ஏ நோதீர் துய் கினாரே துய் தாரோனி

This entry is part 1 of 13 in the series வங்கம்

நதியின் இரு கரைகளில் இரு படகுகள்

இச்சிறப்பிதழின் முகவுரையை வேறு விதமாக எழுதவே திட்டமிட்டிருந்தேன். வங்க மொழியின் பரிணாம வளர்ச்சி அதன் இலக்கிய வரலாற்றின் தொன்மங்களில் தொடங்கி, அதன் பத்தொன்பதாம் நூற்றாண்டு அறிவொளி இயக்கத்தின் வழியே தாகூர் சரத்சந்திரரை வந்தடைந்து, மேற்கத்திய இலக்கியத்தின் தாக்கத்தால் உருவான கல்லோல் இயக்க யதார்த்தத்தைப் பேசிவிட்டு,  அதன் மூப்பெரும் பந்தோபாத்யாய்களைத் துதிபாடியபடியே அதன் நவீன காலத்திற்கு வந்து அப்படியே மொழிபெயர்ப்பின் அவசியம், ஜெயமோகனின் ‘கண்ணீரைப் பின் தொடர்தல்” புத்தகத்தின் முக்கியத்துவம் என்று விரிவாகப் பேசிச் செல்வதற்கான ஒரு திட்டம். ஆனால் இச்சிறப்பிதழின் கட்டுரைகள்,மொழிபெயர்ப்பு, முன்னுரைகள் மற்றும் ஆசிரியர் குறிப்பிலிருந்தே ஒரு நுட்பமான வாசகி அவ்வரலாற்றைத் தொகுத்துக் கொண்டுவிடுவாள் என்று தோன்றியது. அதன்பின் இதை நினைவிலும் உணர்விலும் மீட்டெடுப்பதே சரியெனப்பட்டது. எனவே…

அப்பாவிடம் ரேடியோ பெட்டி ஒன்றிருந்தது. எழுபதுகளின் வார இறுதிகளில் நான் அப்பா, அம்மா,  அத்தசாப்த்தத்தின் இறுதியில் என் தங்கையும்கூட அதில் ஒளிபரப்பான பினாகா கீத் மாலாவைக் கேட்பது வழக்கம். வார்த்தைகளுக்கு அர்த்தம் புரியாத ஆயிரக் கணக்கான பாடல்களின் மெட்டுக்கள் ஏதோ பொற்காலத்தின் எச்சங்களாக என்னுள் உறைந்து கிடக்கிறது. அதிலிருந்து அவ்வப்போது சில மெட்டுக்கள் அவற்றிற்கே உரிய உணர்வுகளுடன் கிளர்ந்தெழும். நா ஜீயா லாகேனா என்ற பிரசித்தி பெற்ற ஹிந்திப் பாடல் ஒன்று, லதா மங்கேஷ்கர் பாடியது. எங்கள் அனைவருக்குமே பிடித்தமானது என்றே நினைக்கிறேன். அதன்பின் அப்பா ரெக்கார்ட் பெட்டி ஒன்றை வாங்கினார். அதை வாங்கிய உற்சாகத்தில் கிடுகிடுவென்று ஒருநாள் நாங்கள் வசித்துக்கொண்டிருந்த அண்ணா நகரிலிருந்து வெகு தொலைவிருந்த ஏதோ ஒரு கடைக்குச் சென்று தள்ளுபடி விலையில் கிடைத்த பல இசைத்தட்டுகளை வாங்கிவந்தார். தலத் மெஹ்மூட் இன் எ ப்ளூ மூட், மதுரை மணி ஐயரின் பிரசித்தி பெற்ற இங்லீஷ் நோட் இடம் பெற்றிருந்த ரெக்கார்டு, பைலட் ப்ரேம்நாத் போன்ற திராபைகள் உட்படப் பல தட்டுகளை அள்ளிக்கொண்டு வந்திருந்தார்.  அழியாத கோலங்கள் படப் பாடல்களைக் கொண்டிருந்த குறுந்தட்டும் அதிலிருந்தது. நான் எண்ணும் பொழுது என்ற பாடல், நா ஜீயா லாகேனாவின் தமிழ் வடிவம். லதாவைக் காட்டிலும் எஸ்பிபி சிறப்பாகப் பாடியது, குறைந்தபட்சம் இதுவரையில் ஐந்நூறு முறையேனும் குளிக்கும்போது அதன் நளினங்களைப் பாடி நான் மீட்டெடுக்க முயன்றது. அதன்பின் அதே பாட்டின் பெங்காலி மூலத்தை (அதையும் லதாவே பாடியிருக்கிறார்) என்னுடன் வேலைபார்த்த ஒரு நண்பர் அனுப்பிருந்தார். அண்மையில் சில வருடங்களுக்குப்பின் அதன் அபாரமான இசையமைப்பாளர் சலீல் சவுத்ரியின் கனவு தோய்ந்த குரலில், வங்க மொழியின் பிரத்தியேக இனிமையுடன் அதே பாடல் யூடியூபில் கேட்கக் கிடைத்து. நா ஜியா லாகேனா, நான் எண்ணும் பொழுது, நா மோனா லாகேனா, ஒரே மெட்டு, ஆனால் வெவ்வேறு மொழிகள், வெவ்வேறு குரல்கள், ஓர் அடிநாதத்தின் பன்முகத் தோற்றங்கள்…  நம் தமிழ் இலக்கியத்தில் கிணற்றுத் தவளைகளாகத் தொடங்கி,  மீனாக இந்திய இலக்கியத்தில் உருமாறி, உலக இலக்கியம் என்ற கடலை நாம் சென்றடைவதைப்போல் என்று நினைத்துக்கொண்டேன்.

பொலான்யோ சிறப்பிதழின் நீட்சியாகவே இச்சிறப்பிதழும் வருகிறது. மேற்கத்திய இலக்கிய வளங்களைச் சிறப்பிக்கும் அதே முனைப்போடு நம் இந்திய மொழிகளின் வளங்களையும் சிறப்பிக்கும் வகையில் சில சிறப்பிதழ்களைக் கொண்டுவந்தால் என்ன என்று கேள்வியும் உடனெழுந்தது. அதன் விளைவே, இவ்வங்கச் சிறப்பிதழ், ஒரு சிறு முன்னெடுப்பு. சிறப்பிதழ் என்பதே ஒரு பெரும் கூட்டுமுயற்சி. அதை “எடிட்” செய்வது சில சமயங்களில் நொந்து கொள்ளும்படியாக இருந்தாலும் பெரும்பாலும் ஒரு திறப்பாகவே அமைகிறது. இவ்விதழின் பல கட்டுரைகளுக்கும் மொழிபெயர்ப்புகளுக்கும் நூற்றுக்கணக்கான திருத்தங்களையும் கருத்துகளையும் அளித்திருப்பது பெருமையளித்தாலும் அவற்றின் மூலமே பல வங்க இலக்கியப் படைப்புகளையும் கண்டறிந்தேன் என்பதையும் இங்கு பதிவுசெய்ய நான் கடமைப்பட்டிருக்கிறேன். சிறப்பிதழிற்காக எழுதியவர்களுக்கு நன்றிகூறும் இத்தருணத்தில் அவர்கள் மொழிபெயர்ப்புகள் இங்கு நேரடியாக இடம்பெறாது என்பதை நன்கறிந்திருந்தும், வங்கத்திலிருந்து  நேரடியாக ஆங்கிலத்தில் மொழிபெயர்த்து  எங்களுக்கு அனுப்பிய ஷமீக் கோஷ், எம். என் குண்டு, நாங்கள் யார் என்று அறியாமலேயே எங்களுக்குப் பேட்டியளித்த ராமஸ்வாமி, அருணாவா சின்ஹா உட்படப் பல வங்க நண்பர்களையும் இங்கு நன்றியுடன் நினைத்துக்கொள்கிறேன். அவர்களும் இச்சிறப்பிதழில் ஏதோ ஒரு பத்தியையாவது படிக்க வேண்டுமே என்ற ஆதங்கத்தில்…

I continue this in English. Another special… and another intro in English. Last time we hid behind the braggadocio of Bolano and shot from his hips so to speak. This time we put our arms around our Bengali friends and bravely venture forth, imagining their smiles as sufficient recompense. This special wouldn’t exist if we had parochially confined ourselves solely to Bengali works translated into Tamil. There are not sufficient of those and in fact, one of the objectives of this special is to insist on the urgent need for more of those. We had to necessarily mine the web for those selfless souls who had put their heart and soul in showcasing their Bengali treasures in English translations. In their darkest hours, they might have wondered at the futility of such an exercise but here we are now, an obscure Tamil magazine memorializing their contributions. I hope they read this, and this is for them as well. We would like to especially thank the folks at parabaas.com, many of this special’s pieces are translations that count on that site as their source. And last but not the least, the legendary translator Arunava Sinha to whom we are indebted in several ways. Arunava’s translations that he hosts at his site arunavasinha.in gave us several fiction works that we gleefully translated for this special. Second, I reached out to Arunava at the last moment and he agreed to interview with me on short notice. With the humility not becoming of a translator who has already translated sixty books, Arunava wears his considerable translation chops very lightly and I fondly remember his frequent bursts of laughter from that delightful conversation we had just two days ago. In one of the articles of this Special the writer Ambai (who incidentally was gracious enough to lend us several interviews that she had conducted with leading Bengali Women writers for the Sparrow Organization she runs) recounts the contributions of the much underappreciated Su. Krishnamurthy, legendary pioneer responsible for bringing Bengali masterpieces to Tamil folk. Su. Krishnamurthy legendary Bengali translator who enriched our past and Arunava Sinha who enriches our present, needless to say, both their contributions will continue to enrich our future. It gives me great pleasure to think of Solvanam as that aqueous bridge that connects the boats Krishnamurthy and Arunava in the twin landscape of Tamil and Bengali literature (ye nodir dui kinare dui toroni, two boats on two banks of the same river, as the na mona lagena song tells us). In gratitude, I offer below a transcription (barely edited) of my conversation with translator Arunava Sinha.

Before delving into the pleasures of this interview, I would also like to reach out to folks who were willing but for various reasons unable to complete their pieces on time for this issue. We would like to remind them that the special spans across two issues and they still have time to send their pieces for the second issue. We know it’s a labor of love guys, and we all hate to be in a situation where love’s labor is lost. Don’t we?

-Nakul Vāc  /  நகுல்வசன்

Shooting the Breeze with Arunava

Transcript of An Interview with Arunava Sinha

Nakul Vāc:  First off, thank you Arunava for graciously agreeing to talk with us. As I wrote to you, I am doing this on behalf of the Solvanam, a Tamil magazine that has been around for quite some time; their 240th issue is going to be a Bengali Special. In keeping with the specialness of the occasion we wanted to interview someone special, a legendary Bengali translator such as yourself.

Arunava Sinha: Thank you, that’s very kind of you.

Nakul: I sent you a bunch of questions. Maybe I’ll start with that, I don’t know if you had a chance to take a look at them.

Arunava: I did, yeah, let’s start there and anything you want actually yeah.

Nakul: Sure, could you tell us a bit about yourself particularly the bit about how you came to be a translator.

Arunava: Yeah, well, there’s never a particular line that I crossed when I became a translator and I wasn’t one in some sense already. I think.  Hey, what happened was… when we were in college, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or perhaps just before I joined college… Actually, Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for literature and his books became available in Calcutta, where I was born and grew up. They were published under the new Picador imprint, and we got them at the book fair. For the first time, reading his works, especially 100 years I was alerted to the fact that there are translators. And to the fact that so much of what we’ve been reading till then were actually translations. We had just taken it for granted that these texts were in English when they were actually not, because English words had made such an impact on us, and I realized that these words that we quote to one another and also profoundly moved by are actually not written by the author but by the transparent figure of the translator; So, that piqued my interest. And I started reading translated literature with the awareness of the fact that these are not the first versions of the works. And naturally, what happens when you try a new…You know… when you listen to a new kind of music or something, you start humming it yourself. So, I tried my hand at little passages here and there all through college and wrote a couple of papers in college as well, on translation. So, that was how the interest grew.

Then, after I left college, we started a city magazine in Calcutta called Calcutta Skyline where we used to publish a short story in translation every month. And for the first few issues I did the translations myself. So, that was how I sort of started translating.

Nakul: And your first book was Chowringhee? Or was it something else?

Arunava Yeah, first book was Chowringhee. Now. What happened was… there’s a story behind that, which is that the first story I translated for our magazine was also by the same writer, Sankar, and a few years later, after the magazine started appearing, and in fact I’d left the magazine by then and got on to another job, he got in touch and said, would you translate Chowringhee for me because there is this  French publisher who wants to publish it . And English language publishing was not a very big thing in India those days.

Penguin, Random… I think Penguin had started. the older companies were still there, Orient Longman and Rupa, but it wasn’t big. So, he said, will you translate for me? I said, sure, I’d love to and then I would stay back at work in the evenings and hammer it out on the office computer. I finished it in about 3 months. This was in 1992, I finished it in about 3 months, and I was moving to Delhi after that to take up a new job. So, I finished it and gave him a print-out which was in the old days, You know,  you remember those dot matrix printers and those accordion fold out perforated printing sheets, so I gave him a whole bunch of those print-outs and came away to Delhi and forgot all about it. I completely forgot about it after I moved to Delhi.

Occasionally I would have these quarter life and third life crisis and so on. And then I would think, oh what about my translation and then I would pick up a book and translate 2 paras and that would be it. 14 years later, in 2006, an editor from Penguin called me and by now, English language Publishing was a thing in India. So, she called me and said, “look, we want to publish Chowringhee in translation and the author said that there is a translation already. He sent it to me, and it has your name on it.”

Calcutta being the village it is, in a certain sense everyone knows everyone here, at least within certain sections of society. So, she knew me, and she called me, and I said, yeah, that’s me, that’s amazing. How did that happen? She said, anyway, never mind all that, we want to publish it. Do you want to make any changes?  I asked her to send me the manuscript. She sent it to me and as it happened, I had also saved the file on one of those… I mean, I’m telling you all this because I’m going by your appearance and assuming that these things will mean something to you.

Nakul: I completely relate to it, so please go on…

Arunava: Yeah, I had saved it on a five-and-a-half-inch floppy disk. And that five-and-a-half-inch floppy disk had somehow survived all the moves that I had made since leaving Calcutta, moving houses, moving cities, a couple of times, went to Bangalore came back to Delhi etc.  I was hopeful that I would be able to retrieve the file from it. So, I took it to Nehru Place in Delhi, and they do have a couple of places where they try to recover old data for you from old media. But unfortunately, it did not work. They could not retrieve it, so then I gave that whole thing to, and this was, you know was about 90-100,000 words, maybe more. I wasn’t going to sit and type it all over again, so I gave it to a typist who said “fine, I’ll type it up for you”. I paid him to type it up for me and I had a Word document and I made a future.

I made a few Changes here and there and sent it back to them and that was how, in a way, that journey began. But at that point, I had no idea it was a journey. It was a book, that was all.

Do you want me to tell you more about how it became a journey? Or is that in future questions?

Nakul: No, no, go ahead. I’m pretty intrigued by that journey, but I have just one question about Sankar, because he’s practically unheard of in Tamil circles.  Nobody knows about Sankar in Tamil literary circles. Everybody here only talks about… you, know… Tarasankar, Bibhutibhushan and the like…So was he quite popular in in Calcutta or…

Arunava: He’s very popular, is one of the most popular Bengali writers. But he’s not from the era of Tarasankar, Bibhutibhushan and so on. And certainly not Sarat Chandra. He’s still alive. He’s 82. Although he doesn’t write any fiction now.

Nakul: I should tell you a story about… How in my youth, I had fallen l in love with one of his characters, you know, the Sharmila Tagore character in Ray’s version of Seemabaddha. I even wrote poems about her and recited them in office soirees. Yes, for a long time Tutul was a big crush of mine.

Arunava: Tutul, yeah…So the thing about Sankar is that all his fiction has come out of stories that people have told him, stories he encountered himself. Once he went into retirement, he no longer had any experiences he could convert into fiction; he has only been writing nonfiction since then. Biographies and so on, but he’s a fantastic storyteller. I mean, he’s not so much a writer as he’s a storyteller.

Nakul: Yes, you could see this in Chowringhee as well.  When I think of Chowringhee, I think of… do you know this Czech writer Bohumil Hrabaal?

Arunava: Yes, yes of course of course.

Nakul: I served the King of England was something similar, right?  the guys a waiter in some fancy Hotel…

Arunava: Yeah, Although Amitav Ghosh pointed out that the writer perhaps he is most similar to is Mahfouz Naguib Mahfouz.

Nakul: Ah, the Egyptian writer, yes.

Arunava: Yes, The Egyptian writer… very much in that grand storytelling mode, without being overtly literary, but at the same time getting into the depths of human lives… some kind of uncanny acumen, in a way. So yeah, then what happened was that, at the so called launch of that book at Calcutta in 2007, In the month of June, one morning I got a call. We were then holidaying  in Goa and I got a call from the same editor asking me if I was coming to the launch and I said what Launch? She said “There is this launch today in Calcutta. I said, look the only reason I’m not furious at not being told is that I’m having a great time in Goa. If I had been stuck in the heat of Delhi and you told me there’s a launch in Calcutta, and asked me if I were coming, I would have been very upset.  So, they didn’t tell me. But back in those days, book launches were a thing and they were covered by television and so on. So, to my, I guess, a sort of wonder, I watched a little clip where the editor said we will now also translate Jan Aranya, another of his novels, which was also made into a film by Ray.

 I realized then I had another book to translate. And then I did. Then what happened was that at the Crossword awards, which Chowringhee won, I met Chicki Sarkar who was then the publishing editor at Random House. She had just started the company here in India. This was in the month of July in 2007. 2008 sorry and she said “do you have a book for me for Valentine’s day? something that you can translate? “. I said  look, I don’t think I have a book for Valentine’s Day, but I am reading this very bittersweet kind of love story, which has four stories and within this framework of a single night’s journey made by 4 middle aged men whose train is delayed, they’re swapping stories In a waiting room.  They are all stories from their youth, their own love stories and as is typical with love stories in Bengal, most of them don’t end happily, but they’re very beautiful stories.  Written by Buddhadeva Bose. So, it’s a novel. but, you know,  in that old-fashioned structure of the Decameron. She asked me to send her a sample and so I translated one of the episodes and sent it to her. She replied, “Yes you’re right, it is very beautiful, but it’s not for Valentine’s Day.”

Then a week later, she called back, and  said, listen, I read Bernice Bobs her hair, which is a F. Scott Fitzgerald story, I read Bernice Bobs her hair and I want to do this book!  I still for the life of me don’t know the connection exactly but maybe it was their writing or because both the writers were in one sense similar, I mean both Buddhadeva Bose and Fitzgerald were stylists. So now I had three books or three in the making at any rate, and three is a trend as you know.

So, then I realized that this was sort of, life giving me a signal that this is how you deal with your midlife crisis, because I was at the age where instead of buying the red Ferrari or doing something equally reckless. But this became the channel through which I managed to sort of find new meaning in existence and so on. You know how it is at a particular age. You question everything you’ve done, and you wonder what the hell is going on.

Nakul: Interesting, all right. Now let’s talk about the title of one of your books. The greatest Bengali stories ever told. Of course, in your introduction you make it clear that this is all a purely subjective choice. So, I take it that, this is “greatest stories” according to Arunava as opposed to it being a canonical list of Bengali stories. But is there a canonical list of Bengali stories which the Bengalis themselves accept as Canonical?

Arunava: It doesn’t exist, but there are some stories that will be bandied about. But also remember that the present generation of Bengalis is not a great generation of readers anymore. So, Maybe there are some who will throw down names of writers as sacred cows and they will be particularly affronted if anyone says or mispronounces their names or gets something wrong about their lives, as has been the wont during the current electoral campaign (laughs..). They are very quick to be offended about things which we ourselves will protect, but don’t know much about.

You know, Ram Guha once wrote that it is thanks to Bengalis that Tagore has been kept in the cage of Bengal. If only he’d been let loose earlier, his writings could have done so much more. Which is true, because the University Vishwa Bharati which he founded, the University authorities, were so zealous about not allowing anyone else to publish or translate, and so on that it became a royal pain. It was very fortunate that the Copyright was finally lifted. In fact, it was thanks to their work that in India the Copyright period went up from 50 years to 60 years. It used to be 50 and then they campaigned for a lifetime Copyright for Tagore. And at that point the government said, fine, we’ll extend it by 10 years, and then we’ll see. So, they extended by 10 years. And in the process, they just modified the law altogether. So that’s how it went up from 50 to 60. And then it stayed there ever after. Thank goodness it’s not 70 or 100 like some countries.

Nakul: Alright, coming back to that book of yours, I love that intro to that book.

Arunava: Thank you.

Nakul: You talk about your mother narrating a story she had read, the one about an ox and its miserable owner, right? and I think that story is Mahesh. But in the 70s, if you read that story, you would probably just focus on its pathos, in the sense, that you would be absolutely crushed by the pathos. Either of the Ox or its owner, but, imagine a young chap of today who’s just discovered, oh, let’s say, his right of center proclivities, imagine him reading that. Is he more likely to latch to what to him feels like a stereotype of upper caste people and harp on that as opposed to focusing on the sheer pathos of it? 

Arunava: Great question. It’s very hard to …you know put myself in the shoes of someone like that and read the story through fresh eyes. It’s possible it’s possible I guess and they would probably also do this broad stereotyping of the character being a Muslim etc. And yeah, yeah, so quite likely, quite likely.

Nakul: Alright, and there’s one other thing in that introduction I am very curious about.  In the intro you say that you missed your convocation, because you had an appointment with this  film director. I’m assuming it’s Ray, but what was all that about?

Arunava: Yeah, so I translated one of his stories, a fairy tale, as it happens, for another magazine and sent it to him. He sent word saying that you need to come and meet me on such and such date at such and such time. And of course, it had to coincide with the convocation. But it was a no brainer.

Nakul: I completely agree. I mean, convocations are terrible. Especially in India, where you’d wear a gown and sweat all over.

Arunava: Yeah, exactly, it was no big deal at all, yeah?

Nakul: How do you choose what to translate?  In Tamil there’s this notion that we don’t attempt to translate the best of our works, but only what appeals to the West, is such a notion prevalent in Bengal as well.

Arunava: Well, it’s not so much the translators as the publishers who assume this gatekeeping role where they’re always looking at the possibility of the book being sold. Sold not necessarily to the West because almost nothing makes it out there, but in India, to Indian English readers. This gatekeeping function is something that is fundamentally flawed because it’s almost like an algorithm, right? You’re only going by what has worked before, so you are simply not allowing the stream to expand by saying that we will stick to the tried and tested. But having said that, I myself started out by translating the big names of Bengali literature and there was a time when English publishing was very hungry for books, because they didn’t have enough writing in English and these were safe bets in a way, because they already had a reputation. And there was still a generation of readers who knew their names. Moreover, many of the editors at publishing houses were Bengalis. There was considerable familiarity with the works.

But, when I look back and I started to do this a few years ago,  I looked back and realized that I have done exactly what the publishing establishment had done, which was to translate the equivalent of white male authors. Because these were all upper caste, men. They were not tremendously wealthy or anything, but they were successful in in the publishing industry or in a cultural field where clearly their origins had played a part in it.

Now, of course, people like Bibhutibhushan or Manik Bandyopadhyay, or even Tarasankar, none of them came from affluent families or were people with connections. But the fact remains that, the fact that they were men had a great deal to do with the fact that their books came out and they were accepted and so on. There were equally talented women writers whose works did not see the light of day in the same way.  I mean, Ashapurna Devi for example. Even today, I think she has not found her true place in the world. I believe that her short stories are absolutely as good as anything any writer in the world has ever produced and the fact that she was a woman had a lot to do with her not getting the kind of currency that our male counterparts did.  So,  over the past few years, let’s say over the past seven or eight years, I’ve tried consciously to work on books by women, work on books by writers from the margins rather than from the mainstream as much as possible, partly because a whole bunch of translators have also come up since then, and many of the books in the modern canon have been translated already. Therefore, that’s how I choose now. I mean, I still will not translate a book just because it is representative of a minority or it’s written by a woman or it comes from margins, but there are fortunately enough wonderful books in those spaces that need to be translated. I’ve been trying to go there but not 100% of the time. I still translate male authors in the mainstream… (laughs)

Nakul: It’s amazing that you say that Ashapurna is not being translated extensively into English. We have done a couple of translations for the special and she’s absolutely stunning. 

Arunava: Yeah, exactly.

Nakul: We also did some translations of interviews with some of the women writers, like, I think, Krishna Basu Mallika Sengupta and Sujata Bhattacharya and all of them make this point as how paternalistic the whole literary establishment was.

Arunava: That’s right, and upper caste.

 Nakul: And how even guys like Sunil Gangopadhayay would say OK, why are you writing that? I mean, in that way, in terms of feminist themes and so on…

 Arunava: Yeah, Sunil Gangopadhayay was extremely patronizing towards women who wrote. I mean he tried to be an avuncular figure whose cloak of avuncularity would slip to reveal something else, but the fact was he was patronizing, he certainly did not consider them, Women, as equal or equal of men. And then there was this whole romance of these men, you know, the band of brothers, the bro bonding.

That he and Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sandipan Chattopadhyay and others who also had this literary label slapped on them, at one point, the hungry generation, hungryalists etc. Of course, bit of an exaggeration really, but they were responding to Allen Ginsberg’s visit to Bengal and Calcutta.

And you know, they lived their lifestyles as if it were their literary statement. You know, going out to drink in in these low dives and rushing off into the forest. Aranyar Din Rathri, Rays film, Days and nights in the forest was based on a Sunil Gangopadhayay novel which was written based on their own adventures.

Nakul: Ah OK, so bohemian kind of ….

Arunava: Yeah. A bohemian kind of thing, sort of middle-class Bengali bohemian kind of thing if you will. He also created this other character called Nilohit and used to write these novels in first person under the name of Nilohit,  a guy who would who had decided that he was not going to be part of the job-seeking mainstream and hence will not seek employment. He would not be like others and he would travel romantically to various places and so on, but you realize now, what a very upper-class utopia that was. Yeah it’s very cool for an upper middle class person to say I won’t do a job and I will go where I like and so on, because you know you have the support right and although he’s broke all the time, he’s never going to be forced to live on the streets or anything. He has a house whose males were faintly contemptuous and female relatives who are very very supportive. That’s a luxury, right?

 Nakul: Indeed Yes.  Moving on, in my half-baked attempts at translation I find translating regional dialects in Tamil very hard. So, I just want to know how you tackle regional dialects of Bengali, for instance.

Arunava: Yeah, look, all of us translators grapple over this, and there is no good way to translate it to an equivalent dialect in English. Because if you choose an existing dialect from somewhere, which in any case I doubt that we are competent enough to maintain consistently. I mean, I don’t know that I can write American Street English, for example, beyond a single sentence or two. It would completely create an artificial context and readers would be confused. Or we would be telling readers something that is far from the truth, right; if people from North Bengal suddenly start speaking Cockney or they start speaking Scottish or whatever…  and then I thought about it a lot and I realized that we are creating this hierarchy when we talk about dialects and language and we somehow assume that there has to be one standard version which we are translating into a standard English and therefore dialects are sort of, you know their… How does one put it here …Qualitatively somewhere lower and therefore they need distortion and so on. And I said, look, it’s not possible. It can’t work, so I’m not going to try. What I do is I try to create a different register, just to indicate that they’re not all speaking in the same version. But you know there are two situations where dialect comes in: One is where, let’s say some characters are speaking in dialect and some not, so for example, in Bengali, you’ll see a lot of,  you used to see a lot of these conversations between Upstairs Downstairs, the owners, members of the family and their hired help, their maids and domestic staff… they would speak in two different kinds of language. The other is when the entire dialogue is in dialect, because all the characters speak that same language. Now, that to me is not any different from standard Bangla because they all understand one another, and all that the writer is doing really is alerting you to the fact that they pronounce their words differently.

In fact, when one looked at it. In Bangla, not even their vocabulary is particularly different. It’s more a matter of pronunciation. Or at least that’s what writers end up with. Maybe writers who are trying to do dialect can only go that far.

They only have an ear, but not really an understanding of the of the words that are used. I don’t know, but any which way, I felt that you just change the register a bit, and let it flow… because they understand one another perfectly. So why should we create stumbling points for the reader, when they have no context anyway.

Nakul: I was of the same opinion, but I recently read this English translation of, you know Hansuli Banker Upakatha, by Tarasankar. I don’t know if you’ve read it…

Arunava : Oh yes, that’s the one.

Nakul: That’s where he kind of, this translator Ben Conisbee Baer uses Creole English basically, but he doesn’t use exactly Creole English. He’s created a kind of artificial mixture of several Creole dialects to kind of mimic Tarasankar’s Bengali dialect variations. But somehow, I felt that it worked because Hansuli is about this Adivasi kind of Kahar folk. So, I don’t know how it reads in Bengali, but does it really read differently, the dialect of what the Kahars speak versus the other people there?

Arunava: I think, frankly, one big problem we have is that when we read English, we still read it as a slightly elevated language. I still cannot read English as a language of the earth, of the soil if you will, like we would read one of our own. So, somewhere I find it hard to accept this dialect idea. Maybe because it’s Bengal. Maybe I would accept it if it were a translation of some other language. It’s easier for you to accept because you have a distance from Bengali. So, for you, you are taking what you’re seeing, and you are comparing the two and it works for you, so I guess in that sense the translator was successful. It worked for him; he was able to do what he set out to do. I don’t think I would be able to do it even. I mean, sitting here in India, I don’t think I have enough mastery over any other form of English than the one that we know and read.  At best I might be able to do, try some. very modern street from America. The language of rap and hip hop perhaps, if I tried, but even that, chronologically wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t make sense. Cockney is in any case out of style. Now nobody uses it anyhow, I don’t think it even exists anymore.

Nakul: This guy uses Creole English, so it’s…

Arunava: Yeah yeah Creole English. I just found the reading tough going. I found it hard to read because I kept stopping at the.. at the spelling etc

Nakul: That’s very interesting, actually, because for you, it’s completely different because you are relating to Bengali. But for me, I don’t have any frame of reference. So, I’m just reading it as I would any other novel.

Arunava: So, you’re obviously the correct reader for this, so I shouldn’t judge it by my own experience at all.

Nakul: No, No, you actually clarified a thing for me.  That’s an interesting perspective, that for you it’s just a stumbling block, but for me it was something different, even refreshing.

The other question I had was, as opposed to translating in English, shouldn’t we also be translating into each other’s languages, all our regional masterpieces?

Arunava: Surely, we absolutely should, and it’s a tragedy that the kind of multilingual literacy that used to exist in India has gone out the window. And there are very few people now who actually know two languages. Even two languages…Well Hindi, still enough people do, and they may be able to work with Hindi and their mother tongue. But beyond that, no. So I am very keen that we actually start the process of two people coming together to translate. If, let’s say we were working from Bangla to Tamil and if we did not want to go through a written English translation, then you and I could actually work together. We would still be communicating in English, I know, but in some ways, we would at least get a sense of what we might be able to do, something more useful than just working with a bridge text in English. But if that is not possible, then I’m willing to go with a bridge text even. It’s better than nothing.

Nakul: Correct, and sometimes you know, Tamil readers are perplexed as to what’s on offer for them from other regional languages. So, if we take Bengali for instance, for a Tamil reader I think Neelkant Pahir Konje is probably one of the greatest Bengali novels ever and I concur. Now, I don’t know if it is, if it’s seen that way in Bengal.

Arunava: Yes, it is certainly is one of the most admired. 

Nakul: But they’re flummoxed by some of the other things being offered. For instance, if you take …

Arunava: Has it been translated into Tamil.?

Nakul: Yes, it is. And it’s amazing. It was translated in the 70s by this extraordinary gentleman S. Krishnamurthy. 

Arunava: Yeah, that’s when that biliteracy existed.

Nakul: I think  the National Book Trust commissioned that translation. 

Anyway, if those kinds of people who have actually read novels like Neelkant, now read someone like, oh say, Banaphool, they have a knee-jerk reaction. I think you have translated a story called Conjugal Dreams.

Arunava: Yeah.

Nakul: Somebody was trying to translate it for this special and said I don’t know why we’re translating this. Because  for them it felt as if it were something which would appear in one of our Tamil weekly magazines. Could you talk about what Banaphool is like for a Bengali. Was he a different kind of writer? Or why do Bengalis think he is great?

Arunava: Well Banaphool of course wrote these micro stories. Almost none of his stories goes … I mean the longest story probably doesn’t go beyond four or five pages.

And clearly the stories appeal because they set you thinking.  He just tells you enough for you to fill in a whole lot more in your head.  So, it’s more a stylistic thing. It’s a technique thing. It’s not that he’s talking about Bengal per se or writing anything unique about Bengali people. Or anything like that.

And that brings me to a point, which is that there is this notion, that only literature that represents a region should be translated. So, when I’m reading a story written originally in Tamil it must, in some mysterious way, be Tamil literature. And I have huge objections to that because that is not how you read literature, right? I mean, does that mean that a person who is writing in Tamil is always obliged to foreground the Tamilness? Obviously not, right, you’re just writing about the world that you know. And it happens to be the world of Tamil speaking people.

But the things that you may be writing about may have nothing to do with, overtly. With that particular aspect of it. What if you’re writing crime? What if you’re writing science fiction or genre fiction, for example? I mean, if you’re writing crime fiction in Malayalam, are you always going to have palm trees in it. Must your young men always be drinking toddy and hitching up their Mundus or whatever. So no, I don’t buy that.

And you’re right, the moment you say Bengali literature or something then there is this sort of frame within which you start thinking about it  and the frame in a sense has been created by your pre-existing knowledge of that literature. So, the Tarasankars and the Bibhutibhushans have always set the foundations. But if you read Bibhutibhushan and then read a Sankar you would find nothing in common, absolutely nothing in common. Sankar’s stories are set in the modern corporate world of Calcutta of 1970s. And what does that have in common with the 1930’s rural Bengal? Almost nothing other than the use of the same language.

Nakul: Yeah, I read Nawab Saheb which you had translated, which was also by Banaphool I think. There is a kind of a Proustian gossipy feel about the whole story, which to me was interesting.

By the way have you read any Tamil fiction in translation?

Arunava: Lots of it. In English translations obviously.  Although very early on there was this very glorious three volume collection of short stories from all over India, translated into Bangla at the behest of one of our professors at the Jadavpur University, Manabendra Bandyopadhyay, a professor of comparative literature. And that was absolutely fantastic, because I think somehow reading those stories in a non- English language was different from reading them in English.

You know, even if we claim it as our own now, the fact is English originated in a different space. And it has that slight distance, right? So Yeah, I’ve read a good deal. I mean you can’t live as a reader today without reading Perumal Murugan? So Murugan of course but also, Ambai, Bama, Salma and… what was the… Asokamithran

Nakul: Yeah,  Kalyanraman our foremost translator recently re-tweeted that someone is working with you on a translation of one of Jeyamohan’s collection, Aram, I think.

Arunava: Hopefully, lets see how that goes. But the thing is, I also get the feeling that these are the writers who are, besides Perumal Murugan probably… Perhaps these are these are the equivalents of the Bibhutibhushan Tarasankar and Manik’s in a way, right?  I mean they are well known, highly regarded. Not to take away anything from their work, but they are very much at the at the forefront right, of Tamil writing.

Nakul: Well, Tamil literary world is a very funny world. Conclaves of semi-incestuous groups and internecine quarrels.  The funny thing is, probably only a few thousands of Tamils read literature and yet these guys quarrel between themselves as to who’s the greatest amongst these two or three hundred of them who are actually capable of writing reasonably well.

Arunava: But are they not contemporary writers who are doing very exciting stuff?

Nakul: Some of them are but then the problem is… take Jeyamohan for instance, he is one of the leading contemporary writers and he’s not widely translated into English yet. And there are many more like him who are in this weird place where the Tamil world thinks highly of them and yet they are not being publicized outside of it.  This creates a lot of tension and notions get freely bandied about, that certain writers get that publicity purely because of the social contexts they foreground as opposed to their works being quote unquote “Great Literature”. Hence all the backbiting and the angst.  

Arunava: Yeah.

Nakul: Do you translate poetry as well and is there a translation strategy by genre?

Arunava: Yeah, I do. I do very selectively because I know I’m incapable of translating all poetry or any poetry; But I do, and I’ve, just a couple of years ago,  finished an anthology of poetry translation, which was brought out by, of all people by a publisher in Wales as part of an arrangement. You know, there are all these Indo British cultural partnerships that are always going on, where they try to bring out books at the end of it. That should be published in India as well this year. So yeah, there’s that anthology. And then there’s…  I’ve done three other books of poetry by individual poets. To me, translating poetry is obviously a whole different ball game. And I’m not sure its translating. Yes, technically it’s translation, but I dare say it’s more like doing cover versions, in the sense that your voice shows through. You can’t completely abandon your own yourself because you’re not capable of it essentially, and I’m not.

Nakul: I mean, for me the problem in translating poetry is that Tamil and English have exactly opposite syntactic structures, right? So, what comes first in English?

Arunava: Yeah, same with Bangla.

Nakul: OK then you will relate to this… so if the poem is highly visual, then I have to necessarily bring what appeared at the end in English much earlier in Tamil and I find that very vexing. So, I end up twisting the sentence constructions in some odd ways to kind of mimic the emergence of the visual in the original. It is not successful always.

Arunava: It means changing the order of the lines and so on, yeah?

Nakul: How do you manage to be so prolific; I just went to your site; you have almost written over 60 books?

Arunava: The thing is, well, two things, I guess. One is, translation is quite a flow activity. It’s not one where you build, stop, polish, rebuild and so on right? You go with the flow and you do a full first draft and then you go back and revise it and so on. So, in a sense it’s kinder on the way you use your time. At least for me. Maybe others have different ways of translating, but I’ve exchanged notes with translators around the world and most seem to work the same way.

So that’s one thing. The other thing is that it’s a bit of a drug, you know you can’t do without it. As far as I’m concerned. You know, I’d have cold turkey if I didn’t translate every day.

Nakul: And do you translate more than one book at a time?

Arunava: Sometimes, sometimes.

Nakul: Ok, and how has Covid impacted your work ethic?

Arunava: Well, the work ethic has pretty much remained the same, but I think I’ve been more troubled by the anxieties that it generated. I mean, to be honest, the lock down did not change my lifestyle significantly. I spend most of my time at home working anyway.  I used to go into the University twice a week like everybody to teach, which was shifted to online classes. And the other thing that I do, which is work as a books editor for Scroll, was in any case work I used to do at home.  So, none of those things changed, but the anxieties engendered by the entire situation got to me, slowed me down. I was surprised by that.

Nakul: I have a similar kind of experience, where nothing much changed for me, except for being bummed out from not being able to play Badminton. Anyway, have a couple of more questions for you. In your opinion, who are the best Bengali writers writing today?

Arunava: Ha Ha. I’m not gonna answer that question.

Nakul: It’s going to be in a Tamil magazine. Nobody’s gonna read it, so…

Arunava: Yeah, good point. You know my one crib with Bengali writing these days is that I have a feeling that most of them do not read world literature, I mean Bengali writers.  And they don’t realize that the world is no longer limited to the physical space you inhabit. You seamlessly, you’re all over and things from all over the world are coming into your lives. And there’s a very half-baked acknowledgement of this. And the second factor I have a problem with is that the writing itself has not changed significantly. A few writers have, they have their own terrific, unique styles, but most people still want to write in a very blunt, direct, journalistic fashion which was, as you might know, pioneered by Sunil Gangopadhayay, who is no great stylist ever. In his prose. I think he kept that all for his poetry. His prose was actually quite bland in that sense.

But having said that, I think there is Anita Agnihotri who continues to be one of the finest writers. She writes from her own experiences and she manages to seamlessly combine individual stories with ethnography, with a sense of history. It’s quite amazing. She creates a vast landscape in very few words. So definitely right up there for me.

Manoranjan Byapari, the Dalit writer, who is a completely self-taught writer, but his writing has tremendous energy. And I dare say his works would be interesting to Tamil readers because he writes about the other half, so his stories are always set in jail and on pavements and in slums, in not one of his novels will we get into a high rise building or even a bungalow or anything like that. They’ll all stop at the door, at the gate. So, him, who are the others let’s see…There is great Bangla writing out of Bangladesh of course.

Nakul: It’s interesting that last part of what you said, when we spoke with another translator for this special, I don’t know if you know his name, Ramaswamy.

Arunava: Yeah.

Nakul: I think he translates the likes of Subimal Mishra, Udayan Ghosh and the like and he was saying the best writing in Bangla is currently being written from Bangladesh.

Arunava: Yes. Has been for a while, not just now. I think for the past 15 or 20 years. There are some terrific writers there. Shahidul Zahir, Akhterruzzaman Elias who is probably the finest Bengali language writer on both sides in the past 50 years. Well, 30 or 40 years for sure. And he wrote only two novels and a handful of short stories. There are many others as well and their work is definitely on a different plane, no doubt about it.

Nakul: I think Ramaswamy mentioned Shahidul Zahir, Numair Atif Choudhury and Ansaruddin I think.

Arunava: Yes, yeah yeah. Numair, of course wrote only one novel that he wrote in English.

Nakul: That’s correct, he mentioned that as well, Babu Bangladesh.

Arunava: That’s right, Babu Bangladesh, and then he very tragically died.  And its eerie you know, when you read that book, you almost see his death foreshadowed in a section of that book.

Nakul: Wow. I haven’t read it, probably should. 

Arunava: It’s an indulgently written book and not edited well enough in the sense that everything that he wrote is in there. It really needed to be a bit tighter. Read it. 

Nakul: So, it was really a Swan song kind of book?

Arunava: Yeah. Both a debut and a swan song.

Nakul: Lastly, what are you currently translating?

Arunava: I’m translating another Manoranjan Byapari novel. I’m translating two novels actually. Now that you mention it, this is the time I am actually translating more than one novel at the same time. Well, actually, three because I’m also translating, one from English to Bangla as well, to which I give an hour each morning at the moment, but it’ll ramp up eventually to occupy the entire day. That’s Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. I work on it first thing in the morning for an hour or so, because most of my translating days are still occupied by English novels; I’m also translating a novel by a Bangladeshi writer named Mashrur Arefin, The Phantoms of August, which is again an incredible text and a very long text I might add, which  centers on the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in the month of August 1975. But it centers on it through memories and associations. Very Proustian in the way it floats from one memory to another of a writer today who, in the month of August is going through various experiences in his own life which ultimately circle back to that assassination.

So that’s one and the other one is another novel, by Manoranjan Byapari which I’m close to wrapping up now, in Bangla it’s called Cherra Cherra Jibon which literally would mean Life in scraps, scraps of life. It is actually a non-narrative novel in the sense that there’s no one particular story there, but it is a collage of lives on the edge. These are ragpickers, people who just got out of jail, who run scrapyards, men women both, and interestingly, the point is that it is about their lives, but those aspects of their lives, which normally are written about in the context of upper class people.  Love sex, Romance and indeed making a living, but it is very matter of fact about their struggles and much more intent on looking at the completeness of their lives.

Because we tend to always think of certain lives as being focused only on the act of survival. Because you are living on the edge and you don’t have enough money and you think that’s all there is to such lives. And this book actually shows that’s all bunk. Their lives are as rich or in fact, perhaps richer than yours or mine because we are in a more routine schedule. We’re bound more by middle class laws.

So here it’s much more of a free flow of emotions and bodies and concerns, so it’s fascinating, absolutely fascinating. Not so much storytelling as worldbuilding really. And he could, well, put more characters and more stories in there, now that he’s created this world, which is set in this colony of slums set next to a railway station in the South, in South of South Calcutta.

Nakul: Wow. Three novels?  That’s incredible. I don’t know how you find the time. I can’t even work on one translation for a long time. Anyway, I think we are running out of time, so before we wrap up I just want to say one thing, I wanna thank your uncle who shot at you with an air rifle as you were all nicely snucked up on that Guava tree cozily reading Kabulliwallah…for without him we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading your book and I won’t be sitting here interviewing you for a Tamil Magazine.

Arunava: He wrote a novel which I discovered later in his chest, after his death. You know, back then every family used to have this what we call it, Shinduk, one of those chests with a lock where you kept your valuables. I found in it the copies of the magazine in which it had been serialized. And I haven’t read it yet.  I hope the copies are still there. I must go back and read it sometime.

Nakul: It’s in your genes then. Thank you so much Arunava for taking the time and talking to us. it was a real pleasure.

Arunava: No thank you, that was the most wonderful conversation.

Interview Conducted by Nakul Vāc  on 02/11/21 on behalf of Solvanam.

Series Navigationவி. ராமஸ்வாமி: நேர்காணல் >>

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