Posts filed under 'india'

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.


Translation Tuesday: An excerpt of “Cobalt Blue” by Sachin Kundalkar

When you came into our lives, I was in a strange frame of mind.

Translated from the Marathi by acclaimed novelist and critic Jerry Pinto, Sachin Kundalkar’s elegantly wrought and exquisitely spare novel explores the disruption of a traditional family by a free-spirited stranger in order to examine a generation in transition. Intimate, moving, sensual, and wry in its portrait of young love, Cobalt Blue is a frank and lyrical exploration of gay life in India that recalls the work of Edmund White and Alan Hollinghurst—of people living in emotional isolation, attempting to find long-term intimacy in relationships that until recently were barely conceivable to them. Here, we present the opening pages of the novel.


That you should not be here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here.

The house is quiet. I’m alone at home. For a while, I basked in bed in the shifting arabesques of light diffusing through the leaves of the tagar. Then I got up slowly, and went down to the backyard, and sprawled on the low wall for a single moment. The silence made me feel like a stranger in my own home.

I walked around the house quietly, as a stranger might. The chirping of sparrows filled the kitchen. The other rooms were quiet, empty, forsaken. In the front room, the newspaper lay like a tent in the middle of the floor, where it had been dropped. At the door, a packet of flowers to appease the gods and a bag of milk.

Then I realized I was not alone. From their photograph, Aaji and Ajoba eyed me in utter grandparental disbelief. I took my coffee to the middle room window and sat down. That girl with the painful voice in the hostel next door—How come she’s not shrieking about something?

To savour each bitter and steaming sip of coffee in such quiet?

That you should not be there when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here. READ MORE…

In Conversation with Vikram Chandra

"We have never been modern, and our newer forms—which are all hybrids—never have either."

Vikram Chandra was born in New Delhi and graduated from Pomona College (in Claremont, near Los Angeles) in 1984. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, was written over several years while getting an MA at Johns Hopkins and an MFA at the University of Houston. While writing Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Vikram taught literature and writing, and moonlighted as a computer programmer and software and hardware consultant. Red Earth and Pouring Rain received outstanding critical acclaim. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction.

A collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, was published in 1997 and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book; was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize; and was included in “Notable Books of 1997” by the New York Times Book Review. A novel, Sacred Games, was published in 2006 and won the Hutch Crossword Award for English Fiction for 2006 and a Salon Book Award for 2007; it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Vikram made his nonfiction debut with Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code,The Code of Beauty published by Graywolf Press in 2014, which was described as an “unexpected tour de force” by the New York Times Book Review. Geek Sublime dwells upon the points of intersection between writing, coding, art, technology, Sanskrit and ancient Indian literature and philosophy.


Naheed Patel: Your latest book, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty is quite a literary hybrid: part craft essay, part history of computer programming, part social commentary on Silicon Valley, and part treatise on Sanskrit philosophy. All these various part form a seamless mosaic that works to enlighten and totally fascinate the reader in equal measure. How did you make this magic happen?

Vikram Chandra: As is usually the case with writing, through endless rounds of revision, periods of complete frustration and despair, and fumbling around trying to discover the right shape for what I was trying to build.  I actually found this more difficult to do in non-fiction than I have before with fiction.  When I’m writing fiction, I have the characters to guide me; even though there are moments of unknowing and paralysis, I can always trust that if I’m patient and I keep following the characters, I’ll eventually figure out the architecture.  But with non-fiction, or at least this particular non-fiction, it was much harder.  I didn’t have the linear velocities of a plot to draw me forward, so it was much more—as you say—like building a mosaic, putting small pieces together and trying to see the patterns.  The epiphany about the overall structure came very very late in the process, compared to all my other books, and this was scary.  So much of writing is just keeping faith that you’ll work out what kind of beast you’re actually making, and this can wear on you. READ MORE…

Conversations in Absentia/Invisible Voices: the 2015 Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival

"It creates a desperately needed space to discuss, underscore, and broadcast South Asian writing in one of the world’s largest literary capitals."

The first thing one notices at the venue of the 2nd annual Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival is the number of Indians in various gradations of “Indian Attire”—from the skimpy Bollywood sari, to the elegant Kanjivaram, to the ubiquitous sherwani with a baseball cap. Such South Asian exuberance against the drab backdrop of Hunter College’s linoleum floors, dubious escalators, and gray dry-wall is enough to pique anyone’s interest, let alone a bunch of homesick Indian bibliophiles waiting to take selfies with their favorite writers.

An ambitious attempt on the part of the Indo-American Arts Council, led by director Aroon Shivdasani, the Festival gathers together prominent Subcontinental voices as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, Meena Alexander, Padma Lakshmi and Mira Nair, as well as emerging writers like Sharbari Ahmed, Raghu Karnad, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, Mira Jacob, and Tanwi Nandini Islam.

Only two years old, the Festival is in its nascent stages, and perhaps that is why the panel discussions at times felt disjointed, as did its choice of panelists. The topics often veered sharply from the literary into an ersatz representation of South Asian identity—India’s rich, politicized literary landscape got less than its proper share of attention in what is supposed to be a festival of literature. The opening panel comprised of Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta in conversation with Amitava Kumar, although brimful of witty lines and pictorial anecdotes, often detoured from a discussion on writing by these accomplished authors into scattered riffs on their pasts, their political affiliations, and their sense of belonging to the “Old Boys’ Club” of Bombay writers. These digressions not only alienated younger audience members but also missed the opportunity to center the discussion on the writers’ craft. To make matters worse, there were not enough checks and balances to prevent an audience member from indulging in frivolous and self-promoting questions, only to waste precious panel time. Also, conspicuous by their absence at the Festival were diaspora writers such as Vandana Khanna, Srikant Reddy, and Nalini Jones, just to name a few, who would have added greater value to the panels, but who were, for reasons unknown, not included.


Epic India in Verse

Reviewing Poetry of India: Anthology of the Greatest Poets of India, ed. Paul Smith (New Humanity Books, 2014)

A few months ago, a friend of mine who was curious about the nuances of Indian culture asked me to explain the artistic differences between North and South India. I realized it was a loaded question, and I could only give him a general overview of similarities and differences between north and south, Aryan and Dravidian, and Central Asian, Persian-Turkish influences versus Burmese and Sri Lankan. I felt I had a vague generalist understanding of my country of origin, though my answers seemed to satisfy him.

It is exceedingly difficult to encapsulate the cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent, spanning across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, with a cultural nebula across Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. To travelers like the seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (the 14th century Central Asian [Uzbek] warrior), the marauder Timur (the subject of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) and even Mohandas Gandhi, returning from years of living among the racist Boers of South Africa, India remained a baffling and exotic mystery to the intellect and senses.

Fortunately for us, a book like Paul Smith’s massive anthology, Poetry of India: Anthology of the Greatest Poets of India, gives curious readers of Indian culture and literature an adequate place to start. Paul Smith is an Australian poet and scholar of Indian and South Asian literature. He has translated the works of Rumi, Hafiz, and Nizami, as well as the works of various other Sufi and Persian poets. In this anthology, he delves straight into the complexities of Indian literature, Sanskrit poetry from South India and the Deccan states, medieval Tamil poetry, and poems by well-known nineteenth and twentieth-century poets like Makhfi, Ghālib, Tagore, and Iqbal.


Why are so few South Asian translations published in the U.S.? (Part V)

In Rahman’s penultimate post, he speaks with publishing insiders and literary translators to glean some surprising information.

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

In the early 20th century and into the first decades of independent India, there were a small number of translations into English. Across language boundaries, Indians read writers like Tagore, Sarat Chandra, and Premchand. Though the translations were often clunky, these books played a role in building a sense of India as a nation.

Initially there were a handful of publishers who published translations from a few Indian languages into English. Quality translations came from one or two individuals, such as the writer A.K. Ramanujan. Rita Kothari in her book Translating India includes this telling quote: “Prabhakar Machwe, secretary of the Sahitya Akademi in the seventies complained that, ‘even after 25 years, we have not been able to develop a team of ten good, competent translators of Indian languages into English.’”

Things began to turn by the late 1980s.


On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S. (Part III)

We can't just blame the publishers when there's a glaring lack of institutional support.


Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

It would be exciting if an academic publisher steps forward with a contemporary South Asian literature list. Until that day comes, what might be more realistic are initiatives from small publishers. In recent years, besides old stalwarts like NYRB, New Directions, and Dalkey Archive, we’ve seen the emergence of translation-focused publishers like Archipelago, Open Letter, and now, Deep Vellum.

I had a few exchanges with Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum. As a new kid on the block based in Dallas, Texas, Evans is effervescent about Deep Vellum’s mission. Starting out with a list of five impressive titles translated from French, Russian, Spanish, and Icelandic, their initial plan is to publish ten books a year. In a recent interview with this blog, Evans confidently declared, “Deep Vellum is going to publish translations of literature from every language.”

My conversation with him about South Asian translations revealed that visibility is a problem. Larger publishers may have resources to scout out interesting titles (though one doesn’t see this go beyond certain languages and regions). But smaller publishers rely on information channels that are already in place. READ MORE…

Publisher Profile: Tulika Books

An inside look at translating and publishing children's literature… in nine languages!

Interview with Radhika Menon, founder & managing editor of Tulika Books, India.

Sohini Basak: How did Tulika start out?

Radhika Menon: When we set up Tulika Publishers in 1996, we wanted to create Indian books that were as good as the best books anywhere. No, not “just as good as.” We want to give the children supremely good books and we wanted these books to be right in the Indian context. Our own generation had been fed books from the West, and had been taught to keep away from the more didactic, mass-produced Indian books. Good books, we assumed, came from elsewhere, usually from England!

We needed to reflect a contemporary Indian sensibility. But the contemporary Indian reality was vast, varied, and multilingual. It was clear to us that we would have to publish in as many of the Indian languages as possible.

Today we publish picture books in nine languages simultaneously—English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. We also do bilingual books—English paired with each of the other eight languages. Some of the books for older children are in English alone and they too reflect a contemporary “Indianness” in their perspective, and in their very feel and look. READ MORE…

On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the U.S. (Part I)

“It’s a serious problem when so few titles and literature from so few languages find their way to American readers.”

Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.

Until about ten years ago, whenever I visited Bangladesh, a journey “home” every three to five years, I would make my way to a small bookshop in Dhaka’s New Market. Zeenat Book Supply was one of the few places that carried English titles from India. There were better shops for books in Bangla, and subcontinental writing in English I could find in the U.S. What I sought at Zeenat was books in translation. These would sometimes be wrapped in plastic, other times coated with dust, the edges dirt-brown. Here I would find fiction that had originally been written in languages I didn’t know: Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam.

When I had the good fortune to visit Calcutta, I would discover more.

What discoveries I returned with! Raag Darbari, Shrilal Shukla’s biting small-town satire. Karukku, Bama’s brave memoir as a Dalit Christian. Desert Shadows by Anand that took me into the corrupt world of an Indian prison.

Unless a used copy lands somewhere by chance, such books are not found in U.S. bookstores. Unless you were teaching Indian literature or someone who keeps up on South Asian writing outside English, you would probably not know about these titles.


Dilemmas of a Bilingual Delhi-ite

"I am now coming to terms with the fact that I call myself a literature student from India, without ever having read a novel in my own language."

“Umm. I’ve studied in English… but my mother tongue is Hindi, of course,” I said confidently to my Nigerian housemate, who had asked about my “first language” while I was struggling with my newly acquired culinary skills during breakfast.

In a heterogeneous environment, students collect crumbs of the languages around them, believing they are true connoisseurs of culture. I should have anticipated her next question: “So how do you say ‘Good Morning’ in your language?”

Shubh Prabhat. I had stored it somewhere in my preconscious memory. It’s one of those things that you know you know, but you can’t remember at the urgent moment. That’s forgivable when it’s an uncommon word. But this was “good morning”—probably one of the first phrases one learns while learning a new language. And this wasn’t a new language: it was supposed to be my “mother tongue.” READ MORE…

Weekly News Roundup, 11th April 2014: Sade goes home, Prizes everywhere

This week's literary highlights from across the world

Good news always seems to come in threes—or fours, or fives… News of this week’s literary accolades struck with some seriously heavy hitters. The Dublin IMPAC Award has announced its finalists, which include five books in translation and a novel by Asymptote interviewee Tan Twan Eng. For this prize, especially, the stakes are quite high: the winning author receives a 100,000-Euro prize, or in the case of a translation, a 75,000-25,000-Euro writer-translator split! Karl Ove Knausgaard, contentious memoirist and nominated for the IMPAC, has been graced with double honors this week: he’s also been shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize, which historically includes two female Japanese writers as well (a first!): Yoko Ogawa and Hiromi Kawakami. It’s a good week for female writers in general: the prize formerly known as the Orange Prize the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has announced its shortlist. READ MORE…

The Joys and Dangers of Translating Asian Dictionaries: Part III.

"If the king organizes the Mānasollāsa, he is also organized by it."

Click back to see Part I and Part II of this series. Or you can enjoy this post all on its own!


The translation of the language of things into that of man is not only a translation of the mute into the sonic; it is also the translation of the nameless into name. It is therefore the translation of an imperfect language into a more perfect one, and cannot but add something to it, namely knowledge.

—   Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”

In my previous posts I discussed the dangers of reading Asian encyclopedias by discussing two fictional representations of Asian systems of knowledge. Today, I return to reality by looking at a very real, very dear-to-me Indian encyclopedia, the Mānasollāsa of the 12th century South Indian king Someśvara III. It is the first general accounting of the various forms of scientific knowledge we find in pre-modern India. Topping 8000 verses, it is monumental, true to Aude Doody’s definition: “a grand-scale reference work with retrieval devices.” Because of its massive scope, it has not yet been fully translated into English or any other language (though sections have been translated into Kannada).


Weekly News Roundup, 7th March 2014: March madness, Big lit bullies, Lit whizzing

A look at some of the most important literary news of the past week

It’s the first Friday of March, and the month’s madness is already underfoot. If you think we’re referring to the sort of lunacy of hoops, athleticism, and bouncing orange balls, don’t be fooled: in the wake of the madness that is AWP in Seattle, this March portends quite a bit for literary lunatics, as the finalists for several big-name prizes are announced… READ MORE…

Pulping History

On banning Wendy Doniger's "The Hindus: An Alternative History"

In the opening chapter of his Sanskrit masterpiece, the Vikramāṅkadevacarita, Bilhaṇa, a Kashmiri poet living in 12th century Karnataka, writes:

Where is the fame of those kings who do not have eminent poets on either side?

How many kings have come and gone from the earth?

Nobody even knows their names!