literary awards

A reader’s guide to the five masterly translations on the shortlist of the Crossword Book Award

Translations of works both contemporary and classic, originally written in Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and Marathi.

The Crossword Book Award introduced a category for fiction in a Indian language translated to English in 2000, and has since then recognised translations of books both classic and contemporary. It’s a theme that continues with this year’s shortlist.

A Preface to Man, Subash Chandran, Malayalam, translated by Fathima EV

The only Malayalam author to win the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award twice, for both his debut short story collection as well as his debut novel, Subash Chandran is one of the most celebrated and widely-read contemporary writers in the language today. That debut novel, Manushyanu Oru Amukham, originally published in 2010, remains one of the top- selling Malayalam novels till date. Thanks to a splendid translation by writer and translator Fathima EV, it was finally made available for English readers as A Preface To Man.

Set in the fictitious village of Thachanakkara by the Periyar river, the history of three generations of a feudal Nair family unspools in the novel, revealing themes of love, caste and religion. The novel’s memorable protagonist Jithendran is fleshed out through his notes and fragments of an unfinished book that are discovered by his wife Ann Marie, after his death. It is these notes and love letters to his wife that open up a window to Jithendran’s life, an employee at a toy company, as well as the socio-political events of the time. With dozens of characters and its depiction of a changing microcosmic village, the sweeping saga has, predictably, been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but remains very much rooted in the social fabric of Kerala.

I Want To Destroy Myself, Malika Amar Shaikh, Marathi, translated by Jerry Pinto

The unsparing and visceral memoir of poet and writer Malika Amar Shaikh finds a deserving spot on the translations shortlist. Born to communist activist parents, Malika Amar Shaikh grew up in the bustling cultural landscape of 1960s Bombay, drawn to dance and poetry. She married Namdeo Dhasal, one of the founder of the Dalit Panthers, at a young age and what was initially a loving marriage quickly degenerated into an abusive relationship. Written in Marathi in 1984 as Mala Uddhvasta Vhaychay, the book is a searing, angry and brutally honest account of Shaikh’s life as Dhasal’s wife.

Published as I Want To Destroy Myself in English in 2016, Shaikh’s memoir was given a fresh lease of life through a dazzling translation by Jerry Pinto, who is no stranger to the Crossword awards. He won the award in 2013 for his novel Em And The Big Hoom and finds himself on this year’s fiction shortlist as well. This translation reveals the extraordinary, moving life of a woman who fought to live on her own terms and refused to shy away from telling her story in all its ups and downs. From her first time having sex to the traumatic relationship she shared with a philandering, alcoholic and violent husband, it is from its unapologetic honesty that this memoir draws its stunning power.

Zindaginama, Krishna Sobti, Hindi, translated by Moyna Mazumdar and Neer Kanwal Mani

Readers of Hindi literature require no introduction to the irrepressible and celebrated Krishna Sobti, who most recently was awarded the Jnanpith award for her body of work, or to her sweeping epic Zindaginama, written almost four decades ago. The iconic novel set in early 20th century in the village of Shahpur in undivided Punjab tells the story not just of individual characters, but attempts to capture the essence of human life itself.

Featuring over a hundred characters, overlapping narratives, snatches of poetry in Hindi and Punjabi and pivoted around the wealthy Shah family at its heart, translating the beloved epic is no mean task. Translators Moyna Mazumdar and Neer Kanwal Mani (who has also translated CS Lewis and Paulo Coelho) deserve to be lauded for even tackling the daunting task.

While the new English translation has finally brought the contemporary classic to English readers, its publication has also served as a reminder of a long-standing literary feud in Hindi literature. When Sobti’s fellow writer Amrita Pritam published a biography of a little-known revolutionary titled Hardatt ka Zindaginama, Sobti took her to court, accusing her of plagiarism. The court case dragged on for almost three decades, dividing writers like Khushwant Singh into camps. The case was eventually settled in Pritam’s favour in 2011, six years after her death.

The Saga of Muziris, Sethu, Malayalam, translated by Prema Jayakumar

History meets vividly fleshed out fiction in The Saga of Muzuris, an ambitious and imaginative novel by Malayalam author A Sethumadhavan (Sethu). Originally published as Marupiravi, the novel draws out the history of the fabled port city of Muziris over a period of two thousand years. Drawing on the meagre historical records of the port and filling in the gaps with rich imagination, the novel paints a picture of a magnetic and fascinating city and its diverse communities.

Skilfully translated by Prema Jayakumar, who has translated Sethu’s previous work as well as written about history and mythology, The Saga of Muziris moves between the past and the present with dexterity as readers accompany the book’s narrator Aravindan down a fascinating journey through history. Archaeologists and historians still don’t know the exact location of the lost city but this magical recreation is enough for readers of fiction.

Bara, U R Ananthamurthy, Kannada, translated by Chandan Gowda

Kannada literary giant UR Ananthamurthy or URA as he was known, died in 2014, leaving behind a legacy of writing ranging from short stories and plays to literary criticism and novels. He is considered one of the leaders of the Navya movement in Kannada literature, was shortlisted for his body of work for the International Man Booker Prize in 2013, and was awarded both the Padma Bhushan and the Jnanpith award in India. A vocal critic of right-wing nationalism, Ananthamurthy’s fiction reflects his politics while sketching characters who find themselves in unusual circumstances, doubling up in the process as psychological and sociological commentary.

The translation of his novella Bara, originally published in 1976, is the perfect encapsulation of Ananthamurthy’s writing. Within its 112 pages, it tells the story of Satisha, a district commissioner posted to a drought-afflicted village in Karnataka. Accompanied by his wife Rekha, Satisha is the epitome of the elite liberal, well-meaning but ultimately helpless in the face of bureaucracy and his own limitations. In an almost prescient twist, the slim novel also features a gau rakshak who approaches Satisha to save the thirsty cows of the village rather than focusing on the people. Translated by scholar and writer Chandan Gowda, whose illuminating interview with Ananthamurthy is also included at the end of the book, Bara makes for absolutely essential reading.

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