Category Archives: Women in Translation – 2019

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.

 

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of Birds Title: Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786074560
Genre:
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The world of Samanta Schweblin’s stories is intriguing. There is aplenty and then there is nothing. You begin to wonder as a reader, in-between being stumped by the prose and the sheer magnitude of the story being read, whether or not you are worthy of it. The stories are nightmarish for sure, but then Schweblin also prepares you for them right at the beginning. The context and the tone are set immaculately, the translation by Megan McDowell precise to the last word and emotion, and more than anything else the diversity of the collection, only makes you want to turn the pages sooner, even if the collection seems too long at twenty stories.

Mouthful of Birds is strange. But that’s what makes it so delicious a read. The title story is that of a teenaged girl, who to the fascination (at some point) and repulsion of her divorced parents resorts to only eating live birds. It just happens, one fine day without any reason. So what does one feel after reading such a story? Pity? Empathy (can you, really)? Disgust? Schweblin gives you enough and more room to feel, get in touch with your emotions at the end of the every story, only to be met with another story, with another set of emotions all over again.

The devastating realities of fairy tales creep up in The Merman. You cannot help but go back to your childhood and be alarmed at what you read. This is just Schweblin’s perspective when she has a story to tell and it shines. Or you have a story such as “Butterflies” whose end will leave your stomach churning and wanting more. The imagery of no two stories is remotely similar. Schweblin draws every story and every framework from different places and varied emotions, which makes it even more interesting.

That’s the thing about Samanta’s stories. They make you wonder, you are awed, fascinated even, repulsed, revolted, and yet you cannot help but turn the page to the next one. It is the feeling of a roller-coaster ride, knowing you are going to fall, plunge headlong and yet there is this excitement – the butterflies-in-your-stomach kind of a feeling. If anything and more, this collection is ferocious.

You can also tell that the stories have matured and come to the author over a period of time. These have not been written all at once, and it shows. The translation by Megan McDowell is on-point. She also translated Fever Dream by Schweblin, which was written after this collection but translated and published in English before. But that’s just a technicality in the sense of publishing timeline.

What is truly astounding is how McDowell makes the original voice hers, thereby giving us a culminated effort. The multiple stories breathe and live multiple lives. It is as though you can see the author mature and an underlined theme runs throughout – that of intense dysfunctional of family and the self. Headlights, the opening story is strange – Schweblin has got the emotion pat-down and you can see the misogyny of men. In another story titled Preserves, an unborn baby is spat out (perhaps unwanted as well). Each story shines and has its own unique element. Some leave the reader satisfied, while others don’t.

Mouthful of Birds breaks ground in storytelling and so many times also sticks to the traditional format of showing more and telling less. It challenges readers every step of the way, and never lets you imagine what will happen next. Samanta Schweblin’s reality is the one we inhabit and also the one we are way far-off from. That to me is the beauty and core of this fantastic short-story collection, that deserves to be read by almost everyone.

Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. Translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser.

hour of the star Title: Hour of the Star
Author: Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 978-0141392035
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Clarice Lispector’s works burst on the literary scene a couple of years ago. Her books were republished, retranslated to English (I think), and read and loved by all. Whether understood or not is secondary, and I don’t mean this in a condescending or patronising manner. The truth of the matter is: Sometimes it is hard to read Lispector, because there is so much to make of what she has written. I am only happy that more people are discovering her and reading her. It is always so important to read new authors, to break your reading mould, and experience new terrains, cultures, and lives you wouldn’t have thought about in the past.

Hour of the Star is a strange book, in the classic good-strange kind of way. It was one of her last few works published and it clearly to me is one of her best. I have read most of her books and every time I read a Lispector, my head is in a dizzy. It is like I cannot read anything else for days after reading her. That’s the effect she has with her words, her characters, and the stories she chose to tell.

Hour of the Star is a small book with some very big ideas, all along the read. The book focuses on the life of an uneducated woman and her struggle to survive in a sexist society. Sadly, this doesn’t sound very alien, does it? Hour of the Star is also about abject poverty and the class differences we witness every single day.  At the same time, Lispector’s Macabéa, the 19-year-old impoverished girl living in Rio de Janeiro doesn’t feel for once that she leads a difficult life. The story is told through the narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and he starts the book with how to tell a story and what goes into it. The fourth wall is broken. Lispector’s themes are broad and large in scope. In all of this, there is also a fortune-teller named Madame Carlota and you should read the book also for all of the secondary characters.

Lispector writes more so inwardly – there is a stream of consciousness and then there isn’t. She constantly challenges the reader to read better, if there is something like that, if not then there should be. Macabéa’s traits are so well-etched, that in all of the loving of Coca-Cola, Marilyn Monroe, and her boyfriend (scum, by the way), Lispector cuts away at her heroine’s happiness, thereby jolting the reader’s notions of poverty, identity, and love.

You can sense the dichotomy of the well-off Rodrigo writing about the poverty of Macabéa. It is this power-dynamics that Lispector chose to write about? Is it this Brazil that Lispector wanted to show her readers where the lives of the impoverished is for all to see and write about? Hour of the Star is a tragic comedy about a girl living in poverty and has literally no clue about her state. She certainly makes no impact on anyone and never even knows love, but she has her small joys and as a reader, I couldn’t help but hoot for her through it all.

The brilliance of Hour of the Star is what each reader takes away from it. Don’t be deceived by it’s size of 96 pages. There is so much more to it. Moser’s translation is crisp, and on point. There is no detailing that isn’t needed to begin with. It is a story deeply, starkly, and told rooted in reality, with dreams that can never be fulfilled.

Little Culinary Triumphs by Pascale Pujol. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

Little Culinary Triumphs Title: Little Culinary Triumphs
Author: Pascale Pujol
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454906
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Little Culinary Triumphs is a book that will delight you. It is funny, and will leave you with the feeling of wanting to get up and hug someone. At least, I felt that way at the end of it. It is a whimsical book, it is also profound at times (rarely though), all in all it is the perfect book to be read when feeling down and about.

The story takes place in Montmartre – multi-ethnic neighbourhood, where cultures meet, mingle, and sometimes collide as well. It is the place perfect for the senses – all of them actually, but more so when it comes to the taste buds. Sandrine, one of the central characters, works in an employment office, helping people find jobs. Under this surface is a world-class cook waiting to blossom and realize her dream of opening a restaurant. A bunch of weird and eccentric characters come together, thanks to Sandrine to open the restaurant – Antoine, an unemployed professor; the giant Senegalese, a magical chef, a psychologist, and a Kama Sutra expert as well. In all of this, is a newspaper magnate, upto no good at all.

Pujol’s prose is hilarious. It sneaks up quite cleverly on you. Till I reached page 75, I was of the opinion that this book isn’t going anywhere at all. I was proved so wrong after that and I am so glad I was. The writing is crisp, delicious, and leaves you with this aftertaste that I just cannot describe. Yes, I used food adjectives, but that’s what the book is all about anyway – food, food, and more food.

I am a fan of Alison Anderson’s translations. From Muriel Barbery to J.M.G. Le Clézio, her translations are spot-on. It is as though she gets the pulse of the original to the very last detail and as a reader, I am never left wanting more or wondering how it would’ve read in the original language. Little Culinary Triumphs is a novel that will make you laugh, chuckle, and understand a minuscule bubble of a universe of oddballs, who eventually grow to understand and sometimes even like each other.

 

 

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.