Category Archives: Indian Translations

The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three Novellas by K.R. Meera. Translated from the Malayalam by J. Devika

The Angel's Beauty Spots - Three Novellas by K.R. Meera Title: The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three Novellas
Author: K.R. Meera
Translated from the Malayalam by J. Devika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292832
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 136
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It has been ten days since I finished reading The Angel’s Beauty Spots, a collection of three novellas by the hugely talented writer, K.R. Meera. The book hangs heavy in my mind and heart. K.R. Meera’s writing has the knack of doing that – of worming its way through your heart and then the feeling of melancholia sets in strong.

 Why you ask?

Well because her stories are steeped in reality not very far removed from the world around us. A world where women have to struggle to make themselves seen, heard, and most of the time even loved.

These novellas are about women who do all of the above and more. They are fiercely independent and yet strangely tied to their men. They are lost, and not in the sense that they don’t know what’s in store for them, but they just wish it was easier, comfortable, and perhaps even simple. But would they be any happier if their lives were all of this? I guess not.

K.R. Meera’s women have this unique voice to them. This gumption, and yet this vulnerability that can overtake everything else. The hidden nuances as the world moves on around them. She creates a world that isn’t the one we live in or that’s the feeling I get when I read her every single time.

The book is divided in three novellas, as the title suggest.  The first is the titular novella about Angela who lives life on her terms (a string of convenient affairs and a failed marriage) and raises two girls single-handedly till tragedy strikes and things go way out of control.

The second novella (previously published as well), And Forgetting the Tree, I.. is about Radhika and the return of a long-time lover in her life and the consequences thereof.

The last novella is titled The Deepest Blue about a wife who yearns more and longs for more than her husband can offer and seeks solace in the arms of a love that transcends time.

These are the premise of the novellas. It may seem ordinary till it isn’t. Meera’s writing infuses life, disappointment, a heavy heartedness, a feeling that won’t leave, and a claustrophobic sense of hopelessness in almost every novella. And yet, there is love. There is tenderness, and moments that redeem these women. There is violence, there is also rape, and there is a lot of anger as well. Meera’s characters like I mentioned earlier, do not have it easy. They are forever drifting to find their place in the world.

There is something about them – a tenacity and a sort of attitude that also wants to give up quite easily. And adding to that the translation by J. Devika as always is wondrous – stringing it all together for the English language reader, keeping the imagery and sense of prose intact.

The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three Novellas is a great introduction to K.R. Meera’s works if you haven’t read her before. For those who have, you are in for a treat. Either way, read her and be mesmerised by the dark places of the human soul she is willing to explore and present it to her readers.

 

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Outcaste by Matampu Kunhukuttan. Translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan

OutcasteTitle: Outcaste
Author: Matampu Kunhukuttan
Translated from the Malayalam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayana
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292498
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

For me, personally, it isn’t easy to read a book on how women are treated in India. It disturbs me and rightly so. It upsets me and it should. It should shake my core, because how else will we become aware and perhaps do something about it? How else will we know more and understand the atrocities committed in the name of caste and religion time and time again, without any repercussions at all?

Outcaste is the kind of book that jolts you from your cushy and comfortable existence, making you see the injustices perpetuated by upper caste men in India. A problem that sadly is relevant even today. A problem that shouldn’t have been relevant, after 72 years of Independence and yet it is.

The book is about the revenge of a single woman named Paptikutty on her lovers who belong to the most powerful families of the land. The book is based on a 1905 trial – where Paptikutty was tried for adultery. Outcaste also looks at the arc of the Namboodiri family in Kerala who were most powerful in Kerala and how Paptikutty’s revenge weakened them. It was the Namboodiri men who took her court to outcaste her because she had so many lovers. She was one of them and they wanted nothing to do with her.

Outcaste is a book that is about the patriarchal society but deep down it is also about its downfall and how that happens slowly and steadily at some level or another. This isn’t an easy read and yet I could not stop turning the pages. The book explores ancient Kerala culture and there were a lot of words and phrases that needed me to refer to Google, but it was all worth it because that’s the essence of the book. Vasanthi’s translation and Matampu’s writing gives us a cast of characters that are victims of their own choices and situations that they choose to be in because of society constructs. Outcaste is a love story of sorts, but also a march against injustice, inequality, and is a call to heal the broken with only justice and vengeance at the core.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti Title: A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There
Author: Krishna Sobti
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670091195
Genre: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Memoir
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Despite the translation, Krishna Sobti’s book, “A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” isn’t an easy read to begin with. Only when you get used to the person narratives being changed constantly, time being fluid, and above all anecdotes thrown about constantly, and in-between chapters, that you realize what a marvel of a book you are reading.

I honestly did not want this book to end. This novel (meta), memoir, a commentary on the Partition, a commentary even more on the world left behind, makes you want to explore everything written by Ms. Sobti, if you haven’t already read her. In fact, even if you have read her, you’d just want to go back and reread her books.

“A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There” is a book that can perhaps be summed as falling under many genres, but to me it was a book about the Partition, about home and longing, about old and new worlds that will never merge, and mainly about displacement. Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama is perhaps one of the finest works on the Partition to have emerged from the subcontinent, however, this book is so diverse in the plot and sub-plots that to me it is perhaps even better than Zindaginama.

The setting of course is 1947. A young Krishna and her family are now in India. The country is new, and they are treated as refugees (more about this later). She is determined to make her own path in the world and an opportunity presents itself in the form of heading a preschool in the princely state of Sirohi. From there on, she faces misogynistic behaviour from Zutshi Sahab, the man charged with hiring for the position. And finally, she is governess by twist of fate to the child maharaja Tej Singh Bahadur, which accounts for around hundred pages of the book.

Like I said, the book is a lot of things, but don’t let that bother or distract you from the writing. Sobti’s writing is charming, often melancholic, and peppered with nostalgia. She constantly goes back in time to speak of pre-partition and how it was then. The comparisons also occur. For instance, when she meets her Nani and her great-uncle on a trip to Bombay, she is overwhelmed at how her Nani is still stuck in the past (and longs for it), and how her uncle ensures that she is well-taken care of.

One of my favourite scenes is when Sobti goes to visit her aunts in Ahmedabad and they think that drinking tea (cardamom and cinnamon) will make them forget about sad incidents. I love the simplicity of this scene. It is extremely endearing and relatable to most. Tea in a way does make you forget the bad things. Also, before I forget, my most favourite part of the book is the picnic Sobti’s friends and headmistress of the college go on due to her birthday is iconic. This happens before Partition, so the sense of it never happening again hits the author so hard, and in effect the reader.

Sobti’s writing is razor-sharp. She observes acutely and doesn’t hesitate to talk about the horrors of Partition, which is of course where the book gets the title from – a Gujarat with us and another Gujarat that side of the border. Another incident that brings out the ruin of Partition is Sobti speaking of Lady Mountbatten and Rameshwari Nehru visiting the refugee camps and how the women there were told to wear colourful orhnis to show respect for the Laat Sahiba.

Everything in this book is deliciously worded. Even though at times I wondered that it could become a translator’s nightmare – given how Sobti moves from past to present and changes person from first to third almost line after line. Daisy Rockwell has done a stupendous job of this translation. I loved The Women’s Courtyard last year, which was again translated by her. I love how she gets the nuance so right – the structure, the plot, and the meaning plus emotion doesn’t get lost at all. Rockwell gets it all pat-on and the reason I say it, is I am also reading the original in Hindi alongside.

Feminism in this book isn’t lost at all. If anything, it is so subtle and yet makes itself felt, heard, and seen on every page. From Sobti choosing to work away from home to her friends and aunts and niece’s choices, women empowerment and rights shine through the book. At the same time, it isn’t easy for them. Also, the parts when she asserts her role of a governess. Though she is taking care of royalty, she does what she must.

Krishna Sobti has written a lot about women and the hypocrisy faced by them in everyday life in her other works as well – from Zindaginama to Listen Girl! (Ae, Ladki) to To Hell with you, Mitro! (Mitro Marjani). If anything, just to know her body of work, read these as well, and more.

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is a brilliant book, that juxtaposes the past and the present, with nostalgia and loss at its core. It is the kind of book that must definitely be read with copious amounts of tea on the side. Read it! You will hands-down love it.

 

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.

 

 

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.