Why financial consultant Vishes Kothari decided to translate Vijaydan Detha's Rajasthani folk tales

Vishes Kothari, writer of Timeless Tales from Marwar, a translation of Padma Shri Vijadan Detha’s book on Rajasthani folk tales, tells us about the culture, traditions and language of his home state 
Timeless Tales from Marwar
Timeless Tales from Marwar

Vijaydan Detha was among the few writers to have written stories that are generally spoken out loud as part of ancient oral traditions. Written in Rajasthani, Detha’s works earned him a Padma Shri and a Sahitya Akademi Award. Kolkata-based financial consultant Vishes Kothari translated selected stories from Detha’s 14-volume Batan ri Phulwari. Published by Penguin’s imprint Puffin Classics, Timeless Tales from Marwar seeks to globalise Detha’s award-winning work.

With a keen interest in his home state’s folk traditions, Vishes has been engaging in such projects since his college days, from St Stephen’s College in Delhi to King’s College in London and also while pursuing his Master's degree in Mathematics from University of Cambridge. Timeless Tales was launched in January, 2020 at the Jaipur Literature Festival. We got in touch with the 31-year-old translator and here are the excerpts from an insightful chat:

What drew you to Batan ri Phulwari and why did you decide to translate it?
The book is based on oral traditions. While written traditions survive because it is textualised and studied, oral traditions seldom do so. These oral traditions are about Rajasthani common folk, which is a departure from the usual Rajkahinis — dealing with the antiquities of Rajasthan, the kings, queens and palaces, their battles, heroism and so on. Batan ri Phulwari hardly chronicles what happens inside the walls of a palace. Instead, these tales of the common people have been shared by the common people for centuries. The only way to pass these on from one generation to another is if people converse with each other, grandmothers tell these stories to their grandchildren, people gather and share them around a fire. But these traditions are not seen anymore. Learning is now institutionalised and there is a need to pass on these oral traditions in other ways and that is why Detha was driven by this urge to preserve these traditions. I was aware of this book and while I was teaching Mathematics at Ashoka University, a couple of my friends suggested that because I had first language fluency in both Rajasthani and English why not try translating it. This kind of regional classics are sought after. The political aspect to it also drew me to it. Detha wrote in Rajasthani as a form of cultural assertion, against the imposition of Hindi. It became a way for me to create awareness about his body of work and Rajasthani literature to a wider audience.

These tales of common people have been shared by the common people for centuries

What is the prevalence of Rajasthani-speaking population in the state?
In the Linguistic Survey of Rajasthan, carried out as part of the Census, I found that around 4.75 crore people identify as native speakers of the language out of 7 crore people in the state. However, the language doesn’t have constitutional recognition – it is not officially used as a medium of instruction in schools, in the High Court or even in the Vidhan Sabha. Rajasthani is not the language of the urban elites – it is a sign of embarrassment and not considered sophisticated enough if someone is caught speaking the language. This is borne out of sustained neglect. It is not taught in schools, gram panchayats are not using the language, the film industry doesn’t use it nor is it used in the media.

Rajasthani is not a constitutionally recognised language and is not taught in schools

How difficult was it to translate the book, upholding the nuances of the language?
Some things are inherent to the act of translation. The people who read an original book in its written language and then read it in English will not enjoy it much. But, Timeless Tales from Marwar is for a different audience, not for people who have read Detha’s original. The comparison is a bit unfair. But, Detha was also a translator of sorts – he was transforming oral traditions into the written form. But he was taking Rajasthani tales and writing for a Rajasthani audience, whereas my aim is to make it relatable to someone who isn’t from the state. The stories are rooted in a certain customs, in a particular social setting and it was definitely tricky to recreate the cultural context while writing in English. But it is up to the reader to judge whether it works or doesn’t. But Penguin has been very accommodating – while there is a fixed template for a Puffin classic, some devices like the epigraph (which contains information about the story, where it is from or some archival information) at the beginning of every story, some Rajasthani phrases (that were accompanied with footnotes) were used. These devices help retain the texture and style so that the reader can feel and understand that these are folk tales. The language is colloquial, simple and written in the way English is spoken in India.

The language is so lucid that it almost reads like a children’s book. Was that intentional?
Folk tales are very different from contemporary short stories – the world depicted is whimsical, the internal logic is quite different. On the face of it, some of these complex stories can look a little bit like a children’s tale. As the book progresses, the stories also evolve – from being moralistic to didactic. But even while the stories become complex, the narration is very simple. It is very easy to follow plot and characters, with straightforward arcs. This is Detha’s craft – there is no stiffness in his prose, there’s a cadence. When we read it in Rajasthani, it feels like someone is telling the stories to us. It was a conscious decision to ensure that this doesn’t get lost in translation. Some of my Rajasthani friends have told me that they felt like their grandmother was speaking to them. This was the intention – if the old women in my family decided to speak and write in English, how would they do it?

Vishes Kothari

You are a financial consultant but now you’re translating Rajasthani folklore. How did this transition happen?
I don’t think this was a transition as such. This has always interested me since school and during my summer vacations in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, I’d do some archiving projects or fieldwork pertaining to folk songs. It was only later that I found a formal way to manifest my interest and use it to translate literature. I never underwent training. I always felt these were my stories, which I had heard while growing up. It felt extremely natural for me to translate it. I’m currently working on a second book, a second part of this, with Harper Collins. I have really enjoyed the process and was able to take time out from my full-time job to write Timeless Tales.

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