Tell us about your background – how did a Tamil man devote himself to Bengali literature?
I was born in a Tamil family that moved from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, thus our language changed and became a medley of Tamil and Malayalam. Then, our family shifted to Calcutta in 1930 for good. Calcutta is a big city with multicultural, multilingual communities— not that they do not interface with each other, but they also dwell within their cocooned existence. You have relatives, organizations and societies of your own community; that being so, you make your own bubble and stay inside it. In Calcutta, I grew up in such mixed up surroundings.
So what was your first language?
I studied in an English medium school, first in Calcutta and then in Dehradun. During the initial years of my schooling in Calcutta, Bengali was my second language and through that short time I learned to write and read in Bengali. After school, I went in St Xavier's College to study economics and then completed my M.A. in Economics from Calcutta University. I went to the UK to qualify in chartered accountancy, and ended up realizing that this was something I absolutely did not want to do. Rather, I wanted to get out of the conventional ways of living one's life.
What led you to the path of activism?
I returned to Calcutta from UK in 1984, with a desire to work in a rural area, on education. But soon after returning, I got sucked into the ChhinnamulSramajibiAdhikarSamiti — an organization formed to fight against eviction of squatters in Calcutta and campaign for their resettlement and regularization, and also for a meaningful housing policy.
A young UK postgraduate succumbed to activism. Sounds utopian!
An incredible amount of idealism, an urge to devote myself to working head on to eradicate the shaming poverty from my country—the soil of Bengal summoned me!
How did the dreamer turn into a passionate translator? How did you and Bengali literature bond together?
In 2005, I came across an essay on the internet by Mrinal Bose and emailed him, and thus began an e-friendship. We discussed books, politics and literature. Finally, we met in person some months later. I asked him, "So, what are you reading now?" to which he replied, "Nothing! Bengali books are all rubbish these days." I insisted, "There must be at least one writer worth reading"; he thought for a moment and said, "Yes, there is Subimal Misra". I casually responded, "Alright, I will translate him". That would have been just bar talk, but Dr Bose kept pushing me to do it, "Have you started?"
I phoned the author, found out where I could buy his books and bought whatever I could get my hands on. The books lay on my desk for over two months. On the Dashami afternoon, feeling idle and restless, I picked up one, began reading, and then pulled out a notebook and started translating.
What was your first impression after reading Subimal?
It was starkly different from anything I had read in the past. With one of his early stories, I was at a complete loss as to what on earth was going on. When I was finally done translating it, I was filled with a deep sense of satisfaction. Everything about Misra's writing drew me, the language, the form, the subject, his disavowal of every kind of establishment.
What happened next? Also, which Bangladeshi writers are you translating?
I continued with translation, whenever I could make time for it. And thus completed 15 stories. Meanwhile, a writer friend introduced me to the managing editor of a leading publisher. That led to a publishing contract, and the first book came out in 2010; several books are in process, they will come out in the coming months and years. That includes ManoranjanByapari's novel 'ChandalJibon', Adhir Biswas' 'Allahrjomitepaa', Swati Guha's 'Somudro', RaghavBandyopadhyay's 'Shoishob'. In April, I learnt the name of ShahidulZahir and got his books. That made a big impression on me and I was fortunate enough to receive the consent of the copyright holder soon after. Now that I am here, I am continuously learning about writers and their work.
You have translated stories by a marginal Muslim farmer of Nadia. How did you come in touch with people living on the edge like him?
I met Ansaruddin at the People's Literature Festival in Kolkata last year. He is a marginal farmer from Nadia in West Bengal. He was involved in farm-work from an early age, enrolled in college and completed his B.A. and went back to farming.At the age of 30, he began writing stories. Since then he has published story collections, essays, novellas, and novels, and also won prizes. His writing is like an ethnographic account of the rural Muslim milieu of West Bengal, something largely absent in mainstream writing. I am translating 'GoiGeramerPanchali', a collection of five of his essays.
As a multilingual person and writer, do you feel that language shapes our identity and culture and the way we contemplate?
Yes, we make language and language makes us. A language also has a culture and society and history underlying it. It has a value and normative system of its own. The challenge is to be receptive and sensitive to these civilizational underpinnings of the language. Language is like a DNA. We receive a good part of our characteristics from it.
What do you think about the politics of language – from the British colonial hangover to different forms of the same language?
Language is also about politics. English is a language coming via colonialism. It epitomizes power and class even in the post-colonial India. And again, the proliferation of Hindi means the marginalization of languages like, say, Bhojpuri or Maithili.
How do you render dialects into English?
Dialect is something where I encounter my limits as a translator. The polychromatic character of the original is reduced to something that is monochromatic. Subimal's writing bring in bits of dialect, Byapari's has lots of Bangalbhasha, as does Biswas's work. Zahir's stories have Dhakaiya and Chatgaiyan.
As R.K Narayan said, Indians use English words as if they belong to Hindi, Kannada— what is your opinion?
Yes, Indians use English to make it look like an Indian language. Maybe that will lead to Indian English like Singlish (Singapore) with its own registers. As for me, yes, I retain some Bangla words— say, 'ghomta'.
Have you given up on your Tamil identity?
Yes, not entirely but somewhat. Also, it was a conscious decision to focus on my Bengali present rather than my Tamil past. Nevertheless, Tamil language and culture are extremely rich. Sometimes I regret not cultivating them in my early life. Even my children cannot speak in Tamil. Interestingly, I am more at home in Dhaka than in Chennai, and that is because of Bangla.
Rabindranath, after getting the Nobel for Song Offerings said, "It is transcreation more than translation"— given that scenario, what would VenketeswarRamaswamy say?
Translation is simply an immersion in arduous labor; I just translate, and then readers say I have transcreated. That gives me a feeling of fulfillment. I am deeply committed to translating cutting-edge Bengali literature. And it is also an escape from reality for me, I would sink into acute melancholy otherwise.