Once or twice in a publisher’s life comes the good fortune of breaking into the rhythm of the producer-buyer cycle, making available what readers not only need to read but also gradually begin to want to read. Shaping the market, leading it, or creating one might be the right phrase, but that sounds too self-congratulatory and I have always hesitated to walk/write that talk. However, I will do so now in order to record a remarkable woman’s life writing.

Bama Faustina Soosairaj was born shortly before my seventh birthday – the year I began to read outside of what my parents and teachers had led to me either study or enjoy. As I grew up in Cantontment Bangalore and went on to study English Literature at a Carmelite college in that city, it never once occurred to me that I was living in a bubble. My friends and I were clones of our teachers of English Literature, and life in Delhi University while pursuing a Master’s degree in the same subject, drowning in semester – ordered reading and term paper presentations, only intensified the experience of living in a high altitude, self-contained space. The outside world was a faint sound beyond the library. There was no social media, no television and the journal-newspaper environment was staid and restrained.

In the mid-1970s, when I settled in Madras as it was then known, the Dravidian movement was well underway, and where even someone who was only half awake was affected by the Emergency, I continued to read only works written in English and English translations of Indian writers. In 1980, I joined Macmillan India Ltd and helped to develop textbooks for schools and colleges. Five years later I began to feel that translations were more important than textbooks and began to hunt for funding which I eventually found and put to use when the MR AR Educational Society agreed to fund the publication of 50 translations from 11 Indian languages between 1992 and 2000.

Macmillan India’s first cluster of 11 modern Indian novels in translation were released in 1996. One of the many reviews was a full-page article in the Arts section of the Economic Times written by Sadanand Menon, displaying all 11 covers. I have tried hard to find that page stashed somewhere but without success. It opened with a conversation between Menon and an unnamed friend. “What? Still the same old, same old…” snarled the voice on the phone. “No Konangi, no Poomani?

Widely congratulated for MIL’s translation initiative as I was, this was a great shock. Who were these writers I had missed? And how embarrassingly ignorant I was. Caught up in editing the next seven translations and signing up the next to next lot of eight writers and translators, I did not pay much attention, but those lines were like a thorn against my skin. I had worked very hard with advisors and friends many of them writers themselves but they and I had obviously overlooked a section of writers. Who were they?

It slowly dawned on me that subaltern writers never came up for discussion when novels and writers were identified. I mention this to make an important point: the ecosystem of English-language publishers are (with the exception of a few) not a highly informed tribe. They are drawn from the Eng-Lit pool and flit between publishing and journalism and do most or more likely all their reading in English. Very few are strongly connected with regional language publishers or the editors of little or literary magazines. Today, there is no information block and so much is available to those who take the trouble to check, but this was 30 years ago.

In 1993, on a Tuesday, my assistant Nandini Vijay cleared her throat and said, “Ashokamitran has written a short review of a book in The Hindu. Seen it?” Those days The Hindu used to run reviews of regional language books on Tuesdays. “It has an odd name: Karukku. Wonder what it means. Why don’t you find out more about it?” I wish I had kept that review! In any event I rang Mr Ashokamitran. “Ms Mini, I know you are doing a list of translations. I don’t know about the literary quality of Karukku but it is most unusual any way you look at it. Why don’t you have it assessed for your programme?”

Coming from this source, did I need any prodding? I set about trying to get a copy of the book. That was a minor saga in itself because no bookshop stocked it. Nor had it been published by any mainstream publisher. New Directions. No one had even heard of New Directions. Finally my sales representative in Coimbatore sent me a copy. I had already made up my mind to publish the work and now set about trying to find a translator. (Nandini read it and handed it back to me without a word.)

All the translators who had worked on the first three sets of Macmillan translations (1996, 1997, 1998) politely declined my invitation. I arranged to meet my teacher from undergraduate days, Dr Indira Sampath, who had written to me congratulating me on the Modern Indian Novels in Translations series. I travelled to Bangalore to ask her if she would like to translate Karukku, taking care to post a photocopy to her, ahead of our discussion. When we met she said, “Please give me something else to translate. This is not very appealing. The writer doesn’t know her grammar.”

'Karukku' Tamil edition.

I returned to Madras sunk in a pall of gloom and filled with self doubt. Poor grammar? What was I chasing? But Ashokamitran had praised it. That was good enough for me. Five years went by during which time I published many books from different Indian languages. UR Ananthamurthy, Gopinath Mohanty, Ashapurna Debi, Rajam Krishnan, MT Vasudevan Nair, Bhalchandra Nemade, Abdul Bismillah, Chudamani Raghavan. For starters it was a sound list. Spurred by the yawning gap in it and advised by GN Devy, I commissioned the translation of Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi and Rita Kothari wrote asking if I would consider the first Gujarati Dalit novel, Angaliyat (1998) – contracts I had to undo when I left Macmillan India.

Meanwhile Bama and I exchanged letters and she said she was happy to hear of my interest in Karukku. In October 1998, she called to ask if I knew Lakshmi Holmstrom. I said I had indeed heard of Lakshmi Holmstrom. “She says she wants to translate Karukku. Would you agree?” I said I most certainly would. She added that Lakshmi was due to visit Madras in December and wanted to meet. I said I would arrange a lunch and discuss terms.

My first meeting with Bama was on the steps of the Macmillan India offices where I waited for her to arrive. Shortly afterwards Lakshmi Holmstrom joined us and we had lunch at a restaurant close by. Later Bama called to say that she had felt completely at home with us, quite contrary to her apprehensions!

When the typescript of the translation reached me in early 1999 I wondered how I would fit an autobiography into the list of novels I had been developing. I sent my Managing Director (Rajiv Beri), a letter asking if I could develop a separate list for Dalit writing under the translation initiative as it was an important aspect of our social concerns and needed visibility. He agreed and I began working on the script which I read several times before suggesting changes to Lakshmi Holmstrom.

Although I was inexperienced I felt that some words needed attention. For instance, briars, and phrases like he ran hell for leather, and not the blindest bit of it were all out of place. We moved cautiously posting drafts up and down till publication date in January 2000. I discussed the cover painting with Bama. “Can we get a painting by a Dalit artist?” I combed the catalogues of the gallery owned by Sharan Apparao who generously made available a painting by S Easter Raj.

When Karukku was published, only one magazine reviewed it: The Week. Everybody else ignored it till it won the prize which came a year later.

'Karukku': The definitive second edition of the English translation.

When I visited universities and South Asia Centres in the US in March – April 2000, Carol Breckenridge asked for 35 copies of Karukku for her course on Public Policy (University of Chicago). But when I returned home I found that it was impossible to get these copies across to the US because of trade restrictions between the different branch offices of the Macmillan company.

I began to wonder if that would be the fate of the rest of the list as well which had by then grown to 33 volumes. Though Macmillan UK had lifted 200 copies of the first 18 titles, it looked like the barrier for individual buyers was impossible to clear. The months that followed convinced me that if the translations were to thrive, I had to relocate the project. This I did painlessly and January 2001 found me in Oxford University Press.

So, in a way, Karukku led me to rethink my working life and lodge my project in an institution from which titles could radiate anywhere in the world via their branches.

Meanwhile Macmillan India neglected the translations completely even though at least three of the books were prescribed for study in Bharathidasan University, in the Women’s Christian College, and in MS University Baroda. Unknown to me the only thoughtful editor in Macmillan, Joseph Mathai, submitted Karukku for the Crossword Awards 2000. To him belongs part credit for making Karukku famous. Three months after I joined OUP the Crossword Award for translation was given to Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation of Karukku, and I watched with a growing sense of irony while Macmillan did nothing to promote either the author-translator duo nor the book.

Karukku lifted off, blazing a trail in the publishing firmament, rocketing Bama and Dalit writing into a visibility rarely achieved by a single work in recent times except perhaps by AK Ramanujan’s translation of UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara. Here is what I wrote about it in its 25th year of publication.

In 1992, two years after the Ambedkar centenary, Fr Mark Stephen ran a workshop for Dalit teenagers in his centre IDEAS (Madurai), and invited Prapanjan to both talk to the participants and to evaluate the products of the session. “What shall we write about Father? ”asked the youngsters, understandably nervous in the presence of the celebrated writer. “What can anyone write about? Write about your experiences,” said Fr Mark and left them to it. At the end of two days when Prapanchan read the submissions, he exclaimed, “If you youngsters start publishing it will be the end of the rest of us!”  

At exactly the same time, Sr Faustina in Jammu, who learned that caste was more powerful than the Church she had hoped to serve when she had entered it seven years earlier, was making plans to leave the Convent. “The Jesus they worshipped was a wealthy Jesus. I saw no connection between God and the suffering poor.” Her arrival in Madurai pleased no one, least of all her teacher Fr Mark, who was the only person prepared to listen to her story of disappointment and trauma. “Well, write about it. It will give you some relief.”

As she sat down to write what turned out to be Karukku, publishing was the last thing on the mind of Bama Faustina Soosairaj. Her teacher thought that others should read what Bama had put down, but every publisher he approached rejected the work as ungrammatical and off-key. Finally, Fr Mark published the 30,000-word script named for the knife-edged leaf of the palmyra tree.

It cannot be said that Karukku began anything because Dalits had been writing for nearly a century and there were many notable autobiographies before Karukku in Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam. Indeed if we are to name Dalit women writing in Tamil, Sivakami’s Pazhaiyana Kazhidalum and Anandhayi were both published before Karukku, but Bama’s direct style (particularly in Lakshmi Holmstrom’s English), drilled a hole in the wall of both religious hypocrisy and caste consciousness. Nearly everyone who read the book was shocked into awareness and it is still, nearly always, the first Dalit autobiography in English translation which most non-Dalits readers encounter.

Another strange quality the first edition of Karruku had was that though the Macmillan series became invisible, Bama’s autobiography generated more MPhils, interviews, academic papers, and admiration than books that were more widely and loudly promoted. It finally became so difficult to procure that a shop in Coimbatore did brisk business selling a photocopied version.

In early 2003 Bama brought up Sangati, her novel about Dalit women. Would I consider publishing Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation of it? OUP, quite different from Macmillan India, called for two review reports of the translation before accepting it for publication. Reviewers Theordore Bhaskaran and Uma Narayanan both sent in negative reports.

Bama read the reports and said, “They are right. The translator’s language is too ladylike.” Lakshmi was very disheartened and nearly withdrew the translation. I persuaded her to rework the drafts, which we did together. When it was finally published in 2005 it received very good reviews. “Barking at the Sun” was the title of Ritu Menon’s review.

While Sangati was under reconsideration, Bama’s short stories came up for discussion. Would OUP consider them? I thought it would benefit Bama to appear through two different publishers at nearly the same time and introduced her and the translator Ravi Shankar to Ritu Menon, who published Kisumbakaran as Harum-Scarum Saar through Women Unlimited in 2006. By that time Sangati was something of a sensation and my publishing director Nitasha Devasar ticked me off for not having secured the stories for OUP!

“You gave them away!”

Three years later came Vanmam translated by Malini Seshadri which was warmly accepted by OUP and published with a memorable introduction and interview by Dr R Azhagarasan who has done more than any other South Indian academic to promote Dalit writing in academia.

After ten years of trying to persuade OUP to publish a reprint of Karukku which had gone out of circulation, Nitasha Devasar said she would consider a second edition. What might we add to it? I said I would think about it. In Nagercoil, where I was invited to speak at Holy Cross College, Bama and I did a line-by-line reading of Karukku in Prof Suresh Kumar’s house.

As she relived that time in her life, Bama said, “There are so many things I didn’t write in 1992 because I was afraid…” proceeding to describe her escape from the Convent in Jammu, flattening herself on the top bunk, enveloped in danger and avoiding detection by people who entered the compartment looking for a runaway nun!

“Why not write about it now?”

“I will try.”

The next phase of getting this edition into OUP was convincing Lakshmi Holmstrom. She resisted for a year saying, “Let’s not spoil the spontaneity and vigour of the first edition.” Finally she agreed and translated the 20 odd pages Bama added as a postscript and afterword. The Tamil editions of the book, thereafter, also carried these page. The second edition, which is reprinted every year, is probably one of the most widely prescribed translated works.

The journey of a writer is not always smooth. Outspoken and direct, on many occasions, Bama has been challenged during refresher courses, conferences and literature festivals by non-Dalit readers and critics who feel that identity politics and victimhood have had their day. It is all very well for those who have never seen battle to say that life is about more than fighting for security and dignity.

In her short stories particularly about discrimination in schools and offices Bama puts the facts across plainly. Her stories are pegs from which hang the clothes of truth. They smell of reality. Very recently, she edited a collection of short fiction by Dalit women writers for Zubaan, which is working closely with the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation. The title story says it all: “The Stomach That Chewed Hunger”.

This article is included in a volume on Bama (edited by Raj Kumar and S Armstrong) forthcoming from Routledge, as part of the Writer in Context series on modern Indian writers. The series editors are Sukrita Paul Kumar and Chandana Dutta.

Mini Krishnan edited translations for Macmillan India Ltd and OUP India from 1992 to 2019. She is currently coordinating a project of Tamil-English translations for the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation.