Word for word: Daisy Rockwell is currently translating Krishna Sobti’s first novel, Channa, to English – SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
American translator Daisy Rockwell on introducing Usha Priyamvada’s ‘Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls’ — a novel that had fell by the wayside — to a new generation of readers in English
* I went on to read the whole book and fell in love with it. It’s beautifully written and there’s a gem-like quality to the way Usha ji’s writing preserves a particular place and time
* If books by women are not placed in school and college curricula, for example, then fewer readers come to discover them
* Every author teaches me something profound, and something new
Hindi author Usha Priyamvada’s debut novel Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls [Pachpan Khambe, Laal Deewaarrein] came out in 1961 and enjoyed immense success at the time. The evocative imagery of the title — at once a site of freedom and entrapment for protagonist Sushma — belonged to a women’s college in Delhi. Priyamvada’s protagonist, in her 30s, is a woman of the times — educated, economically independent, yet tethered to her family. Sushma’s work isn’t merely a ticket to her emancipation, it is so for her family as well. Priyamvada intricately and lucidly creates Sushma’s inner world as she struggles to strike a balance between her dreams and wants, and the obligations to her family.
Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls / Usha Priymavada; Translated by Daisy Rockwell / Speaking Tiger / Fiction / ₹350
Though Fifty-Five Pillars… was a popular novel, it hardly gained traction among critics. In the early 1990s actor Mita Vasisht donned Sushma’s role in the Doordarshan adaptation of the novel. However, the story of a woman who sidesteps her happiness was quietly forgotten in post-liberalised India. Until Daisy Rockwell, American translator, painter and writer, brought it to English, thereby introducing Priyamvada not only to new readers, but newer generations of them as well.
In her translator’s note, Rockwell touches upon the reservations people had — including Priyamvada — about Fifty-Five Pillars… resonating with today’s readership. That the novel may appear dated doesn’t hold, argues Rockwell, for Fifty-Five Pillars…, quite like fiction by pioneering women authors of the time, holds a mirror to a moment in women’s history. “Fifty-five Pillars… gives us — readers more than fifty years later — a window into a particular moment in women’s history, when women with apparent freedom and advanced education struggled for independence and autonomy,” writes Rockwell.
In an e-mail interview with BLink, US-based Rockwell, translator of the works of Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni and Khadija Mastur into English, talks about Priyamvada’s sparse and ‘gem-like’ prose, and why women’s works need to be retrieved and translated.
With Fifty-Five Pillars, Red Walls…, you introduce author Usha Priyamvada not only to new readers in English, but a new generation of them as well. As a translator, what dictated the choice of this particular text?
I came to Hindi literature as a scholar, and my area of expertise has always been mid-20th century Hindi and Urdu literature. Fifty-five Pillars… is a bit on the later side for me, but as a translator I always love introducing authors to new audiences and the challenges of bringing a historical work to a modern audience. I was asked a few years ago by the Urdu translator and scholar Rakshanda Jalil to find a short passage from Fifty-five Pillars… to translate for a collection of writings on Delhi that she was putting together. She is an alumna of Lady Shri Ram College, where the book takes place, and she wanted a passage evocative of the distinctive architecture invoked by the title. I found a good passage for her, but then I went on to read the whole book and fell in love with it. It’s beautifully written and there’s a gem-like quality to the way Usha ji’s writing preserves a particular place and time, so I decided I wanted to translate it.
In your extensive translator’s note you mention the author’s reservations about this text resonating with the present-day readership. Yet you were confident, and you draw comparisons with two texts from other women authors belonging to a similar period — Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Khadija Mastur’s Aangan. The other novels have since enjoyed a cult status among feminist scholars. Do you think Fifty-five pillars.., though evoking similar concerns, have been mostly forgotten? And what could be the reasons for it?
Fifty-five Pillars… was a hit in its day, but many books fall by the wayside over time, particularly books by women. If they are not placed in school and college curricula, for example, then fewer readers come to discover them. I believe that women’s literature often needs to be retrieved because it is pushed aside and forgotten in our male-dominated syllabi and reading lists. There is much to learn from the book in modern times, however, and I’m excited for a new generation to discover it.
Despite Usha Priyamvada’s popularity among women readers in Hindi, you point out the scant attention she received from critics, relegated as she was to the category of ‘lady writers’. When you choose to translate her debut novel, are you also in a way denting the preconceived notions about who and what gets translated?
Yes, as mentioned in the response above, women’s writing gets forgotten and pushed aside routinely. As a translator, and as a reader, I feel it is my duty to make a conscious effort to seek out women’s stories and listen to women’s voices. The men’s voices are always easily heard.
What aspects of Usha Priyamvada’s style struck you? You write about the quality of her writing and her ability to create whole universes with the sparsest of prose. Also, thematically, Fifity-Five Pillars… takes readers to a time when an educated, middle class Indian woman’s choices were far fewer.
Usha Priyamvada writes with an enviable economy — the book is slim, and each word is carefully chosen. So much is captured in a gesture, a look, a brief description. I think readers will find themselves remembering passages long after they have finished the book. It stays with you.
You have translated the works of Upendranath Ashk, Bhisham Sahni, Khadija Mastur, Krishna Sobti, and now, Usha Priyamvada. How has the process of translating each of these diverse works and styles altered your own evolving relationship with Hindi and Urdu?
Every author teaches me something profound, and something new. My knowledge of Hindi and Urdu is constantly growing and evolving. I still feel like a student and constantly have to look up words and ask friends for help. It’s frustrating, but it’s also enriching. Ironically, I live in a rural part of the US where I only know one person who speaks Urdu. I rarely get to speak Hindi or Urdu unless I go to India, which unfortunately is not going to happen again any time soon. But when I do go, I can always pick right back up because the language is always growing and changing in my head through constant engagement with literature and translation.
Is there a readership for Indian or South Asian literature in translation outside these particular geographies? If no, what could be the reasons?
There is definitely a readership, but the key is trying to persuade publishers that this is true! Publishers in the US and UK are reluctant to publish translations in general, and South Asian literature in translation rarely appears in print there. Luckily, with the internet, it is easier to get Indian books all around the world now, so readers can access them even if they’re not being published there.
What work are you currently translating, and who, so far, has been the toughest writer to translate, and why?
I’m currently translating Krishna Sobti’s very first novel, Channa, which she never published until a few weeks before she passed away in 2019. It’s not as experimental as her later works, but just as fascinating and quite feminist. By far the toughest novel I have translated is coming out in the UK in August this year from Tilted Axis Press, and India in April 2022 from Penguin Random House. It’s Tomb of Sand (Ret Samadhi) by Geetanjali Shree. It’s contemporary and very experimental in style. I was lucky to have the help of the author, who generously answered my hundreds of questions over e-mail. I think it turned out well and I hope everyone enjoys it.