In conversation: On the new ‘Writer in Context’ book series
Saikat Majumdar: In your concept note for the series, you talk about the inclusion of literary studies in centres of South Asia at universities overseas. What I’ve noticed in the West, especially the US, however, is that over the last few decades these centres of South Asia studies have increasingly privileged the social sciences over literary studies. In a way, this mirrors the post-Independence Nehruvian – and especially Anglophone – celebration of the social sciences as the primary means of understanding the nation and charting its progressive path through modernity. How do you think a renewed attention to vernacular Indian literary traditions and figures might challenge this primarily socio-anthropological way of imagining the Indian nation?
Sukrita Paul Kumar: An extremely pertinent problematic, Saikat. I appreciate that you invoke the idea of “renewed attention”, since after all vernacular literary traditions have always existed, though often waylaid. While due respect needs to be accorded to the social science approach to imagining the nation, the complexity of the multilingual, culturally diverse fabric of India, I believe, calls for a close attention to the ever-changing and evolving human face of the country captured in literature. The abundant repertoire of the age-old literary cultures of Indian languages, constructed in the oral as well as the printed/written form speaks for the rich heterogeneity of traditions reflecting cultural divergences as well as confluences. If examined, as they are often by scholars, these features can be felt in the ongoing archives of creative expression in songs, poetry and narrative tales through centuries. And though social sciences provide ample perspectives, analysis and data to understand how the nation has been imagined and ideas executed, what is equally important is to understand the lived reality of individuals and society, communities and their inter-relations, caste and class distinctions, as also, gender and sexuality. Ideas and policies get demonstrated in people’s living experience which is what gets effectively recorded in literary articulation, in fictional narratives, poetry and songs etc. In our own universities in India too, to study literature in order to make sense of socio-political or historical issues, is a recent phenomenon. Partition literature, for instance, is amply used by historians, psychologists and sociologists for a better comprehension of the how, why and what of the otherwise incomprehensible, unprecedented and violent communal outbursts witnessed in 1947. A renewed attention to vernacular Indian literary traditions will not merely complement the social science approach in imagining the nation but will also autonomously create an in-depth mode of study that is integrated with perspectives from social sciences. Yes, this would challenge all insular approaches to the study of a nation or a society. In fact, the 12 volumes in the Writer in Context series aim at highlighting the contexts of a writer precisely towards this end.
SM: You also make an interesting observation about the tension between individual and linguistic autonomy of these bhasha writers and their awareness of “change and resurgence fanned by modernism, postmodernism, progressivism and other literary trends and fashions.” Their sense of experimentation seems to originate at this intersection between trend, tradition and individual autonomy. Can you say a bit more about this negotiation, and perhaps offer a few examples?
SPK: Here I wish to point out that the writers chosen for all the volumes in the series belong to the modern, post-Independence era, each one from a different Indian language and each distinctly making a significant creative intervention in the literary tradition of her/his language. While the author in each case has been protective of writerly autonomy, there is also a heightened consciousness of the prevalent trends and traditions in their works. The first volume in the series, entitled Krishna Sobti: A Counter Archive, just released in the UK imprint, actually invokes what seems like a contradiction. She conforms to the realistic mode of narration but the spirit of resistance gets executed by her by way of the choices she makes of themes, forms and language-use. Irrespective of the mainstream normative demands, her prose marches ahead, innovating a different Hindi for each of her novels, her Hindi negotiating with Punjabi in one novel and with Rajasthani or Gujarati in another.
The second volume of the series due to be published by the end of 2021, presents the Urdu writer Joginder Paul, and is edited by Chandana Dutta who is also my co-series editor. In this volume several critics discuss Paul’s refusal to be boxed within the confines of either modernism or progressivism. His works bring out an amalgam of both; much of his long and short fiction could appear to be modernist in its form and style, while the themes project progressive ideals. His four volumes of micro-fiction cannot be perceived as mere experiments in form; their insightful content establishes a new mode of writing with humanistic appeal.
One of the objectives of the series is to capture the overwhelmingly diverse creativity of modern Indian authors from within their varied sociocultural contexts despite a shared realm of ideas and the times.
SM: Apart from what they mean to readers and scholars, writers from the past can speak to contemporary writers in eloquent and significant ways. This is what TS Eliot had identified as tradition and the individual talent, and what Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has described as a literature finding itself. Do you feel this happens enough in contemporary Indian literary practice? Do you think this series is likely to help the contemporary Indian writer – in any language – discover richer webs of traditions within which they might situate themselves?
SPK: This is a great question, Saikat. We have to remember, we are talking about that generation of Indian writers which confronted the cultural upheaval of the Partition on the one hand and on the other, experienced the euphoria of freedom from the British. The resultant existential stirrings, I believe, led to creative explorations by writers in many languages on the subcontinent. While rooted in the tradition of their literary cultures, many discovered their need to search for new forms of expression for their changing consciousness. Yes, in that, tradition and individual talent emphatically demonstrate a symbiotic relation. Some forthcoming volumes in the series, on writers such as Amrita Pritam in Punjabi and Indira Goswami of Assamese, showcase the departures of women writers from the stranglehold of the accepted norms of womanly existence. These writers effectively make transformative shifts in perceiving the identity and role of a woman in society, not only for their own contemporaries but also for the future generations. Tradition in itself becomes a dynamic force then, one that accommodates the ‘new’ and also opens avenues for future. These rich webs of tradition across languages do exist and are waiting to be discovered. We can access them through translations and indeed through volumes such as the ones we have planned in these series through which the context of the writer and her/his works get presented. Yes for literature to find itself, such efforts will go a long way…
SM: How do the peculiar challenges and rewards of translation appear in different texts and literary traditions? Perhaps you could offer some examples?
SPK: Since all the volumes in the series are dealing with Indian authors in translation, our editors are faced with great challenges that come out of the need to present each writer in her/his special style, tone and use of language. Take for example, Phanishwarnath Renu’s or Rahi Masoom Raza’s Hindi or then Bama’s Tamil; when the language used is not the standard one, it sprouts from its specific indigenous context. Metaphors, idiom, humour and even abuses used in a text are, after all, cultural pointers that add meaning to the content. Our editors are struggling to offer the reader an understanding of their language by having their translators write essays on distinctive features of the use of language by their authors. Also, when an author such as OV Vijayan, in yet another volume in the series, takes liberties in the recreation/translation of his own Malayalam texts, other issues emerge. It is imperative that we bring this discussion into the volume.
SM: A new anthology or a book-series is the making of a new literary canon. In charting this new path, do you find yourself facing older orthodoxies? What has it meant in terms of including voices that have been marginalised for various aesthetic, social, or political reasons?
SPK: We thought older orthodoxies would get perpetuated further if we had adhered to the categorisation of literature into the “mainstream” and the “marginal”. My co-series editor Chandana Dutta and I wanted to have a common platform for both. That is why, while the series has included amongst others, a volume on the much-canonised writer-activist who took up the cause of adivasis, such as Mahashweta Devi, there are also volumes happening on Venkatesh Madgulkar the Marathi writer who focused on rural stories and on Mahadeva Devanoora the writer in Kannada who, as a Dalit writer, steered the modernist movement in his language away from the brand held up by modernists such as UR Ananthamurthy. The series Writer in Context will hopefully offer a realistic mapping of authors from within their contexts, for a comprehensive understanding of the fascinatingly diverse Indian literatures.
Sukrita Paul Kumar, formerly Aruna Asaf Ali Chair at Delhi University, is a poet, critic and translator.
Saikat Majumdar, a novelist and critic, is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University.