Notes from a literary session that I had the pleasure of attending at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Translators provide a connection between the mortals and the Gods, transporting readers to literary heavens that are otherwise inaccessible to them, said the moderator as she introduced Arunava Sinha and Priya Sarukkai Chabria in the session ‘Translating the Classics’. Translation is a gift of love, she said quoting Sujit Mukherjee, for the translator has enjoyed the work of literature and want to make a gift of it to others.

How very true. Several times I have thanked God for the gift of so many beloved books that I could not have read otherwise. Direct Translation from one language to another is easier with the deluge of translation software on the internet. But how does one translate the many aspects of a poem or novel that cannot be communicated through words alone? Aspects like the dialect of a region, the nuances of life in a certain part of the world – the local legends and traditions, the likes and dislikes of the people, the sayings, the beliefs, the histories, the stories and the eccentricities to which only the people who live and speak the language can relate to. Communicating all this in addition to the emotions of the writer that has gone into creating the work of art cannot be an easy task at all.

Professor P Lal used the term transcreation, suggesting that the translator re-creates the work of art all over again. The session conveyed that both these translators did just that, they not only love the works that they translate, they also own them. They assimilate the essence of the work and then re-create it all over again in English.

Talking about translating The Chieftain’s Daughter by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Arunava Sinha mentioned that he had taken care to give a contemporary feel to the book. Bankim Chandra must not have considered that the book would become a classic for posterity, for he had been just twenty seven when he wrote it. It is very much a young man’s book with action, romance, heroism and drama, a book that could be read as a contemporary novel in just about any period of time. He elaborated a little about the practical difficulties in translating from Bangla which allegedly has as many as twenty different words to describe the moon in various contexts. The excerpt that he read out was crisp and concise and had a definite contemporary feel about it, considering that it was from a historical novel set in a totally different period.

The conversation went on, stating that classics were books that needed to be read as they are – neither worshipped as they were a few decades earlier, nor condemned as they are in present days when it has become fashionable to label ‘classic’ as a bad word.

‘Classic’ remains a good word to me. A book published a century or two ago does not become a classic on account of its age alone. A classic is a book for all ages that reaches out to the reader beyond time and space. Books that can be read again and again, that give new and varied insights into life and the world.

“I am in Aandaal’s thrall” said the poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria sharing her exhilaration in translating the poems of the eight century mystic saint Aandaal. Her commitment and enthusiasm towards the classics was evident from the fact that that she has learnt the ancient language Pali to read the Jataka tales. She had the audience enthralled for the next thirty minutes in which she described the beauty of the poetry of Aandaal and the challenges that she faced translating it.

Like most other girls in Chennai, I grew up listening to and singing the songs of Aandaal every year. Unlike Mirabai’s songs that are heard around the year, Aandaal’s poems are specifically sung in December – January which marks the Tamil month of Margazhi. But as beloved as Mira’s songs are, she remains a saint as does Mahadevi Akka while Aandaal alone is worshipped as a Goddess.

On visiting the Srirangam temple, I decided that Aandaal could not be blamed for falling in love with the Lord. One look at the exquisite countenance of the idol in the sanctum sanctorum and it is easy to understand why. Smiling marble Krishnas and Ramas, serene Buddhas, dashing Greek Gods – all of them are likely to pale in front of the bewitching smile of the Lord of Srirangam. Aandaal was not the only young girl to have lost her heart to the idol. There is the story of the princess of Delhi who died in the sanctum out of her love and longing for the idol. She is now enshrined as a Goddess consort in the sprawling Srirangam temple and goes by the name of Thulukka Naachiyaar, with chapattis being specially prepared for her prasad.

Perhaps as I grew up singing and listening to Aandal’s verses of love for her Lord in a spiritual context, I had never thought of her as a fifteen year old girl-poet. To me Aandal had always been an ageless being, a mystic saint, a veritable goddess. As Priya talked, for the first time I saw Aandaal as a teenager wandering around the woods of Srivilliputthur, singing in divine rapture and lighting up the countryside with her musical offerings of garlands of verse. I saw her for the first time as a human being, the adolescent Kothai who was besotted with her Hero – The Lord. Aandaal’s passionate poetry has several layers of meaning, said Priya as she went on to explain how a verse on ‘the monsoon clouds with pearls of rain falling from it’ can be interpreted as the ‘dark blue body of Vishnu jeweled with sweat’ at a corporeal level, and on a metaphysical level as ‘deep compacted space with spinning galaxies’, for the body of the Lord contains the Universe within it. She read out three different translations of the same verse, each one profound and beautiful.

The Durbar Hall became very quiet as she read out her translations from the Nacchiyaar Thirumozhi. As she read on, I could feel the presence of Aandaal in Mirabai’s land.

I had only expected to hear the authors speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival. It was wonderful to find that a Goddess was in attendance as well. And how befitting, for wasn’t it Aandaal’s poetry that consecrated her as Divine?


Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality