Daisy Rockwell - “Publishing is obsessed with the cult of the new”
The Booker Prize winner on translating Rukogi Nahin, Radhika?, Hindi author Usha Priyamvada’s novel, which was first published in 1967
Take us back to your first encounter with Usha Priyamvada’s work. What struck you about her characters, voice, writing style, and the themes and concerns that were significant to her?
I had read her a long time ago. She is often given to Hindi language students to read because her language is perfectly standard and all the words are in the dictionary unlike regionalist authors. I returned to her writing when Rakhshanda Jalil asked me to translate an excerpt from Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls (English translation of Usha Priyamvada’s novel Pachpan Khambe, Laal Deewarein) for a collection that she was putting together on writing about Delhi. She wanted a passage that featured descriptions of the university where the protagonist teaches, which is modelled on Lady Shri Ram College. I was struggling through experimental writing of Tomb of Sand (English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s novel Ret Samadhi) in those days, and the clarity of Ushaji’s language was a much-needed balm. I love the precision of her descriptions, the ambivalence of her characters, and the economy of language.
She was a student of comparative literature at the University of Indiana and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. How does this intimate experience of American life distinguish her writing from her contemporaries in the world of Hindi literature?
This is her second novel, and the first one where she describes anything about American life. It’s great fun for me, because I know Madison well, and went to college and graduate school in Chicago as well, so the things she is describing are very familiar to me. But despite her life in the United States she still remains firmly rooted in Hindi literature, and continues to read it and write it to this day (in her nineties!). In fact, she just published another novel: Arkadipt.
What similarities and differences do you notice when you compare her work to Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri – the other American novelists of Indian heritage who come to mind when one thinks of migration and homesickness?
Ushaji’s writing is extremely different, because she is writing for Hindi readers, so she does not have to explain things about Indian culture. But she does, in her later work, have to explain things about American culture, which is fun to read as an American.
The protagonist of Usha Priyamvada’s novel Rukogi Nahin, Radhika? is a woman who moves from India to the United States to escape the rift between her and her widowed father who marries a younger woman. How was her treatment of this plot received in 1967? If/when you interacted with her during the translation process, did she share any anecdotes with you?
Actually, I did not discuss it with her, and I have no idea! But I can ask.
Your English translation – Won’t You Stay, Radhika? – has released 56 years after the novel was published in Hindi. How do you feel about bringing the text to a new set of readers, especially those who will pick it up because they loved Tomb of Sand, your last translation?
I love older works: I am a translator of the classics. Tomb of Sand is an anomaly in my oeuvre in that respect. But it is my dearest wish that more people start reading non-contemporary work because it is so rich and varied. Publishing is obsessed with the cult of the new, but I remain a firm adherent to the cult of the old. I am currently learning Persian and reading (haltingly) the Gulistan by Sa’di, which was completed in 1258. I am simply overjoyed to be travelling to the 13th century!
What do you make of the sense of betrayal that Radhika feels when her father remarries? Is she unwilling to see her father as a romantic and sexual creature who desires companionship? Does she want to hold on to him more than ever because he is the only parent she has?
Well, sure, all these things, but on the other hand, he does not give her much time to process it. And since his choice is close to her in age and kind of chilly, Radhika does not get anything maternal out of the bargain.
In the introduction to your translation, you note that boredom or ennui is the primary lens through which Radhika views the men in her life. Do you see her as picky, queer, or as someone with terrible options? Have readers interested in psychoanalytic interpretations concluded that nobody is good enough for her because she is looking for a father figure?
The “Electra Complex” theory is proffered by Vidya, her father’s new wife, which I feel is a way for the author to float the possibility, without endorsing it, since Vidya would not be the most reliable source. Is she picky? Maybe. Is she queer? Could be! Even before she leaves India, she has a feeling of unbelonging, of not fitting in.
You describe Radhika as “ruined for traditional marriage”. If you put yourself in her shoes, what do you think she might say about shows like Indian Matchmaking and Made in Heaven?
Well, to be honest, I have not watched them! But I imagine she would find them annoying and switch them off in favour of an Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa film fest.
In the past, you have translated another novel by Usha Priyamvada – Pachpan Khambe, Laal Deewarein – as Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls. How would you describe the experience of working with her, especially because she too is a translator? (She translated Mirabai’s poetry.)
Because her language is so clear and unambiguous, I barely had to ask her a single question. She has been very supportive of the outcome, though, maybe because she does understand what a translator is up to.
You leave names of delicacies such as mathri, dalmoth, jalebi and kheer untranslated. If you were working with an American or British publisher instead of an Indian one, what sort of descriptions would you use for readers who might be unfamiliar with these foods?
I used to be concerned about these things, but now we have Google, and people can look anything up and see pictures and watch YouTube videos of the cooking process! Sometimes it is very important that the reader know more precisely what sort of food it is, or that it is food at all, so then I add in little helping words, like ‘crispy’ alongside pakodas, or ‘sweet’ with rasmalai.
What was the thought process behind Maithili Doshi Aphale’s cover design for Won’t You Stay, Radhika? Since you are a painter, and have created cover art for some of your books, what inputs did you offer?
I actually had nothing to do with that. I only saw the finished product, which is lovely!
What are some of the projects that you are currently involved with?
I am translating Geetanjali Shree’s 1998 novel Hamara Shahar Us Baras (Our City, that Year), which is set in a city much like Surat, during communal riots much like what occurred following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Also, a short story collection of hers: Yahan Haathi Rehte The (Once Elephants Lived Here). And I am working on two Urdu projects: Nagari Nagari Phira Musafir (for which I have not come up with the perfect title yet!), a 1955 novel by Nisar Aziz Butt (1927-2020) about a highly intellectual young Pathan woman. I like to say that it is Middlemarch (a novel by George Eliot) meets Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. The other is the horror and romance writings of Hijab Imtiaz Ali (1908-1999). I have translated some of her horror short stories so far and I love her so much! And then I just might be working on a memoirish sort of thing on translation.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.