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"The question was, how to translate them as if a Marathi poet had written them"

Three writers on translating 'Walk', a book of poems about the 2020 exodus of migrant workers from Indian cities to villages, from English to Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati.

October 06, 2021 / 09:57 AM IST
As cities went into lockdown last year, at least 10 million migrant workers left for home. While some were able to book train and bus rides, many others walked for hundreds of kilometers to reach their respective villages.

As cities went into lockdown last year, at least 10 million migrant workers left for home. While some were able to book train and bus rides, many others walked for hundreds of kilometers to reach their respective villages.

In March 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to the surging Covid19 pandemic by imposing a lockdown. At a few hours’ notice, an entire nation of over a billion was placed in lockdown. At first it was a 21-day lockdown, and was subsequently extended multiple times. Curfews snapped, workplaces shuttered, transport stopped. The suddenness of the first lockdown and the extensions to the lockdown posed dangers for the people who had come from villages to cities for work. Lakhs of migrant workers, many of them daily wage labourers, were in a matter of a few hours rendered unemployed. Facing the prospect of starvation, they were stranded in unfamiliar cities without support systems or means of transport to take them home. Desperate to save themselves, some piled up on the last few trains and trucks that were running. But many, with their families, walked home across hundreds or thousands of kilometres. The people who traveled home were 1.14 crore  in number, according to figures shared in the Lok Sabha. The exodus was “more than the population of Uttarakhand”, says Indiaspend, which adds that 971 people died of “non-Covid causes” along the way. This figure of deaths is likely to be higher in reality.

The exodus of migrant workers evoked a writerly response in Navi-Mumbai-based poet Mustansir Dalvi, who wrote a sequence of poems titled Walk.These poems are in English, and most are in the voices of migrant workers, walking to their homes, hungry and hurting in the midst of the pandemic. Dalvi avoids easy sloganeering and sentimentality in the book, but his murmuring yet impassioned voice still gives the reader a sense of the walking workers’ physical sufferings, and their sense of being betrayed, their fears, and their despair.

Walk cover tentativeDalvi’s poems came out last year as Walk, an ebook by Yavanika Press. Now, a quadrilingual version of Walk with Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati translations, along with the English originals, is coming out as a paper book. The publisher is Poetrywala Foundation, co-founded by Hemant and Smruti Divate with others. While Dalvi himself translated his English poems into Hindi, Hemant Divate translated them into Marathi, and poet Udayan Thakker translated them into Gujarati. The three poets spoke about this book in separate email interviews, which have been collated into a single Q&A below.

Mustansir, did the writing process behind ‘Walk’ differ from your earlier practice? ‘Walk’, to use a journalistic phrase, deals with a subject that, apart from being a great human tragedy, is ‘hot’ and newsy. 

Mustansir Dalvi: Very few of my poems emerge out of current events, or anything ‘hot’ and newsy. I am moved, disturbed, shaken and sometimes lacerated by what is happening in the world outside my head, but my responses are largely internalised. Of course, I do write about the changing mores of our city and other urban issues in columns.

In writing Walk, as an exception, I felt the very urgent need to bear witness and to express solidarity with the thousands walking the streets of the cities and the highways of the country, dishoused and dispossessed by the pandemic/lockdown. And unlike my earlier practice, that emerges in fits and starts, I wrote these poems at a feverish pace in about a month and a half. These can be read together as a cycle of 20 short poems of around 10 lines each. I then put these poems together as a chapbook and sent them to the Yavanika Press in Bengaluru, who very swiftly accepted them and published an e-book in August 2020.

Hemant, how did the idea of having a quadrilingual book originate? How was it realized? 

Hemant Divate: When I first read ‘Walk’, khatarnaak lines like ‘Jugaad, not the gormint, runs this country,’ socked me on the chin. As I read these poems, it felt like they were in Marathi. This language, the sounds and images, they haven’t appeared in English poems before, and might take a decade or so to come over. These poems powerwash away the mistaken notion that English is a highbrow language. Mustansir has looked at the world through a labouring Marathi worker’s eyes...

The bandh that was slammed upon us, the resulting ‘great migrant crisis’, and the disruption of ordinary peoples’ lives comes through in Musti’s poetry, and not as sloppy political poems, not as screaming, not as sloganeering, but with sensitivity, with respect to the standards for good poetry – which makes this work of poetry important as well as well-wrought. Much poetry in English is complex, it uses myths and history, and its writing involves a lot of breaking apart and joining together. Such poetry comes from the same moulds, and basically feels like a monotonous, droning bhajan from front page to last. Musti’s style surprises you at every corner, and his language is current and fresh. He can pull off a lot of special effects with ease. He spontaneously feeds the stream of his life and his personality and his multilingualism into his work, which I like.

Udayan, how did you come to be involved in the project? 

Udayan Thakker: Honey does not need to send an invitation card to a bee, the bee is drawn to honey. Mustansir did not ask me to translate these poems, I happened to read them and translated a few. I also wrote a piece of poetry appreciation on Walk which was published in Janmabhoomi, a leading Gujarati newspaper, and was later on included in my book of literary essays. Subsequently, when I was asked to translate all the poems, it was a labour of love. Let me add that a few of these translations were also published in Nirikshak, a fortnightly newspaper edited by Prakash N. Shah, president of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad. Good poetry needs no crutches, it can ‘walk’ on its own.

Mustansir, the protagonists in Walk are migrant workers walking to their villages during the lockdown. Their circumstances differ from yours; you are an Anglophone poet and professor, living in relative comfort when compared to them. What prompted you to speak of them? 

Mustansir Dalvi: Without a doubt, the circumstances of the thousands trudging on foot are completely different from mine. I was housebound due to the lockdown, and wanted for nothing. I acknowledge my privilege unequivocally.

What right do I have to write about those countrymen whose physical travails and moral dilemmas I did not share? I cannot claim to represent them. However, if I may be allowed, I do claim a shared fraternity, a shared citizenship, a shared anguish and a shared outrage. These poems emerged within this larger ecosystem.

Mustansir, how hard or easy was it to resist the urge towards ‘soap-operafying’ or sloganeering? 

Mustansir Dalvi: Not difficult. Fortunately that sort of thing does not come easily to me. I am not even sure poetry is the right vehicle for sloganeering. Song-writing, perhaps. I tend to approach my subjects at a slant. Irony and black humour, on occasion, but never melodrama.

Mustansir, what considerations guided you through the process of translating your own English-language poems into Hindi?

Mustansir Dalvi: Foolhardiness, above all.

The poems in English emerged from my/our multilingual sensibilities, our everyday speak. So in translating my own poems into Hindi, I stayed within the same sensibilities and the same gutterspeak parole, only in Hindi.

Here, I must commend you to Hemant's translations of the poems in Walk. He has brought in several ways in which Marathi is spoken all over the state, and has covertly evoked voices from several levels of economic status, even caste. Udayan has been delightfully different in his translations in Gujarati, where wordsounds vie with wordplay. So, all the four experiences of the languages offer four different things, but all stay within the same semiosphere.

Hemant and Udayan, what considerations guided you while translating ‘Walk’ into Marathi and Gujarati?

Udayan Thakker: ‘Walk’ is created in collage-style where each poem is independent, but the subject matter of all is the same. Mustansir has avoided getting sentimental, he does not pity the migrants, nor does he condemn the powers that be. Rather, he lets the poem talk, and allows the reader to form his own opinion. The translator has to likewise adopt an objective approach. Which brings us to the question of whether a poet should be a mere witness. Kevin Carter in 1993 published his photograph of a vulture waiting for a Sudanese child to die of hunger so it could devour him. The photograph won a Pulitzer prize, but Carter was driven to suicide by public criticism that he should have stayed back to save the child. I, however, believe that a poet is not an activist. If he preaches, then poetry turns into polemic. Mustansir has succeeded as an artist. Take the title Walk, for example, which understates what turned out to be an Odyssey.

Hemant Divate: Frankly, as I read his poems, I was translating them into Marathi in my head. The question was, how to translate them as if a Marathi poet had written them, in a way that retains the smell of the soil in them? Both of us are Bambaiya. Our conversations move through three-four languages. How to translate generic things like ‘Ok tata ok?’ How to translate some English words, which are dearer to me than their Marathi counterparts, and to make them sound as authentic as in the original poems? It was a tough task, but I had promised Musti that I’d translate them. Nowadays, what I like I translate. For this translation, I chose the language that I had heard as a child and translated as well as I could. Let me confess that I have perhaps done 70-80% justice to Musti’s poems. The Marathi language includes several spoken dialects, which have no dictionaries, let alone thesauruses. Googling is futile, because its results are stuck in the 1960s-70s.

Udayan, as a Gujarati-language poet residing in multilingual Mumbai, how did you approach ‘Walk’, which has a lot of everyday, conversational, multilingual style? 

Udayan Thakker: Octavio Paz famously said that poetry cannot be translated. But the popularity and literary merit of translations of poetry such as Iliad, Odyssey, East European poetry in ‘Modern Poetry in Translation’, The Penguin Book of Modern European Poetry, all show that translated poetry can rise to the level of original poetry.

The Poems in Walk are in free verse, do not carry rhymes and do not rely on alliteration, which make them more translatable. My desi and Bambaiya background helped, of course. A Carol Ann Duffy would have been at a loss to translate such phrases as ‘Buri nazar wale...’ or ‘Horn OK Please.’ I had this advantage of having lived through the same period of lockdown and at the same place from which the migration started as described in this book, Mumbai. Living in Mumbai and being multilingual is incidental, of course. Like a hydrologist detecting underground water, a translator should be able to detect where poetry lies hidden.

Udayan, I don’t know Gujarati. But your poems in English translation engage in a lively manner with politics and culture. So, was translating Walk suited to your style? 

Udayan Thakker: I am a poet with urban and not pastoral sensibilities, and Walk suited me well. I have a distaste for propaganda masquerading as poetry. During this period of pandemic, a Gujarati lyric criticizing the Prime Minister and Home Minister went viral, was translated into more than a dozen languages, was reproduced in the national press, not to mention international journals like The Guardian and The Economist. This brouhaha had nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with politics. I liked Mustansir’s style of connotation, not denotation; suggestion, not statement.

Finally, if the three of you were asked to bring your poet’s eye to the mainstream media’s coverage of the migrant workers’ exodus, what would you see? 

Mustansir Dalvi: The migrants' exodus was more reliably covered by the many alternative media, whether by online reporting, or even eyewitnesses’ posts on social media. A document of the past year can be better formed through the paintings of Sudhir Patwardhan (some of which have enhanced this book) or documentaries like Vinod Kapri's 1232 kms.
Suhit Kelkar is a writer whose journalism and poetry have appeared in publications from India and abroad. He is the author of a collection of poetry, and one of poems and photos. He tweets @suhitkelkar.