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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

 

 

 

 

ON TOPIC: Kashmir Protests, Castile and Sterling, Legislation, Trans Rights and Sex Work

A lot has happened and a lot has been written since we wrote last. Here is what we have been reading:

Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in an encounter on July 8. As thousands of mourners began to gather for his funeral in South Kashmir, the Indian State opened fire on the protestors, leading to the death of 18 people so far, apart from hundreds who have been injured. In addition, hospitals were raided, minors, disabled and terminally ill people were harassed, and ambulances were attacked. As severe militarization and human rights violations intensify in Kashmir, Ipsita Chakravarty and Rayan Naqsh discuss what oppression, death, mourning and memorializing the dead means in the Valley, after more than two decades of state-sanctioned impunity to the Indian Army.

It might also be appropriate to remember how insidiously the oppression has entered homes and villages in Kashmir. Sindhuja Parthasarathy’s photo essay on widows and ‘half-widows’ of Dardpora village in Kashmir looks at how unexplained ‘disappearances’ have result in social and economic isolation of different generations of women in the Kashmir Valley.

The murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men, by the American police within a gap of two days, have sparked powerful and emotionally charged outrage across the country. Doreen St. Félix in this article talks about the two kinds of summers experienced in America: one of picnics, walks and spontaneous trips, and the other of such killings which become public spectacles. Roxane Gay talks about the murder of Alton Sterling and what it says about the universality of the American justice system.

[Back home, Mahesh Shantaram documents testimonies of palpable fear of racism faced by people from Africa in the urban village of Soladevanahalli, Bangalore, in this photo essay.]

Women and the Law

Nausheen Yousuf discusses the current, multi-sided campaign to ban the triple talaq system, drawing on her experience of litigating on behalf of Muslim women. She attempts to unravel the myths and misconceptions around the triple talaq system and how women negotiate the complex web of institutions and government/religious bodies. You can read the full article here.

Germany passed a historic law redefining both rape and consent. Both physical and verbal cues from the victim will now affect the decision making process. The law is being seen as a consequence of widespread outrage after several women alleged sexual assault on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Read the BBC report here.

Back home, early in July, a young 21-year-old woman from Salem district committed suicide after finding her face digitally superimposed on the semi-nude body of another woman. In a similar case last October, a 15-year-old girl from Bengaluru committed suicide. Ashwaq Masoodi in this article discusses how cyber stalking and bullying figures within the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, 2000.

A draft Anti-Trafficking Bill was introduced in the Parliament by Ministry of Women and Child Development and has evoked criticism from several quarters. Geetika Mantri in this article argues that the Bill is incomplete and ambiguous and how it fails to address several issues that it claims for itself.

In this article, Mona Mishra discusses the Bill vis-à-vis the debate between the anti-trafficking campaigners and campaigners fighting for the rights of sex works. Mishra talks about how ‘work’ is conceptualized both socially as well as legally and how sex work often lies outside it, thereby denying basic human rights to its practitioners.

In a similar context, Smarika Kumar discusses the underlying moral judgement and ‘fear of recreational sex’ in legal and social opinions on sex work. She talks about this in the context of the Ministry of Home Affairs seeking to ban 240 websites offering female escort services:

“All this in effect implies that sexual material in human expression, which can only be surmised in 19th century Victorian vocabulary such as  “lascivious” and “prurient” tends to deprave and corrupt persons and when published or transmitted in “electronic form” must be punished quite severely. But why in electronic form, and why on the Internet? Or, what is different about sexual expression on the internet that it is sought to be so specifically curbed by Section 67?”

To move beyond legislations, an insightful article by Ei Cherry Aung discusses the need to do more to protect the rights of women who migrate from rural Myanmar to the urban centres in order to work as housemaids. Read it here.

Trans Lives and Rights

Arvind Narrain analyzes the implications of India’s abstinence from voting to establish the first Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) in the UN Human Rights Council. In this interview, Narrain talks about how in a larger sense, Indian Government’s abstinences reflects its larger apathy towards the LGBT community.

The Wire published a powerful conversation with activist Raina Roy where she talks about her personal and political journey as a trans-woman and her arrival at Samabhabana, a group committed to work for intersectional positions within gender, caste, class, disability and age. You can read the full account here.

Here is an interview with Qamar Naseem, a member of the advisory council of Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He talks about trans rights, sexual violence and torture against transgender people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and whether their situation as changed after the government issued them National Identification Cards in 2012. Violence against trans people has been on the rise in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in spite of criticism from several groups, including a fatwa by Ittehad-e-Ummat Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in India, Debaditya Bhattacharya discusses the Central Government’s recent attempt to delimit the meaning of the term ‘third gender’ as given by a Supreme Court Bench on April 15, 2014 as an attack on individual freedom to decide one’s sexual identity:

“Given the degree of emphasis in the judgment on processes of self-assignation of gender, the Centre’s call to empirically ‘delimit’ the exact number of beneficiaries of a third gender legislation is no less than an attack on civil rights. The same freedom that the NALSA judgment attests as an individual right is what the state appropriates for itself by reserving the authority to determine who to recognise as third gender and who not to. Going by the text and spirit of the Radhakrishnan judgment, this is an assault on the fundamental right to freedom of expression as including self-identifications of gender. Such illegal usurpation of an individual civil right by the government underscores an attempt to reduce a progressive ruling to a debate about definitions.”

Here is a powerful account of growing up with a variety of gender based labels and the continuous sense of alienation that they produce.

Ruth Padawer discusses how gender boundaries for women continue to be policed in the world of Sports in order to arrive at the ‘right’ type of female body.

Women, Media and Politics

Arundhati Roy’s interview for Elle Magazine has stirred up some interesting responses, to say the least. In the interview, she discusses her literary art, life and political opinions, making some rather problematic statements in the process. Apart from several other problems that surface in what she says, Mishka Wazar discusses what it means to call yourself a ‘black woman’ and claim that experience for yourself (which Arundhati Roy does at the outset of the interview). You can read the response here.

This fascinating article narrates the history of the Hindi soap, from 1980s Doordarshan to the present, looking at how intersections and alliances of caste, religion and neo-liberalism affect the representation of women on Hindi Television.

Here is an entertaining as well as frustrating account of a woman’s experience at working in a feminist magazine.

J Devika reminisces about Kamala Das and her legacy of women’s political participation, poetry and an ‘affective community’, a few days after her birth anniversary. You can read the full article here.

Caste, Protest and Appropriation

P.S. Jaya painted herself black everyday for 150 days and roamed Kochi’s streets to protest the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. The idea was to make the community face its own prejudices. The responses, however, have ranged from support to outright rejection.

Here is a response by Archana Bidargaddi and Prabhu Venkat to this instance of ‘artivism’, as Jaya calls it, arguing that the protest is not only an attempt to appropriate the everyday experience of a Dalit woman, but also rests on outdated theories of castes and races.

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