Interview for India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion

What was the most difficult part of the selection process for choosing which stories to include in India?

India is so diverse geographically, and Indian literature itself is a house of so many rooms, that the greatest difficulty was in putting together a selection of stories that would convey a sense of the whole. I’ve tried to find a balance of classic and contemporary, and work both in English and in translation, so as to produce a book that, while being the crystallization of a theme, is also an ideal short introduction to Indian literature.

Did you find it a challenge limiting the stories to ones that provide “a sense of place”?

The concept was actually a very liberating one. Place is integral to the human sense of self, to our awareness of history, to our dreams—and therefore to storytelling. Most fiction gives us “a sense of place” in some way, but in some writers this attachment to a particular landscape or city is particularly strong, and they alter one’s understanding of a particular place forever. I’ve tried to put together a set of Indian writers who do this.

How do you think fiction informs a traveler to India in ways that nonfiction cannot?

I think that where fiction scores over non-fiction is that it offers, without the self-consciousness of a travel writer, the felt experience of a culture from within. In moving between character, society, and landscape, all the while telling a story, fiction offers an intensity and depth of representation that most reportage cannot achieve. Fiction, precisely because it does not explicitly set out to “inform,” gives us a kind of knowledge that other forms of prose writing cannot.

For instance, Kunal Basu’s enthralling story about the Taj Mahal (“The Accountant”), which shows us a middle-aged accountant in present-day India suddenly transported back into the time of the Taj Mahal’s construction, refashions the pleasure supplied by the familiar story of the Taj Mahal by adding to it a story conjured up by the literary imagination. To read Salman Rushdie on Kashmir, or Vikram Chandra on Mumbai (Bombay), or Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay on Kolkata (Calcutta), is to feel as if one is being led through these places by a marvelously perceptive and charming insider. The traveler to India will find his awareness both of contemporary Indian realities and the deep structure of Indian culture greatly enhanced by India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

How do you think the various original languages (English included) of stories affect the perspective that readers gain?

A language is not just a transparent window supplying a view of the world, but a world unto itself. It has certain rhythms and syntactical structures unique to it, a worldview with certain assumptions and cultural inflections. When these are brought across into another language (in this case, English), they deepen the reader’s understanding of the world he or she is encountering.

For instance, the many local names of fish in Nazir Mansuri’s “The Whale” make the world of his story both fascinating and mysterious at the same time, as do the particular speech-stresses of his characters (such as the word “La” where you and I might say “Oh”). The bouquet of translations from seven Indian languages available in India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion productively complement the stories originally composed in English, and give a sense of the great diversity of Indian cultures. Even the stories in this book that were written in English show a whole range of attitudes toward and uses of the language. I expand on these thoughts in my introduction and my notes on the different stories.

In your preface, you say “many of the riches of Indian literature are lying invisible in the shadows, waiting for a translation that will release their rhythms and energies into the world.” Can you elaborate, or give examples?

Because Indian literature contains within it more languages and literary traditions than any other national literature in the world, literary translation in India is an especially complicated field, and no one reader or scholar has a sense of the complete picture. Many texts which one set of readers, who have read it in the original, know as classics, are not yet available in worthy English translations, though this is slowly changing. Sometimes the arrival of a new translation (such as that of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s marvelous satirical novel Six Acres and a Third in 2005, published in America by University of California Press) blows up the entire field and makes the reader rethink the entire story of Indian fiction. Some of the excitement of this work in translation will come through, I hope, in the stories chosen for this book.

Posted on 21 September 2010

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