Book review: The slaughterhouses of the world

(Published in the Business Standard, October 19, 2014)

The Narrow Road To The Deep North
Richard Flanagan
Random House;
474 pages; Rs 420

On June 27, 1971, Gitta Sereny conducted her final interview with Franz Stangl, who had been the commandant of Treblinka and Sobibor. She had already accumulated 70 hours of interviews with this man, responsible for the deaths of so many, in what would be a lifelong mission to understand evil.

In this last interview, her questions were pressing, and she withdrew her sympathy: she did not accuse Stangl, but she placed a fence of silence between her and him.

“My conscience is clear about what I did, myself,” he said as he had said many times before. Sereny said nothing.

“I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself,” he said. Sereny remained silent.

“But I was there,” he finally said.

Those few sentences, Sereny wrote, had taken almost half an hour to pronounce. Stangl, 63, went on to speak of his guilt. Sereny left; and a few hours after her departure, the former camp commandant died, of natural causes.

That story makes a powerful impact because it is true. Perhaps we need it to be true, to believe that in the long annals of human history, evil is brought to its knees when it finally glimpses its own face in the mirror. But what happened between Stangl and Sereny is also powerful because it is rare.

In the world we live in, the men who start wars, crusades, medieval battles of conquest or riots, who cause the deaths of thousands and hundreds of thousands, often avoid confrontation and punishment. The world’s most efficient mass murderers are not known for admitting their own guilt.

Richard Flanagan’s is a war story that treats the mysteries of love and the mysteries behind evil with equal weight. It starts quietly, with a line of immense beauty: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?”

Then it follows the veteran soldier Dorrigo Evans into appalling darkness – not the war of combat and trenches, recognisable and touched with glory despite the destruction, but a far grimmer business. Mr Flanagan’s sixth, Booker-winning novel takes its title from a Basho poem, and is dedicated to “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335)”.  Mr Flanagan’s father was one of the few to survive the Death Railway, which took the lives of some 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs), and a “quarter of a million Tamils, Chinese, Javanese, Malayans, Thais and Burmese”, who were conscripted along with the POWs by the Japanese to build the line between Burma and Siam in 1943.

For the survivors, Mr Flanagan writes, “Forever after, there were for them only two sorts of men: the men who were on the Line, and the rest of humanity, who were not. Or perhaps only one sort: the men who survived the Line.”

In J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a novel that judders as a novel but is indispensible as an examination into the perils of attempting to understanding evil, there is a moment where Costello sets forth a plea for not wading into the murk and horror of the worst of human suffering. She calls explorations of evil obscene: “Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world.”

In Costello’s cautionary words – ruthlessly picked apart by Mr Coetzee’s pitilessly inquiring mind – she echoes the warning that a bishop gave Gitta Sereny, when they met while she was researching murderers and the worst of humanity. He said to Sereny that she should be careful of “exposing oneself” to the devil, for then the devil might invade those who are that unguarded against horror.

Mr Flanagan is no horror tourist; if you take this journey with him, he will guide you through these circles of hell with pity and compassion. His approach is very distinct from the safely distant frisson of shock that accompanies the ritualised viewings of today’s news pictures of dead infants or beheadings, and Mr Flanagan has, as a human and a writer, no truck with the current vogue for the pornography of violence.

The Death Railway, in his careful but unflinching reconstruction, pitted real horror – deaths by cholera, by beatings, from ulcers, from starvation, men rotting in the jungle humidity on the Line – against small things, friendship and the sharing of a duck’s egg, minuscule kindnesses offered by the dying to the near-dead.

Dorrigo Evans, who hates virtue and men of virtue, is a living demonstration of human goodness all the same; and men such as Major Nakamura and the Koran soldier called The Goanna are seen to have been warped by evil, the way wood warps and rots in the rain, without losing their sense of themselves as good, normal people.

The force behind Mr Flanagan’s writing is imperceptible, but undeniable: The Narrow Road To The Deep North is one of those rare books that has the power to change its reader. It carries the same urgency and moral force as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Braided with Dorrigo Evans’ memories of the Line is the other part of his life – a love affair with a woman, vivid, blue-eyed, whom he first sees wearing a red flower. Amy is married to his Uncle Keith; Dorrigo will marry another woman, have children with her, and both these marriages will have the weight, sag and comfortable shelter that old relationships provide over time. Mr Flanagan is as good at describing love – its inexplicable power, its everyday beauty, the inexorable force of it – as he is at describing war, and Amy (“Amy, amie, amour”) becomes as real to the reader as Dorrigo has. They make the right decisions, or perhaps the wrong ones: Mr Flanagan understands that adultery has as many complex shades as a marriage, and that both of these relationships have their own secrets, their own particular sanctity.

It is not that difficult to come across well-crafted books, but it is a rare novel that is, in Mr Flanagan’s phrase, life itself. Parts of The Narrow Road To The Deep North are intensely difficult to read, as hard as reading survivors’ accounts of massacres or autopsy reports. But Mr Flanagan keeps the reader going because his prose is compelling, if unbearably honest in its depiction of evil, almost too convincing in its understanding of what might make those who have committed evil feel absolved, if they have done it in the company of others.

“A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else”; but Dorrigo Evans has both a demon-haunted past and the memory of an undeniable, burnished, true love. It will take you a long time to forget him, or the novel and the world on the Line that he survived.

“Novels are life, or they are nothing”: Richard Flanagan

(Published in the Business Standard, October 15; a quick introduction to this year’s Booker winner, Richard Flanagan.)

Out of the many stories that tells so well about himself and Australia’s past, there’s the unforgettable one about the time he met the Lizard.

He was researching The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the novel about WWII’s Death Railway; his father had been one of the troops—British, Australian, Dutch, Indian—who survived being conscripted by the Japanese into building the Burma-Siam line. Over 100,000-200,000 of the labourers conscripted died: “more corpses than there are words in my novel,” Flanagan told Guernica. Then he met the Lizard. Once one of the most brutal of the camp commanders, he was now “a gentle, gracious old man” who spoke quietly of the past. They talked for an hour, and then Flanagan asked the man to slap him. It had been one of the camp punishments; he wanted to see what it would be like. The Lizard, now just another old man, slapped him, reluctantly, just as one of Tokyo’s earthquakes shook the room. Flanagan says to his interviewer of that encounter: “And I realised at that moment that wherever evil was, it wasn’t in that room with me and that frightened old man.”

Neither Flanagan’s novels nor his life as an activist lean on the comfort of easy answers. He grew up in Tasmania and said in his Booker speech: “I come from a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world. My grandparents were illiterate. And I never expected to stand here before you in this grand hall in London as a writer being so honoured.”

The bookies’ odds on Flanagan had improved as the date of the prize announcement drew closer, but Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and Howard Jacobson’s J had been the front-runners, with Ali Smith, Karen Joy Fowler and Joshua Ferris also producing rewarding novels. Readers who know Flanagan’s writing love the way in which he finds different answers in different novels to the question of how humans make their peace with memory or are weighed down by its rough stones. Those who haven’t read Flanagan before might want to begin with Gould’s Book of Fish or The Unknown Terrorist, just to whet your appetite for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

It is typical of Flanagan that a book built on such grim material, historical and personal, should begin so beautifully: “Why at the beginning of things is there always light?” Dorrigo Evans, now in his old age was one of the men who had survived the Line; he finds his solace in the writings of men long dead, Homer, Basho, Shisui. “As naked slaves, they were starved and beaten and worked beyond exhaustion on the Line. And as naked slaves they began to die for the Line. No one could reckon it, neither the weak nor the strong. The dead began to accumulate.”

This is an Australian story, but also a Japanese and a Korean one, in parts, and it is Flanagan’s particular genius to convey what it means for ordinary people to be overtaken by a tragedy, still clinging to the once-commonplace, now-luxurious hope of their former lives.

Flanagan’s view of history is hardwon, and not at all academic. He has agitated successfully against pulp mills, for instance, calling others to stand on the road along with him and place their bodies between the machines and their homes: “Our love. Our island. Let’s take it back. Let’s start marching.” His attacks on John Howard, Australia’s refugee policy, the country’s treatment of Aborigines, loggers and Kevin Rudd have been sharp and furious. In an essay on the Commonwealth, he speaks for many when he writes of his own discovery: “Slow and stumbling and finally astonishing, that we were never British in disposition or temperament, that the great southern land had its own stories.”

Being born too late and missing the dream of Empire is a blessing for Flanagan, who has felt free to turn the force of his conscience and his writing – both often entwined – on the myths and wounds of his own country. For a man of such passionate political temperament, his Booker Prize speech was equally revealing of his character. His novels are attempts to capture “life itself”, not thinly fictionalised polemics. He would get back to critiquing Australia soon enough. But when he went up to accept his prize at the Guildhall, Flanagan did not speak of his quarrels with the idea of the Commonwealth, or of the weight of history’s ghosts.

Instead, he included his fellow writers: “Josh, Karen, Howard, Neel and Ali—I see tonight as ours, not mine”. His speech was about the love of writing, and the way in which its practice was a journey into humility.

And Flanagan ended with the most passionate defence of his profession heard in a while, one that will last as his books will: “As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expressions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.”

Speaking Volumes: Where They Burn Books

(Published in the Business Standard, October 13, 2014)

You know it’s winter in Delhi when the breeze is scented with the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves, and when the talk turns, as it does these days, to the question of which books are ripe for burning.

Subramanian Swamy, BJP leader, had a few suggestions when it was his turn to talk at a panel on Hemu and history, held at the National Museum, organised by the ABISY. Affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ABISY’s stated aim is to write “Bharatheeya history from a national perspective”.

Now that the rightwing is in power, the ABISY’s actions are a useful indicator of what to expect over the next five years. Bonfires seem to be popular; as FirstPost reports, Swamy was applauded by those in the auditorium when he said: ““Books written by Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and other historians of Nehru must be burnt in a bonfire.”

Dr Swamy is well-known for giving voice to the outrageous, but it is a sign of the times that he felt confident enough to repeat his suggestions in interviews to the media, and to justify the burning of history books by referring to the burning of British-made goods in Gandhi’s time. Nor can Dr Swamy be dismissed as merely provocative: he speaks to and for the growing ranks of angry, far right extremists who are not known for their restraint or their tolerance.

The weekend brought more signs of the times in India – an age of swaggering, strutting censorship, the unapologetic silencing or heckling of voices that dared to question or challenge the dominant rightwing narrative. As reported, Forward Press had copies of its October issue confiscated, and cases were filed against the magazine claiming that religious sensibilities had been offended.

The magazine’s crime was to put forward Bahujan and tribal versions of the Durga-Mahishasur myth in a set of articles, most of them scholarly; the one that was singled out as offensive was an illustrated piece.

With the rise in offence laws and their application in India over the last decade, the claiming of offence has become an easy business. Instead of writings, films, documentaries and art exhibitions being seen as a whole, they are in effect dismembered by those who claim offence, and reduced to sentences or images that, taken in isolation, might fit the relevant sections of the law. In the Internet age, distortions of the implied “offence” are common; scholars find that in these warped mirrors, the erotic becomes obscene, a mythical seduction is described as prostitution, and any attempt to bring up alternate versions of religion, especially non-Brahminical in the Hindu context, are recast as attacks on myths and scriptures.

Entire groups of Indians and scholars of India have been, in effect, silenced or threatened by the combination of the laws, and the hidden violence implied in statements like the one made by Dr Swamy. As the Forward Press case indicates, for Dalit historians and writers trying to reclaim their own history, this is a time when threats of censorship hang around their necks like nooses.

This week’s examples—the one against the Forward Press, the ban on the late Shubhradeep Chakravorty’s documentary, En Dino Muzaffarnagar, an investigation into how the Muzaffarnagar riots were stoked by politicians and prominent leaders—are dismaying, and confirm fears voiced before the elections that India would see further assaults on freedom of expression. But it was the tenor and aggression of the threats made that day at the National Museum that made me think of what it means for a nation to get used to the dangerous idea that burning books is not only acceptable, but necessary.

“Where they burn books, they will some day burn people.” Most readers know that this quote comes from the poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856], but there’s an interesting story behind the words.

Heine was a Germanic Jew, who became a writer at a time of significant but subterranean anti-Semitism. One of his earliest memories was of being mocked at school by his playmates when he innocently said that his grandfather was a Jew. He had put that incident behind him when he wrote Almansor, an early attempt at drama set in Granada in the 1500s, in “the city of double enemies – discord inside, outside malice and rage”. Almansor comes back home and tells his old retainer of the terrible sights he has seen, which includes the burning of the Koran by Ximene, a Spaniard, in the public square. Hassan responds with the famous line.

It is often assumed that Heine, writing in the early 1800s, was prescient about the rise of Nazi Germany, but I think he was writing about his own times after all. His life was free of the extreme horrors one usually associates with persecution; this was a time before the Holocaust, he was not imprisoned (though his Jewishness made it impossible for him to think of a job as a University professor), and he was not tortured or killed for his racial origins.

But Almansor was only staged once, in August 1823 in Brunswick. Heine’s biographer Kossof sets down what happened: just before the last act, a drunk caused an uproar in the auditorium by shouting that the play was written “by the Jew Heine”. The audience in Brunswick confused Heine the writer with a much-despised moneylender of the same name. They rioted; Almansor was never staged again.

It took a century for the mild hatreds and commonly held prejudices of Heine’s time to ripen into something far worse; the world has never forgotten where the book-burnings ended in Germany. India is a different country, and history will take a different path here.

Swamy’s incendiary call to torch and trample on histories of the country that are inconvenient, because they are not histories of hate and divisiveness, is in keeping with his beliefs. But remember what Rohinton Mistry said in 2010 when his book was burned in Mumbai by a different set of intolerant Indians: “Burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.”

Four years ago, Mistry saw that the book burners, and the rest of India, faced a choice: we were at the lip of the abyss, and we could step back, or go over.

It is still possible to step back, even if time is running out fast.

Speaking Volumes: Librarians at the barricades

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2014)

Keep your Arab Springs and popular uprisings: if you’re going to “vive” any “les revolutions“, please think of the unsung heroism of librarians. This particular group of adults has an undeserved reputation for mildness.

But rouse a librarian (or several), and you unleash hell, as Canada discovered some years ago when it tried to pass an anti-pornography bill that would also have chilled free speech. quotes a policy advisor to the department of justice in her book, Blue Politics: “And for the first time ever, the of Canada rose up in anger. I had never seen anything like that; they are among the most conservative people … They were greatly offended that the government would do anything that might tell them how to control their collection.”

Ms Lacombe tells the story of how librarians eventually defeated Bill C-54 through a campaign of reasoned but fierce protest. Every year, when rolls around, I think of the librarians in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada who’ve spent decades defending the right to read. Librarians do not represent the media, the state or the slightly harder to define category of people lumped under the label of “activists”. Instead, they represent the community at large, and they often speak for a neglected and misunderstood but essential right – the right to read.

In India over the last few decades, the debate over the right to read usually covers the areas where this right has run into trouble. The British fondness for banning books has yielded to some extent to the modern Indian fondness for burning them, and for placing legal hazards or threats of violence in the way of authors and publishers who might deal with contentious subjects, which at present covers almost everything except for books on knitting.

Banned Books Week, observed in so many parts of the world at this time of the year, has been only noted in India, not observed. In the absence of extensive public libraries where communities of readers gather, bookshops, publishers and literary festivals have not yet combined to make this an annual event where you might either celebrate reading, or go over the problems in the way of readers.

But during the rest of the year, there is – usually prompted by a lawsuit or by an attack on books or authors – a relatively loud buzz of discussion on banned and censored books, the rising problem of internal censorship among publishing houses. As for India’s defamation and offence laws, there is growing awareness that they act like hyacinth weeds choking waterways, and choking research, academic inquiry and writers’ freedoms in a hundred different ways.

The other part of Banned Books Week, though, is exploring the freedom to read – who has it, who doesn’t and why these freedoms are absent from the cultural spaces that most Indians inhabit. One of the most interesting indexes of how much Indians across the country care for books comes from the work done by the (NMM), which has been looking for manuscripts in homes, religious places, and community centres and offices since 2003. Its volunteers and staff travel from one region to another, taking anything from a few months to a year or so to cover an area; donations of manuscripts are entirely voluntary, and all that the mission asks is to see and record whatever manuscripts a householder or a community might have with them.

In place after place, from Basgo in Ladakh to Imphal in Manipur, the volunteers have found the community stepping up to help preserve what they see as their collective memory. Some families, such as the Narlikars in Kolhapur, have been custodians and collectors of manuscripts for years; in other cases, local museums, temples (Buddhist and Hindu), or madrasas and mosques will hand over their manuscripts to be copied.

In the early years of the NMM, volunteers came across rural and urban families alike who had carefully preserved old books and manuscripts in tin trunks or in corners of their homes. The love of literature, oral or written, is encoded in the DNA of most Indians; it is only in this period that the country has lacked a proper reading culture.

The building blocks of that culture isn’t just the missing infrastructure, the absence of good bookshops and libraries. These are important, and it is heartbreaking to see Delhi’s public libraries. With their broken windows, roughly painted exteriors, the puddles of water on the floor, it is hard to conjure up a place less inviting to readers, especially younger ones.

But despite the depressing beige aura that hangs over libraries such as the ones in Shahdara or Seelampur, the staff does an amazing job of reaching out to local families, and many of the west and north Delhi libraries have become miniature creative hubs, notwithstanding the peeling paint.

When these kids grow up, what kind of world will they inhabit? Just as libraries and bookstores provide the physical infrastructure that creates readers, so do a certain set of ideas go along with the territory.

The American Library Association (ALA)’s “Freedom To Read” statement is not just about book bans and censorship. In essence, it declares that publishers, librarians and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea they make available; that one should not coerce the tastes of adults; that individuals or groups should not impose their own tastes and standards on the community at large. At the core of the “Freedom To Read” statement is a simple idea: publishers, librarians and, by extension, those involved with the intellectual life of any community have a duty to support the freedom to read in the broadest ways.

What every reader should have, the suggests, is access to “the widest diversity of views and expressions”, including unpopular or unorthodox ideas.  It’s a radical idea, but then it was dreamed up by those incendiary rebels, a bunch of librarians.

Speaking Volumes: East of the Sun

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2014) When the Chinese writer Yu Hua was a child, books were rare commodities; he tells Pankaj Mishra in an interview of how they would circulate in mutilated form during the years of the Cultural Revolution. He read the middle of a book once without knowing its author or title, learning later that it was a torn copy of a Guy de Maupassant novel. Every time a new Haruki Murakami novel is published, that story about Yu Hua seems like an exact parable of the way in which most Indians today read Japanese and Chinese authors. Murakami is one of the few who does outrageously well in translation. But for all the recent Indian fascination with both the Japan and China economies, most Indians read Murakami in isolation, his works torn out of the Asian context and the map of writers around him. For many Indians, Japan and China signal a kind of modernity, a promise of growth, development and technology—but Murakami excepted, Indian readers don’t yet seem interested in following the parallel economy of Asian ideas, the marketplace of arguments, dissents and their equally strenuous battles over history.  China and Japan have highly evolved publishing industries, and the bestseller lists in both countries for the last decade are revealing. Chinese bestseller lists are far stronger on translations from other countries, displaying an eclectic curiosity that often favours classics from the past. In 2012, for instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in The Time of Cholera, Henry Kissinger’s On China and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom were all on the bestseller lists—but so was a quirkier choice, Peter Hesseler’s River Town. The same pattern shows up in 2014: translations of Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Philip K Dick’s short stories, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and JK Rowling’s Cuckoo Calling are prominent sellers, but so are two older classics—Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. When pop fiction and teen romances took off in the 1990s, some China literary experts feared (the age-old complaint) that they would kill literary fiction. In newspaper articles, professors like Tao Dongfeng criticized pop icons like Han Han and Guo Jingming, saying that writers had turned into “entertainment idols”. But some of China’s most successful popular writers also included the enigmatic and reclusive Annie Baby, whose novels started by chronicling the alienation and aimlessness of the balinghou—the generation born after the 1980s, many of them single children without siblings. Wang Shuzen’s military novels were as popular as many much lighter and less demanding reads, as was Dangnian Mingyue’s long historical series, Those Things of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside the inevitable speeches by Deng Xiaoping and other leaders, it was also possible for TV hosts like Chai Jing—revered for her brave coverage of the SARS outbreak—to have a bestseller with her book Kanjian (Insight). Japan’s market has an enormous amount of flexibility built in to the publishing system. The popularity of bunkobon—small-format paperbacks often splintered off the hardback versions, designed to be affordable and presumably also disposable—is only matched by the sophistication of the industry that produces the many comics lumped under the heading of manga. Doujinshi manga, or fan-fiction versions of popular comics, is almost a separate industry in itself. Japanese bestseller lists often include Western books, but as with China, the Japanese readership is not predictable in its tastes. The Harry Potter series was a massive success, but analysing a cluster of bestsellers, Robin Birtle wrote that new authors “have to contend with contemporary giants such as Patricia Cornwall and Michael Connelly, but also a panoply of ghosts of authors past”, such as LM Montgomery and Aldous Huxley. In 2013, Japan’s bestseller lists featured Murakami running far ahead of the rest of the pack. But among the year’s other successes, the rise of nationalist sentiment and rightwing authors was noticeable: Naoki Hyakuta’s The Man Who Was Called A Pirate, for one. In a report in the Asahi Shimbum, Ira Ishida was quoted calling similar books “nationalist entertainment”: “Perhaps readers are shifting more to the right in the way they think.” In his interview with Mishra, Yu Hua had talked of another problem: “Younger writers don’t like to see books that reveal the dark side of China; they live very comfortable lives; they don’t believe in the dark side of China; they are not even aware of the hundreds of millions of people still living in extreme poverty.” But there are more writers like Yu Hua these days, and not all of the bubblegum fiction is that effervescent in either Japan or China. Two of Japan’s biggest hits last year were Jun Ikeido’s The Lost Generation Strikes Back—fast-paced, cynical fiction about corporate greed and skullduggery among bankers–while Shino Sakuragi’s Hotel Royal told the stories of disaparate couples in a love hotel outside Hokkaido. And as with the borrowed classics, the Japanese taste for reading their own classics is evident—Kenzaburo Oe, Akatagawa, and in these times of dissatisfaction and rising nationalism, Yukio Mishima, are also highly popular authors. In comparison to the sophistication and variety of Japan and China’s popular fiction market—both countries cover everything from romance to horror, crime, fantasy, dark fantasy and erotica in more detail and with more finesse than our present-day pulp fiction heroes do—India is still an emerging market. We might be entertained—and we might also be usefully unsettled—if we read eastwards rather than westwards for a change.

The Creative Life: Arunava Sinha, Translator


Arunava Sinha’s bio says:

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English. Eighteen of his translations have been published so far. Twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011), respectively, and the winner of the Muse India translation award (2013) for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, he has also been shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction prize (2009) for his translation of Chowringhee. Besides India, his translations have been published in the UK and the US in English, and in several European and Asian countries through further translation. He was born and grew up in Kolkata, and lives and writes in New Delhi.


All of this is true, but it leaves out the astonishing way in which Arunava builds the habit of translation into his daily riyaaz. His FB posts are often composed of ( translations of poetry or excerpts from translated short stories; the sense of enjoyment that comes through in his life’s work (and play) is inescapable.

Q. What are your first memories of language—learning to speak, the books you first read, the conversations around you? Have you always been comfortably bilingual, or can you trace periods when one language might have been more important than another?
The first words I remember hearing were in Marathi, shouted out  by older children in the house in Mahim, Mumbai, where I spent the first four years of my life. But these were just sounds without meaning. My first actual memory of words that conveyed their meanings are from the songs my mother would play through the day on the radio. The ones I remember are Rabindrasangeet sung by Debabrata Biswas – sunilo shagore, shyamolo kinare, dekhechhi pawthhey jetey, tulonahinarey… Or, amaar hiyar maajhey lukiye chhiley dekhtey tomaye paaini aami dekhtey tomaye paaini..

I started out talking and reading – very early, from about 4 – in Bangla. English took over in a rush at the age of 8, and all my reading switched to English books. But Bangla remained the language of communication with family and neighbourhood friends. So, essentially, I’ve been bilingual from childhood. But I didn’t enjoy studying Bangla as a subject in school. 
(And no, besides those three, I don’t read or speak any other language. Which I regret greatly.) 
Translations Inc.
Translations Inc.
Q. Do you have a reading plan in place for each year/ each decade? How do you decide what books/authors you want to translate—and is there any school of writing that you find yourself unwilling or unable to work with?
The only reading plan is to read as much possible, and much of that is aimed at discovering and identifying what to translate. I scout little magazines and book recommendations in Bangla newspapers and magazines for leads, and I start a great many more Bangla books than I finish. I’m still able to read English books for pleasure and without a specific objective.
With the exception of one or two writers like Buddhadeva Bose and Rabisankar Bal, I am still led by books rather than authors when choosing whom to translate. Of course, I’m often trying to double-think publishers too, which is a bit of a pity in some ways as it lowers the chances of taking risks, but I am grateful to my publishers for continuing to trust my judgement, even though this has, more often than not, led to box-office debacles. 
As for genres, I have tried – and failed – with campus / first job novels and romances. Never again, I’ve told myself.
Q. Translators often talk about translation as though it is a parallel act of creation; if there’s a sliding scale of creativity, the translator would fit in somewhere between the editor and the author. As important as fidelity to the writer’s words is, the translator will either bring the words to life or not. When you’re translating from Bengali into English, do you feel that sense of re-creating the text?
I’m wary of weighing translation on a creativity scale. The label doesn’t really matter. It’s a unique process of transferring meaning, rhythm, sound, intent and so on from one linguistic and cultural context to another. David Mitchell described it as part crossword puzzle and part poetry. Strictly speaking, the process does involve re-creation, but I don’t think of it that way. Like every good translator, I try to make myself as transparent as possible, even though translation is a stream of choices. Sometimes, when you read different translations of the same text, you’re delighted by both the similarities and the differences – especially by the differences because you see how there can be different routes to the same destination even though you can seldom think beyond your chosen route.
Q. And what have you learned over the years from other translators—not necessarily limited to translators from Indian languages? 

The most exciting discovery has been the fact that translators all over the world face the same questions when they’re working on the text. And I was thrilled to find Gregory Rabassa saying he does pretty much what I do – which is to be led by the text rather than try to read too much meaning into it or attempt interpretation of analysis. He has translated books without having read them beforehand, and that is a method which resonates with me. Not knowing anything about the writer, their style, history, leanings, and so on actually purges the text of all context that could interfere and reduce the richness to a single version perceived by the translator, and that would be shame.  

Translators on their work
Edith Grossman on translating Don Quixote
Anthea Bell’s translating life 
Gregory Rabassa on translation
Q. How much time do you allocate to reading and to translations? Do you need to set up a separate/ private working space in order to translate well?
Yes, translation – reading, writing, thinking – is woven into every hour of my waking life. I do have a three-hour period every night – 10 PM to 1 AM – dedicated to it, but I happily let it leak into other parts of my day too. I can translate anywhere and anytime, actually. While I do have a designated space at home, I’m not bound to it, and lack of access to it doesn’t hamper me either. Perhaps the best thing about the process is that there’s never writer’s block – at worst, if one text is proving difficult at a particular point of time, I just switch to another one. 
Q. How much has the act of translation over the years shaped not just your reading and working life, but shaped or changed your understanding of the world we inhabit today? Do you see, for instance, Indian history or language debates, or even contemporary politics, in a different light, influenced perhaps by the authors you’ve come into contact with through translation?
I’m sure translating has changed my reading and world view surreptitiously, even if I’m not aware of it in explicit terms. What I do know is that no one reads a text the way a translator does – not even scholars. It’s like immersing yourself in a price of music without being an expert – you let all your senses be taken over, shutting out the world. That may sound mystical, but that is just how the books I translate take over my life. In my case though, since I’ve always sought out works in not written originally in English, translation is probably a logical culmination of that journey rather than the starting point of a new one.
The one conclusion that I have drawn is that it is very important to live your life in the language you write in. It’s not a precondition for writing a great book, but it certainly helps.
Q. Has the practice of translation changed you as a person, or changed the way in which you might see your friends, your writing community, the daily life around you? 
Here again, I’m not self-consciously aware of these changes, but it stands to reason that anything that is such a big part of my life is bound to change me and my perspectives. The only thing I can pinpoint is that it has widened the range of my reading, which has brought with it an exposure to lives and relationships and ways of thinking that I might not have encountered otherwise. And, of course, it has made me admire writers even more – the very act of writing a book, any book, seems to me a remarkable achievement.  
Q. Very few translators seem to want to be writers; the craft of translation seems to offer ample satisfaction on its own. Do you think you’ll ever want to be a writer as well, or conversely, do you think you’ll ever want to stop translating for any reason? 
You’re right, most of our tribe don’t fancy themselves as writers of original works. I suspect some of it has to do with the comfort of working on existing texts – you don’t have to THINK things up. And the more you translate, the more afraid you are of the process of writing something of your own – something that was demonstrated quite strikingly at a recent translation workshop I was a part of. But there’s another reason too – working as you do with excellent books, you realise just how high the bar has been set. And many of us ask ourselves, why add to the noise when there’s music to be made? Which is why I don’t see myself stopping, although I do have a low threshold of boredom, which worries me sometimes. Fortunately, translation offers enough variety and one can always choose to push the envelope.
Q. What do you admire most about the great translators, Indian and elsewhere? And what has the practice of translation as a craft has given them/ you that you most value?
Most of all I admire the great translators for the books they translate. Had it not been for a Rabassa or an Edith Grossman or an Anthea Bell or a Willam Weaver, our perception of Garcia Marquez or Julio Cortazar or Mario Vargas Llosa or W.G. Sebald or Italo Calvino would have been quite different. 
The greatest value for all translators, I think, is in the number of weapons they can add to their arsenal of writing skills. As writers, we can only write as ourselves. As translators, we have to write like several different – and superb – writers. There’s no contest.

Speaking Volumes: Bloodlines and Revolutions

(Published in the Business Standard, July 28, 2014)

It is often forgotten these days that the history of Indian writing in English was built on memories of rebellion, the hope of revolution and a deep anger at the ways in which Indians were their own oppressors. This summer, two novelists – and - revive that history in different but equally skilled ways.

Mr Mukherjee’s starts in a familiar landscape – decaying families in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the time of the Naxalites. “The opera of Bengali life, already pitched so high, had begun ….” The world he describes is already violent – The Lives of Others gets a crop of unnatural deaths out of the way in its opening chapters – and the family life he unravels with such intimacy is one of “overheated reactions and hysteria”.

But the urgency of these dramas dwindle when they are placed in context with the world explored by Supratik, a revolutionary embarrassed by the many privileges of a cushioned life. “How could he ever have imagined that ideology, revolution, the needs of others, abstraction … could have been weightier than the simple business of self-preservation, of the sheer physicality of pain?” Mr Mukherjee’s great gift as a novelist is his ability to unsettle the reader’s perspective on history; his protagonists are often, usefully, outsiders to the worlds that he explores.

The Lives of Others is on the Booker long-list this year; its title is taken from James Salter’s Light Years, a beautiful novel, often praised for the clean cadences of Mr Salter’s prose. The quote that Mr Mukherjee borrows is taken from a passage of sudden revelation – a woman, reading, comes across sentences that have the power to change her life. “How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?”

The Indian novel in all languages, as well as in English, has had to tackle this problem. How does the writer imagine the lives of others in a cultural and social setting where the barriers to knowing each other – caste, class, language, regional differences – are so high, the frontiers between lives that can be disrupted by violence and lives unscarred by riots and massacres so heavily guarded?

The first whispers of rebellion and mutiny were heard early enough in Indian writing in English. Two pioneering works of fiction – Kylas Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945 (1835), and Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s The Republic of Orissa (1845) – dealt with the hope that “the contagion of rebellion” would spread across the land.

Over a century later, Raja Rao set down the history of Kanthapura, where women, satyagrahis and anti-caste activists struggle against police and upper-caste brutality. In the literary journals of the 18th and 19th century, anger against the British was often only rivalled by the anger against the indifference of many Indians to the atrocities. From the famines of India to the brutal crushing of revolts by landless labourers, the Bombay, Bengal and Madras papers had debates every bit as heated as we do in our time.

Ms Kandasamy doesn’t just inherit this history of writing about the unspeakable and the forgotten, in The Gypsy Goddess, she rewrites the novel of violence, and questions every accepted way of turning violence into literature. The Kilvenmani massacre of 44 Dalit labourers took place in 1968; trapped in a hut, they were burnt alive. In a chapter that is one long, searing sentence, Kandasamy sets down the facts of what happened that night but also what has been deliberately, repeatedly forgotten or pushed to the side of collective memory, as with so many other massacres and riots in contemporary India.

In the first half of The Gypsy Goddess, which was recently longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, Ms Kandasamy plays with the form of the novel itself: there are petitions, lists, authorial interventions, translated songs of protest and a reminder that these songs do not work in translation. “They are here only to remind the reader that the historical events of this novel did not take place in any English-speaking country. Don’t you even try to get familiar with what goes on around here, for it is not only the sounds of my native land that you will find staggering.”

Ms Kandasamy includes lists of caste hierarchies, and she leavens the grimness of her material with satire: “We knew that everyone came to our village because of death. We knew this because they never came when we struggled or when we starved or when we silently waited for death. The death was the climax. The death was like the moment in the movies that no one wanted to miss and where everyone cried.” Nor does she spare journalists, armed with notebooks and compassion, or writers such as herself: “You have courage, dear reader, your words will never cost you a career.”

Both The Lives of Others and The Gypsy Goddess should be widely read – not just because Mr Mukherjee and Ms Kandasamy can write about the violence embedded in families, communities and our everyday lives without voyeurism, but because they are both stunning storytellers. “This novel has only to fill in the blanks,” Ms Kandasamy says in one of her asides. The blanks she fills in and that Mr Mukherjee explores are large spaces, the deliberate absences, as unmistakeable as bullet holes, as wide as a mass grave, in India’s memory of itself.

Reading. Writing. Fooding. Lodging.


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