Forgotten Hindi Authors.

Tristan Foster interviews translator Saudamini Deo for Asymptote about a new series of books; here’s the introduction:

An unfortunate reality is that every language has great writers who have faded from the collective memory; either they fell out of favour, or their writing spoke only to their time, or perhaps they practiced on the margins, and their work never made it beyond a small readership. Difficulties in categorising a writer’s work is especially likely to put them in peril—writing that doesn’t fit neatly into one particular genre or tradition is easier to overlook than to perpetually seek its niche. And when these writings are forgotten, a small miracle needs to occur for them to be rediscovered again.

For the first time, English language readers will have the opportunity to read forgotten Hindi writers thanks to a new and, arguably, miraculous series from Seagull Books, based in Kolkata. First to be published are short story collections by Bhuvaneshwar and Rajkamal Chaudhary, names which may be unfamiliar to readers in their native India, let alone to readers beyond. Wolves and Other Short Stories by Bhuwaneshwar will be released in Fall 2020, and Traces of Boots on Tongue and Other Stories by Rajkamal Chaudhary is due for release in early 2021.

To understand what was lost and what has been gained with these new translations, I asked translator Saudamini Deo why we should refresh the collective memory by reviving the work of Bhuvaneshwar and Rajkamal Chaudhary, and what it means for the English-speaking world to have access to their work for the first time.

I note that Bhuvaneshwar is also spelled Bhuwaneshwar in the same paragraph; I presume they’re equally valid representations of his name. I googled up this piece about him (he also wrote poetry in English) and found “Bhuwanershar” in the third paragraph, presumably a simple misprint. The interview is interesting, but Deo has a very different outlook on things than I do:

Lawrence Durrell writes that witnessing someone’s madness also shakes one’s hold on one’s own grasp of reality—we realize how precariously we manage. So, madness is not something far off from everyday life or something strange, all of us are much closer to it than we would like to admit. Then, of course, thinking about Bhuwaneshwar particularly, there is a detail of his life I came across recently that I did not know before: after he ran out of money, he started living with a friend and his brother in Lucknow. The friend moved to Delhi due to a job but kept sending money back to both of them. Then one evening Bhuwaneshwar’s friend’s brother ran out of the house screaming, and when he was found a few days later, he had to be shifted to a mental asylum in Agra where he spent the rest of his life. Soon after, Bhuwaneshwar started living on the streets and went mad, too. Why did both of them go mad at almost the same time? There is no answer to this, but I wonder about it. I think people we call mad know secrets we do not know. […]

I do not feel close to madness, and I strongly reject the idea that “people we call mad know secrets we do not know.” I have known mad people, and they were trapped in a sad round of obsessive thoughts that limited their ability to deal with the world and other people; if a few of them manage to get good writing out of their madness, great, but that doesn’t make it a privileged insight into deeper truths. That is, of course, only my opinion, but there it is. At any rate, I welcome the series; the more translations, the better. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. As you may know, in Hindi the letter there is no distinction between the v and w sounds. Natives cannot make the distinction while hearing or speaking and no Hindi word distinguishes between them. The letter used for the sound is व – which is also categorized as an “ardha-swar” literally meaning “half-vowel”. Roman transliteration of name is a relatively recent phenomenon for most of India and there are all kinds of inconsistencies in how people who choose to spell their names in Roman. It’s not uncommon to see, especially in rural areas, to see the same person’s name spelt in multiple different ways in Roman/English.

    “Bhuwanershar” on the other hand looks like a typo to me but not by far. The Sanskrit word “Bhuwaneshwar” (भुवनेश्वर), is colloquially pronounced in many areas as bhuwaneshar (भुवनेशर) or even bhuwanesar (भुवनेसर). So apart from that odd “r” in the middle, it is a decently close approximation of the way the name is pronounced.

  2. Thanks, that’s very useful!

  3. Found this on WIkipedia – apparently it’s also a city in Odisha. Here the ‘w’ sounds like a ‘b’ to me.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    The romantic notion of madness has a lot to answer for. The instantiation of it that was popular in my youth was that vile little book The Divided Self by that unpleasant individual R D Laing. When I was a junior in a neurosurgery unit, I often heard words from people who’d just been told that they had a brain tumour like “Thank God! I thought I was going mad.” Part of this, certainly, reflects the huge stigma that mental illness bears in our society; but part of it is entirely natural. Madness is terrible, and those who pretend it’s some sort of blessing are either deeply ignorant or irresponsible posers.

    “I think people we call mad know secrets we do not know” is a statement of such transcendent stupidity that I would find it difficult to take anything further that the speaker said seriously.

  5. Why did both of them go mad at almost the same time? Most likely something in their environment – ergot maybe? Consider the dancing manias of the middle ages. Superstition has such penetrating claws that we are reluctant to recognize physical causes when psychological ones are peddled by such as R.D.Laing.

  6. This thinks ergot or other toxins in the environment is unlikely. More likely is a long build-up of stressors.

    If Bhu—- and his housemate were in reduced circumstances and eking out an allowance from somebody in Delhi, it’d get to them in the end. Why at the same time? Because the guy in Delhi lost his job or got sick and couldn’t send the allowance.

    Gotta agree with David E about the transcendent stupidity. Trying to keep yourself going and keep grounded in reality with someone repeating endless such ‘secrets’ is terrible/reveals no ‘great truths’.

  7. I think people we call mad know secrets we do not know.

    This sounds to me like the kind of stuff that some “liberal arts”, “literature” majors might subscribe to. Romantic, imaginative, beautiful… but not very rooted in fact.

    I still found the interview interesting because it shone a light on a corner of the world that you wouldn’t normally get to hear much about. Europe and North America still get immeasurably more attention than places like “colonial India”.

  8. that unpleasant individual R D Laing.

    Yes, I thought of him too.

  9. Ergotism as a explanation for things like the Salem Witch Trials or medieval dancing epidemics does not really make any sense.* The basic problem is that ergot poisoning is incredibly deadly. Ergotamine is (or was) the only drug listed in the short form (containing the most common prescription drugs) of the Physicians’ Desk Reference for which “death” was a listed side effect. If there are enough people in an environment who are experiencing the kind of mild ergot poisoning that leads to spasms and other neurological effects, then there should be some other people (and probably many other people) who experience moderate to severe ergot poisoning and die.

    * As an explanation for the Great Plague of Athens, it works much better—although perhaps not perfectly. In that case, you have a colossal number of deaths among people living off stored grain. Moreover what the ancients took for contagious spread of the disease (such as among the northern expedition that was initially led by Thucydides) is occurs when both reinforcements and additional food supplies arrive from Piraeus.

  10. Brett: Indeed! That argument also works for the persistent rumor which used to run around (I don’t know if it still does), that unscrupulous LSD manufacturers boosted their product with small amounts of strychnine. If a little bit got you a cheap high (doubtful in itself), a lot would kill you (which didn’t happen).

  11. David Marjanović says

    I note that Bhuvaneshwar is also spelled Bhuwaneshwar in the same paragraph; I presume they’re equally valid representations of his name.

    Yay, [ʋ].

    I think people we call mad know secrets we do not know.


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