Vishwas Patil's Mahanayak gets an English translation: Revisiting the decade-old Marathi tour de force

  • Patil’s extensive work Mahanayak, was recently made available in English by Eka, in an imprint of Westland Publications

  • Mahanayak, based on the life of Subhas Chandra Bose, was first translated in 2004 by Keerti Ramchandra.

  • Mahanayak narrates in thrilling detail the adventurous of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the interrelations between the three prominent figures of the Indian freedom movement

"The story of our great leaders, the triumvirate – Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose – is the story of our country. It will never grow stale and will continue to be told time and again from multiple angles," says author Vishwas Patil.

His 1998 historical novel Mahanayak narrates in thrilling detail the adventurous of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the interrelations between the three prominent figures of the Indian freedom movement. Keerti Ramachandra's English translation of this extensive work was recently made available by Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications. It was first published in 2004.

 Vishwas Patils Mahanayak gets an English translation: Revisiting the decade-old Marathi tour de force

Cover of Vishwas Patil's Mahanayak.

Presented as a retelling of actual events, Patil opines that writing a fictional account of such powerful characters enables him to achieve what is known as the "transformation into another being," to feel the blood coursing through his character's veins and explore his deepest vulnerabilities.

"A fiction writer can do that, better than a critical writer," he says which is one of the reasons Mahanayak was 'built on the strength of the imagination' even as its foundation lay in firsthand accounts that described the happenings of the pre-independence period.

Patil explains, "DG Tendulkar’s Mahatma, an eight-part biographical work by the writer who followed Gandhi like a shadow, contains Gandhi’s conversations and opinions about Bose," and the letters exchanged between Nehru and Netaji as long as 20-40 pages, some of which are found in the former’s collection, A Bunch of Old Letters, are outpourings that reveal the close ties shared by Indian history’s most prominent characters.

In one of these documents, the author continues, Nehru writes to Bose, 'The relations between us, the triumvirate, they are taking the shape of an unavoidable Shakespearean tragedy.'

Engulfed in the vortex of history, these men, he notes, knew their significance in the scheme of things and the drama that ensued as a result of their decisions has been captured in Mahanyak, which narrates through the lens of Bose’s life, the incidences that shaped the course of the Indian freedom movement.

Work began on the novel 1991 and involved reading every book available on the life and work of Bose, interviews with nearly half of Bose’s closest associates such as Captain Laxmi Sehgal and Colonel GS Dhillon. Eight years later, Mahanayak was published in Marathi.

Since then, Patil’s novel has been translated into 14 languages even as it continues to be widely read in the original. According to him, the reason the work continues to be visited is that it explores Netaji’s wartime career (during the World War II) and not much has otherwise been written about this part of his life – his alliance with the Axis Powers, meetings with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and the involvement of his Azad Hind Fauj with the Japanese forces in Burma – following his banishment from the Indian National Congress (INC).

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"My meeting with Mr Vishwas Patil was providential," says Ramachandra who was previously tasked with translating Patil’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning 1992 work Zadazadati (A Dirge for the Damned) and subsequently, took up Mahanayak.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Right) and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (Left). Image via Wikimedia Commons

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Left) and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (Right). Image via Wikimedia Commons

A compelling read, Ramachandra’s writing is a clear, succinctly phrased translation of the novel that captures Bose’s life in Calcutta, his stronghold over the socialist youth in the INC, his nationalist sentiment, his marriage to Emilie Schenkl, and his urge to continue working for India’s freedom even after being ousted by the Mahatma himself.

Ramachandra confesses that she knew little about Bose when she undertook the mammoth task of translating this voluminous work but adds, "When I decide to do a translation big or small, I try to get as much background information as I can."

She thereby read much of the primary sources that went into the creation of Patil’s Mahanyak and the first draft emerged, ‘always very literal and close to the text.’

"During the second reading, I tried to refine the language, ensure that there was neither exaggeration nor reticence in the narration, but retained intensity of the original."

She continues, "It was important to create the same images in a language given to understatement and it challenged my lexical, structural, grammatical and stylistic ability."

Another difficulty was to translate the dialogue in the work, more so than the narrative parts of the text. It was critical to be able to nail the "right register, the tone and intonation and accent (which one can 'hear' in the original language) and which are strong markers of [the] character’s background, personality traits and relationship with the other characters."

She explains, for instance, the usage of the word 'tu' and 'tumhi', both mean 'you' but the former denotes familiarity while the latter is a marker of respect or is used in a formal setting. To translate this into English required greater thought and ingenuity.

Then there was the question of 'multiple languages' while writing about Bose’s travels. "For Marathi readers, Germans, Japanese, Indians all using standard Marathi is perfectly natural and acceptable. In standard English, an astute reader would say, 'Really? Would a German say that?'"

"It was tough to not make them all sound the same!"

Mahanayak was first published more than a decade ago however Ramachandra notes that the translation scenario, in general, has suddenly livened up and Marathi literature is no exception.

She also points out, "To my mind, we need translations to open our eyes to another perspective on topics we have only seen through one lens. It is interesting to see how other regions and literatures view important historical events and characters from their sensibility."

This holds through for a work such as Mahanayak that explores in Marathi a world of characters who hailed from several parts of the country and the world, had few things in common except perhaps a mutual interest in formulating a means towards a desirable end.

It was not achieved without conflict.

When Bose was elected president of the INC for a second time, it was Gandhi who later on, presented the resolution of banishment against him at the Calcutta session of the Congress and Bose, who stated following the 1931 Gandhi-Irwin pact, which vaguely suggested a dominion status for British India, that 'Gandhiji won the battle but lost the war.'

Mahatma Gandhi with INC President Subhas Chandra Bose at Haripura in 1938. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi with INC President Subhas Chandra Bose at Haripura in 1938. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Following the Calcutta session, when Nehru, who was a guest at Netaji’s home, was taking his leave, Bose’s niece Geeta ran up to him with a long-stemmed red rose. The author writes, "Subhas broke off the stem and was tucking it into Jawaharlal’s buttonhole when he exclaimed, ‘Wait, Subhas! Blood!’ Quickly, he pulled out his handkerchief to dab at Subhas’ finger. Subhas drew his hand back and smiled. ‘Never mind, Jawahar. God has willed roses for you and thorns for me!'"

These conversations, expostulations and clashes, Patil says, were nothing short of the likes of the characters found in the epics, and their story, therefore, should be told like an epic as well.

Towards the close of the book, Patil describes the plane crash that led to Netaji’s death, a phenomenon which continues to be regarded with suspicion. While accounts vary as to the events in the final hours of his life, many believe the crash to have occurred in Taihoku, now Taipei in Taiwan.

"I suspended disbelief," Ramchandra says while explaining the translation process of this part of the story "was sure that the author had some special gift like clairvoyance and that’s why he could describe the plane crash and what happened thereafter so vividly and realistically."

"Mr Patil is masterful at creating dramatic situations credibly, and convincing the readers that that was what actually happened."

She concludes, "The depth of feeling, the emotions that overpower them, the admiration, which stops just short of putting a halo around Netaji’s head overwhelms them. For that experience they are grateful."

Vishwas Patil's Mahanayak, translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra has been published by Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2019 13:36:19 IST