Library of India

Reviving the past: A literary collective is translating 100 classic novels across Indian languages

The first set of books is expected to be out within a year.

In Karmelin, a novel that has been widely considered a classic for years and earned its author and its translators prestigious awards, a young Catholic woman navigates poverty, hardship and the obstacles of family life, first in Goa and later in Kuwait. Now, Damodar Mauzo’s 1981 Konkani novel – along with Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach, Premchand’s Godaan and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas – will receive a fresh treatment. All these titles will be translated as part of an initiative to bring much-loved but oft-forgotten Indian language novels to English speaking audiences.

The Indian Novels Collective, set up in 2017, is in the process of drawing up a list of 100 novels from across Indian languages that have receded from memory or been shelved over time. The collective will commission fresh translations and conduct literary events alongside, in a bid to bring these old novels to new audiences. The exercise will span 20th century novels roughly up until the 1990s.

A generational divide

Founded after many conversations over a period of time, the collective’s mandate grew from a simple lacuna: a generation of readers seemed to have no idea about the stories that had animated the founders’ own childhoods and imaginations growing up. “We need to reach out to young readers today,” said Amrita Somaiya, one of the co-founders and the owner of Kitab Khana, a book shop in Mumbai. “Young people aren’t reading regional literature from their own languages. This will help bring those points of view and perspectives closer to them.”

Alongside Somaiya and her co-founders, Ashwani Kumar, an academic and poet, Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation and Anuradha Parikh, an architect and filmmaker, the project also has on board several other writers, critics and poets. The process of shortlisting novels to translate has already begun – the shortlist of Hindi works was released last year.

Ashwani Kumar
Ashwani Kumar

“Being practical how do I define a classic novel if I am not a student of literature?” Kumar asked over a two-hour conversation. “From a non-literary or non-elite perspective? We decided lets be flexible or open minded about how we define classic novels. They are those that have lasted long enough in the minds of the people, in the imagination.”

What gets translated?

As Indian writing in English has flourished, Mauzo, the author of Karmelin and a panelists at a recent event organised by the collective, says it has overshadowed regional canon. “Indian English writing is dominant so other languages are pushed back,” he said. “I personally feel works in Indian languages are more authentic as Indian novels and are able to depict the local nuances. There is nothing wrong with English novels but to see the real Maharashtra or the real Gujarat you need to read works from Marathi or Gujarati.”

Kumar brought up many such novels that textured his own growing up years: Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahon Ka Devta, Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, Rahi Masoom Raza’s Aadha Gaon. All of these are also on the list, along with others such as Ardhnarishwar by Vishnu Prabhakar, Kasap by Manohar Shyam Joshi and Mujhe Chand Chahiye by Surendra Verma.

The collective is in talks with the publishing house Speaking Tiger for the translations and expects the first few titles be available within a year. The exercise could potentially also result in wider conversations between the Indian languages themselves, even if it happens to be through the bridge of English. “Translation which is paradoxically happening in the hegemonic, elite language of English will become more Indian in this process,” said Kumar.

"Raag Darbari" by Shrilal Shukla
"Raag Darbari" by Shrilal Shukla

The number 100 was picked randomly, and though novels will be selected from across regions, the collective says it isn’t as rigid or mathematically prosaic as demarcating a particular number per state. “We are trying to remain flexible and arbitrary,” said Kumar. “If you are a writer and not being arbitrary you shouldn’t be a writer at all. Then you should be doing something in science and technology. A writer has to be arbitrary, a writer has to be whimsical, a writer has to be unconventional, a writer has to be blasphemous.” He paused for a second, and then added smilingly: “On a lighter note, someone joked if you in cricket you get 99 and get out it won’t make a difference, you have to have 100.”

The next phase

The Indian Novels Collective has brought on board writers from across cities as “mentors” and “friends” including Kiran Nagarkar, Amit Chaudhuri, Jatin Das and Chandan Gowda to tap a wide swathe of expertise and interests. “Talk about India’s pluralism often tends to be flat – the sense of diversity has to have a layered complexity and depth and reading literature from different languages and regions allows for that,” said Gowda, who teaches at Azim Premji University in Bangalore and will be assisting in the Kannada selections. “Not just in an ethnographic sense but in the way concerns and themes and style find expression.”

The launch of Indian Novels Collective in 2017
The launch of Indian Novels Collective in 2017

The next phase of the project involves coming up with a list of novels from the western region: books written in Gujarati, Marathi and Konkani. “Whether deliberate or not, Konkani has suffered at the hands of history and geography,” said Mauzo. “It has remained suppressed.” And though Karmelin has been translated before, as have some of the other books in the collective’s sights, some are out of print or outdated or simply not good enough, amplifying the relevance of newer, contemporary translations.

Kumar outlined a more long-term vision as well: a greater focus on translation in India in general. “There is a strong deficit of translation culture so we have started talking amongst ourselves. Once we do twenty or thirty novels we should have a centre where we can think about translation in many multiple ways.”

Building a reading culture

Those goals might still be a little way down the road, but the collective’s more immediate task also lies in galvanising more readers – which it has been attempting to do through events. In addition to participating in litfests, they held a panel discussion at Kitab Khana in April on translating literature. Even as India’s literacy has seen a sharp uptick, and English publishing is riding a wave, Kumar is less sanguine about reading culture more generally. “There is a loss of reading culture, you can’t deny it,” he said. “And our span has shrunk. People are writing short love stories, going to slam poetry. It’s a popular cultural landscape where not just cricket has gone for a new format of IPL but also literature. What you see as a reading explosion is sustained by middle class neo-literates and population dynamics. These are structural reasons to explain the rise in reading. But it doesn’t explain the loss of the culture.”

"Mujhe Chand Chahiye" by Surendra Verma
"Mujhe Chand Chahiye" by Surendra Verma

The collective doesn’t have fixed timelines for when they will complete all the translations or how long the project might run. Hundred is just a number to begin with. And though the initial impetus came from wanting to attract a new generation of readers, the hope is to awaken an interest in any reader, really. “There is no target group here,” said Kumar. “This is not an anti-poverty campaign.” But there is a hope for enrichment all the same. “It’s possible,” said Gujarati writer Prabodh Parikh, “that after 10 years of the collective you could have 50 outstanding works of literature on your shelf.”

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