The steel cupboard in Devadatta Rajadhyaksha’s Mumbai home is stacked with old books, their pages frayed and discoloured over time.
Yet, they’re his most prized possession. They remind the 37-year-old of his childhood spent lapping up dozens of children’s books from the Soviet era. His collection includes Marathi and English translations of famous works, such as Vladimir Bogomolov’s Ivan, Mulansathi Goshti (Stories for Children) by Tolstoy and Russian Lok Katha (Russian Folktales), the latter featuring iconic characters like Vasalisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga.
As Rajadhyaksha pulls out a copy of Viktor Dragunsky’s Dennis chya Goshti (Adventures of Dennis), he says, “My favourite, this book traces little Dennis’s daily adventures in suburban Moscow, at a time when there was no television or video games. He would go to fairs and carry insects in his pocket. The storytelling is so simple that every child can relate to it.” The city-based chartered accountant, along with friends Prasad Deshpande and Nikhil Rane, is behind Dhukyat Haravlele Laal Taare (Red Stars Lost in the Mist), a documentary that explores the lost world of Marathi translations of Soviet-era children’s books.
Currently in the post-production stage, the film brings to life characters such as Dennis, Chuk and Gek, Vasalisa as well as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. It also includes anecdotes by translators, personalities from Marathi literature and academicians like Vineel Burke, who talks about how the books nurtured his love for science.
Rajadhyaksha’s journey began almost a decade ago, when he rediscovered his childhood stash in a sealed box. “Such books were a rage in India during the Soviet era and translations in several languages were easily available. It was a time when India was experimenting with socialism and all kinds of literature from the USSR made its way into the country,” he recounts.
Thereafter, he started hunting for more books in old bookshops. A Facebook page — Soviet Literature in Marathi — created in 2011, helped him reach out to collectors across India. “The response was beyond what I had imagined. Soon, we were exchanging notes, reliving memories and had become a vibrant community,” he adds.
It was through this page that Rane reached out to him. “When I found an uploaded copy of Chuk and Gek after 25 years, I was overwhelmed,” recalls Rane, an HR professional. A supporter of the left movement, his father was an avid collector of books on Russian politics, and Rane was thus exposed to the literature at an early age. Today, the 34-year-old has a burgeoning collection of Soviet-era books translated into Marathi.
While books by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Gorky were marketed and distributed in various countries, the translations of children’s books in India began only in the ’70s. The books clicked with children for several reasons — the stories were accompanied by colourful illustrations that were way ahead of their time, the printing quality was superior and the pricing was subsidised, with a paperback for Rs 5 and a 200-page hardback for around Rs 20. Also, the literature offered children a peek into an unfamiliar world, where it snowed and people wore mittens, points out Deshpande, a filmmaker and graphic designer.
Their discussions on how the books could be revived are at the root of the documentary, a project they began work on six months ago. “Decades ago, cargo ships would come to Bombay with containers full of books. Now, we have the web as a platform. Also, once uploaded, we can hyperlink the stories to other relevant information, like about the author,” adds Deshpande. The makers intend to screen the film, which will be ready in July, at educational institutes and Rotaract clubs. The plan is to follow the screenings with interactive talks related to the story, or have eminent Marathi artistes read to the children. “The film is not merely a nostalgia-fuelled measure. We hope it introduces children to a wonderful genre of literature and contribute to its revival,” says Rajadhyaksha.
International ,yet Regional
1. In the ’70s, at the peak of Soviet domination, Soviet literature flooded India, which was also experimenting with socialism at the time.
2. They had affiliate organisations across the country, such as People’s Publishing House in Delhi, via which they would publish and circulate Russian books translated into regional languages.
3. These publishing houses received encouragement from the USSR’s publishing department in the
form of big discounts on high quality books.
4. Ramdas Bhatkal of Popular Prakashan, part of the first delegation of publishers to travel to the USSR in 1968, says the country had employed several Indian language experts at the time for translations. “Hindi, for instance, was Uzbekistan’s second language,” he recounts. Some publishing houses in India also hired translators for the work.
5. The inflow of books stopped upon the collapse of the USSR