Tag Archives: Fiction

The Hired Man

Aminatta Forna travels to Croatia for her fourth novel ♦

the-hired-manIn her fourth book, Aminatta Forna ventures out of Sierra Leone and Africa, the setting for her previous titles (including the Commonwealth Writer’s Prizewinning The Memory of Love). Set in a small town at the foot of the mountains in Croatia, The Hired Man, like Forna’s earlier work, grapples with the effects of violence and war – now in the past, but never far from the surface of the present, a “dark child scratching on the walls”, as Duro, the story’s narrator and titular character, writes.

In the supple and self-assured style of an author who has consciously honed her craft over time and who can draw description out from the wells of imagination and research, Forna describes the beauty of the Croatian countryside and the horrors buried in its wildflower-filled fields and azure swimming holes with equal skill. The story unfolds over a few summer weeks, during which time Duro Kolak also revisits the span of his 46 years. His outpouring of memories is prompted by the arrival of Laura, an Englishwoman who has purchased an abandoned home nearby with her husband. With her two teenage children in tow, Laura busies herself with restoring the “blue house” and enlists him to help. She’s set her sights on starting a real estate service for wealthy outsiders looking for vacation homes, but when it comes to knowing the reason for these abandoned houses, she’s happy to turn a blind eye to the area’s history.

Ultimately the family has to confront this past, though the more horrifying events remain contained within Duro’s memories of the 1990s. And while these memories incorporates soldiers, sieges and abductions, Forna’s intent isn’t to shock but to question what makes some humans despise others and to discover what happens when childhood grudges and playground politics are grafted onto communal conflicts and flourish there, blooming into the most grotesque expressions of hatred. Forna eloquently frames this question, keeping things interesting through suspended information and some rather nice, nonmainstream character dynamics (the friendship between Duro and Laura’s daughter, Duro’s relationship with his hunting dogs).

Because she doesn’t point to the war’s political perpetrators by name (referring more directly to the town’s fictional petty villains) and because her narrator is a man who sometimes has to look away from the truth in order to live with it, The Hired Man can seem a little bloodless compared to Forna’s more personal work set in Sierra Leone (her father was a politician there and was hanged on charges of treason). Yet following last year’s “best tourist season in Croatia’s history,” according to that country’s tourism minister, Forna’s latest is a timely reminder that “Et in Arcadia Ego”.

The Hired Man, Bloomsbury, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2013.

Published: August 4, 2013

Hats and Doctors

Daisy Rockwell’s translation of the late Upendranath Ashk ♦

hatsDaisy Rockwell’s translation of Hindi-Urdu writer Upendranath Ashk’s short stories is more of a teaser than a complete introduction to the Jalandhar-born author. Rockwell, who also edited the collection, had the fortune to meet Ashk a year before he died in Allahabad in 1996. She admiringly characterises him as idiosyncratic and hostile, an outlier in a field that was already being marginalised.

Rockwell is working on a translation of Ashk’s 1947 novel Girti Divarein, a major work, and she implies in the introduction that Hats and Doctors is a somewhat random assortment of stories – some of them in debatably “final” form as the author used multiple drafts and on occasion even supplied his own translations. Through colourful anecdote, she also tells us that Ashk himself tasked her with the translation, if in a somewhat oblique manner.

This obliqueness is a feature of the stories here as well, and Ashk’s subtle satire comes through more clearly in some than others. In some, it is the protagonist or narrator’s discomfort that rises to a near-fevered pitch: a newly promoted bureaucrat in “Brown Sahibs” and the hypochondriac of “Hats and Doctors”. Other memorable characters include an irritable train passenger in “The Cartoon Hero” and a miserly yet bombastic family of tourists in Kashmir in “The Dal Eaters”. Though relatively restrained, several of the stories approach the grotesque: “Dying and Dying”, set in another train compartment, juxtaposes the memory of a nuptial night with an intimation of mortality; “Mr. Ghatpande” captures life and death in a tuberculosis ward (Ashk himself spent time in one). Ashk’s concern with writing about the unfortunate members of society comes through in many stories: “The Aubergine Plant” underscores the worth of one man’s life compared to another’s.

The reader will find something to like in the 16 stories here. Rockwell has previously written a critical biography of Ashk, and the casual reader may wish for more insight into his life and philosophy than is given in her fun but slightly flippant introduction to Hats and Doctors. The stories too may have benefited from a more introductory context. Still, if the book leaves one wanting a bit more, there’s the assurance that more is on the way: Rockwell is hard at work on Falling Walls (no publication date yet though); meanwhile she hopes “that some of these stories will induce a few readers… to turn their feet towards a Hindi bookshop one day.”

Upendranath Ashk’s Hats and Doctors Penguin India, ₹299.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 16, 2013

Unclaimed Terrain

Ajay Navaria’s stories deal with the new customs of caste ♦

navariaA tea cup, a clogged toilet, a pair of old gym shoes; these innocuous objects are transformed into loaded signifiers of caste in a new collection of short stories by Jamia Millia professor and writer Ajay Navaria. These concrete details and objects anchor the larger discussions of caste – between characters or in narrative asides – within Unclaimed Terrain’s seven short stories, translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck.

The most concise story is “New Custom”, in which a teacup becomes a symbol of oppression over the course of a chai stall chat. Two moments of overturned expectations among a small cast propel the plot within the limited backdrop of a village street. Mistaking a Dalit visitor from the city for a landowner, a chaiwalla serves his customer graciously, but things turn nasty when he discovers the man’s caste. In a rapid, efficient climax that matches the quickness with which a crowd gathers on the scene, Navaria points to entrenched discrimination while hinting at the power of money and education to disrupt it.

This story’s economy is impressive, with inequality echoed in its descriptive details: the runt and the pick of a litter of puppies wrestle in the dust; a television broadcasts the American interrogation of Saddam Hussein. Resonant with the dynamics of oppression, the stories sometimes blur together. Recurring themes include fathers and sons, weddings and extra-marital relationships, constrained resources and windfalls and, especially, rural tradition and urban freedom.

“This was the alluring and magical charm of the metropolis. It was intoxicating – and lethal,” the Dalit protagonist of “Tattoo” thinks to himself while signing up at a posh gym near Khan Market. Brueck’s porous translation lets in the ambiguity – the city is magical but lethal, money liberates but can also curse. Religion too is fraught; in “Scream”, the protagonist rejects conversion: “More than religion, I needed bread and dignity… I thought it better to remain unclaimed terrain than to be known by some strange name.”

At times, the prose is too diffuse to make sense of on the first reading – and as Brueck acknowledges in her note, Navaria’s “literary Hindi spliced with English, Rajasthani, and the occasional Punjabi inflection” makes his work “exciting and difficult to translate”. “Hello Premchand” offers a glimpse of further layers of literary allusion in its retelling of Premchand’s classic “Doodh Ka Daam”, the subject of a controversy over its inclusion in NCERT textbooks a few years ago (the story’s opponents protested its “negative” depiction of Dalit characters and the use of the word “bhangi”). Some of the translations of the longer stories gesture at their complexity rather than fully capture it, but what they do capture is engaging and important.

In grappling with inequality, at times Navaria’s prose and dialogue seem to purposefully recall the strident tone of historical “literature of the oppressed”. But the little details, like the teacup, keep his fiction grounded in realism while acting as hooks that snag not only the tangled arguments surrounding caste, but also the reader’s attention.

Unclaimed Terrain, Navayana, ₹295.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013

Published: March 4, 2013

News flashback

Anuja Chauhan’s third romantic comedy is set in Delhi of the 1980s ♦

Those-Pricey-Thakur-Girls-600x864A tall, dark and distinctively handsome journalist with a conscience meets a beautiful, intelligent “DeshDarpan” newsreader with four sisters, a house on Hailey Road and a distinctive mole on her chin. Delhi in the 1980s and India’ widening mediascape are the backdrop of Anuja Chauhan’s latest romantic fiction – her third after The Zoya Factor (which drew on cricket culture) and Battle for Bittora (politics and electioneering).

Debjani, the second-youngest of retired Judge Thakur’s five overprotected daughters is a dreamer with a love for underdogs, who is finally blooming, as her mother might say, into a proper young lady with romantic prospects. She’s just started a job as a national news reader on DD when she meets Dylan Singh Shekhawat, an investigative reporter thirsting for justice for the victims of the 1984 anti- Sikh riots, which he witnessed.

As in her previous books, Chauhan thinly disguises historical characters and events, stirring up a familiar stew of places, dates and personalities. Political scandals, cultural phenomena and a society in transition form a pleasantly recognisable milieu in which the action unfolds on the scale of one family’s dramas. Chauhan chatted with Sonal Shaha about the book.

What were you up to in Delhi in the ’80s and where did the idea of this house on Hailey Road come from?
I passed out in ’88, so most of the ’80s were spent in school. I was exactly where Eshwari [the youngest sister] is in the book. I wanted to write a book about a family property dispute because I know lots and lots of families who were going through that. More and more we all have some grandmother’s house or something which is owned by lots of uncles and aunts. Everywhere people were breaking down bungalows and going in for this condo sort of living, so there was this transition phase I wanted to catch. People had so many brothers and sisters those days and that’s why, I think, those houses are so fiercely disputed now. Also I felt that there was lots of scope for humour. Only in Indian families people will have sued each other but they’ll still be eating breakfast together; they meet at weddings and they’re all hugging and dancing together.

Then Hailey Road – one, I wanted people from all over India to understand, so I thought next to Connaught Place is a good place, because people know [it] and it was like a big hub. Then, I had an uncle, as in a dad’s friend uncle, who had a big old house on Hailey Road – it was notoriously famous for these disputed houses.

The alphabetical naming of the five Thakur sisters was a masterful way of organising the characters…
I gave my husband an initial draft to read and he was like, “Oh my god, I can’t…” So then I thought, I’ll make it alphabetical – and it sort of works with the Judge’s personality. People do these things… name children Raja and Rani… Like my sisters have rhyming names.


Anuja Chauhan

There’s this dark backdrop of the 1984 riots, but the house on Hailey road seems constantly drenched in sunshine.
Yes, and that was what was really pissing Dylan off, because he was like: “You guys are clueless! You sit in here and it’s all about girls and their little embroidered shorts! What’s wrong with you!” I just wanted to create that walled garden, where they haven’t even noticed the riots, they have no clue.

Can you tell me more about next year’s sequel, The House That BJ Built?
When I started writing [Those Pricey Thakur Girls] I realised that I can’t write it in one book, because you have to trace several generations. I actually toyed with starting it in the ’50s, but then I thought that’s too [far back]. My daughters are 15 and 17 now and they seem quite into this whole ’80s thing; they were very intrigued.

So in [The House That BJ Built], all these girls are gonna be aunts and it’s going to be a lot about fashion actually because Bonu [a child in the current book] is going to be running, you know, a lot of girls have these little tailoring boutiques and a Masterji and ten people sitting… Because her dad believes in being a businessman, she’s going to have, like, a very strong sense of business, and she’s going to be ripping off clothes from Hindi movies. Anyway, I shouldn’t be talking about it so much…

Do you see the family saga spiraling out into other stories?
I thought I needed to do Eshwari and Anjini’s book, [set] in the ’90s and then come to Bonu’s book in the 2000s, but I don’t know. I’m so un-enamoured by the ’90s. I spent [them] having children.

How did you keep track of all the individual histories?
With this one I went a little crazy. Actually, I must have written about 800 pages, and the book is only 400 pages. So I took it forward a lot more before I realised, oh god, I need another book. I was just completely ruthless – I chopped out and threw. But the only thing I felt really bad about cutting was Dylan and Debjani’s church wedding and then a Hindu wedding and then a wedding night…

If you could imagine writing about 2013, 30 years in the future, what kinds of details do you think you might pick out?
I think that only with the wisdom of hindsight can you write that kind of stuff. Because if you were writing in the ’80s, you’d have assumed that Doordarshan was powerful… booking a trunk call after 10.30 and all that… these are things that only make sense because you have the benefit of hindsight.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls, HarperCollins, ₹350.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013.

Published: March 4, 2013

Holy trinity

Manil Suri on writing the third of his mythological novels ♦

deviMath professor and writer Manil Suri grew up in Bombay, but has lived in the USA since attending college there in the 1980s. Suri revisited his home city in his first novel, Death of Vishnu, which was long-listed for a Booker in 2001. His next book took up the theme of Shiva, and the third and last of this mythological trilogy, The City of Devi, revolves around an apocalyptic Mumbai of the near future, in which the city’s patron goddess enjoys a cultish following. Suri spoke to Sonal Shah about the novel.

The book revolves around a love triangle formed by Sarita, her husband Karun, and his ex-boyfriend Jaz, but only two of them narrate the story. Was Karun ever a voice in the book too?
I never had him as a narrator; I always thought that two people would be talking about this third person, who you never really see. You can’t really record what he’s thinking that easily on the page so that was kind of challenging. It works well because he is supposed to be sort of inscrutable –it’s only towards the end that you sort of understand what is in his mind.

After finishing the book, I felt a sense of relief that the world isn’t quite as embroiled in conflict as in The City of Devi. Do you feel the world is as close to the brink as in the novel?
The possibility that something like this could happen is very small, because there are many safeguards. The reason that things go so far is that India and Pakistan, they’re at this pre-nuclear stage – they had reached that in 2002, where embassies were evacuating their people from India. But the US and the UN stepped in and brokered a peace agreement, so things calmed down. Here you don’t have that safeguard because the West is involved in its own problems – cyber attacks and so on. This is definitely on the edges of the possible. But even improbable events, they do occur. We are in a kind of vulnerable position because Pakistan is – it’s not clear what’s going to happen there… the political system is unravelling and they have nuclear weapons, so it’s a little scary.

Though your book is set in a semi-imaginary time, I suppose it’s difficult to strike a note of authenticity when you’re writing about recognisable scenes and people, especially if you’re at a distance from them.
One thing that helps is that I do come back pretty often – three times a year for a while and now once or twice a year. All the places that are in that journey by train [in the book], I actually walked most of it myself to see what things were there… even little things, like there’s some sculpture made out of gloves in Bandra, and that’s actually there. There’s a scene where the train goes off the tracks, and I kind of scouted that like shooting a film, looking at locations.

manilSexual relationships – and their ups and downs – drive much of the book’s plot. Why did you decide to use sex to shape your narrative arc?
One of the things you want to be sure of is that any sex is not gratuitous. Here you keep learning more about the characters in terms of what’s happening between them. India always has this strange relationship with sex – obviously people have a lot of sex but they’re a little reticent to talk about it. In my two previous books as well, I’ve kind of tried to write about it, and it’s very easy to go overboard. I think I’m always a little careful, and it takes me a long time to do it. But especially in this book, once I had the character of Jaz, this had to be a very honest book in terms of his sexuality. And there’s this final [sex] scene at the end – that took some time to figure out. Once I thought of it, it made perfect sense. The structure came slowly, but once I saw it, I had a goal.

Half the book is the voice of this gay Indian Muslim character, who is also an outsider in other ways. What inspired him?
Originally Jaz was an American – part of this book actually occurred in the US and Jaz was not a particularly fun-loving guy. He didn’t have this irreverent tone to his voice. Then I thought this wasn’t working, so let me make him an Indian. Then, it seemed to make sense – how about someone who is really quite globalised, almost a symbol of globalisation. He’s travelled all over the world, so he has this very multi-faceted personality. Once I had that, then suddenly the voice came. This guy is really out there, he’s completely uninhibited when it comes to sex. Jaz in some sense is an agent of change. India has been interacting more and more with the rest of the world, so this is kind of the frontier that it’s crossing. Incidentally, I just bought an issue of Time Out Mumbai – the gay issue which is on stands right now – it’s amazing to see how far the country, or at least Bombay, has come.

What’s next after this trilogy?
I’m working on something that’s going to draw on both mathematics and fiction, sort of a math novel. I know it’s going to have an ebook format, and also might have some video in it. I’m making sketches for the videos and hopefully will have a professional animator.

Manil Suri’s The City of Devi, Bloomsbury India, ₹499.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.

Published: February 4, 2013

The Walls of Delhi

Uday Prakash’s stories bring downtrodden characters to life ♦

thewallsofdelhi_web“I bet you’re thinking that I’m taking advantage of the one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the birth of Premchand, the King of Hindi Fiction, to spin you some hundredand- twenty-five-year-old story, dressed up as a tale of today,” writes Uday Prakash, in one of his stinging authorial asides, “But the truth is that the account I am putting before you, in its old and backward style… is a tale of a time right after 9/11, in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York; a time when two sovereign Asian nations were reduced to ash and rubble.”

The truth – whether in that particular story, “Mohandas”, of a low-caste villager thwarted at every step by corruption, or in the two other tales in The Walls of Delhi – is Prakash’s primary obsession. In his title story (the collection is translated by Jason Grunebaum) he charts the changing fortunes of a sweeper who discovers a stash of dirty money in a Saket gym. In “Mohandas”, he destroys any illusion of the modern Indian village as a Gandhian idyll, and “Mangosil” is the story of a family in Jahangirpuri struggling to break into middle class life while coping with a son’s mysterious medical condition. Prakash delicately paints these grey worlds, where power triumphs and corruption festers, then exposes the truth as black and white with moving results. Yet these stories aren’t uniformly dreary; as he writes, “Don’t you think that amid all the pain and sorrow and bleak colours of this story little drops of joy have been interspersed?” These tempering moments of hope, which is constantly smothered, throw the harshness into relief.

Grunebaum captures Prakash’s satirical, darkly funny, conversational style, and though the book would have benefitted from stronger proofreading (a few mis-transliterations of Delhi neighbourhoods particularly jar), The Walls of Delhi is a highly recommended contemporary Hindi collection.

The Walls of Delhi, Translated by Jason Grunebaum, Hachette, ₹350.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.

Published: February 1, 2013

Another Country

Anjali Joseph processes bewilderment ♦

Another-Country-JPEG2If Anjali Joseph’s  second novel is  best devoured in  one sitting, it’s  not because it  wouldn’t hold up  to slow, literary  scrutiny. Rather,  it’s because  Another Country  is the refreshing opposite of that  “urgent book” that demands  moral engagement. It builds  character-driven emotional  momentum through protagonist  Leela’s peregrinations through  Paris, London and Bombay.

Another Country offers a classic  literary thrill – of making sense of  the world, which is subtly different  from knowing it better. Leela – a  little privileged, a little repressed  and confused about where she  belongs – navigates her twenties  at the turn of the century with a  familiar postcolonial savvy. She  covers up her alienation and  aimlessness with work (teaching  English in Paris, temping in  London, faffing at an NGO in  Bombay) and relationships that  accurately, depressingly capture  modern sexuality. Throughout,  Joseph keeps Leela (whose  journey echoes her own) from  becoming a cliché or a self-portrait  by imbuing her with a potent,  childish frustration with the world.  This frustration bubbles up in  one climactic scene, when Leela  dreams of Christmas with her  college best friend: Leela “was  bewildered at the wealth of  happenings that were attached  to the surface of her experience.”  Processing bewilderment by  telling its story is perhaps a task  most successfully accomplished  by literature.

Saraswati Park, Joseph’s debut,  had characters mired in their lives  in Mumbai. The unfixed Leela  seeks to make her own life. Joseph  sketches both conundrums well;  she’s a gifted writer, with a nice  habit of letting conversations  dangle. We expect Joseph  could take on an even more  ambitious project, if the wealth  of happenings that constitute life  permit.

Another Country, HarperCollins, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2012.

Published: August 4, 2012

Murder most fowl

Tarquin Hall discusses his latest Delhi mystery ♦

butterFor the third of the Vish Puri mystery series, journalist and author Tarquin Hall dispatched the Punjabi private eye far from his Khan Market office. Hall met Sonal Shah at Khan’s L’Opéra patisserie to chat about The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.

Did you set out to write so much about how Delhi has changed?
The whole idea is to show India today. Obviously Puri lives in Delhi, I live in Delhi, so this is what I’m familar with. In my lifetime, London has changed dramatically, so has New York. But Delhi’s been through unbelievably rapid change. I mean people go on about ‘Khan Market has changed beyond all recognition’. It hasn’t really. Here you’ve got croissants and these little meringue things that sell for like R500 each, but the pavements are still the same. I came by the other day, and there was a Dalit going down into a sewer. The market behind hasn’t changed at all. You’ve got this new version of India bolted on to all the older versions. You only have to have Vish Puri walk through Khan Market and it’s there.

When Puri travels to Pakistan, it’s almost like a throwback to an older India.
I wanted to do a story about a Pakistani murdered in India, and I wanted the backstory to be Partition. I first went to Peshawar when I was 19, to travel with the Mujahideen. When I was in India in the mid-’90s, I used to travel there quite often, by air. I decided Puri would go overland, because he hates flying and it would be int­eresting to have him cross phy­sically over the border. So I had to go do that last May. It was incredibly poignant – I had tears in my eyes. But I had to do it through the eyes of a 52-year-old chubby guy. It’s interesting to travel like that; see things his way. The Pearl Con­tinental in Ra­walpindi, where I put Puri – those hotels in Pakistan are just like the Taj used to be or the Oberoi here. They haven’t been all swankified. It reminded me of India in those days – everything’s slightly musty-smelling; you sort of felt nostalgic.

There’s always a nice pitter-patter about what Puri is eating. Are you a glutton like him?
I try not to be. We eat at Colonel’s Kababz a lot. But I don’t think you can have a Delhi Punjabi detective without him being a foodie. Some of these new restaurants though, you get sticker-shock from. Puri would probably find the food too overpriced  – he’s a bit of a chicken frankie man and that generation doesn’t like eating in restaurants that much. We went to – is it Floof? Ploof, in Lodhi Market. It was great, but, my god, the bill! Given what the majority of people are living on in this country, you can’t help but think about that.

It’s something you contend with in the book as well…
There’s this huge disconnect – we had it yesterday. Our children’s ayah had been coming for the last week with this bag [of laundry] everyday. Apparently, half of Delhi hasn’t had water for about a week, because some pipe burst. And you know, we’re going to Floof, Ploof, whatever – floofy floofy – you know, eating our pork chops.

You’re already working on the next Vish Puri book?
A lot of it is set in rural India, which I haven’t really sent Vish Puri into yet. The main plot is about a couple from different castes – one Dalit and one upper-caste – who want to marry, from rural UP. And meanwhile, [Puri’s mother] and a whole bunch of the family go on the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage, which I just did a few weeks ago. It’s fun doing that stuff and putting it in these books.

You seem to have a lot of fun with the subplots…
In India there is always a lot going on. Every shopkeeper’s serving five customers at once; every bus­inessman is answering three phones. So a private detective always has god knows how many cases. Like with the whole Surat [subplot in Butter Chicken]. I want to do a whole piece about diamonds. The Angadia couriers are just phe­nomenally interesting. I was there for a few days, and I did go and talk to a couple of them but they’re really guarded and secretive. I would like to go back and do that story. All these indigenous systems and ways of doing things are just extraordinary. When I come across something like that, I’ve got to get that in, it doesn’t really matter how. So the plot has to be secondary to work with that, which is probably a mistake. I like to think that my plots are getting better, but then I never thought I’d be writing detective fiction – I was a journalist. When I started, I just thought I’d write about what I’ve seen, and there should be some kind of plot. Which I don’t think is how Agatha Christie did it.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, Random House India, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.

Published: June 22, 2012

The Householder

Amitabha Bagchi’s second novel focuses on corruption in Delhi ♦

householderNaresh Kumar, the householder of the title, is having a little trouble holding his home together. As PA to a powerful Delhi bureaucrat, Kumar has a routine but tenuously balanced life that’s built, like a pack of cards, on years of under-the-table transactions, shady deals and missing papers. Now, his daughter is having trouble conceiving, his son is rotting away at a call centre, and his career is threatening to fold up following a mishandled deal.

Corruption is at the heart of this tight, nuanced novel – the second by Amitabha Bagchi, who also wrote Above Average. Questions of good and evil, and the shades of gray that power casts over actions, infuse the story of the Kumar family’s threatened fortunes. Bagchi masterfully captures the self-justifications and corrupt compromises that are a part and parcel of Delhi life – from throwing litter on the ground in the absence of a dustbin to sending a patsy off to jail for a murder.

Bagchi always privileges the story, however, letting moral questions percolate in the background. Characters may suffer self-doubt, but they remain consistent, believable middle-class Dilliwalas, for whom the primacy of power is self-evident. The nuance with which Bagchi draws out the dynamics of supplication is remarkable. For his characters, bribery and blackmail are simply necessary survival skills.

Particularly noteworthy is a subtle transition from Kumar’s brand of corruption, which justifies itself in the name of the holding a family together, to its new, post-economic liberalisation version: corruption in the name of individual freedom. But as old power systems figure out how to coexist with new ones and middle-class Delhi transitions from a family-first to a me-first mentality (forget civic responsibilities), there’s still room for a little tenderness in the relationships between couples, fathers and children. The plot’s solution may be a bit too neat for some, but the uncomfortable questions Bagchi raises refuse to go away.

The Householder, Fourth Estate, ₹399.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, 2012.

Published: May 3, 2012

Found in translation

The man behind a flood of translations is swept up in his work ♦

chowringhee-uk-atlanticNearly 15 years had passed since Arunava Sinha translated Chowringhee at the request of the Bengali classic’s author, Sankar. Back then, in 1992, Sinha was embarking on his professional career and considered his bridge translation (an English draft for a French edition) a one-time diversion. By 2006, he was living in Delhi, managing web products for Ibibo, when he received a call from Diya Kar Hazra, then an editor at Penguin.

Hazra, interested in commissioning an English Chowringhee, had been told that it was already translated. She puzzled out that Sinha was responsible for the manuscript. Penguin published the book, which went on to win the 2007 Vodafone-Crossword Award for translation. “Even then,” Sinha told Time Out, “I hadn’t thought about doing another one.  But the book was received with a lot of excitement…” Eleven translations with seven different publishers later, Sinha’s hobby is threatening to take over his day job – as head of IBNlive.com and cricketnext. com – and his life.

my kindThis summer, Sinha had two translations published: Buddhadeva Bose’s 1949 family saga When the Time is Right and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s cult contemporary classic Harbart. Bose’s tender domestic family drama could not be more different from Bhattacharya’s hallucinatory novella, and it’s a testament to Sinha’s versatility that he’s captured the grace of Bose’s prose and the grotesqueness of Bhattacharya’s fever dream. In the past couple of years, Sinha has also managed to interpret the nuances of other voices, whether translating the wry irony in Banaphool’s short stories, the ups and downs of sport in Moti Nandy’s Striker and Stopper, or the thrills of adultery in Dibyendu Palit’s Illicit. He also translates short stories on the side, putting them up on his website as “a form of riyaz”.

busstopPublishers can’t get enough of his translations, and perhaps part of the reason for the number of titles is that his contracts have tended to come out of informal conversations, even Facebook posts. Another factor is the growing interest in regional literature. Sinha thinks Bengali lit has led the pack because many senior editors are Bengali. Whatever the reason, he’s glad. “The quality of fiction there is far superior to the quality that Indian writers in English produce,” he said. “It’s not possible for Indian writing in English to be so good right awayBengali writers have been sitting on top of a long tradition of writing – that’s how they got better.” If India is ever to have a “national” literature, Sinha believes it will be in English. “You cannot have a national literature which is only read by a portion of a country’s population,” he said. “The one common language in India, like it or not, is English.

time isHowever, Sinha also thinks the English language itself will benefit from new translations. “There are expressions from specific languages” that can enrich English, he pointed out, “capturing emotions and ideas that don’t exist.” As an example, he mentioned the Bangla and Hindi “man”, “a continuum between the heart and the mind. It’s a percentage of heart and a percentage of mind, adding up to hundred. But the point is that that continuum can be anywhere depending on the context. So when translating you find yourself using ‘mind’ when it’s more mind than heart and using ‘heart’ when its more heart than mind. But you can never capture that it’s actually a mixture of the two.” Sinha is refreshingly grounded for someone so deeply immersed in language and publishing. He’d love to let questions of the heart and mind take up all his time, but believes it is impractical given publishing standards, which award a translator about 2.5 per cent royalties. “You don’t do it for the money,” Sinha said, noting that being able to translate in his spare time “has probably helped me avert a midlife crisis.” He also has no desire to write fiction himself.  “You have to ideally get to the point where you can no longer write anything on your own,” he insists, “I think that’s the ideal definition of a translator.” Still, we get the sense that Sinha’s only going to get more and more sucked in to his “second innings” as he called it. “What I need is a patron,” he laughed. “I have this wild idea. I want to put together a trust contributed to by rich Bengalis.”

dozakhnama-final-coverEven on his own, Sinha has had the tenacity to make a difference to the field. Though he claims to be terrified of translation theory, his uninhibited intelligence and enthusiasm is a welcome change from the wooden, homogenising translations that have stifled English editions for decades. Two more translations will appear this year: Seventeen short stories by Anita Agnihotri, and Samaresh Basu’s Mahakaler Rather Ghoda (Fever), a “staccato, deceptively simple” tale told by an Adivasi Naxalite in the 1960s. Several books are in the pipeline. Any impression that he’s churning them out is negated by the attention he lavishes on each project. “I always feel that translating is the closest reading that you can give,” Sinha said. “It’s like walking a road instead of merely seeing the map. You actually encounter every gravel, every pebble, every crack in the pavement, every smooth stretch.”

Read translated excerpts  online at www.arunavasinha.in.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2011.

Published: October 4, 2011