India was once all about spices, snakes and magic. Now the flavours and exoticism have gone on to our writing. Indians actually write in many more languages than just English; the wikipedia says we have 22 official languages and 1,652 different “mother tongues” in India. And many of these do have flourishing literature.
This blog is an attempt to introduce you to a handful of books from India, written in languages other than English. I have chosen only from fiction, and mostly the work of a woman writer who writes with fire.
This week I have chosen the writer Ashapoorna Devi who wrote in Bangla, a language spoken in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Southern Assam and ranked fifth in the list of world languages as spoken by the most number of people.
Book titles chosen: Prothom Protishruti (First Promise), Subarnolata, Bakulo Katha ( Bakul’s Story)
My first acquaintance with Ashapoorna Devi’s work was during my school days. Pratham Prathishruthi was serialised in translation at the time in a popular literary weekly in Malayalam (my own mother tongue). The translator, P. Madhavan Pillai, brought the Bangla text into Malayalam directly, preserving the nuances of the source language. The other books in the trilogy, Subarnalata, and Bakulo Katha too were serialised soon, and then the book versions appeared. But this happened in the late seventies, if I remember right.
The publishing scene in India is now moving on to more translations. But the translations between Indian languages, like, say Bangla to Oriya, or Tamil to Malayalam, are not as common as the readers would like them to be, and most times happen through a mediator language; English in most cases, and sometimes Hindi. I guess I was just lucky to read this book in my own mother tongue first.
Prothom Protishruti published first in 1964, centres round Satyabati, a young girl, quite the tomboy, who is the apple of the eye of her parents, and living a village in interior Bengal. Her father is a rich landlord, and also revered as the village physician. They live in a huge joint family, with relatives and hangers on providing the frills in the story. The events or the non-events, as the book deals with much of mute domestic and village incidents common to any person living at the time, happen in the late 18th and early 19th century, a time of social and political unrest in the sub continent.
Satya learns reading and writing by listening in on the classes for the boys, but during those times education for women is taboo. Satya gets away with this in her father’s house but her hope for personal growth dims when she is given away, at 8 years, to be the child bride of Nabakumar. She soon persuades her young husband to move on to Calcutta to work for a new life and better future.
The Calcutta of the book is colonial and urban and throbs with clarion calls for national awakening under Mahatma Gandhi and religious and social reform under the Arya Samaj. This Calcutta scene is the playground where a daring Satya practises her new found ideals of freedom. Here, quite unlike her peers of the time, she sets up a nuclear household, and her own rules of family life, quite within the ideals she imposes on herself.
Satya is now a mother of three, two sons whom she sends to school, and tries to bring up as people with values. The third a young daughter is quite her pet, and she has high hopes about her, she teaches her reading and writing. Satya engages in educating women and social reforms and is a strong believer in the dignity of labour. In fact she tries to instil this value in all her family, while she observes the social dynamics of the rich and the poor in a changing world around her. Satya has almost found the rhythm of her ideas in Calcutta.
But during a school vacation, when her daughter is away at the home village with her husband’s family, her illiterate mother-in-law strikes a fatal blow to Satya’s dreams. She marries off her 8 year old granddaughter, as was the custom in rustic Bengal, and Satya, not informed of the event, arrives too late to prevent the ritual. In a rebellious and sad act, she turns away from her daughter forever. The sad picture of what it meant to be a ‘thinking’ woman and a brave mother in those times. is well-etched in these pages.
Prothom Protoshruti found critical acclaim as well as popular appeal and is mentioned as one of the path-breaking novels of its time.
The story of the daughter, Subarnolata is continued in the second book with the same name, and first published in 1966. Here, we see a girl who is rendered motherless, by an act which is not of her doing. In a way, little Subarnolata also dies a symbolic death on the day of her marriage. And the mother Satya, who had gone on to educate the girls of her world, after that fatal day, leaves her a letter, which is to be handed over after her death. The letter actually does nothing to Subarna by way of explanations of the long silence. And then Subarna too passes on, leaving behind a seventeen year old daughter. But by that time, there is some evidence of changing times, and Bakul, Subarna’s daughter is determined to write the story of her mother and her silent suffering.
The third in the trilogy Bakulo Katha was first published in 1973. Bakul is but of a more modern time, and this book has more of a narrative style. Bakul writes, under the name Anamika Devi, and finds it tough to explain to the next two generations about the sufferings of her mother and grandmother. The new generations have the sort of freedom which refuse to turn and glance at a time behind them. And they accommodate more, allowing a certain dilution of attitudes.
All the three books deal with motherhood and the state of being motherless in various ways, through different characters. The writer pens the trilogy while she is in the 20th century, but the sensibilities of the previous century are touched upon with a rare lucidity, that comes from an excellent pen.
Yes, the books are available in English translation. And if you are for reading just one of these, read the first book. The translation is by Indira Chowdhury and available under the title The First Promise.
Bio: Ashapoorna Devi (1909-1995) who wrote in Bangla has won every possible literary award in India including the Jnanpith, the highest literary honour in the country. Her repertoire consists of 242 novels and novelettes, 62 books for children and over 3000 short stories in 37 collections. Her masterpiece is the trilogy, Prothom Protishruti (1965), Subarnolata (1967) and Bakulo Katha (1974), which spans three generations of women of the same family and is about the struggle women in India have for equality, in a muted domestic space.