Literature is not like a tennis match where you play against an opponent and try and win: Vivek Shanbhag

Vivek Shanbhag, 53, on the translation of his novella Ghachar Ghochar and the lessons he learnt from his father-in-law UR Ananthamurthy.

Written by Anushree Majumdar | New Delhi | Updated: March 6, 2016 12:00:06 am

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Where did you grow up? What were the early years like?
I grew up in Ankola, a small town in coastal Karnataka. I was in that part of the country for 17 years of my life. I think it has made an impact on my writing and the way I look at the world. Then I moved out to do my engineering in Mysore. It was there that I spent a lot of my time reading. It so happened that my campus was next to the Mysore University campus and I had lots of friends in the English and Kannada departments. At that time, the English department in Mysore was very rich and many writers, such as Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie, used to visit. I had a lot of exposure to different discussions and readings.

What were you reading before you went to Mysore?
I was mainly reading Kannada works. But when I moved to Mysore, for those five years, I started reading different writers. I read Isaac Bashevis Singer for the first time and I kept reading him for the next 30 years. Then I read the Russians, the Europeans and it all happened because I would meet my friends and they would talk about these books. So it was like I did two degrees — one in literature and one in engineering. Needless to say, you know which I enjoyed more. I went into engineering because of a lack of exposure. I came from a small town, I got good marks in my 10th, so I went into the science stream like everybody else who got good marks. Then I got good marks again in 12th, and went for engineering. I did well there too. It was much later that I realised that I should have done something else, but, by then, I had become an engineer. I had a job with Hindustan Lever that took me to different places — Calcutta, where I lived for two years; then to the US, and to London. I travelled extensively because of my job.

You began writing very early.
I began writing in school — I was 16 when my first story got published; it won an award in a competition. It was about a person coming to a town from a small village and not liking the ways of life there. My first collection, Ankura, was published when I was 22, and it was well appreciated. The next one was published seven years later. I have written 10 books, not much, but I’ve got an excellent response. In the beginning, it was very challenging. In Kannada, you have an unbroken literary history of over 1,000 years. When I say unbroken, I mean that the works that were written 1,000 years ago are still accessible and people read them. Literature is not like a tennis match where you play against an opponent and try and win. Everybody from Shakespeare to the writers from those thousands of years ago are my contemporaries. We’re all writers and it is incidental that I write in Kannada, because we didn’t read only Kannada, we read everyone and everything; writers from other countries, languages, translations. I’m a Kannada writer, but I’m a writer first. My work will be compared to what people have read before.

You’ve once said that it’s important to get the tone of the translation right. And that you’re translating all the time. So how do you go about writing?
I have to hear and see things to write. Many a time it will happen in Konkani, or English. But Kannada is the only language in which I can write fiction. It’s not because I don’t want to (write in any other language), but because I can’t. Before I write, I think of the experience I’ve had. One understands one’s experiences through certain things, and for me, that medium is Kannada. My mother tongue is Konkani and many times you’ll find that a character’s dialogues translate perfectly into Konkani, but that’s the extent to which I can go. So this process of translation happens all the time in my mind.

Ghachar Ghochar has been likened to RK Narayan and Anton Chekov’s works. Like Singer, you’ve contained an entire universe in a household affected by their new-found wealth.
Take, for example, Singer’s story, Gimpel the Fool. It was translated into English for the first time by Saul Bellow. It’s a short story but it talks about religion, sin, human nature, society and people. Singer sees his entire world as one single entity. And I think it’s the right way of looking at one’s world. Writers are often tempted by the material world, to say things that have already been said. So if you see your entire body of work as one single thing, then you try and not repeat yourself. According to Singer, there is a reader who has read every word written by him. Having that idea of the reader stops him from repeating himself.

Ghachar Ghochar is not just about wealth but I feel that wealth is something that has impacted us in the last 25 years in India. Economic liberalisation has resulted in generating money that is more than necessary. Nobody thinks that what they have is enough but there is a line beyond which wealth is not necessary. If you don’t engage with that line closely and philosophically, something is going to happen which is not right. When you make more money than necessary, you lose the relationship you had with objects and people around you.

When did the story come to your mind?
The story was with me for nearly 10 years. I have many stories in my mind that keep growing; sometimes I make notes. Recently, I found the notes that I had made for this story and they were not more than half a page, and none of it was relevant.

Usually I write very fast, but I take a long time to edit. I stay with it a lot because I think it’s very important to get the structure right. Ghachar Ghochar was published three years ago as part of a collection of short stories.

Srinath Perur said that he got in touch with you to seek permission to translate Ghachar Ghochar because he’d never read anything like it. What did you say when he reached out to you?
In a translation, the most important thing is the tone, you have to get it right. What is a tone? It’s the position from which you see the story and some things are visible while others are not. It’s very crucial that a translator understands this.

This has been a successful translation because Srinath, whom I have known for four-five years, understood the tone. He got it because he is a creative writer. The structure of the Kannada language is different from English. The verb comes in the end, one can easily move across tenses. We discussed the story at length, why a particular word is used and the relationship between words. It took us 18 months to get it done but it was easy because we both live in Bangalore. Now it will be the first Kannada book to be published in the US.

In your works, you’re constantly looking for grains of truth, even in the most innocuous situations. How much of a conscious decision is that?
Any good literature does that — from the Russians, to Singer, to Jose Saramago. I am looking to do the same thing. I’m transporting my very personal experience into a story, and I don’t know who I am telling my story to. I am not writing for one person or five people. I am talking about life. When I was younger, my writing was more inward-looking, because that is the time you’re thinking about yourself more and wondering what life is about. Now, those are not the only things I write about.

You started a literary journal, Desh Kaala, in 2005. Why did you stop producing it after seven years?
I brought it out for other writers, not for myself. I’ve read writers who are being published for the first time and I felt so happy to be the first person to read them. Then I’m in a hurry to publish the magazine and tell everybody about them. One of them is Mounesh Badiger (who has also adapted of a short story of mine for a film), there’s Padmanabh Shevkar and Sunanda Kadame. What is important is to create that excitement about writing — being read, being discussed, and I managed to do that successfully for seven years. Unfortunately, I had to stop because my work demanded me to travel. I quit my day job last year, so let’s see.

You’ve known UR Ananthamurthy since you were 17. What would you say is his legacy to you?
When it came to reading, enjoying and talking about literature, he was absolutely objective. If he liked a piece, he’d want to talk to the writer, no matter where they were. He was always surrounded by people, 20-30 students, talking, and he maintained that sort of engagement till the end of his life. That kind of enthusiasm is necessary, even more so today. That’s something that I value. The other thing is that he never talked about anyone lightly, he never dismissed anyone. He was not judgemental and sought to see merit in everything. I first fell in love with him, and then his daughter. I met him when I was 17 and I got married to her when I was 28. The first five years, I knew her, but it was only after I left Mysore did I realise my feelings for her.

What are you working on now?
I have a novel and a play in mind. It takes me a long time to get down to writing — I am critical of my own work and I’m always thinking of what Singer has said.

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