Introducing India’s Literature

The best library I have ever been to once stretched across the length and breadth of three rooms. The books in it shivered in huge wobbly heaps on the floor at a house almost next door. And my best friend lived there.

Her father, the late P. Govinda Pillai, was a writer and a voracious reader who filled his life with books, books and more books. It was only natural that the rooms of his house spill over with books of all shapes, sizes and genres. They jostled with the steady stream of visitors in the various rooms, listening with fluttering pages to political and cultural conversations as well as housekeeping woes. Tired of being gently pushed off tables and shelves by newer books, a multitude of weeklies and a dozen dailies, they finally climbed the steps to live upstairs, squeezing into spaces wherever they could. They huddled into corners, held onto ceilings, and at times simply hugged each other on the cold red floor. The wind and the sun peeped into the open balcony, guarded by a three-strip, faded bamboo curtain, yet they almost never hurt the books, except perhaps stroke them in broad yellow marks on their covers.

And it was to this haven that I made a weekly trip, to choose a few pieces of ecstacy in words. My odyssey into reading began here.

I made my best acquaintances in these three rooms. Of writers who lived in countries which disappeared with time, of dishes I would remember for a taste my tongue would never know, and of languages in a script I would never be able to decipher. Yet, they came to me in the rounded font of a most beloved mother-tongue in which I read my first stories. In all the glory of almost unsung translations.

When I say unsung, I mean how the names of Omana and ‘Moscow’ Gopalakrishnan, a husband-wife translator duo, have disappeared from the memory of book lovers of my language. They did yeoman service in introducing Russian literature to Kerala, and translated nearly 200 Russian books into Malayalam in simple prose, over a period of 25 years. It’s learnt that they worked with the English translations of Russian texts initially, but later acquired proficiency enough in Russian to discard English as the mediator language.

Another language which found its classics in direct translation to Malayalam was Bengali. Translators like Nileena Abraham and Leela Sarkar are household names to those of us who waited impatiently for the serialised Bengali novels in translations to appear in our beloved Mathrubhumi weekly. In fact, translations between these two languages go back to 1909 when Anand Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee appeared in Malayalam and this was followed by a translation of Durgeshanandini in 1911.

In later years, except for the names of the good ladies mentioned above and a couple of direct translations of Tamil and Hindi books, Malayalam has seen very little direct translation from another language. At the same time, Malayalam is a language which has a thriving publishing industry in translated works. Any internationally awarded book immediately finds takers in Kerala, in Malayalam translation. We have been proud of the fact that Malayalam was the first world language in which Marquez was first published after English. Paulo Coelho in Malayalam translation is very popular. But these days, there is always a mediator language involved, and in most cases it’s English.

I mentioned all this to say how translations came to be a part of my life and remain so even now. A bi-lingual translator is one of the hats I wear. I am now moving on to another project, this time on my own, and its around translations. This blog is being put up to document the aforementioned project.

My project is to ‘Read Across India’. I need to quote another incident here. In 2012, I came across British journalist Ann Morgan’s blog, where she was ‘Reading across the World in a Year’. Yes, something like Phileas Fogg, but it was a literary journey.

And she was looking for recommendations for each country. The suggestions for India of course were the IWE variety. I commented on it saying that Indian writing was not in English alone but spread across more than two dozen official languages and umpteen ‘unofficial’ languages. I suggested a novel in Malayalam by Jnanpith winner M T Vasudevan Nair. Ann took up my suggestion and has gone on to mention it at various podiums including her blog, on reading a book from India. I also interviewed Ann for The Hindu about her world-lit blog.

It was around this time that I realised that I had read very little of the writing that was happening around my own country. I took stock of my library of translations and bought more. I got ready to read, this time across India and blog about it. But I needed a prod, and it came in good time.

Recently I guest-blogged for the U.K. website Mslexia introducing Indian writing in translation. I was given six spots, and introduced six writers from as many languages. I chose women, who write with fire. Sara Joseph from Malayalam, Sivakami from Tamil, Shanta Gokhale from Marathi, Indira Goswami from Assamese, Asha Poorna Devi from Bengali, and Krishna Sobti from Hindi. My assignment with Mslexia is over, but I am not satiated with six, I intend to continue with the project here, under Reading Across India.

I will be re-posting the Mslexia blogs here initially, introducing the books I placed on their podium in introduction of Indian Literature in other languages. And as far as possible, my series of blogs will handle fiction written by women, and with bold themes.

A word of thanks here to Ann Morgan, who chose to acknowledge me again on her blog, choosing Shanta Gokhale’s ‘Crowfall’ as her book of the month in September. Thank you, Ann, for the idea seed.


3 thoughts on “Introducing India’s Literature

  1. I too have read the Bengali novel translations published in Mathrubhumi weekly. They introduced me to Bengali literature and later on I read a lot many translated works. Since I was less than 13 years old when I read those mathrubhumi novels I don’t think I fully understood them. Hence I would like to re-read them now.
    For quite some time now I’ve been trying to remember the name of a novel published in mathrubhumi. But unfortunately all I can remember is the name of one character- Dhruv. I think the name of the novel is doordarshini.
    Google search yielded no result. Could u help me?

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