I became suddenly interested in regional literary writing when the Kannada translation of a book I co-authored, Gifted, won the Karnataka Sahithya Academy Award in 2017. Translated by R Manikant and Natesh Babu, it opened up a whole new world for me. It had me wondering how much I was missing by not reading more regional or Bhasha literature as it is currently known. But the point is — and this is no excuse — many urban Indians, including me, don’t know how to read regional languages, and thus the only way to access Bhasha literature is when it is translated into English.
Having grown up reading Tagore’s translated work, I cannot imagine what I would have missed if the translations were not available. Regrettably, many excellent Bhasha novels and short stories seize our attention only when they win awards or turn controversial. By now most readers in India and abroad know of the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan who made this earthshaking announcement on Facebook: “Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.” He instructed his publishers not to sell his books, and asked his fans to burn his work, and that he would compensate them for the loss. One of his novels had been unfairly targeted by a community, and he and his family had been hounded. A High Court victory gave him the courage to publish again. Luckily, these instances are few; for the most part our Bhasha literature has been winning awards abroad too. Nilanjana Roy, a literary columnist, comments that the enduring literary “snobbery” of the English-speaking Indians is slowly receding. There was a widely held feeling in the literary community that the translation would not capture the style of the language it was written in. That belief has now been set aside as the English translators take great care to capture the flavour of the original. One recent breakthrough novel is the translation of Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, a Kannada novel that was recently published in the US.
It made it to the New York Times list of recommended books to read in 2017. Translated by Srinath Perur, the translation has managed to capture the emotions of the original and provide a brilliant social commentary – all in less than 100 pages. Vivek Shanbhag has reminded all of us, “It is not just English writers that respond to the modern world.” There have been startling postmodern novels in Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, that can hold their own with the best of postmodern literature coming out of Latin America and Europe. A few years ago an anthology of Tamil pulp fiction became a runaway bestseller after it was translated into English. Called The Blaft Book of Tamil Pulp Fiction, its success spurred a second volume. Another groundbreaking postmodern novel was Charu Nivedita’s widely acclaimed Zero Degree. In fact, many Indian readers were pleasantly shocked that a translated Bhasha novel had explored bolder themes than our English novels do. One of the oldest classics in Malayalam, Chemmeen, was one of the first South Indian novels to be translated and find acclaim. Earlier it was largely Bengali (Tagore etc.) and Hindi (Premchand etc.) writers who were being translated, with writers from the North East and the South being neglected.
That changed thanks to the potent literary prowess of Malayalam and Kannada writers: For instance, the modern Kannada classic, Samskara, by UR Ananthamurthy, which took the world by storm. Or the plays of Girish Karnad, or the poetry of the vachana devotees. In Malayalam there was OV Vijayan, and Basheer, and most widely known of all, Kamala Das. Her My Days was one of the first translated novels to become a pan Indian bestseller. In Marathi, there had been a revolution in modern literature, as too with Assamese writing. All of it had been written decades before they were translated. Which means that we who read only English were unaware of the explosion of literary talent among us. Also hidden was our great Dalit literature, often overshadowed by the works of ‘higher caste’ writers. And even within Dalit writing, women’s voices were not heard as loudly.
That has now changed and powerhouse writers such as Bama, Meena Kandaswamy, P Sivakami, and Urmila Pawar are disrupting feminist Indian writing. Fortunately, they have been translated into English too. In a country with 22 regional languages, there are so many unique Bhasha stories that deserve a larger audience. A revolution in regional publishing, however, will be when there are Bhasha graphic novels! Translating them would be fun – you don’t have to redo or ‘translate’ the graphics, just the text! The author is a technologist based in Silicon Valley, who is gently mad about books.