The keynote address by the Assamese writer Dhruba Jyoti Borah underscored that literature must be free from any kind of control.
The credibility of the Sahitya Akademi, the premier national body for literature, took a bit of a dent when prominent writers decided on an “award wapsi” move to express their dissidence against the policy of the establishment to put curbs on the writers whose views were considered unpalatable. This, coupled with a spate of bans on books by a somewhat ill-informed lower judiciary and the attacks on prominent writers like Kalburgi and activists like Dabholkar showed perhaps the establishment at its lowest ebb.
We attended the annual “Festival of Letters” of the Akademi this year curious to know how the Akademi had fared in the two years since the “award wapsi”. Moreover, we were now in the translations having established an imprint exclusively for translations from Indian languages into English and our author in Telugu had just been conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award for writing in Telugu.
I need not have worried. At the sessions spread over the week, writers and awardees expressed their concern over the inequities and social injustices prevailing in the society and their resolve to expose these through their writings. Many went on to say that through their stories they hoped to bring people of different faiths together and also promote tolerance and harmony. I was greatly privileged to speak to Chitra Mudgal, the awardee for Hindi this year. Her writings in favour of the downtrodden, oppressed and the marginalised are well known. In her “Face to Face” encounter she spoke of the apathy towards those who lived on the margins of society and of the lack of an effort to ameliorate their lot.
Speaking to me on the sidelines, she mentioned she was not against taking up the cudgels for the oppressed as an activist. In the course of this, she may embarrass the “powers that be”. If her views were considered unpalatable and officialdom made an effort to co-opt her as a spokesperson on its behalf, she would prefer to put down her pen and stop writing rather than serve as anyone’s mouthpiece. “There’s a bit of Perumal Murugan in all of us”, she said, referring to the noted Tamil writer who had said, “henceforth, Perumal Murugan as a writer is dead” when opposition and dissent was stoked after his book was translated into English. I was happy to see Ms Mudgal in conversation with, and being interviewed by students of the Indraprastha College, New Delhi. It’s hoped their interaction with the noted Hindi writer will sensitise them on social issues.
The keynote address by the Assamese writer Dhruba Jyoti Borah underscored that literature must be free from any kind of control. Speaking with anguish on the current dissent in Assam and the Northeastern states, he wondered why a premier body like the Sahitya Akademi, which was to promote literature and writing, had to bear the imprimatur of the government. The email address of the secretary of the Akademi was email@example.com and he was unhappy with this because the Sahitya Akademi had originally been visualised as an autonomous body.
The Kannada writer, also this year’s awardee, the octogenarian K.G. Nagarajappa in conversation with Asha Devi, voiced the same kind of fierce opposition to caste inequities and oppression.
Age had not dimmed his energy and forcefulness. Even Asha Devi remarked later to me that she marvelled at his energy even at this advanced age. She mentioned that his writings too were just like the way he spoke, incisive, sharp and cutting. Mr Nagarajappa was very comfortable speaking in English for the benefit of the audience who may not be conversant in Kannada and his sharp comments made an impact among the listeners, especially the younger members.
The “face to face” session with our author professor Enoch was also conducted in English. Mr Enoch has been a prolific writer in Telugu and has also been the former vice chancellor of the S.V. University at Tirupati. It was heartening to note that through his painstaking efforts, both in his university as well as in 10 other universities in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, Mr Enoch had been able to change the syllabus of modern Telugu. It was his membership of different boards of studies that enabled him to do this and in many cases, the syllabus had not been revised in 10 years. How many of us get a chance to change the way the language and literature of a subject we love is taught? Above all, Mr Enoch said to me, it was his stature and respect as a writer that enabled him to do this. Other writers in similar positions may well emulate his example.
There was a long panel discussion on “Translation — challenges and solutions”. Most speakers were of a consensus that the work of translators needed to be recognised and they should be compensated adequately. Mini Krishnan, who has pioneered the publishing of translations and the taking up of translations by major publishing houses along with Geeta Dharmarajan, lamented that moving away from the “three language formula” in education, has led to children forgetting the language learned at home. She emphasised that this relentless quest for expertise in English should not be at the cost of forgetting one’s own mother-tongue.
Ms Krishnan also spoke of the translator’s painstaking and relentless quest for finding the right word in the translated language that best expresses the original. “Sometimes they spend weeks agonising over this one word’, she said. This finding “le mot juste” (the right word) as the French would say, was echoed by the Hindi writer Puran Chand Tandon. He was engaged in translating works from Punjabi into Hindi. Punjabi though, was no longer spoken in his home and he had painstakingly learned it and now was comfortable in reading it and translating it into Hindi. He had come across a term in Punjabi that referred to the system of harvesting. When the migrant labourer had harvested the crop, a section of the field was left untouched by the landowner. After the harvest was over, the labourer was allowed to harvest this and keep the produce for himself. Mr Tandon had been searching for months now and had yet to find the right word in Hindi that would adequately convey the meaning of this practice. There seemed to be no reference to this practice in Hindi literature at all.
“But rest assured”, said Mr Tandon, “I will find the correct word in Hindi!” Needless to say, till this was done, the Punjabi work would remain untranslated into Hindi!
Kudos to the Sahitya Akademi for all arrangements and logistical support. It was easy for literature lovers to access their favourite writers and speak to them. Most writers were quite free and frank in their views. To encourage the audience to spend as much time at the festival, the organisers had made adequate arrangements for lunch for everyone. This included free dispensation of tea and coffee which was welcomed by everyone, especially those travelling from outside and not used to the temperatures in New Delhi. I was particularly heartened to know that lunch arrangements were made for the support staff too. I only wish we could get more of our student population to participate. They would surely benefit.
The last word should be with my colleague who is the executive editor of our translations imprint. He had some books, which he had to return to the Akademi library. In the morning, he had been a little worried in case his “books wapsi” should be mistaken for an “award wapsi”! By the end of the day, however, he was greatly relieved. “Even if so”, he said, “I am in eminent company.”
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books