The Paradise of Food, Khalid Jawed, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi

Khalid Jawed, author

Why did you choose the kitchen as the primary setting of your novel?
I have come to see the kitchen as a centre of power, especially in the context of the Indian middle-class joint family set-up. Families are divided on the basis of possession of their separate kitchen, especially for women. Secondly, hunger and food are universal phenomena which provoke violence of unimaginable kinds among different classes and cultures. The kitchen, therefore, is a metaphor of hunger and violence.

Why are all female characters in your novel called Anjum?
The use of Anjum as a proper name for all the female characters with whom Guddu’s life intersects in the novel signifies a common soul. It can be understood as a kind of femininity that somehow remains a fate/destiny for Guddu. In fact, it is a technique for making the universal into a particular, so that in spite of a proper noun (Anjum), a universal common element, or if I put in mathematical terms, highest common facto, could be manifested. But for readers, this aspect may appear to be a mere coincidence in the narrative which is imbued with certain elements of magical realism and fantasy.

Describe your novel in two lines.
Anchored in the space of a kitchen, the novel is story of a typical middle-class Muslim family, revolving around hunger, violence, love, guilt, and confession.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
Existential fiction with a touch of dark humour interests me. In addition, fiction that subtly infuses socio-political tangents in the story with a view to tease out and problematise what Frederic Jameson had once called “political unconscious.”

To put it briefly: that kind of fiction that engages with the question of what it means to be human. Fiction that takes fundamental existential issues as their subject and explores such dimensions of being human that we tend to not see or overlook and in doing so illuminate us. And that illumination may not always amount to readerly pleasure.

Baran Farooqi, translator

What made you want to translate The Paradise of Food?
I was keen to translate The Paradise of Food since I had found the novel to be one of a kind in at least Urdu fiction. I say “at least” because I was quite sure that nothing like this had ever been written before in modern Urdu fiction. And not because it was absurd or vague and abstract or very complicated, but this was almost like a new genre, or shall we call it sub-genre, in Urdu fiction.

As I have said in my introduction to the book, Khalid Jawed is regarded as having heralded the “third wave” of modern fiction and within that too, he has his own unique style. Here was an intensely interiorised micro-narrative, which at the same time managed to construct and depict a reflection of the world, of life as it is lived by humans. The author has beautifully woven human lust, greed (read hunger) into a world constituted by food imagery, and closely in conjunction with that, the human body and disease as inextricably linked to food.

There are events or, shall we say, moments in the book which startle us into self-mockery and portray a disgusting connection between life and death, food and death, lust and hunger for food, harsh self-examination and sordid loneliness which are absolutely worth reading, even enjoyable. Surely, I said to myself, this deserves a good translation!

What were some of the challenges of translating the text into English?
Some challenges that the text posed consisted of the variety of kinship words that Urdu has, such a wide variety, as also titles or dignified addressing terms that Urdu speaking households give to different kinships. For instance, the protagonist, Hafeezuddin Babar, has Guddu as his pet name, but there is “Miyan” attached to it (actually suffixed) in the tradition of giving both affection and respect to a child. Miyan is literally untranslatable, similarly, epithets like “bade mamu” and “chhote mamu” and “Anjum baji” versus “Anjum apa” are too nuanced in meaning to have equivalents in English.

To further clarify, bade mamu could be translated as elder / senior / bigger maternal uncle and chhote mamu as younger / junior / smaller maternal uncle, resulting in proper unwieldiness. Apa and baji and bajiya or humsheer are all used for the elder sister, be it a cousin or a real elder sister. The best option was to retain the terms as they were originally.

Another conundrum was the translation of North Indian Muslim cultural traditions which don’t have English equivalents, and one has to willy-nilly translate them as best as one can. Translating names of dishes normally cooked in North Indian Muslim households or delicacies cooked at wedding feasts was also near to impossible. The result of the translator’s efforts is before you, be kind, dear reader!

What excites you most about Urdu literature?
The exciting part of Urdu literature for me is that it’s exciting all over. The pleasure of the text is magnified if the text is in the most familiar language of your life. I also think that Urdu literature is an advanced literature, with depth and quality, it gives me a sense of belonging and makes me feel proud of myself. Besides, I enjoy, and at times relish, reading Urdu poetry and prose and that’s good enough for me. I feel there is a need to put our rich and highly evolved literature before the world. The potential excites me.

Why did you become a translator?
I find existential fictional narratives interesting. Magic realism also intrigues me. Urdu fiction of the kind written by fiction writers like Naiyar Masud and Khalid Jawed, which is a mix of magic realism and a particular kind of North Indian culture is like a treat for me. Bold, but again culturally steeped women’s writing in Urdu is another of my interests. I love Ismat Chughtai and Zahida Hina and so on.

What kind of translations do you want to read more of?
Well, I don’t need to read translations of novels or non-fiction prose written in Urdu, so I like and want to read translations of women’s writing, particularly poetry written by ancient poets like Lal Ded and Mahadevi Akka. I also want to read Punjabi and Persian Sufi poetry in translation. Poems of some Latin American poets as well as fiction by classic Russian novelists, modern French and Latin American as well as Arab writers interest me.

Author Khalid Jawed and translator Baran Farooqi.

The Tomb of Sand, Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

Geetanjali Shree, author

In a time where most narratives about women demoulding boundaries are about younger, coming-of-age women, what made you write about an 80-year-old as a protagonist?
I am not writing in imitation of or in reaction to what others are writing. These choices are never made for a single reason nor even quite consciously. I think a woman as she grows older and those dependent on her get more independent, finds herself freed of her societal and familial roles more and more, and this freedom makes her look anew at life. This must be doubly enriching because age has given her long experience and sense of life. That is a rich wherewithal to take her forwards, and thus marches onwards the main protagonist in Ret Samadhi.

Tomb of Sand looks as much outside as it does within. How challenging was it to create harmony despite this dichotomy?
We live this dichotomy, if you want to so term it, all the time. As much an inner life as outer. In fact, within that too there are many layers – many inners and many outers. Living is a multi-layered activity.

Why do non-human characters play such an important role in this novel?
As they do in life, all around us. Ultimately literature mirrors life, making its own living entity out of that. The novel has evolved into one representing the unity of all things and beings in the universe and it is in the dynamic of the narrative to have non-human characters and witnesses.

What kind of fiction interests you as a reader?
No one kind. Any that takes me into a space and a journey that fascinates and makes me feel and think, shakes up certainties sensitively, and makes me look anew at our world. Humour furthers the poignancy of that experience. But no prior expectations and formulae guide me – I prefer to be open to every different ways of telling a story.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
That which sends me into quiet and reflection.

Daisy Rockwell, translator

What made you want to translate Tomb of Sand?
The writing style is arresting from the very beginning. I knew it would be difficult, but I also began to imagine bringing it into English and how exciting that would sound.

What were some of the unique challenges you faced while translating the text into English?
Tomb of Sand was extremely difficult to translate. This was because of the extensive word play, the idiosyncratic style Shree uses, and the constantly shifting narrative perspectives.

What excites you most about Hindi literature?
Hindi literature is quite varied and relatively few works have been translated. I love the constant process of discovery!

What kind of fiction interests you?
I am interested in fiction that surprises me and challenges me. I love to read in languages other than English when I can, and translated fiction, because these works take me outside my own world and my own linguistic landscape.

What kind of translations do you want to read more of?
I read translations all the time, and specifically love to read translations from languages that don’t get represented much in contemporary publishing.

Author Geentanjali Shree and translator Daisy Rockwell.

Crimson Spring, Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna, writer

What inspired you to revisit the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Crimson Spring?
The centenary of the massacre was a proper time to revisit not just the event but also the time, the place and the setting where it unfolded. I was keen to capture the feelings, the spirit, the idiom of a vanished Punjab. Jallianwala Bagh was not an isolated event. It became in my mind the focal point for so much else that was happening in Punjab at that time, before it and after…the ghadar, the revolutionaries, the soldiers returning from the Great War and so on. All this provided the framework for the novel.

What were some of the challenges of recreating that time in history?
The challenges that one would expect to encounter when trying to recreate the atmosphere, the concerns, the preoccupations of ordinary men and women of a hundred years ago. To try and create a narrative that would fill in the gaps of history – without distorting it. Yet a narrative that sounds real for its time, that speaks not of bare facts or numbers or headlines but of blood and toil, tears and love, anger and revenge.

Describe Crimson Spring in two lines.
Crimson Spring is the human story behind the barbarous Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the atrocity that changed the direction of India’s freedom struggle. It is a story of ordinary people flung into a whirlpool of tumultuous events, their destinies no longer their own. A story of universal human emotions flailing against an epic backdrop.

What kind of fiction interests and excites you?
My favourite fiction is that which delves into not just the mind but the unlit spaces of the human heart. Intense, character-based literary fiction that depicts human beings as they are, with all their grey zones. Fiction that brings out the complexities that make us human – the doubts, the prejudices, the tremendous potential to soar above the swamp, along with all the timeless human emotions that do not change with the centuries.

Author Navtej Sarna.

The Odd Book of Baby Names, Anees Salim

Anees Salim, writer

How complex was it to make use of nine different narrative voices in the novel?
It was extremely challenging. In the first few drafts, all nine characters sounded similar, and it took me four years of toiling to give each character a distinct voice. In fact, the process was so difficult that at one point I even attempted a third person narrative. But I dropped the idea after a few pages when I realised this book would work only in polyphonic format.

Why did you choose to write about a royal family and its successors?
I always wanted to write about kings, especially about the powerless ones. In my twenties, I stayed in a city which was once ruled by one of the wealthiest men in the world. I did everything to gather material for the book I was planning to write on the kingdom. I frequented museums and libraries, spoke to historians and journalists, but I got the most valuable information from the streets, where I met many impoverished people who claimed to be the direct descendants of the king. I thought they were just boasting, but the moment I saw the truth in their pain and pride, the book started to grow in me.

What are the challenges of writing fiction that is set several years in the past?
I don’t see challenges, I see opportunities in setting books in the remote past. I am quite fascinated by the idea of guessing what happened back then and adding dimensions to it. For me, it is a liberating experience to transport myself to the distant past and write about the unknown. In fact, I am planning to write a book on something that happened five centuries back.

What kind of fiction interests you?
Any kind of literary fiction. I don’t read any other genre.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
That’s hard to tell. What excites me depends on the craft and plot. The classics have long stopped exciting me.

Author Anees Salim.

Rohzin, Rahman Abbas, translated from the Urdu by Sabika Abba Naqvi

Rahman Abbas, writer

Your novel is set in Mumbai in the early 2000s. Why did you choose this time period?
Like millions of Mumbaikars, I suffered during the deluge of July 2005. Mumbai was almost submerged and life was paralysed for days. I had to walk for over six hours under that satanic rain and cursed wind to reach home. On the streets, water was above the knees. There was no electricity, and in that lightless night, I could do nothing but imagine a furious sky roaring over my building.

At that time, it seemed to me that the rain, the sea, and the wind had conspired against Mumbai. Thousands of Mumbaikars died, lakhs of people lost their belongings and countless people realised that their dreams have been washed away with the flood.

The memories of those days lingered in my heart like a memory of a wound. On the other hand, in the first decade of this century, we witnessed many terrorist attacks in Mumbai, including the terrible November 26, 2008 terror attack that had shaken not only Mumbai but the entire nation.

I wanted to register the memories of the 2005 rain and the scars of terrorism. However, taking creative liberty and through the use of technique, I also referred to some incidents of the past and some of those which took place later – out of the possible time frame of the storyline.

What are the unique challenges of writing fiction that is so intimately connected to the history of a city?
The foremost challenge is to shield fiction from the burden of the facts. Facts are enemies of good fiction, as piles of them can diminish the magic of fiction. Hence, a writer has to be careful that he is not repeating facts that are already available in the newspapers or history books. The other challenges include how to use history/incidents in a work of fiction without becoming a journalist. How to convert key incidents in a totally different setting giving them a new dimension? How to maintain objectivity or humanitarian perspective on incidents that are already exploited by politicians or religious institutions?

What does ‘Rohzin’ mean?
This novel is an effort to feel the psychological trauma of the children who witness their parents (one or either) sleeping with someone else. In our society, and in my language, we have words to describe such parents or such relationships. When I started to write the novel, I realised that there is no word in Urdu to describe these children who are unintentionally forced to live with this agony. So, I coined a word by two words, ‘Rooh’ (Soul) and ‘Huzn’ (Melancholy). Thus, the word ‘Rohzin’, stands for the Melancholy of the Soul.

What kind of fiction interests you?
Stories are called fiction due to the aesthetics of fiction. Fiction that is objective in its inquiry into existence. Fiction that is not the propaganda of any ideology, faith, or political system. Fiction that honestly tries to understand the truth of things and dares to unmask people and society interests me.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
I’m excited by fiction that is impossible to imagine otherwise. Or I can repeat what Kafka had said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

I do believe that a good work of fiction has the power or spirit of its own that can simultaneously hurt us, wound us, and give us incredible pleasure through its gravity, courage, beauty, and aesthetics. Fiction has an immense capacity to trial human beings by questioning the truth of existence, relationships, society, ideas, faiths, or notions. It can show us what we are, how we are, and how much we don’t know what we are, or what we can become in different situations. Moreover, Martin Heidegger used the phrase, ‘The Dictatorship of Others’. It is a function of fiction to free men from all clutches and forms of the dictatorship of others. If a work of fiction has such qualities it excites me the most.

Sabika Abbas Naqvi, translator

What made you want to translate Rohzin?
I was in my final year of college and had just begun my love affair with Urdu. Earlier it was just one sided: Me enjoying the beauty and solace that Urdu provides rather than learning and writing in the language. I was asked to translate a chapter of Rohzin before it was published for a magazine. I read it and attempted the translation.

Rohzin was magical. The words that Rahman sahab has written make you feel emotions that you never thought you had the potential for. So when Rahman sahab asked me to translate the whole book, I immediately said yes.

What were some of the challenges of translating the book into English?
The biggest challenge was that I was a young translator at 21 and the book engaged with instances of emotions and sexualities that I wasn’t aware of then but am now. Hence, in a lot of those spaces one can notice literal translations rather than an emotional one. There are certain phrases and elements in Urdu that just can’t be translated. The chapters of the book are labelled in Urdu poetry. How can you possibly bring it all together in a translation? But I’m super proud of the work that I was able to put together at that time. I went back to reading it now and it felt great to see it in the flesh.

In what ways is Urdu literature exciting to you?
As an Urdu poet myself, I see my life as nothing but a page pulled out of an Urdu novella. I breathe that language, it’s the language I think in, I love in. Every language provides a vocabulary for dreaming. For me, it is Urdu. Hijr, visal, falsafa and’ll find it all in Urdu literature.

What kind of fiction interests you?
I love sci-fi, mysteries, and surrealism. You could find the latter two unfolding in Rohzin. I’m also a sucker for dystopia. I have recently taken a severe interest in ‘flash fiction’ for the work we are exploring at SAAG.

What kind of translations do you want to read more of?
I would like to see more and more women writers translated and read. I want the works of women who came before us or even our contemporaries to reach the laps of younger women, especially those works written by women of colour. I want younger women to be able to weave more colourful dreams, be inspired more, and find solace more easily.

Author Rahman Abbas and translator Sabika Abbas Naqvi.

Valli, Sheela Tomy, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil

Sheela Tomy, writer

Why is a forest at the centre of Valli?
I was born and raised in a forest village in Wayanad, a highland in the Western Ghats to the north of Kerala. My home was by the bank of the Kabani River. In front of my house there were paddy fields touching the forest. When I started to write, the first thing which came to my mind was the forest and the river. Perhaps it was a childhood spent in the lap of the forest which made me write Valli.

I remember elephants crossing the field; I remember their trumpets shaking the nights, which I was really afraid of when I was a child. I still remember the music and the smell of the forest. I remember the numerous stories and myths told about the forest and the land by elders. I did not have to go searching for nature, the ‘flora and fauna’.

For generations, tribal communities were the guardians of forests and forest resources. Then immigrants came and used nature for survival. But the encroachments of corporations are the real threats for the environment today. Wayanad, I think, is at present a place of emigration of its people and its forest creatures. I wanted to reflect on the transformation of the land over the last five decades, the land where ‘even shards of glass stuck in the soil sprouted’, losing its forest, paddy fields and biodiversity.

As I proceeded, the forest became a main character unknowingly. The novel ends with the floods of 2018 which brought about destruction of the Babel towers of human greed. While writing Valli, I was a migrant myself, in the West Asia, where there is no forest, no river and no rain either. I greatly felt the losses of my land; but I believe the song of the forest was right there within me so that I could write about it dearly.

What are the challenges of writing about migrants and Adivasi communities in fiction?
My grandparents migrated from Thiruvithamkur, southern part of Kerala, to Wayanad in the north. I grew up listening to their stories of fights for survival in the forest land and the numerous stories and myths of the land. I have witnessed all the struggles of Wayanadan farming life in my early years. As the story of Valli takes place in a Christian migrant village, I could use the dialect of the Christian communities, the Bible and church which were part of our lives. Therefore, writing about migrants was not really a challenge for me.

Writing about Adivasi communities was a challenge. I was afraid of whether I would be able to do justice to their stories, as I am from a privileged class, a representative of the community partly responsible for pushing them out of their land, and I was writing about them. There was a time in Wayanad when Adivasis were treated as slaves. They were sold in the market during the Valliyoorkaavu festival. Even now the tribal development projects do not reache them fully. Even today they are fighting for Valli, a piece of land.

Secondly, the Paniya language, which has no script, folk songs reflecting their myths and cultures, and songs of harvest and of death, all demanded a lot of research. I did it with the kind support of an expert in Paniya language, Saritha Chandran. I went into Adivasi settlements to understand their lives, at least in a small way. I read other books – fiction and non-fiction – written about Wayanad to learn more about the land, history, and struggles of Adivasi people, and to understand more about the politics of land and labour.

What inspired you to write a family saga spanning a time period of nearly 50 years?
Writers who have walked before me wrote mainly about Wayanad till the 1960s. I wanted to start where they had stopped and depict the changes thereafter of the land and its people. I began the story on a February morning in 1970, on the day Comrade Varghese was shot dead, to throw light on the socio-political situation of the time. The major incidents in Valli take place in the 1970s.

But, actually, Valli tells the story of four generations, starting from the time the first migrants from Thurvithamkur landed here in search of cultivable land somewhere in the 1930s. I wanted to show the farmers, after decades of fights for survival and all the development, are still on the brink of suicide and I wanted to show their love, hope, and resistance.

What kind of fiction interests you?
I like to read all kinds of fiction; mostly novels, short stories, biographies and I enjoy poems too. I look for fiction which rewrites history, rethinks the myths and beliefs, and looks into the minds of characters with a philosophical touch. As a writer, I am more comfortable with novels which have a broader canvas. I feel novels give me more joy and freedom.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
As a reader, I love fiction which gives me a space to be part of a creation which is not telling the story directly and stories which make me travel through them again rather than finishing in one reading. As a writer, I think each creation, being a new learning and transformative process, is exciting. For a novel, it’s a long but enjoyable process. Once I decide to write about a theme, I live with it for months or years. It’s exciting.

Jayasree Kalathil, translator

What made you want to translate Valli?
It is important to me that I like the books I translate as a reader first. Valli has everything I like as a reader. It is a sprawling, moving story told in a clear, engaged tone. Its language is exquisite; its concerns, genuine; and its characters, multidimensional. I was hooked from the moment I chanced upon it in a bookstore and read a few pages. I had to translate it.

What were some of the challenges of translating the text into English?
I had two main concerns. The first was to ensure that the beauty of Sheela Tomy’s lyrical language is conveyed in the translation. Some of her constructions – for example, the way she employs multiple metaphors and adjectives in a single sentence – would not work in English. At the same time, I did not want to discard them entirely. So, finding a way to construct sentences that captured it in a way that made them read well in English was something I had to work at.

The other was Sheela’s use of the Paniya language in the text. Spoken by the largest Adivasi community in Kerala, the Paniya language does not have a script and is usually written in standard Malayalam. As with many tribal languages in India, it is also under threat, in this case from mainstream Malayalam that has immense socio-cultural power and privilege. It would have been possible to translate the Paniya alongside the Malayalam, but that would have perpetrated the violence of linguistic and cultural erasure. So, I spent some time working out the best way possible to retain the Paniya language and yet translate it for the English reader.

You also translated S Hareesh’s Moustache – nature and geographic location plays a major role in both the books. Is this something you are drawn to?
Absolutely. I am drawn as a reader to books that invoke the specificities of geographic and cultural locations, including its flora and fauna, its rivers and lakes and rock formations. I like books where writers explore human beings’ interactions with nature.

What kind of fiction interests you?
Difficult question! I like fiction that tells universal stories through the minutiae of everyday life, that engages with the politics of being human in today’s world. It doesn’t matter whether it is realism, magic realism (although I am partial to this), fantasy, allegory and so on.

What excites you most about Malayalam literature?
Whether in Kerala specifically or in India more broadly, we seem to live in a time when we are asked to collude and conform to a singular, imagined nation-state. And I think Malayalam literature today is actively resisting that task. Strong voices, writing local stories in local idioms, but engaging with questions of universal importance are the most exciting things about Malayalam literature. I think the time of literature that explored the angst and anxieties of the Malayali Nair youth – usually male – is mostly over in Malayalam literature.

Author Sheela Tomy and translator Jayasree Kalathil.

Song of the Soil, Chuden Kabimo, translated from the Nepali by Ajit Baral

Chuden Kabimo, writer

Why did you choose to use fiction in writing about the Gorkhaland movement? What challenges did you face?
I wasn’t even born when the first phase of the Gorkhaland agitation, demanding a separate state of Darjeeling, began. The agitation came to an end exactly a year before my birth, with the signing of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) Accord. During the agitation, everybody took to the streets, and Darjeeling burned. Though a lot was lost, the struggle didn’t achieve success. The aspiration for which the common people of Darjeeling put their lives at stake ended three years later as a story of failures.

There is no doubt that the agitation was violent, in which thousands lost their lives. Hundreds went missing and many families lost their homes. There are very little historical accounts of all these agonies.

I was born in a small village in Darjeeling right after the agitation. My childhood was spent listening about these collective defeats. Whenever the elders of the village gathered they would tell stories about the people who lost their lives in the agitation. They grieved the people who had gone missing. So I grew up listening to stories that sounded almost like myths.

When I grew up and my understanding expanded, I realised that if history is not written, by whatever means, it will one day end up being a myth and then be lost forever. I have as much love for history as I have for literature. And perhaps I write fiction to bridge the gap between history and literature. That is why I chose the path of fiction to narrate my story.

In 2015, I wrote a short story about Gorkhaland called ‘1986’ which became the title story of a collection that went on to receive the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2018. People really liked the story of the rural impact of the agitation and thereafter readers suggested to me: “Darjeeling has witnessed so much of this agitation but nothing has been written, now you have to write a novel.”

In those times there was very little fiction being written in Indian Nepali literature. I felt that an effort must be made to fill this gap. So I started to tell the story of Darjeeling focusing on the Gorkhaland Movement. Four years later it emerged as Fatsung in Nepali. Then it got translated into Bengali. In English, it took the name Song of the Soil. Now it is coming to Hindi readers very soon via Vani Prakashan .

More challenging than writing Fatsung were the days when I started becoming a writer. After 1986 and the signing of the Accord, party politics in Darjeeling had become so powerful that its influence extended to society and literature. Therefore, writing on that topic became difficult. Time and again I too received threats.

However, Darjeeling’s political atmosphere changed by the time I started writing Fatsung. The GNLF was no longer in power and the party at the helm in West Bengal changed too. Yet, simply to tell the story of a political party was not much of a challenge. It was in that situation I started writing Fatsung.

Along with the movement I also wanted to factor in the history of Darjeeling in this novel. There was a burning need to also write about our society. So I started casting about for issues and attitudes society is keen to cover up. Dalit issues, for instance, or the lives of the Adivasi and tribal communities.

The story I was attempting to write was from before I was born. So I had to do more of research. The difficulty of being a writer also lies in managing storylines along with the patterns of one’s own life, which I did. However, when the book was released, I got a far better response than I was expecting. The response and love were so overwhelming that my challenges and difficulties started to look minuscule in front of them.

How did you conduct your research?
When the Gorkhaland Movement concluded with the signing of the DGHC Accord, Subash Ghising and his party, the GNLF, that spearheaded the movement came to power in Darjeeling. However, even from that moment, there were voices of dissent slowly emerging against the DGHC Accord and Ghising. The most prominent amongst those voices was that of Chhatrey Subba, who was the head of the Gorkhaland Volunteer Cell (GVC).

This novel will tell you about the role of the GVC in the movement. In 2001, Subhash Ghising’s convoy was ambushed on its way up to Darjeeling. Chhatrey Subba was accused of the attack and he was imprisoned for ten years. But finally, he proved innocent and was released.

Subba was arrested when I was in primary school and was released by the time I had finished formal education. It was a good coincidence because his release made it easier for me to conduct my research. I spent a few days with him. A decade in prison is no small matter. He had forgotten many things. So I made a list of the names he gave me and set out in search of other characters.

It was then that I came across the stories of characters like Norden, Naseem and Surya and that is how it became a book.

What kind of fiction interests you?
I come from a remote village, a village where even today there is no paved road. I had to walk for three hours each in the morning and afternoon to and from high school. Maybe having grown up in a village where I had to walk for six hours just for school, my stories often find more mention of the struggles of the village, and even when I read I get more touched by the stories of the challenges faced by common people living in villages. Like Russian stories about ordinary people. Or Chinese stories on the rural plight. Ordinary people who can’t express themselves. People who are oppressed by the system. Homeless or landless people who are compelled to suffer by politics as well as by society. The stories that give voice to the struggles of the people always draw my interest.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
If there is a story about the life of a person from the lowest rung of society, where his struggle and suffering are written, then that story pulls me. No matter where the story is set, if it depicts the life and character of the common man I feel like it is a story of my own.

While reading the Pakistani writer Tehmina Durrani’s Blasphemy, you feel that such oppressed people live in our society and their oppressors too live here. Read Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth – if you grew up in a village, you will feel that that story is the story of your own village, and some characters of that story are present even in your own village. Read Patricia McCormick’s Sold, you will be reminded of the unknown sisters of your own village.

Basically, the stories of an oppressed person’s life beckons my attention. Whose struggle and suffering might be as deep as the ocean but who wants to dream higher than the mountains. I am always longing to read the stories of their struggles and dreams. I am always excited to read such stories.

Ajit Baral, translator

What made you want to translate Song of the Soil?
I am partial to writing that sounds like music. What first drew me to Chuden Kabimo’s Faatsung was his euphonious language and the quirks and registers of the Darjeeling lingo. Also, the story of a struggle for the identity of Nepali-speaking people in Darjeeling resonated with me.

This struggle, known as the Gorkhaland movement, is not unlike the Maoist movement in Nepal, which started with lofty hopes for the country but ended up in a compromise that only benefited a few people at the helm of the armed struggle. The novel is a sobering reminder that armed movements everywhere end up replacing one set of rulers with another without bringing any changes to the lives and dignity of the very people in whose name the movements are launched.

What were some of the unique challenges you faced while translating the text into English?
Chuden Kabimo’s writing is deceptively simple. So, it was not all that difficult to get its essence across in another language, but retaining its musicality and getting the tenor of the dialogue right was hard. So was finding the English equivalents of some of the place-specific words.

In what ways is Nepali literature exciting to you?
I am more excited about the future of Nepali literature than its present. In the past, we had writers like Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Bishweswar Prasad Koirala, Shankar Lamichhane, Parijat, Daulat Bikram Bista, and Bhupi Sherchan. They had the vision to write books of an epic proportion and the courage to experiment with form and genre. No wonder they created excellent works of literature, which are still being read.

But somehow, we lost our way in the ’80s and the ’90s. Consequently, we saw more timid and less diverse literature. But the contemporary Nepali writers have started to come of age now, and they have so many fresh subjects to explore, uncharted genres to dabble in, and thorny issues to tackle, that the most ambitious of these will storm the Nepali literary scene sooner than later.

What kind of fiction interests you?
Long sweeping novels that tell the stories of people buffeted by political upheavals and churning in society, like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. In the last seventy years, Nepal has seen so many political changes – the fight for democracy against Rana rule, the imposition of the party-less Panchayat, the first people’s movement against the Panchayat, the ten-year long Maoist movement, the second people’s movement against a constitutional but increasingly assertive king, the declaration of a republic, the uprisings in the Tarai. But we haven’t seen any fiction written on a big canvas of these changes, with one or two exceptions, maybe. It’s time we did.

What kind of translations do you want to read more of?
Translation is not just a bridge between different languages, but it is also a bridge between cultures and societies. I want to read and see more of the translations that open our eyes to a different culture and society, bring diversity into sharp relief and make one more understanding of others.

Author Chuden Kabimo and translator Ajita Baral.

Imaan, Manoranjan Byapari, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Manoranjan Byapari, writer

What made you write about an orphan who grew up in a jail?
You must be aware that I was once in prison. There I saw a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old boy like Imaan, the protagonist of this novel. I knew the reason for his incarceration. After I was released from prison, I began to write. I thought that a person who has never seen the world outside a prison would see it through the boy’s eyes when he was released! He would not get any shelter from anyone because he had no relatives, he would have to sleep on the pavement near a railway station. He would have to consort with the so-called ‘chhotolok’ category of have-nots. What would he get from society? And what would he give back to it! Imaan is the window to the world of the free through the eyes of someone who has known only the prison he grew up in.

What roles do the locations – slums, local railway stations – play in the novel?
I lived in a railway station for many years. All the people living there – thieves, thugs, pickpockets, whores, pimps, gamblers, drunks, lunatics, vagabonds, beggars – I saw them at close quarters. I got acquainted with their lives, language and thinking. So naturally, my writing draws on their lives.

You are the only author this time who was also nominated in the previous years. How does it feel?
It is undoubtedly a matter of great pride and joy for me. There’s Gunpowder in the Air was shortlisted in 2019; it was my first novel to be translated into English, so it was special. Incidentally, like Imaan, that too was set in a prison. Besides, both novels have been translated by Arunava Sinha, whom I greatly enjoy working with.

What kind of fiction interests you?
I am a Dalit, and I come from an economically backward class. I like to write about the people I see around me, their lives, loves, protests, pains, and helplessness. Because this is the world I know, my own I am comfortable, and fluent in penmanship.

What kind of fiction agitates you the most?
The kind of literature that is written to disparage the poor people of my community, the Dalits. Also the texts where casteism is associated with capitalism and communalism.

Arunava Sinha, translator

What made you want to translate Imaan?
After translating Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air, I wanted to translate many more of his works. Imaan excited me because of its characters, who live right in our midst and yet are mostly invisible to us, and the rawness of their experiences, which Byapari writes into his novel with tremendous energy and an extraordinary lack of sentimentality.

What were the challenges you faced while translating the text into English?
This had mostly to do with internalising the narrator’s sardonic and yet empathetic perspective, and with capturing the cadences of the speech used by the characters, which are far removed from the genteel Bengali that the urbanised middle and upper class is used to hearing.

This is the second time you have been nominated for a translation of Manoranjan Byapari’s novel. What according to you makes Byapari such an exciting writer?
He writes from life, and it is a life that few of his readers, at least in English, would ever had the chance to experience for themselves. Importantly, in the course of telling these unbelievable and yet clearly real stories, he brings out larger facts about structural oppression and human nature without entering into a mode of pedantic discourse. You come away from his stories with your blood on fire.

What kind of fiction interests you?
I am excited by sharp, spare writing that nevertheless has a strong emotional core. I am excited by the play of imagination, by the play of language, by the play of possibilities. All of it with humans at its heart, humans not as you and I see them, but as an artist can imagine them. I want to be moved, but also to be astounded, by fiction.

What excites you most about Bengali literature?
Simply put, its vast range, diversity and versatility. It works with a variety of registers, concerns itself with all manners of people, spaces, and time, and operates in thousands of stylistic ways. No two works are the same as a result, even though every work belongs to this vast, evolving tradition.

Author Manoranjan Byapari and translator Arunava Sinha.

Escaping the Land, Mamang Dai

Mamang Dai, writer

What inspired you to write about the formation of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh?
The idea was always there at the back of my mind. I grew up in the erstwhile North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) when there was no Arunachal. All the stories around us were about those days, about long treks to remote outposts before there were roads and bridges. My father was serving in the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (now defunct), and my brothers and I experienced some of these long treks. Then there were stories of the flight from these outposts in the 1962 Indo-China war, and before that about the great earthquake of 1950, the Achingmori incident of 1953, and so on.

Much of the source material about NEFA administration was maintained through officers’ ‘tour diaries’, but I also had primary source accounts.

When writing about the history and politics of a people what role does folklore play?
Folklore, in the sense of what people believe, is a large part of the narrative. For example, the account of the Achingmori incident of 1953 that set off a chain government intervention with far-reaching consequences, has different local versions. People have their own stories. History is one version or another. Sometimes one can find a meeting place, in a re-telling, where we might find something that we want to remember.

What were the challenges you faced during your research?
Actually, the research is from first-hand accounts. I did more research for my novel The Black Hill, because the story is about a French Jesuit priest. Escaping the Land is about NEFA, the administrative and political growth of Arunachal, a place and time I am familiar with. My time as a journalist also helped.

What kind of fiction interests you?
All sorts short fiction, fiction around environmental concerns, histories and mythologies, science, magic; modernist fantasy fiction.

What kind of fiction excites you the most?
Nothing like crime, detective fiction!

Author Mamang Dai.

Spirit Nights, Easterine Kire

Easterine Kire, writer

What inspired you to incorporate myths and folklore into your novel?
I used a Chang Naga folktale as the seed for my book, Spirit Nights. Naga folklore has many layers to it; this is why it lends itself well to the writer of fiction. It can act as a portal into the spiritual universe of the Nagas, offering a wide berth for the indigenous imagination to manifest in storytelling that appears like fantasy to an outsider but is recognisable to the insider as cultural knowledge being lived out in an alternate universe. Folklore is so amazing in the way it combines simplicity and profundity. Both elements are very desirable for a storyteller to work with.

What kindled your interest in the oral narratives of Rengma Naga and Chang Naga tribes of Nagaland?
I have done research on the migration narratives of the Naga tribes in Nagaland, and collected oral accounts from them. I was fascinated by Naga migration narratives that include a period of great darkness where people were trapped in their settlements. Rengma and Chang are not the only tribes who have an account of darkness in their narratives. The Konyak tribe has documented a period of darkness which is very interesting because it is geographically distant from the other two tribes. I appreciate the wealth that is to be found in oral narratives – they have layers to them that yield precious historical, cultural, linguistic, and spiritual information.

Why is a grandchild-grandmother duo at the centre of this story?
In my culture, it is largely the role of grandparents to pass on cultural teaching to their grandchildren. A child who loses his parents would be looked after by their grandparents. If the grandparent is a wise person, the grandchild has a lot to benefit from being raised by a grandparent.

In this story, war necessitates the raising of the orphaned boy by his grandmother. And the grandmother, being full of native wisdom, passes on all that she knows to her grandson with the result that he grows up free from the common fears imposed on young minds, and he is prepared by his grandmother, for his great role in life where fear can have no place.

What kind of fiction interests you?
I like fiction that is well written. I find historical fiction and literary fiction interesting. How do characters meet the big questions of life – that is very interesting to read about, and learn from. I have no interest in writing that is very pessimistic. I should add that a good bildungsroman is exciting to read.

Author Easterine Kire.

Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of Books and Ideas section of