February 26, 2020
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Voices In The Dark

A laudable project attempts to translate the Indian masters

Voices In The Dark

WHILE cultural activities like music, dance, painting, sculpting and film-making enjoy a wide appreciation cutting across the conventional North-South divide, the barrier is very much intact when it comes to linguistic boundaries in Indian literature.

Despite the fact writings in Indian languages tend to be more accessible to the population at large and are indicative of social trends and moods than Indian writing in English, little effort has been made to bring the cosmology of these storytellers to the notice of the larger public. Someone like Konangi in Tamil, whose narrative is comparable to that of Latin American masters, was reduced to a provincial writer. Now an earnest attempt is being made to rectify this historic wrong.

Modern Indian Novels in Translation is an ambitious project taken up by Macmillan to present a cross-section of voices from around the country. Says Mini Krishnan, editor of the project: "It is trite to speak of ‘timeless India’, not realising it can be soporific, for Indian society has shown a remarkable capacity to change, absorbing new ideas and revitalising established practices to meet the challenges of a changing world." Krishnan is especially emphatic on the literary form selected. "Only in the larger canvas of the novel can one see, hear, feel and come in touch with men and women of distant places as if they were our near neighbours," she says. The yardstick used by her team in the selection process is "to identify the thin partitions that divide the skilfully disguised propaganda from art".

It took 10 years to bring out the first 11 titles of the series. The first problem, Krishnan says, was of course the question of marketability of these works. Then there is the identification of a panel of experts on various Indian languages, who in turn could point to a "panel of half a dozen titles from each language which have received general commendation from discriminating critics". And then to find "translators who would retain the artistic sensibilities in such a manner where the flavour of the original should not be an impediment to the intelligibility of the English reader and the flow of the narrative itself".

Krishnan crossed the first hurdle by roping in the MRAR Educational Trust of the Murugappa group to sponsor the project. The trust, headed by A.M.M. Arunachalam, agreed to pump in Rs 50 lakh. "This is probably the biggest systematic translation programme sponsored by the private sector," notes Krishnan. The first 11 titles have a lot in common—they are post-Independence, they are critical of the dominating ideologies and they capture the spirit of the ’60s and the ’70s.

 But the similarities end there. This Madras-based project subtly reverses any North Indian bias by bringing out two titles each in Tamil, Malayalam and Oriya, while Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and, more importantly, Hindi have only one title. Probably to take the sting out of possible criticism, there is no title in Telugu, and Kannada gets one title. The irony is that Kannada author U.R. Ananthamurthy is already a popular name in the national literary scene both as the chairman of Sahitya Akademi as well as through A.K. Ramanujan’s brilliant translation of his novel Samskara.

Barring Rajam Krishnan’s Tamil novel Lamps in the Whirlpool, all other novels are of uniformly high quality and explore both the internal and the external land/mind-scapes. There is a detailed introduction to each novel which contextualises it within the broader literary framework of the respective languages. Again the only introduction that screams of campus pedagogy in a shrill voice is C.T. Indira’s for Lamps in the Whirlpool which describes the novel as "frontally feminist in its theme, treatment and language".

The only problem with these titles is that they are not contemporary and they are at least 20 years old. The last two decades have seen a definitive shift in the narrative patterns and stifling realism has given ways to any number of creative transgressions and imaginative trespassing of the nebulous boundary called ‘authenticity’. But as Krishnan argues: "This is only a beginning. Obviously, we can’t cover every facet of new Indian writing. The 50-odd titles, which we plan to bring out before the end of the century, should (cover) new developments." The pricing of these titles—between Rs 45 and Rs 140—should also make the ideas, doubts, customs and politics (both micro and macro) of neighbouring states more accessible.

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