A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore — one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.
You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?
I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.
When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?
It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982. At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.
It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.
You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?
No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations. I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.
But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.
Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?
My first translation, as I’ve just explained, was commissioned. But I would not have taken up the offer if I didn’t consider the original work a significant contribution to Bengali literature. My other books were self-chosen. For me the most important consideration when taking up a translation project has been the literary value of the piece. I had to enjoy the process of translation and could only do so if I thought the subject worthwhile. And, yes, I learned a lot. I learned how lyricism could be infused into prose from Rabindranath. I learned how to write with brevity and precision from Saratchandra and the art of simple, direct, almost colloquial communication with the reader from Sunil Gangopadhyay. The process also intensified my interest in Bengal and the evolution of its society, literature and culture. I was enthused to read and learn more.
Some awards nowadays ask for applications from authors. Did you apply for your awards? Did you work towards getting an award?
No. This is the first time I’m hearing that authors can apply for awards. I thought that was the publisher’s job. As for working towards getting an award — no, I’ve never even thought of it. Networking is a totally alien term for me. I admire people who can do it perhaps because I, myself, have very little skill at it. Whatever recognition has come my way has come as a surprise. I feel some of the books that have brought me awards didn’t deserve them. On the other hand, the ones that I think should have attracted them, didn’t do so. However, I suppose writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. Assessment of quality should be left to critics.
How long does it take you to churn out a book?
In the case of novels, it depends on the amount of research that has to go into it. For example, Jorasanko took nearly three years. But Daughters of Jorasanko was completed in a year and a half. That’s because most of the research had been done already. Translations take less time depending on the length. Srikanta, Those Days and First Light, took about two years each. The shorter ones The Way Home, Primal Woman and On the Wings of Music were done in less than a year.
Were your novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko impacted by your translation of Tagore? Did having done the translations help?
I suppose it did… at some level. Some of the lyricism and emotionally charged quality of Rabindranath’s language must have seeped into my consciousness while doing the translation. But its manifestation is present not only in the Jorasanko series. It is there in all my writing. The Inheritors is suffused with a Tagorean kind of heightened sensibility. So is Suralakshmi Villa.
In your latest novel Suralakshmi Villa you have drawn a very independent woman in the last century — so independent that it would be difficult to find people similar to her in today’s world. Is she modelled on a real person?
I had heard of such a woman from a colleague of mine. The lady, a relation of my friend’s, belonged to a conservative South Indian Brahmin family of Chennai. A few years after her marriage she abandoned her husband and infant son, for no apparent reason, left Chennai and started teaching in an obscure village school. This was way back in the twenties when such an action was unheard of. She never came back. But that was all I knew. I had never met her or heard anything more about her. My imagination provided the rest. So, the answer to your question is both Yes and No. Suralakshmi has been modelled on someone I have heard of. That too only in partial context.
The Inheritors was based on your own family’s past if I’m not mistaken. What kind of research went into it? How long did it take you to write the book?
You are right. The Inheritors is a semi-fictional reconstruction of life as lived by previous generations of my paternal ancestors. Though names have been changed, many of the characters are drawn from real people. Most of the events, too, are located in family history. Not all though. Some are purely fictional. Since everything I wished to describe happened before I was born, it has all been seen through the light of the imagination.
To answer your query about research–there was a lot of primary reading involved. But I had been doing that for years before I took up the project. The ambience was provided by my reading of the classics. Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashanker and many other writers provided sketches of rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all of which were invaluable to my understanding of how life was lived in a Bengal village at the time.
I had very little real material to rely on barring faint memories. Anecdotes heard from my parents, uncles and aunts. Family legends passed down the generations. But I did visit my ancestral village a couple of times. I was shown the house in which my forefathers lived, the location of the Adi Ganga — now extinct, and the temple, Vaidyanath Mandir, which bore the name of the village in an inscription on a terracotta tablet above the door. I also managed to get hold of a family tree, dating from our earliest known ancestor Srikrishna Tarkapanchanan, and an ancient map of the area.
It took me about a year and a half to do the actual writing.
Both in Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa, you have strong heroines. Can you tell us if you are doing so with an intent?
Well, I do believe that women of the past had a lot of inherent strength. Most of them kept it hidden because that is how patriarchal society liked its women. Silence and obedience were highly rated qualities and most women abided by family and societal expectations. Some, of course, were exceptionally ahead of their times and displayed courage and independence even at the risk of upsetting the applecart. But even those who were apparently meek and subservient were seen to display enormous inner reserves of strength at a time of crisis. I have shown both kinds in my novels.
What are your future plans? When can we expect a new novel?
I am working on something but it is still in the initial stages. The pandemic has made travelling impossible so field work has had to be postponed. It is too early to share details and impossible to tell when the work will see the light of day.
This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.
Originally published in Borderless Journal