Soon we will be celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. Born on 7 May 1861, Tagore, or Gurudev, was a poet, fiction writer, essayist, musician, painter, playwright and educator who transformed Bengali literature and music. He was also the first person of non-European origin (if we consider Turkey at least partly European) to win the Nobel Prize for literature and probably the only poet who has penned two extant national anthems—that of India and that of Bangladesh. We know all that, and it is not just inevitable but commendable that Indian governmental agencies seem to be making a special effort to commemorate Tagore.
But perhaps, along with the celebrations, it is time to think of the intricate (and at times contentious) role that translation played in the celebration of Tagore, especially his Gitanjali. It is time to realize that the tired old debate about whether India should be written in English or other Indian languages obscures a major problem: the lack of serious funding for the translation of Indian literature and the lack of investment in high-level translators and their education. There are some good translators in India, no doubt, but their numbers are restricted—and the money they can earn is even more restricted.
Tagore’s birth anniversary is a good occasion to do something to rectify this lack.
Perhaps it was just me. But I had always considered Hong Kong a centre of business and shopping. During my two trips to this lively city over the past few years, I have come to realize that it is much else too.
Hong Kong has a vibrant writers’ culture: a network of writers who publish, organize and participate in events that add to the cultural life of the city. The City University’s master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing, with authors such as Justin Hill and Madeleine Thien associated with it, is one of the hubs. Also associated with the MFA programme, Xu Xi, one of Hong Kong’s visible writers, has just published an interesting novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky, which is basically about responsibility in a global setting, centering around a mixed-race single mother.
But Hong Kong also has other writers’ circles and aspiring authors who are not visible, or not yet, and add to the city’s vibrancy. Shobha Nihalani, for instance, is a freelance journalist whose last novel was published first in Danish translation! Her new novel, The Silent Monument, which has been released in India, is a thriller set in topical circumstances.
When one talks of crime fiction in the context of Hong Kong, how can one leave out Nury Vittachi? I find Vittachi’s popular Feng Shui Detective series funnier than and as gripping as Alexander McCall Smith’s better known The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Vittachi is an author worth checking out, especially if you prefer tongue-in-cheek crime stories to the head-on-the-plate versions.
Bi Feiyu’s Three Sisters, winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, is “a moving tale of three sisters struggling to take control of their lives. Their heroic endurance of petty cruelties and unfair obstacles feels universal for the time and place,” says Nicole Mones, author of The Last Chinese Chef. Set around the Cultural Revolution and beautifully translated from Chinese, this is an excellent novel that underlines the vibrancy of Asian literature—and my earlier point in this column that we, in India, need to invest much more in translating from Indian languages. Bhasha and English literature in India should be of greater benefit to each other.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author ofThe Thing about Thugs.
Write to Tabish at firstname.lastname@example.org