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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Translations -- Looking at the Wrong Side of the Carpet

There was a time, not very long, ago when all we had by way of translations in India were the Jataka-katha, Panchtantra, Gita or Mahabharata in English. The launch of Penguin India in the mid-1980s and the publication of Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas, the seminal Partition novel translated from the Hindi original, opened the floodgates. Suddenly we had translations coming out of our ears, from the various bhashas into English as well as into/between the vernaculars! This was a largely unexpected and entirely fortuitous turn of events in a country that has turned Indian Writing in English (IWE) into a national obsession. While writers of IWE are inevitably feted and lionised at lit-fests, translators too are gradually creeping out from the shadows. Translations now command equal space in the pages of literary magazines just as translators too can demand equal rights: 10% royalty and a book launch with canapés and cocktails to boot!

Over the past twenty years, translations have, stealthily but surely, made a space for themselves not only in the trade but in the public consciousness as is evident from the numbers of translated books displayed in bookstores, popular awards for translators as well as the relatively painless hunt for publishers. I would venture so far as to say that translations have become a cottage industry of sorts, especially the business of compiling short stories from and into the various languages. Anthologies offer a smorgasbord, or a tasting menu of sorts into the great storehouse of Indian literature, and enterprising translators/editors peg their collections in many innovative ways: women’s writing, South Asian writing, Dalit writing, coming-of-age writing, regional writing, partition writing, call-it-what-you-will writing! As is often the case with problems of plenty, we occasionally have random, indiscriminate, patchy, a mélange of the good, bad, indifferent translations being cobbled together with one eye on political correctness and the other on cost-effective publishing. The idea seems to be to translate freely, prolifically and indiscriminately for there is a place for everything in a market that is showing no signs of saturation. This, I think, is a disservice to translations generally and to the task of introducing regional literatures to younger fresher audiences in particular.

Having said that, only a handful of the burgeoning collections of short stories, especially from the bhasha literatures, ever fail my personal litmus test. Having read and reviewed scores of such translations -- and God help me, edited a couple of ‘samplers’ myself – as long as I chance upon something that opens a window into a world that is new and familiar, that has the power to delight and amaze, I feel the business of anthologizing and translating might be done to death but cannot be done away with. For students of literature in South Asia, as well as people from the South Asian diaspora who look upon the bhasha literatures from their part of the world as being a vital link with their cultural heritage but use English as an effective first language, translations offer the only glimpse into an otherwise closed world. So while many of us veterans in the business of translating, editing or reviewing rue the presence of certain authors or certain stories popping up like tired ghosts in most anthologies of ‘modern Indian fiction’ or certain authors and stories being mistaken for being ‘most representative’ simply because they are ‘most anthologised’, there is no denying that as long as a work of translation meets the needs of a wide variety of readers the purpose behind the endeavor is met.

Speaking for myself, having burnt my fingers with technical translations long years ago, I have since stuck to literary translations. Moreover, since I steadfastly refuse to indulge in farmaishi (command) programmes, I enjoy the luxury of translating precisely what I want or whatever – a story, an essay, a poem, a stray fragment – catches my fancy. The pleasure of sharing the tremulous sense of wonder that a piece of literature evokes with a wider audience that is sadly mehroom (bereft) due to the constraints of language and script is its own reward.

A perfect example is my introduction to the world of Phanishwarnath Renu, a Hindi writer from Bihar. The thrill of discovering something that was at once so inexplicably real and hence so immediate, despite being grounded in a milieu that was completely alien to me, was indescribable. That thrill stayed with me as I chanced upon story after story that had, on the one hand, characters and locations steeped in Bihar (a state which, incidentally, I have never visited and am therefore not familiar with at first hand), yet beckoned me – first as a reader and later, as a translator – to look for the known and the familiar. The more I read, the more this duality grew till in a strange way it resolved itself with the slowly-dawning realization that for a good writer character, plot and narration are mere props; the real thing is the story and, in the telling of it, if the writer can, perchance touch the reader at some level – be it emotional or intellectual – then the remoteness of its setting or the strangeness of its characters is of little consequence. This sense of wonder has to be shared for it to be truly pleasure-giving.

At the same time, as a translator, it is best not to suffer from delusions of grandeur. A translation has been likened to looking at the wrong side of a carpet. The colour, sheen, intricacy of the ‘right’ side is missing. The patterns, outlines, motifs and designs are all there, but they are muted and no match for the original. The translator can, at best, convey a ‘sense’ of the sights and sounds of the original, transfer the meaning from one vocabulary bank to another but must, inevitably, lose some of it in the process. He/she can mimic the rhythms and patterns of the source language, never match it cadence for cadence in the target language. Those who claim otherwise are simply deluding themselves. For, I believe translation is a skill acquired from long hours of constancy and industry. It rests on the cornerstone of fidelity and humility.

Rakhshanda Jalil has published translations of Premchand, Manto, Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui, Shahryar, Intezar Husain, Renu among several others. A modified version of this article was first published in The Herald, Pakistan, July 2011.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Koh Samui

Rattling around the world on your own has its own charms. But it cannot match the joys of a family holiday, especially an extended vacation taken, perforce, in the summer to coincide with the long school holidays. Ordinarily, much planning (or to be exact, endless hours of googling) goes into these annual jaunts. This year, events conspired to make this a virtually last-minute dash to the airport as we caught our flight to Thailand whose chief attraction, it seemed to us then, was its visa-on-arrival facility. We were proved wrong as many other delights vied for our attention.

Having visited Bangkok before and being none-too-taken by its steamy-seamy pleasure-spots, I was hoping for a spot of serenity by the sea. We found it in Koh Samui, one of three islands off the coast of the long banana-shaped peninsula that is Thailand. Having chanced upon this island paradise by happy serendipity, we were doubly blessed to find not one but two exotic hotels: like apples and oranges they were different and pleasurable in their own ways. In fact, those heading for Thailand to indulge in little more than a binge of retail therapy in Bangkok would do well to read on.

Part of the Surat Thani Province, the island (the 'koh' in its name means island) is situated in the Gulf of Thailand and blessed with not merely the most stunning of beaches but temperate climate all through the year. While there are ferries and ships aplenty, the best and quickest way from the mainland is to hop on to a Bangkok Airways plane. The tiny airport, looking like a high-end resort, augured well for the sybaritic holiday we had in mind. Some quick and clever googling found us two unbelievable deals; unable to decide on either one, we booked both, one after the other: the Anantara to be followed by The Passage. June-July being the 'off' season in this part of the world, which sees an avalanche of tourists in winter, the spas and resorts are jostling to out-do each other in providing uber-luxurious packages at fairly affordable prices. And, while the rack rates are horrifying, the internet is awash with sites offering drop-dead gorgeous rates for the pricier of Koh Samui's many luxury hotels. From the airport, we make our way to the Anantara, an enchanting recreation of an eastern kingdom.

Redolent with the scent of frangipani, its high-ceilinged foyer, lotus-filled ponds, teakwood lounges and many winding pathways disappearing into a lush, seemingly impenetrable garden make us catch our breath. Later, the plunge pool attached to our suite makes us gasp with delight as do the several other big and small swimming pools dotted about the property. Myriad shades of blue and green merge and mingle as the infinity pools stretch to the horizon and embrace the sea. For the energetic, the placid waters of the Gulf of Thailand offer many water sports; for the congenitally lazy, the sun-warmed open-air Jacuzzi offers an excellent way of having all one's city-bred tensions kneaded away by jets of gushing warm water. Or else, one can divide one's time between watching the ragged fronds of swaying palm trees while rocking gently on a hammock and looking up at incredibly blue skies, and getting pounded and pummelled by expert hands at the elegant spa. The Anantara boasts one of the finest spas on the island and the hotel itself is a member of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels group.

Infested by honeymooners though Samui is, there is plenty for a family to do. The Anantara has a well-stocked library and DVD collection, a fitness centre and kids club. Again, for the energetic sorts, the hotel also packs a hectic schedule of Thai cookery classes, Thai boxing, cocktail mixing, and fruit carving. Moreover, the Indian general manager hailing from Jamshedpur, Manish Jha, offers many intelligent insights into life on the island and how best to make the most of Samui's many delights. Since a ring road connects all the major beaches on the island, it is easy to hire a car or cadge a ride on a shared taxi to take in the major attractions: go-carting, a visit to the butterfly farm or aquarium, or one of the waterfalls or temples, or even a buffalo fight! The fishing village of Bo Phut is walking distance from the Anantara and its Friday-night party is open to all. Different beaches on the island take turns on different days of the week to host a street market. So, on any given day, you can take your pick from the many beaches - the busier Cheweng and Lamai or, the quieter Maenam and Bang Po - and enjoy a stroll by the sea followed by a walk in these open-air markets where local produce spills out to form a brilliant patchwork of the new and the exotic. Vendors selling spicy boiled corn and chicken sausages, crab dumplings, fried calamari, mounds of gleaming fruit, cubes of coconut jelly, dried pineapple rings... the temptations are overwhelming. In fact, what-to-eat-next becomes something of a favourite pastime.

While spicy Thai cuisine soon became our staple diet, we did occasionally stray into Italian and German territories. A large expatriate community of long-term foreign residents has set up beer gardens, cafes, bakeries and restaurants, thus enlarging the already impressive repertoire of eating options on Koh Samui. Thailand's Muslims, who constitute less than 5% of the population, make their presence felt in the ubiquitous Massaman curry spiked with red-hot chilies and thickened with crushed peanuts. Together with sticky Thai rice, it makes for a substantial and filling meal.

Our next port of call is The Passage. In contrast to the Anantara's olde world grandeur, this is modern, bright and airy. Tucked away in a coconut grove beside the beach, it is well and truly far from the madding crowd and lends an altogether new meaning to the expression 'solitary splendour'. For the next week we proceed to do little more than loll about in the pool, sit on the beach or lie on a hammock! The ingenious creations of cordon bleu chef and India buff, Johnny, seduce our palate with fresh sea food and an endless array of local fruits and vegetables. The passage of the day is marked by food and more food, interspersed with naps in the sun and massages; for the children happy hours mean endless rounds of fruit smoothies and giant platters of chips! At low tide, one can walk in ankle-deep waters that stretch for miles or lie on the many sand bars that appear when the waters recede, only to get submerged when the waters rise. At high tide, the sea laps virtually at our doorstep, lulling us to sleep with its gentle, rhythmic patting of the shore. Located as it is on the north-eastern tip of the island, The Passage offers stunning views of the fabled Samui sunsets.

Just as the days begin to fall into a pattern of indolent restfulness and leisurely unhurriedness, it is time to fly back home. We come away with an enduring memory of watching the sun go down in a resplendent show of colours over the darkening sea, and feeling humbled by the immensity of the spectacle before us.

(This article was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore, 15 July, 2011.)

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Good Muslim -- Review

The Good Muslim is a good book, but parts of it leave you feeling very dissatisfied. I have had a similar experience recently, with Shahryar Fazli’s Invitation which, at first look, seemed brim-full with possibilities located as it was in the turbulent Karachi of the 1970s when Pakistan was teetering on the brink of democracy while its eastern arm was twitching to break free. I had described Fazli’s book as a tease, as one wilfully promising more than it could deliver. Tahmima Anam’s book is not a tease; it is however, a bit of a disappointment.

Cleverly structured in two parts, the past and the present which allow the reader to flash back and forth, dip in and out between now and then, the story spans two time zones: 1971 and 1984. A great deal has happened in the course of these 13 years. The year 1971 marks a traumatic severance from West Pakistan after a long and painful cutting of the umbilical cord, a bloodied beginning, and the emergence of a new nation called Bangladesh. Those who fought long and hard for this new country, the young men and women who hoped for a fresh, pure and hopeful new country instead find a land soiled and bloodied and so trampled upon as to be almost without hope. Anam tells the story of this new country, now almost 13 years old, through two siblings, a brother and a sister -- Sohail and Maya. Young students at the university when the war breaks out, both were once ardent revolutionaries sharing the same dreams for themselves and their countrymen. While Sohail picked up arms and worked in the guerilla army fighting the West Pakistani forces, Maya, a medical intern, crossed the border into India to work in the refugee camps.

The Good Muslim picks up from where Anam’s previous novel, A Golden Age, ends. The latter documents the emotional journey of Rehana Haque, an Urdu-speaking widow raising two politically-volatile children in a country that is about to become Bangladesh. If the first novel documents the horrors of war, the second one shows us the no-less horrific after-effects and the agony of post-parturition. The Good Muslim tells us what became of Rehana, her two children and her new country once the hard-won freedom was achieved. In a nut shell, Rehana discovers, and survives, cancer. The son discovers, and succumbs, to religion. And the daughter discovers herself and learns acceptance.

This, however, is too bald and banal a summing up. Anam tells her story with great resources of skill and craft at her command. Interlacing her narrative with brief, brutal flashbacks of war, she presents us with the challenges of peace. The biggest challenge, by far, is about the women who have been raped and traumatised at an unprecedented scale. Anam is to be commended for raking up an issue that has long been buried but one that refuses to go away. The raped women, called birangona (brave women) by no less a person than Banga Bandhu, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, were told to forget about the past and move on. Husbands, fathers and sons were told to welcome these ‘heroines’ back in their homes, but what of the seed they carried in their bellies? What of the children of war? The new country had no place for them; the despoiled women were expected to scrape off the offending remains of war from their wombs. Anam writes:
‘It was time, they were told, to forgive. Forgive and forget. Absolve and misremember. Erase and move on. The country had to become a country. Just as it needed them, once, to send their brothers into the fighting, to melt their pots and surrender their jewellery, so it now needed them to forget.’

Clearly, this was too tall an order and an inhumane one, too. As a young doctor working in refugee camps and later in rehabilitation centres for women, Maya follows the official diktat pained though she is by the double trauma it causes. She knows redemption lies in acknowledging not forgetting, in affirming not negating. She is similarly appalled by the other types of erasing she sees all around her: old heroes are forgotten, streets are renumbered, buildings and parks renamed; it is almost as though the young country’s history is being air-brushed, the cracks papered over. Paltan Maidan, the historic ground where Mujib had made his speeches, where the Pakistani Army had surrendered, the spot where the exiled Banga Bandhu had returned to inaugurate the new country, is turned into an amusement park. Maya rues: ‘It was where, for a moment, they had won. Now their history would be papered over by peanuts and the smell of candy floss.’

If Maya is the emotional fulcrum of the novel, its intellectual tension arises from the relationship between the siblings and the different trajectories they occupy. Maya remains questioning, wandering, wistful and wishing for a better, more just world. Sohail, on the other hand, has reached the end of his journey and become a Believer. From a firebrand student leader, he has become a jamaati, a Hazrat who is venerated by those who believe, like him, that just as there can be no God but God there can be no book but One Book. Shortly after the war, Sohail made a bonfire of all his prized books and in it burns his old self to emerge as a Hazrat, one who shows the way. Maya tries, but cannot find sustenance in prayer, in the ‘abandonment of all other thoughts, all other pursuits.’ The differences between the siblings are too sharp, too brutal, too black-and-white, and there are no prizes for guessing where Anam’s sympathies lie. It is this, perhaps, that causes my disappointment with an otherwise intelligently-written book.

--Rakhshanda Jalil

The Good Muslim, Tahmima Anam, Hamish Hamilton, 2011, pp. 297, Rs. 499.
(This review appeared in The Hindu, The Literary Review,3 July 2011.)