With Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand’ winning the Man International Booker for translation, Gita Ramaswamy helps us look beyond translations into English that at least occasionally make headlines.
In Land, Guns, Caste, Woman, Gita Ramaswamy’s recently published memoir about life as a lapsed revolutionary, a chapter is devoted to her work as the publisher of Hyderabad Book Trust. She speaks of how in the 1980s the works of Mahasweta Devi to Alex Haley and Romila Thapar made their way into Telugu.
With Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand winning the Man International Booker for translation, Gita helps us look beyond translations into English that at least occasionally make headlines.
After the Emergency, my husband Cyril and I quit the Marxist–Leninist movement and returned to Hyderabad in 1980 after spending three years underground. We met with other activists who had left their ML factions. Before moving, we had explored several options. There were many people who were in a similar position as us with similar questions. I travelled to Pune and Bombay to meet groups there, activists who had quit various ML formations and wanted to continue to work with people. The conundrum on everyone’s minds was what to do next. Cyril had decided that he wanted to study law and equip himself with tools to support the movement in legal matters. At about this time, we met his uncle and former CPI–ML Charu Majumdar group activist and twice MLA from Chittoor district, C.K. Narayan Reddy, at Hyderabad. He was called CK affectionately by nearly everyone.
CK was jailed during the Emergency and he decided not to join the party again. He began publishing leftist literature after 1977, foremost among his books being Telugu translations of Mary Tyler’s My Years in an Indian Prison, William Hinton’s Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village, Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China and Ted Allan and Richard Gordon’s The Scalpel, the Sword: The Story of Doctor Norman Bethune. It was a peculiar meeting.
We keenly felt the lacuna of any eclectic reading and debate in the ML groups and discerned the need for publishing books and essays that would contribute to raising the level of debate among activists. Such knowledge was not being produced in Telugu and we planned to step in. When we finally tied up with CK, the group expanded to include the veterinarian and activist Veeraiah Chowdhury, son of another communist leader, Kolla Venkaiah, and C. Bharathudu, who taught at a college in Guntur and was a book lover and an associate of Kolla Venkaiah. Together, we set up a trust (rather than a society or a private company) on the advice of Shantha Sinha’s father Mamidipudi Anandam, a chartered accountant. He argued that a trust would give us the greatest freedom, which was important in the context of a repressive government curbing publishing freedom. We selected the name Hyderabad Book Trust, a neutral name, which was meant to signify to our readers that we didn’t want to necessarily polarize opinions. Names of publishing houses in those times flaunted ideological leanings—like Arunatara (Red Star), Peace Book Centre, Navodaya (New Sunrise), Prajashakti (Peoples’ Might). We wanted to avoid such signals. The Hyderabad Book Trust was registered in February 1980 with CK, Bharathudu, poet and journalist M.T. Khan, Vithal Rajan and me—Rajan having recently returned from Canada and joined the Administrative Staff College of Hyderabad. He resigned from HBT within the month, but the others stayed on and several others joined along the way.
We planned a set of three books to start with—these were Rakthashruvulu (Tears of Blood), a translation of The Scalpel, the Sword: The Life of Doctor Norman Bethune, already published by CK’s Anupama Press and quite popular, Coolie Ginjalu (Two Measures of Rice, a translation of Randidangazhi by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai), and Vemana Vaadam (Poems of Vemana), an annotated selection of Vemana’s poems edited by N. Gopi. Vemana was a seventeenth-century poet and philosopher whose poems were known for their simple language and native idioms that explored caste and morality. These three books represented both our ideological leanings (to the left) and our desire to be different from the existent forms of the left.
To begin, we raised about Rs 25,000 to print the three books. The only cost involved was that of the printing, all other services, including editing, were voluntary. Our outlay was modest. I, along with another fellow employee, Krishna, drew a salary of Rs 500 every month. J. Rameshwara Rao, chairman of Orient Longman, graciously gave us two rooms behind his office free of charge, and these served as our office. His daughter Lakshmi is a good friend of mine. We began a fund-raising initiative soon after and enrolled members to the trust, who were promised a discount of 25 per cent on all our books. We used public transport wherever we went, lugging cartons of books with us. I usually carried one carton in each hand, with my personal luggage in a sling bag. In the initial years, this was not difficult, but as the book list grew, it slowly became impossible for me to carry twenty-kilogram boxes and led to chronic back pain. I wish I knew about ergonomics back then.
Forming the Hyderabad Book Trust in 1980 turned out to be the best medicine for my depression. I plunged into the work with enthusiasm. I loved books and what better than founding a publishing house? HBT made huge strides in the first few years. CK and I trudged through every small town, city and big village, to meet writers, thinkers and activists; we set up mobile book stalls with two tables and a petromax light in the centre of town. We met activists of all kind, both to sell our books and to listen to their ideas. We ate and stayed with comrades and writers of all hues, from the CPI to the ML, and when in a town or village where we knew no one, we slept in the bus stand or railway station. Through all this, we were commissioning both translations and accepting original scripts. Edutaralu (Seven Generations), an abridged retelling of Alex Haley’s Roots, came soon after the first three titles and became one of HBT’s best loved and most reprinted titles of the last forty years.
HBT happened at a time when publishing in Telugu had come to a virtual standstill. Most major books were published by the two communist parties—Prajashakti of the CPI(M), and Visalaandhra of the CPI. And even they were sluggish in their output at the time, churning out old communist reprints. Not for nothing did the great communist writers, historian Kambhampati Satyanarayana and fiction writer Mahidhar Rammohan Rao, both giants in their fields, walk into our office. Kambhampati’s two-volume A Study of the History and Culture of the Andhras, had been published in 1975 by People’s Publishing House, the CPI’s publishing wing. It was the first of its kind to trace the political, economic and social history of the Andhras from a materialist standpoint. Mahidhar had translated the book and it turned out that their parent organization, Visalaandhra, was unwilling to publish it because it strayed from the orthodox party line. They came to us in the hope that we would not be narrow-minded. Kambhampati recalled that he had marched in the tail end of our POW processions prior to the Emergency. ‘If I can be eclectic, so can you,’ he seemed to say, in an effort to convince us. For us, the manuscript was a blessing. After we published it in 1981, it received rave reviews and Mahidhar’s translation was rated flawless. We ended up reprinting the two volumes several times over the years. Both men continued to be close friends till their deaths. I stayed with either of them whenever I visited Vijayawada and always had a warm welcome. They told me stories of the communist movement, stories of the famous writers of yesteryears like Kutumba Rao, Sharada and Chalam, and a vista of the Telugu literary world opened up to me like never before.
Very soon, we had other writers and translators lining up to work with us. In 1981, we published Uppena (Hurricane) by Saripalli Krishna Reddy, a novel about the Telangana peasant revolt in the 1940s. Polisulu Arrest Cheste (If the Police Arrest You) was the highly successful serial in a magazine by advocate Bojja Tharakam.We published this in 1981 and it continues to be one of our more popular titles. Generations of activists have cut their teeth on this book. The eighth book we published in 1981 was Grahanaala Katha (The Story of the Eclipse) by Mahidhar Nalinimohan, a space scientist of repute. For the first time, science and its methods were explained in a popular style for laypeople. Nalinimohan, who had a PhD from Moscow University and worked for the National Physical Laboratory, also wrote many science books for us.
The year 1982 was momentous. We published many milestone titles. We tried our hand at translating the …for Beginners series started in the late 1970s in English. We began with Marx for Beginners by the great Mexican cartoonist Rius, with K. Balagopal as its translator. This was the first title that we printed in an offset press. Till then, all our books were laboriously composed in a letter press and then imposed on to plates. In the years to come, we were to translate and publish Lenin…, Mao…, Cuba… and Das Kapital for Beginners, though none of these titles was successful for a long time. B. Vijayabharathi’s biography of Ambedkar, based on Dhananjay Keer’s original, was also published by us in 1982, signifying the beginning of a long list of Ambedkarite literature. Another landmark was Vaidyudu Leni Chota, the translation of Where There is No Doctor by David Werner. This book translated by Dr Aluri Vijayalakshmi was a bestseller for many years.
We also began translating Mahasweta Devi the same year. Her Sri Sri Ganesh Mahima was translated from the Bengali by Surampudi Seetharam. It was Devi’s first book in our catalogue. We went on to translate and publish Hazaar Churashir Maa, Aranyer Adhikar, Daayin, Basai Tudu, Rudali (a collection of four stories) and Choli ke Peechhe (Breast Stories). She gave us her consent in a terse letter. We were lucky to have Surampudi Seetharam with us to translate several of these works directly from Bengali to Telugu. Seetharam worked in Calcutta. His landlady regaled him every day with bits from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak. Seetharam was so fascinated by the tale that he learnt Bengali to be able to read it in the original and eventually translated it into Telugu.
We were fortunate in that authors gave us permission gratis. Alex Haley sent us a letter with just two words—Permission granted—for Roots. Rius, Mary Tyler and several others (especially authors staying abroad) were equally generous.Those were times when authors were swept along by the left and feminist movements and were not hemmed in by their agents. HBT does not have its books licensed or copyrighted. We allow others to use and reproduce our materials freely, recognizing the importance of accessible knowledge for everyone.
In the first five years, from 1980 to 1985, we had a good response from writers, translators and readers. Our average print run was 3,000 for the letter press and 5,000 for an offset title. This was at a time when other Telugu publishers were not attempting more than 1,000 copies for anything other than pulp fiction. Some notable titles from this period were Ma Katha (Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines) by Domitila Barrios de Chungara with Moemma Viezzer, Spartacus by Howard Fast, Charitra Ante Emiti? (What is History?) by E.H. Carr, the NCERT books (which were rescinded by the Janata Party government between 1977 and 1980), Taratarala Bharata Charitra (Ancient India) by Romila Thapar and Adhunika Bharatacharitra (Modern India) by Bipan Chandra. We began our bestselling series on pedagogy with Railu Badi (Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window) by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, followed by all of Gijubhai’s books available in English (Gijubhai Badheka was a pioneer of children’s education and literature in Gujarati), and the influential Soviet (Ukrainian) educator Anton Makarenko and Krishna Kumar’s books.
In this period, we experimented with smaller booklets of about sixteen to seventy pages, priced at Re 1 each. These were usually short essays by writers like Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao, Dr Gurukula Mitra and Romila Thapar on topics like rationalism, exposing the Vedas and developing a scientific outlook. They became immensely popular. When we stopped selling books through our own makeshift stalls and began getting stocked in bigger stores, the production of these booklets was reduced since shops refused to stock them—booklets had no spines, they couldn’t be displayed well in shops. We also attempted making children’s books; but these were expensive and involved considerable artwork, the use of colour, better quality paper and a new marketing network, and we soon abandoned the idea.