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Translating Ananthamurthy is a political act: Vivek Shanbhag

The Kannada writer on comparing himself to the best of writers right from his first short story as a teenager, and how his day job at Hindustan Lever provided the seed of the story of 'Ghachar Ghochar'

Vivek Shanbhag in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint<br />
Vivek Shanbhag in Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

In English-language publishing, the new toast of the town is Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag. A translation of his novella, Ghachar Ghochar, by Srinath Perur has found him many new admirers among English readers. Ghachar Ghochar looks at a tight-knit middle-class family, and how a sudden increase in wealth imbalances their relationships. For readers of this work in English, there’s a bonus. Shanbhag has added a few key passages, including one where, after the narrator drops off his wife at the railway station, he returns home, opens her cupboard, and breathes in the smell he has come to associate with her. But as he picks up individual saris, the smell seems to recede. A translation, he says, is similar; only if you understand the whole will you be successful.

In an interview, Shanbhag explains why Ghachar Ghochar is successful in English, his early efforts not to write like Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal, and tells us about his translation of his father-in-law U.R. Ananthamurthy’s last book, Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj? Edited excerpts:

What did you think of Srinath Perur’s translation of ‘Ghachar Ghochar’?

I have myself done translations from English to Kannada. Also, I am working with Keerti Ramachandran to translate U.R. Ananthamurthy’s last book, Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj?, into English. So I have experience in translation. And in this particular case, it has worked very well because Srinath is also a creative writer. His mind works in a particular way, like a fiction writer. So he is excited by certain usages, certain possibilities.

A translation is not about getting the meaning of one sentence in another language. It’s about bringing that unsaid (element). That has happened well here. He has understood what the unsaid in Kannada is and has brought that in. If I look at (the English and Kannada versions), I feel they are two different works. Though sentence by sentence, it is the same thing in English, but it has to be born in that language.

How did this translation come about?

Many people have been asking me (to translate my works), but I never felt that I could get into a translation like this. Very few Kannada writers are engaged in their own translations. The only exception is Girish Karnad. (When I am translating a work), I always feel the need to have the writer next to me; it always helps. That is the reason why I have not got into this so far.

A lot of my stories were translated into English, but I have not really spent time (on it). This time I felt I must spend time with the translator, and we must really make it into something worth spending the time. When I met Srinath—I’ve known him for four-five years—I felt he’s probably the best person to do it since he is also a creative writer. I asked him, he was very happy; he had liked the story. And that is how it started.

Then it was all Srinath. He tried a few pages and we talked about it. The way he went about it, the first section or so, he did it again and again and again... he wanted to get that tone. Once he got it, he was comfortable.

And now Penguin Books USA will publish it internationally?

As far as I know, this is the first Kannada book to find a US publisher. This book is small, but it’s taken us 18 months, end to end. There is a lot of hard work in translation; it never ends. If I look at it again, I’m sure I will change a word here or there. (Writer A.K.) Ramanujan famously said of translations that he has never felt a translation is complete. He said, “I stop when I am tired of it."

And do you feel that is true of your fiction writing too?

No, till I feel it is complete, I won’t publish it.

You’ve been writing since you were very young…

I first published when I was 16-17 years old. My first story got an award in a competition, and when I was 22, my first book was published. It’s been 30 years of writing. And this is not my first book. After Ghachar Ghochar, I published a novel in Kannada. Apart from this, there are three other novels; it so happened that this is the one that is available in English. Otherwise, there is a bigger world of my writing.

You studied to be an engineer. So when did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was 14-15 when I felt I should be a writer. And I was convinced that I was a writer from my very first story. And I don’t know whether it was arrogance or confidence, at that time I was comparing myself with the best of writers, and trying to see where the gap is.

 And becoming an engineer, really it was a lack of exposure. I came from a very small place. Everybody went into science so I went into the science field. And everybody went into engineering; I got high scores, so I got a seat very easily. So it happened without me thinking much about it. But my professional career, once I started working, it interested me a lot. It brought me in touch with a lot of people. Ghachar Ghochar, for example, the seed of the story is when I went for my sales training with Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever). I went to some small places all across the country. Once, I spent a day with this salesman’s family. It was a tiny place and he took me to his house because there was no good hotel to eat. And I realized how close-knit that family was, so involved in what he was doing. That was the seed.

You are extremely well known in Kannada literary circles. How does this extension in the geography of your fame feel?

One is the fame (and) more people reading. But more important to me is the response of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different languages. A writer can learn from that. I value that feedback very much.

What’s the feedback you got for ‘Ghachar Ghochar’?

Somebody told me there is very little physical description of the narrator. And I had not got this feedback even from my Kannada readers.

Also, I have a set of readers in Kannada, I know how far I can go in terms of being subtle. I write in an environment, in a cultural context, so when I write, I evoke certain memories, I take certain things for granted. When it gets translated into English, that is also a challenge and (the response) also tells me how far I am successful. Going beyond language is always interesting.

But this is not my first experience going across languages. My stories have been translated into other Indian languages. But English is different. The kind of memories we share in Indian languages are common. It is not so with English. For example, some proverbs and phrases, a Malayali or a Tamilian may understand easily. That way, this is a new experience.

Several reviews of ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ have referred to it as an ‘Indian novel’. By that, they seem to be referring to this same shared experience and cultural context.

I have been writing about this kind of thing (a specific Indian experience) for many years. I grew up in a very tiny town in coastal Karnataka, a very beautiful place, and I studied in a government school, in Kannada medium. It is culturally very rich. What happens when you grow up in a small town, you have access to a lot of things in that town, you have access to every house. And children have access to everything. So that is a very rich world. That is one part of my life.

After my 17th year, I moved away. I lived and worked in different parts of the world, in different cities in India . So that is another world (that I inhabited), a world of liberalization, globalization, etc. I also worked for an FMCG (consumer goods) company, Hindustan Lever (I quit my job two months back to be a full-time writer. That has nothing to do with this book, I had anyway planned it that way).

All these things have, knowingly or unknowingly, given me exposure to what is happening to this country and I see it from a particular perspective. That experience of the last 20 years is what I have felt intensely; also I have seen the impact of the change in my hometown, how things are changing as a result of things which are taking place so far away. That is also probably one of the reasons for this (perspective).

Judging by this one book, it seems to be a pessimistic perspective.

Not really. Actually, if that is what you have felt, then I have not succeeded. In the sense I didn’t want to be judgemental about anything or with people or with anything. I am trying to just talk about that experience. Not to say it is good, bad, or that money is good or bad, I’m not saying that at all. I am just saying this is what happened. And even the relationships of people, it is very complex, it is not possible to point a finger and for me to say anything about them.

You’ve written short stories, plays and novels. Which do you enjoy the most?

I have written a lot of short stories and I have always enjoyed doing it. In the recent past I have started liking long writing. Apart from this, I have published three other novels. I like long writing because I feel we have a lot of space to go really deep. I’m not saying it’s not possible in short stories, but it’s limited by its size. A novel has enormous possibilities. In the recent past, I have stayed with this form.

But ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ was initially included in a collection of short stories.

Yes, this was a long piece. The publishers felt that it is better if I add other stories. So I added four-five other stories which were not very long. It was more to add pages to the book. Maybe I should not have combined, because what happened then was that the focus was lost because it was neither a story collection nor a novel. It was very odd.

Has your experience with Kannada and English publishers, too, been different?

It is different. There is no formal editing process in Kannada. And it is not that every publisher has an editor or a set of editors. Many of our writers, including me, we share what we have written with a few friends, and they respond. In my case, the publisher himself is my close friend and also a writer. I take their feedback very seriously.

Until recently, you had a day job as well, so do you follow a writing schedule?

Because of the day job, I had to find some way to do literature. And literature is not just about writing, it is also reading—I read a lot. For that I had to find some time. I get up very early in the morning, around 4.30am when everybody is asleep, so I get 3 hours—and 3 hours every day is a lot of time—when I read and write. That is the time I spend on literature, And that is how I have managed two lives. Because this gave me a lot of joy and I was passionate about it, I never felt it was a trouble to get up in the morning.

You are U.R. Ananthamurthy’s son-in-law. I believe you had a kind of fanboy moment with him when you were a teenager?

I first fell in love with him and then with my wife (laughs). I was very young, 17, when I met him. And till he passed away, we had a very close relationship.

Did he have a strong influence on your writing?

Not really, his was a different kind of writing. In fact I was more influenced by Yashwant Chittal, to whom I have dedicated this Ghachar Ghochar. And I had to struggle to get out of it. The reason is he is from my place; his hometown was just a few miles away from where I come from. And my mother tongue is Konkani, it is not Kannada. His mother tongue is also Konkani. So we shared a common culture, language and community. Hence his writing was a great influence.

I was 16-17, it was so easy to fall into that trap, to write like him and get recognized. Fortunately for me. I was aware that I was influenced by him, and I carefully worked on it. In those days, if I wrote something, then I would edit and cut out all the words he would use, all the phrases, the style he would use. I would change it, I wanted to get out of it. After some time, it was easy...

In the case of Ananthamurthy, this is not so. Also because I met him later in my life. Of course, he has influenced me in terms of many thoughts, we used to have many discussions on literature.

You were quoted somewhere as saying that his politics made you nervous. What did you mean by this? I hope I am not misquoting you.

The context is this: Some of the things that he said were almost so prophetic, and I was nervous that it should not come true. I was nervous in that sense. I was not nervous because of what he said.

And the reason was, I had explained an incident which was a long time back, during the Karnataka elections, two years before (H.D.) Deve Gowda became the prime minister. On the day of counting, Gowda came home and he spent almost 4 hours with Ananthamurthy, and the single-point agenda was to convince (former Janata Dal leader Ramakrishna) Hegde that he (Gowda) should become the chief minister. At that time, Ananthamurthy told Hegde that politics was going to change, there will be a void at the Centre. So it was almost prophetic, it came true.

So when he started talking about (Narendra) Modi, I felt that many of these people did not think so at that time. In that context, I said I was nervous. Similar thing he had said was about the Reddys (G. Karunakara Reddy and G. Janardhana Reddy) of mining, he was the first one to raise a voice against them, when nobody thought they were so evil and menacing. That is when I said I am nervous because I hope it doesn’t come true.

Are you as politically vocal?

Not as much as him. Every writer, we are into politics in some way or the other. Some express it directly, some do it differently. So to that extent, yes I do. I am very much into the thick of it. But I’m not as active as Ananthamurthy was. He has come from a different background, the socialist movement. I am not that kind of a person.

For instance, I am translating his last work, Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj? I think it is a political act even to translate it.

Has translating this been an emotional experience for you?

No, it is not emotional. While he was very much opposed to Modi’s politics, unlike what many people think or believe, this book was not against Modi. It is about the choices the country has made in the last 100 years. That is why it is called Hindutva Or Hind Swaraj? So he is really comparing the choices that we made with (Mahatma) Gandhi’s ideology and (Veer) Savarkar’s ideology. How all of us are responsible for the situation today, including himself. I think it is a very important book. It is not an academic essay, it is a creative response to a certain situation that the country is going through. That’s why I felt it important that it must be translated well.

It is a work of non-fiction but since he is a fiction writer, he has written it that way. It is also not easy to translate. What happens is that many times he throws lots of images, and I’ll give you an example. He says in some place that Medha Patkar and Teesta Setalvad did not loosen their pallu. I’m loosely translating it. In Karnataka, people who wear a sari, they tighten their pallu in a particular way when they work or when they fight. Now it is very difficult to translate this in English, it will not communicate what he is trying to say. As a result, what happens is that we can only translate the meaning of it, and the image is lost. These kinds of difficulties I have faced all through this translation.

Kannada has a vibrant literary environment. You contributed to it with your literary magazine, ‘Desha Kaala’. Why did you stop publishing it?

What happened was I did it for seven years, and as part of my job, I had to travel a lot: 15 days in London and 15 days in Bangalore. So I just couldn’t manage it. That’s why I stopped it. And now I don’t want to start because it is over. This was one phase and I did it with such intensity. I am very proud about what I produced in those 28 issues in seven years. I had brought in a lot of new writers, I got a lot of old writers to write. For example, I made Girish Karnad write his story, his autobiography was first published in Desha Kaala. So I made a lot of people write and I created a lot of excitement about literature. It’s all important for a literary environment. There was a lot of opposition for Desha Kaala also. So much so that somebody has also produced a book against it. If somebody has done that, it means it is important.

And coming to new writing, there are a lot of new writers. There’s Dalit writing, and second-generation Dalit writing, which is very interesting. There is gay writing, which is rare in Indian languages. Someone called Vasudhendra; again, I first published him in Desha Kaala. There are a lot of very good women writers. One can see a lot of energy.

The only thing lacking is the rigour required for writing and the craftsmanship. That has to be something the young writers need to spend a lot of time on and that is where hard work comes in. Publishing has become easy in Kannada, a lot of newspapers and a lot of space and opportunities to publish. If nothing else, they have space on the Net. But a writer doesn’t write just to get published. There is something more to it, that more comes with rigour. Personally, I value that a lot.

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