All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Writer, reader, curator of interestingness. Author of The Wildings (Aleph, 2012) ; The Hundred Names of Darkness will be out in Dec 2013. Columnist on books (for the Business Standard) and gender.

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.

The Creative Life: Pamela Timms


Pamela Timms

 (Introducing a new section on the site: an occasional series of interviews with people whose writings/ art/ music/ creative work have inspired me.)

Pamela Timms is the author of Korma, Kheer and Kismet (Aleph Book Company), which covers five seasons of the sizzling love affair between her and Old Delhi’s street food. She used to host the very popular Uparwali Chai events in Delhi, and blogs about her food adventures at Pamela is a self-taught cook and baker; she lives in Delhi and spends part of the year in her native Scotland.
Pamela on Twitter:


  1. When did you realise that you were building a life around the love of food—as a blogger, a cook, and now a writer? How did your relationship with food change in each decade, and could you briefly share how it shaped each decade?

My life has always revolved around food; it’s the only life I know. The family I grew up in had very firm views on food and generally discussed the options for dinner at breakfast time. I didn’t do a huge amount of cooking with my mother (she, like me, was a control freak in the kitchen) but I did watch her like a hawk and she definitely taught me the importance, in so many ways, of eating well.

The main attraction of studying French at university was the year I spent in Paris ‘studying the language’. What I did in fact was an in-depth study of the city’s markets and patisseries of which the vast collection of tent-like clothes I brought back to the UK at the end of the year was ample proof.

The cook book my Parisian landlady gave me when I left probably kick-started my home cooking and led me to devour hundreds of cookbooks and spend most of my twenties foisting my efforts on long-suffering friends and family.

But it wasn’t until I came to live in India almost a decade ago that I began to realise that it might be possible to do something meaningful (I hesitate to call it a ‘career’) with food, first through my blog and other food writing and pop-up tea parties. Korma, Kheer and Kismet was the ultimate opportunity to express my love of food, and of course the street food and people of Old Delhi.


Image ©Pamela Timms; pages from her Old Delhi journal for Korma, Kheer and Kismet.
Image ©Pamela Timms; pages from her Old Delhi journal for Korma, Kheer and Kismet.
  1. What would your ideal week be like? How much time, for instance, would you spend in spice and general markets, how much time with people who are equally enthusiastic about food, and how much time cooking for your family (and lucky friends)?

I usually go to the market near my New Delhi home at least twice a week. I like to see, touch and smell everything I’m going to cook with. I also like to see what’s in season and discover the new fruits and vegetables that are increasingly being grown locally. I recently discovered Ooty-grown blueberries and that made my week!

If I’m in Old Delhi I always lug back bags full of spices and unusual seasonal produce that you don’t always see in New Delhi as well as tubs of kheer and kilos of jalebis.

It’s important for my sanity to cook everyday, I feel un-moored if too much time passes out of the kitchen. In particular, if ever I’m anxious or feeling down, an afternoon baking usually sorts me out.

Happily my family shares my obsession with food and I love to have greedy friends around the dinner table so no amount of cooking is ever too much.

Equally, unless I spend a certain amount of time each day writing, I lose all equilibrium.


  1. So many of the experiences you describe in Korma, Kheer and Kismet are not just about what’s on the plate—the deliciousness of chola-bhatura or the tenderness of Uncle Goggia’s korma—but about the lives of the families who live in Old Delhi. What were some of the ways in which tracking this most basic of things—good, cheap, local food—changed your relationship with the city?

In the beginning, long before I’d even thought of writing a book, I was simply overwhelmed by the range of food on offer in India and set about trying whatever I could whenever I could. Then when I began to take a close interest in the food of Old Delhi I discovered I was welcomed into the lives of the people who make it. The more time I spent watching and talking to the vendors, the more I started to understand what the food represents. Most of the iconic Old Delhi dishes are rooted in the often dramatic family histories of the people who make them – migration, displacement, longing for home – as well as the turbulent history of the area itself. This, I think, is one of the reasons the food is so satisfying – these are dishes that were often first made to soothe and comfort homesick migrants.

On a personal level, the food of Old Delhi gave me an extremely privileged and intimate connection with the area.



  1. Is there a direct link between cooking and creativity? In your life, and perhaps also in the lives of the chefs and food writers you admire the most?

I definitely believe so. In some ways, cooking is the ultimate transformational experience. In baking in particular, you take half a dozen individually unpromising ingredients – flour, eggs, sugar, butter – and an hour later you have a cake!


  1. You read so much in the way of food writing and food histories. Which books/ writers have meant the most to you, or have opened up creative possibilities for you?

Anything which deals with the truth that food is about more than what you put in your mouth – it’s about family, community, migration, exile, loss and new connections.

I was very inspired by the ‘poet of the appetites’ MFK Fisher, the great American food writer. Of course, she would have been a great writer no matter what she had written about but I love that she chose food. I particularly admire the way she experiences the world through what it eats – in almost every sentence she has something profound to say about the role of food in our lives.

I also love everything written by the great food writer Claudia Roden, particularly her Middle Eastern books and her wonderful book on Jewish food. She is extremely good on the way in which certain dishes link you to home, to your community.

Nigella Lawson’s early work was also surprisingly profound (although nowadays she’s much better known for pouting on TV). This, for instance, is her writing in ‘Feast’(published, incidentally, after the death of her first husband) about eating in the immediate aftermath of losing a loved one:

‘I am not someone who believes that life is sacred, but I know it is very precious. To turn away from that, to act as if living is immaterial, that what you need to sustain life doesn’t count, is to repudiate and diminish the tragedy of the loss of a life.’


  1. If there were three (okay, six) places you could visit or culinary experiences you could have anywhere in the world, what would you most want to do in the next few years? (This includes markets you’d like to spend time in, restaurants you’d like to eat at/ run, chefs or food experts you’d like to learn from, anything else that appeals to you.)

At the moment the geographical areas I’m most drawn to in terms of food are the Middle East and Scandinavia. But I wouldn’t say no to trips to Thailand or anywhere in southern Europe. But actually, wherever you go you can find great, surprising food if you look hard enough.


  1. Which books would you recommend to anyone who’s just beginning to explore cooking/ food writing for themselves?

There is a whole industry which feeds off the angst of struggling writers – most of it not worth reading. Two I would recommend are ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King and ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves ‘ by Lynne Truss

To study the craft of food writing I would start with anything and everything by the greats – people like MFK Fisher, Calvin Trillin. They are great writers who just happen to write about food.

To succeed at writing anything you have to read, read, read – anything and everything that inspires you to write. Personally, I never fail to be inspired by Alice Munro, Philip Roth and Raymond Carver – whenever I read their work I feel I have to write. Their work shows powerfully how we can better understand the world around us – the people, the relationships, the food -through words on a page.

Speaking Volumes: Unbleaching the First World War


(Published in the Business Standard, August 11, 2014)

Mall Singh’s voice carries from 1918 across to this century, telling the story of the First World War as it is only now being told:

There was once a man. He used to eat butter in his native Hindustan.

This man then came into the European war

Germany captured this man. He wishes to return to India.

If God has mercy, he will make peace soon.

This man wishes to go away from here.

If he goes back to Hindustan, he will again get the same food.

First World War historian Santanu Das explains that the recordings were made by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, between December 1915 and December 1918. “The soldiers were asked to stand in front of the phonograph, and made to read out a text, or sing a song or tell a story,” Mr Das writes; there were 2,500 recordings, many made by the numerous non-white troops who fought in World War One.

In Race, Empire and First World War Writing, a collection of essays by many scholars and historians, Mr Das sets out what many are beginning to recognise – the truth that the world war was not a white man’s war at all.

“Among the various colonies of the British empire, [undivided] India contributed the largest number of men, with approximately 1.4 million recruited during the war up to December 1919. The dominions – including Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland – contributed a further 1.3 million men.”

“In addition to the 90,000 troupes indigenes already under arms when the war started, France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans.” Well over four million non-white men (combatants and non-combatants) took part in the war.

Reading Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, I came across a photograph of one of the many First World War sites that commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war. It shows a group of captured Allied soldiers. The range of nationalities was far more representative than most of the images of the First World War we had grown up with – Tunisian, Senegalese, Sudanese, English, Anamite (Vietnam), Russian, American, Portuguese. It was a long distance from the bleached whiteness of the men who skirmished in the Commando comics, the Royal Flying Corps pilots who inspired Biggles & Co, the fact that most photographs of World War One in the public domain until recently featured relatively few non-white faces.

Ms Shamsie’s novel encompasses the story of subcontinental troops who fought at Ypres (“Vipers”). In one passage, an injured soldier from Peshawar meets another man at the hospital in England: “It was the sepoy whose ankle had been shattered by a bullet … soon he would be sent back to France. His letter had been addressed to the King-Emperor himself, complaining that wounded Indians were sent back to the field with injuries that would allow an English solider to return home. Qayyum wrote down every word the man said, knowing it would never reach the palace. The letter ended: if a man is to die defending a field, let the field be his field, the land his land, the people his people.

In the absence of written memoirs and records, since so many of the troops came from non-literate backgrounds, Mr Das and his fellow historians and researchers draw on other sources – government archives, interviews, songs, films. He mentions a Chinyanja marching song still sung in some villages in Africa: “Helter-skelter! Helter-skelter! What have you done, Sir? Germany has completely finished off our young men/Germany has completely finished off our young men.

Not all of them died on the field of battle; some, brought in to provide the essential labour that would dig trenches, died before they even reached Europe, as was the tragic fate of the 617 members of the South African Native Labour Continent, drowned on board the SS Mendi.

In a separate series, four short Penguin Special essays span China’s experience of the First World War, from the siege of Tsingtao to the reaction of the bustling and multi-ethnic corporate world in Shanghai to the Chinese humiliation in Paris at the end of the war. In The Chinese Labour Corps, Mark O’Neill writes that the workers were called maizhuzai, meaning “pigs that are sold, a term that aptly described their place in the social order”.

When they arrived in Britain, they were asked to strip naked, doused with disinfectant and issued identity bracelets. The coolies were “so much cargo, livestock”, occupying poorly ventilated holds on the troop ships. And yet found time to band together under the Work Study Movement, which ran evening classes and explained the war to the workers.

The histories of what happened after the war are still being compiled, but what’s there makes for sad reading. Troops who had been welcomed with joyous cries of “Vivent les Hindous” often found that there was less of a welcome for them in the lean post-war years. The Chinese workers went back via the Canadian front. Mr O’Neill writes: “While Canadian soldiers returning from the front were greeted as heroes with welcoming parties, bunting, and smiling girls, the Chinese were ignored.”

The gaps in the official record became gaps in public memory, even though the personal stories of great-uncles who’d been to the war lingered. In his “Introduction”, Mr Das cites the trench notebook of Jemadar Mir Mast, possibly the only surviving example of its kind written by an Indian soldier in the Great War. A line divides the page into two; Urdu words are written with their counterparts in English on the other side. “Retire”, “retreat”, “newspapers”, “hungry”, “university”, and then the poignant trio: “nephew”, “niece”, “children”.

The jemadar comes into focus; a man writing down words in an alien tongue, in a trench situated in a field not his field, fighting a war not his war. Like so many others, from all across the colonies, the dominions, the non-white world that went to war for Europe.

Speaking Volumes: UR Ananthamurthy and the Quiet Majority


(Published in the Business Standard, August 26, 2014)

The education of UR Ananthamurthy, the redoubtable Kannada writer who died at the age of 81, was as distinctively Indian as his writings would be. In an interview with All India Radio, he spoke of growing up in Kerekoppa–“Ours was the only home in the forest”—and going to the Kannada school in the small village of Tirthahalli, which seemed like an enormous world in his eyes.

 “I could read a Bernard Shaw play, hear about the Bhagwad Gita at school, and discuss dvaita/advaita philosophies at the mutt,” he told his fellow writer Abdul Rasheed. “I became a writer because so many worlds commingled in little Tirthahalli.” His Brahmin family followed the ‘madi’ rules. His school shirt was considered polluted, because Ananthamurthy had worn it in the company of non-Brahmins—it had to be hung up on its own separate nail. “It was at school, while wearing this shirt, that I would come in touch with people of all castes—Muslims, Dalits, Gowdas, everybody. I became a writer not by wearing madi clothes but by wearing my school shirt.”

 In college in Mysore, his world expanded even further—education was not just what happened inside the classroom, where Kuvempu and others taught, but the debates that continued in canteens, hostel rooms and coffee houses.

 In time, Ananthamurthy would become as famous as any of the writers he had worshipped as a student, well-known for his novels, Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe as well as many short stories, essays and criticism. He was also a relentlessly energetic member of the Kannada and Sahitya Akademi literary worlds.




 In a conversation with Chinua Achebe, Ananthamurthy spoke about the need to belong, but also to criticize your own culture: “When we forget the British and the West, we begin to have our own quarrels with India. To depict the complexities of such a situation, you need a narrator who is both a critical insider and an outsider,” Ananthamurthy said.

 That was a reasonably accurate description of his position in Kannada writing in particular, and Indian writing in general. His natural literary ancestors and his peers were many, and included writers like Premchand or the brilliantly satirical OV Vijayan. Like them, Ananthamurthy was doubly rooted—in his preferred language, Kannada, and in place—but wrote in a universal idiom, channeling Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal as an influence just as easily as he was touched and shaped by DR Bendre’s poetry.

The novels by which he is best known have aged well, but they have aged. Samskara, Bharatipura and Awasthe no longer seem as iconoclastic as they once did. The tensions between touchable and untouchable, old worlds threatened when their boundaries turn porous that he describes still remain, but a new generation of writers and critics, especially from the Dalit community, have sharper inquiries and accusations to make. What was once radical in Ananthamurthy’s writings is perhaps now commonplace, in a time when caste and other privileges are increasingly under question.

 But the power and resonance of Ananthamurthy’s images is still undeniable. At the centre of Samskara (1965) is a rotting corpse, Naranappa’s death plunging a rigid community into turmoil because of the old taboos about pollution. “When the question of Naranappa’s death-rites came up, I didn’t try to solve it for myself. I depended on God, on the old Law Books. Isn’t this precisely why we have created the Books ? Because there’s this deep relation between our decisions and the whole community. In every act we involve our forefathers, our gurus, our gods, our fellow humans. Hence this conflict.”

 Ananthamurthy would continue to call out hypocrisies of all kinds, often angering the narrow-minded, the deeply conservative and the indelibly bigoted, right up to his last decade. He spoke his mind on his fear that Mr Modi and the rightwing’s ascent to power would be disastrous for India, and then he emerged from spells of dialysis in order to join battle with his vociferous detractors. In his last year, he faced attacks from a loud and aggressive rightwing fringe. He had to have police security at his home, after receiving threats for his remarks on Mr Modi; a case was registered him in a Bangalore court under the often-criticized offence laws; and some of his bitterest critics saw fit to celebrate his death by setting off firecrackers.

 Ananthamurthy’s supporters, students, readers and well-wishers formed a less noisy but far more widespread community, a quiet majority who showed up in the thousands for his funeral, to say their farewells to a man whose words had meant so much to them.

 In Bharatipura, he writes with a light, teasing touch about the dilemma of those Indians who knew only English: “I may have to rent a house in Bangalore, become an absentee landlord, talk in English — a radical, throwing parties, living somewhere in the Cantonment with similar rootless people, with an Indianness linked to Ravi Shankar’s sitar, the sculptures of Konarak, and folk songs.”

 That reflected one of his strongest beliefs; he said in one of lectures: “The best thing to do as a creative writer is to be rooted in your language, but branch out into the world.”

 Kannada critics might take years to fully assess Ananthamurthy’s gifts as a writer. For my generation of writers in today’s India, he stood as a reminder that you could be rooted in your own culture and place, but still claim a wider, more universal heritage. Where is the need to choose between home and the world, one or the other, when both are yours by right?


Happy Cortázar Centenary

Julio Cortázar, Elecciones insólitas.


No está convencido.
No está para nada convencido.
Le han dado a entender que puede elegir entre una banana, un tratado de Marcel, tres pares de calcetines de nilón, una cafetera garantida, una rubia de costumbres elásticas o la jubilación antes de la edad reglamentaria , pero sin embargo no está convencido.
Su reticencia provoca el insomnio de algunos funcionarios, de un cura y de la policía local.
Como no esta convencido, han empezado a pensar si no habría que tomar medidas para expulsarlo del país.
Se lo han dado a entender, sin violencia, amablemente.
Entonces ha dicho “En ese caso, elijo la banana”
Desconfían de él, es natural.
Hubiera sido mucho mas tranquilizador que eligiese la cafetera, o por lo  menos la rubia.
No deja de ser extraño que haya preferido la banana.
Se tiene la intención de estudiar nuevamente el caso.

My (very rough) translation:

The Unusual Elections

He is not convinced.
He is not at all convinced.
They have suggested that one can choose from a banana, a treaty of (Gabriel) Marcel, three pairs of nylon socks, one guaranteed cup of coffee, a blonde in an elastic habit, or even take retirement before the statutory age, yet he is not convinced.
His reticence causes insomnia for the officials, for the priest and the local police.
Because he is not convinced, they have begun to wonder if they would have to take steps to deport him.
They’ve hinted as much, kindly, without violence.
Then he said, “In that case, I choose the banana.”
Distrust him, naturally.
It would have been much more reassuring if he had chosen the coffee, or at least the blonde.
It is quite strange that he preferred the banana.
They fully intend to examine this case again.

Booklove: “Being here” — on Nadine Gordimer’s life

Nadine Gordimer (from
Nadine Gordimer (from

(Published in the Business Standard, July 15, 2014)

“I didn’t know what politics was about until I saw it all happening to people,” Nadine Gordimer said to Alan Ross in a 1965 interview. She had been 15 when she wrote her first short story, about 25 years old when apartheid had been formally institutionalised in South Africa. Gordimer died this week at the age of 90 in Johannesburg. Her legacy included 15 novels and almost 20 short story collections.

By 1965, Gordimer was becoming well-known for her fiction. Some of her closest readers were in the State Publications Control Board, where censors argued whether (1958) was a desirable or undesirable work of literature. Gordimer, unlike many of her fellow South African writers, would not be jailed for her art, though three of her novels – including, A World of Strangers and Burger’s Daughter (1979) – were banned for long periods.

There were no picket fences or cordoned-off lines between Gordimer the writer and Gordimer the outspoken political activist: the censors were evidence of how closely her fiction bled into the real world and vice versa. The men who banned authors such as Athol Fugard and Gordimer, who decided that Es’kia Mphahlele was to be banned from teaching, were often colleagues, fellow writers and academics who did their censoring in secret. Censorship under apartheid extended, infamously, from books outwards. People could be “banned”, and not allowed to speak in public or meet more than one person at a time; these laws were in force against Nelson Mandela, among others.

Gordimer saw literature as a sacred calling, the writers’ task being nothing less than exploring the entire world. In her Nobel lecture, given in December 1991, she said: “Writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being. Being here.” But her life as a writer had begun with the refusal to look only at what was safe to look at: when she saw Johannesburg, she saw (with greater clarity over the decades) how her country was split into black and white, how the schools were different, how a black child like her might not grow up to be a writer as she had, because only one of them had the right of access into the local library.

“Censorship is control of communication,” she wrote in 1972. The aim of the censors was to act as a political weapon of apartheid, to bring about a situation “where there is ‘no communication’ between South Africa and the ideas that might cause us to question our way of life here”. Censorship, she continued, had successfully wiped out the literature of black South Africans – either their writings or their own selves had been banned.

The worst kind of ignorance was something she regularly breached, much to the alarm of the censors, in her own writings: the ignorance of white people about the inner lives of their countrymen of another colour. To write about these lives without appropriating them required a particular skill, and there Gordimer trusted her own writer’s ability to inquire as deeply into the human condition as possible. “First, you know, you leave your mother’s house, and then you leave the house of the white race,” she said in another interview in 1962.

And she was outspoken and firm in her defence of Salman Rushdie during the years of the Fatwa. She wanted people to recognise how the plight of one individual was an echo of a wider attempt to silence (sometimes murderously) dissenting, inquiring or provocative voices.

Her later story collections – , – and novels – , – ran in parallel to Gordimer’s active participation in worldwide anti-censorship movements, her growing involvement with the Aids crisis and the government’s handling of public health issues.

In Gordimer’s world, the writer’s life had the private side to it, the disciplined days and weeks when she was alone with her writing, and the public side of committees, protests, letters to various regimes, and she embraced both with almost equal keenness. In person, she was a slight woman with a formidable presence and a piercing gaze; she was polite rather than imperious, but conveyed the unmistakable impression that she would not allow her time to be wasted.

But it was perhaps when she read from her works that she was most compelling. In an early recording, she reads from a tart short story, her voice sharp, birdlike, completely in command of the stage: a voice that invites listeners, expecting them to listen in respectful silence.

Some 40 years later, Gordimer read from Jose Saramago’s touching The Centaur, and her brisk voice softened a little around the sentences that speak of a pursued creature without a homeland, destined to be a permanent refugee. Exiles, the marginalised and the persecuted, those who had been told they didn’t belong: this had been her territory, too.