#DesiBooks10QA: Dibyajyoti Sarma on translating Indira Goswami’s Five Novellas About Women

About the translator:

Dibyajyoti Sarma was born in Assam. He studied in Pune, Maharashtra, for his Masters in English, where he learned to speak and write English. His first book of poems, Glimpses of a Personal History, was published by Writer’s Workshop in 2004. Since then, he has published two more volumes of poetry, Pages from an Unfinished Autobiography (2014) and Book of Prayers for the Nonbelievers (2018). He has also translated Assamese poets, Sananta Tanty (Selected Poems Sananta Tanty2017) and Kamal Kumar Tanty (Post-Colonial Poems, 2019; with Shalim M Hussain.) In 2014, Sarma started the independent publishing venture, Red River, based in Delhi, and has, so far, published sixty books. His translation of Assamese author Indira Goswami’s Five Novellas About Women was published in July 2021.

About the author:

Indira Goswami (14 November 1942 – 29 November 2011), who wrote as Mamoni Raisom Goswami in Assamese, and is popularly known as Mamoni Baideo, was an award-winning author and an icon of feminist writing. She wrote about people rarely represented in Indian writing—women, the marginalized, the powerless. Winner of India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith (2001), as well as the Sahitya Akademi Award (1983), and the Principal Prince Claus Laureate (2008), Goswami was also an editor, poet, professor, and scholar, best known for her novels such as The Moth Eaten Howdah of the TuskerPages Stained with Blood, and The Man from Chinnamasta. She was also known for her attempts to structure social change, both through her writings and through her role as mediator between the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the government of India, through the People’s Consultative Group, a peace committee.

About the book:

Indira Goswami is a great literary writer of her generation and a feminist icon. Most of her major works have been translated from Assamese into English; however some of her works are yet to be discovered by a larger audience. These Five Novellas About Women represent a cross-section of her writing. Sensitively translated, with detailed notes on the translation, these stories bring to light the human condition that Indira Goswami portrayed throughout her writing. The lives of the rural poor, the situation of widows, the plight of the urban underclass and various social constraints under which people are forced to live are depicted in these impactful narratives. The deft use of language, striking imagery, and strong characters are a hallmark of Indira Goswami’s writing. The stories in this selection exhibit these unique characteristics of her work in abundance. These nuanced translations bring the literary creations of one of the great writers of our times to new life and a wider audience.

Five Novellas About Women by Indira Goswami, tr. by Dibyajyoti Sarma, show her deft use of language, striking imagery, and strong characters; all hallmarks of Goswami’s writing. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

The Mahabharata. All its different versions and retellings, starting with C Rajagopalachari’s version which I first read in Assamese translation when I was in class V. The breadth of the stories contained within the epic continues to mesmerize me. I’ve written a couple of poems based on characters from the epic.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Both are different writers. Devi is fiercely political while Goswami’s politics are ever so subtle. But both the books are about women on the margins, who continue to fight for their rights even when the entire world is against them. The agency these writers give to their women characters is remarkable in its depiction.

Goswami’s Five Novellas is similar to Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories because both are about women fighting from the margins with personal agency. ~Dibyajyoti Sarma #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

For a long time, I’d wanted to read books set exclusively in the Northeast of India and populated by local characters, but presented to readers as Indian books, not books from the Northeast. It is usually the case that Northeast India is presented as the ‘other’ compared to mainland India. Finally, I got my wish in the recent fictional works of Easterine Kire, especially the award-winning When the River Sleeps, where Kire achieves something mysterious: making a specifically local story effortlessly universal.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I am currently reading Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s 1024-page novel Funeral Nights, an epic of the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. The novel centers around a unique six-day-long funeral ceremony of the Lyngngams, a Khasi sub-tribe. This ceremony involves a number of rituals, the sacrifice of as many as fifty bulls, and concludes with the cremation of a beloved elder, a woman whose body has been preserved in a tree house for nine whole months. I am in awe how Nongkynrih, an accomplished poet, has managed to interweave a tapestry of life-affirming stories with an anthropologist’s eye for details. It harks back to the days when we would listen to our grandparents tell stories by the fire, and this book is just as magical. I cannot recommend it enough.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

Assamese author Dhruba Jyoti Borah’s Elegy for the East: A Story of Blood and Broken Dreams, translated by the author from the Assamese. The Assamese novel, Kalantarar Gadya, is a monumental achievement, a sociopolitical history of the insurgency movement that plagued the state in the 1990s. We, in Assam, are still facing the repercussions of what happened those days, how a generation of youngsters lost their way and their lives, but it appears that the mainland folks have already moved on.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I was lucky enough to be able to show the manuscript of my second collection of poems to the renowned poet and critic, Vijay Nambisan. He made some comments on the manuscript and said, “Edit. Edit your poems like it is work. Sit at your desk. Use paper and pencil. And go through each word, each sentence, and decide why it is necessary. Remove everything that is unnecessary.” This is the best writing advice I have ever received.

#WritingTip from Dibyajyoti Sarma: “Edit. […] go through each word, each sentence, and decide why it is necessary. Remove everything that is unnecessary.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

To be honest, it was not my choice to translate Indira Goswami. She is a cultural icon and I felt inadequate to the task. But a friend, who was then a commissioning editor, asked me to try it and I couldn’t say no. Once I had decided to do the translations, I had two tasks at hand. First, to do justice to Goswami’s writing (she has a unique way of constructing sentences and using punctuation), and two, make it sound English. I believe a translator’s job, first and foremost, is to make the text flow fluidly in the target language. For this, I had to make some choices. It’s up to the readers now to tell me if I have been successful.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

I am sure the book will not be a “literary success.” I know that might sound like sour grapes. I mean, I am a reasonably well-known poet, but this is my first translation. So I doubt there will be many publications wanting to pick up the book for reviews. In India, like everywhere I guess, a literary work is valued based on the name of the author than the actual value of the work. And I am okay with it. I just hope my publisher manages to sell enough copies so that I am allowed to translate another book.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

Tremendously. My career as a book reviewer and my experience as an editor and publisher has consciously or unconsciously informed the choices I made while translating the book. I also must thank my friends who do not know Assamese, but read the draft of the translations and pointed out what worked and what did not.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

My goal with Five Novellas About Women is to show readers that Assamese literature has the same depth and diversity as any other regional literatures in India. I hope that, after reading this book, readers will seek out more Assamese authors, in original English or in translation.

“My goal […] is to show readers that Assamese literature has the same depth and diversity as any other regional literatures in India.” ~Dibyajyoti Sarma on translating Indira Goswami’s Five Novellas About Women #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Dibyajyoti Sarma’s translation (from the Assamese into English) of Five Novellas About Women by Indira Goswami is out now. More at his website.

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