Ranjana Kaul – “We still have to work a lot on issues of caste and patriarchy” - Hindustan Times

Ranjana Kaul – “We still have to work a lot on issues of caste and patriarchy”

ByChittajit Mitra
Feb 28, 2024 03:30 PM IST

Lawyer Ranjana Kaul, Laxmibai Abhyankar's granddaughter, talks about translating and presenting a collection of stories in The Stepmother and Other Stories

What inspired you to select this particular literature to translate?

Ranjana Kaul has translated The Stepmother and Other Stories by Laxmibai Abhyankar (Courtesy the subject) PREMIUM
Ranjana Kaul has translated The Stepmother and Other Stories by Laxmibai Abhyankar (Courtesy the subject)

When I was still in school in 1967, I went to Abhayankar house in Sangli, where my grandparents had their principal home. In the course of those four or five days in Sangli, I found, in my bedroom, a section filled with books. Most were my grandfather’s fat law books as he was a lawyer, and I was sort of running my finger along the spines of the books. Suddenly, I touched upon a comparatively thin booklet and took it out. It was in Marathi and I saw the name of Lakshmi Tanaya. I remembered that my father had told me that my grandmother used to write under this pseudonym. I couldn’t really understand what it was and took it to my father. That’s when he told me the story of my grandmother’s early life as a social reformer and navmatvadi (new thinker), her public life and her literary journey. This was a huge surprise for me as it was definitely not the lady I knew. I put the book back where I had found it, but it always remained as a memory in the back of my head. Fast forward to 1975 when I was back at the Sangli house. By then, my grandmother had passed away and I was there to collect my grandfather’s papers and books for my PhD. My grandfather, GR Abhyankar, was a pioneer of the popular movements in the Deccan states seeking a Bill of Rights and representative government. My PhD was about that: the State Peoples Movement – Sanathani Praja Parishad movements by the citizens of those princely states demanding fundamental rights. I went back to my room, and there I again found that little book exactly where I’d left it. I asked my uncle if I could take all the books and papers I needed and, of course, he readily agreed. I brought it all back to Pune in some trunks and when I got married the trunks travelled with me to Delhi. Eventually, a friend of mine, also interested in history, suggested that I go and meet the director of the Nehru Memorial Library. I went to meet the concerned person and told him that I was unable to rearrange my grandfather’s books and papers. He showed me a file with correspondence in it. He told me that for the last two decades they had been trying to find the GR Abhayankar’s papers. Later, I decided to donate it all to the Nehru Memorial Library. They returned that little booklet, which was also in one of the trunks, back to me. So, this time the booklet found me. It made me read it and then I decided to translate it someday. I translated it bit by bit and finished it by about 2002-03. It again stayed with me, and eventually it found a home last year and the book is now in front of you.

256pp, ₹559; Ratna Translation Series (Amazon)
256pp, ₹559; Ratna Translation Series (Amazon)

What kind of challenges did you face while translating your own grandmother’s stories or was it seamless as the stories came from someone you knew so closely?

The whole process in general was seamless. I understood the stories and poems perfectly. But the challenge was that as much as I knew that I would have to translate the fast-paced stories with their many varied characters and conversations – after all, she published in popular magazines and journals – I had to research extensively to ensure that I understood the relevance and context if I was to translate as closely and as accurately as I could. There are many references to traditions and customs and several conversations and discussions about the political developments of the times.

As a navmatvadi social reformer, we have to understand that she is looking at the status of women in her own community, the Chitpavan Brahmins, who lived by very strict codes, which especially governed women. From her writings we understand that the navmatvadi reform focused on self-transformation to adopt a progressive approach on the basis of scientific and rational evaluation to support the emancipation of women and the disadvantaged. If one wants to reform and bring about a social transformation, one needs to have some strength and conviction and start first from one’s own home. That’s why, in my first draft, to make readers understand the context, I included footnotes as many may not be familiar with the social reality of that time. The whole journey of translating the stories was that of self-discovery and I’m glad it found me.

For an expert legal professional, what was it like to step into the world of translation?

I never thought about translating anything, but, I suppose because of my legal background, when I started to read the stories again I found out that my grandmother was talking about girls being married off to much older men and that the age of 14 kept recurring in many stories. When I did my research, I found that it was the minimum age to get married at that time. Then I started researching statutory reforms regarding the minimum age of marriage and discovered that, about 75 or 100 years ago, there was a case in Bengal Presidency where an eight-year-old who had been married off to a 30-year-old was found dead the following day because of excessive bleeding. This led the British administration to raising the minimum age of marriage to 12 years. Thereafter, it was increased to 14. Perhaps, because I am a lawyer, it helped me to understand what my grandmother was trying to portray and what her message to her readers was.

India has just celebrated its 75th year of independence. What kinds of social transformations do you think Laxmibai Abhayankar might have liked to see in the country?

I will recall a story where a young daughter-in-law brings home a child as he had been hurt by her horse carriage. She wanted her doctor husband to treat him. But, at home, her mother-in-law forbids her to touch the boy and says he can’t remain in their home as he was a Dalit. By then, the old lady’s son, the doctor, is home and as he attends to the injured boy, explains to his mother gently, that the blood coming out of his wound was the same colour as her own blood. Isn’t this the situation even today? People are killed for keeping a moustache or climbing upon a horse for their marriage procession. We still have to work a lot on these issues of caste and patriarchy, amongst many other things. Unfortunately, politics often has a way of exacerbating the situation.

I’ve been a member of the Delhi Commission for Women. I know what the ground reality is. There is a lot of work to be done still, much more than we are doing today. As a lawyer, I know that our justice system is so slow. Sometimes, it’s truly unforgivable. It takes years for the survivor to get justice and a large part of your life is spent on going to court. That needs to change. Civil society also needs to step out and keep on working on these issues.

Do you have your eyes on some other Marathi stories that you would like to translate in future?

Not really. Translation was never on my to-do list and this book just happened to find me. My grandmother died in 1969 and a cousin of mine sent me a copy of her obituary that was published in Kesari, the Marathi newspaper started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In that, I read that, later, she also wrote her biography. I did not find any such book in the Sangli house in 1967 or in 1975. I asked another cousin whether they had any idea about it and he said that the National Library at Kolkata might have a copy as they keep a copy of each book that was published at that time. So, who knows? That book might also find its way to me.

Chittajit Mitra (he/him) is a queer writer, translator and editor from Allahabad. He is co-founder of RAQS, an organisation working on gender, sexuality and mental health.

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