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.
In a conversation about a younger generation of Anglophone writers in India, Annie Zaidi’s name is bound to come up. From poetry to non-fiction to drama to a novella that is both ghost story and romance, her writing continually shifts forms, landscapes, and languages. Zaidi is the editor of Unbound: 2,000 years of Indian Women’s Writing and the author of Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. She is also the co-author of The Good Indian Girl. Her work has appeared in several anthologies including Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, Mumbai Noir, Women Changing India, and Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now. Zaidi spoke with me about her influences, process, and literary interests in an email interview.
Poorna Swami: Your grandfather was a well-known Urdu writer, and you have said in the past that literature was a big part of your childhood. How has that culture of language and literature influenced your career as a writer? Although you write primarily in English, does Urdu shape your work in any way?
Annie Zaidi: Literature was a big part of my childhood, but not in the sense of literature with a capital L. My family had some literary background, and there were a lot of books around but there were no literary discussions and for many years, I did not have access to a good library. But books were seen as a good thing and we were bought books and comics from an early age. Books were my main source of entertainment and, later, my main solace. I read almost all the time and that turned me into somebody who didn’t know much except the world of words and stories. Turning to literature as a vocation was a very short step from there. READ MORE…
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.
Home and flux mean the same in a land named after a severance, or the great “partition” of the subcontinent: a paradox of freedom-and-loss, umbilical-cord-and-scissors. Born in Pakistan, a country that emerged on the world map after the collapse of the British Raj and the largest mass migration in human history, “permanence” is forever in the shadow of exile.
If poetry seeks who we are, I’ve found myself searching in language, not land. Land, in its aspects worth remembering, becomes language. If I carry language, I carry land. What is exile, then, if not a road paved for poets, permanent wayfarers?
I came to America as a college student. In Passage Work, the first series of poems I completed as my senior thesis at Reed, I wondered: why write in English, the language of the colonist? Have I taken language as a loan for poetry? Have I betrayed Urdu? In these earliest poems, I call language “luggage,” a historical-personal luggage, both burden as well as reason for being. READ MORE…
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.
Read all posts in Mahmud Rahman’s investigation here.
An unfortunate reality is that there are not enough good translators working in South Asian languages. There are some in the subcontinent and elsewhere; but in the U.S.—presumably where it is most likely that translators might approach U.S.-based publishers—there are only a handful. If you look at the directories at ALTA, PEN, or Words Without Borders, these languages barely register. You will find a few working in Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, but hardly any in Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu, Nepali, Sinhala, or other languages.
The emergence of translators here is also largely a matter of chance.