The bilingual book is a relatively new addition to the overcrowded Indian bookshelf. But in its own small way, it's creating inroads to inspire and share the seamless repository of Indian literature across language, age group and genre, finds Fiona Fernandez
Not one, not two, But everyone's a sucker, Says Kabir. Not me.
It's unlikely that Kabir actually said that. The 15th century poet's dohas from half a century ago couldn't have reflected the casual disdain that drips of Yankeeness.
But Indian poet, literary critic and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is confident that this approach to Kabir's poems will reach out to a new and perhaps, younger audience. "The bilingual can be a very helpful tool in India, which is blessed with numerous languages," he says over the phone from Allahabad. The just-released special bilingual edition, Songs of Kabir, drops medieval Hindi straight into the lap of the English-speaking audience.
"But the bilingual will not be successful unless the reader is somewhat familiar with the language on the other page," he warns, about the bilingual book's fate in India, stirring up the perfect brew at the start of our conversation. "I would find it difficult to warm up to say, a Tamil-English bilingual, compared to a reader who is familiar with the Dravidian school of languages."
Halfway across the country, in Chennai, Deeya Nair, editor with Tulika Publishers, is brimming with excitement. The Imagine Word series in bilingual format is ready with its newest title, Work. This out-of-the-box concept encourages children to imagine the many interpretations that the word 'work' might have. "This English-Hindi translation helps kids who learn English as a second language. Our earlier titles in the series -- Blackboard and Pond, did well," shares Nair.
Back in 1996, Tulika was one of the earliest players in the Indian publishing scene to have introduced bilingual books for pre-school and school-going kids across India.
Engage and educate
Nair explains that Tulika's bilingual range, which includes picture books for kids aged three years and above, is image-driven, with eight to 10 words (in each language) on every page. "Our founder-editor Radhika Menon introduced the bilingual at a time when people said the idea wouldn't work. Today, we publish across languages, from English to Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. Writers send us manuscripts from all over the country. We've published Nepali and Urdu bilinguals too."
Nair rolls back to the early days when kids would read straight translations. Soon, they were picking books in two languages, their mother tongue and a second language. Taking a cue, Tulika custom-made its books using simple, everyday concepts. "We matched it with close references."
Translations, says Nair, don't take all that long. It's the elaborate, striking illustrations that must engage the young reader. "English-Tamil and English-Malayalam are the most time consuming; these require double the space because of far more characters in their scripts," she shares.
So, are we on the cusp of a new branch of the reader-book love affair? Yes, says, Mehrotra. After all, his tone in the latest Hachette India publication is contemporary, and its unpredictability keeps the reader engaged, almost to a teasing level of logic-defying word play. "The main challenge," Mehrotra says, "was to get the medium right. These poems were understood instantly when they were sung in those times; no wonder they were popular and survived for centuries. I worked on these translations on a trial-and-error basis. My language has changed across 30 years. So, I too had to contemporise the poetry since the time I began studying it.
You'll find a lot of slang usage and American-ese, as Wendy Doniger points out in the book's preface."
And so, you find words like Deathville, Fearlessburg, bigwig, even the f-word. Mehrotra cites the example of using the American term 'sing sing' (which is understood universally as a reference to prison) instead of a localised term. "The idea of the criminal needed to be expanded in the poem. The choice was between Tihar and Sing Sing."
Editor Poulomi Chatterjee, who worked closely with Mehrotra on this bilingual, explains, "It (bilingual) involves a process that has to be whetted by people who understand, and relate to both languages. The syntax of every Indian language and its literal translation is crucial. While rendering it in English, it's important to retain the spirit of the work. We have to also keep readers in mind -- they haven't read the original yet or may never read it."
For Tulika, the challenge lies in logistic roadblocks. "The retail network will never respond to the bilingual or the multilingual. With help from IPDA (Independent Publishers' Distribution Alternatives) and NGOs like Room to Read, these books have entered Indian classrooms. Government agencies refer to them for their education programmes. The last 15 years have witnessed a shift in buyership base. Thankfully, parents and schools are appreciating its value."
Wide space ahead
Nair speaks of receiving requests from teachers working in India's little-known towns, for books to stock in their school libraries. Tulika's slow and consistent efforts ensure that five or six bilingual titles hit the press every year. While these cater to young readers across rural and urban India, the publishing house is also feeding an entirely disparate audience -- the NRI. "Non resident Indians are picking up our books to familiarise their kids with their mother tongue."
Chatterjee is upbeat. "The bilingual is a new concept, and as publishers, we like to see it work well. There are very few of these in the Indian market, and so, we hope such works are treasured more."
She reasons that poetry has an upper hand in the bilingual format. "Why would readers choose to read prose in a dual language format? They'd pick up a translation, instead."
Goa's bilingual book shop
In Panaji, Bookworm, a six year-old bookstore and library started by Elaine Mendonsa and Sujata Noronha, has ensured that Goa's kids have a place to bond with bilingual literature. It not only stocks bilingual titles, Bookworm frequently organises kids and teacher workshops, pre-school initiatives and works closely with Goa's schools. "It's a great way to introduce them (children) to a second language from an early age. And the feedback has been fantastic. Parents find the content relevant and culturally appropriate," says Mendonsa.
Stocking Marathi, Telugu and Hindi titles, the book shop follows the open-shelf concept, with book covers facing outward on display shelves. "We've found this to help younger kids choose their books faster," she says.
Outreach: The South Asian Diaspora in UK
Miles away, in Sheffield, poet, writer and storyteller Debjani Chatterjee MBE (in pic), is happy that kids, especially from the South Asian community, will benefit from Let's Celebrate: Festival Poems from Around the World. In 1989, she founded Sahitya Press with Bangladeshi friend Safuran Ara, initially known as the Bilingual Book Project. This 11 year-old platform for British-South Asian literature continues to be at the forefront of bilingual writing and reading. "We organise readings, workshops and storytelling. Until 2004, this interest was restricted to Bengali-English literature by women. Today, our work extends, when resources allow, to translations from other South Asian languages and to other bilingual literature and South Asian literature in English" says Chatterjee.
Helped by husband Brian D'Arcy, an author and poet, her mother Tara Chatterjee, and a few friends, Chatterjee's Sahitya Press isn't your average commercial publishing house. It doesn't receive funding, and the scope is modest. Their first books were bilingual anthologies in English and Bengali, contributed to by members of a South Yorkshire community group of which Safuran Ara and she were founder-members � Bengali Women's Support
The first title, Barbed Lines / Katar Rekha won the Arts Council's first Raymond Williams Community Publishing Prize in 1990. The second, Sweet and Sour / Omlo Modhur worked towards BWSG winning a NIACE Adult Group Award in 1993.