Recording Our Deep Past

Mini Krishnan


Portable World

Cover of India Writers
Cover of India Writes

“Writing is the painting of the mind.” (advertisement for pencils by Mitzubishi)

Khushwant Singh once told Abdul Kalam that he knew only two words in Tamizh: aiyoh and vanakam. He was perfectly content--indeed smug--about placing the subcontinent’s oldest language outside Delhi’s club of Hindi-Punjabi and Urdu.

Not that Tamizh-ttaayi with a head start of 2000 years was in the least disturbed.

Around about the same time, in the opening paragraph of Udaya Narayan Singh’s India Writes (2006) he described an email from Germany. The writer said that he knew friends who had studied Korean, Russian and Chinese. But he, the sender of the email, wanted to study “Indian”. Could Udaya help him? The rest of the booklet explains why there is no single language called “Indian”. Recalling how the writer Narayan had to translate ( to himself) his Malayarayar dialect into Malayalam while writing his first novel Kocharethi (1998)and reading about Deccani/Dakhni ( a mix of Persian, Old Urdu, Dehlavi, Kannada, Marathi and Telugu) I reflected wryly on our neat packaging of linguistic regions and regional languages whereas the truth is that they are all and each, impressively, a grand kaleidoscope of many variants. With word waves rising and striking the shore of the Indian mind ceaselessly, the many languages of our country lie before us like an ocean of experience all shaped and provided by fellow Indians: ingenious, exhilarating, furiously energetic, and hurling powerful weapons like satire and humour to counter cultural terrorism. Though they appear distant and glamorous to us, in reality, many writers are sad, lonely and misunderstood. They are not particularly sociable because they live intensely in their minds and see the rest of life as an interruption. Readers are privileged. We do not possess the secret jewel of imagination writers have but we can share their creations and feel what they felt when they wrote their books. The writer plucks a single string which resonates through her reader for a long time--sometimes as we can all personally aver--his whole life. For instance, last week a friend messaged me, “Here’s a phrase which has been running around in my head: “homesick for sadness”.

Cover of the Malayalam original of Kocharethi
Cover of the Malayalam original of Kocharethi

Well…if you are reading this, you’re a word-cruncher. Never entirely happy with your bank-balance of words, always looking to be further enriched with more words, always wondering what others are reading, checking the covers of fellow passengers’ books on trains and flights and peering discreetly at a stranger’s Kindle page. Eckhart Tolle wrote “Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp which isn’t very much.” True? All those in favour--let’s have a show of hands.

In early 2019, there was a celebration and explanation of scientists and their work which seemed to prove that human vocabulary had expanded to include the exploration of wormholes and galaxies as well as the worlds inside the cell, the building block of life itself. Every one of the six winners born and raised in different parts of the world spoke in English. Every one of them was building on knowledge systems that had crossed the blood-brain barriers of language centuries ago. What made their work possible? That crucial industry which seeds creativity at different levels whether scientific, technical, artistic or literary: translation.The social sciences and humanities were also recognized at that meeting but—aiyoh--not a single newspaper reported what those winners said. Why? The complexities of the human condition and the tremendous ability that language gives were both taken for granted. Though the event was held in Bengaluru no one mentioned that one of the greatest translation projects of recent times, 21 volumes translated from Persian into Kannada via Marathi and Old Deccani, (the Adil Shahi Literature Translation project, begun in 2011) had just been completed making possible MM Kalburgi’s dream of making available fresh source material from its medieval past, for a new understanding of Karnataka’s history.

Time to emerge from grievance mode!

Rev G U Pope
Rev G U Pope

Having completed more than a quarter century adjusting, pleating, and buttering ---before cooking--- some life stories and fiction in a few Indian languages, and that, primarily from works written in just the past half century, I’d like to say that publishers in this field might be permitted to feel somewhat encouraged by the growth in numbers of translated works this past decade but they could also bear hearing what they already know: that there is a great deal left undone. A cheering fact is that nearly every week there is either an interview or an article on translators, the driving fact behind them being the prospect of serious money on the horizon. And why not ! Shakespeare wrote and produced plays with a beady eye on receipts as did Charles Dickens, his public readings and serialized novels, not to mention Victor Hugo who is said to have employed ghost writers. Our own Premchand had many of his later works translated either from their original Urdu to Hindi or vice versa by people who were never acknowledged, including the final draft of Rangbhoomi in Urdu for which the anonymous translator charged a steep fee. Speaking of which …many distinguished English, Scottish, and Welsh scholars of the Raj were strongly aided by their Indian dwibashis (tutors to foreigners,bilingual scribes ) and no doubt joint translators in the completion of their milestone works. Mention must be made of Pandit Sivadharma who helped Fr Robert de Nobili; Subradeepa Kavirayar who taught Beschi Tamil;the Srilankan Aleppa ( probably Alagappa) who taught Zieganbalg and Ramanuja Kavirayar who taught Rev G.U Pope, who gave us the first complete English translation of the Kural (1886).

Seeing that we are all connected in subtle ways with hundreds of influences firing the imagination and creative energy, might it be said that all writing is in some way an act of collaboration?

(The author is co-ordinating editor of the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation’s translation project)

Add Comment
Related Topics

Get daily updates from

Disclaimer: Kindly avoid objectionable, derogatory, unlawful and lewd comments, while responding to reports. Such comments are punishable under cyber laws. Please keep away from personal attacks. The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of readers and not that of Mathrubhumi.