Agyeya’s proletarian reading of The Ramayana

जो पुल बनाएंगे

जो पुल बनाएंगे
वे अनिवार्यत:
पीछे रह जाएंगे

सेनाएं हो जाएगी पार
मारे जाएगे रावण
जयी होंगें राम,

जो निर्माता रहे
इतिहास में
बंदर कहलाएँगे।

Those who build bridges
Will certainly
Be left behind

The armies will cross
Ravan will be slain
Rama will be victorious,

But the architects
will be remembered in history
As monkeys.

The Infinite Regress of Translation

Translation from Hindi of high canonical literature poses some really interesting challenges.  I’m currently working on a novel by Ajneya (Sachhidanand Vatsayan) with this very interesting line:

चीन की एक पुराणी कविता है, जिसका भावार्थ है, “व्यक्ति क्यों यह इच्छा लेकर अलसाया पड़ा रहे की उसकी हड्डियाँ भी उसके पिता की हड्डियों के साथ समाधिस्थ हों?  जहा भी कोई चला जाय, वहीं कोई शस्य-श्यामला पहाड़ी मिल सकती है.”

This is both what is really cool about Ajneya and maddening.  So the sentence begins by saying that there is an ancient Chinese poem that he’s about to translate for his reader (I don’t know what ancient Chinese poetry Ajneya had access to, so I tried to google it … with little success).  So I have to operate on the idea that his translation is good, though he is likely reading a translation of the Chinese (probably into English) and then working back to the Hindi.

Then as the passage continues, he throws in “शस्य-श्यामला” (shasya-shyaamalaa) which is famous for every post-independence Indian as a phrase from the opening verse of the former national anthem (“Vande Mataram“) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.  My knowledge of Indian poetry is limited to the stuff that I read in classes or the stuff I read for my research, but the presence of the phrase is distinctive, something like coming across “amber waves of grain” in a random bit of prose.

So Ajneya is using Bankim’s phrase in a translation of an (imaginary?) ancient Chinese poem, my guess is to give the idea in the passage some ancient-cultural wisdom that doesn’t have a corollary in Hindi by connecting it to something that everyone would recognize as Indian.  Something like compensating for a familiarity deficit with a familiarity surplus.  Most Indians I know don’t know what “shasya shyaamalaa” means despite knowing the line from the poem (one could say something about how religious and patriotic memorization works here).

Here’s my attempt at a translation:

There’s an ancient Chinese poem which roughly says, “Should a man be lulled into a stupor by the desire that his bones be buried in the same tomb as his father’s?  Wherever one goes, one can find rolling hills ‘dark with the crops of harvest.’”

So he needs it to be a Chinese poem to get the idea of family burial grounds into the novel (Ajneya’s worldview is pretty well-framed by Hinduism of a particular kind, and I don’t know where he might have turned to in order to find that particular idea in Hindi or Sanskrit … he seems to have avoided, too, English poems which could have contained similar ideas).
But the presence of “शस्य-श्यामला” is interesting because it’s so connected to the former national anthem and to a history of vernacular poetry in India. It’s not quite the same as “amber waves of grain” which sounds to me like a bit of purple prose more than good poetry, while “शस्य-श्यामला” still has something of the high poetic feel to it.
So in a passage that is about not needing to return home to die, he smuggles in a phrase about the beautiful landscapes of the country (the Bankim poem is about the nation as mother, figured like the Goddess Durga) in order to talk about his obviously Oedipal relationship to his father.  But when he wrote the passage (early 1940s), Vande Mataram was not the national anthem, even though it was famous (Tagore read the poem aloud in a meeting of the Indian National Congress).  So I am not really sure how the phrase would have felt to Ajneya or his earliest readers — perhaps it would be immediately recognized, perhaps it would just sound familiar?
I settled on using Aurobindo Ghose‘s translation of Bankim’s phrase for the language in the passage, in part because it is the official translation of the poem that the Government of India uses.

I show gratitude to thee, Mother,
richly-watered, richly-fruited,
cool with the winds of the south,
dark with the crops of the harvests,
The Mother!

Her nights rejoicing in the glory of the moonlight,
her lands clothed beautifully with her trees in flowering bloom,
sweet of laughter, sweet of speech,
The Mother, giver of boons, giver of bliss.

But there are two parallel problems that are not resolvable, for me, simultaneously.
One is the chain of associations that are interesting but hard to collapse back into manageable prose:
home-Kashmir-father-death
nation-land-mother-poetry
(Is the canon of poetry the thing you are trying to run away from when you compare Kashmir to Bankim-as-father?  Is it the nation yet, since he’s in Punjab when he has this thought about Kashmir, using a phrase from a Bengali poem?)
The second is the translation within a translation problem:
Hindi prose–ancient Chinese poem–Bankim’s Bengali turned into Hindi
 The ancient Chinese poem thing is relatively easy since in English “ancient Chinese poem” means more or less the same thing as it would mean to a Hindi reader (ancient wisdom turned into pithy aphorism).  But no matter what phrase I use for “shasya-shyamala” I can’t get the association to work in English.  I might have taken a cheap shortcut (put a footnote, use the official translation) but it seems like the only way to leave a trace of the readerly problem one might encounter with the line.  But then the feeling seems so remote, even to me, of homesickness for a land (I certainly don’t feel that way about Houston for obvious reasons) while living in another part of the same land (India?) while using a poem about the unity of those two pieces of land figured about yet another piece of land (Bengal).
There’s also a problem with geography, since I don’t know if Kashmir ever has hills that are dark with grain (at least not in the way that they are in Bengal), since the line in Bankim is probably referring to thick rice paddy (I’m just guessing here) and not wheat fields (which is the only thing, I think, that could have the same association).  But noticing that seems more like a critical problem than a translation problem, so I avoided doing anything about it.
I don’t think that I’ve ever been as close a reader as when I am translating from Hindi.

Translation in Progress

From current work (but I liked it too much not to share it):

लोग कहते है, विद्रोही के विचार संकुचित हैं, उसका मस्तिष्क कमजोर हैं, उसका हृदय टेढा हें।  लोग यह भी कहते हैं कि उसके स्वप्न छूँछे, आदर्शवादी, असंभव। यह सब शायद थिक हैं।  लेकिन वह पतितों ओर असहायों को सम्मानता से देख सकता हैं, उसका हृदय गिरे हुओं को उठा सकता हैं, उसका मस्तिष्क एक समूचे राष्ट्र को चला सकता। और अपने स्वप्नों के लिये सच्चाई और दृढता के साथ लड सकता हैं, और उसके स्वप्न सच्चे हो सकते हैं।

People say that a revolutionary is narrow-minded, that his mind is weak, his heart is off.  People also say that his dreams are hollow, idealistic, and impossible.  They might be right.  But he is able to look at the marginalized and the helpless with respect, his heart can lift the downfallen, his mind can run an entire nation.  And for his dreams he will fight with truth and tenacity, and his dreams can come true.

Literary sexism in Hindi circles

I was struck by a piece by Anindita Sengupta that I read quite by accident today.  (Digression: There are so many things that my RSS feed aggregates together that I’m always surprised I notice the things that I do).  It is a well-composed response to a rather glib article by Gaurav Jain at Tehelka (who argues ridiculously that women should stop being offended at terms for sexual promiscuity; there’s actually a pretty smart response from a reader at Tehelka: “Going by Jain’s logic, we might as well tell Dalits not to complain about casteist remarks because they should not let the casteist person define their self-esteem”).

I found this bit of Sengupta’s rebuttal elegant:

But specific words are less significant than the attitudes they reflect. Rai’s tone is misogynistic, regressive and censoring, his contention that women must not write about the body so much is patronising and prescriptive. This can hardly be ignored considering his office.

The issue is reflective of a larger problem in the literary world, one that goes to the heart of what it means to be a woman writer – what little freedom one is allowed, and the silences which must be observed. It is cause for serious thought and, in this case, hopefully some action.

The whole row about the term “chhinal” (“adulteress” or “whore”, depending on context, in Hindi/Urdu) was sparked by a comment by Vibhuti Narain Rai, vice-chancellor at Mahatma Gandhi International Hindu University, who said in an interview to Naya Gyanodyay (one of the more prestigious literary magazines run by the Bharatiya Jnanpith) “Lekhikaon men hod lagi hai yeh sabit karne ki unse badi chhinal koi nahi hai” (roughly: there’s a contest among women writers [in Hindi] to prove that none is a bigger slut than she is).  Rai was being interviewed about the entries in this years competition for the Jnanpith (one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes) and he apparently just couldn’t help himself.  He went on to say: “feminist discourse has reduced [women’s writing] to a grand celebration of infidelity.”

Anuradha Sharma, a Hindi poet and a lecturer, summarized the audacious venom from Rai’s mouth:

Vibhuti Narain Rai can be accused for defaming every writer who has made unparallel journey on the road to equality. The words of his mouth are shocking. Mr. Vibhuti Narain Rai, the vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, says that women writers of today are competing to prove themselves to become the leading prostitute. He again adds that if they want to write their autobiography then HOW MANY TIMES IN HOW MANY BEDS will be the appropriate title. It is the report in news.in.msn.com. At another place in the interview, he dubs the character of a famous story as “nymphomaniac kutiya”. When asked by The Sunday Express which women writers he was referring to, Rai laughed. And repeated what he had said: “It’s not fair to mention names, but you can see, this tendency to prove themselves the ‘sabse badi chhinal’ is growing among women writers. You can find the references of ‘kitne bistaron men kitani baar’ in their work.”

It’s rumored at any rate, that the Bharatiya Jnanpith’s board of directors may be sacking Rai (from his job on the selection committee for the Hindi prize, not from his job at MGIHU, though it turns out that there may be reasons for him to lose that job, too) and Ravindra Kalia (the editor of Naya Gyanodyay who praised Rai).  Perhaps the controversy will invite some discussion about not only the persistence of some rather obscurantist notions and personalities in literary circles (the same people who probably also have no problem committing the erotic bits of Kalidasa to memory) but also about some of the more interesting new work from women writers in Hindi.

The whole thing has gotten me thinking about the long tradition of this kind of abuse against women writers from South Asia: the obscenity charges against Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf“; the attacks on Rashid Jahan after Angare; the continuing harassment of Taslima Nasreen.  In the 1930s, when Angare was proscribed by the British for attacking conservative elements within South Asian Islam, there was an outcry among literary circles and it led to the formation of the All India Progressive Writers Association.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this row led to the consolidation of a new generation of brave writing, too?