Literary Review

Expanding the canon

The Occult by Naiyar Masud  

In 1977, the Times Literary Supplement, then celebrating its 75th anniversary, conducted a survey in which it asked a distinguished group of writers to name the most underrated and overrated books and authors of the previous 75 years. That feature, ‘Reputations Revisited’, led to a revival of interest in many of the authors named. Barbara Pym, who had been dropped by her publisher and was then in obscure retirement, enjoyed an unexpected renaissance as a direct result of being the only writer named by two respondents as the most underrated.

Inspired by this, The Hindu surveyed some of India’s respected writers and editors on underrated and neglected books and authors since independence. A small group of writers dominate English-language literary discourse; our hope is to shine a light on other writers who are just as, if not more, deserving of our attention. We asked our respondents two questions:

Which books or writers in the period since Independence do you consider to be the most underrated?

Which book (or writer) would you most like to see translated into English or other languages? Or, alternatively, is there a book that has been previously translated that you believe deserves a new translation?

The responses are below.

Nayantara Sahgal

1. Sumanta Banerjee’s The Wicked City: Crime & Punishment in Colonial Calcutta starts with criminal goings-on in Warren Hastings’ own office, explores crime in the city’s underworld, and comes full circle with the colonial laws enacted to punish criminals. This is brilliant social history besides being a wonderful read. Along with Banerjee’s other books on Bengal, it deserves to be kept in circulation so that our recent history becomes popular reading.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist examines the meaning of secularism and affirms his own ‘fundamentalist’ belief in a creed that is the unifying factor in our nation of many religions. His book has special importance today when secularism is under sustained attack.

It needs to be revived, widely translated, and made available.

2. Kiran Nagarkar’s is the most powerful voice in English fiction and Cuckold (1997) remains the most astonishing and captivating literary achievement since Independence. The 16th century story told in contemporary idiom comes disturbingly alive with an almost physical impact and a stamina that never lets up over 600 pages. Surprisingly, this modern classic has been translated only into German. It should be made available in Indian languages.

[Nayantara Sahgal’s many books include the novels Rich Like Us, Plans for Departure and the memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake. Most recently she edited Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation.]

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

1. I don’t know where Reshma Aquil (1955-2012) is buried but her literary remains consist of three slim volumes of verse, one published in 2001, the other two in 2003. She lived in Allahabad, taught English at the university, kept largely to herself and stayed single, though had once been in love: ‘You look at me/ An immensity slides’. She observed closely the life around her but even more the weather of her own mind: ‘The nerves/ In my head/ Are grinding/ Their molars’. If there is one poet she reminds you of, it is Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson she’s a difficult poet and doesn’t always tell it straight; she hides, she’s abrupt, she pares down language almost till there’s no language left, till it is as austere as she herself was, as though she wanted to erase all trace of it. She almost succeeded.

[Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Collected Poems: 1969-2014 was recently published by Penguin. He is the editor of A History of Indian Literature in English and The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets.]

Ranjit Hoskote

1. G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (1948), despite its brief vogue as a re-discovered forerunner to Rushdie & Co. in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has returned to obscurity. And Salman Rushdie’s Shame (1983). It has truly sunk without trace, and is, in my view, his finest and best novel.

2. The magisterial Marathi modernist Vinda Karandikar translated his poems into English himself, which was, alas, a mistake. I have long wished to see a substantial selection of his poems translated into English and Indian languages.

[Ranjit Hoskote’s most recent collection of poems is Central Time.]

Mini Krishnan

1. Since fiction contextualised against socio-history makes the strongest impact, my choice of an underrated work is the Malayalam novel Brushte (1969). Written by Matampu Kunjukuttan,the grandson of the chief ritualist who presided over a tremendous public “chastity trial” that turned Kerala’s medieval social structure on its head, the book fictionalises the actual event (1910); 64 eminent men and their families were socially excommunicated. The English translation, long out of print, would be a valuable addition to our cultural history.

An excellent novel no one except Anita Nair even noticed is Suguna Ramanathan’s The Evening Gone (2001) about the lives of Palakkad Brahmin scientists and intellectuals in colonised India. The most underrated Indian writer is Anita Desai; the Lifetime Achievement Award that India Abroad gave her was like the gold watch a retired employee receives.

2. A novel I would recommend for translation into English is Imayam’s Sedal (2006), an attack on the practice of dedicating young girls to temples, condemning them to a life of loneliness and depression. It describes the life of Sedal, dedicated at the age of eight to Amman temples of intermediate castes. She fights sorrow and ostracism and becomes a koothu performer in her struggle to become a person of substance.

A book that could do with a fresh translation is Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Kayar (1978). The 1998 English translation by N. Sreekantan Nair didn’t quite capture the complexities of the huge canvas of history, caste and socio-politics of the original.

K. Shivaram Karanth is a writer whose works I would love to see in English.

[Mini Krishnan edits literary translations at Oxford University Press.]

Vivek Shanbhag

1. Naiyer Masud. Despite his works being translated into English and other foreign languages, this Urdu writer did not get his due. He deserved more serious attention. Masud wrote in the thick of the Modernist movement (in Indian languages), yet was very distinct from his contemporaries. Some of the stories he wrote in 1960s and 70s are good examples of magic realism. He should have been widely discussed along with writers such as Borges and Marquez. With his craftsmanship, Masud made Urdu seem most conducive for such narratives.

2. I would like to see the novels of Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal translated into English. His writing is highly skilful and themes contemporary

[Vivek Shanbhag’s most recent novel is Ooru Bhanga. His novella Ghachar Ghochar was recently published in an English translation by Srinath Perur. He founded and edited the Kannada literary journal Desha Kaala.]

R. Sivapriya

1. First and without doubt it’s Naiyer Masud. He’s written a little under 40 stories and has a minuscule but fierce following. He should be read more, written about more and celebrated while he is still alive. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s Uska Bachpan (1957; translated by Vaid as Steps in Darkness) is considered a masterpiece of 20th century Hindi fiction but has no traction outside the circle of devoted readers of Hindi literature. Of books published in this decade, Sharmistha Mohanty’s Five Movements in Praise (2013) deserves serious attention.

2. On the whole I’d wish for more translations of poetry from Indian languages — classical, medieval and modern. Those are the texts that have given me the most intimate sense of the people of the subcontinent.

[R. Sivapriya is Executive Editor, Juggernaut Books, and previously headed the Penguin Classics list in India.]

Keshava Guha is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 5:36:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Expanding-the-canon/article14517049.ece

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