Book of the month: Vivek Shanbhag

Since completing my year of reading the world, I’ve been fascinated by literature translated from the 22 languages other than English that have official status in India. One of the most interesting discoveries I made during my project was when an Indian journalist opened my eyes to the work Malayalam writer, MT Vasudevan Nair. So I was delighted to hear about the publication this year of a novel translated into English from the South Indian language of Kannada, which is still barely represented in the anglophone reading world.

Although Ghachar Ghochar is Vivek Shanbhag’s English-language debut, the book is far from being his first work. The celebrated  author from the Indian state of Karnataka has published eight works of fiction and two plays.

His experience and expertise is quickly apparent when you open this novel. Deceptively simple in its premise – the destabilization of dynamics when a business venture dramatically improves a family’s financial circumstances – this slender work relies on deft writing and keen-eyed observation to carry it along. Shanbhag and his translator Srinath Perur – who worked closely together on the English-language version – provide these in abundance.

In a lesser author’s hands this book might easily be a creaky parable about the threats to traditional hierarchies posed by India’s economic boom, or a rambling disquisition on the discontent of the newly comfortable protagonist Vincent. Instead, although the best elements of both these things are woven neatly into the fabric of the story, it is a vivid and moving portrait of humanity in all its contrariness and perversity.

The delight is in the detail. Domestic objects represent and reveal great emotional shifts. For example, in the revelation that Vincent now feels it would be meaningless to buy his mother the sari he dreamed of getting her as a boy when his family lived in a shack on the other side of Bangalore, we see the price of financial gain.

Similarly, profound truths are expressed in handfuls of everyday words: ‘The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness’; ‘the last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence’; ‘it is one of the strengths of families to pretend that they desire what is unavoidable’.

It is no surprise to discover that, as Shanbhag reveals in an interview on his English-language publisher’s website, the author is a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – ‘that most of the story is beneath the surface’. Indeed, he extends this to translation too, regarding the process as the business of ‘taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another’.

Yet Shanbhag’s writing is warmer than Hemingway’s usually manages to be. There is humour in the occasionally querulous tone of his narrative and evidence of an eye for the ridiculous in the manner in which he sets out his characters’ quirks – the family’s nearly year-long resistance to buying a new pressure cooker on the off-chance that one might be given away at a conference, for example, and the way Vincent’s father, in his original sales job, would spend evenings going over figures ‘again and again until they gave in and agreed’.

The abruptness of the ending will bring some readers up short. Yet, when considered in light of the novel’s title – a nonsense phrase that, among Vincent’s wife’s relatives, signifies things getting tangled up – it makes a kind of sense. The title becomes a prediction – no sooner do we understand its significance than we see it embodied in the story.

Unlike his novel, though, Shanbhag’s English-language career looks far from ending in a knotted mess. Ghachar Ghochar has garnered rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and Shanbhag and Srinath Perur are already preparing another of his books for the anglophone market. About time too.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Picture: ‘Busy busy Brigade Road in Bangalore’ by Ryan on flickr.com

Postcard from my bookshelf #5

Last month, I sent a translated book to someone from the nation that showed most interest in my 2012 Year of Reading the World. This month, I’m giving one to someone from the country that, in many ways, provided me with the biggest challenge during the quest.

While I struggled to find a single translated work from numerous places – many of the lusophone and francophone African nations had no commercially available literature in English, for example – there were some nations that posed the opposite conundrum. These were the countries that had such a wealth of literature available that the idea of choosing a single book seemed ludicrous.

India was by far the trickiest of these. As I recorded in my blog post at the time, I was swamped with recommendations for titles from this vast and diverse nation. And every time I asked someone to help me choose my Indian book, they simply added more suggestions to my list.

Luckily, just as I was beginning to despair of ever finding a satisfactory way of selecting one thing to read, a journalist called Suneetha Balakrishnan came to my rescue. She had noticed that all the titles people had suggested were written in English. To her mind, this was second best when you considered that there was so much Indian literature written in other languages – the subcontinent is home to 22 officially recognised tongues, along with hundreds of others.

One of her favourite writers was MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. She suggested I try to find a translation of one of his books.

Suneetha’s argument made sense to me. More than that, as happened so often that year, it highlighted a blind spot in my thinking. Despite the quest being driven by my desire to read more diversely, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek out Indian literature written in languages other than English.

I followed her suggestion and found a translation of Vasudevan Nair’s novel Kaalam. I enjoyed it very much and it opened the door for me to start exploring numerous other Indian literatures, which I have continued to do over the last five years.

(Incidentally, the exchange provided a lightbulb moment for Suneetha too. Realising how neglected Indian literature in languages other than English often is, she launched her own Reading Across India blog, an idea which she adapted for Mslexia magazine.)

Suneetha applied for a postcard and I was very tempted to choose a book for her. Had I done so, it would probably have been my UK choice, Caryl Lewis’s Martha, Jack and Shanco, or another book translated from Welsh because my discussion with Suneetha also inspired me to think about literature in languages other than English in my home country.

However, this project is about sending books to strangers and, although Suneetha and I have never met in person, I feel we are friends through the exchanges we have had. (Thanks once again for all your interest, support and wise words, Suneetha. I hope we will share many more reading ideas in future.)

As such, I have decided to send a book to one of Suneetha’s compatriots instead as a sort of thank you-by-proxy. After reading through the many Indian entries, I settled on Azfar Zaidi. He told me this:

I’ve been reading the replies to this post, and frankly, I feel a little unqualified. […] I’m nowhere near as “international” as anyone here. I’ve never sat on an airplane, and there are few cities in India that I have explored. But I read, and that breaks borders. Being able to imagine a parallel world through the descriptions and situations in a book is one thing I love to do. However, I believe that every book has a bit of its author’s own world in it. No matter how fictitious a book is, there’s an element of the author in it. It gets reflected by the way he narrates, describes or argues. Exploring parallel worlds through the medium of books somewhat compensates for the (current) limits of my world. I don’t have a specific genre to request. I read what comes my way, and I leave it to your discretion as to which book you’d like to send me (if you do). I’m only looking to widen the horizons of my mind. And I hope you’ll help.

Just as Suneetha’s words did five years ago, Azfar’s comment struck a chord with me. Reading does break borders and expand horizons. That was one of the most powerful things I took away from the project and continue to experience with my literary explorations to this day.

He also made me think almost instantaneously of the book I wanted to send him. It is a memoir by someone who, like Azfar, had never been on a plane, but ended up discovering the world through reading and his own curiosity.

The book in question is An African in Greenland by the Togolese writer and explorer Tété-Michel Kpomassie. It was one of the most joyous, funny and heartwarming books I read during 2012.

Azfar, it will shortly be travelling across the world to you. I hope you enjoy it.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on June 15.

Book of the month: Shanta Gokhale

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Those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world in 2012 may remember the difficulty I had choosing a book to read from India. With such a wealth of stories available from this nation of 1.2 billion people, it seemed impossible to find a way to select just one for my project.

Luckily for me, the dilemma was solved when Indian writer Suneetha Balakrishnan stopped by the blog and observed that all the recommendations I’d had were for books written in English, and that there was a huge amount of even better literature written her nation’s 22 other official languages – not to mention the many unofficial tongues also spoken there. On the strength of Suneetha’s comments, I chose a book by one of her favourite authors, MT Vasudevan Nair, who writes in Malayalam. As you can see from the post I wrote at the time, it proved to be a great decision.

All the same, I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t explore more Indian literature in translation during that year. It seemed that there was a rich variety of amazing stories that we English-language speakers rarely if ever hear about.

So I was delighted to hear from Suneetha this summer that she has been blogging for women’s writing magazine Mslexia about Indian literature written in languages other than English. In celebration of this (and because I enjoyed her previous recommendation so much), I decided to feature one of the novels she has reviewed as my September Book of the month.

I plumped for Crowfall by Shanta Gokhale. This was partly because of Suneetha’s enthusiasm for the book, which you can read about on her post, and partly because I was intrigued by the process the novel went through to get into my hands. Not only did Ghokale write the original version in Marathi, she also translated it into English herself. I was intrigued to see how it had turned out.

Crowfall is a big and ambitious book. It weaves together the experiences of three painters, a musician, a journalist, a teacher and the widowed mother of two of them in Mumbai. Recording their struggles as they attempt to define their careers, themselves and one another – and overcome their grief at a series of untimely deaths and a loved one’s disappearance – it uses individual lives as a prism through which to look at large questions of identity, prejudice, the caste system and what we mean when we talk about art.

Though the premise might be tricky to unpick, the language certainly isn’t. Gokhale has worked as a translator during her career and her facility with words shines through in the beautiful clarity of her sentences. Time and again, succinct phrases capture complex ideas and emotions. From writing about the experience of being crushed between passengers on a bus ‘like chutney in a sandwich’ and describing an extreme method for dealing with Eve-teasing, to a skilful elucidation of the way performances based on raags (melodic modes) work in Hindustani music, Gokhale brings us along with her, by dint of her clear, compelling voice.

This linguistic precision makes the discussion of many of the larger issues that pepper the narrative a joy to read. I particularly liked the exploration of what constitutes art in the book, which is accompanied by many insightful descriptions of what it is like to be caught up in the creative process, such as this one:

Creative ideas are like that. You don’t plead with them to come. You pretend you can live happily without them. Then they steal upon you like thieves. Just be alert to grab them by the hair.

Gokhale’s portrayals of the experience of consuming art (as well as the platefuls of delicious-sounding food served throughout the book) are similarly eloquent – no mean feat, as many writers fail miserably when faced with conjuring up what it is like to look at a colourful, urgent painting in flat, grey words.

With such a large cast of central characters and numerous peripheral figures, the book can be confusing at times. This isn’t helped by Gokhale’s decision to leave considerable amounts of dialogue unattributed, so that you can find yourself confronted with long stretches of sentences in speech marks, wondering who said what. In addition, the numerous philosophical discussions – though skilfully rendered – slow the narrative down. There are times when you get the sense that Gokhale is much more interested in evoking experiences and exploring ideas than telling a story.

For all that, though, this is a marvellous read. As intricate as a performance of a raag, it intertwines experiences, lives and cultural specificities to create a powerful and thought-provoking – if sometimes dissonant – whole. Once again, like MT’s work, it provides a tantalising taste of the banquet Indian writers working in languages other than English have prepared.

Crowfall (Tya Varshi [That Year]) by Shanta Gokhale, translated from the Marathi by Shanta Gokhale (Penguin Books India, 2013)

India: an impossible choice

How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?

I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.

One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.

With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:

‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’

This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.

Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.

MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.

What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.

These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu’s] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.

The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.

These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)