My column for the Sunday Guardian this fortnight:
Translation is a strange and wonderful thing. A book rewritten in another language is like a person given the gift of new life: a new name, a new look, new turns of phrase — and hopefully new admirers. Sometimes the makeover can feel radical. Both these books bring together pieces that have never been published alongside before, giving the authors' work a new form, and — for me — suddenly placing them in potential conversation.
As a writer of 'lowlife' fictions, in Salman Rushdie's description, Manto may share something with Hindi writer Uday Prakash, whose sharp-angled tours of post-globalisation Delhi are often routed through the city's poorest quarters. Also, Prakash's bitingly satirical takes on contemporary Indian life and literary culture, while not exactly subject to censorship like Manto, have often brought down upon him the ire of the Hindi establishment.
The Hindi story 'Dilli ki Deewar' originally appeared as part of Dattatreya ke Dukh (the title would translate as 'The Woes of Dattatreya'). There, this tale (of a sweeper called Ramnivas whose life changes when he finds a stash of money in a wall) was one among many pieces ranging from a paragraph to 40-odd pages, with the narrator Vinayak Dattatreya as unifying factor. A composite of middle class types—honest government servant, unsuccessful Hindi poet, benevolent colony uncle, lowly research scholar—Dattatreya is bemused, long-suffering. Told in his voice, these riffs on life in Delhi at the start of the 21st century have a familiar conversational quality that cushions us a little from their darkness.
Another trait that Uday Prakash and Manto share is the authorial intrusion. Manto, of course, was ahead of his time when he included an eponymous Manto character or made sly self-reflexive references to writing. Prakash's authorial interventions are more forceful, less ambiguous, often bringing in his take on political news, or locating himself in the story as a full fledged character. But even more than the 'I', what's really striking is his use of 'you'. That direct address — "If you want to get lucky, come to Delhi right away — it's not far at all. Forget about being a millionaire; coming to Delhi is the only way left to scrape by." — conjures up a imagined community of readers who share both newspapers and hopes. How does that address work outside India?
Micro-decisions a translator makes can transform characters. Ramnivas and Sushma going to see a film at "the Alpana" instead of at Alpana Cinema changes them, as does Sushma's mother calling her "honey". And the girl from Pydhoni seems altogether cooler playing 'Why, You Fool, Are You Always Falling in Love' from her 'Untouchable Girl' record, instead of 'Kise Karataa Murakh Pyaar Pyaar Pyaar Teraa Kaun Hai' from Achhut Kanya.
Some of this may seem unavoidable, an attempt to make these worlds more recognisable to the imagined reader in English. But if she is to be truly inserted into Uday Prakash's imagined community of readers (or Manto's), the real reader of translations must work a little harder.