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On Indian-Indian Literature
Observations from Ghachar Ghochar, translated from Kannada, and Name Place Animal Thing, set in Shillong
We have an ant problem in my house. It's not an ant problem as much as an ant condition, seeing as there is no solution. They are strategic, relentless, and beeline towards the smell, taste, sight, or semblance of sweetness. They swarmed over my granola — which I thought was safe in an airtight container but was proven wrong — because it had a sweet strawberry taste. I checked if the container, after emptying it, was truly airtight by placing it under the running tap to see if water seeps in. Dry as a desert.
How did the ants get in then?
Mom calls them Mungirams. Mungi is Marathi for ants. And Ram? She shrugged her shoulder as if it were the most logical suffix to give these miniature monsters, “Ram.” Dad has a habit of mixing all the dry fruits and the temple offerings — which sometimes includes crushed rock candy — in one big container.
One evening, after work, he sat down, diligently picking and removing the rock candy and the dry fruits hollowed beyond repair — like the cashew they chewed from the inside leaving behind the eggshell white hard skin — from the salvageable. The one place that was safe from the ants was the fridge, so that was where many things went, even if it didn’t need the cool circulation of stale air to remain fresh. Then, the fridge malfunctioned, and that is another story.
The granola I eat now has no added sugar.
Imagine this personal, rather mundane anecdote as part of literature. A harmless sketch stitched to a cannon of work that would be read, reviewed, and recited as an exemplar. A humble scratch of a moment, memorialized in lists of The Best Books Of The Year.
You wouldn’t have to, because Vivek Shanbhag did it in his Kannada novel, Ghachar Ghochar, translated to English by Srinath Perur. The book, a satirical novella set in Bangalore, is about a joint family who are suddenly thrust into multiplying money. It is not just their lifestyle that changes, but their relationship to life — employment, marriage, a future, these are not just re-negotiated, burnished by money, but questioned. Do we need to work if money comes in regardless of effort? What is this coveted dignity in the dignity of labour? Do we need marriage — to cook and clean for someone chosen by the whims of an astrologer, and the crass compatibility of class and caste — if our future is secure without it? If one’s future looks certain, secure even, what is one’s relationship to the present moment? Don’t we, in the present moment, labour towards a future?
Parul Sehgal begins her New York Times review with “Troubles — like ants — seldom walk alone.” In their old life, bereft of the easy pleasures from and of money, this family lived in a ramshackle house which was infested with ants. The narrator’s mother did what my mother usually does when cooling some sweets out in the open, to prevent the congealing of a dynamic carpet of ants bumping around — “[s]he took to creating a moat around whatever she cooked, placing the vessel in a broad plate filled with water. Even then, some of the ants would try to swim and perish in the process.” The ants of the novel were more propulsive though. They would even gather around the rings left by teacups. This image serves as the brief for the brilliant cover design of the Indian edition — ants swarming next to dried dregs of sweet, milky tea on the porcelain saucer. The photo they used is by Evelyn Bracklow.
I felt a slight thrill reading this scene, because it was familiar, a lived menace that found utterance in someone else’s words. How our lives, I thought, can be rendered into literature. This is not to give literature the burden of representation, which is so easy to bestow. But to say that one of the many joys of reading books about India, by Indians, is if you look and read closely, you often get to see yourself, your opinions, your ambivalence (The Plague Upon Us, a Roshomon-like layered retelling of an event, set in the violence of Kashmir), your ignorance even, find utterance in a meter and rhythm that is familiar. (‘As if’, ‘Noh?’, ‘Softy’, ‘What, ya?’)
While reading Nirupama Subramanian's Murder On The Menu, where she traces the life of Pitchai Rajagopal, the dosa doyen who founded the Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants in the early 1980s, and through his sudden access to unfettered money and power, decided to murder the husband of a woman he wanted to force into matrimony (that would have been his third marriage), again, I was struck by a similar feeling.
In the chapter where she performs an ethnographic scalpelling of the Chennai food scene, names of restaurants we would often visit struck a nostalgic note — Eden, a favourite restaurant of my brother and I, was mentioned as being founded in the late 1980s, one of the first where baked dishes were being prepared outside of the exclusive clubs. A sweetness girds such a reading. Like the memory of an uncle who, despite the inviting diversity of dishes at Eden, only and always ordered curd rice.
A sudden eruption of foreign branches of the restaurant began the year Rajgopal’s court hearings took place. The first branch was in Dubai in 2001, where a target audience was oiling its hands, rubbing it in anticipation of home-cooked food. There was a Saravana Bhavan opposite where we used to stay in Dubai. But we only visited the original branch in the heart of immigrant Karama, which was much further away, much like we only went to that one theater in Lamcy Plaza even as we moved around and eventually away from that area. Nostalgia, in life as in literature, lassos you back. During a school trip to London for the MUN conference over there, the first thing we did on landing was to beeline diligently towards the London Saravana Bhavan.
This sweet pull of the familiar — how important is it in literature, though?
A few weeks ago an Indian publisher had tweeted an annoyance — that Indian authors that she speaks with rarely read Indian books. I was not feeling very charitable that day and thought, well, perhaps if Indian publishers edit and publish well, this wouldn’t be a problem.
It is certainly true that books published in India are not edited as well they should be. Even the big guns, the Penguins and the Harper Collins, come out with books I find spelling errors in, with quotations missing, or commas misplaced. The non-fiction books have too many footnotes, or too little research, and always feel like they are one draft away from being finished. Our self-help genre, the best selling one, is entirely about spirituality and the imported Mark Mansons and Jay Shettys. After all, self help is a global menace. (I remember, another Indian editor had tweeted out to Chetan Bhagat once calling him an Indian Mark Manson. I had another uncharitable moment, then.) I have been told by so many people that if I want to publish a book in India, I need to hire my own editor first to go over the manuscript before I send it to the publishing team. It is what it is.
But what I was doing in that uncharitable moment was throwing the baby with the bathwater. Are a few spelling mistakes, or improper line breaks on their e-book edition, or the tired shuttling of eyes between footnotes and texts, enough to dismiss a book? You might say, perhaps, yes.
But I also recognized in that moment, that the only way to not throw the baby with the bathwater was to read more Indian-Indian books to either solidify or contradict that uncharitable sentiment, because I am invested in the outcome. And the thing about failures in things you are invested in, is that they don't seem like deal breakers. You keep lurking.
I say Indian-Indian because Salman Rushdie very controversially once said, “Indian writers in English seem to have been doing the most interesting work.” He mostly means the Suketu Mehtas and Arundhati Roys who get published first in London or America, then India. Their books become the Great Indian Novels, which they are, very much so. But the shadow they cast is often menacing, which is why when Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar was termed The Great Indian Novel, it was a vindication that even in translation, Indian writing in English can shine.
This conclusion of Rushdie, to be fair, wasn’t unstudied. He made it after spending time researching, commissioning translations, and then collating his observations in the introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997. He relents, that perhaps it is the translation that is the issue. He invites dissent, that if you disagree with him, by all means, compile your own collection of Indian writing. But he also agrees, the translation can’t be the only issue.
And certainly, there is something missing in Indian translations — that untranslatable silence that is often the product of tone, a voice. I might sympathize with Rushdie here. Shanbhag in a talk yesterday spoke about a good translator being able to tap into the culture that produced a work. Often, when you write, and I can attest to this, something takes over you as the scene develops. What is that something? A translator has to be able to channel that moment, exhume it, transpose it, and give it a compelling shape. His book was translated to English and from English to various languages like Odia. His book was also translated directly from Kannada to various languages. He prefers the latter, because the structure of English breaks a sentence it attempts to translate. For example, in many Indian languages, the verb is often at the end, but that's not the case with English. Shanbhag, who meticulously constructs a sentence so the tension holds till the verb is revealed, is suddenly rudderless in the face of English. How to translate that sense of suspense that builds over the course of a sentence?
There is a sudden groundswell in Indian publishing in support of translations, which is welcome. The JCB Prize for Literature, India’s totemic literary prize founded in 2018 is testament. In two of the last three years, the award has been snagged by translations — from Malayalam. (This years longlist of 10 books has three translations, all Malayalam) I have read both the books and found them at best, difficult.
Some of the other translations from Bengali and Hindi are sumptuously disastrous that the only way for me to read them was with an academic frame. Like reading an ethnography. It is not to say they have no literary value, but I fear their entire literary value is in the fact that it is a translation — a virtuous, almost patronizing invitation. Kalidasa, the great classical Sanskrit dramatist, is a bore to read in translation. The translations of Faiz I had to read as an undergraduate, too, were so lifeless, I cannot believe they have any literary value in English. Some Indian poets are trying to rhyme him in English the way it does in Urdu, and there is something so sincere and stupid about that project.
It is as if the translation should be seen by the reader, as if the labour must be palpable. The seams visible. I am thinking of the fact that until a few years ago I did not know that all the Gabriel Garcia Marquez I read were translated texts. That was how gin-clear and transporting the translation was. (The fact that translators are not credited in the cover is an issue, of course, one that is being course corrected) For now, it seems, Ghachar Ghochar is an exception, but also an invitation to seek out more translations.
The production of this book itself is anomalous, a story of reaching out to culture. Perur is a first time translator, and the impetus to stew as the bridge connecting two cultural banks came from a feeling of being separated from Kannada. He wanted in. Perur and Shanbhag sat together negotiating this translation, some scenes were added, some lines were amended. Crucial lines were added to give a sense of humour which the Kannada text had wafting over it. The product is seamlessly English.
I have to clarify here that to be seamlessly English is by no means a cultural effacement. It just means to be compelling and to be true to the language you are rendering it in. Cultural articulation does not mean, at least does not necessarily mean cultural chauvinism. Of what use is pride if it cannot even be understood?
Daribha Lyndem’s Name, Place, Animal, Thing is a great example of this. A novella, set in Shillong, it is a patchwork blanket of a Khasi girl’s coming of age. Khasis are tribals, and much like the North-East have been relegated to cultural obscurity. A sweet, often saccharine rendering of life as it is lived, Lyndem refused to italicize the Khasi, or even translate some of the local sayings that inflect the English. There is a lovely moment when the child is first recognizing racial difference, between a Khasi and a Nepali, “I never thought he was very different. His rice pudding was as good as the one my mother made, and he liked watching movies just as we did.” But soon, hierarchies lay claim to her thoughts.
The Khasi interludes in the novella aren’t speed bumps, for Lyndem never made the stretches of Khasi so densely unfamiliar that as a reader, you check out. Sometimes it counter-intuitively sinks you deeper into the dialogue, trying to wrest whatever dregs of meaning you can, a comfortable ambiguity, wishing for an explanation, but content with not having one. It’s so delicate, that balance. You are still involved in what is happening, maybe a little removed, but involved, nonetheless.
Name Place Animal Thing is published by Zubaan Books, a feminist publishing house in India. It was barely marketed, I don’t remember it popping up on my timeline despite following the publication. It only came into the spotlight, limited as it is for books, for making it to the JCB longlist this year. It is the only book from the North-East. I picked up the book in the minor haze of fame it was pushed into. I circled an error, sighing. I marveled at the descriptions, trying to pronounce Khasi food and clothing. I was stunned into silence by its ending. There must be more of these.
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