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“The Joy of Cultural Mixing”: Daljit Nagra on Retelling the Classic Ramayana in Punglish

By Samantha Schnee

In describing his 2007 poetry collection Look We Have Coming to Dover!, Daljit Nagra uses the term “Punglish,” which describes a linguistic mix of Punjabi and English. Since then, Nagra has continued to play with Punglish in his work, including in his Ramayana: A Retelling, a translation of the ancient Indian epic poem known as the Ramayana. In the conversation below, Nagra talks with WWB’s Samantha Schnee about bringing this classic text into an English characterized by humor, linguistic play, and multicultural references.

Samantha Schnee (SS): Your translation of the Ramayana is quite playful, employing nontraditional use of both syntax and vocabulary, in phrasings like “why was he from pearly-teeth drollery utterly departed” and even inventing new words like “indestructibilitiness.” What audience did you have in mind as you were translating? 

Daljit Nagra (DN): Like the retired British men of the empire who embarked on thousand-plus-page blank verse versions of the epic, I opted for a retelling that was longer than it might have been (though in my case it was only three hundred pages).

 The main reason being that my audience was the British, any British person. Diwali, which comes from the Ramayana, is a nationally recognized festival here, and children in primary schools dress up as Rama, Sita, Hanuman, and Ravana to enact the basic binary of good versus evil that is the staple of most versions of the Ramayana. Yet these children and their parents will probably know little else about the epic, so I felt that I should restore the narrative back to verse, but in a modern manner.


SS: Certain lines, like “riff-raff doolallys, famed hunger strikers and equality-wallahs,” made me think of third-culture kids—children who have grown up between a dominant home culture and that of a new homeland, in such a way that they don’t feel they fully belong in either place. Your translation employs certain very British English expressions like “bog-standard” and “bonkers"; were you intending to refresh this classic and make it more relatable to British children of Indian heritage?

DN: What got me excited about writing a version of the epic was that it exists in many forms, as prose, street performance, puppet show, sculpture, painting, comic yarn, and as verse. It’s a story in constant production and flux! I set myself the challenge to make the story malleable—I wanted to oscillate it between these various forms. This is my feeling for the epic, that it is no exclusive highbrow narrative, that it’s not similar to the versions by the British authors, whether it’s Hughes, Heaney, Logue, Armitage, or Oswald; they all offer serious, albeit wonderful, retellings of the past. I want my readers to really feel the excessive play of the story as it’s lovingly imagined in the oral tradition, not just experience its serious versions in prose and poetry. I hope teenagers as well as adults will get into the spirit of my extravaganza. After all, the epic in India is known by the educated and the uneducated alike; my mother cannot read or write, my father had some education, yet they both know the Ramayana. I’d suggest we don’t have a similar experience of the Greek or Roman epics in Britain.


SS: I read in one interview that you referred to the language of this translation as “Punglish"—a hybrid of Punjabi and English. Do you know if the term existed before you published your collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! in 2007? How much do you think your work has popularized it? 

DN: I wrote the word “Punglish” jokingly in that debut book, but to my surprise, it became a shorthand way to describe my writing, so I’m regarded as a Punglish poet. Some of my poems are about Punjabis living in Britain who speak little or no English. I wanted to capture their hectic voices in English, so I invented voices for them, a kind of imagined translation of how they might sound if they spoke English. I heightened that language because, of course, no one actually speaks poetically. I used plosives, unsettled syntax, disrupted grammar, and so on to give my characters a nobility and a roughness in English, ensuring their Punjabi sensibility was felt by the reader. I’m not sure how much my work has popularized Punglish, though I suspect this broadening out of English was inevitable and will continue with each ethnic community as it establishes itself here, or I hope so anyway, because that’s one way for language to refresh itself.


SS: We have a similar phenomenon here in the US—Spanglish. I recently read a fascinating article by Ellen C. Jones in her new book, Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas, in which she contemplates the Spanglish of Junot Diaz in his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which was also published in 2007). She argues that in that novel, “English becomes a marker of the arrogance and complacency of readers in the United States, tainted by its association with imperialism and foreign intervention”; was this part of your rationale for adopting Punglish for your translation? Or was it more of an aesthetic choice that you feel captures the liveliness and excitement of the original? 

DN: For me it’s a response to writing in Standard English, which I’m doing right now in this interview, but in my poetry I want to capture that sensibility of an in-between person who feels enriched to be in multiple spaces at once. My background is Indian, but I was born and grew up in England. I simply can’t write in Standard English, and on the few occasions I have, it’s merely to give the reader a break from the more robust styles I’m engaged in, such as colloquial English, Punglish, or a “Babu English” (a bureaucratic form of Indian English that is often described as florid or wordy). In Ramayana, I was after a brisk macaronic but largely colloquial style for the lively sections and a hybrid style for the quieter sections. I felt a different use of language was called for depending on the general aim of the section.

“I regard myself as a patchwork of traditions and forms.”

SS: I especially loved your use of humor in your translation, as when you titled the first chapter of Book 1 “I Need Some Heir!” Did the puns and humor come naturally as you were translating? Did you have to go back after you had completed the translation and add the humor in? Can you describe your translation process a bit?

DN: I felt humor was essential for my Ramayana. After all, I wasn’t writing a version based on one regional tradition. My bastardized version refers to many regions and nations for their Ramayanas, so my story relies on extreme play as it switches from one cultural tradition to another. I freely bring in characters from the Thai version alongside incidents from the Cambodian Ramayana and so on, while ensuring I keep to the central story. So this play could only be pulled off with the use of humor, to celebrate the joy of cultural mixing and interfusing of art forms which I believe is at the root of the Ramayana for the past thousand and more years.


SS: Your translation can also be quite bawdy in places (reminding me of some of Shakespeare’s funniest moments). Lines like “smacking hot lips plus bursting-out bounteous yet conically chiselled chest smackers” are brilliant. What was the original text you were working with here?

DN: I kept to the oldest possible traditions of the story because I imagined it being told for the first time to my British audience. Also, I wanted to get back to the oldest imagination I could find for this version. So no feminist or Marxist versions in my text! Instead, I read the usual stock descriptions for the women, for example, and sought a lively, modern way of describing these characters. After all, part of my aim was to retell the story so I owned something of the rich Indian tradition, so I knew where some aspects of my family values issue from; my parents are very superstitious and take events in the Ramayana and Mahabharata as actual records of gods who once resided in India. I freely roamed between written texts, as well any other art form that spoke of the Ramayana that I could find over a two-year period of intensive research. I spent a great deal of time at the British Library working through their vast hoard, as well as referring back to my memories of visiting the Punjab and experiencing the Ramayana in the village where my parents are from.


SS: This is an ancient work of literature that deals with the same themes as epics from many other cultures: What does it feel like for a god to become human? When should a king/leader swallow his pride? How important are ambiguous concepts like love, honor, and beauty? There are lessons embedded in the text, such as “Do not succumb to vanity violence, please,” and “Brothers all hugged and parted brothers.” I especially appreciated the list of “nine types of men who, if angered, cause ill,” and the monkey king’s remonstrance with Rama that “our monkey laws and ways are not human customs,” encouraging him to respect different cultural values. How relevant do you feel these ancient lessons are for the modern reader, and did you have this in mind when you chose to retranslate this classic? 

DN: Many of these instructions are central to the values of many modern Indians I know. Perhaps more so for my family, who were migrants to Britain and who, to some degree, froze their sense of Indian values to the time of their departure from India. Family honor remains a powerful concept in my background, as well as gender distinctions, rituals, prayer, loyalty, role of state, family ideals, and so on. Most of these ideals are explored in the Ramayana and have been historically adapted to suit each region, so the version from my Sikh background is different from the Hindu version of the Ramayana. The values inherent in the epics of India can be seen in their subtle and crude forms in my family, who either live in India or abroad, and some of those values continue in second and third generations abroad. I have not been a good Indian boy at all, but I know how I have failed in that role partly through the Ramayana.


SS: Like all ancient works, there are many versions of the Ramayana that differ significantly from one another. In Chandrabati’s Ramayan (translated into English by Nabaneeta Dev Sen), for example, the food that King Dasaratha’s three wives eat is mango, not rice. This raises the issue of “accuracy” in translation (though as with all literature that is oral in origin, I’m not sure how relevant the concept of “accuracy" is), and I wonder what you feel were the greatest poetic liberties you took in terms of straying from the original? I was curious, for example, about “the Bile Room, an annex part of the palace where you could cool off” (a wonderful concept—every home should have one!).

DN: I loved retelling the Ramayana because it feels like a multicultural text that has no beginning and will have no end. We do not have an original text or an original author, and the story exists in many forms, mostly noticeably as an oral version, which is why I loved embracing it: because I regard myself as a patchwork of traditions and forms. Its impurity suited my impure attitudes toward the English language. I also love that paradox of tradition, that it stays alive if it is updated, perhaps reinvented a little. The Ramayana is all about updating and retelling, perhaps more so than any classic text I’ve come across. Long live the Bile Room!

Daljit Nagra was born and raised in London. In addititon to his retelling of the Ramayana, he has published several much-lauded collections of poetry. 


Related Reading:

“Na Dem Dey Hunt Whales”: Onyinye Uwolloh’s New Moby-Dick in Nigerian Pidgin

“El Little Príncipe”—Translating Saint-Exupéry’s Classic into Spanglish

Linguistic Slapstick, Brutal Joy, and Profane Parrots: 18 Translators on Translating Humor

Published Feb 3, 2022   Copyright 2022 Samantha Schnee

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