South Asian Literature in Translation: The Tale of the Missing Man

The Tale of the Missing Man by Manzoor Ahtesham; translated from Hindi into English by Jason Grunebaum

Publication date: August 15, 2018
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0810137585

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

JG: The Tale of the Missing Man is about the beautiful and the lost Zamir raking through the ruins of his lost Bhopal and his lost youth, trying to conjure and recover all that’s slipped away. The novel’s many voices range from loving portraits of Zamir’s eccentric progenitors to metatextual meanderings through literature and politics. Manzoor Ahtesham is one of the greats of Hindi literature. His six novels and many short stories draw a nuanced portrait of Indo-Muslim life. 

[More from the publisher’s website: The Tale of the Missing Man (Dastan-e Lapata) is a milestone in Indo-Muslim literature. A refreshingly playful novel, it explores modern Muslim life in the wake of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Zamir Ahmad Khan suffers from a mix of alienation, guilt, and postmodern anxiety that defies diagnosis. His wife abandons him to his reflections about his childhood, writing, ill-fated affairs, and his hometown, Bhopal, as he attempts to unravel the lies that brought him to his current state (while weaving new ones). A novel of a heroic quest gone awry, The Tale of the Missing Man artfully twists the conventions of the Urdu romance, or dastan, tradition, where heroes chase brave exploits that are invariably rewarded by love. The hero of Ahtesham’s tale, living in the fast-changing city of Bhopal during the 1970s and ’80s, suffers an identity crisis of epic proportions: he is lost, missing, and unknown both to himself and to others. The result is a twofold quest in which the fate of the protagonist and the writer become inextricably and ironically linked. The lost hero sets out in search of himself, while the author goes in search of the lost hero, his fictionalized alter ego.]

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

JG: It’s a book that takes the reader through a time and place, Bhopal in the 60s through the early 90s, that’s rarely depicted in Indian literature written in any language. And Manzoor’s language is a triumph to read and a challenge to translate, a wry constellation of the earthy and erudite. Working with Ulrike Stark—we co-translated the book—began with the sense of urgency we felt to hear what Manzoor might sound like in English. 

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

JG: One challenge which we knew would be a challenge beforehand was finding a US publisher, since South Asian literature in translation is still more often than not, from US publishers’ perspective, a hard sell. What surprised us was, when we did finally find a US publisher, their reluctance to part with rights for India, even though there were multiple Indian houses interested in the book.

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

JG: It’s all there for any reader. But the love Manzoor has for his characters, the wit and humor of his commentary, and the lyricism of his literary vistas: I wish for everyone to appreciate these things as much as they can handle in The Tale of the Missing Man because there’s more than plenty to go around.

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

JG: It’s a novel written by a Hindi author I’ve always wanted to translate, a classic in my own personal canon, and a book, though written decades ago, prescient of the creeping authoritarianism of today. Beyond that: please stand by!

Author Bio: Manzoor Ahtesham is an Indian writer who was born in Bhopal. He is the author of five novels and several short-story collections in Hindi, many of which have received accolades and awards. In 2003, Ahtesham was honored by the government of India for his contributions to literature.

Translator Bio: Jason Grunebaum’s book-length translations from Hindi include Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden ParasolThe Walls of Delhi, and, with Ulrike Stark, Manzoor Ahtesham’s The Tale of the Missing Man. He has been awarded the Global Humanities Translation Prize, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a PEN/Heim Grant, and his work has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature. He teaches at the University of Chicago. (Image Source: Jason Grunebaum)

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.

2 thoughts on “South Asian Literature in Translation: The Tale of the Missing Man

  1. thank you for this post. It really encourages me that the translation of Asian Literature is robust and plentiful. I will appreciate blogs on how you are able to secure rights for translation of your old classics and of course, also the new. Merry Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

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