Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dionysus in Gandhi’s Ahmedabad

Dionysus is not exactly a Gandhian God. He is the god of cruelty, excess, orgy and transgression. Restored to the Western pantheon in 1872 by Fredric Nietzsche, chiefly in order to blitzkrieg the dominant values of the Western Civilization, Dionysus presides as the chief deity of modernism. The Greek God whose philosophy is `excess of anything is good’ counters both the Christian ideas of moderation and self restraint as well as the bourgeois ideology of `excess of anything is bad’. Monroe K Spears’s book `Dionysus and the City’ (1970), whose title I have stolen for the title of this article, examines the relationship between the Nietzschean Dionysus and the context of urbanization in the development of modernism in the west says,
` Dionysus presides metaphorically over most of the recent trends in theater, from cruelty and absurdity to audience participation, nudity, and the tribal rock musical. On and off the stage, he is apparent in two contemporary figures: the black militant, violently releasing dark and repressed forces both in society and within psyche, and the rock musician, with his female devotees and his orgiastic cult of collective emotion.’ (1970: 35)
Professor Spears in his insightful analysis points out that the word City etymologically comes from the civitas, city-state, which is properly an aggregation of cives, citizens and the term civilization too comes from the same root. As a poetic trope, it stands for both the city within and the city without. Professor Spears, drawing upon ideas from Walter Pater’s essay ` A Study of Dionysus’, comments that modernism began when Dionysus entered the city. In earlier times, Civitas Terrena or the Earthly City was seen as striving towards a Heavenly City, Civitas Dei, but for moderns, says Prof Spears, it is seen as falling or fallen and moving towards the Infernal City the City of Dis, the city of Dante and Baudelaire, and of Eliot. In short, when the modernist poets paint the city in dark and sinister colours, they are in many ways censuring and negating the process of urbanization as well as the entire foundation of civilization, they are criticizing the city within and without. If modern city stands for modernity, then modernism, as a cultural movement often stands in contradiction and negation to modernity.
However, the relationship between the city and the village is crucial not just in analysis of modernism, but also for entire literary historiography and historical analysis of culture as demonstrated by Raymond Williams’ seminal book ` The Country and the City’(1973). Giving a lucid and rigorous analysis of shifting values, perceptions and associations of the opposition between the country and the city as embodied in English literary history, Williams remarks that this contrast,` is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and of the crises of our society’. (1973:289). He argues that capitalism, as a mode of production, is the basic process of most of what we know as the history of country and city. He cites Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto where they say, ` the bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns...has created enormous cities...has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones.’ (1973:303).
Williams, in spite of being a Marxist, is critical of the idea implicit within Marxism and socialism, the avowed enemies of capitalism, in their perception that the city is more `advanced and progressive’ than the country because the industrial capitalism is a more progressive than the feudal capitalism. However, what is important to us in our analysis of the relationship between modernism and the city in the Indian context is Raymond Williams’ awareness of relevance of this thesis to cultures beyond the British and the western culture. He is aware of the fact that the historical process he is studying is `now effectively international, means that we have more than material for interesting comparisons. ‘(1973:292)
While it would be illuminating to examine the imagery and sensibility associated with the urban experience in the modernist Indian poetry, I would be delimiting myself to Gujarati. The meaning of the term modernism is indeed ambiguous and contested; however, I would characterize modernism as a sense of discontinuity with tradition and rebellion against established artistic and ethical norms. The earliest glimpse of modernism in Gujarati poetry can be found in Niranjan Bhagat (b.1926)’s ` Pravaal Dveep’ or The Coral Island. The poems are centred on the experience of the megapolis called Mumbai and exhibit influences of the western modernist poets like Eliot and Rilke along with Tagore. Among the famous contemporaries of Bhagat is Suresh Joshi (1921-1986). A lesser-known contemporary of Bhagat is Hasmukh Pathak (b.1930) also exhibits early modernist sensibility centred on the urban experience. In `Saherni Ghadio Ganta..’ or Keeping a count of time in the city, he uses a typical modernist metaphor:
` and the evening ( with lipstick decorating her lips)
Kisses the streets and lanes;
Hundreds of mercury lamps dance to the Jazzy beats,
And fires find their way into gutters.
The orphaned dreams wandering and lost at midnight
Weep for a while and turn silent.
While Mumbai has played a very significant role in formation of modernist sensibility in Gujarati and Marathi, it would extremely interesting to see how the city called ` the Manchester of the East’ Ahmedabad emerges from Gujarati modernist poetry. Ahmedabad or Ahmadabad is the largest city in Gujarat and the sixth largest city in India with a population of almost 5 million. The city is also sometimes called Karnavati , an older name and as Amdavad in colloquial Gujarati . Ahmedabad is the administrative center of Ahmedabad District, and was the former capital of Gujarat State from 1960 to 1970, when Gandhinagar replaced it.
One of the most famous poems on Ahmedabad is a ghazal written by `Adil’ Mansuri (b.1936) one of the rebellious Gujarati poets who had to leave Ahmedabad, his homeland. Mansuri was associated with the avant-garde `Rhey Math’, a group of rebellious poets based in Mumbai. He is also credited with introducing modernist sensibility to Gujarati ghazal. The ghazal in question here is romantic and looks at the city he is leaving in a sentimental fashion.
You might never see it again
This city playing in the sands
You might never catch a glimpse of it again
On the plains of your memory
Fill up its fragrance in your breath
You might never catch the scent of its wet earth again
Ahmedabad emerges as an idyllic Eden from which Adam and Eve are driven away. The ghazal ends with romantic idealization of the motherland:
Let me rub the dust of my homelands to my forehead, `Adil’
Who knows I may never see the dust in my life again.

However, not all are so sad to leave Ahmedabad or mind losing the so-called ` Paradise’:

Manilal Desai
Only in the eyes of the camels, you find compassion in Ahmedabad. Humans don’t have eyes at all. Walking on the hot tar roads, cataracts have covered their brains. I too live in Ahmedabad. I live in Ahmedabad too, and a translucent film has started to envelope me. The air conditioners of Niroz and Quality restaurants struggle to breathe in the Bhatiyar lane. The lane, however, casts shadows of the whores of Maninagar. The sands of Sabarmati have spread over every street of Ahmedabad, and the roads wait to be inundated with frenzied floods. It wasn’t for fishing by the river, did Gandhi build Sabarmati Ashram, nor was it for dallying with the Ahmedabadi dames coming for a bath here. He, in fact, wanted to procure an auto-rickshaw for Ahmedshah, who happens to drive a cycle-rickshaw here. But Ahmedabad can’t think of anything other than spitting on the tracks of Balwantrai Mehta’s car or banging its head against Indulal Yagnik’s cap. Yesterday, the horses of Ahmedabad neighed in the tombs of Sarkhej- tomorrow, Adam will ask, ` What have you done with the feelings I gave you?’ and I will take hold of the finger of a shoe-polish boy from Lal Darwaja who has agreed to polish shoes for a paisa, and run away from Ahmedabad.
Only camels are capable of compassion in Manilal’s Ahmedabad and the speaker is scared that he too will turn callous by living here. The poet flattens out the history and makes a collage out of it. Mahatma Gandhi ‘s Sabarmati Ashram for the speaker is built because Gandhiji wants to buy an auto-rickshaw for Ahmed Shah, the founder Sultan of Ahmedabad of the fifteenth century, who happens to be slogging on a cycle rickshaw here. History has reduced the glorious Islamic emperors to cycle rickshaw drivers. The resplendence of the Sultanate is reduced to poverty. Yet Ahmedabad does not care and given a chance the modernist Adam, unlike Adil’s Adam prefers to flee Ahmedabad holding the finger of a shoe polish boy from Lal Darwaja. Manilal’s Adam is more concerned about turning thick-skinned in Ahmedabad.
Manilal Desai (1939-1966) belongs to the later generation of modernist Gujarati poets, which include poets like Labhshanker Thaker (b.1935), Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh (b.1937), ) Ravji Patel (1939-1968), Chandrakant Sheth (b. 1938) , Chinu Modi (b.1939) and Sitanshu Yashashchandra Mehta ( b.1941). What is most important here is the experience of metropolis and urbanization pervades their works in terms of imagery and sensibility. Sheikh, for instance, has many surreal sequences based on the cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Gandhi’s Ahmedabad is no longer the land of non-violence and peace. In a poem called ` Maru Shaher’ by Chinu Modi, we find Ahmedabad behaving in more of a Godseian way:
My City
Chinu Modi
You won’t find any fog here anymore
Even if every mill is shut down
No heart melts here anymore
The city exhausted of serving Gandhi
Violently seeks vengeance in innumerable ways
My city: Ahmedabad
They measure your shadows
Not bodies
To stitch clothes;
Here you have to live like bugs
On borrowed breath
Roads are of tar here
And sunlight black as tar
Falls here
My city: Ahmedabad
This city is an old man
Groaning with constipation
This city is all the fancy aerobics
Of a back broken spider
It’s a museum of fallen stars
A grand crematory
Incinerating corpses
My city: Ahmedabad.
Tomorrow a rabbit
Will prey on a dog
Will reduce my honour
To ashes
Who knows what sins of my past life
Is this city avenging?
I cant forego it even for a moment
And it doesn’t let me live
In peace even for a while
O Ahmedabad
Why did you become Karnavati again?
Why don’t you become Aasapalli?
Ahmedabad is neither the `Manchester of the East’ nor is the land of ahimsa. The mills are closed down and like Manilal’s Ahmedabad, it gives a damn for it. The city is exhausted of serving Gandhi and seeks vengeance with incredible violence. The poem written in 2001, which compares Ahmedabad to a `grand crematory constantly burning the corpses’ is indeed sinisterly prophetic. We can feel reverberations of the Post Godhra carnage in it. Like Manilal, Chinu Modi too flattens out history in a form of collage and uses plenty of allusions to historical legends surrounding Ahmedabad. The line about a rabbit preying on a dog is the story associated with the Sultan mentioned in the Manilal’s poem who is famed to have founded the city of Ahmedabad on the Hindu city of Karnavati after he saw a rabbit chasing a dog in that place in 1411 AD . The poem ends with the speaker moaning the return of the Hindu Karnavati and asks why Ahmedabad doesn’t become Assapalli again. Assapalli was the kingdom of a tribal king by the same name, which was conquered by the King Karnadev I of Patan in the eleventh century. Chinu Modi wants the Dionysus back in the city. The primitive tribal kingdom of Assapalli stands for the Eden, which was destroyed by so-called civilized Hindus. We can fruitfully compare the longing for tribal past in Chinu Modi’s poem with Manilal’s wish to escape dangerous side effects of being an Ahmedabadi and contrast it with Adil Mansuri’s sentimental application of Ahmedabadi dust to his forehead.
However, the experience of urbanization and city life is not limited to what EV Ramakrishnan (1995) in his very important study of modernism in Indian context has termed `High Modernism’ or individualistic and elitist modernism, but is also crucially present in what he calls the later avant-garde or collectivistic or subaltern modernism. The Dalit movement in Marathi was largely Mumbai based or based in the city. In Gujarati too, Dalit poetry has taken a note of the city and its discontents. One can cite a poem by Sahil Parmar, a Dalit Gujarati poet:
Sahil Parmar
The outstretched sky plays its own tune
Scattered stars
Flicker feebly
Like the squeaking whistles
Of cloth mills razed by fire
The horizons hazy
Due to the suppressed sobbing
The moon is pulverized
One...two...three...ten...a dozen fragments
Falling upon this city
Millions of people
Millions of eyes
Millions of dreams
Under them.
This city is now a crematory of dreams
Darkness like a cemetery
Wrings this city
Before I choke
I can only say
`That hostel mess bill was a very big event indeed!”
The poem, like the poem by Chinu Modi calls the city insensitive to the closing down of the mills in the seventies. Like Manilal’s poem, it accuses the city for shattering people’s dreams and lives. Like Modi’s poem, it uses the metaphor of crematory for the city. Like the other two poems, this poem too interweaves historical references into its metaphorical fabric. The last line alludes to the event of the price hike in the hostel mess bill in LD Engineering College in February 1974, which resulted in an outcry and a strike by the students. The strike snowballed into the famous Nav Nirman Movement, a mass anti-Congress agitation to remove the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Chimanbhai Patel. JP Narayan movement backed up the Nav Nirman Agitation. The poem, as the footnote says in his collection, commemorates the event.
We can see that the modernist Gujarati poetry articulates voices of dissent and alternative notions of Gujarati culture and identity by employing the trope of city and the poetic material drawn from urban experience. The poems by Chinu Modi, Sahil Parmar and Manilal Desai protest against the established culture by voicing their anguish caused by the urban experience of Ahmedabad. The perceptions presented in the poems are critical to the predominant ideas of `culture’. The poems are rebellious and anarchic like the presiding deity of modernism, Dionysus. Modi’s poem is more direct in its Dionysian longing to return to the primitive tribal kingdom and its anti commercial stance (They measure your shadows/ Not bodies/To stitch clothes). The poems are also full of images of morbidity, darkness and decadence. Unlike Adil’s ghazal which is `pretty’, the modernist poems about Ahmedabad are often ugly (consider Chinu Modi’s metaphor of ` This city is an old man/ Groaning with constipation/ This city is/all the fancy aerobics/Of a back broken spider...). These poems interweave references to historical references like Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmed Shah, Karnavati, Assapalli and the Nav Nirman Movment with legends like the rabbit that chased a dog and dense surreal metaphors of darkness, pulverised moon and surreal humour of Ahmed Shah driving a bicycle rickshaw. The images are anarchic and subterranean.
Raymond Williams notes that ` the key cultural factor of the modernist shift is the character of the metropolis. (1990:166).’ What Prof Williams says about the Modernism in the West has implications and uses for us too. The examination of urban experience is crucial for understanding the Modernism in Indian languages. This article is a concise attempt to do so and a beginning of a more elaborate research project. It reveals that The City is a crucial trope in the modernist poetry as the cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Mumbai have played a formative role in moulding of modernist sensibility in Gujarati. It briefly examined the tortuous affiliation of Indian modernism to its urban context with a specific reference to a handful of modernist Gujarati poems by poets like Adil Mansuri, Chinu Modi, Manilal Desai and Salil Parmar dealing with Ahmedabad. I sought to demonstrate how these poems intricately weave history, sociology and politics into their dense fabric to articulate multiple and often dissenting perceptions of cultural history of Ahmedabad and by extension Gujarat.
All translations in the article are mine. The poems of Adil Mansuri, Manilal Desai and Hasmukh Pathak are taken from ` Adhunik Gujarati Kavita’ ed. Suresh Dalal and Jaya Mehta, Mumbai: Sahitya Akademi 1989.I am grateful to my friend Piyush Thakker for procuring a copy of Chinu Modi’s poem for me. Sahil Parmar’s poem is from his collection `Mathaman’, Self published, Gandhinagar, 2004.
1. Dennis Walder ed. Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
2. EV Ramakrishnan, Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry’, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1995
3. Monroe K Spears, Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth Century Poetry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970
4. Raymond Williams, Modernism and the Metropolis. In Walder ed. 1990, p.166
5. -------------------------The Country and the City, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
6. Sahil Parmar, Mathaman. A collection of Gujarati poems. Self Published. Gandhinagar, 2004
7. Suresh Dalal and Jaya Mehta ed. Adhunik Gujarati Kavita’Mumbai: Sahitya Akademi 1989

The article appeared in New Quest, Pune, June 2009

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Virus Alert: Poems by Hemant Divate, translated from Marathi by Dilip Chitre, Mumbai: Poetrywala, 2004, pp. 76, Rs. 100/-

Is English translation of contemporary Marathi poetry a part of Indian English Poetry? Or does translation from non-English Indian languages occupy a separate compartment? Following this rather controversial query can lead us to the cultural sites haunted with spectres of history, sociology and politics. These spectres usually remain usefully masked and only reveal themselves at uneasy moments in intensive discussion of Indian Poetry appearing in English. The unequal status of Indian Writing in English vis a vis writing in other Indian languages mirrors the asymmetrical and hegemonic status of English language in India and this discrepancy surfaces when we probe deeper into the ideological sore.

If one examines ` Virus Alert’ poems by Hemant Divate, one of the prominent contemporary Marathi poets, translated into English by Dilip Chitre in the context of these old haunting debates, it will offer us fresh insights into tortuous relation between poetry and politics.

If we are to hypothetically consider English translation from the bhashas at par with Indian Poetry in English, a collection like ` Virus Alert’ is a rarity in Indian writings in English. Going by the canons of Indian English poetry, something like

` Dhullu is switching the TV on and off with the remote

He’s telling me to switch on one channel after another

Till his favourite channel is found

Any moment soon after

He begins to hate the channel..(p.2)

Would be considered `too loose’, ` too direct’ and less informed by the Anglo American modernist aesthetics of formal precision, irony and mythopoetic imagery. The chances of a longish, directly confessional and often flat poetry like that of Virus Alert of being rejected by the established canons of Indian English poetry are great.

Yet one cannot fail to acknowledge that there is something unsentimentally honest and humane in these poems which make them attractive in spite of being ` quite different’ from the `acceptable’ norms of Indian poetry in English. The themes of the poems as well as their treatment differ from the ones usually found in Indian poetry in English.

Chitre in his Foreword suggests that anxiety and panic seems to be the most common themes of Virus Alert. However, it seems that the central theme of the collection seems to me is inability to come to terms with what the City like Mumbai has done to you:

“ One is just a domesticated animal kept by this city

The one that sniffs around the city the whole day long

Day by day

One’s turning into a fuckin’

Unprinted roll of newsprint thats found defective

Or the key number in the material of an ad

A pimp, a pimp, a pimp...( p.12)

Or consider how the poem whose title says it all ends:

“ and Hemant Dayanand Divate

Belongs to no one anymore

He belongs to the e-universe

And here too he gets waylaid and screwed

But he hardly lets out an `e’ from his mouth

He utters` Aai-ee-ga!’

(And here too he gets screwed, p.19)

The metropolis of Mumbai transformed by globalization transforms the speaker, who sometimes signals his intimacy with the poet, into something he never was. It decontextualizes him, uproots him, dehumanizes him and what is left is only the memories of thirty one years.

The speaker is always afraid of losing his individuality, not to mention his sanity, under the cultural bulldozer of globalization:


Am forgetting


No trace remains

Of colour, form, speech, touch, or meaning

To me

There does not remain

God, parents, relations

No remainder

Like caste, class, religion, nationality, language, script

Breath, mind, body and soul

I am reaching out

Beyond birth and death

I don’t know



The standardization and homogenization of culture that globalization threatens people is a real danger, especially for the poets.


While reading the poems of contemporary poets

You do not

As the blind in the parable

Of Chakradhara do

Feel the whole elephant

But feel it as though it were a piller, a wall, and so forth

And therefore perhaps

If a poem

By one of you is

Passed around as anyone else’s

It wont add a whit

To language.


The speaker is paranoid and self obsessed hypochondriac who worries about poetry being bedridden in this time of great cultural crisis.

The Poem Should Not Be Bedridden

Word constipated poem

Its skin’s become prickly

Its restless, itchy

Slowly, its sores will fester

Begin to stink as well

Language languishing as through under a curfew

Words silent as though prohibited from assembling

With this sort of strict patrolling

One cant even curse meanings



The sense of urgency, fear and the feeling of being a misfit in the culture pervades Hemant’s poetry. Unfortunately the poetry written in English is too busy trying to conform to the modernist conform to sense this cultural `emergency’ and voice the dilemma of the person trying to cross the street of contemporary Mumbai.

The contemporary poetry translated from non-English Indian languages will often be loaded with concerns, which are not merely aesthetic or academic. Though both Indian Poetry in English and Indian Poetry in English translation use the same medium of English language, they exhibit distinct texture, styles and obsessions. Though the chances of poetry like that of Hemant’s remaining on the margins of the Indian poetry in English, the very accessibility of such poetry in English is bound to affect the sensibility of Indian readers of poetry in English. A point to be noted is that both these traditions can co-exist and something fruitful may emerge from mature and unprejudiced interaction among them.

Hemant’s poetry will definitely appeal to younger readers of poetry in English translation for its freshness and unsentimental directness.

This Review Appeared in The Dhauli Review, Sept 2008

Readability as Conformity: The Politics and the Commerce of English Translations from the Indian Languages

One of the substantive differences between a serious literary publication and a commercial one is the attitude it has towards its readers. What separates a serious literary publication from other types is whether it merely caters to its own idea of `what the readers want’ or it considers its readers as intelligent discriminating people willing to explore various alternatives. It refuses to take the reader for granted. The other essential difference lies in its attitude to the writers and their writings. Both these aspects are of course interrelated. The question is of the commercial facet of publication. The question here is regarding certain extremely prestigious publications professing serious literary concerns while they are actually interested only in their calculations of profit and loss. The issue becomes very striking in the context of publishing literary translations from Indian languages. It revives the long-familiar deliberations about politics of English in India, but in the context of `marketing’ these translations.

The editors of these prestigious English-language publications recklessly impose `stylistic modifications’ on the translations from the ‘regional languages’ of India so as to make them more `suitable’ for their readers. Interestingly, these editors have hardly any knowledge of the source languages or the processes of translation, or even of the aesthetics of literary genres. They feel that they are making translations more `readable’. However, what one means by `readable’ or `natural’ is the question not many of these editors would like to pursue. Linguistically, whether there is such a thing as a single `natural’ English register even where English is the first language is a question that one would like to ask before asking whether there is a single universal `natural’ English register in the world. Today, when we are talking of Englishes rather than a single `English English’, asking for conforming to one subjective perception of `natural English’ is nothing more than neo-colonial arrogance. While I admit that editors have the right to proofread the text for grammatical `errors’ (a question equally vexed) or point out (not change but suggest changes) the existence of clich├ęs and idiomatic oddities, I believe that changing the imagery, syntax, lexis, paragraph sequences, descriptive passages without any knowledge of the source text and the aesthetics of form is nothing less than the perpetuating of a tyrannical colonial mindset by the twenty-first century brown sahibs and memsahibs. I believe English is very much an Indian language but the Indians who speak English have yet to learn how to treat the other languages as equals.

However, there is another side to this story as well. As every translator of Indian literature into English knows, a great many writers in Indian languages, though they may be vehemently opposed to the oppressive presence of English in India are, in fact, exceedingly eager to get their works into English. The thirst for instant fame and the desire for some sort of `international’ recognition make many of the writers submit to this editorial colonialism. After all, exploitation is a two handed game. Very few writers are willing to stand up and resist the editor’s policy of such a `back-seat’ translating. However, not every writer is so timid as to compromise with his or her art. And the case of Nazir Mansuri and Mona Patrawalla becomes particularly significant in this context.

Nazir Mansuri and Mona Patrawalla are two young and brilliant Gujarati fiction writers. They are marginalized in Gujarat not only because they belong to the minorities in Gujarat but also because what they are doing is something radically new in the Gujarati literary context. Both these writers are exceptionally meticulous about their craft and aesthetics of the form of fiction. They give great importance to literary and stylistic aspects of their craft such as imagery, symbolism, paragraph sequences, and the structure of their stories. Both these writers are remarkable in their artistic use of locale, dialects, and their knowledge of subcultures. Nazir writes about a small fishermen community in Diu and Mona writes about the Parsis and the interior villages like Vasda in South Gujarat. Though their stories are mythopoetic, they are extremely realistic in their descriptive style. They write with deep knowledge about the rural areas and their stories have a very indigenous texture to them. Though both of them are influenced by some version of nativism, they are thoroughly modernist in their treatment of their themes. They are also postmodern in the sense that they are aware of the shortcomings of Indian modernism and move beyond it. Their stories reveal their aesthetic employment of myths, symbolism, and archetypes without ever losing their realistic mode. They are extremely bold in their depiction of the existential dimension of sexuality. Homosexuality, obsessive desires, and illicit relationship often come under their lenses. Both these writers use cinematography-like devices in their narrative technique. A good reader is able to identify layers and layers of mythical, historical, and existential meanings in their texts. No wonder they are marginalized in Gujarat. Translating these writers is a great challenge even for a native speaker of Gujarati. These stories are very difficult for the urbanized Gujaratis as well as those who have no knowledge of the archetypal and symbolic modes of narrative fiction. I have managed to translate these writers merely because I was lucky to have them beside me. While translating these writers, I tried very hard to retain all the things mentioned above like technique, aesthetics, native textures, and dialects and so on in some form.

Mona Patrawala very spiritedly rejected a very prestigious award for translated Indian fiction in English because the editors insisted on sticking to their `version of the story’ though they had absolutely no idea of the source text and they hardly understood what is meant by the aesthetics of narrative. Thanks to their own class, regional, and caste location, they wanted the story to be more `urbanized’ and `urbane’, something that these stories are definitely not. What they meant by `natural’ English was, I suspect, some metropolitan variety of Indian English, irrespective of the fact whether this idiom represented the source text in some form or not. They insisted on this sort of idiom because they thought their readers are like them: ignorant of the other interior Indias and ignorant of artistic aspects of the narrative mode. Mona Patrawalla and her nominator for the award, Nazir Mansuri, threw away the award because the version they wanted to see published was not the one their editors wanted to publish---something that other Indian writers in regional languages rarely do. This experience was repeated when another smart-looking metropolitan `literary’ journal published a tampered and doctored translation of Mona’s story. When she and Nazir, who also had contributed his story, protested and demanded that the other stories should be published with doctoring, they received a curt reply from the memsahib saying that the magazine has rights (given to them by the ex-rulers of the British Raj, I suppose) to make `necessary stylistic modifications’ in the interest of the readers. To an extent, they may be right, for they may be thinking of their readers as belonging to the same location and ability as readers of Ms. Shobha De.

New Quest, on the other hand, is publishing two stories, one by Mona Patrawala---the version which she finds acceptable, and a story by Nazir Mansuri, because it has faith in the intelligence and ability of its readers. Mona Patrawalla has rejected the earlier draft of the same story that appeared in another magazine.

Before concluding, I would like to comment as a translator and a theorist on certain theoretical issues involved in this question. As a literary translator, I believe that my editors should have reasonably good knowledge of aesthetics, literary devices, and ideological debates and so on and if they do not know the source language and the text, they should have faith in what I am doing. As a translator, I aim for approximate equivalence not at the level of word but at the level of poetics. I believe these editors are simply ignorant of such things.

I also recommend two ideas for serious consideration by the editors of so-called literary publications. The first is Professor Lawrence Venuti’s radical position as propounded in Translator's Invisibility (1995). He critically examines history, politics and economics of the norm of nativization of the translated text in order to make it appear as if it were originally written in the receptor language, to make the translator `invisible' and marginal. He examines historically how the norm of fluency prevailed over other translation strategies to shape the canon of foreign literatures in English. He makes a strong case for `foreignness' and `awkwardness' of the translated text as a positive value in the evaluation of translation.

The other idea that I would like these editors to think about comes from a great German hermenuetician Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). He says that there are two ways of translating: ` Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader towards the writer or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer towards the reader' and favours the first method which emphasizes the idea of drawing out the readers from the linguistic world they inhabit. I believe that the first method is radical and the other one is commercial. Though I am not suggesting that one should publish awkward and unreadable translations, I believe that if the editors do not know the source language and the text, they should have faith in what the translator is doing, however `awkward’ it is, in the interest of the source text. I am also suggesting that in a serious literary work, the things like paragraph sequences, descriptions, imagery, textures, and other artistic aspects of the source work have a very important function in the totality of the target text. If the editors do not know such things then they should stop calling themselves editors of literary publications.


Schleriermacher, F. 'from "On the Different Methods of Translating" Translated by Waltraund Bartscht.' in R.Schulte and J.Biguenet (eds.) 1992.pp.36 -54

Schulte, R and Biguenet. J. (eds.) Theories of Translation: An anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1992.

Venuti, L. The Translator's Invisibility: A history of translation. London and New York: Routledge, 1995

_______ `The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference.' London and New York: Routledge, 1998

This article appeared in New Quest , A quarterly journal of participative inquiry, Mumbai, April June 2005