I met Kaushalya Kumarasinghe in the first week of August 2016 when we, six new entrants to the MPhil Sociology class at the South Asian University, New Delhi, introduced ourselves to one another. Except for me and Kaushalya, all others came from different regions of India, two (Bincy and Mumitha) speaking Malayalam , one (Anakshi) Bengali and one (Shray) Punjabi.

Kaushalya belongs to Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he was born in 1982 and got his school and college education, and also participated in student politics. After getting a Bachelor’s degree in Law, Kaushalya worked as a newspaper and television journalist. Later he acquired a Master’s degree in Sociology from England and is now a PhD candidate at the South Asian University.

While introducing himself, Kaushalya mentioned, among other things, that his first Sinhala novel was published in 2014. As the only novelist in the class, he attracted the curiosity of his classmates, who wanted to know what his novel was about. Since the English translation of his novel was not available (only a Tamil translation was in progress), he was asked to explain its subject.

Kaushalya said that he always found it difficult to answer this question. A novel, he said, was perhaps about everything and no specific subject in particular. All he could say with certainty about his novel was that it depicts a human situation through some characters and the events that take place in their lives; and that the story of the novel unfolds mostly in Colombo and to some extent in the central, rural part of Sri Lanka.

I found Kaushalya’s reluctant and vague explanation quite amusing. At the beginning of the second week of our course work, I suggested to him that we could work together on the Urdu translation of his novel. This suggestion was, naturally, a bit weird and unexpected for him but with some reluctance, he agreed to give it a try, on the condition that the work would be abandoned the moment I began to find the novel boring.

South Asian University is jointly run by the countries that are members of SAARC, and students from all the eight countries come together to study in the Masters and MPhil-PhD programmes in several subjects here. Just as an international place of learning should be, the corridors and elevators at the university are populated by the sounds of the myriad languages of the region.

On the night between the 14th and 15th of August 2016, when the SAU students were celebrating the joint Independence Day of Pakistan and India, we embarked upon this collaborative translation and decided to work with an average of one page a day.

As expected, there were gaps in our work, but we finished the first draft of the Urdu translation in about 18 months. I spent another few months revising and giving final touches to the translation. Since we did not know each other’s first language, English served as the link between us. Kaushalya would read one sentence in Sinhala and explain in English (and occasionally the more universal sign language) to explain what it meant. I would form an alternative Urdu sentence in my mind and then type it on my laptop.

At one point in the novel, where a character, reeling from a rude emotional shock, leans his back to the wall and slides down to squat on the floor, Kaushlya found it simpler to act it out using the wall of the hostel room instead of explaining it in English. Similarly, when we were looking to describe the hairstyle of another character, we Googled ponytail images and Kaushalya pointed to the image that best described what he had in mind.

"Is Chhupi Hui Khirki Main Jahnko": The Urdu translation of Kaushalya Kumarasinghe's Sinhala novel

How accurately and effectively the novel’s text was recreated in Urdu was tested by converting the Urdu text into Nagri script and was given to a few friends who read Hindi. One of them translated a part of it into English and showed it to the author.

Kaushalya expressed his satisfaction at the fact that the egg that was made out of the omelette was more or less the same as the original one. The translated text is going to be published in Hindi as well after replacing certain Urdu words and expressions that Hindi readers might find unfamiliar.

This was not the first time I had participated in a joint literary translation. I had translated Gujarati poems by Gulam Mohammad Shaikh and Suresh Joshi in collaboration with Girish Damania, a novel each by Marathi writers Hamid Dalwai and Vilas Sarang with Gouri Patwardhan, and the Nobel lecture by Orhan Pamuk from Turkish with Nameera Ahmed – all into Urdu. In all the previous occasions, either the target language was not very unfamiliar, or an English translation was also available to be consulted.

Both these things were absent in this case, but the good thing was that I was working with an author for the first time and could request him to explain his intention. It was a greatly enjoyable and rewarding experience. Like all other occasions of translating a work of fiction into my own language, it satisfied – sentence-by-sentence, page-by-page – my urge to listen to a gripping story. The process was regularly interrupted by Kaushalya’s question: “Aren’t you getting bored yet?” and my honest reply in the negative.

My curiosity about the novel remained intact till the end, as did my urge to know what it was that made a story involving characters and events of another country interesting for me. As a translator, I have always lived with the urge to know this.

I found in these characters and the particular happenings in their lives many things that are not limited to the society they belong to and they have the power to explain aspects of the human condition not only of a particular geographical region but beyond its borders. The narrator of the story involves the reader in such a way that both secretly peep into the lives of the novel’s characters and remain invisible.

Although this technique can hardly be called entirely new, it has given a certain form to the novel which would have been completely different had the story been told in another way. We gradually learn that the two (in fact more than two) groups of characters populate the same space and keep cutting one other’s path while remaining trapped in their own situation and completely aloof from and insensitive to what is happening in other lives. The emotional gap between those who arrive in our large and small cities to earn a living and those who are already living an entrenched life there is something many of us experience and observe every single day, no matter how much we pay conscious attention to it.