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Interview with Kankana Basu

Post by: Deepti Khanna

One of the comments on the back cover of Kankana Basu’s books - “With Basu around, you don’t really need Jhumpa Lahiri” – is sure to raise the bar about what you expect from the work, but her writings definitely meet all the expectations. 

Cappuccino Dusk (novel) and Vinegar Sunday (collection of short stories) offer a very interesting take on Bengali families, their lifestyle and culture, and the way they these people have adapted to Bombay. Along with the quirkiness, it is the flawless prose and near eccentric characters that are sure to make you read and reread the text.

Basu’s books along with being funny are very real and written sensitively. For instance, Cappuccino Dusk begins with a family moving from Calcutta to Bombay, looking at the hutments that are done up untidily with a television antennae. They say, “This is faux poverty. In West Bengal, the poor are really poor.” This is just one instance of good observations in the book where the sardonic humour cannot be missed.

We chat up with this talented author who reveals how writing in two different genres differs and how translation from regional languages is much more difficult than writing itself!

Kankana you love assisting in translating the works of your grandfather, the late Bengali author Saradindu Bandopadhyay. Along with language skills what are the qualities a good translator should possess?
Regional language literature is a vast treasure trove just begging to be plundered. No matter how much of translation work is done, only the tip of the iceberg emerges. I’m very happy that some of my grandfather’s most popular works have been translated into English and thereby, made accessible to a wider readership. However regarding the translation of his works, I’m only instrumental in getting enthusiastic and competent translators/ editors/ publishers in contact with my father, the youngest and only surviving son of the late Saradindu Bandopadhyay. My father, a nit-picking, hugely knowledgeable perfectionist, is the true custodian of my grandfather’s literary treasures.

Having been in the thick of translation-related discussions/ arguments all my life, I would say that it is crucial for a translator to identify with the author’s mindset and vocabulary, have a sound knowledge of the period the book is set in- this includes the phraseology, attire and socio-cultural peculiarities that go with a particular period- and possess the quality of being non-intrusive while nurturing and enhancing the author’s original vision. A tough balancing act, which is why I always feel a translator has it much tougher than the original author of the book! 

What are the challenges of translating work from an Indian language to English?
The Bengalis famously joke that a love-letter can only be written satisfactorily in Bangla and a love-letter written in English can only be a parody of the real thing! This perfectly illustrates the point that some idioms, certain situations, some colloquial and slang terms are very language/ region specific. In addition, certain works of writing are very atmospheric, drawing their ambience from the milieu created by the author. To capture and translate zeitgeist from one language to another without leaning too heavily on the written word needs a very special kind of talent. A lot of translators feel that doing a paragraph to paragraph translation is being true to the author of the original- they could not be more mistaken. It is the translator who sees a novel in its entirety and grasps the essence who is many notches above the others. Good writers are a dime a dozen but good translators are very difficult to find. To silence the cacophony in one’s head and allow the author’s vocabulary to flourish needs a special kind of attitude. Like I mentioned above, a good translator to my eyes takes his position among the best of the best in literary matters. 

You have penned a collection of short stories – Vinegar Sunday and a novel Cappuccino Dusk. What is the difference in the writing style of the two genres?
I started off as a short-story illustrator for various magazines (the stories were written by other authors) and then gradually moved on to write and illustrate my own short stories. When I decided to enter the arena of fiction-writing and get my work published, it seemed very natural that I choose the short story medium as my debut launch.

The techniques differ vastly for the two genres. While penning a short story, I kept in mind the facts that I had to have a beginning, a middle and an end with a hard-hitting twist or a punch line that would nail the story home for the reader (I actually had quite a blast doing this!). I would have been quite content to write short stories all my life if a literary critic reviewing my debut collection of short stories had not written a caustic piece panning my book but redeeming matters by saying that he sniffed an interesting novel hiding inside the author.  That set me off to a long convoluted rambling trail of words and ideas, the end product of which emerged as Cappuccino Dusk. It was tough initially. Habituated to thinking in the short-story length, my chapters came out in episodic spurts. It was much later that I learned the art of gently unraveling character traits and simultaneously weaving parallel threads to spin a tapestry.

I would say that the short story form is rather like riding a race horse- blinkers, betting, fancy hats, tracks and all- while writing a novel is rather like walking a pony on a meadow on a sunlit morning. There is a sense of urgency in the short form and the permission to meander in the longer one. While earlier I thrived on the challenge of capturing life’s minutiae, I now enjoy the process of literary loitering.

Both Vinegar Sunday and Cappuccino Dusk revolve around Bengali families. Why did you not choose to experiment with the cultural lives of the characters?

Yes, both my books abound with Bengali characters and their caste-specific idiosyncrasies. While penning my first two books, I was very particular that the stories be defined by a feeling of authenticity. This could only come about if I wrote about people or milieu I was familiar with and hence my choice of Bengali upper middle-class settings. Also, my decision to explore the Probasi Bengali angle which I identify with very deeply- Bengalis living away from their state for decades and bringing up generations of hybrids perennially in a state of cultural confusion and flux…..

Most authors have mentioned that writing short stories is more difficult than writing a novel. How did you think of beginning to write with the more challenging genre?

I would emphatically agree to that! To sculpt plausible characters, create a certain atmosphere and drive home a message/ story/ situation, keeping it taut and tantalizing….. all in matter of a dozen or so pages is a major challenge. The novel is a more forgiving and laid back medium- you could weave patterns, take detours, loop loops, create sundry characters to liven up the scenario, annihilate them later if you wish, lend your inner voice to that of your characters, unleash your own personal ticks and traits, send the imagination on a Ferris wheel ride..…have a complete ball, so to speak!

Where do you seek inspiration to etch out such quirky characters?
I’m blessed with a big eccentric extended family. I’m surrounded by funny, quirky, argumentative, quarrelsome and opinionated friends and relations all the time and they regularly make their way into my prose. Sometimes they recognize themselves in the pages of my book and are up in arms or hugely flattered, depending on which way they’ve been portrayed. Some of my aging relatives even walk up to me and insist that I put them in my forthcoming books (for posterity) before they pop off! A couple of my favorite characters though (Mustafa Ali Saifee from Cappuccino Dusk and Teertha Chakravarty from Vinegar Sunday) are purely imaginary.

You also write journalistic pieces, book reviews and essays. Apart from the subject how are they different in the writing style? What do you enjoy writing the most?
Writing journalistic pieces is a different ball game altogether, from writing fiction. You have to adhere strictly to facts and figures, do a great deal of home-work and subject-related research and keep close tabs on current happenings in every sphere. You also have to fan out to people from all sections of society to get their inputs and opinions, work in tandem with your editorial team…. Fiction writing is a more solitary occupation. Journalistic writing, I find, is strenuous, demanding and challenging while writing fiction is therapeutic and relaxing. Once in a while though, the two overlap and an event in real life sparks off a literary idea……Like the latest findings of the God particle (or the elusive Higgs boson particle) was so irresistible at the metaphysical level that it inspired me to sit down and pen a longish poem! I enjoy both kinds of writing. There is something infinitely satisfying in wrapping a factual piece of writing around a given peg and a magical element in spinning yarns around an imaginary dot of illumination. Having said that, both forms are happily symbiotic I feel, each nourishing the other…..Fiction writers, I find are very good when it comes to doing human interest stories….their empathy levels are definitely higher.

Given that you also illustrate for children’s fiction what do you think about the quality of children’s books in India?
I’m always disappointed at the way children’s books and films are made in this country. Children are almost always depicted in a highly distorted manner. The kids shown in the movies are either hopelessly precocious or sickeningly sweet…no kid comes close to being real. Kiddy literature likewise, tends to talk down to its young readers instead of treating them as equals and worthy of intellectual respect. Where do we have a book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that can appeal to adults and children alike and manage to retain relevance through the ages….? However, competent contemporary writers like Sampurna Chatterjee, Paro Anand and Vandana Singh are fast changing the rules of the game…..

Given that you belong to a literary family please share your earliest memory of writing with us.
I studied in a very proper and utterly lovely Parsi institution which valued originality and the spirit of experimentation above everything else. I can never forget my language teachers for imbibing in us the love for words, phrases, great literature….
When I was eight, we were asked to try our hands at writing verse. While most of my class-mates chose to write emotional lines on the sun, moon, stars, pets and parents, I decided to go comic for sheer shock value. I wrote a poem on the possible state of affairs if all of us woke up inverted and found the world gone askew. The poem ended with a graphic description of the school principal standing on her graying head, feet in the air and conducting the morning assembly. Instead of being thrown out of class (as I was hoping for) my teachers were tickled pink, my poem was circulated all over school and I became a minor celebrity as a budding (though decidedly goofy) poet. That was that. The literary bug had bitten me and bitten me hard. At eight, I decided that I would write.

Later, in my growing up years, the smell of paper and the sight of my grandfather’s sharpened yellow pencils bunched together as he sat writing at his window only enhanced this decision.

If you had to recommend our readers to read and reread a book which one would that be?
A. Just one book would be impossible to name but narrowing it down to a couple, I would say ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ by Harper Lee, ‘To a God Unknown’ by John Steinbeck, ‘Franny and Zooey’ by J. D Salinger, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through a Looking-Glass’ by Lewis Carroll, The Waste Land by T. S Eliot and my grandfather’s Byomkesh Bakshi detective series. Timeless books all.

Your next…
I have two finished novels awaiting release. The Messiah does a quirky take on the god-man phenomenon and revolves around a hip promiscuous Bombay girl forced to pose as a god-woman in the mountains. Spice Corridors is a novel that traces the travels and the unlikely relationship between a food writer and an abandoned youngster and spans an entire decade…Both novels are due for release shortly.

I’m working on completing my very first collection of poems. Tentatively titled ‘I, Alien: Bombay Poems’, the poems are about the fragmented nature of lives lived in the city that never sleeps. Also, about the immigrant experience and of pariahs who come to eke out a living and yet are doomed to never quite belong to the city.


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