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Flinging Open Literary Doors: A Dispatch from the 2018 ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

By Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat attended and presented at the 2018 ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, which took place January 25–29 in Jaipur, India.

Early in 2017, I made a resolution to read largely, if not only, in translation. I wish I hadn’t needed to, of course. I wish that this practice came easily, effortlessly to me. But given my education, with its strong Anglo inclinations, I’d been exposed mainly to certain writers (read: white, usually male), and I’d been mostly reading the same types of work into my adult life. No more, I thought, I’m flinging my literary doors and windows open. And it was a wonderful year of discovery, one I enjoyed so much that “reading in translation” has become, I’m happy to report, a resolution for life. This literary festival season too, I vowed I’d keep an eye out for sessions on “regional” literature and translation. 

At the Jaipur Literature Festival, though, it is difficult to keep any vows, no matter how resolute.

With massive crowds surging through Diggi Palace, you can end up wherever you happen to be swept along, grateful for a seat, grateful to be alive. In this way, I find myself at (the fringes of) Helen Fielding’s session on the front lawn where she’s happily telling a massive crowd how she first came to India years ago “as a hippie.” I catch bits of banter between novelists Amitava Kumar and Manu Joseph talking about their new novels. “Everyone,” says Manu, “can have sex but not everyone can fall in love.” The crowd erupts into cheers and applause. I listen in on the star-studded session on Manto, with actors Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui discussing their new movie on the Urdu writer. Why Manto, Das is asked? “Because he chose not to define humans within the constraints of national and religious identities.”

Image: The crowd at one of the panels. Courtesy of ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival/Teamwork Arts.

In between events I retreat to the relative calm of the author’s lounge to recuperate over coffee and chat with writer friends, old and new. It’s January 26, India’s Republic Day, and so here discussion revolves around the national holiday being “dry” (read: “no alcohol”). A cluster of worried writers stand around sans glasses-in-hand, plotting.

“Check your mini-bar?”

“I did, but the bastards have emptied it.”


Outside the lounge, the sessions continue regardless.

Image: Rita Kothari, Tridip Suhrud, Abhijit Kothari, and Vikrant Pande. Courtesy of ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival/Teamwork Arts.

I sit in on one titled “Itihaas: Translating Historical Fiction” with Gujarati academics and translators Abhijit Kothari and Rita Kothari, and Marathi translator Vikrant Pande, in conversation with Tridip Suhrud. The discussion circles around Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, writer and independence movement activist, and his role in building a “Gujarati identity” through his work; as well as Ranjit Desai, best known for his historical fiction novels Swami and Shriman Yogi Shivaji, which portray the seventeenth-century warrior king Shivaji Maharaj. The conversation takes an interesting turn, not so much because they’re discussing what the title suggests, but how “history” is rewritten through literature and popular media to suit—and worse, “entertain”—a contemporary audience. Shivaji, for example, a great military strategist but vicious plunderer, is now celebrated almost as a demi-god through Jaanta Raja (a spectacle of a historical play based on Shivaji’s life that’s had a run of more than 700 shows). “It’s good entertainment, perhaps,” says Kothari, “but we can’t forget history.”

Translations in particular, by allowing us to read literatures we might not have had access to, help us realize what was missing in our view of the world.

Across the venue, also playing to a packed audience, are politician and writer Shashi Tharoor, poet and dancer Tishani Doshi, and authors Vivek Shanbhag and Suki Kim, in conversation with editor and publisher Eric Akoto about the power of fiction across borders and of translation. Here, the discussion begins with literature and resistance. Kim discusses how, particularly with books in translation, readers can transport themselves elsewhere and identify and fall in love with characters who come from different parts of the world. “And that ultimately is the magic of political resistance,” she says. 

“What is gained,” asks Akoto, “when your work is translated?”

“A new audience,” quips Tharoor.

Shanbhag brings up the point that literature is about “specifics” and that, through fiction, the “general” or stereotypical view of a person, a community, is dissolved. Translations in particular, by allowing us to read literatures we might not have had access to, help us realize what was missing in our view of the world. For Shanbhag, translations are useful for writers as well: “It is very good for a writer to go through a translation of his work, because when we write, we take so many things for granted. And at the time of translation, when it passes through that gate, we realize how much of that was unnecessary—how much of what we’ve taken for granted, which was hidden, which can’t pass that gate. And you feel really helpless. So what actually goes across is something that’s not different, but is the essence of the book. It’s a big lesson for a writer.” He adds, laughing, “It’s a big blow to his ego.”

Image: Eric Akoto, Tishani Doshi, and Vivek Shanbhag. Courtesy of ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival/Teamwork Arts.

Shanbhag returns to this idea of the “essence” of a book in another session, “The Writer and the World,” with copanelists Maya Jasanoff and Markus Dohle in conversation with journalist Nikhil Kumar. Shanbhag is asked by Kumar to speak about the experience of having his book Ghachar Ghochar translated, and how to recreate the magic that Shanbhag feels while writing in Kannada. “The magic I was talking about,” he says, “is at the heart of a book, and when you translate a book, what you really have to take is not the meaning of each sentence but what is unsaid in the book. If you don’t do that, then we will only be translating words.” While working with a translator, he said, he wasn’t explaining what a word meant, but rather his intention behind using certain words, because words have “memories.” And translation is all about this: when you read a book, what memories does it evoke in you?

Some of my favorite sessions take place outside the festival venue. That evening, after a bonfire dinner at a friend’s place, I head back to the hotel with Sam Miller, a writer and translator from French to English; Manu Joseph; and Nepalese-Sikkimese writer Prajwal Parajuly. It’s after midnight, we discover, which means the Marriott’s 24-hour coffee shop will have resumed serving alcohol. We’re joined at our table by filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. We’re in joyful spirits now that wine and whisky flow easy, and conversation steers toward books, the day’s sessions, and whether we should order a plate of assorted cheese. At one point, we’re also talking about language, and how we render, in fiction and film, those who do not speak the language in which we write. For Kashyap, this is impossible to imagine: “I couldn’t make a film set in a lower-middle-class home in North India where they all speak English.” It would ring false, he claims, and be entirely inauthentic. The writers at the table are more divided—some, including me, make a plea for their books, saying that since literature is a less “visual” medium, it perhaps doesn’t throw up the same problems as film. The arguments fly fast and furious, and even though no resolutions are reached, it’s late. We finish our drinks and assorted cheese and amiably amble off to our rooms. Tomorrow, as always, there will be time for more conversation.  

Published Feb 15, 2018   Copyright 2018 Janice Pariat

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