7 June 2018

State secrets, secret states

My Mirror column:

Raazi successfully inserts itself into existing Bollywood narratives — on Indo-Pak ties, Muslims, nationalism and womanhood — and makes subtle departures from them.

Bollywood’s fascination with the Indo-Pak relationship has tended to produce two kinds of cross-border narratives. The first is the nationalist we-will-go-across-and-kill-the-terrorists plot, the standard elements of which are intelligence agencies, secret identities, and wish-fulfilment — and given that we’re talking of India and Pakistan, increasingly coded in the Hindi film universe as Hindu and Muslim, that wish-fulfilment can involve both revenge and romance. I’m talking here of films like Ek Tha Tiger, Agent Vinod, Baby and Phantom. The second type of Indo-Pak film builds on the baseline assumption that individual citizens of both countries are capable of forging a warm human connection, despite all the obstacles placed in their way by politics, religion and highly-policed state borders.

As I noted in these pages in 2016, this second kind of Indo-Pak film has frequently involved a very specific plot device: in which a primary character is stuck on the wrong side of the border, and must be rescued or helped to return to the right side. Veer-Zaara might be the epic romantic version of this (though we must acknowledge the complicating presence here of Gadar: Ek Prem Katha). In recent years, the romantic cross-border rescue plot has been replaced by other comic variants: Nitin Kakkar’s 2014 film Filmistaan centres on a goofy Indian abductee with a Hindi cinema obsession; in 2015’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it is a mute Pakistani child who is mistakenly left on the Indian side; in 2016’s Happy Bhag Jayegi, Diana Penty’s runaway bride from the Indian side of Punjab finds herself in the hands of a genteel bunch of Pakistanis.

Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi — a spy thriller set against the backdrop of the 1971 Indo-Pak war — ticks many boxes that would seem to place it in the first category. What makes the film hard to classify purely as a nationalist wishfulfilment narrative is that it is based on Calling Sehmat, Harinder Sikka’s retelling of the real-life story of a Kashmiri woman who married a Pakistani army officer with the express purpose of gathering classified information for Indian intelligence agencies.

What makes the film even more interesting is that elements of the second Indo-Pak narrative are mixed in with the first kind — the human connection, as well as the eventual cross-border rescue. The plot is as follows: a Kashmiri man (Rajit Kapur), who has earned the trust of aPakistani brigadier by supplying him with nearly-true but harmless Indian information, decides that winning the Bangladesh war requires an Indian secret agent working out of Pakistan. He would do the job himself, but he is dying of a “tumour” (the use of this unspecific term for a terminal illness may seem odd now but propels the film correctly into a ’70s universe). So, he decides to send his college-going daughter, Sehmat, instead, after arranging for her to receive a crash course as an Indian secret agent.

The marriage of Sehmat (a wonderfully well-cast Alia Bhatt) to the Pakistani brigadier’s son (Vicky Kaushal in a small but effective role) is one of the film’s core set pieces, both visually and symbolically. The heroine’s innate, almost unquestioning devotion to her father is both an entirely believable South Asian emotion and an unspoken stand-in for her loyalty to the nation. The marriage works as metaphor at another level, too: the beti leaving her babul’s home for her sasural here is also leaving her country for the enemy nation. And if one might be allowed the privilege of a gender-related speculation here, the deep otherness of Sehmat’s new home can be read as a subversive coded comment on the otherness of all sasurals for all new bahus.

The bahu-as-spy is a perfect set-up in terms of the film’s action, too. The doll-like figure of Alia Bhatt, with her porcelain beauty, works perfectly as the unsuspected mole planted into the most intimate inner circle of the Pakistani military establishment. Her lessons in surveillance, signalling, code language, shooting are, of course, essential to her success as a secret agent, and to watch the soft-hearted young woman, who would once risk her life to save a squirrel and couldn’t stand the sight of blood, transform into a ruthless creature with nerves of steel gives Raazi some of its most thrilling moments. But what stayed with me long after the film is the image of the sweetly-smiling dulhan at her father-in-law’s breakfast table, eavesdropping on conversations he has with his army officer sons, or gaining access to senior army officers’ homes through their wives and children to gather intelligence. The female spy is so fetishised precisely because the seductive and nurturing aspects of femininity are placed secretly in the service of cold strategy — and yet in the end, that larger cause is to be understood as an undeniable good.

The most significant ways in which Raazi subverts the Hindutva zeitgeist are also the simplest. In a cinematic milieu in which the burkha-clad female silhouette has either been a source of comic disguise (for heroes and heroines alike) or a symbol of oppressed Muslim womanhood who needs to be liberated, there is something quietly radical about a heroine in a mauve burkha. This is a burkha-clad figure who needs no saving, and her stealth and determination are harnessed to a nationalist cause. That this is a Kashmiri girl is, of course, no accident — from Kajol in Fanaa (2006) to the child in Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Haider, Bollywood returns repeatedly to Kashmiri femininity as the test site for nationalism. Sehmat passes the India test, with flying colours, but the film’s coda allows for something like love across enemy nations — based on a respect for each other’s nationalism. It is a fascinating new spin on the idea that we are essentially alike.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 3 June 2018.

6 June 2018

Studio portraits

My Mirror column:

The mid-20th century Tamil film world of SS Vasan and Gemini Studios had a marvellous chronicler in the late Ashokamitran: the third of a multi-part column.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad with the founder of Gemini Studios SS Vasan (left) during his visit to the Studios in connection with the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Fund. Madras, April 1949. Photo credit: Times Group.

Last week, discussing Perumal Murugan’s novel Current Show and Shenbagam Ramaswamy’s 1981 story ‘The Saga of Sarosadevi’, this column had suggested that modern Tamil literary fiction might be particularly invested in popular cinema as a symbolic space for the interplay of dream and reality.

In that context, it is worth noting that one of the undisputed masters of modern Tamil fiction, the late Ashokamitran, famously spent 14 years from 1952 to 1966 working for Gemini Studios. Run by the legendary entrepreneur SS Vasan, Gemini Studios was for nearly 30 years from 1940 a fulcrum of film production not just for Madras but India. Ashokamitran wrote enjoyably of his time there in a series of essays first commissioned in 1984 by Pritish Nandy as editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, later published as My Years With Boss (2002).

The ‘Boss’ of the title was, of course, Vasan. Why the head of a Tamil cinema studio in the 1940s came to be called Boss (even by his family) when he “had never worn a trenchcoat, brandished a gun or chain-smoked cigars” is explained by the fact that Vasan’s first deputy, an American called William J Moylan, called him that, and the appellation stuck.

The book is full of wonderful anecdotes from a time of great cross-fertilisation of ideas. The winds of literature, theatre and politics all swept through Gemini Studios. One of Ashokamitran’s drollest tales involves the famous poet Stephen Spender arriving at Gemini Studios. The existential mystery of what “an English poet [is] doing in a film studio which makes Tamil films for the simplest sort of people” is met by such authoritative speculations as “He is not a poet. He is an editor. That’s why the Boss is giving him such a big reception.” The respect for editors was self-explanatory, since SS Vasan was also editor of the popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan.

More than the event, though, it is Ashokamitran’s poker-faced laying out of the setting that is beguiling. “Gemini Studios was the favourite haunt of poets like SDS Yogiar, Sangu Subramanyam, Krishna Sastry and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. It had an excellent mess which supplied good coffee at all times of day and for most part of the night. Those were the days when Congress rule meant Prohibition and meeting over a cup of coffee was rather satisfying entertainment,” he writes. Then comes the sentence of true genius: “Barring the office boys and a couple of clerks, everybody else at the Studios radiated leisure, aprerequisite for poetry.”

Ashokamitran’s own specific work as a young man, which he relates with relish, was to copy out, in long hand, thousands of articles and reviews from the magazines and trade journals to which Gemini Studios subscribed but which “were not to be cut up”. “If Baburao Patel had only known how I rewrote the majority of his editorials and the Bombay Calling pages of FilmIndia, he would surely have made me an ingredient of his later-day homeopathic preparation, Shivsakthi (which he qualified as ‘the tonic of gods’).”

Ashokamitran’s more general location in the Studios was in the Story department, “comprising a lawyer and an assembly of writers and poets”. His brilliantly deadpan take on the lawyer “looking alone and helpless—a neutral man in an assembly of Gandhiites and khadiites” is followed in natural progression by the story of how one day “The Boss closed down the Story Department and this was perhaps the only instance in all human history where a lawyer lost his job because the poets were asked to go home.”

In his fiction, Ashokamitran took this milieu and made of it something that could alternate between deadpan humour and ineffable tragedy. In the magisterial story ‘Tiger Artiste’, for instance, he describes the visit to the Studios of a man who describes himself as ‘Tagar-Foight Kader’. He turns out to have been sent by one agent Vellai who rounds up extras for crowd scenes. Told that they aren’t casting any crowd scenes at the moment, the man looks disheartened, but then persuades the narrator and his associate, an ex-cop called Sharma, to watch him do his thing: impersonate a tiger.

The men are reluctant at first, but the emaciated-looking Kader produces a performance whose ferocity is matched by its life-threateningness. “On his fours, he sprang higher than a man’s height and planted himself on the two-inch wide ledge above our heads. Then, clutching the iron railing of the ventilator, he let out yet another roar.” The air of torpor in the Story Department office is entirely ruptured. “Careful, ‘pa, careful, ‘pa,” shouts Sharma.

Then Kader returns to the ground – and to reality. He falls at Sharma’s feet, weeping. He has had no work for months. “‘My wife has asked me not come anywhere near our house, saar.’ This was the man who had been a tiger a few minutes ago.”

The story is about the widespread poverty from which people came looking for jobs in films, but also about the illusory quality of all performance. The cinema, again, is a place of betrayal.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27 May 2018.

24 May 2018

Life, Tamil cinema style

My Mirror column:

What does cinema stand for in Tamil fiction? The second of a multi-part column on films and life in Tamil Nadu.

Last week, as an absolute outsider, I took the liberty – and risk – of speculating on the subject of cinema and Tamil Nadu. Not on the state of cinema in Tamil Nadu –about which I know far too little to say anything of value –but Tamil Nadu as a state of cinema. My route into the subject was Tamil fiction, starting with Perumal Murugan’s novel Current Show.

I ended the previous column on the cusp of a tale being told by the old Watchman in Current Show. The story in question was of how old man Poosariappan came to build the Vijaya Theatre that is the novel’s grim, dark locale. 

Poosari was really rich then—had his own weaving mill. Had a car and driver even then. He was planning to build a grain godown. One day, he sees his daughter-in-law, Sadaiyan’s wife, dressing up to go out. Looking at her, you wouldn’t say she’s from his caste. Fair and round, like a ripe tomato. Poosari couldn’t bear to see this red tomato going out like that—powder on her face, nice clothes... . Before he knew what he was doing, his mouth blurted out: ‘What’s all this dressing-up? Like some cheap night-dancer?’ They say she got really angry. So angry she yelled back, forgetting his age, ‘I’m going to see a film. Know what a cinema theatre is? Ever been inside one?’

Poosariappan felt so slighted by his daughter-in-law’s taunt that he decided to convert his intended grain godown into a cinema theatre. In another variant of the tale, it was Poosari’s mistress in Mallasamudram who gave him the idea –to get back at his daughter-in-law – and the theatre was named Vijaya after her. Another version had Poosari building Vijaya Theatre to get back at his Gounder friend, owner of Krishna Talkies, who had made fun of Poosari for thinking that a theatre was a tent with dancing women in it.

The various origin myths which Murugan stitches together here reveals how deeply cinema has become part of warp and weft of Tamil everyday life, embedded into the existing dynamics of caste, class and gender. The theatre represents sophistication, modernity, but is also redolent with the illicit, the sexual. For a man like Poosari, moneyed but not urbane, a cinema theatre is good business, but it isn’t only that. Becoming a cinema owner seems to stand in for control of recalcitrant women, somehow making a claim to masculinity and caste status by owning a hall in which a minute’s worth of soft porn plays every day. Years later, Poosari has never seen a single film fully, says the Watchman – only that minute of porn.

The cinema also makes its presence felt in several short stories in the mammoth collection The Tamil Story: Through the times, through the tides, edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy. In Prapanchan’s crisply narrated ‘In a Town, Two Men’, an urban landscape of new cinema theatres forms the backdrop of a tale about an unpaid loan. There is a faint whiff of sarcasm that attends this geography; a sense that there might be more cinemas than homes in this universe. “The huts were razed and they built a cinema hall there. No one knew where the hutment dwellers had disappeared. Perhaps they were living inside the cinema hall.”

A very different spin on the idea of living in the cinema theatre is provided by another story in the collection, 'The Saga of Sarosadevi' (1981). Shenbagam Ramaswamy’s story begins with a woman called Bhagyam who is watching a film when the baby in her stomach decides it is time to come out into the universe. “It was the time when actor Sarojadevi was mouthing the song sung by playback singer P Susheela: ‘Thangathile Oru Kuraiyirundalam (Even if there is a flaw in the gold...)’. A stern voice ordered from the back, ‘Sit down, di.’ ‘Move your feet. Make way for this akka. She’s got labour pains.’ Ponnamma had to announce this loudly in the dark of the cinema hall.”

The faceless women in the surrounding seats let Bhagyam and Ponnamma out, though not without some sarcastic grumbling: “Look at her coming to watch a film at the time of labour!” “Such a craze for films, is it?” “Perhaps she thought if she delivers in the cinema hall, she’ll get fame.” But there isn’t enough time to get to the hospital. A midwife is rushed in, and “[b]y the time Sarojadevi and Sivaji Ganesan were united with their child in the film, Bhagyam had given birth to a girl.”

The hapless child is named Sarosadevi (that is how Ponnamma pronounces the name of the heroine) but her time on earth is nasty, brutish and short. Life offers her none of the expansiveness and luxury conjured by her name. One wonders if this might be one of the recurring ways in which the trope of cinema appears in modernist Tamil fiction – to show us a population that dreams of cinema, only to then peel back the curtain and reveal the unvarnished grimness of life?

[To be continued]

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20 May 2018.

Big screen, writ larger

My Mirror column:

Life and cinema in Tamil Nadu seem to intersect more than in most places. The first of a multi-part column on a unique cultural universe.

Wellingdon Theatre in Madras screening the film Parthiban Kanavu in the 1960s

Over the century and a bit that it has existed, cinema has successfully established its dominion over most parts of the world. Still, as I found myself wondering for the umpteenth time during a recent visit to Tamil Nadu, is it likely that there exists another corner of the globe as deeply steeped in film?

The way in which this cinematic state is usually marked is by noting the intertwining of the Tamil world of film with that of politics. Dravidian cultural nationalism came of age alongside film production in the state, and since then the relationship between popular cinema and populist politics has been a shaping influence on twentieth century Tamil culture and history. It is an absolutely remarkable fact that the office of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has been occupied almost continuously since 1967 by people with a film background (up until the present incumbent). These comprise two screenwriters – CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi; one actor – MG Ramachandran (MGR); and two actresses – Janaki Ramachandran (VN Janaki) and J Jayalalithaa.
What does it mean that Tamils constantly elect their film folk? Is this a love of the big screen writ larger still, upon life itself? It certainly feels like it, and that is what makes Tamil Nadu unique. That constant feedback loop between everyday life and cinema exists all over India, but one senses something qualitatively different about the level at which it works in TN. One of the ways this power is expressed is in the cinema’s lasting colonisation of urban space –or rather in the tribute city-dwellers still seem to willingly pay to the film god. One still cannot turn a corner in any town without encountering a film poster, or more likely three.

The state’s literary sorts have also paid tribute to the cinema in plenty. As a non-Tamil reader, sadly, I must depend on my meagre reading of translations to make this claim. The great Perumal Murugan has an early book called Nizhal Muttram (1993), brought out in V Geetha’s English translation by Tara Books in 2004 under the title Current Show. It revolves around a young man called Sathivel, who works selling cold drinks at a beat-up cinema theatre in an obscure Tamil highway town.

Each chapter of Murugan’s strange, disjointed but striking book begins with an italicised timeline which is almost always connected to the time and place of the theatre. “ Like a giant snake, the queue passages twist and wind their way. It is always dark inside them. Sometime, chips of light get past the queue doors and flee into the theatre.” One particular queue passage is never opened to the public, because it was originally built for those who wanted “Sofa Ticket: Rs 2.00”. As there had never been enough customers for Sofa Tickets, the passage had become the “boys’ room”.

In Murugan’s telling, the cinema theatre emerges as its own universe: its dark interiors an alternative to the harsh sunlight of the everyday world, and its comfortingly repetitive cyclical clock a reprieve from the inevitable onward march of real time. “ In a few minutes the counters will open for the night show. Already, there are crowds at the gate. For a film such as this one, there is no need to worry. The seats fill up, though it has been running for a week already.” Or this, where he details the routines of the players for the successive acts that make up the day’s performance: “ The Betelnut-man lives close to the theatre. He leaves as soon as he shuts down late in the evening. The Teashopman is from Morepalayam, but he has a cycle which he rides home after the interval. He only returns in the afternoon of the next day. The Soda-man prefers to sleep the night at the theatre. He usually asks for his ramshackle cot to be brought out after the interval. He positions it near the stairs.”

The world of Sathi and his companions – some only called ‘Filmreelman’ and ‘Watchman’ – bears some sociological similarity to that of Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s story ‘Interval’ that I described in a recent column.

But here the very history and geography of the land can seem built-up of film theatres: The Filmreel-man, for instance, must carry around boxes of MGR films to distribute on a commission basis, traversing a landscape of names that goes from Pallipalayam to Tiruchengode and onwards – “Finish with one town and move to another” with not “a single free day”. In another conversation, the building of a new theatre called Flower King brings on the ancient Watchman’s reminiscences about how the book’s Vijaya Theatre came to be. “There is silence all around, only the rustling sounds of hands moving over posters. Who doesn’t love a tale?” Who doesn’t, indeed?

[To be continued]

20 May 2018

Meet the American who translates some of India’s finest Hindi writers into English: Daisy Rockwell

An interview I did for Scroll:

‘I was tired of translating detailed descriptions of male desire and women’s breasts.’

Daisy Rockwell is the translator of Hats and Doctors, a collection of short stories by the Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk, as well as of Ashk’s famous novel, Girti Diwarein, titled Falling Walls in English. Her 2004 book, Upendranath Ashk: A Critical Biography, is an exemplary work of literary biography, locating Ashk and his writing within the history of Hindi language and literature. An American, Rockwell is also an artist ­– her grandfather was the legendary painter (and author and illustrator) Norman Rockwell – and has written a novel titled Taste. She spoke to me about how she got into Hindi and translation, why Hindi literature might be more difficult to translate than Urdu, and where translations stand in the larger scheme of publishing. Excerpts from the interview, as published in Scroll.in:

You’re one of Hindi literature’s most devoted, thorough translators into English. How did you happen to set out on this path?

That’s very kind of you to say. I started off being interested in translation in graduate school, when I began my doctorate in South Asian studies. Before studying Hindi, I had studied Latin for many years, as well as French, and some German and ancient Greek. Classical languages really teach you to break down language into microscopic bits, and that is how I first started translating, although not with the purpose of publication.

My advisor in graduate school at the University of Chicago encouraged me, and I also had the great good fortune to take a translation seminar with AK Ramanujan, perhaps the best known and most talented translator from South Asian languages. My subsequent experiences in academia discouraged me from pursuing translation, as it is not currently considered an academically rigorous form of scholarship, at least not in the US. It was not until I turned my back on academia altogether that I returned to translation.

Many of us in India, growing up in a multilingual society, take it for granted that we move constantly between languages. For most bilingual or trilingual Indians, their relationship to different languages may not be something they actively consider very often. Do you think your relationship to Hindi is qualitatively different from that of a native speaker because you acquired the language as an adult? And does your (perhaps) more self-conscious relationship with Hindi aid your life as a translator, or make it harder?

My relationship to Hindi is absolutely different from that of a native speaker. I am an apt language learner, but I did not start learning Hindi until I was 19. By then, as studies have shown, your brain is less capable of soaking in new languages. It took me a long time to be able to read or speak Hindi with any fluency, and even now I make ridiculous mistakes and find some idiomatic phrases and words impenetrable.

There is a fluidity to the South Asian language-scape that is wholly lacking in the United States, which is, despite the diverse population, ferociously monolingual. Code-switching, the practice of sliding effortlessly from one language to the next, or mixed idioms, like Hinglish, are practically non-existent in the US, outside of immigrant communities. I find it very hard to switch back and forth mid-stream between Hindi and English.

I do think all of this difficulty makes me extremely attentive to linguistic details and nuances. Hindi and English do not flow into each other in my mind, the way they might for a bilingual person, and when I am translating from Hindi into English, I’m carrying every word and phrase to a completely different territory.

Like many well-known translators – William Weaver with Umberto Eco or Italo Calvino, or Constance Garnett with Fyodor Dostoevsky or Anton Chekhov – you have built up an association with the work of a particular writer. Why were you drawn to Upendranath Ashk?

I started reading Ashk in graduate school and I was drawn to his attention to detail and his focus on literary production. His work is full of poetry and quotations, and is a great meditation on what it means to be a creative person.

But I actually have five book translations in the translation/publication pipeline right now, and only one is by Ashk, the second of his 
Falling Walls (Girti Divarein) series. That volume, In the City, a Mirror Wandering (Shahar Mein Ghoomta Aina), was due out from Penguin RandomHouse last summer, but is held up over a copyright problem. Then I have two novels by the Urdu author Khadija Mastur coming out from PRH: The Women’s Courtyard (Aangan) will be published in September of this year, and Zameen, which I am working on right now, will come out next year. Both of these are Partition-related novels. I’ve also just finished Krishna Sobti’s latest novel, Gujarat, Pakistan se Gujarat, Hindustan, and that will be published early next year. Last, but not least, I have just agreed to translate Geetanjali Shree’s new novel, Ret Samadhi. Publisher, TBA.

Although I consider Ashk my first love, I am on a bit of a hiatus from him at the moment for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I decided two years ago that I wanted to focus on translating women authors. I realised suddenly that I’d only been translating men (Ashk, Bhisham Sahni, and Shrilal Shukla), and I felt fed up with the male gaze. It’s a bit of a Twitter truism to say this, but there are many interesting stories being told by women, and I was tired of translating detailed descriptions of male desire and women’s breasts. All of my most recent translations, therefore, are of works by women, and the stories really are much more diverse.

Tim Parks once wrote: “The translator should do his job and then disappear. The great, charismatic, creative writer wants to be all over the globe. And the last thing he wants to accept is that the majority of his readers are not really reading him. His readers feel the same. They want intimate contact with true greatness.” Do you think the role of translator requires this invisibility?

It is ironic that Tim Parks wrote that since, although he is a translator, he refuses to disappear, and is always popping up with unnecessarily nasty critiques of other translators, particularly women who are getting more attention than him, such as Ann Goldstein (Elena Ferrante’s translator), and Deborah Smith (the Man Booker award-winning translator of the Korean novel 
The Vegetarian).

Of course translators must disappear. Despite the very strenuous and granular work required in translation, in the end, the translator’s work generally billows like a diaphanous curtain across the work, and the reader doesn’t notice the translation at all, unless he or she is a translator too, in which case he or she notices all the details, both good and bad.

I think the nicest analogy I have seen is a comparison with classical music. A translator is like a musician, and the original author is the composer. There are an infinite number of ways to play Vivaldi on the violin, or Bhairav raga on the sitar. There are also a lot of ways to mess them both up horrendously so that the audience members clap their hands over their ears and run out of the room. When we say a translation is unsuccessful, it is because the translator has not been able to perform the underlying text in the target language in a felicitous manner so that it could be enjoyed by the new readers as much as it was in the original.

And yet, given the unequal power differential between English and other languages, certainly any Indian language, being translated into English is such a writer’s only route to world fame: eg, the recent case of 
Ghachar Ghochar, which has put Vivek Shanbhag on the global literary map. You’ve not only been Ashk’s translator but his biographer: your book on him is a stellar literary biography of a modern Indian writer, it really deserves a new edition! But even setting aside the biography, do you see yourself as Ashk’s representative in the English-speaking world? Does that feel onerous?

I don’t see it as onerous, I see it as a stroke of luck. Every time I get permission to translate something, and believe me, that is not as easy as it sounds, I feel tremendously grateful that I have been allowed to render that work into English. English is the power language and the link language, so much so that readers and publishers often show little interest in works translated from other languages. In fact, I have never published a book-length translation in the United States because there is simply no interest. Perhaps 
Ghachar Ghochar will change that, but it’s a heavy lift for one small book.

Thus, I feel that translation from non-European languages into English is a way to challenge that hegemony and remind English readers that there are other ways of expressing and thinking in the world. As far as fame and glory for the original author goes, Hindi publishing, for one, probably is much more lucrative than English publishing in India, at least in terms of raw book sales. A Hindi writer can expect a much larger reading public than many an Indian English writer, unless they make it into the global publishing market. So I don’t think Hindi authors are really feeling under-appreciated or read in that sense. Maybe they are not being invited to fancy lit fests, but fancy lit fests are really quite a hollow marker of fame compared to a robust and enthusiastic readership.

Are you more invested in the degree to which your translation is faithful to the original text, or in the degree of ease with which readers in English will be able to enter it? 

I wouldn’t commit to one or the other. My translations go through phases: each book will go through a minimum of five drafts before it hits the editor’s desk. The first draft focuses on accuracy; the fifth draft focuses on English readability. The ones in between are on a continuum between these two. My copy editors will tell you that I continue to aggressively revise the text all the way until it departs for the printer.

What do you do about dialect, or idiomatic phrases? Do you try to produce an equivalent in English? This can be a difficult thing to do... I remember in 
Falling Walls, you have Chetan calling his Bhai Sahib, Ramanand, the Old Codger. The nickname is remarked upon at some length, but we do not learn the original term in Hindi.

Some aspects of dialect and idiom just cannot be translated, and if they were kept in the original language in the translation, it would not be a translation anymore. There is a school of translation in India which feels that smoothing these elements out is doing violence to the original text and that translating it into English at all is doing violence really, because of the hegemony discussed above. However, if one has committed to rendering a text in English, one must bite the bullet and figure out how to get it done. If a nickname or something is particularly hilarious, I might keep it in Hindi. It’s really a case-by-case basis for me. In the case you are talking about, the nickname was 
baṛhaū, which is a) not that funny by contemporary Hindi standards, and b) difficult and unattractive to render in the Roman script, thus I chose to come up with something a bit old fashioned in English.

Now the big problem for a translator from Hindi and Urdu into English is that one is bound to have many readers who not only know at least a passing amount of said languages, but may actually be fully fluent in them, and literate too. Why are they reading the English? Often it’s just their habit to read in English, but they are also the most critical readers of translations, and complain of translators “over-translating”, having a preference for being able to “feel the Hindi” through the English. I have seen many reviewers say such things about translations from Hindi and Urdu (not of my books, but of others), and I must say, if they are so eager to “feel the Hindi”, they really ought to take the trouble to purchase the Hindi original, since they don’t need an English translation.

As someone who is also a writer of fiction, how would you describe the difference between the work of writing and that of translation? Does translating ever create a temptation to rewrite?

Translation is a form of creative writing, it’s just creative writing within very strict parameters. Robert Frost once said that “writing 
free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Non-translation writing for me is like tennis with the net down as well. You can do anything, but do you want to?

Are there books you’ve read, especially before you became a translator, that you never considered as works in translation? Do you see them differently now?

I’ve always been very conscious of language and started studying Latin when I was eleven or twelve, so I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t conscious of the way translated language stretches English into new and interesting shapes.

Conversely, are there books you’ve read that you think would be untranslatable? Kazuo Ishiguro once castigated his fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult to translate. Does this idea of developing a style for its translatability – leanness, simplicity – make any sense to you?

Translatability I think is really the fluke of the individual writer’s style. I know that Murakami works closely with his translators and often prefers the English editions of his books to be the authoritative ones. Hindi writers are generally speaking all about regional specificity and inhabiting their linguistic sphere fully. Hindi literature was mostly born and developed as a nationalist impulse, somewhat like modern Hebrew, and I think that Hindi authors still feel that they are forging a new idiom and a new literature. This makes Hindi extremely difficult to translate at times. Certainly way more difficult than Urdu prose, which does not have the same “newness” chip on its shoulder. Hindi writing is still in a state of efflorescence and contestation. Krishna Sobti, for example, is extremely difficult to translate – she almost has her own idiolect – and I have just started to work on Geetanjali Shree, who is also very challenging.

Do you think there needs to be a different kind of translation for readers who are familiar with the cultural context of a work – Indians reading in English – than there is for foreign readers who have never encountered a basti or a chulha or a hakim? Are Indian publishers becoming more comfortable with and cognisant of this need?

I would say yes, and covered some of this above, as in the case of the readers who actually know Hindi but do not read in it. However, since publishers outside of India do not currently have any interest in South Asian literature in translation, I feel that we translators must attempt to create texts that can be all things to all people. I do keep many Indian words in the text, but I also tend to give a cursory gloss for terms that a non-Indian reader wouldn’t get. I don’t like having glossaries, and I do think in a long book, readers can learn certain terms from context. The trick is not to overdo it so that the non-Indian readers get overwhelmed and put the book down.

Similarly, one should not under-do it because then the Indian readers will get annoyed. One rule of thumb I use is I ask myself: “Is this word used very often in Indian English?” “Did this word make it into Hobson Jobson?” If the answer is yes, I will keep it. I might also put in a word to give the reader a hint, like “crunchy chiuda”, but never naan bread or chai tea.

Kinship terms are hands down the most difficult aspect of translation into English from South Asian languages in my opinion. Women’s writing contains way more of these terms than men’s writing, simply because there is more action inside the house than outside, generally. With these I try my best to come up with English equivalents, but also include some original terms so I won’t be accused of over-translation. The problem with the kinship terms of course, is not only are they very elaborate, but they are all context-centric, so one person’s 
devar is another person’s bhai sahib, is another’s chacha ji, etc. In Falling Walls, I called Chetan’s elder brother Bhai Sahib and used as I would a name, because I simply couldn’t imagine him without that title, and he was an important character. I called the mother Ma because this is perfectly understandable in English, but I didn’t call Bhai Sahib’s wife Bhabhi, because he also gives her real name, and it would get confusing with all the bhabhis in the house.

This interview continues. To read the whole thing, please go to it on the Scroll site, 13 May 2018.

7 May 2018

God is in the details

My Mirror column:

Satyajit Ray would have turned 97 earlier this week. Looking back at what we might learn from him.

An early scene in Satyajit Ray's marvellous 1966 film Nayak has the bespectacled heroine Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) go up to Uttam Kumar – Bengal's reigning matinee idol, whom Ray had cast as his film star hero Arindam Mukherjee – for an autograph. It's for her cousin, she says carefully, leading Arindam to make some backhanded remarks about her not watching Bengali films. “They lack realism,” says Miss Sengupta. “Yes, you're right,” says Arindam, looking up at her. “Heroines with BA degrees must not sing songs of separation.” “And heroes need not be godlike just because they're heroes,” is her sharp comeback.

Returning to her seat, Ray's rationalist heroine spins her argument out. “Have you seen Joy Porajoy?” she asks. “The one where he plays tennis?” responds her train companion eagerly. “Not just plays it: he's a champion. He's a tennis champion, swimming champion, knows how to sing, how to dance, progressive, gets a First Class in his MA, great lover... all at the same time. Is that plausible?”

Miss Sengupta's is a fairly standard critique of Indian popular cinema. But thinking about Satyajit Ray in the week of his 97th birth anniversary (he was born on 2nd May 1921), I caught myself giggling at the thought that in reality, Ray was just the sort of multi-talented figure that his heroine had dismissed as implausible.

Not only did Ray write and direct a lifetime's worth of films that are counted among the classics of world cinema, he was also a prolific and gifted writer of Bengali fiction for both children and adults. For many years, he ran the superb children's magazine Sandesh, a publication originally begun by his grandfather Upendrakishore Raychaudhury in 1913 and then edited for many years by Satyajit's father Sukumar Ray, the stupendously talented author of the nonsense verse and fantasy classics Abol Tabol and Ha-Ja-Ba-Ra-La. As a young man he had cultivated an interest in Western classical music, and as a filmmaker he displays an unerring grasp of the power of Hindustani classical as well – not as a pedant, but as a craftsman who can tap into the enormous emotional reserves of a particular instrument or raag to create the mood he wants – the shehnai standing in for the human wail in Durga's death scene, or the astounding bucolic perfection of Ravi Shankar's Pather Panchali soundtrack, or the swing between performative excess and melancholy in Jalsaghar, to name just the first three things that come to mind.

His talent as an artist, of course, preceded his filmmaking career – and in many ways, foreshadowed it. Having always had a natural talent for drawing, Ray had already decided – after three not-so-happy years studying science and then economics at Presidency College, Calcutta – that he was going to get a job as a commercial artist. It was only at his mother's urging that the city-bred Anglophone, Hollywood obsessed boy decided first to study art at Vishwabharati University. Ray's two and a half years at Shantiniketan were shaping, providing him access routes not just to what he later described as “the magnificence of Oriental art” — from Ajanta and Ellora murals to Japanese woodcuts — but to the rural Bengal countryside.

These influences were crucial to Ray's first choice of project – Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay's classic Bengali novel which Ray called “something like an encylopaedia of rural life”. In that same statement, Ray also wrote: “While I learnt a lot about the craft of filmmaking from watching Hollywood films of the '40s and '50s, my primary influences when I stared my first film were Jean Renoir and the De Sicas Bicycle Thief & Umberto D. And yet, soon after I started shooting, I realised that the form, rhythm and texture of my film would derive from elements that were deeply rooted in my own culture, which had little to do with the culture of France or Italy.”

A page from the Pather Panchali Sketchbook, showing Ray's sketch of what would be the train sequence
A handwritten version of this statement is reproduced in a remarkable publication brought out by HarperCollins India in 2016, The Pather Panchali Sketchbook, which offers Ray enthusiasts (and anyone interested in the links between cinema and painting) a delightful gift – Ray's immensely detailed storyboards for what would be his first film. The sketchbook – which was donated by Ray to the Cinematheque Francaise – consists of a series of watercolour sketches which almost exactly presage the film in its final form. Looking at a sketch in which the ancient Pishi reaches up to caress Durga's face when she brings her a stolen guava, or Apu and Durga dwarfed by a darkening stormy sky, gives one goosebumps. Ray's plan leaves nothing out, it seems: fades, dissolves, long-shots and closeups, minor scenes and characters including even birds flying in the sky are already there in the painter's eye.

Not many filmmakers can duplicate Ray's graphic technique of working – simply because not many filmmakers are also painters. Nor do most have a musical and literary talent to match their visual imagination. We cannot all be godlike. But as I pored over the Sketchbook, it seemed utterly clear that what we can all learn from Ray is an attention to detail. As the world hurtles ever more towards the grand gesture, instructing us not to get “bogged down by the details”, being able to observe Ray's mind at work is an inspiration: because the fragments he is laying out are really pieces of a grand jigsaw, whose final form he already sees – in his mind's eye.