The Indian Novels Collective is the latest attempt to fill the cultural vacuum caused by loss of language
I spent my growing years negotiating the extraordinary cultural and lingual heterogeneity that an army life inevitably imposes on the innocent. Language, especially, was a shape-shifting beast, acquiring new features each time I was displaced, somewhere, anywhere, in the country. Every two years, we would pack our lives into large metal boxes and set course to a new destination. At these times, I witnessed the transformation of that chimerical beast, language. First you notice roughening of cadences, then accents are acquired, dialects shift and new vocabulary begins its in filtration, at the end of which long process you arrive at a new language.
After numerous transits I realised that our country is constituted in translation.
I recently had a long conversation with Professor Ashwani Kumar about the state of translation in India. Kumar is trained as a social scientist, and a poet and writer who writes in English. He is one of the four core members of the Indian Novels Collective (INC), an initiative that aims to nourish the impoverished translation culture in our country. In its first phase, INC is focused on translating 100 classic novels from major Indian languages into English. “Writers like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi, whether their work is pulp or not, have created a large number of English readers. Now this generation of readers will get to read Renu! Millions of them,” he said with excitement.
Phanishwar Nath “Renu” is a legendary Hindi writer who radically transformed the narrative styles in Hindi novels. (This I learned once I could access the Internet.) Meanwhile, our conversation lapsed into silence when I confessed ignorance. “Who is she?” I asked. The professor stared at me in disbelief. “He is the one who wrote the dialogues of Teesri Kasam,” he said. Too ashamed to probe further, this time I shook my head in slowest motion indicating that I had not seen the film. He first refused to talk until I watched the 1966 classic. Then he relented, and our conversation continued. Still, he softly said to himself, “This is why this is so important.”
As a “Millennial”, my cinematic diet was 90’s Bollywood, the visual equivalent of junk food, specifically a McDonald’s combo meal. But I knew my writers, who were all English, or Russian through translations. Our discussion veered towards the crude and violent exposure to colonialism and the linguistic legacy of English. “English is our post-colonial linguistic reality, which we need to settle down with, however uncomfortably. This translation exercise is not about privileging this colonial language, but regaining Indian classics. I can’t expect, or even wait for, today’s generation to return to their language,” said Kumar.
Translation is an existential necessity of urban India. But its ongoing integration in the literary landscape of the country in scale and importance is unprecedented. It is a permanent topic for panel discussions at literary events, which in turn have been multiplying faster than the Ebola virus. Then there is the epidemic of translation workshops. Major publishing houses now have translation editors. This magazine introduced a section for new translations into English. (None of these is necessarily evidence of the progress made in this space.) Why is everyone breaking away from the lingual homogeneity towards which we worked for decades, and exploring the fluidity and transformational quality of language? Is it too early to say that we are on the cusp of a new literary culture?
Another question: What is driving this movement?
This generation has expressed a strong, collective desire to claim its sovereign culture, and language is the most obvious gateway. This is also a generation that has been a victim, and a sensitive one, to the imbalanced language dynamics of the post-colonial era. I learnt Dogri, my “mother tongue”, only when I was well into my teens, mostly as psychological revenge for the linguistic isolation I faced every time I visited Naani’s house in Jammu.
In his younger years, Kumar penned Hindi jingles for Doordarshan, and had the luck to hobnob with bigwigs of Hindi literature. His admission of having suffered from “language violence” disturbed me. “It’s a kind of knowledge violence. A sense of marginalisation. A sense of being left out,” he said. Bollywood, too skittish to put its buck on anything that is not a movement, has made films like English Vinglish and Hindi Medium centered around this violence, and achieved considerable commercial success out of them.
English was and still is valuable currency for material, power and privilege. Which essentially means that a growing number of people are still developing a complex relationship with their “native” languages. In such linguistically intense and conflicted times, translations are an oasis of hope, a consolation. If not tangible access to the language itself, they promise safe passage to the culture that we desperately want to shamble back to. Through our conversation, Kumar insisted on the importance of translating culture. “Translation is not just about going to the source language, it has to focus on the deep underlying structure of meaning. It’s the whole culture that travels with the translation.”
The INC opened with a reading of Hindi novels and stories at Mumbai’s Jindal Mansion in September, 2017. Actress Neena Gupta read out pages from Krishna Sobti’s Mitro Marjani. Sangita Jindal, one of INC’s core members, read a Hindi translation of Tagore’s “Kabuliwala”. The other two members are Amrita Somaiya, owner of Mumbai’s favourite indie book store Kitab Khana, and Anuradha Parikh, founder of G5A Centre for Contemporary Culture in Mumbai.
Similar readings in other Indian languages will follow in cafés across the country. Readings, events and performances are going to be integral. In December, actors Vivek Oberoi and Richa Chadda were to be part of a reading panel at the Times Literature Festival in Mumbai. They read out from “Mare Gaye Gulfam”, a short story by “Renu”, which became the inspiration for the film Teesri Kasam and English translation of Pather Panchali. At the same event, theatre actor Danish Husain performed Lalon Fakir’s Search for INC.
Beyond linguistic translation, INC is trying to create a community that can access the culture, through translation of literature, performance and readings. A team of mentors that includes names such as Kiran Nagarkar, Amit Chaudhuri, Jatin Das and Chandan Gowda advise on which classic Indian novels should be translated. For instance, a shortlist of 20 Hindi classics was created by Mangalesh Dabral, a prominent contemporary Hindi writer and mentor to INC.
In their second phase, INC hopes to also engage in translation of poetry and essays, and have translations across Indian languages. “One of the goals of the Indian Novels Collective is that the new generation will rediscover essential Indian characters. So, enjoy discovering Ghanshyam Das or Ghana-da in Premendra Mitra, the great novelist of Bengal,” concluded Kumar before signing o on our last email exchange.
This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine.
Feature image courtesy: INC facebook page