lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Author, author

In his preface to The Classical Groups: Their invariants and representations, Hermann Weyl said:

... the gods have imposed upon my writing the yoke of a foreign language that was not sung at my cradle…Nobody is more aware than myself of the attendant loss in vigor, ease and lucidity of expression.

Chandru tagged me to write about Indian writers I have read. What can you say anew about a topic you have already held forth several times on? If it is about books, plenty, as it happens.

Most urban Indians are lucky in that they grow up learning more than one language. We all have our mother tongues, and we all learn English. We learn other regional languages too, at least enough to get by with. For myself, I speak Telugu and English fluently, Tamil passably well and Hindi and Bengali atrociously. I can follow, or make sense of all south Indian languages even if I miss nuances.

Most of us read literature in more than one language too. We might start off reading children's literature in our mother tongue, and get an introduction to English literature in school. If we are inclined towards it, reading becomes more than just a hobby, it becomes a passion.

I have written earlier about my love affair with reading, about Telugu literature that made lasting impact on me, and my views on contemporary Telugu literary scene. But I haven't waxed eloquent on something Telugu literature has a rich tradition of: translation.

The first major work in Telugu, written about 1050 AD, Mahabharatam was a translation commissioned by king Raja Raja Narendra. Please thank me for refraining from chapter and verse and worse of literary history lessons, here. I will only say that since then, Telugu poets wrote on themes borrowed from Sanskrit classics or Puranas. They'd take an episode and develop it, and it wasn't until 1550 AD that the first original work, KaLaapoorNodayamu was written by Pingali Sooranna.

However passionate one is about reading, one can't hope to read all the great literature ever written in regional languages, there is just no way one can learn or acquire proficiency enough to appreciate literature in so many languages. This propensity to translate from other languages that Telugu writers have was a blessing for me, then. I read most of the great Indian authors in Telugu.

I read Kipling's Jungle Book first in Chandamama (don't say Kipling isn't an Indian author, I think he is). It was in that magazine too, that I read Bankim Chandra's Durgesa Nandini. Translations let me read his Kapala Kundala, and Sarat Chandra's novels and more.

I read K. Jaggaiah's translation of Tagore's Gitanjali long before I heard the more beautiful Rabindra Sangeet. I read Premchand in translation. I read Ghalib and Omar Khayyam in translation, too. I read Kannada writers, mostly Triveni, in Telugu. I read Sanskrit plays and classics in translated versions. I even read Jules Verne in Telugu before I read the English versions.

I had a buddy in college who read Tamil poetry out for me and explained nuances when I missed them. I can say that I heard, rather than read, Kalingattu Parani, Silappadigaaram and Manimekalai.

Later, my husband introduced me to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Qazi Nazrul Islam and other Bengali poets, reciting from memory and reading to me. He introduced me to Abol Tabol, that wonderful book of nonsense by Sukumar Ray, too.

When we have so many languages, it is a blessing that there are translators. I am indebted to them for introducing me to regional writers I'd never have read otherwise. But there are Indian writers too, who write in English. There weren't that many when I was young, and the regular names have all been referred to by other bloggers who have been tagged, so I will give RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond just a nod in passing.

Of the famous names, I'd like to mention Salman Rushdie specially. My paediatrician, who had interesting ways of dealing with over-wrought young mothers, introduced me to Rushdie and Midnight's Children. It was the third or fourth visit in a week that I'd made to his chambers with my baby son, so he rooted in his shelves, brought out a book and said, "Read this and relax. Forget your son for a while." It worked, too.

I loved Vikram Seth's Golden Gate, which is a marvellous book. I loved his Beastly Tales, too.

There is one author who sums up Indian writing in English for me, though. Nirad Babu. That man wrote brilliant prose, I tell you.

But there are too many Indian writers who write in English nowadays. It is not humanly possible to keep up with the names, let alone read them all. Like I always sigh when confronted with bookshelves and choices choices, choices galore, too many books too little time, alas.



Anonymous Ash said...

You didn't mention Rachakonda, Kodavatiganti, Chalam, Sri Sri, your father. Hurriedly done and incomplete piece. If Kipling is an Indian writer is Dalrymple one too? or Tully? Omar Khayyam and Ghalib aren't Indian writers either.

8:36 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ash- Yeah, yeah. Like I wanted to write my autobiography. The list is too long, for pity's sake! I think Kipling is an Indian author, so sue me. The piece is incomplete because it can't be completed. *stamps foot*

10:57 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

This is the fun post you promised? Mind boggles.

12:09 am  
Anonymous dipali said...

Ash, where do you think Ghalib is from? Born in Agra, died in Delhi, also lived lived in Calcutta for a while. For any self-respecting Dilli-wallah, what you just implied
is blasphemy!
Lali, I think your paediatrician was onto a good thing:)
I'm trying to think of you as that kind of mom:)

8:36 am  
Anonymous Ash said...

@Dipali- my mistake and I stand corrected.

That was downright snippy, Lali. In a snit, are you?

9:05 am  
Blogger Lalita said...

Rajesh- I had fun writing it, so there.

Dipali- Thanks. I refrained, but you pitched in. He was a great doctor, and yes, I used to be a panicky young mother, in those first months. :)

Ash- Yes.

11:48 am  

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