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When I hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul – Translation by Jerry Pinto

When I hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul – Translation by Jerry Pinto

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When I hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul – Translation by Jerry Pinto

Akshyata Ray

You’ve translated an important work of Baburao Bagul from Marathi to English. What is the process of translating Marathi culture and nuance into English like for you – does it come naturally? How does one translate without eroding the essence of a text?

I wish there were an easy answer to this interesting question. The essence of any text lies in its words. Its words are always particular to the language, even when they are borrowed words or words that have crossed boundaries. Therefore when those words move into another language they are at risk. Translation then is an act of empathy. One must love the original text. One must love the language in which it is written. One must love the language into which one is bearing this text. And then one sets out to ‘erode the essence of the text’. The translator knows that meaning and nuance and colour and flavour are leaking through even as the work is being done. S/he laments the loss but s/he keeps going because if some of it comes through, then the world is richer and more interesting because of it. With Baburao Bagul’s magnificent and powerful stories there was also the problem of caste for there are different registers in the use of Marathi and Bagul moves seamlessly from literary Marathi to the language as it is spoken on the streets and in the tenements and in the Maharwada. This made my task at once more difficult and more exhilarating. 


The book deals with the very sensitive and prolific issue of caste, which has been historically and hysterically denied by upper-castes. Did you face any controversies while translating this book?

It has not been my experience that all upper-caste people deny caste. But I remember talking to the stalwart writer and activist Urmila Pawar and telling her that my students at the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Polytechnic often say that they cannot tell who is high caste and low caste. She nodded wisely and said, ‘You will notice that it is always the high caste students who cannot tell.’ I think there is a lesson there for all of us. 


How did you decide to translate this work? What was the journey like, from conceptualising the translation to producing the final draft? 

I first read a Bagul story in that magnificent anthology, Poisoned Bread: Modern Marathi Dalit Literature (Orient Blackswan). It was called ‘Death is becoming cheaper’ and I was struck by its power and immediacy. The story stayed with me, the name stayed with me and so I purchased a couple of his books. The stories in Jevha Mi Zaat Chorli were an experience I will never forget. I remember the horror of such experiences. I remember the gratitude I felt that someone had brought them to me. I remember often being stopped by the power of the language, by its expressiveness and its bleak beauty. I remember the desire to stop strangers on the street to say: Have you read these stories? You must!

One of the best translators I know, Shanta Gokhale, often says: You must love a book to want to translate it. You must want others to share it. You must become its advocate, its evangelist.

And that was what led me to translate this book. I wanted other people to read it and I wanted other people to experience this welter of emotions that I had felt. 


What according to you is the best and the most unique style of  Baburao’s writing?

Baburao Bagul is not afraid of the darkness. But he does not deny himself the pleasure of language. Oscar Wilde said: ‘We are all standing in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.’ 


Do you think the author was underrated or did not get the due fame he deserved?

In India, we live in linguistic islands connected at low tide by proximity and communicative agenda-based use of other languages. In my city, a Gujarati neighbour and a Marathi neighbour will introduce you to some of those sounds. In my head, there is English and Konkani. On the streets, Hindi and a little Tamil, a dash of Kannada. All of us have some access to these languages but the writing in them is on the higher reaches and we cannot all be expected to get up there.

Baburao Bagul is a well-known and well-respected name in Marathi letters. I hope he will now be better known in other spheres as well. 


Do you have a favourite story or character from this selection of short stories? Which one(s) were the most moving to translate?

I think the story ‘Revolt’ is one of the most powerful stories I have read in any language anywhere. It ambushes you in details. The mother is a manual scavenger. Her son will not eat food from her hands because she has been handling human excrement. This is mentioned in passing. But if you think of the way in which to many people in India, food from one’s mother’s hands is close to sacred, you see how this family has been damaged by manual scavenging. I wept when I read it. I wept when I translated it.  


Lastly, when can your ardent readers expect your next book? Is there anything you are working on currently?

I wish I could say that with some clarity but books are like fruit; they are organic things and they must take their own time. Force-ripened fruit are not quite the same thing. I am lucky to have a publisher and editor like Ravi Singh at Speaking Tiger Books who is willing to wait, who is willing to invest time and attention in my work. But I hope that my next novel will be out next year.  


About the Interviewee:

Jerry Pinto began working at the age of 16. He was then a mathematics tutor. Somewhere along the way, a friend suggested journalism and at the age of 21, he began to be published in the newspapers. After spending ten years free-lancing, teaching mathematics writing television scripts and audio-documentaries and indulging in sundry other acts of journalism, he got a ‘real job’ with an alleged media company that was actually into selling space and was only peripherally interested in news. Along the way he acquired a liberal arts degree from Elphinstone College and a law degree from Government Law College.

He left to join a travel dotcom, which won two awards for its content, of which he was the chief architect and editor. He returned to magazine journalism as Executive Editor of Man’s World magazine. Later, he joined Paprika Media (the publishing house that brings out Time Out Mumbai and Time Out Delhi) to edit their special projects. He is now a free lance journalist and editor and is at work on his first novel. This is the public version.

In his own description of himself, he is a poet. His first book of poems Asylum (Allied Publishers) was released in 2004. Some of these poems are to be found in Reasons for Belonging; Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets edited by Ranjit Hoskote. His poems are also to be found in Fulcrum Number 4; An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics (Fulcrum Poetry Press, 2005) edited by Jeet Thayl; in Atlas; New Writing (Crossword/Aark Arts, 2006) edited by Sudeep Sen; and Ninety-nine Words (Panchabati Publications, 2006) edited by Manu Dash.

His first book was Surviving Women (Penguin India, 2000) a manual of gender politics, written for confused Indian men, which has gone into several reprints. Bombay Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (Penguin India, 2003), which he co-edited with Naresh Fernandes, has also been reprinted. He has also edited Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (Penguin India, 2006). Together with Arundhathi Subramaniam, he has edited Confronting Love; Contemporary Indian Love Poems in English. They have also edited A Pocketful of Wry; Indian Poets Also Laugh expected soon from Penguin India.

In 2006, Helen: The Life and Times of an H Bomb was released. It was as much a study of Bollywood’s gender and race politics as it was an affectionate examination of a dancing legend who had served the Mumbai film industry for nearly 30 years.

The book won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema.

Jerry Pinto is guest lecturer at the Social Communications Media department of the Sophia Polytechnic. He has taught journalism at the KC College, at Xavier Institute of Communication, at SIES College and at the University of Mumbai.

He is on the board of directors of MelJol, an NGO that works in the child rights space. He is a Committee Member of the Indian PEN and a member of the Poetry Circle, Mumbai.