41 Indian Writers in Translation

Amit Chaudhuri on Indian writing, from The Guardian:

“As to the writers from the more troubled regions outside the metropolitan suburbs in which English alone was spoken, you could see, if you scratched the surface of their slightly bureaucratic veneer, that they possessed an eclecticism of taste and literary predilections, a formal curiosity, as well as a true multilingualism, that made them quite akin – paradoxically for brown men wandering about the streets of Frankfurt and Paris – to the breed of writers once called “European”. However, no one, I think, asked them about their relationship to Europe, though each of them would have had an answer to the question; this was a reminder of the odd discrepancy between language – and I don’t just mean English and French and Hindi – and vantage-point and intention that sometimes characterised interactions between audiences and writers.”

The recommendations at the end of the article inspired me to put down a list of 40 books I’ve enjoyed by Indian writers, 41 Indian writers whose books I’ve enjoyed in translation. Standard disclaimers:

1) This is not intended to be a definitive or even indicative list–it’s just my list of writers whose works I personally enjoyed.
2) Yes, there’s a built-in bias towards Bengali writers, since Bengali’s my mother tongue.
3) Many writers have been left out. This is because:
i) they’re not available in English translation, and this is a list of Indian books translated into English. I know, most unfair.
ii) I’ve never heard of them and I should’ve, in which case I’d be happy to add their names to the list
iii) I have heard of them and I hate their work, in which case I’ll maintain a discreet silence

41 Indian Writers in Translation

Ambai: In A Forest, A Deer
Short stories drawing on mythology, feminism and the lives of ordinary women

Ashapoorna Devi: The First Promise (Pratham Pratisruti)
One of the few novels by the prolific and highly regarded author available in translation, this follows the evolution of Satyabati, a child bride who grows up to demand much more of her new life in a changing but still hidebound Calcutta.

Bama: Karukku
Bama’s account of growing up untouchable, a dalit in modern India.

Bhisham Sahni: Tamas
The iconic novel about Partition; Sahni drew from his memories of working in the refugee camps to write the story of Nathu, the sweeper who sparks a riot with the inadvertent killing of a pig, Jarnail and many others.

Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), Aparajito
These classic, much-loved novels formed the basis for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy as Bibhutibhushan followed his protagonist from the little village of Nischindipur to the demands and temptations of the city.

Fakir Mohan Senapati: Six Acres and a Third
Senapati’s wickedly funny tale of colonial India

Girish Karnad: Collected Plays
From one of India’s most intelligent and engaged writers, plays that sweep through history and myth to address today’s audience.

Gopinath Mohanty: Paraja
This 1930s novel explores the slow decline of a tribal stripped of his lands by the state, turning first to the forest that he knows so well and then to alcoholism.

Harivansh Rai Bachchan: In the Afternoon of Time
The great poet’s honest, moving recollections of his life, from the hardships of growing up in the provinces to the success of Madhushala, and the superstardom of his son, the actor Amitabh. The English translation was a very successful abridgement of the four-volume original.

Jibananda Das: Selected Poems and Collected Short Stories
Jibananda’s layered, often revolutionary poems spawned a host of terrifyingly bad imitations, but few had the accuracy of his vision. His short stories are less well-known, but for a generation of Bengalis, he offered an escape from the gentle tyranny of Tagore.

Kamleshwar: Partitions
Searing, anguished and questioning, one of the finest explorations of the scars of Partition in Indian literature

Kiran Nagarkar: Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three)(my thanks to Salil Tripathi for the reminder)
Nagarkar’s first novel was about Kushank Pundare, an unpublished writer living in a chawl. The Marathi literary world was not amused by Pundare’s sublime blend of nihilism and broad humour, but Nagarkar’s readers continue to be entertained.

Krishna Sobti: Mitro Marjani, Ei Ladki (translated as To Hell With You, Mitro and Listen, Girl)
Sobti’s richly comic, sometimes dark explorations of sexuality and the need for freedom.

M Mukundan: On the Banks of the Mayyazhi
Father Alphonse, Dasan the freedom fighter, Chitralekha the dancer and the villagers of Mahe come together in this unforgettable classic.

Mahasweta Devi: Titu Mir, Rudali, Breast Stories, Mother of 1084
It’s hard to pick just a few from Mahasweta Devi’s corpus of writing, but try not to miss her wrenching, engaging perspective on history

Mahesh Elkunchwar: Holi, Yuganta, Pratibimb, Party
I haven’t been able to find a “collected plays”, but some of his scripts are available in translation. One of India’s most popular and most questioning playwrights.

M T Vasudevan Nair: Naalukettu
Literally “the house around the courtyard”, Naalukettu draws on MT Vasudevan Nair’s own memories to recreate the atmosphere of a village in South India, and the struggles of a young boy to find his way through a maze of tradition.

Nabaneeta Deb Sen: Defying Winter (in Five Novellas by Women), A Nabaneeta Reader
OUP’s Nabaneeta Reader, if you can find it, is the best introduction to the wide range of this writer’s work, which roams from children’s fiction to travelogue to literary criticism and mainstream fiction. Defying Winter is a wry and warm novella set in an old-age home.

Naiyer Masud: The Essence of Camphor
Translated from Urdu, these stories retain something of the perfume of that language—delicate, precise and melancholy, especially the title story and ‘Sheesha Ghat’.

Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld
Many disagree with Dhasal’s politics, while retaining the right to admire his fierce, bitterly angry poetry. Dilip Chitre does a beautiful translation of this Dalit poet’s work.

Nirmal Verma: Selected Stories; The Last Wilderness (translated by Pratik Kanjilal)
The pioneer of the “Nayi Kahani” movement, Verma wrote with depth and passion, and a quiet sensibility matched by few. In ‘The Last Wilderness’, Pratik Kanjilal’s sensitive translation captures Verma’s story, set in the hills, narrated by the secretary-companion to Mehra Sahib, a retired civil servant. Verma uses the landscape to convey a sense of menace and possibility; one of his finest novels.

O V Vijayan: Legends of Khasak
Vijayan made Khasak as much of a “real” place as Marquez’s Macondo, and it has something of the same richness.

Premchand: Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players)
His other novels and short stories may carry more literary weight, but Shatranj remains a personal favourite, for its evocation of a friendship tested in the sunset hours of a dying empire.

Premendra Mitra: Mosquito and other stories
“Ghanada” is one of those great literary characters known only to the Bengalis; this collection brings out some of the wit and bizarre fluidity of Mitra’s imagination.

Qurratulain Hyder: Aag Ki Dariya (River of Fire)
This monumental novel takes on two-and-a-half millennia of Indian history, linked by four characters who wander through the ages, bearing witness to the shifting times. Hyder’s magnum opus.

Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories (try to get the OUP edition, translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri and others), The Home and the World, Chokher Bali
It’s hard to choose only a few from Tagore’s overflowing bookshelf, but his short stories are perhaps the best introduction to his work. Many of his novels, including Ghare-Baire (The Home, the World), and Nashto Neer (The Broken Nest, filmed as Charulata) inspired Ray’s films.

Rahi Masoom Reza: A Village Divided
Reza’s account of the feuds between rival families in Gangauli is pointed, sharp and very, very funny.

Saadat Hasan Manto: the collected short stories
Manto framed Partition and the riots with brutal humour—in his stories, inmates of a lunatic asylum must make sense of the new borders, a man finds he has no taste for cold meat, a child sees jelly in a pool of blood.

Sankar: Chowringhee
In this skilful translation, Sankar’s immensely popular novel about the inside stories of a grand hotel in Calcutta comes alive.

Sharatchandra: Debdas, Srikanta, Pather Dabi
One of Bengal’s most popular novelists, Sharatchandra’s characters remain alive in the public imagination—though many readers have forgotten his reputation for sarcasm and his trenchant criticism of the social norms of his times.

Shivram Karanth: Ten Faces of a Crazy Mind
“I do not desire to be killed by others’ pens. I shall take my own life.” Karanth was one of the greats of Kannada literature, and his autobiography is as unorthodox as was his life.

Shrilal Shukla: Raag Darbari
This classic satire of small-town India takes a close look at the rotting body politic without needing to hold its nose.

Sunil Gangopadhyay: Sei Samay (Those Days), Pratham Alo (First Light)
Historical fiction that treads a fine line between gossip and accurate chronicle of the life and times of Bengal’s finest—two of the prolific Gangopadhyay’s better-known works.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai: Chemmeen
One of the late Thakazhi’s most popular works, this set star-crossed lovers down in a fishing community in rural Kerala.

U R Ananthamurthy: Samskara
The funeral of a Brahmin who had turned his back on the community is at the centre of Samskara, U R Anathamurthy’s challenging and, for its times, revolutionary novel.

Vaidehi: Gulabi Talkies
Short stories translated from Kannada; Vaidehi’s trademark style is best captured in the title story, where a town deals with the loss of its midwife, Lillibai, when she decides instead to run the only-for-women cinema, Gulabi Talkies.

Vaikom Muhammad Basheer: My Granddad Had An Elephant, Walls
Basheer—freedom fighter, wanderer, writer—had a knack for capturing the absurd, the comic and the tragic in a few bare paragraphs. My Granddad Had An Elephant is a collection of short stories verging on memoir; Walls follows two prisoners who may not, eventually, want to leave for “the larger jail outside”.

V K Madhavan Kutty: The Village Before Time
One of my favourite books—a brief excerpt: “When water collected in the ditch on the left of the path, we always gathered to watch the little fast-moving insects called ezhuthachan chaathis that looked as if they were writing on the water. They wrote amazing stories in languages that looked sometimes like Malayalam and sometimes like Tamil.”

Vijaydan Detha: A Straw Epic and other stories
The Rajasthani folk tales that Vijaydan Detha used as the foundation for his stories don’t translate well, but this collection offers a hint of the flavour of the original. Especially in ‘Duvidha’, the classic story of a triangle between a bride, her husband and the ghost that assumes the form of the husband for a brief while.

Vilas Sarang: The Women in the Cages (short stories)
Many of the stories here were originally written in Marathi and then rewritten in English by the bilingual Sarang. His Bombay is a surreal city, where Ganesha’s idol might run away from his own procession, where a man might get into trouble for warming his hands on a cold day at a funeral pyre.

Vijay Tendulkar: Ghashiram Kotwal, Sakharam Binders or The Collected Plays if you can get it
Tendulkar’s fearless and ferocious plays are staples of any self-respecting Indian theatre group—few playwrights have used contemporary events and stinging satire quite as well.

Useful resources:


Seagull Books
: Seagull has a brilliant catalogue of works in translation
Vedams Books: Online bookstore with some hard-to-find classics
Women Unlimited and Zubaan: The emphasis is on women’s writing, but both stock some translations
Katha specialises in translations, but their web page isn’t terribly browser-friendly
The Little Magazine: Carries stories and screenplays in translation–browse each issue separately.

Also read: Boyd Tonkin on “India’s hidden treasures”:

“…the vast bulk of Indian culture, and Indian life, never happens in English.
Not that the UK publishing industry usually wants to know. When the thin, elite crust of native English speakers in India throws up world-beating author after world-beating author, why bother to investigate the literary riches that may lurk among the nation’s 22 other official languages, from Assamese to Urdu? Yet those treasures sparkle. An Indian novelist once, only half-jokingly, said to me that he had begun to write in English because the competition in Bengali was just too stiff.”

15 comments

  1. Sat Sakkam Trechalis, which Kiran Nagarkar wrote, and Shubha Slee translated as Seven Sixes are Forty-three. Maybe Jejuri, by Kolatkar? Also Gauri Deshpande’s short stories. Among Gujarati writers, the poetry of Suresh Joshi. And some poems of Ghulam Mohammed Shaikh. Maybe you’ll maintain silence. don’t think the Gujarati writers I’ve mentioned have been translated entirely, though. Adil Jussawala’s Penguin anthology did have a Shaikh poem.

  2. I almost put Jejuri in–and then remembered it was written in English. Sat Sakkam is a welcome addition and an illustration of the pitfalls of compiling a list like this–I read it as Seven Sixes are Forty Three in the English translation, and had mentally misappropriated it as one of Nagarkar’s English-language works.I like Ghulam’s poetry, but haven’t found any translations–could you recommend anything? Ditto for Joshi–the only thing I can find online in translation is The Crumpled Letter, and I haven’t read that. Worth including?

  3. I guess you’re right because now you need to change “40” to “41” in the line above “Ambai: In a Forest, a Deer.” Thanks in advance.

  4. or six translations, by Jayant Parekh (mis-spelt as Parikh in the Jussawala edition). And Suresh Joshi – I haven’t read translations, but I love many of his Gujarati poems. I meant he would translate well. But if he hasn’t been properly translated, then of course, he can’t be in this list. Jejuri – I thought Kolatkar wrote the first few in Marathi and then switched? But that could be my memory playing tricks. Yes, Sat-Sakkam was indeed in Marathi, and then translated.

  5. Sorry, the first sentence got deleted – what I meant was – re Ghulam, I have read five-or-six poems in English, that Jayant Parekh translated. (The rest of the text is clear in the preceding post…)

  6. Thanks so much for this, it’s very important. But I think you do a great disservice by not also appending the translator’s name to each book on the list. Part of the problem in India is that translation is still often seen as a purely instrumental and not creative activity. The problem is also that some of the authors that you have on your list– Jibananda Das most notably, has had several translators and people have very strong preferences for one or the other. I’d be curious to see who you weigh in with and why you don’t like certain translations.You have a great many of the books I would also have put on such a list. Specifically, Nagarkar’s Seven Sixes are Forty Three, Jibananda Das, Naiyer Masud’s Essence of Camphor, OV Vijayan’s self-translation of Khasak (though it has severe problems and a sense of gaps and a lot missing, and perhaps the crazy first “president’s shit” chapter of The Saga of Dharmapuri outdoes anything in it)and the Namdeo– all of these are books that still live as vividly in my memory as any text originally written in English. I’d add Pratik Kanjilal’s translation of Nirmal Verma’s “The Last Wilderness” and, on a different scale, R. Parthasarathy’s Cillapathikaram, which are not talked about enough. That reminds me, Ramanujan’s translations ought to be installed on this list as well, of course, but perhaps you have restricted yourself to the 20th century? Of course, it’s Ramanujan who did Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.Many Indian writers are in the position of having to translate themselves, which I think is, for the most part, unfortunate–even in the case of someone like Kolatkar. That’s something to address as a question–why does this end up happening so often?

  7. Vivek–you’re absolutely right, and in my defence, I can only offer two excuses, both weak. I’ve donated many of my books, including several on the list, to libraries over time and didn’t have the references close at hand–and I got terribly tired by the time I’d finished putting it together.Can’t think how I missed the Kanjilal translation. I enjoyed The Cilapattikaram in Parthasarathy’s translation, but left it out because this is a contemporary list–I’m not at all qualified to compile a list of Indian classics. Will update the list to include your suggestions. This is what I like about posting a list of this nature online–it improves with everyone’s contributions.Translations I dislike: some of these fall into the slavishly faithful to the original category, but annoy me by being obstinately tone-deaf in English. (Several of the Sahitya Akademi translations I’ve bought are like this–punctilious in the sense of transliteration, but clunky reads.)Again, thanks for your suggestions–and for the questions you raise.

  8. Nilanjana, talking of worst translations, one of the worst was Girish Karnad’s translation of Evam Indrajit (OUP). I directed the play at my college in the early 1980s, and while on the poster we did say “translated by GK” to attract the audience, but I had to virtually rewrite the entire text. The truly cringe-making translation was “brother” each time Amal, Bimal or Kamal referred to one of the other as “dada”.

  9. N– no, you’re absolutely right, I was struggling to remember some of the translator names myself, thanks to indecent reference libraries and books that have been lost, donated, locked in storage and–so often the case in India, stolen by or “exchanged” with friends. 🙂 I think the difficulty of judging a good translation is that there are always so many indices of good and bad. Translators will often hide behind the notion of fidelity and, if you don’t know the source language, which is part of the point, then you’re not allowed into that discussion. I heard an interview with Natasha Wimmer’s editor at FSG that he knew that she was a great translator when she finally made the decision, after intense struggle, *not* to bring across some of Bolano’s colloquial textures into English, to flatten the language a little– ie., a great translator being someone who discovers what to leave out. I think so often in India translation is a profession and not an artistic vocation. A friend told me angrily that the Sahitya Akademi *assigned* her books to translate–some of which she didn’t even like! And this, including poetry too!

  10. hey nilanjana, was looking at your holden c article and thought would write a short note about something that bothered me about it, but instead came across this. will save that till the time you post that article here or maybe send it to you on e-mail.as for this post, can't say i have enjoyed all of these writers — reading Qurratulain Hyder's Aag Ki Dariya in translation as River of Fire wasn't exactly my idea of fun and likewise for Gopinath Mohanty's Paraja. i am sure the fault is entirely mine, but many of these worthies leave me cold.on the other hand, i have almost always enjoyed those i could read in the hindi/devnagri/gurumukhi originals/translations/trasnliterations far more: sri lal shukla, nirmal varma, kamleshwar, masud, manto, raza, renu et aland a total thumbs up for basheer — became a fan since i came across something in the namaste book of short stories a couple of decades back. "a love letter", i think, it was called.i have read at least one bhupen khakkar short story in translation (from gujarati, i think) that was absolutely funny.and i totally agree about crediting the translators — don't think i can recall the names of those who translated any of the great russians for example

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