Category Archives: Indian Translations Reading Project

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi. Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya

Romtha by Mahasweta Devi Title: Romtha
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated from the Bengali by Pinaki Bhattacharya
Publisher: Seagull Books
ISBN: 978-8170462576
Genre: Indian Writing, Novella, Novelette
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember the time the movie Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa had released. It was directed by Govind Nihalani and had got not such a great theatrical release. I think it barely must have released in a couple of theatres in Bombay. The year was 1998. That was the time I got to know that the movie that touched me so deeply was based on a book. I also discovered to my pleasure that one of my favourite movies released five years ago in 1993, Rudaali, was also based on the same author’s short story. Those were the times when great literature was converted to films in Indian cinema – till of course the likes of Govinda movies took over. That’s not the point though.

It has been 20 years since I have been reading Mahasweta Devi’s works. Repeatedly. Sometimes, chancing upon one of your favourite authors’ works, purely by accident is the best that could have happened to you. Thankfully, she has written prolifically, and we have so many of her works at our disposal, thanks to Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books.

Mahasweta Devi’s writing is not easy, no matter how big or small her works are. The beauty of the short story written by her is that it has the same impact as that of a novel penned by her. Romtha (Criminal, Convict) is one such example. I cannot believe I hadn’t read it till now, but this lament is for a later date. Back to the book.

Romtha is a story of a criminal – a beautiful young man, Sharan, who is condemned to death for a crime of passion – that of his lover, a beautiful courtesan, Chandrabali. He has killed her and mourns for her, almost yearns for her. In all of this, there is a lonely widow, Subhadra, pining for Sharan – wanting him and yet wants nothing more than her freedom as well. All of this takes place in twelfth century Bengal – shifting from the royal city of Gaur and the rural landscape of Bengal – focusing on how the Romtha culture came to be, drawing details on casteism, hypocrisy of the world, and chalking characters who find no redemption or second chances at life.

Mahasweta Devi’s writings are not comfortable. They make you uncomfortable and rightly so. She talks of issues that she has experienced first-hand. You cannot expect getting into a Mahasweta Devi work and not be reeled by the injustice meted by our society to the less privileged. Romtha speaks of so much more and the muted silences in-between do most of the talking. Every character – from Gopal – the chief security who forces Chandrabali to get intimate with him, Subhadra – just wanting a better life, and Chandrabali who is dead before her time – each of them are threaded by Sharan – the Romtha, who is so ironically named, as there is no refuge for him at all.

Twelfth-century Bengal – its customs, traditions, are brought out with nuance so much so that it had me Googling and finding out more about that time. Also, please do not skip the very insightful interview, Naveen Kishore has with Mahasweta Devi – on words, language, and how they have been used in the story. Pinaki Bhattacharya’s translation is on point – I think it must have been tough given the stream of consciousness that jumps in at the reader, which I loved. Every terrain, texture, emotional landscape, and the beauty of unrequited love, desire, and the possibility of more is expressed empathetically and more so with stark reality.

Mahasweta Devi’s works are par excellence and there is no doubt about it at all. One of my projects this year is to go through all her books – the ones that are translated in English. Thank you, Naveen Kishore, for what you do.

 

 

Advertisements

Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick. Translated by Vibha Chauhan and Khalid Alvi

Manto Saheb - Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick.jpg Title: Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick
Authors: Various
Translated by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
ISBN: 978-9388070256
Genre: Nonfiction, Essays, Literary Biographies, Anthology, Writers on Writers
Pages: 296
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How can anything written by Manto or about him not be a fascinating read? Or intriguing for that matter? Or also sometimes contemplative, mostly that is? Manto is and will always remain a maverick – no matter how many writers come and go from the subcontinent – or for that matter even from Pakistan. He is in a way, a shared legacy. And it is this legacy that this anthology celebrates (even when berating sometimes) through essays by his friends and enemies (or as the title very tongue-in-cheek tells us). I had been wanting to read this since the time it was announced and I am so glad I finally did. If you love Manto and his works, then this book is a treat. Even if you aren’t acquainted with Manto, then too I suggest you read this book, so you can then read what he wrote.

“Manto Saheb” is a collection of essays that also scratches away the writer and shows you the person Manto was – but also it made me think that the writer had to but after all be inspired from the person. Manto’s stories though were never reflective of who he was – maybe given the times he lived in what he wanted to communicate or show through his works. This anthology shows Manto at his candid best, gossipy best, the individual who never believed in taking things the way they were and the one who sometimes also gave up too easily. The facets and shades to Manto so to say are brilliantly revealed, layer by layer in this collection by his friends, family and rivals – from Chughtai to Upendranath Ashk (one of his well-known rivals), to Krishan Chander (his ever-loyal friend), his daughter Nuzhat and even his nephew Hamid Jalal.

There is also the opening essay which has been written by Manto about himself – hilarious, witty and as real as it can get. The book gives the reader brilliant insights into the kind of writer he was, constantly seeking validation and attention (even in his personal life for that matter), how he needed alcohol just, so he could momentarily not remember what he was going through and how leaving India and moving to Lahore was perhaps the single-most tragedy of his life. Every essay transports you to the time before and after Partition and makes you want to be there, witnessing what happened in the life and times of Manto.

What I love the most about this collection is when people speak of his works – from Hatak to Toba Tek Singh to Boo to also his plays (which are lesser known) and how he worked on them – how he wouldn’t take criticism and how when he was unhappy with the world at large, he became a recluse and just wrote. Also, the translations by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi are spot on – they haven’t compromised at all when it comes to simplifying it for the reader or dumbing it down – it is what it is. Most of the Urdu/Hindi flows effortlessly through English and you don’t feel that you are missing out on something.

“Manto-Saheb” is a treat for all literary biography aficionados. The enthusiasm to know more about your favourite writers is never satiated I think. There is always so much more to know and there are of course some books such as these that aim to uncover some aspects of their life and works. A must-read. Also, read it with his short stories, as you go along. The experience is extremely fruitful and rewarding.