Tag Archives: literature in translation

Who Killed Perumal Murugan?

there is peace in Namakkal, but no justice.”

Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s book Madhorubagan (translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan as One Part Woman) has recently come under fire by casteist groups, who claim that the book is indecent and should be banned. Copies of his books were burned, and his family received threats of violence, because of which his students voluntarily provided them with security.

Madhorubagan is the story of a couple, very much in love with each other, but unable to conceive a child. They participate in a ritual of fertility in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara. The ritual permits consensual intercourse between men and women participating: this could address their infertility, but yet test their marriage. Penguin, the publishers of the English translation, say, “Acutely observed, One Part Woman lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties, vividly conjuring an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.” Scroll.in published an excerpt, here.

The protests from casteist groups come because of the depiction of relations between men and women of different castes, in the book. After the book burning, when protests escalated to demands of arrest, Perumal Murugan posted on Facebook, saying Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher he has been” He asked his publishers to withdraw the book, and indeed, all his writing. He says he will not write again.

This is the story of how aggressive caste politics, supported by the Hindu right, silenced the voice of an author. You can support him by buying the book and signing this petition on Change.org. You could also write to Penguin and ask them not to bow to pressure from political groups (like they did with Wendy Doniger’s book last year) and stand by the author they choose to publish.

  • Buy the book in English translation here or here (ebook) or here (ebook) or here.
  • Read a statement of support from his translator, Aniruddha Vasudevan and his publisher.
  • Read translator and writer N Kalyan Raman on why Murugan’s book is significant to the debate on freedom of expression in India.

#NaanPerumalMurugan (I am Perumal Murugan)

India and the IMPAC Dublin Awards

The IMPAC Awards around the world

The IMPAC Dublin Awards are generally very odd. The (very long) longlist of 142 books are chosen by libraries from participating countries. How are the libraries chosen? No one knows, but they are described as participating libraries on the FAQs and as public libraries on the title page.

MA Orthofer, as usual, has done a good job of deconstructing the odd process (and odder nominations) that end up in the IMPAC longlist, pointing particularly to the inevitable problem of localism. M Lynx Qualey has pointed to some problems with the IMPAC prize and Arabic literature, and more generally, to the absence of translations.

India’s participation: which library?

India’s nominating library for the IMPAC Dublin Awards is the India International Centre Library. Let us review this choice, briefly. The India International Centre is a privately-owned and run “cultural centre” that contains a library open only to its members. Non-members aren’t even allowed into the library. Members of the India International Centre are a small, exclusive lot – one generally has to know someone (as one often does, in Delhi) and membership is not currently open, nor has been for a while. The library itself is has vast collections, particularly a notable India collection and an art collection. The library collection is selected by a nebulous committee, which may or may not consider member suggestions for the acquisition of new books. There’s no public acquisition policy (although there well may be one accessible to members).

Why is this bizarre? Because IMPAC’s website says they invite public libraries to nominate books. By no standard is this privately owned, privately run, exclusive library a public library. (Note: the main website’s section on the nomination process says “public libraries”. The FAQs do not.) Most other countries, however, have state and public libraries as the nominating entities. Why not the the National Library? The Delhi Public Library? The central but autonomous Rammohun Roy Library?

India’s participation: Nominated books

It should be no surprise to anyone then, that this private library nominated these books from India for the IMPAC award:

  1. Jhumpa Lahiri‘s The Lowland
  2. Amitabha Bagchi‘s This Place
  3. Ravinder Singh‘s Like it Happened Yesterday

Let me explain why I’m incredulous about these choices. First of all, the IIC’s own library OPAC shows that Ravinder Singh’s book has been requested a grand total of zero times. The same goes for Amitabha Bagchi’s This Place. They don’t even have a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

Lahiri, in addition, may come from Indian roots, but is herself an American citizen (she may ‘struggle to feel American‘ but I don’t see her giving up her citizenship and moving to India, where she has never lived. Her novels, indeed, are mostly about the immigrant experience). I find it hard to believe that the IIC could not find a single author from India, who had been published or translated into English in 2013, apart from Bagchi and Singh.

Literary Merit

The IMPAC Awards, though, are not for popularity. They’re awarded based on the library’s opinion of “high literary merit”. I really don’t have much to say about the merit of these three books involved (I haven’t read any of them, to be honest).

I’m not going to include reviews to Lahiri’s The Lowland (it’s been reviewed everywhere, she’s well known in America, where she lives, writes and publishes).

Bagchi’s third book, This Place, has received generally positive reviews. Somak Ghoshal in Livemint said it “outgrows every expectation”. Rajat Choudhuri in Outlook praised the novel’s “purity of … prose married to a clear-eyed storytelling”.

I will, however, express some doubts about Ravinder Singh’s nomination. I know he’s immensely popular, and if that were the basis of the prize there would be no difficulty (200,000 copies were preordered). Interviews and reviews seem to indicate, however, that the book is autobiographical, not fictional, while the IMPAC award is very clearly for a ‘novel’.

In sum, I find both, the choice of library and the choice of books somewhat bizarre. I am also, like M Lynx Qualey, concerned about the absence of translations. This has been a rich year for writing and translation in India – even with the narrow window of a book written in English in 2013 or written between 2009-2013 and translated in 2013, it should have been possible for IIC to nominate atleast one book that wasn’t written in English.

Updates

  • Bruce Humes has a breakdown of the nominations by language.

Mahfil

Between 1966 and 1972, the Asian Studies Centre at the (American) Michigan State University published a short-lived journal focused on Indian literature, titled Mahfil. A mehfil, as Wikipedia will tell you, is a “gathering or evening of courtly entertainment of poetry or concert of Indian classical music…performed for a small audience in an intimate setting.” Although Mahfil was discontinued, it was replaced in a more academically acceptable form by the Journal of Asian Literature. Through Chicago University’s Digital South Asia Program, all the back issues of Mahfil have been digitised and are now publicly available,here.

I spent a glorious evening digging through these archives, to find commentary, interviews and translations that aren’t too commonly available. There’s a heavy focus on Hindi literature and writing, but here you can find strange gems like a review of English journals from India and Pakistan, in 1965 and a brief history of Konkani literature, from 1972.