What the Booker Prize can do for Indian poetry

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There is a current of blood flowing through all the pronouns now.
My day dawns beyond the wall of grammar.
God’s shit falls on the bed of creation.

Words, pistol shots. As the title of the very short Outlook review said in 2007. Namdeo Dhasal’s Marathi in Dilip Chitre’s English. Navayana, a young independent publishing house, in its fourth year, has given the world Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld, Poems 1972–2006. One of the most beautiful poets of our time, Chitré, was as comfortable with Marathi as with English. For more than four decades, he had translated Dhasal: Among India’s Greatest Poets of the Twentieth Century. Chitre was struggling with a metamorphosed variant of Marathi that was admittedly far removed from the bourgeois world from which he and his friends came. Thousands of savarnes and hundreds of thousands of Dalits around the Marathi-speaking world had become Dhasal fans long before the momentous year 1972, when Golpitha (golda round structure; pitha, a country liquor store), was published. The poetry is set in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district. In the same year, Dalit Panther was founded, with Dhasal as one of its architects.

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Taxi driver. Brute. Force of nature. God of poetry. The Big Other. Mahar. This is how Chitre saw Dhasal. Chitre was born Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (the same caste as Balasaheb Thackeray), steeped in the ethos of Marathi and classical ‘Sanskritic’ poetry, art and music. He was also one of the boys at Clearing House, where friends published each other’s work and unwittingly ran the CIA-funded literary journal, Quest. Along with his own poetry and work on Dhasal, Chitre translated the works of Jnaneswar (12th century) and Tukaram (16th century). The same poets, I discovered them later, Babasaheb Ambedkar read them with passion.

READ ALSO : Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree may be a big moment for Hindi literature, but not enough for Indian translations

Prostitutes in Kamathipura Photograph: Getty Images

In 2004 or 2005, Tehelka, then a broadsheet, featured Chitre’s translations of Dhasal. The translations were dazzling. I lived in Chennai, I worked for Outlook as a daytime correspondent, and Navayana was my moonlit passion. I contacted Chitre, and through him Dhasal, and signed an agreement. Since Chitre asked, explaining his and Dhasal’s indigence as poets, I paid pitiful advances of five thousand rupees each to the poet and the translator. After the book was published, I paid another five thousand rupees. Two years have passed. There was no manuscript. Chitre then told me on the phone that the book would only be finished if I visited them. I moved to Pune in January 2007, where Chitre and the love of his life, Viju, lived in a small apartment.

READ ALSO : Journey of an Accidental Translator: Two Decades of “Bengalification” and a Long Engagement with the Bengali Language

It was both a pilgrimage and a homecoming. Chitre and Viju slept on a bed built into the balcony. I was given the single bedroom, where their son, filmmaker Ashay Chitre, had died, suffocated, alone, as the room caught fire, possibly from his cigarette. It was in 2003. He was 30 years old. His death has been called a mystery. Kumar Gandharva and Bhimsen Joshi colored our evenings around a gin embellished with a fine zest of jamun soaked overnight. I was served vodka with a hint of star anise. We watched some of Chitre’s award winning films. We talked into the night. I ate some of the best food of my life. I was briefly their Ashay. Chitre was bad at computers and didn’t know a final draft of another, more definitive draft. Viju helped me sort things out. His first and best reader, she had helped him improve the translations and finalize them. In three days, the manuscript was ready. I had little to do as an editor.

Navayana
Navayana

Just as I was planning a big release for the Dhasal-Chitre book, the British Council, in association with the London Book Fair, announced a competition for Young International Publisher of the Year – something the former colonizer has made as a remedy to help publishers in the developing world find their place in the international ‘market’. In April 2007, during the IYPY competition, each of us had to make a “book pitch”. Mine was the beautiful, unconventional nine-inch-square board book, Namdeo Dhasal: poet of the underworld. I had a reason for the large format: some lines in Dhasal were long and threatened to jump off the page, like in Ginsberg’s To yell. I didn’t want to inflict line breaks on the poetry. Inside, the edition featured covers of several Marathi works, including Dhasal’s stunning design of Golpithaas well as the photographs of the German Henning Stegmüller.

Queering the field, an IYPY jury member told me, “Poetry contributes less than 3% of the global book market. And poetry translated even less. Why did you choose to present this book? I let Dhasal speak: “Man, you should explode/ Yourself to pieces to begin with/ Dancing to a wild drum beat/ Smoking hashish, smoking ganja/ Chewing opium, biting lalpari…” I told them that Neruda doesn’t write in English, but the whole world reads it now. I want the same for Dhasal.

Literary spot Gogu Shyamala and the cover of his collection of short stories
Literary spotlight Gogu Shyamala and the cover of his collection of short stories.

I managed to price the 180-page hardcover book at just Rs 350 with a print run of 1,400 copies. A dozen rave reviews appeared. I thought I would run out of copies in a few months. It took me more than four years to exhaust the stock. I felt like Guru Dutt in Kaagaz ke Phool. I often feel like this but find strength in Tukaram abhang, Lahanpan dega deva/ mungi sakhrecha rava—Lord, give me the smallness / A granule of sugar that the ant receives.

I keep Dhasal printed in a smaller format, with a new title, A stream of blood– without photographs and many forced line breaks. For this mighty river of a Broken Poet, sales are dwindling – it now takes three years to sell a thousand copies. This story of the best Indian poet in translation did not deter me from undertaking translations or poetry.

Tilted Axis Press signed Geetanjali Shree’s work long before Indian publishers entertained this 750-page novel.

What I learned during my trip to London was this: in the first world, the state and its art and poetry councils, despite the austerity of their conservative governments, subsidize independent presses. University presses abroad are heavily subscribed. India has no university presses. Only poor independents. Tilted Axis Press signed Geetanjali Shree’s work long before Indian publishers entertained this 750-page novel. In fact, the Indian trade edition was published almost a year after it appeared in London, just before Booker’s brouhaha.

In 2012, I published Gogu Shyamala short stories with an intriguing title, The father may be an elephant and the mother is just a little basket, but…. Critics and acclaim followed. Shyamala was invited to Jaipur. Invitations to conferences in Australia and Germany have taken place. Sales, however, were dismal. Shyamala’s work had found no publisher in the original Telugu. In fact, several Telugu readers read Shyamala for the first time in English. Why is that? A note in the book explains why: “These stories are written in a variant of Telugu used by the Dalits in the Tandur region of western Telangana. Academic and official Telugu is Sanskritized and has an upper caste, inclined towards Andhra. At the same time as sand tomb, Deborah Smith of Tilted Axis Press – a translator who put her own earnings from Booker to found the press – approached Navayana about the British-American rights for Shyamala’s book. He has since passed an exam in The Guardian.

In pre-modern times, the best poets of the subcontinent mainly sang their verses, and they sang and recited to each other with joy. Poetry spread, literally, by word of mouth. From the Sangam poets (translated by AK Ramanujan and George Hart in the 1970s and 1980s) to what is reductively called the Bhakti movement, poetry has given wings to all languages ​​- as vachana, abhang, shabad, bani, sakhis, ghazal, bandha, padams. Many of these poets belonged to the working caste and working class – what we now call Dalit-Bahujan. However, in the English-speaking world market, only novels and great documentaries travel. Our best poetry languishes. Back to poetry. Let a stream of blood flow through all the pronouns now.

(The opinions expressed are personal)


S. Anand is the editor, Navayana


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