The afterlife of a story, Geeta Dharmarajan, tells me, is tied to its readers, to the places they take its memories to. As a young girl growing up in Chennai in the 1960s, one of the greatest joys of Dharmarajan’s life was the company of books. Her doctor father was an avid reader and encouraged his three daughters to read beyond their textbooks.
“But a book would cost Rs 10 and we would never have the money to buy one. We used to have journals coming home instead — Anandavikatan, Kalki, Swadesamitran and others. Every Thursday afternoon, during holidays, the postman would ring the bell and whoever ran and caught hold of that magazine first was the one who read it first. That’s how I walked into Tamil literature. The magazines made up for the books that we could not buy, opened up a whole new world for us,” says Dharmarajan, 69, writer and executive director of Katha, a non-profit organisation that has been a pioneer in the field of translations and education for the underprivileged.
Years later, when she would travel to the US in 1983, with her civil servant husband, and work as a faculty at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Dharmarajan would be struck by the shelves full of translated works in bookstores or at the Van Pelt library at the university. “When my mother came for a visit, we had to find some way of keeping her occupied when we were at work. I went to the library and I found more books in Tamil there than I could find in India — books by Kalki, Mowni, Prem Sanghu and others, and the two of us would just keep reading. It was like discovering a part of my country sitting far away from it. I wanted to let everyone know that Tamil literature has all these things, do you have it in Bangla or Marathi or Malayalam? Can we bring it all together? So, I came back with this great need to translate. America opened my eyes to India,” she says.
When she set up Katha in 1988, translation was still a fledgling domain, limited only to the initiative of a handful. There was Sahitya Akademi award-winning professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, who was exploring the potential of culture studies and regional literature in translation in universities at home. Publishing house Penguin had just entered the Indian market. “We were at a time when Penguin used to italicise Appa and Amma — we had not accepted bhasha words into English. In India, we write for ourselves in our different languages, translate for ourselves for a pan-India audience and we critique ourselves. Normally, we are very, very harsh on ourselves and our own translations. Consequently, it’s very difficult to shine in the world of translations here. What we really wanted was two things: one was to build a field for translations and the second thing was that we needed to have our own way in which we looked at ourselves and translated ourselves,” she says.
What this entailed was a distinction between rupantar and anuvad — the former a “very emotional translation which looked behind the word and beyond the sentence” and the latter, a transliteration. “Katha’s main thing was, can you bring in the bhasha words without exoticising them?” says Dharmarajan. In the translated children’s picture books that Katha publishes — works by writers such as Rabindranath Tagore and Premchand to books by Mamang Dai, Dharmarajan and a handful of international writers — context plays an important role. By and large, Dharmarajan has done away with italics that often mark out words from Indian languages, choosing instead to give readers a cultural framework for the story. Short stories, Dharmarajan’s other favourite genre, too, has remained Katha’s forte. The Katha Prize Stories brought together works in translation of writers such as Naiyer Masud, Priya Vijay Tendulkar, P Lankesh and Shaukat Hayat, establishing Katha as a torch-bearer in the field in the near-three decades of its existence.
In the years since, other players have come into the field of translation, creating an ecosystem that nurtures talent and has a thriving life of its own. “The philosophy behind translation has become very important. Language makes people. I am who I am because of what I have read in my language. When you start saying that language is important and bhasha is important, you are acknowledging the debt you owe to storytelling, you are recognising the span of imagination and its role in shaping you,” she says.
Which is why, the central government’s drive to push Hindi into all spheres of public life is a matter of concern for Dharmarajan. “I think we have confused the politics of life for rajneeti. Agency for citizens comes from language, it comes from an identity that is formed by what I speak. The linguistic map we have is very exciting. However, the way we have looked at heterogeneity — as if it is some achar that we are making and you can preserve it through translation — that I think is wrong. We have to be talking in that language every day so that it lives on in our children. This is what we give as an inter-generational gift to them — language and all the knowledge that it carries. If as adults we don’t introduce our children to diversity, then we are failing them. But if we can take stories from different languages to our children, then they are not going to say, ‘Ek hi culture hain’,” she says.
Dharmarajan’s confidence in the young comes from Katha’s success in taking education to the underprivileged and running schools for them across Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra and Arunachal Pradesh. The first Katha school was set up in Delhi’s Govindpuri with five children. Today, it works with over 1 lakh slum children in the capital. “In our country, when we talk of children, we only talk of those who don’t even form 10 per cent of our country. Who has access to the internet? Who is getting affected by the Blue Whale (Challenge) and Sarahah and other such things? A very small percentage. When I look at our children (in Katha schools), I am looking at the 60-70 per cent who are living in poverty. They are hungry for books, for knowledge. Our country doesn’t look at them as children. They are so invisible,” she says.
In Katha schools, there is no fixed curriculum. Instead, Dharmarajan supplements textbooks with stories and teaches children to dream for themselves, encourages them to write and translate their own stories as they learn. “I like the idea of moving children from a mass culture to a critical culture. We are all passively tolerant. But, when we are pushed to it, when my son becomes a homosexual, for instance, then I am suddenly no longer tolerant of my child or myself. Stories teach us to be actively tolerant. They give us so many scenarios that I can look around, study and observe what different people are saying. So, we give stories to our children and tell them: the choice is yours, you have to build your own agency. If we can say that and free them from the strict syllabus and give them their imagination back, we will have succeeded in empowering them for life,” she says.