Anjum Hasan, acclaimed writer from Shillong and books editor for the Caravan has turned translator for the latest anthology of Premchand’s short stories. We talk to her on a range of topics
Your father, I believe, taught Premchand in college. And, now the complete volume of Premchand’s short stories has just come out by Penguin, where you have translated two stories. Tell us a little about your connection with Premchand and your thoughts on him.
My father was a native speaker of Hindi, Urdu and Bhojpuri but he studied English literature and became a lifelong student and teacher of it. He was also a translator of Urdu literature. Firaq and Ghalib and Mir were part of his inheritance, as much as Premchand and Ageya and Mahadevi Varma. My mother studied both Hindi and English literature and she has had a long career as a teacher of Hindi. She’s taught Premchand for decades to school students. So I often heard the name Premchand, growing up, and I read some of his stories in school but I never really was curious about him. The Hindi language was so near to me and yet so strangely remote, till very recently when I started missing it and trying to read it again. Being a visiting fellow at the Department of English at Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2013 also helped revive an interest in Premchand. Prof M Asaduddin has been running a very ambitious Premchand translation project there and the recently published Collected Stories in four volumes are an outcome of that.
Your novels, in some way, comes up with characters who are very contemporary, relatable and always ‘looking for an escape’? You had said somewhere that you began writing to escape the mundaneness of your existence in a small town in NE India. Is there a connection?
Perhaps! But living in an Indian metro can be driven by a stultifying sameness as well as an often crushing need to succeed materially, I have also encountered people looking for escape. My new collection of stories, which will appear in March 2018 and is called A Day in the Life, starts with a story titled ‘The Stranger’ which is about a man who leaves what he feels is the noise, the competitiveness and the soulless monotony of the big city and tries to make a life in a small town.
Your prose writing has been prolific but there has just been one poetry collection from you, Street on the Hill. And, yet you began by writing poetry….?
I did and I dream of returning to poetry some day, though I also feel that the form, as I wrote in a recent poem ‘belongs to the century past’. I have begun to read more poetry again after a hiatus which to me is as enlivening as writing it. I am struck by the work of some the younger poets – Goirick Brahmachari, Sohini Basak, Arjun Rajendran, Mihir Vatsa. It’s interesting to see how poetry might relate to the present through the imagination and vocabulary of these younger writers.
Who are the authors you read?
In the past few years, I have read a fair amount of contemporary and modern Indian writing and enjoyed discovering or rediscovering the oeuvre of writers such as Kiran Nagarkar, Anita Desai, Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, as well as Hindi and Urdu literature in translation.
What is your take on the new generation of writers from Northeast India, Janice Pariat, Easterine Kire, Aruni Kashyap, Siddharth Sharma, Sumana Roy…? Do you believe there should be a category as ‘Northeast Indian Writing’?
I don’t know how useful this category is to one’s practice as a writer. We’re not Northeast writers when we’re at our desks. That there are more people from the region writing and publishing is surely a good thing. But each work ought to be judged on its own merit, and not because it contributes to some pre-existing ethnic or geographical category.