Regional literature deserves more attention

rakhshanda-jalilDr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays.

In a conversation with Kabuliwaala Kamal Pruthi, Rakhshanda Jalil delves deep into the history and shares her very first encounter with the literary world, her childhood exposure and love for Urdu, and her current professional preferences as a writer. Going further she shares the agenda of  Hindustani Aawaz, and talks about the challenges literary translators face.

Share your own untold story and journey into the world of writing and translations?

There is providence, it is said, in the fall of a sparrow. A chance meeting sometime in the year 1991, with Dr Rao, the Editor of Indian Literature, the journal of the Sahitya Akademi,  India’s apex Academy of Letters, proved not only fortuitous but had consequences far beyond any that anyone — east of all me —  could have foreseen.  Dr Rao was looking for someone to translate a particular story by Premchand, Mandir Mandir; he suggested, quite without preamble, that I should do it and he would publish it in his journal. He over-ruled my qualms about no previous experience at translating, let alone writing. I was then working as an assistant editor at the India International Centre and that, coupled with the fact that my spoken Hindustani was passably good and Urdu, as I had told him was my mother tongue, he felt was quite enough. Soon enough, I had pecked away industriously at a battered old typewriter and presented him with a translation which he duly published in the Indian Literature.  Little was I to know then that the sequence of events that would unspool – almost in slow motion over the next two decades — from that chance meeting and that generous, almost avuncular, suggestion would give birth to an undreamt-of literary career. For someone with no literary ambitions at that point and no academic interests either, that single act of translation would prove to be the foundation stone of a self-directed career. Almost 25 years later, I am still building on that single chance encounter with a generous and wise man.

How did you move further after your first translation?

Looking back, it seems as though I had tasted blood after translating that one Premchand short story. Within a year, in October 1992 to be precise, I had published a collection of 10 short stories by Premchand with Harper Collins. Called The Temple and the Mosque, it was a slim book with a short, a very short introductory note, called rather self-effacingly, ‘Translator’s Note’. Looking back, it also seems odd that I was content to dub it so; perhaps the sense of ownership I now have with a text was entirely missing then. And it is this sense of ownership that has been my biggest gain in this journey – as much personal as professional – spanning 25 years.

Tell us about your early relationship with the Urdu language and literature?

As for Urdu, it is my mother tongue but for a long time it was simply a gharelu language for me, i.e. a language for everyday conversation within the family but not a language for intellectual discourse or enquiry; for that it was always English. But I was taught the Urdu alphabets when I was small, and I could just about read and write Urdu while I was still in school. In my grandparents’ home, however, Urdu was everywhere; the very air was redolent with it. My grandfather (nana) was a well-known teacher, critic, writer and poet. The earliest sounds I imbibed were Urdu poetry. I learnt chunks of Urdu sher-o-shairi – Faiz, Ghalib, Iqbal — while I was still young and didn’t fully understand the import of the words I knew by heart. With time, I began to understand the meanings. I think knowing Urdu added another layer of understanding to my study of English literature. It was joy a when I could read Milton’s Paradise Lost alongside Iqbal’s Gibreel aur Iblees. Believe me, it is a privilege when you can occupy two parallel literary worlds and feel at ease in both. With time, my bilingualism grew and after I had translated my very first Urdu short story (Premchand’s ‘Mandir Masjid’), I was ravenous to read more and translate more. So, my relationship with Urdu is a ”work in progress”.

What do you prefer doing professionally?

I will tweak Descartes and say, ”Í write, therefore I am.” I have quit all forms of gainful employment and am now a full time writer. I occasionally write short journalistic pieces, book reviews, essays but for the most part I write books — books on subjects of my own choosing.

What keeps you busy these days?

At present I am working on several at the same time: I am writing a biography of the Urdu poet, Shahryar; translating poems, short stories and essays by Gulzar on the theme of Partition in time for the 70th anniversary of the partition in 2017; also on the same theme I am working with two co-editors on an anthology of new writings that look at the consequences of 1947, also due in 2017; a translation of the novel Ghaddaar by Krishan Chandar; and have begun the preliminary reading of a collection of Urdu stories about women by male writers to be called The Male Gaze in Urdu.

What are the top two visions of Hindustani Awaaz with respect to Hindi-Urdu literature? Any desired events which you would like to talk about?

To get more and more people to join in and make ”common cause”; and to get more and more younger people to come listen in. I ran a successful series of monthly events called “Why It Speaks to Me” at the Attic in Connaught Place. I got people from different backgrounds to talk about why a particular text — a book, a poem, a fragment — ‘speaks’ to them as though it was written for them. We had an eclectic range of speakers — high-brow university types, writers, poets, lawyers, doctors; my only criteria was passion and articulation. I want to repeat that series — this time with younger speakers, even newbie ones.

How do you intend to pass on this rich legacy attached to Urdu literature to the younger generation of Urdu writers and translators?

Fortunately my daughter is showing an interest; she has been a faithful member of the audience at every Hindustani Awaaz event since it started in 2002. She wants to bring in a new kind of programming. I am happy to pass on the torch. I would love to teach courses in comparative literatures and maybe hold workshops on translations. But I seem to be pretty unemployable so it is likely to stay a pipedream!

rakshanWhat are the biggest challenges for the literary translators in India today?

Finding the right texts and finding the right publishers! On a serious note, finding the right text means one that will strike a chord with a readers and not necessarily one that I like. And the right publisher who will go that extra mile with you; most publishers/editors drop out of sight once the book is out; it should be the other way round because that’s when they are most needed.

What steps would really improve the translation scene in India in terms of quality as well as number of books getting translated every year?

A pre-publication review is absolutely essential; it will go a  long way in vetting the book and ensuring whether it should be published in the first place because we are already suffering the consequences of too many and indiscriminate translations. Secondly, regional literature deserves more attention than it gets at present. While things have improved hugely from the step-motherly treatment of the past, translations are nowhere close to English language publishing — be it at book launches, book reviews, litfests, et al. Greater attention to translated books — from publishers, editors, book reviewers, litfest organizers, discerning readers, bookshop owners, online book promoters — will improve the overall quality of translations.

What key messages would you like to convey to the Publishing Industry through your talks at Publishing Next 2016?

Publishing in India is going from strength to strength with vibrant indigenous publishing houses such as Women Unlimited, Rupa and and Yoda as well as almost every major international player having opened shop in India.  Within that, publishing translations seems to be a niche ‘sunrise industry’. But this happy scenario needs checks and balances, the excess and the flab needs to be curtailed. That’s what we hope to talk about at the seminar.

What is your opinion about annual events like Publishing Next? What role are they playing in taking the Indian publishing one step ahead?

It sounds interesting especially the line-up of speakers. I am tired of the wannabes and unheard of authors one meets at most such events. Going by the names, I am looking forward to meaningful discussions rather than the playing to the gallery that usually happens at most litfests.


Publishing Next is an annual gathering of publishers, authors, editors, translators, librarians, book retailers, printers, technologists, service providers and policymakers from all over India and abroad. The event is organized by Goa-based CinnamonTeal Publishing, since 2011.

Dates: 15th 16th 17th September 2015

Venue: Kochi, Kerala