Book Reviews

A Legendary Writer’s Colossal Task

Authors Press, New Delhi, 2014
ISBN: 978-81-7273-774-0, hard bound, pp 171
price Rs.600/- $30.

The Book ‘Regional Language Fiction in English – Transformative Essays on Literary Translation’ authored by Dr VVB Rama Rao is the first of its kind book in which he puts together essays on English translations of novels by different individuals in twelve major Indian languages with diverse themes, just like a luscious feast with a variety of desserts. The author says that this book is only a beginning, intended to enhance activities towards national integration and he plans to cover other languages as well in similar volumes to follow.

The author Dr VVB Rama Rao (b.1938), a retired ELT profesional is well known to the literary world who has enriched our literature with more than fiftys books in various genres, both in English and his mother tongue besides scores of essays and book reviews. He lives in Noida, UP and can be reached at

The author says that this work is not a literary criticism or assessment; rather he calls it pre-reads or appetizers in the manner of previews of films. It is a fact that for people, translations are the only way to read and appreciate regional languages, as one cannot be expected to know more than two or three languages. Literary translations gain importance in the sense that they help to achieve wider readership and thereby achieve deeper and greater appreciation of the regional literatures. To promote international understanding of Indian literature, literary translations are essential and to create an interest in the readers for such translated works, these types of pre-reads help a lot. This is a great initiative to roll them out flat and the author needs to be lauded for the huge effort and the meticulous planning of the contents divided in fourteen parts.

A glimpse into the contents: The first novel, set in the British rule regime, ‘The Man from Chinnamasta’, is a translation from the highly renowned Assamese litterateur Indira Goswami’s (better known as Mamoni Raisom) Asomiya novel ‘Chinnamastar Manuhto’ translated by Prashant Goswami. It deals with animal sacrifice intended to appease goddess Kamagiri, a temple of Sakta cult, where it is believed that Sati Devi’s yoni fell to earth after her self-immolation at Daksha’s sacred fire. The story portrays deep rooted superstitions and ignorance of the people and spins around the main protagonist Chinnamasta Jatadhari, who puts an end to the vicious campaign i.e., the mindless cruelty to animals, through his veritable crusade. To quote from the story, the propaganda of the protagonist goes like this, which I capriciously reproduce here: “Don’t panic. Taking life is easy. Those trying to wipe out this bloody ritual must be prepared to sacrifice their own blood.’ This article engages the readers deeply and one can feel quite in the swim throughout.

The second one is on Bani Basu’s remarkable Bengali novel Kharap Chhele (2001) translated by Nandini Guha in 2007 as Dark Afternoons, a sociological novel which deals with the social evils of prostitution, again a very engaging piece of work. The novel progresses with the trials, tribulations, and the denial of education for girls who are the inhabitants of Sonagachichi. The realistic descriptions of the lives of prostitutes will leave a long lasting influence in the readers’ minds. Insufferable male domination, cruelty, devilry and the utter helplessness of poor women - all these have been brought before the readers remarkably well by Dr VVB Rama Rao in this article.

The third is the Dalit novelist Joseph Macwan’s award winning novel Angaliyat in Gujarati, translated to English titled ‘The Stepchild’ in 2004 by Rita Kothari, which deals with untouchability and the ugly battles among Vankars, weavers in Ratnapaar and the upper caste Patels and Thakores in Shilapaar. The story deals with how, at the very end, the underprivileged Vankars grow to the heights of principled living. Mr. Rama Rao is hugely successful here in portraying the characters and the nuances of the story in his own graceful way.

The fourth in the series is Mridula Garg’s Hindi novel ‘Anitya’ , in the piece Halfway to Nowhere (1970) translated into English in 2010 by Seema Segal under the title ‘Deliberation and Discernment’, is a powerful piece of work. The novelist takes the narration forward and backward filling it with the inward musings of various characters and makes the readers think. The interior monologues of the important characters reveal the depth of the novelist’s cerebration. The following line summarizes this novel, says Dr. Rama Rao, “Ten steps forward … ten steps back … forward again … nowhere to run to …the nails were not in the chair but in the (his) flesh” .

The Kannada novel by Srikrishna Alanahally ‘Pasanagada Gendethimma’ translated by P.P. Giridhar as ‘Gendethimma’ is the fifth in the series, set in the early post-independent India that depicts rural life of three Karnataka villages and creates a whole way of life , its ethos, beliefs, festivals and cast structure.. The simplicity and guilelessness of the main protagonist Gendethimma and the sexuality of the female character Maranki, one who has no idea of morality, are both realistic and this article in itself is a great teaser.

The renowned Malayalam novel ‘Pandavapuram’ by Sethu translated by Prema Jayakumar comes next, which amply consummates the novelist’s skill of narration. The book is an extraordinary work, if I have to quote V C Harris in its introduction: “A typical Sethu text which plays with the real and the unreal in such a way as to create a kind of ‘magical realist’ effect, but a magical realism that is steeped in local legends, myths, folk beliefs and practices.” The story is about Devi, a wronged woman who had no other go except living in a world of fantasy. To put the essence of the story in a nut-shell, I quote K.P. Appan, “The main protagonist Devi’s fantasies are a searing critique of the institution of monogamy on the one hand and on the other, an expression of her desire to time-travel back to a tribal past where polyandry is believed to be the norm rather than an aberration.” Indeed the story is a compelling read as this article rightly aims at.

Gauri Deshpande’s Marathi novella ‘Nirgati’ translated by Shashi Deshpande titled ‘Deliverance’, is the eight in the series with a curious beginning, skillful narrative technique, unique characterization, dialogues, and seems to have been written with a clear purpose to demand an equal man-woman relationship. It is a story about mothers and daughters and about motherhood. The protagonists are intelligent, rational, thinking women whose ideas about themselves and about relationships are out of the ordinary. The novelist Gauri Deshpande wants the women to realize their full potential and make their own space and the article amply aids in popularizing this lingo.

Sarojini Sahoo’s Oriya novel ‘Gambhiri Ghara’, in English translation by Mahendra Kumar Dash as ‘The Dark Abode’ glorifies the power of sexuality. Kuki, a Hindu married woman of India, tries to rectify Safiq, a Muslim Pakistani artist, a libertine in real life, to keep him from perversion and from becoming a sexual maniac. She convinces Safiq that lust is like the insatiable hunger of a caterpillar. But gradually they become involved in love, lust and spirituality. Though this is not the central theme of the novel, its broad acceptance of sexuality caused many fundamentalists to react strongly, says the novelist. The minds of the central characters Kuki and Safiq are above the usual morality at a social or intellectual level. Sailing close to the wind, they exchange intimate personal messages of love and warmth, though not without troubles to both. The author concludes this article saying that ‘All said and done it is fantasy that keeps lives happy even with online love and longing’, which is not without truth.

Nativism derived from the concept of nationalism, which helps us to appreciate the necessity to look into our texts with deep insight to evaluate our creative writers afresh is the theme in the tenth essay in the series based on Gurdial Singh’s Punjabi novel ‘Parsa’ about the people of Malwa region and with authentic and native incidents, linear narrative, poems, parables, proverbs and adages. To quote one for example, ‘ Eat what the heart desires, wear what others approve’, - the essay more than serves as an instant boost-up to one’s curiosity to crazily grab the original story.

There are two Tamil novels figuring in this series, the first one being Sundara Ramaswamy’s ‘Oru Puliamarathin Kathai’, translated by S Krishnan as ‘Tale of a Tamarind Tree’, which is a remarkable piece of creative work and serves to present a web of human relationships with the central characters having a relationtionship with the tamarind tree either by being very near to it or in its vicinity. The second one is Indira Parthasarathy’s ‘Ashes and Wisdom’ translated from the original work ‘Vendhu Thanintha Kaadugal’ by Padma Narayan, a very interesting piece of fiction delineating what many think of modernity and contemporary social mores with psychological realism. The novel starts with Vimmi’s dreadful dream indirectly suggesting to her the inanity and insignificance of life. She hates her husband’s grandiose fancies, who does not see his inability to produce a child as a challenge, and instead behaves arrogantly. The novelist establishes here that high education, westernization and affluence make people violate, shed and even ridicule all social mores. With ample illustrations and skillful narration by the writer, this essay becomes a gripping read.

Like Tamil, two novels in Telugu are dealt with here. The first one titled ‘Jigri’ by Ashok Kumar ‘Peddinti’, is titled ‘Friends For Ever’ in English translation by P Jayalakshmi, and deals with the life of the poorest of the poor Muslims known as Kalandars, a nomadic community, who make a living by acquiring sloth bear cubs, trainng them to play and perform for the merriment of the young and old in villages and hamlets. Their lives are impoverished and they are made to suffer at the hands of the powerful and the rich. Readers of this touching piece would see men like animals and at least one animal, a sloth bear, as humane as a man. The second Telugu novel under study is the abridged version of Unnava Lakshminarayana’s novel ‘Malapalli’(1920) with a focus on social awareness and nativism and is considered a mega epic in Telugu, later abridged by Maruvuri Kodandaramayya. It has a tolerant understanding and joyful view of life. The author here has succeeded in showcasing the finer aspects of these literary gems in this essay.

The last essay is on ‘Basti’ by Intizar Husain in Urdu, in an English translation by Frances Pritchett, a powerful novel on partition of India and its aftermath. It is set in a number of places both real and imaginary with references to the rebellion of 1857, the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the wars between India and Pakistan in 1969, the division of Pakistan and Bangladesh and the India/East Pakistan and Pakistan in 1971. The political disturbances are the backdrop for the tribulations of the characters in the novel, which also have folk stories, epics and political turmoil people suffered in the past. The open ending of the novel is brilliant for the readers to think and decipher.

The writer has taken enormous efforts to put together English translations of novels by diverse hands from twelve major Indian regional languages in this book, an effort more or less the same and can be called an extension of the work to that of the Tamil writer Ms. Sivashankari’s “Knit India Through Literature”, in which she has worked on 18 Indian languages of the VIII schedule of Indian constitution, toiling for a good long fourteen years to bring out four volumes. E Nageswara Rao in his foreword is full of praise for her and Rama Rao for their pioneering works.

The author puts forth his wish in his introduction to the book that in the context of the much needed but unusual spurt in translation activity, it is essential for translators to have something like a set of guiding principles, if not a full-fledged theory in itself to suit both the source and target language texts. Let’s hope that this wish of his will soon be a reality with concrete efforts from the literary agencies.

The essays in this book are arranged as separate papers with introduction, the story line, author’s views on the underlying theme, contemporary literary scenario and challenges on such issues, conclusion and acknowledgement to works cited. One can see the extensive research work gone into this book from the list of works acknowledged. The language is pleasing and of high erudition. The in-depth knowledge of the author as a renowned litterateur is amply displayed throughout the book. His prowess to drive to the readers’ minds the focal point of his thoughts and interpretations in a credible language with examples is commendable. These pre-reads will largely help the literary enthusiasts to promote understanding of our Indian languages. The presentation of ideas is done in a coherent manner which will ensure the readers a pleasant experience while reading. This unique work of Rama Rao is a sight for sore eyes that serves as a testimony to the excellence of our regional language literatures aimed at bringing Indian literature wide international understanding besides being an excellent tool for national integration.


More by :  Pankajam K

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Views: 3381      Comments: 2

Comment Thanks Padmaja for your insightful comments and appreciation. A really wonderful work it is.

24-Feb-2015 23:48 PM

Comment Thank you Pankajam, for this excellent review of an unusual book of essays pertaining to translated works from 12 Indian regional languages. You have rightly said that like Sivasankari's 'Knit India', this is yet another effort in the right direction to promote and present works of writers of Indian regional languages to a wider cross section of readers. Kudos to Dr. Rama Rao for having conceived of such a compilation. Indeed this will go a long way in encouraging more translations of our regional language books, thus spreading awareness about the kind of writing going on in our regional languages.

Padmaja Iyengar
24-Feb-2015 12:34 PM

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