In a telling scene, Krishna Sobti’s Mitro (from Mitro be Damned, 1966), unhooks her blouse in front of her elder sister-in-law and placing her palms over her breasts, asks, “Speak the truth sister-in-law, does somebody else possess plump breasts like these?” This and a following few pages, where Mitro unabashedly talks about her physical cravings, shaped the discourse around the novel and its criticism by eminent writers like Amrita Pritam and Rajendra Yadav.
What they missed were finer details of Mitro’s character — a prostitute’s daughter who exercises total autonomy over her body at a time when such boldness counted as dangerous defiance.
Critical studies often overlook nuances, especially when there is a lack of knowledge about the historical resonances, the socio-cultural atmosphere and political underpinnings related to the novel’s present. Readers who are not attached to the subcontinent in any way might find themselves more at a loss.
“We felt the need to prepare tools to access Indian writers and their texts from within their contexts,” say translator and scholar Sukrita Paul Kumar and Chandana Dutta, the joint editors of Routledge’s ‘Writer in Context’ series, which focuses on 12 landmark novels of bhasha literature.
Of these, three are already out — one on Krishna Sobti (2021), edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Rekha Sethi; another on Joginder Paul (2021), edited By Chandana Dutta; and the latest on Indira Goswami (2022), edited by Namrata Pathak and Dibyajyoti Sarma.
Other writers proposed for the series include Rahi Masoom Raza, Bama, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Amrita Pritam, Mahasweta Devi, V. Madgulkar, O.V. Vijayan and Devanuru Mahadeva. Such detailed and comprehensive studies giving a holistic picture of bhasha writers in translation have been sporadic. Doosra Jeevan by Girdhar Rathi or Amrita Pritam: Her Poetry and Literature by Priya D. Wanjari are some of the few books that made an attempt.
“We approached Routledge with two volumes in 2020,” says Dutta, ex-Assistant Director of Katha Vilasam. “Later, assured by the interest of the publisher, we decided to make it into a series by picking iconic writers from post-Independence Indian literature who are bracketed as ‘modern’ writers and their work popularly referred to as Modern Classics.”
Each book has samples of a particular writer’s fiction, their other writings (like parts of Hum Hashmat in the volume on Sobti), fresh essays translated into English, reception by critics, readers’ letters and biochronology, offering a comprehensive understanding of a writer’s oeuvre. While the modern trend is to privilege social studies over literary studies for understanding the nation, Kumar firmly believes that “the multilingual, culturally diverse fabric of India can only be wholly understood by paying close attention to the ever-changing and evolving face of literature.”
Sobti is quoted as saying as much in the introduction to Krishna Sobti: A Counter Archive: “Literature goes beyond the empirical reality, beyond treaties and wars and probes the silence of the mind. It asks itself the question: how do we narrate history?”
Examining the writer in context shows how they go beyond literary trends such as modernism, postmodernism or progressivism. Kumar cites the example of the eminent Urdu writer, Joginder Paul, who defied such labels: “His works are an amalgam of modernism and progressivism; much of his long and short fiction could appear to be modernist in its form and style while the themes project progressive ideals,” she says.
“While the series has a volume on the much-canonised writer-activist who took up the cause of Adivasis, Mahashweta Devi, there are also forthcoming volumes on the Marathi writer Venkatesh Madgulkar, who focused on rural stories, and on Devanuru Mahadeva, the Dalit writer in Kannada who steered the modernist movement in his language away from the brand created by writers such as U.R. Ananthamurthy,” explains Kumar.
Even though these writers have been translated into English, the translations are not of uniform quality. Sometimes, they don’t do justice to the originals. As it is, it is a formidable task to translate writers like Sobti whose characters’ Hindi is often inflected with Punjabi, Gujarati or Rajasthani, creating a ‘living language’ almost impossible to replicate.
The latest in the series is Assamese writer Indira Goswami, to be followed by Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam. Both these authors went against the usual representation of women in the writings of their time. The studies of these two might just refine our understanding of Indian feminism.
The writer is an award-winning poet from New Delhi.