For someone who is a little invested in the working of the government affairs, Bibek Debroy is no stranger.
For someone who is a little invested in the working of the government affairs, Bibek Debroy is no stranger. One can only safely assume that the economist, who was a professor at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and then a member of NITI Aayog, the Planning Commission’s successor organisation, is a busy man. But the 61-year-old lives a not-so-secret life as a writer and a translator.
In 2009, he took up the mammoth project of translating 90,000 shlokas of Ved Vyas’s Mahabharata into 10 volumes. His latest book, Harivamsha, is an epilogue to the 10 volumes that he says “should be read only after one finishes reading the entire epic”.
The first question that would pop up in anyone’s mind would be the secret on how Debroy maintains the fine balance of being an important economist by day, and translator by night. “I translated the Mahabharata during my tenure at CPR. It was much easier then,” says Debroy.
He adds, “I cannot put a finger on when exactly I started liking the classical Indian texts. Perhaps that had happened as a culmination since my formative years in childhood. But that’s a matter of my subconscious, I cannot tell,” he says calmly. “But Pune, definitely played an important role,” he points out. “It was during my stint at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune (’83-’87), that I came to know about the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata,” he explains.
He has dedicated his latest book to Prakash Javadekar, the current minister of Human Resource Development. “I have known him for a long time, and he is from Pune, the city to which I owe this project,” he says.
The 10 volumes of the Mahabharata and Harivamsha, he says, was a task of immense discipline and hard work. “These volumes have an estimate of about 2.25 million words, and it took me about five years to complete. I would dedicate my evening to the translation and my everyday goal was to write about 1,000 to 2,000 words,” he says.
Earlier, he warmed up to translation by working on parts of the Mahabharata and also the Ramayana. Some aspects of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were published in 1990, and in 2006, he released a translation of The Bhagavad Gita. “I had never studied Sanskrit formally. So the only way I learnt was by plunging into the work. I wasn’t very happy with my earlier works. They might do well in the market, but they are of poor quality. But with the 10 volumes I was confident,” he says adding that translating Sanskrit to Bengali (his mother-tongue) was much easier than into English. Speaking about Harivamsha, he says, “This is a conclusion to the project. And similar to the rest of it, I have tried to be as authentic as possible to the text, even though it means that sometimes English might be a bit artificial,” he says.
“Basically, Harivamsha gives the background of Krishna, whose miraculous life and wondrous exploits are recounted in vivid detail. In offering a glimpse into Krishna’s life — as a mischievous child, as an enchanting lover, as a discerning prince — the text sheds light on many questions, which were left unanswered in the Mahabharata. It is supposed to be read as an appendix,” he explains.
After speaking for another few minutes ranging from academic to quotidian, on how he chose not to use diacritical marks in his translations to how Sanskrit as a language is seeing a revival, it was only safe to leave the man attend to his daily routine. Currently, he is working on translating Valmiki’s Ramayana. “But these days I find it difficult to dedicate time. I write only while I am travelling, when I am in hotels or on flight,” he says. On a normal weekday, his work starts at 9.30 am to a time, which he says remains open ended.