Coming-of-age story of India as a country

“We are reading the novel in English, originally written in Kannada, about a Khariboli-speaking man, who fought against the English-speaking imperialists, and married into a Marathi family,” writes Dibyajyoti Sarma.

There are translation theories and there are translation theories (starting with Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’). But an act of translation is not a science but an art, and the process is instinctive at best. A translator builds upon this instinct and if the translation is honest, it works. Thus, the act of translation is like performing a magic trick. Your readers don’t know the source language; if you can convince that your translation rings true, your readers will believe you. Now, as a translator, are you required to reveal your sleight of hands? Popular observation reveals that it’s not necessary. It’s the translator’s choice. But can this reveal potentially mar the enjoyment of the translated text as an organic reading experience?

A Handful of Sesame, novel by Shrinivas Vaidya, translated by Maithreyi Karnoor. Manipal Universal Press. Rs 310/-.

I don’t know, but the question nagged me constantly as I read Maithreyi Karnoor’s translation of Kannada author Shrinivas Vaidya’s Halla Bantu Halla. I don’t know Kannada, so the English title A Handful of Sesame worked for me (the metaphor revealing the agrarian context of the novel is clear enough. We have precedence of such titles — Nectar in the Sieve, Two Leaves and a Bud…). This was until I read the preface by the translator, where she explains that the original title “did not carry its idiomatic emphasis in a faithful translation and had to be abandoned.” As a practicing translator, I can empathise with the conundrum. The translator explains the original title refers to flood warning, and according to the author (Vaidya), it was used as a metaphor for “flow of changing times.”

However, instead of finding a near approximation for this metaphor of flow of changing times, the translation comes up with the current title, “which is meant to be a pointer of the heavily ritualistic lives that the characters live.”

It’s all well and good, but as a reader, did I need to know this? I am not sure, but as I entered the colourful world of this fascinating novel, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed the novel better without knowing this detail; also without knowing that “[I]t has been a largely faithful translation — with some erudition accorded to faith.”

This is a minor nitpick, and I was wanted to get it out of the way, because I loved the book, both Vaidya’s narrative and Karnoor’s translation, which is largely free-flowing — a commendable feat considering the fact that a large chunk of Indian translations are unreadable thanks to clunky sentence constructions (the blame goes to the translators who try to reproduce the source text ‘as is’.) Karnoor rightly accords erudition to her faith and the novel is better for it (though I maintain, I did not need to know this.).

One more caveat before we move on to the meat of the book. I wish there were more paragraph breaks. We are usually stingy with paragraphs in Indian languages, and following the trend in English can be hard on the reader. In the book, most of the paragraphs run nearly half-a-page, and since the novel relies on description and local colours, it’s hard for an average reader to keep track of the thread. For example, on page 95, there is a paragraph that describes a ghost town which the residents abandoned for cholera scare. There’s an old hag, a cow, a mangy dog, the empty houses, all jostling for attention in one tight paragraph. (Also, a shout out to the layout artist of the novel: The spaces between paragraphs are infuriatingly distracting. Please avoid. Also, be carefully about the paragraph indents. They are missing at some places.)  

Okay, now to the good part. In the context of the ever-present North-South divide, you can call A Handful of Sesame a beautiful bridge, where two brothers from Kanpur via Kashi land in a small town in the Dharwad district of Karnataka, and become ‘locals’.

This would, however, be selling the novel (which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2008) short. The beauty of this novel, within the ambitious narrative of a multi-generational saga of survival, is its over-reaching achievement in creating a microcosm of modern Indian history in the marking, where this small village in Dharwad, Navalgund, stands in for India, a country under the British Raj, struggling to find its identity.

In other words, A Handful of Sesame is the story of the coming-of-age of India as a country, from a collection of tiny, self-sustaining provinces with their particular customs and traditions, to a larger landmass with an over-arching political identity. So, naturally, as the novel progresses, we notice how the characters begin to travel outside Navalgund, to Sangli, Dharwad, and ultimately to Bombay.

And the story is set in motion at the most momentous occasion of Indian history — India’s first struggle for Independence in 1857. Quite literally. The novel begins with two brothers lost in a forest carrying a missive from Nanasaheb Peshwa. They are found by the Desai of Navalgund.

Here I stopped and pondered about the beauty of A Handful of Sesame as a translated text. It begins with the languages and the need for a translator and the complexities therein. For a reader interested in dynamics of language politics, the novel can offer some valuable insights. We are reading the novel in English, originally written in Kannada, about a Khariboli-speaking man, who fought against the English-speaking imperialists, and who married into a Marathi-speaking family.

In reality, the brothers were no soldiers. They were studying to be local medicine men before drafted to the war. So once the language barrier was solved by an impoverished Brahmin, Gurunath-Panth, acting as an interpreter, the Desai learns the true trade of the brothers and promptly engages them as his doctor. To make the short story shorter, one of the brothers, Padmanabh, is put to death by the authorities, and the other, Kamalnabh, is manipulated into marrying Gurunath-Panth’s daughter, settling down in Navalgund.

We could have an entire novel about what happened to Kamalayya next. But Vaidya completes the tale quickly in one chapter, highlighting how he sired several children, how he devoted himself to be the village medicine man, and his gnawing guilt at the death of his brother and his inability to return to his homeland.

For me, two details stood out from the chapter. One, the Kamalayya’s family is called the Kashi-Kanpur household, and two, Kamalayya’s family name is never mentioned, as his children take the name of his father-in-law (it’s an interesting aside for readers reading the Brahminical elements of the text.).

And Vaidya swiftly moves on to the travails of Kamalayya’s progeny — Vasanna, who takes over his father’s trade; Venkanna, who maybe having an affair with a Muslim woman, and Ambakka, a child widow, and their offspring. And there are other dramatis personae — Rukuma, and Narayana, orphans adopted by the Panths.

The author has his reasons. He writes, “As much as Kamalaacharya was a quiet recluse, his children were equally outgoing and mixed energetically with Navalgund’s society,” and they were “ready to begin their own [legacy].”

As you can imagine this ‘legacy’ incorporates everything Indian — the dynamics of Brahmincal patriarchy; caste and religious politics, changing economic and political landscapes, migration — everything.

At this point, I am loath to invoke Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and his vision of Macondo (I recently mentioned the novel in another review), but it cannot be helped. Navalgund is Vaidya’s Macondo, and through the changing fortunes of the Panth family, Vaidya charts the development of Navalgund, his vision of the microcosm of India, as it opens up to the outside world, from hosting Marathi plays in the village to the arrival of the Congress volunteers and the shadow of WWII, and finally India’s Independence.

To conclude, A Handful of Sesame is a solid piece of fictional history; it depends on how you read it — the history of a family, the history of a city or the history of India itself.  

Shrinivas Vaidya

Dibyajyoti Sarma has published three volumes of poetry and an academic book, besides numerous writing credits in edited volumes, journals and websites. He was born in Assam and now lives in Delhi.

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