Gender is at the heart of all discrimination

By Arshia Sattar

A review of Translating Caste and Translating Desire

Translating Caste: Stories, Essays, Criticism, Edited by Tapan Basu. Katha, 2002. Paperback, pgs 262, Rs 295
Translating Desire: The Politics of Gender and Culture in India, Edited by Brinda Bose. Katha, 2002. Paperback, pgs 309, Rs 295

This new series from Katha brings together literary works as well as critical and scholarly writings on a particular issue. The idea is excellent, the books work well and will obviously be of great use to teachers and researchers. In fact, Translating Caste is designated by the publishers as a "Classroom Text".

Collections that bring together primary works (in this case, stories and translations) and critical pieces that either comment on the primary work or provide a context for that work, are a useful pedagogical resource. So far, Katha's major focus has been the presentation of Indian literatures in translation and now they have expanded their horizons (and the notion of "translation") to place these literatures squarely in a political, historical and social landscape.

Both these books are located firmly in the (currently) fertile intellectual soil of Delhi University. The editors of both volumes have called upon friends and colleagues to provide the majority of the critical essays collected here. This Delhi dominance does not detract from the volumes, arguably they might be all the better for being coherent.

It is Translating Caste, edited by Tapan Basu, that carries the appropriate balance between creative and analytical writing: eight translated stories, four critical pieces related to the stories and five essays that provide an overview of caste and the multifarious politics that govern it in villages, cities and states. This collection is entirely contemporary since both the stories and essays address the situation of today. There is immediacy to the essays similar to that of a newspaper report, though of course, the depth and analysis in these essays far exceeds anything that mainstream Indian media would carry. For example, Uma Chakravarti's 'Through Another Lens: Men, Women and Caste' mentions the anti-Mandal agitations and how caste ideologies are entrenched and disguised: for instance in a particular demonstration in which women protested that they did not want unemployed husbands, they implied that low-caste men in the IAS could not possibly be their spouses. It is insights like these that give many of the essays in the book their contemporaniety.

In the first section of the book, the translated stories are conscientiously chosen from north, south, east and west, no doubt as a responsible indication that caste and its dehumanising repercussions are everywhere. There are obvious inclusions like Mahashweta Devi and M T Vasudevan Nair, who are already well-known to an English reading public. But in the hands of Katha, one can always hope for lesser-known talents to be showcased as well. The literary critical essays that follow the fiction section are an excellent starting point for thought and discussion in the enlightened classroom and outside as well. What the essays highlight is how gender is always at the heart of any discrimination, whether it is based on caste or race. This horrific symbiosis cannot be demonstrated often enough and this collection places it centrestage. The argument that the gender/race and gender/caste issue is only a feminist position simply does not hold water and this volume is right to give the exploration of this issue prominence.

Tapan Basu's Introduction to the collection is noteworthy. Not only does he provide a sensitive and intelligent review of what caste (and the analysis thereof) has become over the centuries, he talks more generally about the new pressures that cause caste to remain central in the Indian nation -- Hindutva and globalisation, to name the most obvious. There is a special emphasis on the historical and social politicisation of Dalits, an emphasis that carries through the writings in the book. A major plus for the collection is that though it is firmly rooted in theory, it avoids excessive jargon. Issues and debates are presented in clear, accessible language.

Translating Desire, though potentially more interesting, is the weaker of the two collections. Here, the essays (and the single story) address the "politics of gender and culture in India". Literature, film and popular media are covered by the essays, which, sadly, vary hugely in quality. Dolores Chew's excavation of the image of Eurasian women is an interesting overview and Anjana Sharma's analysis of the use of food in Indian womens' writing has some insights, primarily that food and spices have become a staple exotica motif and metaphor for the Indian writer. Sherry Simon's short story has the act of translating a text as its central event and through that, she attempts to explore the ontological and existential dimensions of translating the self when one is in another culture.

What stands out in the criticism of various cultural media is the absence of an analysis of theatre in the terms that the collection sets for itself. Although the book makes no claims towards being comprehensive, the inclusion of theatre would have added a new and potentially interesting dimension to the volume. As with film and literature in many languages, Indian theatre takes many forms, commercial and "art house" being only two of many possible definitions. Each of these works within its own conventions and surely, the portrayal of women, desire and sexuality in these forms merits critical attention.

Brinda Bose's Introduction discusses the discourses of sexuality and argues that while desire has been operative in Indian traditions, there has been a steady erosion of its power as an artistic and socio-political impetus. She also speaks of "dialogue" as the opening up of spaces that have been, hitherto, taboo, as one of the objectives of this collection. That objective is achieved, although in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner despite the heavy doses of theory and critical vocabulary. The volume promises more than it delivers. Nonetheless, it is a worthy beginning to this "dialogue" and there is an interesting beginning to the metaphorical exploration of "translation."

Actually, both these volumes (and possibly the third about Partition) inhabit the precise space of this exploration. Translation does not have to mean the simple transfer of words from one language to another. In fact, good translations from language to language carry cultures as well as meaning. The volumes under consideration begin the process of juxtaposing politics and cultural and artistic expression. More than that, they site politics at the very heart of cultural analysis. The literal meaning of translation as "carrying over" has been opened up as Bose commits herself to "transform," "transport" and "retransmit . . . a particular aspect of socio-political experience into a variety of artistic and cultural forms." (p. X)

What we now have to talk about is the politics of "translation" as well: Who is moving What across Which line and for Whom would be a set of starting questions. The best translations are the ones that are transparent, revealing the hand and the voice of the translator as well as the voice of the text. Katha's new series does that admirably.

InfoChange News & Features, September 2003