Over the past two years, most of Dr Laetitia Zecchini’s days and nights have been spent finding the right words to flood the imagination of the French with the patois of Mumbai.
The original lines are poet Arun Kolatkar’s, written over almost two decades, and are filled with tales of the one-eyed ogress, the pi-dog (“the only sign of intelligent life on the planet one morning”) at Kala Ghoda.
Last week, France’s largest publishing house, Gallimard released Kala Ghoda Poèmes de Bombay, a bi-lingual translation of Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, which was first published by Pras Prakashan in 2005.
Dr Zecchini, research fellow at Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) (The French National Centre for Scientific Research), says Kolatkar is the second Indian poet after Rabindranath Tagore whose work has been translated by the publisher.
Kala Ghoda Poèmes de Bombay was a book that was waiting to happen, she adds. “Some researchers here at the CNRS may have worked on Sanskrit poetry before, but no one has ever worked on contemporary modern Indian poetry,” she says over the telephone from Paris.
Kala Ghoda Poems is hailed as one of Kolatkar’s most evocative works, in which he calls Kala Ghoda a ‘trisland’ — a triangular island with rounded corners and sketches its details with the help of the people he has observed over two decades.
Zecchini is no stranger to modern Indian poetry and Kolatkar is quite the muse. She translated poetry of Kedarnath Singh in 2007 and is currently working on her next book, Moving Lines: Arun Kolatkar And Literary Modernism In India, which outlines a story of modernism in India through the ’60s and ’70s. “In Kolatkar’s words, the post-independence scene in India was a fantastic conglomeration of clashing realities,” says Zecchini.
Zecchini’s Indian connection began much before she became acquainted with Kolatkar’s work, or even poetry for that matter. The translator first came to Delhi as a seven-year-old back in 1987. Zecchini’s father was posted in the capital as the foreign correspondent of Le Monde. “I got quite a cultural shock back then. After a sheltered life in the US and in London, India overloaded my senses — the leopards overwhelmed me, as did very young children begging on the streets.” Gradually, Zecchini settled down and promised to return to the country after she left at the age of 12. By the time, Zecchini returned to India two years later, French poetry had become an inseparable part of her life. “It was a natural choice to study poetry for my BA and MA. Just before my PhD, I came to India for the third time, and got curious about modern Indian poets. Back in France, people know woefully little about contemporary modern Indian literature, forget poetry. Indian literature is synonymous with a few Indian writers writing in English, such as Salman Rushdie. I was curious to know more, especially about modern Indian poetry. So, I began leafing through anthologies of poets at the Sahitya Akademi, and came across Kolatkar’s
Zecchini was hooked, and hasn’t recovered yet. Kolatkar, she says, gripped her like few other modern Indian poets had. “His work is so singular, his voice so individualistic. The first thing that struck me about the man was that he wrote his poems as if he were speaking to you. He loved bhakti poems, especially works of Sant Tukaram, and I can see the attraction. He brought the same effortlessness in his works.”
Zecchini explains that though Rushdie and Kolatkar cannot be compared, she couldn’t help but notice the contrast. “Rushdie’s language draws attention to itself, whereas Kolatkar’s works, though extraordinary visual, do not. It is also very ‘physical’ poetry, mind you - the body is everywhere, but it isn’t metaphysical.”
Zecchini is not fazed by whether Kala Ghoda Poems, which essentially sees one city microscopically, will find an eager readership in France. “True, Kala Ghoda Poems is an out and Bombay saga, but at the end of the day, it is also a celebration of everyday life. It is playful, it is irreverent, and how does it matter where it is set when Kolatkar can get so graphic with his brushstrokes? His words are as near as you could get to Kala Ghoda in Mumbai,” says Zecchini.
Indeed, Kolatkar knows how to bring the world to him, and that is most evident in Breakfast Time At Kala Ghoda, which is as much about the city as much as breakfast at Seoul, Texas, Alaska and a child growing up on the streets of Gora Kalvaria, where the “sky is full of angels in dive bombers”. “There’s Mumbai, but there’s Harlem, too. There’s a woman bathing a child, but there’s Elvis, too,” she says. What makes Kolatkar universal and relevant is the fact that he doesn’t celebrate what we look up to, feels Zecchini. “When he writes about the Jehangir Art gallery, he doesn’t praise the art inside, or the artistes and their whims. He writes about the rubbish at the steps and the sweeper outside it. So many times, when I’ve come across a homeless person here in Paris, I find myself playing his lines in my head — if that’s not universal, what is?” wonders Zecchini.
That is not to say that Zecchini encountered no snags while translating Kolatkar’s works into French. “Kolatkar is the master of inversion and word play. For instance, he calls the David Sassoon Library a ‘horny rhino’ watching over Kala Ghoda. I couldn’t find a French word which could play on the ‘horn’ and the literal meaning of the word, ‘horny’ in the term he coined in the original poem! In the poem, Pi-dog, the dog is actually the ‘god’, and the inversion holds a meaning there — that was another challenge I faced while translating it in French.” But then, she adds, that’s what keeps her going about Kolatkar’s works — the marginal objects, the castaways who are the heroes of his words.
Zecchini says she finds Kolatkar’s words so complete that she says she isn’t sure whether she even needed to visit Kala Ghoda. “I did visit the place, and remembered his extraordinary, erotic meditations. It was a pilgrimage, indeed, but I wouldn’t say it was necessary. His words are enough,” she says.
Through this translation and her forthcoming book on the man who created some very seminal work on the city, Zecchini says she wants France to know modern Indian poetry the way she experiences it. “For most European readers, India is either very spiritual, or very poor. I hope that translation acquaints them to the real India, and, of course, to a man who saw it like no other.”