(From How To Read In Indian, a collection of literary journalism to be published by HarperCollins in 2013.)
MOTHER TONGUE, OTHER TONGUES
There was a brief period of my life, between the ages of roughly 6 and 13, when I read in only one language, English. My family had moved from Calcutta to Delhi, and Bengali was left behind in the transition; Hindi was an awkward space, a cold waiting room rather than another home. Until then, I had listened and spoken, like most Indians, in two languages, switching seamlessly between Bengali and English, but leaning more and more strongly towards the latter since it was the language of the school, the playground and the markets.
Most Indians are—or were—bilingual; as Ramachandra Guha warns, the danger for many of the present generations is that they will be monolingual, or have only functional fluency in any of the languages they occupy, like tenants in rented houses, never completely at ease. Recent Census figures indicate a massive shift: English is now the fastest growing of all the Indian languages, overtaking languages like Bengali or Malayalam or Tamil as the most widely spoken second language across the country.
The English in wide circulation today is a grubby version, like a much-used currency note, of immense functionality and limited fluency—it has not yet been taken over and annexed in creative terms by Indians. But even for those Indians who are most comfortable in just one language, reading in translation is a reflex, like living in cities with two or three languages on the street signs. (Cross-translations in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil, to name just a few Indian languages, used to be thriving business—Bengal’s pulp fiction bestsellers used to do a brisk trade in crude translations of Alistair Maclean and James Hadley Chase, and sold Bengali Harry Potter translations by the sackful more recently.)
Penguin India and Rupa & Co, pioneers among the large English-language trade publishers in India, always published translations from other Indian languages—even though it was accepted knowledge that “translations didn’t sell”. The writer who broke this tradition was Shankar, whose Chowringhee, translated by Arunava Sinha, sold thousands of copies. This thrilled everybody—the publishers, the critics, the readers—and baffled Shankar and his Bengali publishers, who weren’t used to his books selling in the mere thousands, but in lakhs. The success of this and Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies led some to predict a translation boom, but in terms of actual sales, very little changed. Translations continued to be read, as they always had been throughout the history of English language publishing in India, but off to one side, as again, sadly, had always been the case.
As for me, Bengali returned when I was 14, living in Calcutta; a friend handed me Pather Panchali, assuming I could read it. For the first few days, I struggled with a script once familiar and now completely alien, stumbling like a child of three, spelling out letters, slowing down my reading speed to a degree that was actually physically painful. And then, slowly, the words began to form in whole blocks: “Nischindipur”, and “gram” and “Apu”, and behind them, Bibhutibhushan’s story began to take shape in my mind, fuelled by the memory of watching Ray’s iconic film.
It happened between one inscrutable page, where I had to wade through the spiky script in the same measured pace that you take to walk through a flooded paddy field, and the next, where I had fallen back into Bengali. Once the door had been unlocked, stepping across the threshold was easy. My spoken and written Bengali remain rusty from lack of use, but when I read in Bengali today, it is always like coming back home.
Favourite Indian Writers in Translation
(A note: This is only a partial list, and a very personal one—my apologies for any and all omissions. The classics—the Ramayana, the Rajatarangini, the Mahabharata, the Cilapattikaram etc—would have required a separate list, but those interested should look for the Murthy Library classics.)
Ambai: In A Forest, A Deer (translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Short stories drawing on mythology, feminism and the lives of ordinary women
Ashapoorna Devi: The First Promise (Pratham Pratisruti) (translated by Indira Chowdhury)
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 (translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Bama’s account of growing up untouchable, a dalit in modern India, has become a classic. ‘Karukku’ is the word for palmyra leaves, with their sharp, swordlike edges—Holmstrom points out that it can also mean seed or embryo.
Bhisham Sahni: Tamas (translated by Jai Ratan—CHECK)
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. The power of his prose, angry and clinical, goes well beyond the televised version of the book.
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), Aparajito (translated by TW Clark and Tarapada Mukherjee)
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 (translated by Rabi Shankar Mishra, Satya P Mohanty, Jatindra K Nayak and Paul St-Pierre)
Senapati’s wickedly funny tale of colonial India might be one of the best novels about property and possession ever told. A greedy zamindar attempts to annexe six acres and a third of land, and as his plotting goes wildly astray, Senapati ambles across the terrain of the novel, taking aim at everything from the British administrators to Hindu village politics and venal priests.
Girish Karnad: Collected Plays (translated by AB Dharwadker)
From one of India’s most intelligent and engaged writers, plays that sweep through history and myth to address today’s audience. The first volume includes Tughlaq—which used to be performed, most memorably, on the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi—Hayavana, Bali and Naga-Mandala.
Gopinath Mohanty: Paraja (translated by Bikram K Das)
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.
Gogu Shyamala: Father May Be An Elephant, and Mother Only A Small Basket, But…
Gogu Shyamala, Dalit feminist and scholar, is also a fierce listener. This unusual collection of stories has a political core, and nothing is simple about either the lives of the Madigas or the complex world of the Telengana village she describes. But alongside the violence that she never flinches from opening up to the reader, there are also moments and images of sharp, indelible beauty.
Harivansh Rai Bachchan: In the Afternoon of Time (translated by Rupert Snell)
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 (translated by Chidananda Dasgupta)
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 (translated by Ameena Kazi Ansari)
Searing, anguished and questioning, one of the finest explorations of the scars of Partition in Indian literature. The original, Kitne Pakistan?, has been retitled for an English readership, losing some of Kamleshwar’s bluntness. But Ansari’s translation stays faithful to the rest of his story.
Kiran Nagarkar: Saat Sakkam Trechalis (Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three, translated by Shubha Slee)
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 bu Gita Rajan and Raji Narasimhan 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 (translated by Gita Krishankutty)
Father Alphonse, Dasan the freedom fighter, Chitralekha the dancer and the villagers of Mahe come together in this unforgettable classic. As Mahe/ Mayyazhi leaves its French colonial days behind, the changes it experiences will touch all of its citizens. In the companion novel, God’s Mischief (translated by Prema Jayakumar), Mukundan explored the contrasting worlds of the Gulf and Mayyazhi through the Dubai diaspora.
Mahasweta Devi: Titu Mir, Rudali, Breast Stories, Mother of 1084 (translated by Rimi B Chatterjee, Anjum Katyal, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Samik Bandopadhyay)
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. Titu Mir was a Bengali peasant who led one of the first revolts against the zamindars and the British; Rudali explored the life and private heartbreak of a professional mourner in Rajasthan. Breast Stories, along with Old Women, collects some of Mahasweta Debi’s shattering short fiction—the story of Draupadi reimagined, Dopdi Mejhen, has a terrible resonance in an age when Soni Sori can be tortured by a rogue state. Mother of 1084 was written just after the Naxal years, but the corpse of prisoner no 1084 stands in for all those missing, or buried in unmarked graves across India.
Mahesh Elkunchwar: City Plays (translated by Shanta Gokhale and Manjula Padmanabhan)
Elkunchwar may be best known for plays that made the transition to cinema—Holi, Party, Virasat—but his City Plays will probably endure the longest. He is brilliant at locating crisis points—in relationships, in families, or in the wider social structure—and chronicling the ways in which people react, or crack, under pressure. This collection, along with the Wada Trilogy, is perhaps the best introduction to the subtleties of his brand of theatre.
M T Vasudevan Nair: Naalukettu (translated by Gita Krishankutty)
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) translated by Tutun Mukherjee, 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 by Muhammad Umar Memon)
Translated from Urdu, these stories retain something of the perfume of that language—delicate, precise and melancholy, especially the title story and ‘Sheesha Ghat’. “I’ve had some dreams that are complete, coherent stories,” Masud once said in an interview, “and I’ve had some very long dreams.”
Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld (translated by Dilip Chitre)
Many disagree with Dhasal’s politics, while retaining the right to admire his fierce, bitterly angry poetry. The late Dilip Chitre, a poet in his own right, did a beautiful translation of this Dalit poet’s work. As he explained, Dhasal sometimes “hurls his poetry like stones”; Chitre preserved the roughness and the darkness that ran through Dhasal’s lines.
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 (translated by the author)
Vijayan made Khasak as much of a “real” place as Marquez’s Macondo, and it has something of the same richness. Ravi travels to the quiet backwaters of Khasak, to become the first teacher at the local school; but he is not the protagonist as much as the place and the time are. Khasak, like Malgudi, or Rushdie’s Alifbay, is one of the greatest fictional places on India’s literary map.
Premchand: Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players); The Oxford India Premchand (translators; David Rubin, Alok Rai and Christopher King). 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. Of the OUP India Premchand, by far the best translation is Alok Rai’s deceptively easy rendering of Nirmala.
Premendra Mitra: Mosquito and other stories (translated by Amlan Datta)
“Ghanada”, teller of exceptionally tall tales, 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, translated by the author); Exiles (translated by Nadeem Aslam, foreword by Aamer Hussain)
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 towers above most Indian classics. The Exiles, a collection of short stories, is hard to find—but worth locating for the sensitive translation by the novelist Nadeem Aslam and the foreword by writer Aamer Hussain.
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. Of special interest and charm are the stories where Bengal’s landscape takes over his work, rivers and ghats forming the backdrop to many of his sensitive, understanding tales of tormented or lost women.
Rahi Masoom Reza: A Village Divided (translated by Gillian Wright)
Reza’s account of the feuds between rival families in Gangauli is pointed, sharp and very, very funny. He drew on his own memories of living in a village on the borders of the old princely state of Awadh, to write about Partition from the perspective of Indian Muslims in a chiefly Hindu village.
Salma: The Hour Past Midnight (translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Women writers like Mridula Garg, the poet Kutty Revathi and Salma have had to weather attacks from the (chiefly male) literary establishment in their respective states, for their “bold” writing. What makes them so problematic is not that they write about sexuality per se, or desire; it’s that they write about these subjects and more from an uncompromising, independent perspective. Salma’s women, trapped in the cloistered world of a small town in Southern India, do not always find redemption or escape; but she gives Rabia, Firdaus, Wahida and others the voice that they are denied in the real world.
Saadat Hasan Manto: the collected short stories (translated by Aatish Taseer)
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 (translated by Arunava Sinha)
In this skilful translation by Arunava Sinha, Sankar’s immensely popular novel about the inside stories of a grand hotel in Calcutta comes alive. He gets it all—the gossip, the melodrama, the sordidness and the occasional tragedies—from the point of view of the hotel staff.
Sharatchandra: Debdas, Srikanta, Pather Dabi (translated by Sreejata Guha and others)
One of Bengal’s most popular novelists, Sharatchandra’s characters remain alive in the public imagination thanks to Bollywood—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 (translated by HY Sharada Prasad)
“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 (translated by Gillian Wright)
This classic satire of small-town India takes a close look at the rotting body politic without needing to hold its nose. The fictional town of Shivpalganj is the backdrop for local power struggles and a clinical dissection of the very Indian practice of corruption as a kind of fine art in itself.
Sunil Gangopadhyay: Sei Samay (Those Days), Pratham Alo (First Light) (translated by Aruna Chakravarty)
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 (translated by Anita Nair)
One of the late Thakazhi’s most popular works, this set star-crossed lovers down in a fishing community in rural Kerala. Nair’s skills as a novelist and her familiarity with Thakhazhi’s work make her a wonderfully intuitive translator. Instead of the often clumsy translations of the title, for instance—The Prawn, The Anger of the Sea Goddess—she elects to stay with the original, and has a sensitive ear for the rhythms of Thakhazhi’s prose.
U R Ananthamurthy: Samskara (translated by AK Ramanujan)
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 (translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, Mrinalini Sebastian, Bageshree S., Nayana Kashyap)
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. These sharp, contemporary stories slice up the world as seen through the perspective of women, and claim very wide ground.
Vaikom Muhammad Basheer: My Granddad Had An Elephant, Walls (translated by R.E. Asher and Achamma Coilparampil Chandrasekaran)
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 (translated by Gita Krishankutty)
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 (translated by Christi Anne Merrill)
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 Binder or The Collected Plays if you can get it (translated by Samik Bandopadhyay)
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. Sakharam Binder was at the centre of a landmark free speech case, where the courts pointed out that artistic freedom was protected by the Constitution—even if it had the potential to cause offence.
Yashpal: Jhoota Sach (translated as This Is Not That Dawn by Anand):
Yashpal’s epic Partition novel comes in at a near-War-and-Peace length, its thousand-plus pages allowing him the space he needed to create—and then destroy—the Lahore mohalla of Bholapande Galli. He wrote it in the ten years after Partition; its impact on the Hindi language landscape has been deep and lasting.