Literary Review

More than one life

Hot is the Moon: Poems and Stories of Women in Kannada, Tamil, Konkani and Tulu. Edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam  

My characters are not great thinkers or rebels. They belong to the land.

Imayam, Tamil writer

India is not non-West. It is India.

Ashis Nandy

In this space, I hope to discuss different Indian languages and writers as they ghost-walk in English through different periods, institutions and disciplines, and to foreground, with examples, the most marginalized professionals in the knowledge industry: translators. These people are forgotten, pushed off book covers, sometimes even title pages. They go missing in the section marked ‘about the contributors’ in books from famous imprints. They are underpaid and over-worked, discouraged by copyright laws, and exploited by publishers. Their work is feared by religious orders and by the guardians of status quo, who view with suspicion any attempt to transport information and ideas across linguistic borders. Well, the selfie of us with our Indian-language writers shows that the rest of the globe is fairly safe from us: our writers have not penetrated any other culture’s consciousness deeply.

Mini Krishnan

Both serious studies and hastily cobbled articles based on interviews with writers and publishers over the last two years reveal that outside India, very little of our huge literary output — contemporary or otherwise — is being read anywhere in the world. We are a literary supercontinent but as dark as Krishna and as difficult to reach. Yet one half of the literary brigade of India — in which I include myself — loves to daydream that its indigenous literature simply has to find its way to readerships outside the country. Should we worry so much about exporting our writings? Right here in our midst are readers who could enjoy Indian writing — except that they do not know what is available out there. Millions of Indians can read, but know nothing or very little about Indian writers simply because they have not been introduced to them or trained to admire them: great, not so great, old, modern and very new and nearly all of them unheard of outside their regional-language islands.

The other half of the book-brigade lives in English and thinks that Indian-language writers have nothing of interest to say to them. “All those sad stories of bullock-carts and rivers and caste conflicts — go get a life.” The training ground for this situation begins very early, when — to paraphrase writer and literary critic, Judith Thurman — we deprive a child of her language at the sponge-time of life, the precious learning years, and never allow her to build a bond with a past of many centuries. So it might take a decade or two before she realises she could relearn, and rediscover what she has missed. This can happen through the only language she has: English. Even though English sets literary limits, even though it is taught imperfectly, it is still the fastest way to drill through language barriers. Alongside is the social change brought on by technology which has shaped a mindset, and not just altered a change in the way life itself is viewed. What was considered valuable by a former generation may just not be that important to the present one. Perhaps here too, translation could play a role in what many see as a no-man’s land — the space between the past and what lies ahead. Can we tackle the future if we have no understanding of our past?

U.R. Ananthamurthy said that there is a co-existence of centuries in us and that an Indian language writer might set his story in a century long gone but use very contemporary strategies and language. Precisely because of this, before us are questions which crucially define creativity, productivity and therefore certainly, the market. Qurratulain Hyder said nearly the same thing: “In India various epochs co-exist and intermingle freely on the sociological and psychological planes. You have to be born and bred in this land to understand the syntheses and cultural richness as well as the contradictions inherent in this situation.” And perhaps it is time to admit that someone who does not share this DNA will find it difficult to enter this experience.

Miriam bi stood there a minute and wondered if she should participate in the duva. But where did she have the time? She was thinking of the lamb soup that she could never once give Haseena who had just delivered. Not even an egg or a spoonful of ghee. In fact for the last two days she had not eaten even a single dry roti. A fire erupted in her stomach. Daane daane pe likha hai khaanewaale ka naam. Every grain bears the name of the person who would eat it. O what imagination! The leavings of the rich went through the sink to the gutter to mix with human waste. O God, who created the rich, why didn’t you create morsels in the names of poor like me? Banu Mushtaq’s story about Miriam who waits for women in her community to die so that she might earn a fee by washing and dressing corpses is translated from Kannada by Tulasi Venugopal for Sparrow and edited by Arundathi Subramaniam.

Go get a life.

The agraharam reverberated with the news of Sharma’s rescue. Madiga Elli pulled Somasekhara Sharma out of the tank; she dragged him out when he was drowning; she touched him. No she dragged him by his hair; that Madiga Elli touched our boy… a massive debate ensued about the ways of cleansing a brahmin who had been touched by an untouchable — and that too a woman…(Gogu Shyamala’s story is translated from Telugu by A. Suneetha for Navayana)

Why not live more than one life? And through writers who lead us to the language-experiences of which we know so little? We need to dispel our own darkness before waving torches for readers outside the country.

Speaking of the human condition an Urdu poet said that we have lost the Earth but not yet gained Heaven. There is still time. We haven’t lost the stories of our homeland and a young man named Ravi Shankar is making India’s first animation feature film in Sanskrit based on a Kannada folktale: Punyakoti is crowd-sourced and crowd-funded by animators and people from all over the world. Interest in one’s roots can only strengthen what everyone is searching for: emotional and cultural identity.

Mini Krishnan edits literary translations for Oxford University Press.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 3:48:42 AM |

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