful if more books get translated. There’s always a chance that some of the regional flavour will be lost in translation but good translations will always give Indian writing in English depth and variety.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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