South Asian Literature in Translation: Phoolsunghi

Phoolsunghi by Pandey Kapil; translated from Bhojpuri into English by Gautam Choubey

Publication date: 20 November, 2020
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton; India
ISBN-10: 0670095192
ISBN-13: 978-0670095193

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

GC: Phoolsunghi was published in 1977 by Bhojpuri Sansthan, Patna. Within a few years of its publication, it earned a cult following among the Bhojpuri literati, eventually also finding its way into Bhojpuri academic curricula wherever the language is taught. Set in colonial Bihar (1840s to 1931), the novel explores the lives of the legendary folk poet, Mahendar Misir, and the famous courtesan, Dhelabai of Chhapra. Pandey Kapil, the author, is perhaps the most important figure—as both a writer and a language crusader—in Bhojpuri culture in post-Independence India. For almost four decades, he was an institution unto himself: a pioneering author, a visionary editor, and a man who brought the entire Bhojpuri literati together. Although he started his career as a Hindi poet, with a collection of Hindi poems written in the Chhayawadi tradition, he switched to Bhojpuri and remained devoted to it. He edited the Bhojpuri Sammelan Patrika, arguably the most important Bhojpuri periodical of its times, and played a leading role in establishing a national association of Bhojpuri writers. To me, however, his greatest contribution was his publishing house—Bhojpuri Sansthan. It was established to promote young writers with great ideas but little means to publish, especially in a culture that celebrated the writing and circulation of books but did not quite believe in buying them. 

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

GC: I grew up in a Bhojpuri-speaking literary family: my maternal grandfather, Chandradhar Pandey, was a well-known Bhojpuri writer. I was somewhat familiar with figures like Mahendra Misir, Bhikhari Thakur, Rameshawar Singh Kashyap, and to some extent, even Pandey Kapil. Besides, the fascinating story of Mahendra Misir and Dhelabai—filled with mujra, music, dacoity, sahibs, zamindars, crime, compassion, court-cases, and a Devdas-like central character—is a local legend and a much-harvested theme, explored across three other novels. However, it was only in late 2017, having completed my Ph.D. from the English Department at Delhi University that I turned to Bhojpuri at the behest of a senior colleague. A year later, when I finally read Phoolsunghi, I was quite smitten by the story and moved by the sentiments it invokes, in ways I hadn’t experienced earlier; I came to realize the emotive force of feelings expressed in one’s mother tongue. After this chance discovery of a literary gem, and based on my family’s deeply personal connection with Bhojpuri literature, I felt duty-bound to share it with the world at large. Besides, I knew that Phoolsunghi would make the finest traditions of Bhojpuri literature visible, in ways that, perhaps, few other books could. It brings two of the best known Bhojpuri figures together: the subject of the novel and the author. 

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

GC: I grew up speaking Bhojpuri with my mother and, until a few years ago, believed that I knew the language quite well. However, when I started reading its literature, I realized that Bhojpuri in the written form is somewhat different from the spoken form, as is perhaps the case with all other languages. To begin with, the visual impression of Bhojpuri words, although written in the script that I was all too familiar with, was a little disorienting; for me Devanagari and Hindi were interchangeable, and I could not fathom the script being mobilized by another language. Further, since there is no ‘standardized’ Bhojpuri, there are multiple registers within the language, causing words to have different meanings across different spaces and regions. The proverbial wisdom about language variation in India—‘kos kos pe badle pani, char kos pe bani’ (water tastes different every mile, language sounds different every four miles)—is true of this case too. This pushed me to connect with Bhojpuri scholars, writers, and people in my village. In a sense, a larger community of Bhojpuri enthusiasts came together for this book.

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

GC: In many ways, this book contests popular misconceptions and flawed discourses about the Bhojpuri world—notions which people from within the region are at times reluctant to confront and admit. At its core, it is not a culture that glorifies violence and sexual misdemeanors; it is humane, sophisticated with its own codes of honor and chivalry, and melodious, quite literally so. The novel brings these aspects to the fore. For example, it celebrates the miraculous rise of a courtesan in a culture that is often considered doggedly patriarchal. Even though it was written during the days of the Emergency and it depicts a colonial world in turmoil—that moves between Banaras to the west and Calcutta to the east—it celebrates gestures of reconciliation, forgiveness, and assimilation. Its social alchemy allows the unlikeliest of camaraderies to flourish in ways that might seem impossible today even in the most cosmopolitan of spaces, let alone Bihar. It is a world where courtesans, musicians, thugs, robbers, zamindars, and British sahibs interact uninhibitedly, sharing life values and moral imperatives. 

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

GC: For the next few years, I hope to concentrate on Bhojpuri literature, bringing out more such literary specimens, and hopefully, write a history of Bhojpuri literature too. I am in the process of translating an anthology of selected Bhojpuri short stories that will allow me to introduce many more Bhojpuri writers to the Anglophone world. And I can vouch for this: these stories are sure to surprise and stun.

Author Bio: Pandey Kapil (1930-2017) was a doyen of Bhojpuri literature, best remembered as the long-serving visionary editor of Bhojpuri Sammelan Patrika and the founder of Akhil Bharatiya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammelan (est.1973). To promote young authors, he established his own publication house, Bhojpuri Sansthan (est.1970), which brought out some of the best writings in Bhojpuri. Phoolsunghi is his finest work and, perhaps, of Bhojpuri literature too. [Image Source: Gautam Choubey]

Translator Bio: Gautam Choubey is an academic, translator, and columnist. He teaches at ARSD College, University of Delhi, and writes on Gandhi, popular culture, and Indian literature. He has previously translated Andre Beitelle in Hindi (Oxford University  Press), satires of Shrilal Shukla, and short stories of the Odia writer, Basanta Kumar Satpathy. Presently, he is working on a history of Bhojpuri literature and a monograph tentatively titled ‘using Mahatma.’ (Image Source: Gautam Choubey)

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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