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Tag Archives: Assamese literature

Found In Translation : Stories from India

August is Women in Translation month. The campaign was started in 2014 by the translator and blogger Meytal Radzinski after she discovered the low numbers of women published in translation. Translated books only form three percent of published literature in English markets and only 30% of these works are written by women. As the month comes to an end, we have put together a compilation of some of the most compelling books we have translated. A collection of memoir, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, it offers fascinating stories from god-forsaken villages and chaos filled cities of India. Each of these books, originally published in a regional language, deserves a wider audience especially because these are stories marginalized by the mainstream. The authors— including a political prisoner in Kashmir, the wife of a communist leader in Andhra Pradesh, a domestic worker in Gurgaon, an eighth century Tamil poet and a contemporary one— are all women. Some of them spin beautiful fiction out of lived realities while for some just the honest story of their life leaves us astounded by the limits of our ignorance but all of them provide a new understanding of what it means to be not only a woman but a citizen of India.

10yr-a life less ordinary

A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder, translated from Hindi by Urvashi Butalia

Baby Halder had worked as a domestic help for a series of exploitative employers in Gurgaon before she landed, purely by chance, at the home of the retired academic Prabodh Kumar. With his encouragement she read the Bengali books at his home and eventually started writing her life-story. The story of a vanished mother, a murdered sister, marriage at the age of 12 and an abusive husband.  In the words of The New York Times she “recounts her story in plain language without a trace of self-pity”. Sangeeta Pisharoty writes in her review for The Hindu that during a conversation with the author she found it difficult to absorb her methodical narration of her life’s struggles. Halder’s nonchalant narration is evidence of the extent to which violence is intrinsic to the life she had growing up as a dalit woman in Durgapur, West Bengal. Nothing can highlight the importance of what the book stands for more than these direct words of Halder “Many girls back home go through a similar life and yet nobody sees it as any different”. The book became a bestseller which highlights how removed society is from the everyday realities of those who work for us. That Halder was surprised by the response the book received should not come as a surprise to us.

Prisoner No

Prisoner No. 100: An Account of my Days and Nights in an Indian Prison by Anjum Habib, translated from Urdu by Sahba Husain

The book is a passionate and moving account of the five years Anjum Habib, a young woman political activist from Kashmir, spent in jail after she was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). In an interview Anjum Habib said “Being a woman and that too from Kashmir makes your life in jail a living hell.” She describes how police officials in Delhi verbally assaulted her saying “You are a separatist leader of the Muslim Khawateen Markaz; we will strip you naked, take snaps and distribute them all over India, defaming you forever.” When she entered the jail premises, she was the only Kashmiri woman; the hostility of the other jail inmates, she said, will remain etched forever in her memory. A review of the book in Kashmir Lit says “To know that it is not fiction, but an exposition of the condition of living, breathing people, makes it profoundly disturbing.” Bashrat Peer, author of Curfewed Nights, has remarked “Everyone interested in Kashmir should read it” and has called it "A brilliant critique of patriarchy in politics, a searing tale of the terrible humiliations visited upon political prisoners, a poignant story of a woman who dedicated her life to political change in Kashmir, a passionate love letter to Kashmir."

Fence

Fence by Ila Arab Mehta, translated from Gujarati by Rita Kothari

The cover of this book by the award winning Gujarati author sketches a girl on a scooty dressed in a burkha. The Indian Express review of the book remarked “The symbolic cover deserves appreciation. Seen through the burkha is only a pair of eyes— apprehensive, circumspect and moving ahead with confidence.” It symbolizes what the protagonist of the novel aims to achieve: mobility on her own terms. Fateema is a young ambitious woman who climbs over the fences of poverty and illiteracy to pursue an education and a job in the big city. Mehta was inspired to write the story when she read a piece by a Muslim woman in a Gujarati magazine on how difficult it was for her to find a house. Her protagonist dreams of buying her own house but in the deeply communalized society of Saurashtra a house can only be on either side of the fence—the Hindu or the Muslim. Fence explores the deep seated communal prejudices that work against Fateema’s arguably ordinary dreams. In the review for Indian Express, S.D Desai finds the book “Heartening, for Gujarati literature is largely unconcerned about the trauma the Muslim community suffers. Gujarati Hindu teachers supporting Fateema in her struggle bring a breath of fresh air, indeed. "

hour past midnightThe Hour Past Midnight by Salma, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom

For many years no one knew that a woman (named Rokkaiah by her in-laws) confined within the four walls of her husband’s home in the rural interiors of Tamil Nadu was the sensational author known as Salma. She wrote secretly in the toilet at night and sent manuscripts to editors through relatives. She started writing because of the anger she felt when she had to stop going outside her home once she attained puberty. Her works include poems, short stories and novels all of them depict the life of women within the conservative Tamil Muslim community. Her poems, which are known for explicit sexual imagery, have received wide critical acclaim. The novel The Hour Past Midnight is based on her childhood in a village near Tiruchi. However, it is not an autobiography but as this review puts it “It is the story of the girl child in the deep South, the story of daughters and sisters and hapless mothers and grandmothers, all caught in an inexorable web of growing up, getting married, bearing children and dying. It is the story of "woman in the set framework", her life’s purpose limited to four walls, the walls slowly rising brick by brick, inexplicably; this is not a story about breaking barriers.”

 Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, translated from Marathi by Veena Deo

motherwit front cover

Pawar identifies herself as a Dalit woman writer, a Buddhist and a feminist and all three identities reveal themselves powerfully in this collection of short stories. The Hindu called them “unashamed and bold stories of the travails of the Indian woman.” Her heroines are clever women from all classes of society in urban and rural Maharashtra. They brave caste oppression, defy insults and are unhesitant in opposing their in-laws while guarding their interests. “These are the women sitting next to you on the Churchgate-Virar fast local, or processing your forms in the Pune municipal offices, or checking into the maternity ward in Pimpri-Chinchwad” says the review at LiveMint remarking that “the women sparkle with agency and complexity that is a delight to read.”  Pawar’s writing is sprinkled with the characteristically coarse Marathi humour (which lends the book the titular wit). Asian Age writes about the translation “Deo meets the challenge by keeping to an earthy, conversational style”. The review at LiveMint recommends “slip her in alongside Mahashweta Devi and Ismat Chugtai and Jhumpa Lahiri and Anjum Hasan and every other writer with the skill to render the minutely personal as piercingly political.”

The Sharp Knife of Memory

The Sharp Knife of Memory by Kondapalli Koteswaramma, translated from Telugu by Sowmya V.B.

Kotasweramma has always been popularly identified as the wife of Kondapalli Sitaramaiah, founder of the Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh, even though she herself was a core member of the communist movement. Inspired by the Bolsheviks, Koteswaramma took up party life early on in life. She went underground in the forties, living a secret life, running from safe house to safe house. In her own words this struggle paid dividends when her famous husband deserted her after an extramarital affair. She educated herself, got a job, raised her grandchildren, wrote poetry and prose and established herself as a thinking person in her own right. The story of her life spans a century of the independence movement and the communist insurrection in Andhra Pradesh. The stories of her struggle against the odds accompany her deep understanding of the workings of the party and the fragility of the political institution. On its first publication in India, this moving memoir took the Telugu literary world by storm.

 

seventeen

Seventeen by Anita Agnihotri, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Anita Agnihotri travelled extensively in Orissa and Jharkhand for her work as an IAS officer. Her travels inspired her to document the lives of those who remain in the shadow of India Shining. The characters of her stories and the images they evoke seem real because she works with details to eke out their lives of poverty and injustice. She does not believe in writing from the desk; she meets people and connects with them. She spins her stories around these experiences and as a reviewer puts it, her stories are perfect illustration of how fiction can begin in fact and not be limited by it. Apart from far-flung towns and villages, her stories are also set in metros and international suburbia, documenting the lives of landless peasants, migrant workers, abandoned wives and their companions in struggle. Seventeen is a collection of some of her stories from among more than a 100 of her published works. Apart from far-flung towns and villages her stories are also set in metros and international suburbia. Translated by Arunava Sinha, the book won the 2011 Economist Crossword Book Award for Translation.

swarnalata

Swarnalata by Tilottama Misra, Translated from Assamese by Udayon Misra

Considered one of the finest historical novels in Assamese Swarnalata is set in 19th century Assam when the forces of tradition were being challenged by the concepts of modernity. It takes the reader into the social milieu of the times when issues like widow remarriage and women’s education held centre stage. It traces the story of three Assamese girls, each facing personal struggles which reflect the larger societal truth of the times. Swarna, the daughter of privileged, educated parents cannot escape the biases faced by other women, her friends Lakhi and Tora are respectively a child widow and a convert to Christianity with a mind of her own. These girls are surrounded by revolutionary young men eager to break bondages of tradition. Swarnalata also provides a delectable blend of history and fiction by placing real historical figures like Rabindranath Tagore side by side with fictional characters. Arunava Sinha in his review has said “In capturing the collective aspiration of a people from a part of India whose literature is unjustly under-circulated, Swarnalata becomes a rich panel in the patchwork quilt that is contemporary Indian fiction.”

Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess

 Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, translated from Tamil by Priya Sarukai Chabria, Ravi Shankar

Andal, the eighth century Tamil poet, is the only female saint among the twelve Alvar saints of South India dedicated to the worship of Vishnu. Chabria and Shankar’s elegant translation of the corpus of poetry by Andal cements her status as the Southern corollary to Mirabai. However, as this review says “Her love for Vishnu is about an unequivocal affirmation of women’s sexual agency. Unlike Mira’s Krishna, Andal’s Hari is a full-bodied masculine presence. Like Andal’s wearing of the deity’s garland doesn’t defile it, her carnal longing for his form, while rejecting mere mortal lovers, also does not sully the bhakt-bhagwaan relationship.” This book translates Andal’s Tamil poems into contemporary English idiom, reimagining them as lyric poems keeping the philosophic meanings in the background. About the translation, Sumana Roy in her review for The Scroll said ‘The brilliance of the translators is also easy to see in the way they remain invisible, in the way we meet Andal directly, without the service of middlemen” hailing the Introduction for the book as “a great handbook for future translators on the subject”.

Here are some recommended reads from other parts of the world:

13 Translated Books By Women You Should Read

A Celebratory List of non-fiction books by leading thinkers and writers

An Essay on the Gender Politics of Translation

 

 

 

 

Review: Swarnalata

http://www.livemint.com/2011/12/30194653/The-marriage-plot.html

At one point in Tilottoma Misra’s Swarnalata, the parents of the eponymous heroine attempt to make a match for her with Rabindranath Tagore. The youthful poet, who has seen the attractive young girl from Assam—now in Calcutta to study—after a performance of his musical Balmiki Protibha, seems willing. But his father, the formidable Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, nixes the alliance.

Of course, history would have changed had Tagore Senior not taken this step. But Misra cleverly weaves the central skein of her novel into this one attention-grabbing incident. Swarnalata’s Brahmo parents, Gunabhiram and Bishnupriya Barua, are almost heartbroken at the rejection, which is explained to them in the novel by another real-life Brahmo elder, Sivanath Sastri, with these words:

 

Wonder years: Misra examines childhood and youth in 19th century Assam. Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

Wonder years: Misra examines childhood and youth in 19th century Assam. Subhamoy Bhattacharjee

 

“There could be only one reason for this. Devendranath Tagore has never been able to fully accept the idea of widow re-marriage. You must be aware that though he appears to be a liberal in his outlook, his attachment to some of the rites and beliefs of Hindu society seems to be growing with every passing day. It is quite possible, however, that the younger generation of Tagores may not be with him in this. But no one at Jorasanko would really dare to go against Devendranath’s wishes.”

 

The rejection, surmise the Baruas of Nagaon, a small town in Assam, stems from Gunabhiram’s decision to flout the conventions of Hindu Assamese society and marry Bishnupriya, a widow with two children. Gunabhiram’s act is congruent with the values of the Brahmo Samaj, which broke away from Hinduism to speak up and act for liberal thinking, for equality between the genders, and for Western-style education. But it still does not earn him the right to metaphorically sup at the table of the orthodoxy. In this contradiction are sublimated all the other conflicts that Misra depicts in her unhurried, sprawling and socially realistic novel named after the young woman whose life it traces from childhood to motherhood and beyond against the backdrop of change in late 19th century Assam.

Change is indeed palpable in the placid, hill-encircled land of Assam as nationalist sentiments emerge among a handful of revolutionary young men willing to defy the deep-rooted Brahmin servility to authority in general and to the British in particular. Meanwhile, Christian missionaries spread the gospel and offer the opportunity of education to people systematically deprived of it, in the process gaining converts. Then there are the Brahmos like Barua, intent on asserting equal rights for women and widows.

Misra brings each of these narratives of tension to a boil on a slow fire, charting the stories of representative characters. Here’s Swarnalata—daughter of privileged, enlightened parents, but still subject to the same biases as other women, which she must overcome in her own way. And here are her friends—Lakhi, a child-widow and daughter of a conflicted father caught between tradition and progress, and Tora, converted to Christianity and with a mind of her own.

 

Swarnalata: Zubaan, 293 pages, Rs 295.

 

 

Of these, Lakhi’s journey is the hardest. She gets a taste of new ideas from her childhood friendship with Swarna, but is soon wedged into the marriage-at-nine ritual. Her husband dies before she can join him after puberty, and she faces the prospect of several decades of widowhood and all its attendant shackles. Her defiant progress in the face of these obstacles makes for the most absorbing of the three women’s stories.

 

Circling these women—each pushed by personal circumstances that are symbols of the larger societal truth—are a handful of enlightened men who are eager to break laws that they identify as stultifying and demeaning. Chief among them is Dharmakanta, fiery of mind and spirit and contemptuous of convention. His determination to change the status quo is both inspiring and heartbreaking in its intensity.

Misra does not peer deeply within the minds of her characters. Instead, her concerns are with the battles waged between the individual spirit and societal suppression, where every person is powered by dreams and desires that constitute a reaction to the world they inhabit. Like the Brahmaputra flooding its banks, curving around obstacles and pushing on slowly but relentlessly, this novel too meanders, but always with the intent of reaching its end.

Although old-fashioned in its technique and lacking dramatic highs and punctuated cadences, the story shines out through a translation ranging between the competent and the ill-at-ease. In capturing the collective aspiration of a people from a part of India whose literature is unjustly under-circulated, Swarnalata becomes a rich panel in the patchwork quilt that is contemporary Indian fiction.

IN SIX WORDS

Three women in search of freedom

Arunava Sinha is the translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s Three Women andBankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s The Chieftain’s Daughter.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

Click to buy the book

Swarnalata: Zubaan, 293 pages, Rs. 295.

 

Words of Women: Arupa Kalita in Conversation with Nitoo Das

The Story of Felanee is based on real life events. It is a story of courage, of survival, of ethnic conflict and violence that tears people and communities apart in the most brutal, savage way. 

Set in Assam, which has seen two major agitations that have crippled the economy, this is a story that will shock the reader by its sheer passion, and its brutal honesty. The callousness and utter disregard for human life, the ugly play for power, for electoral gain, the sham and petty hypocrisies, the bloody horror of ethnic violence all lie exposed in this powerful novel written by one of Assam’s leading fiction writers.

The story revolves around the experiences of one woman: Felanee. Her name means ‘thrown away’—so called because as her mother lay dying in the burning riot-torn village, Felanee was thrown into a swamp and left to die. But against all odds, Felanee—and thousands like her—survived.

Like the reeds that grow in such profusion along the bank of Assam’s rivers, the rootless inhabitants of the refugee camps and makeshift shanties, whose stories form the core of Felanee, are swept along by the wind and thrown onto new hostile terrain but they cling on with tenacity to take root again and again.

Buy Felanee at http://www.zubaanbooks.com/shopping_cart.asp

A Monsoon of Music, Mitra Phukan

Those of you who couldn't be at our launch last evening, here's a little video, an interview done a year ago with Mitra Phukan by Assamese journalist Nabish Alam.

The launch, though, was fabulous launch.  Shubha Mudgal and Vidya Rao, both legendary vocalists, were on the panel for the release. We had about seventy people in the audience, all of whom were riveted by the stimulating conversation between the three about the book.

We have another event today at 5.30pm at Spell & Bound bookstore at SDA Market, opposite the IIT Gate. Come if you can. Zubaan author Bijoya Sawian will be in conversation with Mitra Phukan.

We'd love to see you.

--The Zubaan Team

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