The writer and translator Jenny Bhatt selects five key works of South Asian literature, all historical novels available in English translation, that showcase the richness and diversity of the region's lesser known languages: from a modernist classic decrying the depradations of the coal mining industry to a 'loose, baggy monster' of a Victorian novel exploring utopian ideals.
Recently I was celebrating the first Hindi-language book to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize with the chair of this year’s judging panel, Frank Wynne. But while selecting these South Asian novels to recommend, you have chosen to highlight books from lesser known languages. Can you talk us through this decision?
Yes, Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand went on to win the International Booker. The first such win for a translation from a South Asian language. Very well-deserved and long overdue.
South Asia, as you know, has hundreds of languages, ‘mother tongues,’ and dialects. That said, there is a translation pyramid. Literatures from certain languages get translated more and are read more in translation, which, in turn, makes them more popular and more marketable to publishers. Some examples of these more represented, accessible, visible, and dominant languages: Hindi, Bangla, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada.
Clearly, there are more bilingual and multilingual translators and readers in those languages — due to age-old regional complexities related to education, class, caste, and colonial hierarchies — than in others. There are also longstanding ideas as to which languages are ‘pure’ versus ‘corrupt’ or ‘derivative.’ There are strong opinions about which languages have richer written literary traditions.
“Anglophone writers and translators are always seeking new ways to bring the music and traditions of our non-English languages into our English works”
My own literary translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, is a selection of short stories from the Gujarati short story pioneer, Dhumketu. Not only is it the first ever book-length translation of his vast oeuvre, it is also the first ever translation from Gujarati being published in the US, where we have the largest Gujarati diaspora.
These novel selections are from under-represented South Asian languages because, with these, translation is still about discovery and recovery of diverse literary traditions that didn’t get to evolve and thrive as they could have done. Translation from these languages is about a reclamation of forgotten masterpieces that reveal and honor our literary lineages.
Do you think that South Asian writers are under pressure to work in—say—Hindi, Urdu or English, whatever their first language might be?
Not so much anymore. During and after independence, there was discontent with South Asian poets and writers writing in English. The accusations were many: that they were writing for a foreign audience and their former Colonialist rulers; that only a South Asian language could fully and authentically express our experiences; that expression in a non-South Asian language was over-stylized and unnatural, hence limited in creativity; that those who chose to write in English had no respect for or were rejecting their own origins and traditions (and, therefore, by implication, disowning their own culture); that writing in English was only possible for the upper middle classes, therefore elitist; and so on. Some of these debates continue to this day but, for the most part, I believe almost all of us who write in English believe in what Agha Shahid Ali said:
I think, we in the subcontinent, have been granted a rather unique opportunity: to contribute to the English language in ways that the British, the Americans, the Australians, also the Canadians, cannot. We can do things with the syntax that will bring the language alive in rich and strange ways, and though poetry should have led the way, it is a novelist, Salman Rushdie, who has shown the poets a way: he has, to quote an essay I read somewhere, chutnified English… What I am looking forward to — to borrow another metaphor from food—is the biryanization (I’m chutnifying) of English. Behind my work, I hope readers can sometimes hear the music of Urdu.
So we Anglophone writers and translators are always seeking new ways to bring the music and traditions of our non-English languages into our English works. If anything, I believe we still have plenty of opportunity to take Ali’s biryanization or Rushdie’s chutnification of English even further. And, as an English writer and translator myself, I find myself feeling more free and able to play with syntax more when I’m translating into English than when I’m writing in English. Because, with the latter, there’s still this sense of needing to work within dominant western literary traditions. With the former, I’m driven to be more faithful to the source language traditions.
Interesting. Is there anything that unites your choices?
Yes. The first thing that unites these choices is that they’re all from lesser-known, lesser-translated languages. The second similar feature is that almost all five are either set during the British colonial era or deal with the never-ending effects of colonization. Two of the novels are “industrial” novels because they deal with the destruction of agrarian economies by the mining industry. And, on a personal note, they’re all historical fiction, which is my most favorite genre. I teach a historical fiction workshop at Writing Workshops Dallas.
The first South Asian novel you have chosen to recommend is Phoolsunghi by Pandey Kapil, as translated by Gautam Choubey. It was originally written in Bhojpuri, a language whose speakers chiefly hail from the north of India. Can you tell us more about this book, and its significance?
A bit about the Bhojpuri language. For a long time, it was considered a dialect of Hindi even though it has always had its own script, grammar, literature, and even a sizeable cinema industry. It’s a recognized minority language in former British and Portuguese colonies like Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, South Africa, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. I understand that it’s a recognized national language in Nepal. Taking India and the diaspora together, apparently, there are some 200 million speakers worldwide now. Bhojpuri literature can be traced back to the 8th century. So, calling it a dialect of Hindi is like Professor Sitanshu Yashaschandra has written in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia: “When we consider the more familiar case of India’s new national language, Hindi, in relation to its so-called dialects such as Avadhi, Brajbhasha, and Maithili, we are confronted with the curious image of a thirty-year-old mother combing the hair of her sixty-year-old daughters . . .”
This novel is the first-ever translation into English from Bhojpuri. Pandey Kapil was a lifelong activist with respect to the language and its literature. He championed these even when it meant relative anonymity for himself because he wasn’t writing in Hindi, which was more accessible to and popular with readers.
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Based on real-life characters and set over a period of 90 years (from the 1840s to 1931), the story is well-plotted and has everything: love, music, poetry, the opium trade, feudalism, colonialism, nationalism, modernism, tragedy. And it gives a beautifully rich and real depiction of a particular culture, society, and time. The Bihari legend about the poet, Mahendar, and the courtesan, Dhelabai, has been written about in at least three other novels but Kapil’s version is the most well-known. The translator, Gautam Choubey, tells us what the title means: “The phoolsunghi or flowerpecker that gives the novel its name is a tiny bird known for its noisy bustle around flower plants. However, if trapped in a cage, it loses its liveliness and withers away quickly. Phoolsunghi, therefore, is a metaphor for free-spirited creatures, striving for survival and meaning beyond their respective cages.” Choubey’s introduction alone is worth the price of the book because he gives us a decent history of the language, its literatures, the author, and the known politics around the real-life story. And Choubey’s translation is in a contemporary register while retaining some of the original lyricism so the book is both an aesthetic and immersive pleasure.
Lovely. Next on your reading list of South Asian novels The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar by Indira Goswami, translated by Aruni Kashyap. This is relatively recent, but considered a modern classic of Assamese literature. Why do you recommend it?
The Assamese language is also ancient and its early Indo-Aryan version can be traced back to the 4th or 5th century with the earliest known literature found in 9th century Buddhist verses. It has its own script, grammar, and idiom. As with Bhojpuri, though, so much of Assamese literature is yet to be translated because of the lack of translators.
Indira Goswami, who wrote under the name Mamoni Raisom Goswami, was a revered, much-garlanded Assamese writer. She was a firebrand—a political and social activist, writer, and professor. Several of her works have been adapted for stage and film because she broke new ground by writing about taboo topics around widowhood, sexuality, and more.
“In the postmodern era now, feminist and Dalit literatures are gaining more attention”
This novel is Goswami’s last work of fiction. Set in late 19th century Assam, it follows the life of Thengphakhri, a Bodo freedom fighter who has been immortalized in Assamese folklore, songs, and stories. She was employed by the British colonial administration in the Bijni kingdom in lower Assam as a revenue or tax collector, the eponymous ‘tehsildar’—perhaps the first woman in that post. At that time, educated Indians and the British government were both trying to bring about reform in the country by working to eliminate patriarchal and misogynistic practices like sati, child marriage, the purdah system, etc. and encourage widow remarriage. Alongside all of that, we have this swashbuckling protagonist, where she’s boldly riding horses, wearing hats over flying knee-length black hair. Eventually, she rebels against the British.
I interviewed the translator, Aruni Kashyap, in 2020, and he told me that the book contributed toward healing relations in the region by foregrounding the contributions of the marginalized Bodos to the nation’s freedom struggle. And that Goswami helped reframe the literary, historical, and political discussions around Assam and its smaller kingdoms like Bijni.
The Upheaval by Pundalik Naik, translated by Vidya Pai is the first ever Konkani novel to be translated into English. Why is this the novel that has ‘broken out’?
The Konkani language has a rich, complex history; stone inscriptions and copper plates with Konkani words have been dated to the second century. It is sometimes described as a dialect of Marathi but is, in fact, recognized as one of the official 22 languages in the Indian Constitution and has many dialects of its own, some of which are already lost and several are endangered due to language assimilation. Linguists say that it’s actually a fusion of multiple middle Indo-Aryan languages. As a coastal language, it also has many foreign influences on its grammar and vocabulary.
The Upheaval is about what happens to a self-sufficient agricultural community when the mining industry takes over. It was quite sensational when it first came out because of how it tackled this story as gritty realism. And it was one of the earliest modernist Indian novels to deal with environmental damage as a theme. Some context: after the Second World War, when Japan was doing some serious nation-rebuilding, Goa was still under Portuguese rule. Now they saw the opportunity to sell huge amounts of iron and steel to Japan. So they began granting 99-year leases to small Goanese businessmen for mining iron ore. Even after Goa was freed in 1961, the Indian government didn’t do much to change things. Instead, they gave these miners major tax concessions. So the miners kept destroying forests and rivers without recourse or checks. And the pollution and lack of waste management caused serious environmental damage as well as destruction of agricultural communities.
Naik wrote about all of this with graphic and grim detail. He came from a rural farming family himself and grew up poor. His colorful characters are true to life and his language has that rich Konkani lilt—even in the English translation—with specific metaphors and similes that are true to their time and place and engage the senses beautifully. Some critics have found the plotting uneven but it is a landmark Konkani novel for many reasons. A classic in its own time, really.
Next up, you’ve selected Battles of Our Own by Jagadish Mohanty, translated by Himansu S. Mohapatra and Paul St-Pierre. Tell us about it.
This book is also about the terrible effects of the coal mining industry and what it did to both society and industry. Mohanty is more well-known as an Odia short story writer but this is one of his most important novels. The English translation was just released in April 2022. And though Mohanty wrote in Hindi also, he was quite the literary activist for Odia literature and the language—much like Pandey Kapil with Bhojpuri, as mentioned earlier.
A bit about the Odia language: it is one of the official 22 languages listed in the Indian Constitution with many major and minor dialects. And it is also considered a classical language—though this was a hard-won status—with a long literary history. Earliest known inscriptions date back to the 10th century and its older form was used in ancient Jain and Buddhist texts. Unlike many other South Asian languages, Odia was not influenced much by Arabic or Persian. Globally, there are some 50 million speakers.
The story features a working-class hero who becomes a martyr for justice but it’s really an ensemble cast of characters from different parts of the country. It’s a deeply political novel about the mining underworld, unionization, caste, class, capitalism, communism, Marxism, poverty, migration. It also addresses existential themes of alienation and identity, man versus nature—you can see influences of Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Beckett. Mohanty’s writing style isn’t lyrical but he does take us into the vulnerable and tormented psyches of the main characters. Where Mohanty excels is in immersing us deep into the world of a colliery, showing what it’s like to be a part of it from every level of its hierarchy, how power begets violence. The book is also a sharp commentary on Nehruvian socialism and the failure of government, labor movements, trade unions, and so on, due to corruption.
The last book on your list of South Asian novels is Sarasvatichandra (parts I–IV) by Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi, translated by Tridip Suhrud. You say that Gandhi was a big fan. Why so?
This massive quartet was written in Gujarati, which is also the language I translate from. So I grew up hearing about the work and the writer constantly from my mother. There’s a famous classic Bollywood movie based on the book; it focuses on the romantic love aspect and not the many other themes. Since then, there have been several other TV, film, and stage adaptations but a full English translation wasn’t published until Tridip Suhrud stepped up. He is highly regarded for his scholarly works and many translations, notably the Gandhi-related works. He’s also a Tripathi scholar and only he could have taken on this mammoth task. Aside from the intimidating size of the work, Tripathi’s Gujarati is heavily Sanskritized and difficult.
Tripathi was a writer, philosopher, and literary critic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His legacy is so important that the 1885–1915 period in Gujarati literature is called the ‘Govardhan-Era’ or the ‘Scholar-Era.’ Interestingly, while he wrote his public works in Gujarati and wanted to preserve the literatures and language, he wrote his private scrapbooks in English.
The series was written over 15 years, spans some 2000 pages, and has over 150 characters. The protagonist is the eponymous Sarasvatichandra, an aristocrat and lawyer. Seeing inequalities and injustices all around him, he wants to create a better world, a utopia. So he sets off on this journey, forsaking his comfortable life and loved ones. The four volumes detail the highs and lows as he deals with the many clashes between traditions, expectations, modernity, and personal desires. Tripathi wanted to give a complete sociopolitical survey of Gujarati society then. So the first part is set just after the 1857 mutiny when the British rise to absolute power and university education begins to change values and ideals at the individual level. The second volume focuses on the modern Gujarati family and how that was evolving. The third volume considers the welfare state, a utopian ideal that Tripathi himself harbored. The fourth volume explores whether religion can help regenerate society and whether a more emancipated kind with women present is feasible. The four volumes represent the four stages of life in Hindu texts: the student, the householder, the hermit/recluse, and the ascetic/sanyasi.
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It’s a Victorian-style “loose, baggy monster” of a novel. Tripathi was extremely well-read in both Sanskrit and English. The book is filled with references to classics like Bhartrihari, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Bhagavad Gita and passages from Wordsworth, Shelley, Goldsmith, Cowper, Keats, Shakespeare. But it is also a one-of-a-kind historic document of Gujarati culture and society during colonial times.
Gandhi loved it. He said, “To the first part he [Govardhanram] gave all his art. The novel is imbued with aesthetic delight; the characterization is matchless. The second part depicts Hindu society, his art went deeper in the third part, and he gave all that he wished to give to the world in the fourth part.”
Earlier you noted that this book was “said to be the first proper Gujarati novel,” which intrigued me. What form did Gujarati literature traditionally take?
Prior to Sarasvatichandra, there were two other novels: the 1866 historical novel Karan Ghelo by Nandshankar Mehta and the 1866 social realism novel Sasuvahuni Ladai (The War Between a Mother-in-Law and a Daughter-in-Law) by Nilkanth. Technically, Mehta’s novel is the first Gujarati novel. But Tripathi’s quartet is politically and culturally more important.
Up until about 1850, Gujarati literature traditionally involved poetry, plays, folk theater, epics, and folktales. Storytelling was mostly performance-based. The modern literature era, to which the above novels belong, began in 1850 during the British colonial era and with the introduction of the printing press. Western influences, British education systems, and more translations from other Indian languages into Gujarati allowed for a lot more cross-pollination so there was a burgeoning of other forms like short stories, travelogues, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, essays, literary criticism, literary journals.
In the postmodern era now, feminist and Dalit literatures are gaining more attention. Still, I feel like we don’t have much experimentation with forms, techniques, and craft. This is likely due to various factors across the literary ecosystem. Mostly, though, I believe it’s because we’re losing both readers and writers of Gujarati literature so the ecosystem is shrinking rather than thriving as it could. And this, in turn, means our literary traditions aren’t evolving as they could.
Is it possible to form a broader South Asian literary community, given the challenges of translation between so many different languages?
Sadly, it’s a challenge to form a South Asian literary community even within the Anglophone writing world. And then, different languages and different cultures complicate things further. But, more than that, I believe the biggest challenge is that we still get so few seats at the table that there’s an unhealthy amount of rivalry and competitiveness. We’ve all heard that “we already have a South Asian writer we’re representing/publishing this year” from agents and publishers a few too many times. Of the 514 books that appeared on ‘most anticipated’ lists in American publications, only one was by a writer of South Asian origin. That’s just one example.
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The answer, of course, is to not wait for a place at the big table but to start making our own. I started Desi Books in April 2020 to spotlight South Asian novels from the world over and to bring readers and writers together. We’re still evolving but we have channels to bring readers and writers together in conversation like #DesiBooksDiscourse and #DesiBooksReview. Next year, we’ll be doing a lot more. If we can’t uplift and elevate our own, how can we expect other communities and cultures to pay attention to our works?
Let me end on a positive note. Circling back to translation, the pyramid, and under-represented languages, I’m heartened to see new, recent initiatives from English PEN and Armory Square. In recent years, the PEN/Heim Grant has also ensured that under-represented languages are getting due attention.
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