What happens when books that have held the test of time begin to disappear rapidly from our collective memory? A title by Premchand might surface in a conversation or two but most plays and novels written in Indian languages, which were immensely popular even some years ago, will draw a blank now.
It was such pressing concerns that led to a series of impassioned conversations among literary-minded friends: they spoke about their literary heritage and how they could save it from dying.
Thus began Indian Novels Collective (INC), a Mumbai-based group dedicated to translating Indian novels into English.
A 100 classics
The founding members — Ashwani Kumar, Amrita Somaiya, Anuradha Parikh and Sangita Jindal — are a diverse set united by their love of literature. Jindal is Chairman of the JSW Foundation, which drives social development projects within the JSW Group; Parikh is an architect and filmmaker based in Mumbai, and also the founder of G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture; Kumar is a poet, author, policy researcher and Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai); Somaiya is Chairperson of Help a Child to Study project and Director, Kitab Khana, a boutique bookshop in Mumbai.
Started in 2017, INC has set the robust target of identifying and translating a 100 classic novels written in Indian languages. The goal is to begin publishing these works through the Speaking Tiger imprint by 2020. Mentors like novelist Amit Chaudhuri and editor Poonam Saxena chip in, helping the group select classics from the vast treasure trove of Indian literature. Some of the books they have finalised include Ranangan by Vishram Bedekar (Marathi), Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein by Usha Priyamvada (Hindi), Padma Nadir Majhi by Manik Bandyopadhyay (Bengali), Safeena-e-Gham-e-Dil by Qurratulain Hyder (Urdu), and Carvalho by K.P. Purnachandra Tejaswi (Kannada).
The process of picking and choosing books is arbitrary and a tiny bit mysterious, much like the art of creation itself. They might highlight the work of a literary heavyweight like Dharamveer Bharati or choose to focus on an ambitious work in a minor language. Damodar Mauzo’s stunning debut in Konkani, Karmelin , is a particular favourite now.
The group’s resident poet-professor, Ashwani Kumar, defends their methodology, saying it prioritises the “continuation of experiences”. For instance, Usha Priyamvada’s cult Hindi classic Pachpan Khambhe Laal Deewarein is getting a second renaissance with the millennial generation, which is reading it as a feminist classic. It is being re-discovered and evaluated anew, in a way very different from how it was received when it was first published in 1972 in Hindi.
INC has taken up the challenging task of creating a link between two generations of reading communities; both millennials and boomers can be seen at their reading sessions, hanging on to every word.
INC sessions often involve readings in the original language; sometimes actors are invited for dramatic renditions. At the recent Kala Ghoda Festival, they organised a panel discussion on portraits of women in fiction and music.
Site of experimentation
“Millennials are not bilingual readers,” says Manasi Shetty, a young volunteer with INC. They usually speak their native tongues at home but few read or write in those languages. For better or worse, English has become their ‘default language’. In the process, an entire literary oeuvre risks being lost. But the group is optimistic, pointing to the vernacularisation of English and the emergence of Hinglish, Tanglish, Odia-English and so on. This is becoming the site of much experimentation for both writers and translators.
INC has several grand plans for translators. Kumar declares that the future lies in breaking the hierarchy between writers and translators. “We want translators to be recognised as co-producers and co-writers,” he says. Some group members, who are more on the side of tradition, demur. Meanwhile, Anuradha Parikh, co-founder and artistic director of INC, says it’s her goal to translate texts from oral traditions.
The literary catalogue they are looking at is ever-expanding; it will a tough call to archive it all in English. But at least a beginning has been made: “It started from deprivation and a deep sense of loss,” says Parikh, referring to her own alienation from her literary heritage while growing up and the impact it had on her identity. But a new generation of readers could grow up reading and cherishing novels from their own cultures.
The writer is based in Mumbai.