Introducing #DesiBooksReview Issue 3
Editor: JENNY BHATT
Welcome to the third issue of #DesiBooksReview.
We’re a month later than planned with this issue. My apologies. We’ll be making changes to our review process to streamline this in the future. Or, we may have to switch to a different publication schedule.
One of the big changes we shared in the previous issue was our commitment to putting desi poets, authors, and translators on issue covers. As I had written then, this is “for the simple reason that we don’t get to see them celebrated on magazine covers much at all. Further, we want to shine a light on those who have made their mark in ways that go beyond their books.”
Issue 3 of #DesiBooksReview spotlights an author and a translator who have both certainly done more than making their mark with their books. Vaasanthi is a legendary Tamil journalist, activist, author, and editor. At the time of writing, she is eighty years old and continues to inspire with her prolific output and fearless positions. N Kalyan Raman is one of our best Tamil-to-English translators and, beyond translation, his incisive and insightful book reviews, especially of translated works, are masterclasses in themselves. [Full disclosure: he reviewed my debut translation for the Sahitya Akademi.]
Historical fiction is sometimes the only way to reveal powerful truths about a culture or legacy that has been footnoted or distorted by powerful record-keepers. In her afterword to Breaking Free, the English translation of her Tamil novel Vittu Viduthalaiyagi (2012), Vaasanthi describes why she was compelled to write about devadasis, a community of temple dancers that has ancient roots. She describes how the caste and class hierarchies that still control Tamil Nadu today have such an aversion to that past devadasi culture that they continue working to erase it entirely. Her novel is a resistance and a stand against such systemic erasure. And her story about the forgotten artists and their beautiful art forms is a way to honor that ancient social institution and those who both contributed to it and suffered because of it. As such, the book is much more than a work of aesthetic pleasure. It is a sociopolitical and historical artifact. It is also worth noting that the Tamil edition was published when this prolific author, who writes bilingually in Tamil and English, was in her seventies.
N Kalyan Raman’s translator’s note in the book talks about why Vaasanthi’s sensitive and well-researched portrayals of this complex, polarizing history of devadasi culture drew him to translate her novel. He also shares two main challenges of translating from Indian languages into English. With any literary translation, I always read the translator’s note before I read the book. These essays are not merely paratext. Each such note is a rare view into the translator’s mind and rationale and a unique perspective on the source text and its importance within our literary and cultural traditions.
This issue features a total of seven books and almost all of them focus on the past or the future with the present depicted as either tragedy or horror. Make of that what you will. Five novels, a story collection, and a memoir take us across the globe and into both speculative and mythological worlds. Four of these works are translations into English from Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati, and Sanskrit. Another point that unites these books and is explored by our reviewers: how every author pushes their specific literary tradition and genre further.
Suhasini Patni reviews Krishna Sobti’s historical novel, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, in Daisy Rockwell’s translation. When I first began reading the draft, I felt there was too much of a plot summary. Normally, I ask writers to avoid synopsis-style reviews. But, as I read on, I realized what Patni was aiming for. As you’ll see when you read, Patni doesn’t simply relate major plot points but reveals how each one, despite taking place in recently partitioned India, can show us how to reckon with our present. And Patni gives the translator, Daisy Rockwell, her due for honoring the well-known Sobti tradition of “lexical and stylistic experimentations” that “defy the boundaries of language and plot.”
Nariman Karkaria’s memoir, The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria (translated by Murali Ranganathan), cannot be interpreted in the same way. As Veena Narayan describes in her review, this book is about a world “long gone—a world of journeys by steamships and railway trains pulled by steam engines.” According to the translator, Ranganathan, Karkaria had no proper Gujarati memoir tradition to learn from in his time and turned to the Gujarati travelogue tradition. In so doing, Narayan writes, Karkaria has given us a work that not only straddles both the war memoir and travelogue genres but deserves a special place in each of them. In the anthology Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, one of the co-editors, Tabish Khair, writes about the myth of the centrality of Anglophone and European travel writing and how “from the eighteenth century onwards, there was a proliferation of travel books by Indians—penned not only in English, but also in other Indian languages like Malayalam, Bangla (Bengali), Urdu, Hindi, and, in the past, Persian.” This memoir by Karkaria is a terrific example of such non-English travel writing traditions.
Speaking of Mr. Khair, we have a review of his latest novel, The Body by the Shore, by Jey Sushil. Yes, it’s a pandemic-themed novel about how microbes become the new frontiers to be conquered and harnessed. But, when such a premise is in the hands of a multi-genre author like Khair, you know you’ll get a lot more than you might be able to imagine. Sushil writes about how the story goes back and forth between the past and the future, real and speculative worlds, and scientific and humanistic concerns. Along the way, there are “explorations of migration, global discrimination, and neo-liberalism.” A global novel, a fiction of the Anthropocene, and a book that leaves us with more questions than it answers despite its thoroughly-researched plot points.
And, if the above dystopia hasn’t scared you enough, try Chandrima Das’ Young Blood: Ten Terrifying College Tales, a horror story collection. But, as reviewer P S Nissim tells us, this is not your usual Indian horror fiction. Das veers away from the usual fears and terrors we encounter in this genre and turns her sharp gaze onto young, urban India instead. The result is a set of stories that, per Nissim, won’t let you “walk around the Fergusson College campus in Pune again without thinking of who roams those gardens.” Nissim cleverly invokes some much-loved Bollywood tropes at one point in the review and that set my imagination going with slick horror meta-fiction set in the world of Bollywood. Someone needs to write that book next.
All our desi fictional tropes, I once read somewhere, can be traced back to our two ancient Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Rashi Rohatgi gives us a two-fer with her review essay, where she considers two new versions of the Ramayana. One is a feminist retelling by Vaishnavi Patel titled Kaikeyi. The other is a one-volume translation of The Ramayana of Valmiki by Robert and Sally Goldman. While neither is necessarily doing anything entirely new, both books extend, in their own ways, the long-running traditions of mythology retranslation and retelling. And both explore the theme of friendship in various ways, as Rohatgi writes, showing us “many paths to truth” as long as we can ensure a “good faith reading.”
Earlier in my note here, I’d mentioned how all of these books have pushed their specific literary traditions and genres further. This is not because the authors are indulging in literary fun and games. They do not have that kind of luxury or privilege given our desi literary ecosystem. In each case, the book’s author (and, where applicable, translator) is working toward specific cultural interventions in our sociopolitical discourses. Each excerpt and review here tells us just how the author is attempting to do so. It is then up to us readers to carry forward their interventions into our own daily discourses and, in so doing, initiate our own. All of which is to say: I encourage you to read these reviews carefully, engage with the respective books mindfully, and share them within your social circles to create more conversations around them. Thank you.
Do share your thoughts about this third issue. If this kind of review aesthetic is your thing, you can pitch reviews here. We’d love to include reviews of poetry collections and nonfiction that goes beyond memoir.
And, finally, if you’d like to get regular updates about more such reviews and other literary matters, please sign up here.
Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.
Editor-in-Chief, Desi Books
Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 3
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and creative writing instructor. Her latest book is a literary translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. More here: https://jennybhattwriter.com/bio.