After a recent poetry reading session at Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, eminent Bengali poet and writer Subodh Sarkar was approached by a young member from the audience. The boy, who belonged to a small town in West Bengal, told Sarkar he had been following his work and had in fact, read the English translations of his poems. “The incident reminded me of the fact that today, there is a pressure to know English, even amongst middle-class Bengalis,” he says, quickly adding that he does not hold any anger towards the language.
The proliferation of literature festivals in recent years has boosted the careers of several Indian writers, making them household names. However, with the emphasis mostly on English, regional writers always got the short end of the stick. “First, regional writers were addressed as native. Now, they’re called language writers. This kind of demarcation is a colonial hang-up and needs to go,” Sarkar says.
It was to address this concern that The Gateway Litfest was conceived.
To be held in the city this weekend, the event will bring together homegrown writers from different parts of the country, with various sessions on the wealth of regional literature the country has to offer. Along with Hindi and English, the festival will celebrate seven other languages – Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya and Tamil. The speakers include Sarkar, Jnanpith recipient and Oriya writer Pratibha Ray, writer/translator Sachin Ketkar, Marathi writer Laxman Gaikwad, Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan, actor Nandita Das and others.
“The publishing industry in India is growing every day, but regional players remain marginalised. While Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works are readily translated into various Indian languages, the trend of inter-translation amongst Indian languages leaves a lot to be desired,” says Mohan Kaknadan, editor of Malayalam magazine Kaakka and executive director of The Gateway Litfest, the two-day festival that will hold sessions on problems plaguing regional literature, perspectives on its adaptation in cinema, the state of Marathi literature and poetry readings.
Other highlights include a discussion on safeguarding literary freedom in the light of the Perumal Murugan incident, and whether translations find their rightful place in the mix. Tamil poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai will be on the panel discussion. Manimekalai herself has been a victim of censorship with Antharakanni, her collection of poems on queer love that was published in 2012. “Regional queer literature is still in its nascent stage and you have to fight a lot of stereotypes and taboos. For instance, I grappled with the Tamil terms for queer and menstruation. The language has been dominated by patriarchy and with such work, we are rewriting and redefining it,” she says.
Marathi poet Hemant Divate, also a panelist, has presented his poems in Europe, Latin America and Asia and believes that distribution remains the biggest challenge. “Very few stores stock our books and this reduces the chances of your work reaching a larger audience,” he says.
The festival also hopes to bring publishers into the fray and change the literary landscape. “Getting adequate exposure has always been a big hurdle. With a little help, great literature can cross boundaries,” adds Divate.