Three new books in the “Writer in Context” series seek to improve our understanding of translated literature

Each book is comprehensive, with samples of the writer’s fiction, new essays, critical reception, letters from readers, and bio-chronology

Each book is comprehensive, with samples of the writer’s fiction, new essays, critical reception, letters from readers, and bio-chronology

In a revealing scene, Mitro by Krishna Sobti (from Mitro be damned, 1966), unhooks her blouse in front of her older sister-in-law and places her palms on her breasts, asks, “Say the truth sister-in-law, does anyone else have plump breasts like these?” This and subsequent pages, where Mitro shamelessly talks about his physical cravings, have shaped the discourse around the novel and its criticism by such eminent writers as Amrita Pritam and Rajendra Yadav.

What they lacked were finer details about Mitro’s character – the daughter of a prostitute who wields complete autonomy over her body in a time when such audacity counted as a dangerous challenge.

Critical studies often overlook nuance, especially when there is a lack of knowledge about the historical resonances, socio-cultural atmosphere, and political underpinnings tied to the novel’s present. Readers who are in no way attached to the subcontinent might find themselves more deprived.

“We felt the need to prepare tools to access Indian writers and their texts from their context,” say translator and researcher Sukrita Paul Kumar and Chandana Dutta, co-editors of the “Writer in Context” series. by Routledge, which focuses on 12 landmark novels. of bhasha Literature.

Of these, three have already been released – one on Krishna Sobti (2021), edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Rekha Sethi; another on Joginder Paul (2021), edited by Chandana Dutta; and the last on Indira Goswami (2022), edited by Namrata Pathak and Dibyajyoti Sarma.

Chandana Dutta (left) and Sukrita Paul Kumar, series editors

Chandana Dutta (left) and Sukrita Paul Kumar, editors of Routledge’s ‘Writer in Context’ series, which focuses on 12 historical ‘bhasha’ novels Literature. | Photo credit: special arrangement

Other writers proposed for the series include Rahi Masoom Raza, Bama, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Amrita Pritam, Mahasweta Devi, V. Madgulkar, OV Vijayan and Devanuru Mahadeva. These detailed and comprehensive studies giving an overall picture of bhasha translation writers have been sporadic. Doosra Jeevan by Girdhar Rathi or Amrita Pritam: her poetry and literature by Priya D. Wanjari are some of the few books that have made an attempt.

“We approached Routledge with two volumes in 2020,” says Dutta, Katha Vilasam’s former assistant director. “Later, assured by the interest of the editor, we decided to make it a series by choosing iconic writers of post-independence Indian literature who are bracketed as ‘modern’ writers and their work commonly called Modern Classics.”

Each book contains excerpts from a particular writer’s fiction, his other writings (such as excerpts from Hum Hashmat in the volume on Sobti), new essays translated into English, critical reception, readers’ letters and biochronology, offering a comprehensive understanding of a writer’s work. While the modern trend is to favor social studies over literary studies to understand the nation, Kumar firmly believes that “the multilingual and culturally diverse fabric of India can only be fully understood by paying close attention to the face in constant evolution of the literature. Sobti is quoted as saying as much in the introduction to Krishna Sobti: a counter-archive“Literature goes beyond empirical reality, beyond treaties and wars and probes the silence of the mind. She asks herself the question: how do we tell the story?

The volume on Urdu writer Joginder Paul, edited by Chandana Dutta.

The volume on Urdu writer Joginder Paul, edited by Chandana Dutta.

The examination of the writer in his context shows how he goes beyond literary currents such as modernism, postmodernism or progressivism. Kumar cites the example of the prominent Urdu writer, Joginder Paul, who challenged such labels: “His works are an amalgam of modernism and progressivism; much of its long and short fiction might appear to be modernist in form and style while the themes project progressive ideals,” she says.

“While the series contains a volume on the highly canonized writer-activist who took up the Adivasis cause, Mahashweta Devi, there are also upcoming volumes on Marathi writer Venkatesh Madgulkar, who has focused on the rural stories, and on Devanuru Mahadeva, the Dalit writer from Kannada who led the modernist movement in his language away from the mark created by writers such as UR Ananthamurthy,” Kumar explains.

Although these authors have been translated into English, the translations are not of uniform quality. Sometimes they don’t do justice to the originals. As things stand, it’s a formidable task to translate writers like Sobti whose Hindi characters are often inflected with Punjabi, Gujarati or Rajasthani, creating a ‘living language’ almost impossible to reproduce.

Last in the series is Assamese writer Indira Goswami, followed by Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam. These two authors went against the usual representation of women in the writings of their time. The studies of these two may well refine our understanding of Indian feminism.

The writer is an award-winning poet from New Delhi.