Once upon a time, in the year 1979, great floods washed across both banks of the mighty Brahmaputra. A sandbar in the river was crawling with visitors washed ashore by strong river currents. A few days later, when the water receded, a 16-year-old lad found it dotted with dead snakes. The snakes had died in the heat for the sandbar had no trees. The lad was so overcome with grief that he wept over the lifeless snakes. When he returned home, he talked to those who knew about growing trees in the sandbar. 'No,' he was told. 'Nothing would grow there.'
And then I came upon noted American Spanish-to-English literary translator Edith Grossman’s comment on translation, which she calls ‘a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.’ And I thought, how many authors have I read in such a manner. Which writer has transcended the average and beyond to stand out and make me delve deep into their works, the charm of their words and the feelings they evoked. How many of these books managed to remain alluring over the years? Which writer delighted with words in the same way a painter does with colours and images or a singer with voice and lyrics?
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief - William Shakespeare, Hamlet
The dictionary defines words as units of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. English philosopher John Locke wrote that the use of words is to be sensible marks of ideas. Therein lies the sensibility of words. Words that we use every day to communicate ideas, instructions and impressions. Without them, where would we be. Words, the way you use them, defines you.
Literature in translation is meat and if you are not reading them, you are missing out on a whole new world. Around 60% of all translations are from books originally published in English, but only 3% of books in a foreign language are translated into English. A glaring disparity without a doubt and one that smacks of arrogance? Or is it that translated works do not sell? Murakami, Paulo Coelho, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, T Steig Larsson are writers whose books sell in their millions. When I buy a book, the thought that never crosses my mind is whether it is a work of translation.
We are a group of seven friends and we make it a point to have dinner once every month. The food is always an excuse and we end up talking more than eating. Last week, we had this debate on strong female characters in movies or books. They said the term implies women are weak. I said strong as in strength, strength as in character. The discussion veered to a post in NYT where the writer lampooned strong female characters as ‘men with boobs.’
Writing is an enjoyable pursuit, but unless you have the concentration of a monk, there are too many distractions to make it a frustrating exercise at times. I have wasted many a day doing things I shouldn't have been doing only to rue the time lost. How many times have you been tempted to turn an excuse into a necessity to give yourself a break from writing? How your writing must have suffered as the minutes turned into hours. What are your top distractions? How do you stop yourself from getting distracted? Here are mine in no particular order.
Every day around three in the afternoon, the dolphins come to frolic in the waters of the Brahmaputra by the Northbrook Gate. They splash past the ferries, past fishermen singing in their boats, past the faithful releasing their prayers in little canoes of flowers and offerings from the steps of the adjacent temple. It is where I spent countless hours staring at the waves, caressed by a breeze that gave me respite from the grind of city life. Not far away loomed Peacock Island in the afternoon haze. It is the smallest river island in the world and home to an ancient temple and an endangered langur species. Yes, Tablet reminded me of the golden langur, dark and bronzed, and with an unkempt bunch of red orange hair...
Wars, without doubt, are the most brutal of human horrors. They are also the most ironic. Last month, a team from Japan arrived in Guwahati to take home their dead from the war cemetery. They came in the winter chill looking for their dead comrades in the thick mist of the Chitranchal Hills. Here, they had rested for sixty eight years along with British, Canadian, Australian, Indian and Chinese soldiers, eleven servicemen, killed fighting British and Indian troops in April-June 1944 in the Burma Campaign. They are a long way from home. Such was their itch for war...
I saw him for the first time many years ago. Short of stature, a loose shirt wet in patches from the rain, torn sandals on his feet. He stammered something and placed an envelope on my table. I took out the letter, saw the bright red sun emblazoned on top and put it back. What was there to read? The rebels have come to visit. They want a share of my money. “No,” I told him. “I can’t. And I won’t.” My voice quivered as I added: “You can shoot me if you like.” For an hour I spoke. No, ranted. I shouting, he listening with his head bowed. At the end of it, he raised his head. Our eyes met. They were like unpolished marbles, cold and lifeless. Eyes that has seen something of the world and didn’t like what it saw...
I have this pile of books by my side. The dog is nearby, sleeping on another pile. I am reading to catch up. I look through the books. First one, I toss aside. No names, please. Names cause strife. The blurb is enticing enough, but when I steal a glance at the ending, something didn't feel right. The words, I think. The next book, the ending I liked. No, not how it ended, but how the words came together to say something sensible, beautiful even. It held my attention. I began reading. Like a good beginning, endings also matter. Have you done the same with writing? Have you ever written the other way around, beginning with the ending first?