Vol. 5 Num 1020 Sat. April 14, 2007  

On Hallowed Ground: SAARC Translation Workshop at Belur, Kolkata

After the two days of readings and lectures and cordial colloquy at the SAARC literary meet in Delhi, eleven of us flew to Kolkata for another two-day event: the first ever SAARC Translation Workshop. Daytime temperatures in the two cities were roughly the same but Delhi was dry, and the enervating effect of Kolkata's high humidity was palpable as soon as we landed. Mercifully, the evenings were still relatively mild, with fugitive breeze playing hide and seek with the city's flaneurs. And a number of new flyovers and elevated roadways, which weren't there the last time I was visiting, greatly diminished the travail of intra-city travel.

For six of us, billeted at Chaudhury's Guest House, behind the Maharaja Restaurant in Chowringhee Road, getting to the workshop venue on the hallowed precincts of the Ramakrishna Mission's Bidyamandir (college) in Belur was an hour's jaunt. The other five, accomodated at the Mission Guest House, simply toddled over; and we were joined by a literary quartet from Kolkata, among whom were the veteran translators Professor Manabendra Bannerjee and Professor Supriya Chaudhuri. Sadly, Ajeet Cour-ji, the moving spirit behind FOSWAL (the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature) had to stay back in Delhi to nurse her daughter, the artist Arpana Cour, who had just had a by-pass. But her able and ever effervescent lieutenant Dr. Reena Marwah, came for a day, and her co-organizers, the ICCR, sent their high-powered General Secretary, Professor K. Satchinandan. Logistics in Kolkata were in the energetic hands of the local Sahitya Akademi boss, Dr Ram Kumar Mukherjee.

We got off to a brisk start, with the Vice Chancellor of the Mission's newly founded university delivering an entertaining inaugural speech on the pitfalls of translation. An academic session had representatives from all SAARC countries except the Maldives and Afghanistan talk about their national literatures for the benefit of the Bidyamandir's students: Professor Satchinandan from India, Professor Abhi Subedi from Nepal, Dr. Asif Farooqi from Pakistan, Tshering Dorji from Bhutan, Dinithi Karunanayake from Sri Lanka and Yours Truly. After a wholesome and filling lunch that sat amazingly lightly in the stomach we got down to the serious deliberations on a translation project. These were satisfactorily concluded in the morning session the following day, with a resolution to publish five or six volumes of translations of works from SAARC countries into English every year. In addition there would be translations from one regional language to another.

Lest we felt too upbeat about our progress there were unpleasant realities impinging on our consciousness. The Pakistani writer Asif Farooqi had only been given a visa to visit Delhi. His two days there had been largely spent on obtaining permission to visit Kolkata as well. And once in Kolkata several hours each day went on finding out to which branch of the Police he had to report to. Still, he and his compatriot, the poet Kishwar Naheed, managed to call on Mahasweta Devi, who had received this year's one lakh rupee SAARC literary award, and promptly donated the entire amount to a fund for the victims of the Nandigram shooting.

But at Chaudhury's in the evenings Ram Kumar turned up with a bottle of Indian Usquebaugh and we gave ourselves up to merry tippling, which offered ready escape from the complexities of life. As we got tight, let our hair down, let it all hang out, and swapped drolleries it seemed this world wasn't such a bad place after all.

Kaiser Haq is professor of English at Dhaka University.