Anita Gopalan is the recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation from the Hindi of Geet Chaturvedi’s novella Simsim. Read an excerpt of the translation here.

I first became acquainted with Geet Chaturvedi’s work through one of his fabulous posts on Facebook—Chaturvedi’s commitment to excellence is evident even in his social media posts—and this marked the beginning of a long association of mutual respect. (This also underlines the significance of Facebook in India and the fact that here, collaborations of various kinds are struck via this medium).

Chaturvedi is a major contemporary Hindi author, widely read and well loved. His various stylistic approaches and innovations with form and content reflect the unmistakable aura of his works, his strong voice and inner lyrical beauty, its multitude of meanings and “text-appeal.” His award-winning work of fiction Simsim has been lauded greatly for not only its experimentation, but also its theme, treatment and new way of looking at fiction. In this unusual but well-crafted work, each episode begins with an epigraph that sets the theme and mood for the chapter. Simsim is an elegy for books and a tribute to the writers quoted in epigraphs, the author’s method of having conversation with them, and the power of intertextuality.

The fascinating tale—narrated in different voices by the master storyteller, including an old man (a migrant from the Pakistani province of Sindhi living in Mumbai) who runs a defunct library and lives on the memory of a fifty-one-years-old love, a young management graduate who does not retain any memory of his loves, an old woman who seems to have lost all her memories and spends a silent, wordless life, and a Sikh shopkeeper who, like the old man, is the target of the invisible land-mafia—is set against a backdrop of an “old traditional” India living in her glorious past and a “new corporate” India seeped in consumerism and corruption. The characters want to open the world in front of them with the magical “Simsim,” like the cave door in Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. It is a narrative succinct like a Zen moment, rigorous like a long day—Chaturvedi uses the narrative device “ellipsis” the way the master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu used it in his films.

Sindhi and Mumbaiya dialects abundantly bestrew this book, reflecting the varied linguistic backgrounds of the people who speak it; this variety both amuses and enchants the reader, and since this is an integral feature of the book, in the translation, this variety has been conveyed as far as possible by changing the tone and construct of the English language. The translator needs to find the most fitting words to capture the pulse, mood and, tone in the “new” language. There’s abundant poetic playfulness too—the young lad, wanting things that’d simply transform him, says eloquently: “Tearing a piece of roti, I often contemplate hibernating inside a jar of stored pickles. The day I come out, I’d have turned delicious and useful.” Translating Simsim has been to dwell deep in the myriad themes, repose between layers of profundity and fluidity, and be enticed by its unusual tones.

I feel translating a work like this expands the experiential space boundaries.

Geet Chaturvedi’s work is a fine commentary about human sensibilities, wrapping the characters in a gossamer of aromas; the potent visual arrangements offer a pleasure similar to watching great cinema. While translating it, I have often been reminded of Ozu’s musicality as well as tranquility, and I do hope this brilliant piece of work that changed the style of Hindi fiction and a groundbreaking contribution to Indian literature will be universally accessible.

Anita Gopalan is a translator and artist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation, Drunken Boat, Mantis, and the International Poetry Review. She has worked in banking for over fourteen years in India, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the Middle East. 

This piece is part of PEN’s 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.