Kathryn Gray at a translation workshop in Tagore’s Santiniketan, West Bengal

Kathryn Gray writes on her return from a Literature Across Frontiers translation workshop in Santiniketan, popularly known today as a university town, a hundred miles to the north of Kolkata. Santiniketan was originally an ashram built by Debendranath Tagore, where anyone, irrespective of caste and creed, could come and spend time meditating on the one Supreme God. Debendranath, father of the Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, was also known as Maharshi (one who is both saint and sage), and was a leading figure of the Indian Renaissance.

I step off a plane at Kolkata airport. It is morning, and it is hot, and the weather comes as a delightful shock; in London snow was still on the ground. I’m here to participate in ten days of bridge translation, culminating in a group performance at Kolkata Lit Meet, a young but – I’ve been told – vibrant festival. I have to join my colleagues – Doris Kareva, Sampurna Chattarji, Mamta Sagar, Nilanjan Banerjee and Binayak Bandyopadhyay, together with workshop leader Akshay Pathak – at Howrah Station to take a train to Santiniketan, once home to Tagore and a rural haven for creatives. We’ll stay there, in the peace of the West Bengal countryside, to write, rehearse and discover, as it turns out, that we all have a great deal in common.

But I begin to fret. The plane was delayed. The immigration queue is stuck fast. Two aeroplanes have landed at the same time. The train will be departing in forty minutes. I eventually reach the desk. ‘Namaste,’ I practise solemnly, placing my palms together. The official smiles and shakes his head. He is too amused. I enter through arrivals into the great commotion of another day in Kolkata. Horns croak and beep along the street. Across a barrier I see my driver. In there, among the waiting, are beggars, holding out their hands and chanting their plaintive tones. It is a great confusion, heightened by the after effects of long-haul. In truth, I feel very suddenly green.

The driver takes my bag and we are followed by one of the organisers from Kolkata Lit Meet. I will not make the train, but he has booked a ticket for me to take a later one, and logistics mean that I will have to take the train on my own. He is apologetic, and I understand. By the time we reach Howrah Station – racing and dodging through cars and buses that bear the legend ‘Obey Traffic Rules’ (although I’m unable to discern any) – I weigh this concept of travelling alone, and I am somewhat alarmed. Everywhere lives rub up against each other. People carry huge baskets of everything from rice to furniture on their heads. Families gather on any free steps. Men attempt to clean the floor of the station; it is an inexact science. Great carts move fast along the concourse, with their perilous freights; it is our responsibility to dodge them. It is dark and killing hot. My companion stands with me as we wait. This is quiet by Howrah standards, he observes. I should come at rush hour. And while Howrah Station is the great connector with the countryside, where many Kolkata workers still live, for others moving around me it is their permanent home.

I am settled on the train. As it fills with passengers, I am suddenly and quite unexpectedly glad of this early adventure, this aloneness. I wonder whether my life of late hasn’t become a little too easy and ordered. Too safe. And I start to wonder whether this experience in India won’t also offer something to me even beyond the great privilege of a creative focus.

I soon grow to understand something of the beauty and complexity of India through my window. As vendors climb on at each station selling tea, snacks, safety pins and knick-knacks, and musicians wander down the isles playing classical standards, I watch the paddy fields gradually multiply along the route. People work in them. Sometimes they stand and gaze at the train. On railway tracks men and women eat their lunch. Saris are laid out to dry. Children play. My Western eye continues to observe it all. And then I begin to criticise myself for looking at it and finding it beautiful. And then I begin to criticise myself for looking at it and trying to find it somehow not beautiful. Can one be appreciative without being patronising? India’s contradictions are beginning to communicate to me. We pass a bridge, and there are innumerable saris tied to it; flapping in the light wind; rich colours – all manner of greens, blues, pinks, yellows, oranges, and purple – lit by afternoon sun.  I feel something beginning to take a hold on me, and I feel something else slipping away.

I arrive at Bolpur station and am met by ‘Rio’, who’ll take me to my hotel in Santiniketan. He’s thrilled to find I live in London. He’s spent time studying in the UK, and in the car we talk about the differences between the two countries. He admires the UK, but he’s got no desire to return and make a home there. ‘India has its problems, sure,’ he admits. ‘But there’s life here.’ As we pass through the main streets, full of people, bikes, rickshaws, dogs, and goats, I see what he means. A cow heavily settles before our car, blocking our route. She looks at us, blinking softly. Eventually, something attracts her to the other side. We have free pass.

When I arrive at my destination, I am met by the group. I can tell there’s the fear I might be less than happy at travelling on my own. But I smile at them, and tell them I’m fine. And I mean it; I more than mean it. Later that day, as sunset comes on, I sit outside our hotel, talking with Sampurna. We have some friends in common (she’s worked with other Welsh writers), and I instantly like her a lot. She’s funny, smart and as engaged as she is engaging. She’s wrapped up. I wear flip-flops and a light dress. For me, stepping from London snows, this is summer; for her and for everyone else in India, this is winter.

Over the next days, we begin our work of bridge translation. Akshay kicks off sessions with readings in the original languages and discussion by each of us about our aesthetics, influences and approaches. The key is to be able to understand one another from the inside out. Translation is not simply rendering words, of course. Translation is mood, personality, the ghostings of all that has gone into the shaping of those words in the first place. I learn a lot. I learn of the musicality of the Bengali and Kannada languages, and I delight in closing my eyes and simply listening to their rich tones.  I learn from Sampurna of the interesting position of writing in English as an Indian – we need her remarkable work published in the UK. I learn, from the wonderfully witty Doris Kareva, that the Estonian language possesses no profanities and no gender. I learn from Nilanjan, who works within the Bengali language, how time spent in Japan has become the presiding spirit of all of his creative life (he’s a talented artist as well as a talented poet). I learn from the remarkable Mamta of the importance of engagement with politics and am reminded of what it should mean to be a woman poet. From Binayak, I learn a little of what perhaps my own work has been lacking. I have been too repressed or, perhaps, compressed of late. He’s braver. I begin to suspect, worryingly, that perhaps all the writers are.

We start to put together our translations of each other’s work. This prompts confusions, clarifications, and the awareness of cultural gaps between us, but also of deeper, richer connections. It gets us to talk and collaborate – and to relate on very personal levels. Bridge translation is more than a bridge to words. It is also a bridge to other cultures and to the people operating within their own creative struggles. We begin to become friends. And laughter comes more easily to me than it has in a long time.

All of our work will lead to a performance. Akshay envisages the performance as a symphony – and cacophony – of words. It will highlight the differences between languages, even as it demonstrates the commonness. It will be a performance of disjunctions and connectedness. How to do this? Akshay selects original poems by us, and then sets them against the translations. Some poems will be read by us in their original and translation simultaneously. Others will be duets. There will be tangos. We will talk over each other. And we will respond. Beginning rehearsals, this idea brings with it challenges. We occasionally miss prompts. We misunderstand cues. But, gradually, we begin to become sensitised to each other’s work and to each other’s rendering. With each rehearsal, I find it easier to know my place. And, strangely, I feel as if I fully understand what is being said to me in another tongue.

     *

I am sad to leave Santiniketan. We have to move on to Kolkata for our performance. I’ve loved the tranquility of this place. In off hours, I’ve stood watching paddy fields at dusk and lights come on in the houses of those who tend them. I’ve been stripped of the Internet. I’ve had long discussions with my companions about life and literature. I’ve heard young girls sing in the early morning at the temple, as I sat on the steps outside and looked at trees. I’ve heard the great Pandit Jasraj perform. I’ve eaten well at Alcha, a lovely café, and been dazzled by its sister boutique, which stocks all manner of beautiful things, handmade in Santiniketan by brilliant creatives. For the first time in almost a decade, I’ve begun to wear jewellery. And jewellery that makes a noise when I walk. I’ve been to a market in some woods and bought a highly detailed Lord Ganesha figure scarcely bigger than my thumb. Ganesha – Lord of Beginnings, Remover of Obstacles, and god of success. I feel as if I’ve become creatively wakened by this place and the people.

     *

Back in the rush of Kolkata, we’re all tired. We’ve been working hard. It’s catching up. And now the performance is nearly upon us. It soon turns out that Kolkata Lit Meet really is the vibrant and exciting new festival that people have reported. We are superbly taken care of by the gracious festival organiser Malavika Banerjee and her colleagues, and evening parties are laid on, which feel, for a festival, very intimate, relaxed and friendly. We meet Thomas Keneally in the green room one morning. He’s a delight. Humble, brilliant, and a great deal of fun. In the evening, we encounter him at one of the parties. I talk to him about Welsh devolution; I am working on a research project, Devolved Voices, focusing on Welsh poetry in English since Wales’ ‘yes’ vote. He’s genuinely very interested in all this. I am struck by the superb collision of life that here I am, talking to a literary idol, about Welsh devolution, in Kolkata. The world is both vast and small. 

The day of the performance, I am nervous. Well, now, I am always nervous, even more than a decade after my first reading. Wedded, I suppose, to Miles Davis’ remark: ‘if you’re not nervous, you’re not paying attention.’ But this is different. My experience here has been meaningful. I want the performance to count. And, strangely for a poet, I will be working with other voices. I don’t want to let the team down. And, you know, it’s been great to be part of a team. Writing is such a lonely occupation; here, I’ve felt supported. I have something to pay back. I cannot miss a beat. But when we enter the stage, something seems to happen. We have real chemistry and intuition, and I look out to an audience that seems really enchanted by the performance’s seriousness and, at times, playfulness. Backstage, Malavika seems delighted by it, and others come up to us, enthused. Akshay is happy and relieved. He’s been a terrific leader of this workshop and performance. Sometimes dealing with poets can seem like herding cats, but he’s done it with humour, patience and a great deal of panache. Yes, something special was communicated. I tell my new friends how much the experience of working with them has meant to me. We all agree that we have to find some way of doing it all over again. We will make it happen, somehow.

     *

When it’s time to fasten the seatbelt before takeoff and the long journey that will take me back to London, I’m buzzing with my new experiences, and I find the extremes of mixed emotions. I’ve been away from my young daughter and husband for the longest time since we’ve been together. And yet I am incredibly sad to be leaving India. Earlier, there had been a farewell party for the Lit Meet. Someone told me that ‘if you’re the right kind of person, India will never leave you. And it will lead you back.’ I hope I am the right kind of person. I close my eyes. I recall saris blowing in the wind, tied to a bridge.


Kathryn Gray was invited by Wales Literature Exchange to participate in a literary translation workshop in Santiniketan and Kolkata, West Bengal in January 2013. The project was organised by Literature Across Frontiers in partnership with Kolkata Literary Meet.

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