The best-selling author you need to read now
Writer Vishwas Patil, whose complex portrayals of Maharashtra's rural-scape and Indian history have made him contemporary Marathi literature's most known face, is bursting on the English scene with three translations up for grab
July 26, 2011, is a date etched in Vishwas Patil's memory. That day, the Marathi writer received an email from a friend, Damodar. It was a letter from author Amitav Ghosh, who had read the translated manuscript of Patil's Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel, Zadazadati, published in Marathi nearly 19 years earlier, and which Patil was hoping to publish in English. "Patil is truly to be commended for the unflinching realism of the plight of the 'damned'... it fully deserves a place beside other major contemporary works of ecologically conscious literature," Ghosh had written, recommending that the book, which weaved a tale about a rural community displaced due to a dam project, be sent to Mahasweta Devi. So impressed was Ghosh, that five years later, when he published The Great Derangement, a non-fiction addressing climate change, he made a mention of Patil's writings.
One of the most well-regarded contemporary Marathi authors, Patil, a former IAS officer who retired as vice-president, Maharashtra Aviation two years ago, has had one of the most prolific literary careers, with his works, not only voicing the distress of rural-folk, but also the histories of the nation at large. Last month, Eka, an imprint of Westland, announced that it would be publishing his major historical novels in English. While Mahanayak, his 1998 bestseller that has sold more than a lakh copies in Marathi, and has been translated into 14 Indian and foreign languages, released this month, Sambhaji and Panipat will be published later during the year and next.
When we meet Patil at his sea-facing home in Juhu, the 60-year-old writer takes us through all his Marathi titles, which he has pulled out for us, from his bookshelf. Among the many hard covers and fat paperbacks, are various translations of Mahanayak alone.
The novel traces Subhash Chandra Bose's steps from India to Germany, Singapore, Soviet Union and Burma to paint a complex portrait of his strengths and failings. "The Assamese translation was quite popular, and was also distributed to government employees as Diwali gifts," he informs. Patil himself has served in the government for as long as he can remember, holding key positions at various points in life. He was last tasked with the completion of the Shirdi International Airport. "But writing was always my calling," says the author, who wrote his first book, Ambi, as an 18-year-old after his work was selected by the government's New Writer's Aid Programme in 1978.
Hailing from Nerli, a tiny village in the Shahuwadi tehsil of Kolhapur, which had a population of around 1,500, Patil, who came from a family of farmers, started his writing career by contributing short stories to magazines, before penning full-fledged novels. Panipat, a war novel set in the Third Battle of Panipat, which he began writing as a 25-year-old, and got published three years later by Rajhans Prakashan, changed the course of his life. "This novel sold like hot cakes. I became a writer overnight, and even managed to build a bungalow in Kolhapur with the royalty," he recalls. The book, now in its 42nd edition, has sold over two lakh copies, with Patil also penning its theatrical version, Ranangan, that has had over 700 shows.
Where his next work, Zadazadati (1992), made him a literary stalwart to reckon with—the book was inspired from his time as district resettlement officer in Pune—Mahanayak also made him an ambitious historian. "I was granted two year's study leave by then CM Manohar Joshi, to research the book," he says. That for a long time, Patil struggled to get his work translated into English, is not something he holds against the publishing industry. "I enjoyed a good readership beyond Marathi, especially in Hindi, Gujarat and Kannada. My books were anyway never meant for a certain group of people. I was writing stories about mankind, and how people are judged or treated. For me, it was more important that it resonated with my readers," he shares.
When Zadazadati was translated into English as The Dirge for the Dammed in 2014 by Keerti Ramachandra, who has also collaborated for his new book, it was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Prize. "After that, a lot of readers kept reaching out to me asking if my books were also available in English," he says, adding that it's the readers, who find the book and not vice-versa.
When Ramachandra started work on Zadazadati, she had been so moved by it, that she'd "literally weep while translating it". "Patil's writing is very well-researched, sincere, and has integrity, because it comes from the heart. In Mahanayak, his profound admiration of Netaji shines through the book," says Ramachandra. She feels that books like those in Patil's oeuvre, tend to get unnoticed, because there is a general prejudice when it comes to translations, as it is assumed that the translations are not as refined and sophisticated as the original. But, Patil says that much of English literature, owes a deal to great non-English writers. "Think Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky," says Patil. "They wrote in Russian. But we accepted them, irrespective." Today, it's only writing projects that keep him busy. He recently completed the script for Riteish Deshmukh's Marathi upcoming biopic on Chhatrapati Shivaji and his last Marathi novel, Nagkeshar, released a few months ago. "There are many more ideas that have been germinating in my head. Writers are like sponge. We keep absorbing the threads of life, as and when we find them."
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