Bringing Dhumketu to a new century: Jenny Bhatt discusses translating the pioneering Gujarati writer's short stories
In the early 20th century, Dhumketu was a household name, known for writing stories that departed from the heavy influence of Mahatma Gandhi's ideology to depict instead a village idyll, the simple joys and sorrows of a common person, and the everyday goings-on of a Gujarati home.
There are many ways to describe the Gujarati writer Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, or 'Dhumketu' as he is known, but one of the most apt may be 'prolific'. His body of work spans across genres and includes memoirs, travelogues, essays and more. He produced over 25 historical novels, in addition to seven others which are rooted in social realism. His career was a turning point in Gujarati literature.
However, what he is best known for is his short stories, having published close to 500, spread over as many as 25 volumes.
In Ratno Dholi, translator Jenny Bhatt digs deep into Dhumketu's career to carve out English translations of some of his most read short stories, including The Post Office, The Noble Daughters-in-Law and Kailas. This 2020 work is significant because it is Bhatt's first venture into translation, as well as a reminder of the dearth of English translations of Dhumketu's stories, and the sheer number of his writings thrust into obscurity.
Contrary to the present-day scenario, in the early 20th century, Dhumketu was a household name, known for writing stories that departed from the heavy influence of Mahatma Gandhi's ideology to depict instead a village idyll, the simple joys and sorrows of a common person, and the everyday goings-on of a Gujarati home. This genre of Gujarati literature flourished during his time, beginning with his first collection of short stories titled Tankha.
Notably, Bhatt also draws attention to his use of 'variations on a theme', which meant adapting stories he would have previously written to express newer ideas. Themes like justice for the oppressed, the tussle between the upper and lower classes, the caste question, bonds between parents and children recurred multiple times in his works, as did characters like the destitute widow or the lonely father. Although the foundation for such narratives remained the same, every story became a different experience for the reader.
Discussing Dhumketu's literary career in an interview with Firstpost, Bhatt talks about how his narrative style changed Gujarati storytelling, and how she went about the task of collecting and translating his short stories into English.
Dhumketu has been widely regarded as a pioneer of the short story in Gujarati literature. Could you talk about his oeuvre and those elements of his writing that brought about a change in the way stories were written in this space?
He [Dhumketu] was most partial to the short story form and described it as “an incomparable flower in the garden of literature, as delicate as the juhi, as exquisitely beautiful as a golden bird, as electrifying as a bolt of lightning.” For him, the short story roused the imagination and emotions by saying what it must through only allusions or sparks. This last idea was so important to him that he titled his first collection Tankha, meaning ‘sparks’. Later, he released three more short-story collections with the same title.
With these short stories, there are three differentiating aspects that make his work ahead of his time. First, his stories balance exteriority and interiority to explore the inner worlds of his characters through their experiences of external events. This is what we do today in contemporary storytelling but, when he was writing, it was not typical in Gujarati literature. Second, his stories are about people from all walks of life — rural to royal, young to old — and often from the lower classes and castes. While this is normal for writers now, it wasn’t so in Gujarati literature until his time. Back then, village and family life in literature were either caricatured or heavily influenced by Gandhi’s teachings. Dhumketu deviated from both these approaches to focus on the joys and sorrows of commoners. Third, he wrote of strong, independent-minded women and emotionally sensitive men, which was again a deviation from the gender norms in fiction then.
As a short story writer yourself, were there any aspects of Dhumketu’s writing that you were able to take away while translating his stories, to be incorporated in your work?
My own writing comes from Western literary traditions, particularly the American short story. And I wrote all the contemporary stories in my collection, Each of Us Killers, between 2014 and 2017, before I started working on this translation. So I couldn’t take away much from Dhumketu’s storytelling craft or even his actual stories, which are of an earlier era. Where I’d love to learn from him is the historical novels, of which he wrote many. I’d love to be able to write one someday too.
Could you talk about your experience of translating the stories that have made up the collection? How did you go about the project, and which aspects did you enjoy the most?
My approach was to read every single story first to get a sense of which themes were recurring, but also, a good sense of his voice, style, and his writerly intentions. I also wanted to ensure that readers got not just a variety of stories but also saw his evolution as a short story writer through them. So I chose at least one story from each of his collections. With each story, there was a point when I hit that perfect rhythm during the translation cycle — that was most satisfying. There were also, at a personal level, many points of recognition when I’d encounter a phrase or idiom or metaphor in a story that my mother used to say. This translation project was, quite unexpectedly, also a way to reconnect with my mother who passed away in 2014.
Was there an element of research involved in bringing about Ratno Dholi? If yes, could you elaborate on how you dug into the author's own life history, and on some of the interesting aspects of his life that you discovered?
I read a number of academic theses by students from Gujarat University about Gujarati literature, the Gujarati short story form, etc. I also read both of Dhumketu’s memoirs, Jivan Rang and Jivan Panth, that describe his writing journey from childhood-onward. Some interesting nuggets:
— In his memoirs, he writes about the many struggles to get published in literary magazines and they aren’t unlike the challenges we face today (although we have a lot more distractions with 24/7 social media and cellphones);
— I completely identified with the various socially-respectable jobs he took on before committing to writing full-time;
— Interestingly, he has also written about the 1918-1920 flu pandemic in India, right after World War I, and how entire neighborhoods were dying around him. He was in his mid-20s then and his first book, the story collection titled Tankha, wouldn’t be out for another six or seven years.
What was your first introduction to the writer?
My mother was a big reader of Gujarati literature, especially short stories. I'd heard her mention Dhumketu and Meghani often while growing up as a child. She'd even tell me and my siblings some of the stories as bedtime tales. When she passed away in 2014, I inherited her small personal library with all of Dhumketu’s books barring his nonfiction and his translations of other writers’ works.
Why, according to you, is the need to bring more and more diverse narratives from regional languages to a national audience being advocated today?
I could write an entire essay here about identity politics, ethnographies, the dangers of seeing Anglophone writing as representative of the entire country, who gets to tell whose stories, etc. But for now, let’s just say that translation isn’t simply about bringing old stories to new audiences. It’s also about preserving, elevating, and celebrating our literary diversity and our languages. Doing so can only help us understand, appreciate, and be more tolerant of our cultural differences. If we stick with only the Anglophone versions of our different cultures, we risk what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has described as the dangers of a single story.
Ratno Dholi, a collection of Dhumketu's short stories translated into English by Jenny Bhatt has been published by HarperCollins India
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