A Kannada writer of great repute, Vivek Shanbhag has published two plays, three novels and five collections of stories. His novel Ghachar Ghochar, recently published in English – in Srinath Perur’s eloquent translation – reveals a consummate fiction writer at the height of his powers. He speaks about Kannada and English, Bangalore and Mumbai, and how literature can defeat the politics of dehumanisation. Excerpts from the conversation:
The fact of this book being translated into English has brought a certain new kind of attention to your work. And yet you have been an extremely significant writer in Kannada for many years. Do you find this skewed attention we give to English in India troubling? What has been your experience?
(Laughs) See, when [a book] moves into a language like English, it gets a wider readership – and when I say “wider”, I mean readers who come from different backgrounds, different cities, inside the country and outside the country. So it is natural that one gets this kind of attention. When you write in Kannada, you can take certain things for granted because you write for readers who share a certain cultural background, within a language. So when a work can be read across language, it is a pleasure for the writer.
We’re talking about English readers not knowing Indian languages, but even Indian literatures don’t know what is happening in other Indian literatures. I edited an Indian language journal [Deshakaala] for seven years, and I made a conscious effort to translate work directly from various Indian languages into Kannada.
Was it difficult to find good translators?
For at least seven or eight languages, I found good people. But I spent almost 80 per cent of my time on this section, called Deshabhashe, because I wanted to translate what was really significant – and significant to Kannada readers. And for that I had to speak to so many people, form small groups. Sometimes I even asked people to do rough translations, to help me decide. That’s when I realised how difficult it is even to access neighbouring languages.
For example, I published an extract from a Tamil text by a fisherman. His description of the sea is quite different from what we’re used to. These are things that would make our literature so rich. The politics in each of these languages is so different, the culture is so different... but we are not even aware of their existence.
Do you think translation can help address some of the divisiveness that afflicts the Indian literary sphere, between bhasha writers and writers in English?
It is like this: most bhasha writers can read English writers, English writers can’t read bhasha writers. So obviously if I can read you, and you can’t read me, you have no right to talk about me. So naturally they [bhasha writers] do not feel there is a dialogue possible.
The best of Kannada writers have always read and discussed the best of English and world literature. But even some of the country’s best writers are not available in English translation, not their whole body of work. And it is a loss, to everyone – to the English writers, because they don’t have access to a whole literature, and to the language writers, because they are not getting that other readership.
Ghachar Ghochar is set in Bangalore. But at the Delhi launch the other day, you said that until recently Kannada literature did not focus on the urban, and when the city did appear, it was Bombay and not Bangalore. Could you expand on that?
Bangalore was not the city where people came for jobs: for people in north Karnataka that city was Bombay, for people in south Karnataka, it was Chennai. And in Kannada literature, the real experience of the city was captured by writers like Yashwant Chittal (to whom Ghachar Ghochar is dedicated), Jayant Kaikini and Shantinath Desai. They all lived in Bombay, at least for part of their lives.
Chittal’s Shikari, one of the most important Kannada novels, is set in the Bombay corporate world in 1979 – it’s an outstanding novel. Aravind Adiga has written about it in Outlook. Shantinath Desai’s Mukti, also set in Bombay in the 1970s, is one of the first modern Kannada novels. Kaikini, who is much younger, also has many stories set in Bombay.
I am not saying Bangalore is not there in literature. The first Kannada novel ever written, Indira (1884), was set in Bangalore. And there are many young writers who have written about it. But no one has been able to bring Bangalore into literature with the sort of intensity that Chittal or Desai or Kaikini brought Bombay.
But Bangalore is still a relatively new city; there are things that are yet to become part of our experience. Bombay has certain unwritten rules that it throws at the outsider. There is no such thing in Bangalore. Time needs to elapse between your experience and when you write, for the experience to resonate. Something similar is true of cities, I think.
You mean Bangalore is still changing.
A book like Maximum City can be written about Bangalore, but then it will be about old Bangalore. Because new Bangalore is still settling down. Nowadays, there are only 35 per cent Kannadigas in Bangalore. The city is a bit confused about where to position itself.
[Kannadigas] were never fanatic about the language before. So many of our major writers were not native Kannada speakers: Maasthi, one of our most important prose writers, spoke Tamil at home, Bendre spoke Marathi at home, and there are many writers like me, whose mother tongue is Konkani.
The Kannada Sahitya Parishad started in the home of a Telugu person. Bangalore was always warm and welcoming to people from different languages and cultures. But these people adopted and loved Kannada.
The speed at which the city is growing now, these 65 per cent people who have come from outside, have no space or time to really get into it. As a result there is an imbalance in the city. Bombay, in contrast, knows how to absorb people.
Do you think the English-Kannada divide has become much worse in recent times?
No, I don’t think so. Earlier, if you knew Tamil or Hindi, you could manage in Bangalore. That is still true. The autodriver, the small shopkeeper – they are still very accommodating. I have many friends who have lived in Bangalore for 25 years with no Kannada. It is also true that unless forced, people don’t learn a language. People who come to Bangalore as construction labour, domestic workers, or work as security guards: they learn to speak excellent Kannada. So it’s only a particular class who is able to manage without. Also, there is not enough support available to learn Kannada.
Do children in Karnataka all learn Kannada in school?
I believe it’s [only compulsory] up to the third or fourth standard. So not long. I do believe it is important to know the language of the street – if not speak, then at least understand it fully – to really understand that place. Otherwise a certain experience is beyond you. That is a loss.
Ghachar Ghochar is very much an urban novel.
You see, certain things can happen only in a city. Malati [a character in GG] can do certain things because of the anonymity that the city can provide her. Women can dress up in a certain way in the city that they cannot in a village. And if your novel is dependent on these things, then you have to set it in a city.
Do you think the city offers a greater purchase on the present, in India today?
I don’t think this is true. Unlike in the past, today the impact of things that are happening in the world is so far-reaching that even a person in a village feels it. The agreement we signed with WTO reaches every last village in the country. And also because of access to internet, TV: you’ll be surprised at how much youngsters in every place use their mobiles to connect to the rest of the world.
What is really important is the story. Once there is a story, it grows and encompasses everything around you. If that happens in a village, then that becomes the centre of the world. If it is a city, then that becomes the centre of the world. But the world is there.
What was the germ of the story that became Ghachar Ghochar?
It is very difficult to say. But there is a seed. Many years ago, when I was a management trainee in Unilever, I was on sales training, and I travelled a lot for some months. Once I was in a very small place, and there was no restaurant, so this person took me to his house. That was when I realised how intensely this family was involved in the work that the head of the family was doing – they even knew the codes of all the products that he was selling in the market. It was such a touching experience. From then on, I have been thinking about the relationship between work and family, one’s soul and consciousness. All of that has come into the book.
Do you see yourself as a political person?
Every act of writing is political. Take Ghachar Ghochar: it comments on so many things, be it the treatment of women, the economy, or the greed of people. Along with Keerti Ramachandra, I am also involved in the translation of UR Ananthamurthy’s last work, Hindutva and Hind Swaraj, Ananthamurthy wrote it when he was very ill. It is not an academic book, it is a creative response to happenings around him – because he was hounded by rightwing activists, they even celebrated his death. It talks about the choices the country has made in the last hundred years: Hindutva versus Hind Swaraj. It is not just about opposing Modi. The Congress is responsible, all of us as individuals are responsible for the situation we are in today. It is an interesting and intense book. HarperCollins will publish it in April.
Would you tell us something about your most recent novel, Ooru Bhanga (2015)?
Ooru Bhanga has two meanings. One, it refers to the ancient Sanskrit play by Bhasa [The Sanskrit translates to The Breaking of the Thighs. It is an alternative take on Duryodhana, villain of the Mahabharata] But in Kannada, “ooru” means hometown.
So the title could also translate to The Breaking of the Hometown?}
Yes, but in English the phrase doesn’t exist. So it will be difficult when it comes to translating it [laughs]. I spent my formative years in North Kanara district of Karnataka, and it made an immense impact on me. It appears in my stories, somewhere or the other. My plays are city-centred, as is Ghachar Ghochar. But in this novel, both these worlds are there, and they are equally strong. It is set in current times, in Bangalore, it has some experience of the corporate world, and also my hometown, very strongly. It is a longer work: three times the size of Ghachar Ghochar.
You trained as an engineer, and spent a long time in a corporate job. But you have been writing since the age of 17. However, increasingly in India, the only kind of education that’s valued is engineering, or medicine, or management. There’s an undervaluing of the humanities, and especially literature, as being useful, or valuable, or as work at all. What are your thoughts on this?
There are certain things only literature can do. You open a book, you enter another world. You form a relationship with those characters: people from a different culture, a different background, a different caste. They eat different things, they feel differently. The fact that people are not going to literature is certainly one of the reasons we see this intolerance among youngsters today.
The more we know about others, the more tolerant we become. You can’t be cruel to somebody whom you know. The politics of today is trying to distance you, trying to form certain opinion on the basis of generalisations, to say that this set of people are like this – so that when the time comes, people can inflict violence, without feeling. Literature can change this.
In Kannada, for example, there used to be extremely popular novels written by women authors like Usha Navarathnaram. Romances, family sagas: they were a phenomenon through the 1970s and 1980s. There were circulating libraries on every street. But they have just disappeared. Nowadays most people watch TV serials, which is passive engagement. Reading asks something from you. But we are no longer reading enough, and we are seeing the effects.