Tuesday, September 10, 2013

South Asian Ensemble

Cover photo by Rupinder Pal Singh

If there is any doubt that some of the best writing in the world is being done in languages other than English, the latest volumes of South Asian Ensemble (Winter & Spring 2013, and Autumn 2012) quickly dispel this notion. South Asian Ensemble is published in Canada and India. The chief editor, Gurdev Chauhan, is based in Canada; the honorary editor, Rajesh Sharma, is located in India. That the journal is a print journal going into its sixth year of publication is an extraordinary accomplishment. Paper, I read recently, is one of the greatest invention and technological advancement of all times. From the energy efficient walls of modern buildings, to toilet paper and articles of hygiene to clothing to furniture to books to the manuals and packaging of computers and smart phones, a world without paper is almost unimaginable. Holding these volumes in my hands, even before flipping the pages, all this, and more, come to mind: the peculiar paper of India.

Stories, excerpts, poems, essays, photography, paintings, reviews and interviews all go into making this eclectic publication. The contributions are not only by, or about, South Asians. The great strength of South Asian Ensemble is the translations from Indian languages. The outstanding pieces in Volume 4 are the Hindi poems of Nilesh Raghuvanshi translated by Alpna Saini and the Punjabi poem, ‘Darkness’ by Pritam Dhanjal translated by Gurdev Chauhan. The biographical note on Raghuvanshi indicates that she is, among other things, a dramatist, poet and translator. She didn’t translate her own poems. Of the many original English contributions Nalini Warriar’s fiction, ‘Legends’ is an intriguing, even if Bollywood-like, juxtaposition of an ancient story and a white, Canadian in India.

The most recent volume, a double issue, is full or great pieces. There are translations from Malayalam, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.  K Satchidanandan’s translation of his own poetry from Malayalam stand out, as do poems by Neeru Aseem (translated from Hindi by the poet and Gurdev Chauhan). Satchidanandan has won multiple awards for his poetry. Of the poets writing in English there is much to be thankful for: Priscila Uppal (a Canadian writer) whose poems have the writerly feel of the academic and of creative writing schools (‘Rilke and I Exchange Emails’, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ –“Milk distributed at lunch like the first letters of/ the alphabet…”[?]); Kavita Jindal (‘Matter Grows Thin’ & ‘Chaining the Ecstatic’ – “white flowers begin to gleam/ fresh against green hedges/ in the slowpouring darkness”); and Harpreet Kaur (‘Silence Returns’ –“Silence perches on the awning/ on the tongue/ of the moon/ when speech is threatened/ between you and me.”).

The prose is as rich as the poetry. The piece by Cyril Dabydeen is in the vein of Naipaulian travelogue grappling with the quirks of a trip to India by someone from the 180-years old Indian diaspora of South America and the West Indies. Dabydeen’s piece is wide ranging, if disjointed and reading like unedited travel notes. Gagan Gill’s ‘Hour of Father, Hour of Death’, translated from the Hindi by Kuldip Singh is engaging except towards the end, after the death of Daarji, when it becomes almost a tract on Sikhism. The death rituals of Sikhism that has come out of that ancient culture that has come to be called Hinduism were revelatory. Perhaps, I also enjoyed this piece for some of the untranslatable Hindi words of my childhood still used in the Hindu/Indian communities in South America and the Caribbean (and in this community’s the second and third exiles in North America and Europe), words such as: Mamoo (mother’s brother), Chacha (father’s brother), Bua (father’s sister), and that indescribable act of the offerings of water for the departed and in puja.

There are fine shorter pieces of fiction by Kapil Chaudaha (‘Gravitational Love’) and Subhash Chandra (‘The Gynaecologist), and  essays by Shikha Kenneth on Sartre, Swaraj Raj on Rushdie and Jagtej Kaur Grewal on Rabindranath Tagore’s approach to art.

The short prose (fiction) piece that stands out is Jaiwanti Dimri’s ‘The Story That Hung Around the Neck.’ This is a translation from the Hindi by the author. As the title suggests, this is a story about writing a story—or so it seems. The playful voice in this story is a reminder that Indians have been writing stories/fictions since ancient times and that the institutional knowledge, technique and expertise that come with this lengthy engagement with this art form is unsurpassed in English Literature. Yes, I did say that this was a translation. Thus far, South Asian Ensemble’s great and extraordinary contribution to contemporary world literature is, perhaps, in its offerings of translations from Indian languages.                               

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