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To Die In Benares

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(Nominated in the category of English Fiction for the REC-VoW Book Awards, 2019)

Excerpts from the interview with Blake Smith:

By SHWETA KAPOOR

You’ve mentioned that K Madavane is an accomplished writer and ranks alongside Guy de Maupassant and RK Narayan. How hard do you think it is as a translator to do justice to the original text while retaining its original essence?

What I found most difficult about translating Madavane’s work is his skill at playing with different styles, tones and voices within a single story. For example, in “A Holy Cow in Varanasi”, which at first glance is a relatively straightforward and comic story, the main narrative is regularly broken by somber meditations and sardonic observations separated from the text by the use of italics. The challenge for the translator is to follow Madavane as he weaves together such different forms of writing. I hope I have given readers at least a glimpse of his craft! 

The book has seven different stories. Which story in particular was your favourite? Which one would you say was the hardest to translate?

The story that meant the most to me, and that gave me the most difficulty, was “A Paper Boat on the Ganga”. This was the first of Madavane’s stories that I read, and I will never forget the chills I felt as I was drawn further and further into the story, which moves from a kind of leisurely and nostalgic glimpse at the narrator’s childhood to another child’s horrifying death. Within a few pages, readers move from charming reminiscences to scenes of unmerited suffering that recall ancient tragedies. When I finished it, I immediately knew that I had to translate the work of this great Excerpts from the interview with Blake Smith: artist, and that doing so would be a labour of love.

The first story gives us insight into the education under the then French rule in Pondicherry. How else could you describe the then French culture and its effects on India back then?

France ruled Pondicherry, and a few other corners of India, for some three centuries. Today, in the old neighborhoods of these former colonies there are still houses, churches, accents and smells that recall the French influence. But I think this kind of legacy, although it’s interesting (and provides an experience for Pondicherry’s tourists), is less important than the intellectual and artistic heritage that writers like Madavane embody: thinkers who are at ease, both, in Indian and French cultural traditions. However, even though it created the conditions for this inter- cultural dialogue, I don’t want to romanticise French rule, which was high-handed and colonial just as much as the British Raj was.

What is the one thing that you think that Indians need to learn from the French and vice-versa?

I’m not quite sure that India has anything to learn from France – at any rate I don’t like to play the part of the foreign expert who tells Indians what they need! But I do think that the history of France’s colonial presence in India offers interesting perspectives for the present day. For example, Indian communities took part in the French Revolution of the 1790s, fighting for their right to participate in democratic politics. This means that Indian democracy, at least as something desired and contended for, has a longer history than is often remembered – and that the French Revolution was not just an event in European history, but part of a global struggle for freedom.

Death has always been a morbid and a terrifying topic to talk about in society. How would you describe Madavane’s take on ‘death’ in the title story ‘To Die in Benares’ where the protagonist actually yearns for it?

Many of Madavane’s characters desire to imagine, witness or even undergo death. They come towards death as thrill-seeking teenagers, curious tourists, or disillusioned heroes. But the main character of the story, “Death in Benares”, has I think both the most ordinary and the noblest attitude towards her own mortality. One of the things I admire about her, and about the view of death that is evinced in all of Madavane’s work, is that there is nothing morbid, romantic or exaggerated about it. The gaze that she keeps on her impending death is clear and steady, and can still take in the passing beauties of this world. Like most of Madavane’s characters, she doesn’t exactly get what she wants out of life or out of death, but she maintains an unsentimental integrity that is the undertone of all of Madavane’s stories.

While translating the book, did you work alongside K Madavane taking in regular insights from him or was it more of an independent project?

Madavane’s input was essential. He has written fiction in English (such as the recent “Man from Lahore”) and has a keen sense of how a translation of his work should ‘sound’ to English- speaking readers.

Blake Smith explores the economic and cultural exchange between Europe and South Asia in the eighteenth century and beyond. He received a PhD in History in 2017 from Northwestern University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and during the academic year 2017-17 was a Max Weber fellow at the European University Institute. Blake writes on historical topics for a number of popular media outlets, including several based in South Asia. His work has appeared in Aeon.co, Tablet, The Atlantic, TheWire.in, Scroll.in, Caravan Magazine, etc. Blake is the co-translator of the selected works of the eighteenth-century Réunnonais poet Evariste de Parny, and the translator of a volume of short stories by Pondicherrian author K Madavane. He is currently translating a historical novel set in 1970s Pondicherry.

For the complete interview, log onto www.valleyofwords.org