Literary Review

‘I am driven by an evangelical imperative’

"It was Nissim Ezekiel who pushed me to write in Marathi," says writer and theatre personality Shanta Gokhale. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

"It was Nissim Ezekiel who pushed me to write in Marathi," says writer and theatre personality Shanta Gokhale. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe  

Shanta Gokhale has been a vital connection between the Marathi literary world and the non-Marathi reader

The soft-spoken, graceful Shanta tai is writer, editor, translator, journalist, scriptwriter… with such a huge body of work, it is hard to believe she packed it all into one lifetime. Most of all, Shanta tai has mentored many generations of students, with patience and commitment.

She was the Arts Editor of one of India’s leading dailies. A novelist, she has been a close friend of Marathi theatre and translated the plays of Vijay Tendulkar, G.P. Deshpande, Mahesh Elkunchwar and many others. She has edited a book on the late theatreperson Veenapani Chawla and one on the oral history of experimental theatre. But for her, much of Marathi literature and theatre would have remained unknown.

In fact, she has been a vital connection between the Marathi literary world and the non-Marathi reader. She has won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for overall contribution in the performing arts category. Excerpts from an interview:

It has been a long journey as writer, translator and journalist. You didn’t set out to be any of these. When you look back and see how one thing led to the other, how does it feel?

It is indeed true that I didn’t set out to be a writer. But I always wrote. I had a notebook that my mother had preserved, which I threw away during one of my clean-ups. Into that notebook went stories, observations, verse. Nothing that declared me as the next Leo Tolstoy, but to write was compulsive. All ages have their great minds. Some you meet. Most you don’t. So you read to meet them. I met several wonderful minds in the visitors to our house.

I felt personally close to Baburao Chitre, who published Abhiruchi, one of the two prestigious literary Marathi magazines of the 40s and 50s; to M.V. Rajadhyaksha, professor of English at Elphinstone College, because of whom I discovered that teaching was my vocation; to M.V. Mathew, assistant editor at The Times of India, who published my first travel piece; to Dinkar Sakrikar, who encouraged me to write my first drama review for his weekly paper; to Vinda Karandikar whom I interviewed for a Sahitya Akademi archival video; and to Arun Kolatkar, who insisted that I read out the manuscript of my first novel to him and his publisher.

Your father thought you would be a teacher. What were the values he attached to the teaching profession?

When I was ready to join the work force, I had nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in English literature. And I had begun to write stray pieces here and there, for newspapers and magazines. There were only two openings then — in 1962 — for people with this equipment. One, to become a junior lecturer in a college, or write copy for advertisements. But where were the teaching jobs? That’s when Rajadhyaksha stepped in. There was a maternity vacancy at Elphinstone College. That’s how I discovered my vocation.

Your mother was so progressive, much ahead of her times. How did she influence you?

She was a huge influence on me. She said to me after I graduated, “Now what will you do to make your study of English useful? You must translate our best literature into English.” Her voice was certainly in my ears when I agreed to translate Avadhya. She also had a very clear definition of independence. You have to be able to look after yourself even in the worst circumstances, cook your food, make your clothes, eat whatever comes your way, sleep on hard floors with blazing lights or blaring noise. Finally, never let yourself down by submitting to what you think is not right.

You have said you were extremely unhappy when you tried to be a hardcore news reporter.

Well, yes. By nature I don’t like to intrude on people’s privacy. I cannot push for attention. I’d rather have conversations with people than badger them with questions. I discovered how poorly equipped I was for hard-nosed journalism after a couple of stories I was asked to do and did them badly. I do have an ethical position on asking a woman who has been raped to talk about her experience.

Satyadev Dubey, Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, Namdeo Dhasal — Marathi literature and parallel theatre were throbbing with an intense conscience in the 70s and 80s. Can you recall your interactions with some of them?

Dubey, Elkunchwar and Satish Alekar were dear friends. Dhasal was a distant but powerful presence. To be an observer and a co-opted member of this theatre and literary circle was to be alive in the truest sense. Dubey came at all times, often hungry and wanting to be fed. Elkunchwar is a wonderful raconteur and was full of stories from Nagpur, in which lines were often spoken in the sweet Varhadi dialect. Alekar’s unique sense of humour and manner of expression were as much part of his conversation as of his plays. I was in awe of Tendulkar. He never spoke much. He liked to listen and I liked to listen too.

It was Nissim Ezekiel who pushed me to write in Marathi. It hadn’t struck me that I had a language besides English that could be another medium of expression for me. It was amazing how just a few lines in a letter spurred me to write four stories in Marathi.

And you fell into translation because of Dubey. How did you develop the skill for these multiple roles that you had to play?

Dubey wrote to me when I was staying in Visakhapatnam. He said, instead of vegetating, why don’t you translate C.T. Khanolkar’s play Avadhya? He sent it to me and I “fell into translation” as you so correctly put it. Translation can’t be taught. Certainly it wasn’t in those days. So one struggled to find the best ways to do it. Merely knowing two languages was not enough. You had to know the two cultures of which the languages were one part. I had grown up in a strong Marathi environment and had lived in England for six years. That gave me a grasp of both cultures, which I have found of greatest use in my translation.

Translations are big today, but most “good translations” are more an outcome of skill than feeling.

We are talking here about sense and spirit. A word in translation might be ‘clinically’ equivalent to the word in the original, but it might not communicate the spirit of the original. The spirit resides in the original author’s creative reasons for using precisely that word or phrase. If you are sensitive to her creativity, you struggle to get at an equivalence that works both for sense and spirit and, if that is at all possible, for sound too. Marathi has many onomatopoeic words. English is rather poor in them. But it is worth giving them a special place in your translation if you want to translate the character of Marathi.

I haven’t seen a more committed translator than you. You are the bridge between Marathi and English. What drives you?

I didn’t know what drove me till I read Susan Sontag’s The St. Jerome Lecture on Literary Translation. Here she speaks of the evangelical incentive that drives literary translation. The incentive presupposes “that some books are discernibly better than other books, that literary merit exists in a pyramidal shape, and it is imperative for the works near the top to become available to as many as possible.” At the risk of sounding unforgiveably presumptuous, I would say I am driven by that evangelical imperative.

Are you happy about the Sangeet Natak Akademi award?

Yes, I am, although I was a bit flummoxed initially. But when friends began to call and sounded so genuinely happy, I began to think something good had happened, not only to me personally, but generally to the field of writing on the performing arts.

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