#DesiBooks10QA: Himadri Agarwal on listening as a way to master translation of dialogue and humor

About the translator

Himadri Agarwal is an editor, a translator, and a reader. She currently works at Yoda Press and will soon be starting as an English Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, College Park. When not buried in a book or busy with work, she enjoys playing Dungeons & Dragons, eating junk food, or doing both things at the same time.

Editor’s Note: Catch Himadri Agarwal discussing this translation at the virtual event collaboration with the Ashoka Center for Translation in August 2022, Shaam-e-Tarjuma.

About the author

Satya Vyas is a writer of modern or new age Hindi, also known as “Nai wali Hindi.” He is a law graduate from Banaras Hindu University and a logistics professional. He has written five bestselling books, widely ranging in genre, style, setting, and milieu: Banaras Talkies, Dilli Darbar, Chaurasi/84, Baghi Ballia, and Uff Kolkata. His works have been translated into several languages.

About the book

Bhagwandas Hostel at Banaras Hindu University can be mistaken for being like any other college hostel, but that would be a gross error. For, among the corridors of BD Hostel roam never-before-seen characters: Suraj the narrator, whose goal is to woo a girl, any girl; Anurag De, for whom cricket is life, literally, and Jaivardhan, whose melancholia gets him to answer every query with ‘ghanta’. Follow the adventures of the three friends and others as they navigate undergraduate life in one of India’s most vibrant colleges, plan to steal exam papers, struggle to speak to women, find friends in corridors lined with dirty linen, and forge lifelong bonds amid bad mess food. First published in Hindi in 2015, Banaras Talkies has remained on the bestseller list since then. A slice-of-life novel, it captures college life with all its twists and turns. Written with the idiomatic flourish that is the hallmark of Banarasi colloquialism, this comic novel is one of India’s great contemporary coming-of-age novels.

Banaras Talkies is a bestselling Hindi novel by Satya Vyas translated into English by Himadri Agarwal. A comical coming-of-age story about contemporary Indian college life with all its twists and turns. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks


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

How I Taught My Grandmother to Read: and Other Stories by Sudha Murty. When I read it, I distinctly remember feeling . . . at home. It was the first time I realized that books are written about real people and real lives; the first time that I saw myself and my life in literature. And I was very lucky because, in that portrayal, I found strength and independence, combined with love and family and connections, which I value so much. That boundary between what happens in books and what happens in real life started to fade and that just opened a whole new world for me.

The book that changed Himadri Agarwal’s life: “When I read [How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories by Sudha Murty], I distinctly remember feeling . . . at home.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

I have not read much on Indian college life, so I cannot quite pinpoint a book as such. But I will say that, in terms of Indian cinema, Banaras Talkies is like Kahaani meets 3 Idiots.

Editor’s Note: A partial list of Indian and Pakistani fiction works featuring campus settings (in alphabetical order by author’s first name):
Amitabha Bagchi’s Above Average
Anita Desai’s In Custody
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland
Manju Kapoor’s Difficult Daughters
Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road
Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics, Run and Hide
Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire, Fireflies in the Mist
R K Narayan’s The English Teacher, Swami trilogy
Saikat Majumdar’s The Scent of God, The Middle Finger
Siddhartha Chowdhury’s Day Scholar, The Patna Manual of Style
Srividya Natarajan’s No Onions Nor Garlic
Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, translated by Jason Grunebaum
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

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

I enjoy science and I believe India has an absolute treasure of scientists in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. I’ve been reading some fictionalized science biographies—stories that reveal the thought processes, conflicts, struggles, and hierarchies that shaped these people’s journeys and their inventions and discoveries. A lyrical documentation of these lives would be incredible.

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

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. It’s by my professor and one of my idols but that is not the reason. It is a patient book that values slowness when everything else is going by too fast. That is of immense personal significance to me. And what I need right now as a reader, I believe, is to be soothed by a book. 

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

I enjoyed the Professor Shonku story series by Satyajit Ray immensely. They’re so witty and imaginative and I wish we could get more children’s writing like it.

Himadri Agarwal on the desi book that should be read more: [Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku story series are] so witty and imaginative and I wish we could get more children’s writing like it. #DB10QA @DesiBooks

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

My favorite piece of translation advice: Listen. Listen to the people around you. Overhear. Eavesdrop. I work with humor and dialogue and I have found that the one way to master them is by listening. People don’t think much about how they speak but a translator should.

#translationtip from Himadri Agarwal: Listen to the people around you. Overhear. Eavesdrop. I work with humor and dialogue and I have found that the one way to master them is by listening. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

A lot of taking breaks, letting myself walk away when it got too hard, and not being afraid to ask for help. The best way to keep at something is to get up when it gets too much. 

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

To have people reading Banaras Talkies, have them talking about it, to be able to give my parents a copy, and for them to see my name on a book. But also for people to recognize the value of translation and use this book to discuss larger questions of translation. 

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

This book is all about people. I think most books are such. An author gave a translator a suggestion and he passed that suggestion on to me and that’s how Banaras Talkies happened. All through the process of translation, I’ve reached out to people, readers, writers, and students with questions and requests for help. Even the book is set in a university space, so students and teachers have been even more important. It was absolutely crucial to get feedback, have conversations, and discuss queries. I think just talking about the book made it grow. And of course, I had lovely editors, who helped me bring it into the world.

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

I want people to laugh. I want readers to know that it is okay to read things that are light and funny. I hope the book makes them grin, makes them giggle, and maybe even makes them a little nostalgic.


Himadri Agarwal on reader takeaways from her translation of Satya Vyas’ Banaras Talkies: laugh, grin, giggle, maybe even get a little nostalgic. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Himadri Agarwal’s translation of Satya Vyas’ Banaras Talkies is out now. Catch Himadri Agarwal discussing this translation at the virtual event collaboration with the Ashoka Center for Translation in August 2022, Shaam-e-Tarjuma.

Banaras Talkies is a bestselling Hindi novel by Satya Vyas translated into English by Himadri Agarwal. A comical coming-of-age story about contemporary Indian college life with all its twists and turns. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks


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