Remembering U. R. Ananthamurthy

URAM-portrait@800The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.

One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.

I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?

All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.

My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.

I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.

At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I  extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.

So long then, Sir.

 
Image source: http://kvsas.by2coffeefilms.com/blog

An Award and some Revelations

The lovely and humorous Gargi hononoured me with the Honest Scrap Award sometime back. As the recipient, I must tell you all ten things about myself.Disclaimer:

The author shall not be deemed responsible for any boredom this post may cause.

1) The first prize I ever won was for a recitation competition. I was in class (grade) I and bagged a consolation prize for reciting a poem by Swami Vivekananda.

2) In class VI when I had to give up one of the two extracurricular activities of dance and music, I let go of dance. Music has stayed with me, ever since.

3) It was in class VI only that any recognition of my writing came about. The perpetrator of this act was an essay I wrote about a trip to Appu Ghar, an amusement park in Delhi. Our English teacher, with whom I am still in touch, wrote “Good” at the end of it.

4) As a Bengali, I am crazy about fish–possibly in any and all forms. Unlike many Bengalis, I am not so crazy about sweets. There, I said it.

5) I wrote my first short story at age 14. It was in Bangla and was lucky enough to meet the approval of my immensely talented (and accomplished) author Grandma.

6) A place I return to (and must keep returning to) again and again is Santiniketan. I wasn’t born or raised there, but it’s a heart’s connection I haven’t been able to explain or eliminate.

7) The first trip I ever made outside my hometown was to the historic city of Agra. Fatehpur Sikri enchanted me even more than the world wonder, Taj Mahal.

8) My technologically challenged brain causes me eternal frustration…Sigh.

9) My first foreign trip happened in 2009, courtesy a translation Fellowship I won for my translation of a remarkable book on legendary sculptor-painter, Ramkinkar Baij. I was in the lovely city of Norwich, UK, for two months.

10) I met my husband through this very blog. He is even there on my blogroll. 🙂

Humility


When the moon and the stars loom up there
You glow on the universe of your foliage–
As the world goes to sleep.


Silently you come, without a fuss;
No announcement, no flaunting of beauty
Not any attempt to hold the passerby spellbound.


In the morning, before the world rubs its bleary eyes,
You silently drop down,
No clinging, no worrying
about getting crushed under walking feet.


Yet, you draw us–
By your plain scent,
Your unassuming beauty,
Your amazing way with stopping passersby,
Bringing them down to their knees,
To pick you up gently.

You just smile, silently.

Note: Every autumn, the Shiuli, a small flower with white petals and orange stalk, blooms in different parts of India. This delicate flower blooms in the dead of night and by morning, drops off the branches. It has a soft, mild fragrance and heralds the biggest Bengali festival, Durga Puja.

Writing Strengths Meme

Lately I had been thinking of writing a those-were-the-days post, reminiscing my days of youthful blogging—of learning from erudite fellow bloggers, of “wish-I-wrote-that” moments, of unconsciously smiling upon coming across a slice of a blogger friend’s life, of discovering new friends, and of being discovered. Of feeling humbled for coming across vastly more knowledgeable and perceptive bloggers who took the time to read my posts, and of keeping in touch with old pals splintered off a writing site that saw a sad demise.

Just when I was contemplating that post, Onipar, a gifted (I don’t say that lightly) horror writer and one of the most inspiring writing buddies I have seen spared me the sentimental outpour by tagging me for the Writing Strengths meme. The brief guideline for the meme is this:

Make a list of five strengths that you possess as a writer/artist. It’s not really bragging, it’s an honest assessment (forced upon you by this darn meme). Please resist the urge to enumerate your weaknesses, or even mention them in contrast to each strong point you list. Tag four other writers or artists whom you’d like to see share their strengths.

I laughed at first. Like many other aspiring authors, I wondered if I had even three strong points as a writer. In the end, I could think of five, though. Here they are:

1) Faith: This isn’t just a strong sense of hope that I will be a published writer some day. This is deeper. It’s the heart’s connection with my writing itself. Faith in what I write and what it means to me. When I write drafts, the writing quality may be (and usually is) pathetic, the style stilted, the grammar unsure. But in the midst of all that I see a reflection of my inner world, merging at once with the world around me. I guess this is the most important element of my writing life.

2) Perseverance: Oni calls it courage. I will go with the more conventional term. All true writers persevere; it’s not really an option for them, it’s just part of the game. The odds are high and keep going higher, rejections come slamming on your face, finances play hide-n-seek with you, and you are in an arena even more uncertain than gambling or lottery. But you plug on, driven by a strange rush, aiming for a star many galaxies away.

3) Voice: Most of the feedback I have received on my writing has mentioned this facet. It’s a fusion of the social milieu I come from and the cultural sensibilities I have absorbed over the years. I write what I know; my lack of international experience makes my English writing a translated rendition of the Indian life I have known and seen.

4) Humanity: This isn’t to imply my writing is humane. It’s just to say my writing is mostly drawn from life—mine and of those falling within my immediate, extended, or distant environment. The best of writers, those who have told stories of ordinary people and their trials and triumphs are not preachers trying to teach the basics of a just society to the world at large. Nor are they messiahs, offering solutions for the repressions they witness. They are mirrors, reflecting us just the way we are—fair or ugly (not in the literal sense, of course).

5) Student: I am a lifelong learner when it comes to writing. Having a student’s outlook helps me remain open to advice and smart enough to glean benefit from even not-so-positive feedback. I have seen the results over the years; they aren’t too bad.

So there. I can now officially thank Oni for bringing me out of my self-imposed blog exile. Writing is the reason this blog is facing neglect. I am choking with freelance work and other assignments to the extent where I only find scraps of time to work on my personal writing projects. Since the blog is less demanding than those pesky projects, it waits patiently. Until a friend nudges me to return to it. 

Who do I tag? Lisa, Alicia, Bob, and John Baker.