There are books whose social relevance fades away with time and then there are some who not only withstand the test of time but only seem to grow in significance, as their pages age by decades and centuries. Marathi author Lakshmi Bai Tilak's acclaimed memoir Smritichitre certainly falls in the latter category.
The memoir doesn't just capture the resilience and free-spirited attitude of its protagonist but is also a stark portrait of a complicated marriage and the orthodox society that Tilak inhabited. Regressive customs, domestic abuse, mental harassment and partner abandonment are some of the many themes that Smritichitre touches upon and yet, the narrative never seems heavy. Lakshmi Bai Tilak's recounting of her life is replete with wit and pragmatism and urges us to accept how her life unfolded with a pinch of salt.
The 2021 Sahitya Akademi Award winner Shanta Gokhale took it upon herself to translate to epic memoir from Marathi to English. In an interaction with SheThePeople, the writer, translator and theatre critic told us how the idea of translating this memoir came to her some 35 years ago and what sets Lakshmi Bai Tilak apart from other authors of her time.
In the introduction of the book, you write that the idea to translate this work came to you 35 years ago, while re-reading it. Can you recall the exact moment when it finally clicked, that you needed to sit down and devote time to translate Smritichitre?
It was not a matter of something suddenly clicking and my deciding to get down to the job of translating the book. My answer to your question is a long story.
I had read Smritichitre first when I was about 20 years old. I read it next when I was around 40. By this time, I had done quite a few translations, chiefly of plays. For one thing, I was closely connected with the experimental theatre movement in Mumbai which was at its peak in the 1970s and 80s. Several young playwrights were inventing new forms to write about themes that belonged to their ways of being and thinking. Vijay Tendulkar had written three explosive plays which conservatives were demanding should be banned and to which the censor board was asking for ridiculous cuts. Directors had taken recourse to the law. The law wanted English translations of the plays to see what all the fuss was about. I was called upon to supply the translations. I did. The good thing was that the translations went beyond the law courts and into a small format magazine called Enact which a theatre lover and owner of a press in Delhi published. His name was Rajinder Paul. Enact was read by the theatre community across the country.
Unfortunately, those were not times when English language publishers were interested in publishing translations. That is true to some extent even today. Also, I was doing a full-time job and bringing up young children which left me with very little time to undertake large projects with no publisher in sight. I had had two disheartening experiences of this kind. The editor of a Marathi mainline daily had asked me to translate his book on Goa which I did. In the process learned a lot about life in Goa, but never heard back from the editor. I have no idea what happened to the translation.
The second experience was with a very long story that its author, the venerable Shri. Na. Pendse, had asked me to translate because Shyam Benegal had told him he would like to make a film based on it. I translated the story. Shyam did not make the film. The story lay in my files till it finally found an outlet, almost 30 years later, in a collection of long stories edited by Mini Krishnan for Aleph Book Company.
In 1989, I was appointed Arts editor in the Times of India, Mumbai. The newspaper was celebrating its sesquicentennial and a special issue on Bombay was one of its celebratory projects. I translated a chapter from Smritichitre for the issue, the one in which Lakshmibai describes her adventure in a Bombay tram when she got lost. Some ten years ago I met a professor from Hyderabad at a conference on translation who told me his daughter had been working on a thesis on Indian women’s lives in the early nineteenth century and had come across this translation and found it very useful. He urged me to translate the whole book. Sure. But who would publish it still remained the fundamental question.
A few years after that, I was fortunate to have my book on Mumbai’s experimental theatre theatre published by Speaking Tiger on Jerry Pinto’s recommendation. Suddenly I had a publisher with whom I could exchange ideas and who was interested in publishing translated works. That was the signal for me to start translating Smritichitre.
Humour is one of the most difficult of expressions when it comes to writing, it is even more difficult when the task is to translate another person's humour. Were you worried about the risk of losing the flavour, the regional rhetorics of the original Marathi work while translating it?
A translation always involves the loss of certain aspects of a text. A translator would have to put down her tools permanently if she were to be scared off by that. She accepts the risk and does everything in her power to ensure that there is a gain that balances the loss. As far as humour goes, there are different kinds, each of which presents a different level of difficulty. Verbal humour is difficult because it belongs to the language itself. And yet the late Anthea Bell did a miraculous job with Asterix which was full of wordplay. Some humour is culture-specific. Pu La Deshpande’s for example. Within the culture, it evokes amusement, even hilarity. In the language of another culture, it falls a little flat. Lakshmibai’s humour is neither of these. Her humour lies in the way she looks at life and its absurdities. Her sensibility is shared across cultures and fitted extremely well into the English language.
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Lakshmibai endured ill-treatment at the hands of her father and father-in-law. She recounts the torture quite matter-of-factly, but never badmouths her tormentors. Why do you think that is?
Clearly because she sees in retrospect the absurdity of what had happened to her, in fact the absurdity of the people who tortured her. Imagine a man who is so obsessed by ideas of purity and pollution, that he orders a sackful of salt to be washed of the imagined impure touch it has attracted. This was her father. Here the father-in-law makes himself totally absurd raving and ranting about her cooking, not because it is not tasty but because it is not the way he does it. She runs to a neighbour for instructions to cook ‘the right way’ so the old man is left with nothing to complain about. She wins that war. Lakshmibai is not interested in beating her chest and wailing ‘woe is me’. She is a clever woman.
Lakshmibai had a very complicated relationship with her husband. Were you ever concerned that modern day readers with progressive sensibilities might not have any empathy for a husband who throws his pregnant wife down the stairs, simply for losing a game of dice?
To say her relationship with her husband was complicated is putting it mildly. But neither she as the original writer nor I as her translator thought for a moment that the reader’s empathy on his behalf was called upon in the episode you mention. Readers are expected to be patient and allow a protagonist’s entire life to unfold before deciding to what extent they empathise with him or not. Tilak was an eccentric man and that is how Lakshmibai portrayed him. She portrayed herself also in mixed shades, not all of them glowing. That is honesty and candour for which we admire her. In the case of her husband throwing her down the stairs, she is not her subject. He is. She is pointing out the absurdity of a grown man, a man of letters to boot, who cannot take a defeat in a game without frothing at the mouth and behaving as no decent man should. As I translated, I often found myself chuckling at the ridiculous behaviour of grown men. If Lakshmibai or I thought of readers at all, it was with the hope that they would have enough sense of humour to respond to hers.
Lakshmibai's resilience is a running theme through the book, be it through her difficult childhood, marriage and then widowhood. According to you, was this resilience a part of her character? Or was it simply a way to survive as she didn't have the choice to walk away? Or did she nurture it within herself, watching her mother bear the brunt of her father's eccentricities, while growing up?
One does not look for answers to questions that lie outside the book an author has written. Lakshmibai is not self-obsessed. She is not interested in analysing why she did this, that or the other. And so, there can be no question of my having an opinion about why she dealt with life the way she did. However, if we know our social history, we know that a hundred years ago people generally had to lump the life they were born into. There were very few escapes. Tilak’s father disliked him intensely and made no bones about it. The boy escaped from home once but was traced and brought back. As a comparatively free adult, he found an escape from the religion he was born into but had to face a great deal of criticism for what he did. As a woman, Lakshmibai was not granted even that much freedom. But what does the word resilience mean in such a case anyway?
My city Mumbai, is often admired for its resilience because it has survived a tragic flood, bombings, murderous bridge collapses and other such calamities. So? Is there an alternative to survival? Resilience means lumping it in order to survive. It is how you survive, that matters. Lakshmibai survived gloriously, with her values and self-respect intact. That calls for something a little more than mere resilience.
Smritichitre offers a bird's eye view of pre-independent Indian households where oppression of women seemed to be a norm, not a rarity. Sadly, for many women in our society, that hasn't changed. Why is it so difficult for women to move away from abusive households and marriages even today?
Because there are impossible practical and societal hurdles in doing that. Say I am being abused. I have the guts to walk away. And because I have a job and can keep myself, I do walk away while other women in a similar situation cannot. Lucky me. But where do I go? Are there empty rooms around that I can rent? Are landlords willing to rent them out to me, a woman without an accompanying father, brother or husband? Further, do I belong to the right caste or religion to be trusted into a building? Are parents happy to take me back? Have they not spent lakhs on celebrating my wedding and some more in buying me a bridegroom? And then I come back like a bad coin. I can go on about this. But it is all very obvious, so I won’t.
As a reader, what is it about Smritichitre, that keeps calling you back to the book?
The question no longer applies to me. I have translated it. A translator owns a work in a deeper and more permanent way than a reader ever can, however many times she reads it. I own Smritichitre. It is in me now.
What, according to you, makes Lakshmibai stand out as a writer, as compared to other women writers of her time?
There were no other women writers in her time worth mentioning in the same breath, so there can be no comparisons. The amazing thing about her writing is that she had no literary tradition to take off from. She could not belong to the male writing tradition in which her husband had found a place. Her lived experience differed too widely from a man’s lived experience to find his language useful in writing her life. These are not things she bothered to say to herself. She simply began to write her memories, her feelings, her ideas as they came to her. What we read as a result is a unique prose style that comes straight from the heart, with no frills and furbelows, carrying the rich smells of kitchen, cowshed and vegetation. That is what sets her apart even from the male authors of her time. That is why Acharya P K, educationist, editor, playwright, film-maker, dubbed her Sahitya Lakshmi.