Place: India

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Find out the latest in world literary news here!

In this edition of weekly dispatches, we remember Argentine author Hebe Uhart, celebrate the continuation of Guatemala’s national book fair, and look to China for news of cultural exchange and literary prizes. 

Sarah Moses, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Argentina:

Argentine author Hebe Uhart passed away on October 11 at the age of eighty-one. Uhart was the author of numerous collections of travel essays, stories, and novellas, and in recent years dedicated herself exclusively to the former, visiting towns in Argentina as well as countries in Latin America and further abroad to document what she saw. Her most recent work was a collection of non-fiction pieces about animals, which included her own sketches.

Uhart was born in the town of Moreno and moved to the capital to study philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, where she later taught. For many years, she also led writing workshops out of her home. She was recognized as one of the greats among both readers and colleagues, and authors such as Mariana Enríquez and Inés Acevedo have written about her work. In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Premio Iberoamericano de Narrativa Manuel Rojas.

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Winter 2017: Intimate Strangers

Who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?

January 2017: I have turned 40. Though I no longer remember when exactly I set down the rule for team members to refrain from sending me email over weekends, it is likely the embargo originated from this time. Entering a new decade is an occasion to take stock, to insist on a proper work-life balance. But 40 has always felt like an especially significant milestone, possibly because, as a teenager, I’d read an essay in which the narrator wonders obsessively if he’d land on the “right side of forty,” the obsession guiding his every life decision. Then his fortieth birthday comes, and with it the realization, like thunder, that he has lived life wrong. I’ve not lived life wrong, but I have certainly lived against the grain. Around this time I notice, for example, that I am spacing out more and more in gatherings with former classmates when talk turns to acquiring a second property. I stumble upon David Williams’s devastating essay in World Literature Today and can’t tear my eyes away from the line: “I couldn’t see it at the time, and I certainly refused to acknowledge it, but when my parents’ overeducated, thirty-something child chooses to sell his labor well below a living wage, they can be forgiven for thinking that their blue-eyed son is engaged in a sophisticated form of self-sabotage.”  Perhaps, this is why our sixth anniversary issue comes with what Australia editor-at-large Tiffany Tsao calls below a “frankly [desperate]” editor’s note; still, as she says, “who better to bare our intimate, struggling self with than several thousand of our closest friends?”

. . . you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else . . . This phrase hails from Amanda DeMarco’s brilliant rumination on life as a translator, Foreign to Oneself. Published in our Winter 2017 issue, the essay is composed entirely of excerpts from other texts (this particular quote is taken from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby). As I reread these words while writing this essay, my vision began to get a little blurry. I’m being maudlin, I know. But where else is one entitled to get weepy if not in a retrospective that invites writers to indulge in nostalgia? And the truth of this observation about being a translator sang out all the more because this was also the issue in which my translations of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry made their debut.

At that point, I was Asymptote’s Indonesia Editor-at-Large (my country of focus is now Australia, where I reside), and a few months earlier, I’d come across some of Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry. Having heard that he’d recently won the Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript Competition, I reached out to him via Twitter to ask if I could work with him to translate his poems for our poetry editor’s consideration. This issue marked the start of an ongoing and very fruitful translator-writer partnership with Norman, who later came on staff and is our current Indonesia Editor-at-Large. English-language versions of Norman’s other poems were subsequently published in various magazines, and awarded both a prize and a grant from English PEN. The collection from which these poems are excerpted will be published by Tilted Axis Press in March 2019. If it weren’t for Asymptote, I’m not sure if Norman and I would have ever started working together. READ MORE…

In Conversation: Kalyan Raman

I have always been troubled by the hegemonic position of English.

N Kalyan Raman, a bilingual translator, is best known for his English translations of the works of eminent Tamil modernist writer Ashokamitran. Suchitra Ramachandran, a young translator who won the Asymptote Close Approximations translation fiction prize in 2017 for her translation of the Tamil short story “Periyamma’s Words” by B. Jeyamohan, works in the same languages. 

The two translators met in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and home of the Tamil language, to discuss the practice and politics of translation, posing questions as wide ranging as: What is the role of translation in an astoundingly multi-lingual country? Does English as a language, a post-colonial residue, oppress or enable? What is the literary legacy of translation and how can it shape the understanding of a diverse society? What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

For other emerging translators, enter the fourth edition of our translation contest and stand to win up to $3,000 in prizes. This year’s competition is judged by Edward Gauvin and Eugene Ostashevsky. Details here.

Suchitra Ramachandran (SR): Translation—a weighty literary activity, a difficult craft—seems to have no prestige associated with it in India. And that’s a reason, I think, why a lot of people don’t pursue it seriously.

N Kalyan Raman (KN): The translator is marginalized as a matter of course and for no good reason. A senior editor in Delhi told me that there is simply no space available in the media to talk about translators. What we must do first is accept the translator as part of the literary community, as producers of literary texts. Editors and other institutional intermediaries are given far more space in the translation discourse than translators themselves.

Also, I don’t think of translation as one separate trick. It’s as much a part of the literary culture as anything else. And translators do other things (in the literary ecosystem) as well, which hardly receive any notice—reflecting, engaging, reviewing, it is all a part of the culture. And understanding it, developing a reflective awareness of the trajectory of the literary culture of your community. Languages imply community above all else. What good is language if there is no community around it? In India, the English language seems to facilitate, in any field, only interest groups. It’s not amenable to a truly open space.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup lands us in Romania, Moldova, India and Egypt.

Prizes, events, book publications, festivals—whatever you can think of, our Weekly Dispatches have you covered from one end of the world to the other. This week our editors are focusing on the most exciting news from India, Romania and Moldova, and Egypt. 

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from India: 

When everything is sponsored by a multinational company, from football to governments, literature is no different. India’s richest literary award was announced this March by JCB group. An annual prize money of INR twenty-five lakhs (USD 38,400) for a fiction book could have only come from a company manufacturing construction equipment.

(The DSC Prize, which was the most generous literary award in the country till its prize money was reduced from USD 50,000 to USD 25,000 in 2017, is also funded by a company specializing in infrastructure.)

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Rimli Bhattacharya

Doesn’t the strength of a work of fiction lie in its lack of closure?

Our second Asymptote Book Club interview is an in-depth discussion of Aranyak, a seminal work of Bengali literature translated into English by Rimli Bhattacharya.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Asymptote Assistant Editor Chris Power, Rimli Bhattacharya reflects on Aranyak’s enduring importance, how a bout of “language sickness” led to its translation into English, and why author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s “extraordinarily sensitive” portrayal of women was ahead of its time.

Chris Power’s review of the novel is available to read here.

Chris Power (CP): I’d first like to ask about the history of Aranyak’s reception. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay wrote this classic Bengali novel, based on his years spent in northern Bihar, between 1937 and 1939. What new significance does it take on in the twenty-first century? What inspired you to translate it? When did you first read it, and how has your reading of it evolved?

Rimli Bhattacharya (RB): Aranyak was serialized in the late 1930s—the same decade in which a clutch of other remarkable novels, such as Aparajito and Drihstipradip, were published. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was already celebrated as the writer of Pather Panchali. The interesting thing about Aranyak is that many forests meld in the novel, not only Bibhutibhushan’s years in Bhagalpur in the 1920s, but also his travels in Singbhum and Mayurbhanj in Orissa in the mid-1930s, as his biographer Rusati Sen points out.

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Announcing Our January Book Club Selection

A classic of Bengali literature, available for the first time in English translation.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak will be our second Asymptote Book Club title. We’re delighted to be sharing one of the gems of Bengali literature with our subscribers: the novel’s English translator, Rimli Bhattacharya, describes it as “a chronicle of the dispossessed in visionary prose.”

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

This week, our Editors-at-Large bring us up to speed on literary happenings in South Africa, Central America, and Brazil.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large, South Africa: 

South Africa has eleven official languages, a fact not often evident in local literary awards and publications, which generally skew towards English and Afrikaans as mediums. However, the announcement of the 2017 South African Literary Awards (SALA) has done much to change this perception.

In addition to including five contributors to narratives in the extinct !Xam and !Kun languages (drawn from the Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd archives), a biography in Sepedi (Tšhutšhumakgala by Moses Shimo Seletisha) and poetry collections in isiXhosa (Iingcango Zentliziyo by Simphiwe Ali Nolutshungu) and the Kaaps dialect (Hammie by Ronelda S. Kamfer) have been shortlisted.

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In Review: Ismat Chughtai’s Quit India

This varied and beautifully calibrated volume succeeds in sustaining the legacy of one of India’s most radical twentieth-century authors.

Twenty-six years after her death, Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is one of Urdu’s most famous short story writers; among her immediate contemporaries, only Saadat Hasan Manto’s reputation matches hers, and we can confidently say that she has no successor.

The Quilt, the first of her works to be presented to international audiences in the year of her death, was a collection of her short fiction. The title story, which had a lesbian theme, created a scandal and attracted the ire of colonial censors when it was first published in the early forties. Other stories in the volume proved the author to be a storyteller of the finest calibre. In 1995, more than half a century after its original debut, a translation of her magnificent feminist bildungsroman, The Crooked Line (1942), where the heroine’s life paralleled her own, pre-empted and fictionalised many of the ideas from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Although it is still in print in the US with the pioneering Feminist Press, the UK edition has been discontinued. Several more translations of her stories, essays, memoirs, and long and short fiction, accompanied by a slew of biographical and critical studies, have enhanced her reputation year by year and made her one of the most translated writers across the subcontinent. However, they have only been published in India and Pakistan and have not been picked up by Anglo-American publishers.

Chughtai’s fiction ranges from stories for children and reminiscences of her friends and family, to the harrowing low life in Bombay’s slums and drug-fuelled high life in the city’s gaudy film world, to a novel about Islam’s first martyrs—a choice that surprises admirers of this iconic socialist-feminist icon. But even today some critics claim that The Quilt overshadows her other fictions and use the early stories to measure her later work. Others, including myself, would say this is grossly untrue: Ismat, though she preferred to write about what she knew best, was versatile within her chosen range of subversive kitchen sink drama and outspoken social satire, as we can see from the several renditions into English of all her major works by Tahira Naqvi, her most frequent translator, which are published in Delhi by the pioneering Women Unlimited (Penguin India also publishes a handful of translations by Mohammad Asaduddin).

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In Review: Once There Was a City Named Dilli by Intizar Hussain

Delhi is in a perpetual cycle of becoming and being unmade.

After our feature on studying language in South Asia on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence, we focus once again on the complex social and linguistic landscape of the subcontinent. Sneha Khaund reviews Man Booker Prize shortlisted author and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres awardee Initizar’s Hussain’s loving, nostalgic account of Delhi that has been recently translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah and published by Yoda Press. The Pakistani author (1923-2016) is widely recognized as a great Urdu writer and was a regular literary columnist for Pakistan’s leading English-language daily Dawn. He migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was created by partitioning colonial era India into the two nations of India and Pakistan. Hussain’s acclaimed novel Basti, published in 1979 and later translated into English, addressed the history of Pakistan and the subcontinent. As this review argues, the issues of secularism and language politics are as important in contemporary times as they were during the Partition. 

As I reflect on the themes of the book I wish to dwell on in this review, my attention is interrupted by bits of information pouring in through news channels and the internet. A self-styled godman has been convicted of raping two of his former disciples. His followers are spread across Haryana and Punjab, neighbouring states of Delhi where I am writing from. The judgement has come fifteen years after the charges were made, during which period he has cultivated a flamboyant personal image, complete with movies and music videos. On Friday, the time leading up to the verdict was fraught with tension as the media speculated whether his followers would riot if he was convicted. The police had emergency preparations on stand-by, including three stadiums to hold people after arrests. Violence erupted after the verdict, as feared, and at last count, thirty people have died. Curfew has been imposed on parts of northern India and there has been an internet block-out in certain parts so that rumours don’t spread and incite fresh violence.

The deafening silence in the wake of violence in the modern state—whether it is Darjeeling, Kashmir, Punjab, or Haryana—is with what Intizar Hussain begins Once There Was a City Named Dilli. Hussain starts the first chapter by saying that he had arrived in Delhi “two and a half or three years after Partition” (3) and had headed to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin where he was taken aback by the silence that greeted him instead of the usual hustle and bustle. His surprise will be relatable to modern day readers familiar with the shrine of the Sufi saint in the heart of Delhi that draws throngs of devotees and tourists alike and is located close to one of the busiest railway stations in India. We wonder if a hush has fallen over the city in the aftermath of the violence of Partition, but Hussain draws a larger arc of history.

As he searches in vain for the nineteenth century Urdu poet Ghalib’s grave while the melancholy scream of a lonely peacock tears through the “dusk of that sad evening” (6), he is struck with amazement at how many times the city has been plundered and resettled. Thus begins Hussain’s quest to write the history of Delhi as a series of plunders, conquests, settlements. “Who were the settlers, who were settled?”, he writes. As scholars such as Romila Thapar have shown, these are complex questions because they carry within them the issue of who is the legitimate citizen of India. Both colonialist and nationalist historiography have been guilty of perpetuating the perception that Islam came to India by way of the sword, through figures such as Nadir Shah and Timur. Hussain then proceeds to draw up a historical narrative of the city from the time of the mythical Pandavas of Mahabharat, the period of Islamic dynasties, the colonial era where India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta in 1911, ending finally with the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century that eventually led to the creation of two nation states—India and Pakistan.

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Remnants of a Separation: Translating Intangibles into Tangibles

Seventy years after the largest migration in history, a visual artist is recording the objects and languages that tell stories of longing.

Seventy years ago today the British left the Subcontinent, and India and Pakistan became separate sovereign states. The Partition is often represented in terms of numbers—one million people were killed and twelve million became refugees. Visual artist Aanchal Malhotra has been making the migrants visible by recording the stories behind the objects the migrants brought to their new homes. One of the intangibles they carried were their languages. Asymptote Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sat down for a long chat with Malhotra to discuss her latest book that records these remnants. A very happy independence day to our Indian and Pakistani readers!

2017 marks not only seventy years of Independence of India and Pakistan, but also of the 1947 Partition, which saw one of the greatest migrations in human history. Close to fifteen million people were uprooted and had to migrate to or from India and the newly created nation, Pakistan.

In her book, Remnants of a Separation, artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra looks at the Partition narrative through the lens of the objects that the refugees brought with them as they made the journey. These objects were either the first things they could grab when they found themselves suddenly engulfed by communal riots, or things they considered essential or valuable as they prepared to settle in an unfamiliar land. Aanchal has also founded the Museum of Material Memory, “a digital repository of material culture of the Indian subcontinent, tracing family history and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.”

I meet Aanchal in a café on a rainy afternoon in Delhi to talk about the languages she encountered while undertaking this curatorial project. After moving back to India from her studies abroad in 2013, Aanchal realized that in its race to be modern and in tune with the times, her generation—young, urban Indians in their twenties and thirties—often forgot to care about the items of the past. She started visiting historical sites every weekend and, from those visits and discoveries, extended the Partition project, which she started documenting on her blog. “I wanted to share the things I learned from people,” Aanchal says, when I ask her about the impulse that started it all.

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Translation Tuesday: “Periyamma’s Words” by B. Jeyamohan

I felt that manners were nothing more than knowing to say the appropriate English words at the right times.

Continuing our spotlight on Close Approximations contest winners, we present today the top entry in the fiction category, notable for being the first Asian translation to receive the top award in the history of our contest, now into its third edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000 USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 editionJudge David Bellos says: “There were several contenders for second place, but I have absolutely no doubt that the prize itself must go to the charming, wonderful, unusual story of “Periyamma’s Words” by the Tamil writer B.Jeyamohan in Suchitra Ramachandran’s translation. It is a witty and heart-warming tale illustrating the paradoxical position of translation itself, as a way of crossing boundaries and as a way of understanding what boundaries cannot be crossed.”

Come, go, stop, food, clothes, son, daughter, road, house, sky, earth, night, day—these words came rather easily to her. If I said those words in Tamil, Periyamma would reply with the corresponding English words. It was only when Periyamma jumped to say ‘cat’ before I could say poo– that I realized I was quizzing her in order. So I changed the order. But then Periyamma started saying the English words just by looking at my eyes. So I pointed at different animals and asked what they were. Periyamma said naaipoonaikozhi in Tamil and then translated them—‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘hen.’ It was only after Periyamma had mastered a hundred basic words—she would say them even before I could ask—that I moved on to concepts. That was when all hell broke loose.

Periyamma was not my periy-amma, big-mother, a name usually reserved for one’s maternal aunt. But everybody in our town called her that. Her house, they called the Big House. Situated in the town centre, that bungalow was built by Periyamma’s grandfather Thiruvadiya Pillai a hundred and fifty years ago. The word about town is that when it was built, the glass for the house sailed in from Belgium, the teak came from Burma, the marble from Italy, and the iron from England. The people who came to grind limestone for its walls stayed on permanently in our town, and as a result our town acquired a Lime Street. Our carpenters also moved in during that period. Periyamma’s wedding took place in that bungalow. That was the first time a mottaar came to our town. The newlyweds were paraded about town in that Ford motor car. Periyamma was not to step foot into that car ever again.

It has been forty years since Periyamma’s husband passed away. Her only son Arumugam Pillai had been a lawyer in Madurai, and he died there. His four sons were variously placed in Chennai and Delhi and Calcutta. None of them are alive now. A daughter of the oldest grandson is a doctor in America. She is the only person who has some semblance of a relationship to Periyamma. Periyamma went on living in that town, an ancient relic in the eyes of its fourth-generation inhabitants. In the olden days their family had six thousand acres of land to their name. Over the years, it had shrunk in various ways to a hundred acres. Those hundred acres had been neatly partitioned and sold over thirty years ago. In the end, all that was left over for Periyamma was that house, two acres of land around it, a good sum in the bank, and her jewelry. But that was more than enough for her to live in state.

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What’s New with the Crew? A Monthly Update

A behind-the-scenes scoop on what our team members have been up to!

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow translated Guillaume Apollinaire’s celebrated “Song of the Unrequited Lover” for the Spring 2017 issue of Metamorphoses.

Assistant Blog Editor Aurvi Sharma was awarded the 2017 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in Nonfiction Literature.

Drama Editor Caridad Svich’s play Iphigenia Crash Land Falls On the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart was performed on 30 July at Bread and Roses Theatre in South London and by London-based company Clumsy Bodies from 4 to 12 August at theSpace on Niddry Street in conjunction with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her essay, “Riding Uphill on a Red Bike,” based on her play Red Bike, is featured as the closing reflection on the making of the Stages of Resistance series.

Editor-at-Large for Romania and Moldova MARGENTO a.k.a. Chris Tanasescu will be presenting with his team a paper titled “Access(ed) Poetry. The Graph Poem Project and the Place of Poetry in Digital Humanities” at the 2017 Digital Humanities Conference in Montreal. Chris also recently presented a paper on automated metaphor detection in poetry at the Association for Computational Linguistic Conference in Vancouver.

Criticism Editor Ellen Jones was awarded one of the 2017 ALTA Travel Fellowships to attend this year’s conference in Minneapolis.  She, like Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin, has written an essay for the upcoming anthology “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online,” published by OR Books.  

Contributing Editor Howard Goldblatt has published an essay in Korean Literature Now discussing the issue of translating fiction and creating fiction as two distinct literary genres.  

Editor-at-Large for Indonesia Norman Erikson Pasaribu is showcased as an emerging Indonesian writer in Kill Your Darlings, a cultural magazine based in Melbourne, in partnership with the upcoming Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali.  

Social Media Manager Thea Hawlin wrote about the rise of female literary magazines for LitHub and reviewed a response to George Eliot’s ‘Silly Women Novelists’ for the Times Literary Supplement. She also published essays on Italian director Antonioni’s first color film and the designer Salvatore Ferragamo in AnOther magazine. It’s also her birthday today so please joining us in wishing her a very happy birthday!

Editors-at-Large for Singapore Theophilus Kwek and Tse Hao Guang have launched UnFree Verse, an anthology of formal verse from Singapore, co-edited with poet Joshua Ip. Theophilus was also featured last week in an episode of the new BBC4 series ‘Mother Tongue’, which focuses on poetry in translation.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Summer 2017

From an essay investigating a literary hoax to new art responding to Trump's xenophobia, our editors share their favorites from the new issue!

Asymptote’s glorious Summer issue is chockablock with gems. Some of our section editors share their highlights:

“To assert that Tove Jansson’s invention of the Moomin world may be partially rooted in ancient lore is, for this writer, to fear performing an act of sacrilege,” confesses Stephanie Sauer in her essay on renowned Finnish author-artist, Tove Jansson. This confession is the crux of Sauer’s questionings. Journey with Sauer from the moment the Moomins were conceived, to its unlikely, subversive evolution. Hold tighter still as she dives into Jansson’s personal life, her questions of war, artistry, womanhood, and sexuality, and the fearless, unconventional course she cut through history.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor

This issue features excerpts from two plays that deal with aspects of “disappearance” and surveillance. In Blanca Doménech’s The Sickness of Stone, translated from the Spanish by William Gregory, we take a look at a cold, dark world where random pieces of text read from discarded books become a kind of key to unlocking society’s ills or sickness. Gregory’s eloquent, tart translation finds the humor, bite and despair in this fascinating play.

In Hanit Guli’s Orshinatranslated from the Hebrew by Yaron Regev, a father must decide how he will disappear from his family’s life and what he will or will not tell them. An odd, compassionate family drama, Regev’s translation of Guli’s one-act is evocative and clear.

—Caridad Svich, Drama Editor

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Asymptote Podcast: In Conversation with Suchitra Ramachandran

Dominick Boyle talks to the winner of our 2017 Close Approximations contest (fiction category)!

In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast we feature an interview with translator Suchitra Ramachandran. Her translation of the short story, Periyamma’s Words by B. Jeyamohan, won Asymptote‘s 2017 Close Approximations Prize in Fiction. Ramachandran and Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle delve into the rich world of language that the two main characters of Periyamma’s Words find themselves in, which is filled with symbolism that reaches epic proportions. Ramachandran says that this creates a text both incredibly challenging to translate, but also incredibly rewarding.

They also discuss her own journey of linguistic discovery, which motivated her to become a translator. Frustrated by the inadequacy of Indian literature written in English to speak to her own experience, Ramachandran turned to literature in Tamil. Now, she hopes that translation can bring it to a wider audience. She says that translations of Tamil literature, surprisingly, are helping other Indians, and even native Tamil speakers, to discover the tremendous wealth of stories available in their own backyard.

Podcast Editor and Host: Dominick Boyle

Music is “Divider” by Chris Zabriskie and “El Tranva” by Jenifer Avila. Used under a Creative Commons License from the Free Music Archive.

(Editor’s Note: Ramachandran would like to add that it is incorrect when she says in the podcast that students of English read translations of Mulk Raj Anand—Anand was an Indian author who wrote in English.)