In 2013, translations from regional languages set a new benchmark for literary fiction
If you are the kind of reader who expects a book to be “the axe for the frozen sea within us" (as Franz Kafka famously said), then English-language publishing in India, especially original fiction in English, may well have turned you into an iceberg by the end of 2013.
The Kafka effect is hard to encounter even if one reads promiscuously—forgetting the trappings of social, cultural and political context, that dreaded cage for professional critics and publishers—but it is a necessary standard to hold on to, however unrealistic.
The original English fiction scene in India this year was dotted with smart, accomplished, even memorable titles, though few came close to meeting Kafka’s golden standard (see Our pick of original fiction and non-fiction in English). In contrast, 2013 seemed to be a turning point for Indian writing in translation, not only in terms of the number of titles that appeared this year but also for their consistently excellent quality, and the enthusiasm with which they were received.
The trend is not new though. The curiosity that drove early Indologists like William Jones, Charles Wilkins and Henry Colebrooke to initiate projects to translate from Sanskrit stayed with the makers of modern India. As early as the 1950s, the newly independent Indian nation entrusted the Sahitya Akademi with the task of executing the Nehruvian vision of “unity in diversity" by translating extensively from the regional languages. For several decades, trade publishers pitched in tentatively, until the last couple of years, when translation lists started making their presence felt in the market.
In spite of the commercial risks involved in the venture, any literary imprint worth its salt must aspire to have translations from regional languages. While there is a robust Anglo-American tradition of translating from the European languages—not only from the canon but also from contemporary literature—translation in India has focused primarily on “classics", ancient or modern. Increasingly, writers who are alive and active, not just the dead and revered, are entering the catalogues of mainstream publishers.
If literary prizes are any markers of international reach, Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year for his contribution to literature (he lost to Lydia Davis), while the shortlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 featured two titles in translation, The Book of Destruction by Anand (translated by Chetana Sachidanandan from Malayalam) and Goat Days by Benyamin (translated by Joseph Koyippally from Malayalam), both published by Penguin Books India.
Speaking on behalf of the jury at the announcement of the shortlist in London last month, the chair of the DSC Prize this year, Antara Dev Sen, pointed out that each of the six titles chosen is “a window opening on to the complexity of the South Asian experience". While this sentiment is largely true, it is also remarkable that the finest novels in translation transcend, as all literary works of distinction do, the particularities of time, place and character (for example, The Book of Destruction, published last year, is nominally a work of fiction, profoundly invested in exploring theories of evil; while Goat Days, also dating back to 2012, is filled with spiritual resonances that inform, but also exceed, the simple story of a poor goatherd living in exile and oppression in a Gulf nation).
Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated by Jerry Pinto from Marathi) and Shanta Gokhale’s Crowfall (translated by the author from Marathi), two of the best novels I read this year (both published by Penguin), are grounded in the conventions of the realist novel, and yet succeed in creating new forms of inwardness. Kundalkar’s story, set in a small town near Mumbai, unfolds as interior monologues spoken by a brother and a sister about the man they both loved and were abandoned by. Stark and comfortless, it is not only a tale of many betrayals—romantic, familial and societal—but also, at its most poignant, a reminder of the gulfs that exist in relationships where trust and understanding are taken for granted.
Gokhale’s novel, by contrast, evokes a certain phase in the history of Bombay’s (now Mumbai’s) cultural life. Literature, music and the arts flow into, and become one with, the lives of its characters. Unlike “global" novels that span several continents or are set in war zones—usually a reasonable guarantee of international success—Crowfall promises little excitement in its jacket copy, which offers just enough information to arrest the attention of the discerning reader.
In an essay in Financial Times earlier this year (“Beyond the Global Novel", 27 September), critic and novelist Pankaj Mishra wrote that “writers of non-Western origin" seem to be “vending a consumable—rather than challenging—cultural otherness". In India, this propensity is still pervasive in literary fiction in English, but sharply absent in the genre in translation and in popular fiction in English. The latter—a conglomerate of “campus novels", mythological thrillers, cheesy love stories and fantasy fiction—caters to a mostly home-grown readership. These cheap and cheerful mass-market produces are written in a uniquely postmodern idiom—usually combining the brevity of SMS language with the melodramatic intensity of Facebook status updates—to create a package that is easily digestible for readers who are tuned into the pulse of these fictional worlds. These narratives, while kindling their target readership’s aspiration to travel and dream big, seldom travel themselves in the international literary circuit.
But in the case of literary translations, some of which are also set in milieus that are provincial and claustrophobic, the result is strikingly different. In Ajay Navaria’s riveting collection of stories, Unclaimed Terrain (translated by Laura Brueck from Hindi, published by Navayana) and Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated by Jason Grunebaum from Hindi; Hachette India), the protagonists come from backgrounds of intense deprivation, economic and emotional, and hover on the margins of society. Navaria’s piercing narratives portray the lives of Dalits in urban India, giving us a glimpse of the twisted modernity of the world’s largest democracy.
Prakash’s angry, sarcastic and bitter stories also lash out against the injustice perpetrated by the educated elite, sometimes unthinkingly, on a lesser class of people. More quirky but also full of barbs, Upendranath Ashk’s Hats And Doctors (translated by Daisy Rockwell; Penguin) brings together a set of gem-like stories by a master of Hindi literature. Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude (translated by Rahul Soni; HarperCollins India) and two novels by Nirmal Verma—Days of Longing (translated by Krishna Baldev Vaid; Penguin) and The Red Tin Roof (translated by Kuldip Singh; Penguin)—add to the rich list of translations from Hindi this year.
Removed from the interests of the “global novel"—which, to quote Mishra, “seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis" and advocates a “steady erasure of national and historical specificity"—the “local novel", at least the version of it that is emerging in India, gives primacy to the lived realities of a society that remain innately foreign to a majority of Anglophone readers, not only outside India but also within the country.
A novel like The Mirror of Beauty, a magnum opus by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (translated from the Urdu by the author; Penguin) about the life and times of a famous courtesan in 19th century India, or the mysterious stories of Naiyer Masud (translated by Muhammad Umar Memon from the Urdu; Penguin), may speak only to an elect, having the taste, perseverance and imagination to allow such stories to inhabit their minds. But for their artistic audaciousness and afterlife in a language read by the majority of the world’s readers, these works are bound to set new benchmarks for the way fiction in English is written, read and received in contemporary India.
Somak Ghoshal ate, read and did not fall in love this year.