August 22, 2021 6:15:48 am
Two years ago, when the 90-year-old Wisconsin-based Hindi writer and academic Usha Priyamvada was approached with the idea of getting her debut novel Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewaarein translated into English, she got anxious. She wondered if anyone would be even interested in reading the 60-year-old novel. Published in 1961, the celebrated novel is located within the boundaries of an all-women’s college in Delhi, where we meet Sushma Sharma — lecturer, warden, single, and sole provider for her large family — who’s resigned to the regimented loneliness of her life.
It is one of the two translations that the Mumbai non-profit Indian Novels Collective recently released. Set up in 2017, the collective aims to bridge the gap between the English reader and classics of Indian literature, with translations and events around them. It is in the process of drawing up a list of 100 novels in Indian languages to be translated.
Priyamvada’s Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls, translated by American writer-artist-translator Daisy Rockwell, skilfully explores the physical, mental and social paradigms that lock women into narrow ideals. Vermont-based Rockwell, 52, who’s previously translated Krishna Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There (2019), Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (2016), Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls (2015), and Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (2018), says, in an email interview, “I had read some of Ushaji’s work years ago, when I was a student of Hindi at The University of Chicago in the late ’80s, but a few years ago, when Urdu translator and scholar Rakhshanda Jalil was putting together an anthology of writings about Delhi, she asked me to translate a passage from Pachpan Khambe. It’s not a long book, and I ended up falling in love with the elegant prose style and beautiful imagery. So, I decided to contact Ushaji to request for permission to translate it.”
Addressing Priyamvada’s concerns about whether the work is too “dated”, Rockwell says, just because the particular challenges faced by the protagonist (Sushma) may not reflect the current reality of women’s lives in India, it doesn’t make the book irrelevant. “Literature is not sociology, and women’s struggles ought to be just as interesting as anyone else’s, regardless of whether they have evolved or changed. That France no longer has penal colonies does not render Les Misérables (1862) ‘dated’ or irrelevant to modern readers,” she says.
Rockwell, who’s translated popular writers such as Ashk, Sahni and Shrilal Shukla, says she was fed up with the male gaze. So, she started looking for and discovering, and, eventually, translating women writers now. “Women writers the world over have not been given their due. They are published, reviewed and translated — in smaller numbers. In order to correct the inequality of publishing, and this goes for other underrepresented groups too, we need to make a conscious effort to curate and re-balance our literary activities. By ‘we’, I’m being inclusive: translators, readers, reviewers, and editors. If you don’t make a conscious decision to read more women, you’re likely to end up reading mostly men. If you don’t consciously choose to read more authors from underrepresented groups, you simply won’t. It is deeply important to challenge oneself in this way,” says the PhD holder in South Asian literature.
Reading translations can be “quite different from reading something written in the original language,” says Rockwell, “It can be challenging, the prose style doesn’t follow the same formulas — each language has its own culture and set of conventions and we need to train ourselves to open our hearts and minds to different modes of expression. I like to think the readership is growing. I hope it is.”
“The pandemic has made people engage with literature again, go back to literature in their mother tongue, and in a whole new way through social media. People started talking about literature on WhatsApp groups. The general anxiety, coupled with the extra time, encouraged people to return to familiar childhood classics. Digital connectivity also made it easier for people to share and talk about these novels,” says Ashwani Kumar, poet and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, one of the five core members of the collective. Apart from Kumar, the core group includes Amrita Somaiya, one of the co-founders, and the owner of Kitab Khana, a book shop in Mumbai, Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation and Anuradha Parikh, an architect and filmmaker. Jindal has funded the first two translations: Priyamvada’s book and Jerry Pinto’s translation, Battlefield, of Vishram Bedekar’s Marathi novel Ranangan (1939).
While the collective was launched with a view to introduce young readers to classics, readers of all ages have been turning to the lists/recommendations on Indian Novels Collective’s website to discover novels, short stories, essays in various languages. “We receive a lot of comments and queries; many treat us as a research archive, too. It has certainly started a conversation,” he says.
Acknowledging apprehensions among some over whether the originality of a text is lost in translation, Kumar says, “An original can never be translated as an original. English makes it possible for people in different parts of India to access literature from the other parts. On our portal, we speak about mental health, queer issues, environment, Northeast writings, feminist and women writers. Translation allows us richer conversations and an inclusive way to look at life.”
While Speaking Tiger is their current publishing partner, other publications too have shown interest in coming aboard, says Kumar. “There’s a lot of interest in translations these days. The British Council has launched a research project on it and are looking into how (Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novella) Ghachar Ghochar (2015; translated by Srinath Perur) became an international success. There is an Anglophone privilege, that once you’re translated into English, your work gets a bigger stage. But, at the same time, if Konkani, Manipuri, Bhojpuri novels, etc., are translated into English, that will be a big boost to Indian literature,” says Kumar.
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