Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio Fiction

Even as the nation celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, we forget it is also the 150th birth year of Kasturba Gandhi, fondly known as ‘Ba.’ Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio Fiction by Giriraj Kishore and translated by Manisha Chaudhry (from Hindi) comes at an opportune time. Kasturba Gandhi is the fictionalised biography of Kasturba Gandhi, a lady as strong and great as Mahatma Gandhi.

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Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio Fiction has been written by Giriraj Kishore and translated by Manisha Chaudhry (from Hindi) and published by Niyogi Books.

Giriraj Kishore is an Indian writer, who was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India in the year 2007. He lives in Kanpur and is a retired government servant. He was given the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992, the Vyas Samman in 2000, and a honorary Ph.D. by Chhatrapati Shahu Ji Maharaj University in 2002.

While, Manisha Chaudhry is a leading bi-lingual editor, translator and an occasional writer of children’s books.She began her career in India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women and has been a consultant to a range of organizations in the development sector on issues of gender and on education. Her work has been published by OUP, Zubaan Books, Yatra Books, Niyogi Books and Pratham Books. Her translation of Chandrakanta’s Hindi novel was on the shortlist of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Currently she heads Manan Books, her own publishing house with an activist profile.

Here Giriraj and Manisha share more about this book and more.

Q: Tell us something about the book Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio Fiction?

Giriraj: After I finished writing Pehla Girmitia,(its English version is The Girmitia Saga published by Niyogi Books), Kasturba(Baa) started questioning me off and on.

‘Do you know me?’

‘Yes, very much.’

‘Surely, not. If you knew me, why you have ignored… Many a times, I tried to tell you I have lived with Bapu as his companion, and not as his shadow lingering behind him.’ And she laughed. I tried to convince her that I keep her in high esteem. Kasturba’s question always kept me engaged in researching about her. Gandhi ji had left lot of printed matter and friends behind, in India and abroad, that helped me in writing my novel Pehla Girmitia on Gandhi ji. He had himself written books like My Experiments with Truth revealing rarest experiences about him. Hind-Swaraj is book containing his political philosophy. More than hundred volumes containing thousand and thousand letters exchanging views with his contemporaries, friends, and activists from India and abroad. About Kasturba, nothing much is available in print about her, except two or three books. Her contemporaries like Sushila Nayyer, Narayan Bhai and Justice CS Dharmadhikari were alive. Dharmadhikari ji who always encouraged me to write on Baa, he has recently left us for his heavenly abode. Baa had maintained her identity and dignity, never surrendered to others. Actually she had never hurt anybody and never allowed others to hurt her.

Manisha: Based on a woman who led an extraordinary life, this is a novel that imagines what it must have been like to be that person who showed such tremendous growth and grace under pressure. It uses the timeline of actual events and gradually fills in the outlines of a sketch that we all make in our minds about Kasturba based on the odd photograph or the few references we find in the volumes written about Mahatma Gandhi. They were married young and we see how their journey together played a role in his transformation into the Mahatma that he became. Her own transformation was no less dramatic or significant but has always remained in the penumbra of his very bright light that has made him an iconic figure that continues to be in the public eye. This novel holds up a small golden lamp for her and calls upon you to take notice of her and feel for her — the feather touch of her breath, her beauty and her strength.

Even as the nation celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma, we forget it is also the 150th birth year of Kasturba Gandhi, fondly known as ‘Ba.’ Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio Fiction by Giriraj Kishore and translated by Manisha Chaudhry (from Hindi) comes at an opportune time. Kasturba Gandhi is the fictionalised biography of Kasturba Gandhi, a lady as strong and great as Mahatma Gandhi.

Q: How much of the book is fiction and how much is based on facts?

Giriraj: A novelist knows his/her limitations, where his or her license exhaust. When I started writing BAA, I was in a fix. GANDHI ji had become an international figure whereas KASTURBA was managing Ashrams and Gandhi ji. He has accepted, without Kasturba he was nothing. Actually, Kasturba had to fight on many fronts like, Gandhiji, a temperamental person. His eldest son Hari Lal, was not only temperamental he had developed mental reservations about his father. Many a times Kasturba had to mediate between father and the son. She had to deal with family problems of inmates’ as well. Strange things happen sometime. As per the rules of ashram, any one may come and join Ashram with no consideration of creed and cast. It so happened that one SC family joined the Sabarmati Ashram fraternity. It infused dissatisfaction among the inmates. Gandhi ji had decided not to buzz an inch. Even Gandhi ji’ nephew had left Ashram with his family. There were three members in the family including wife and daughter Laxmi, a little and pretty girl. One day Laxmi, while playing saw Baa and smiled. She could not resist and picked her up in her lap. Your question is, how much “Baa’ is based on facts? During my research, I picked up, mostly the facts available in books and through interviews.

Q: Since such books entail a lot of research, share your experience of research. How easy/difficult it was to get to the facts?

Giriraj: You are correct that such books entail lot of research. Writers, who take up such a challenge, enter in a area which is dark and lengthy. In the eyes of inmate, Baa was simply a follower of Gandhi ji. Kasturba was silent all through; she was vocal when required to open up her mouth. After finishing ‘Pehla Girmitia,’ I was struggling with myself, if I do not write about Kasturba I will be doing injustice to my readers, Kasturba and as well as Gandhi ji. During my research in South Africa, I was convinced, that Kasturba had developed her own personality as central figure. I discussed my problem with justice CS Dharmadhikar ji and Naryan Bhai, they had lived in Ashram under the shadow of Baa, as young boys. They confirmed that her role in the life of Gandhi ji was of a mason, filling the gaps. Dharmadhikari ji had sent me a book ‘Hamari Baa’ written by Dr. Sushila Nayyar and her friend Vanmala Parikh jointly, another book ‘The Forgotten Woman’, written by Arun Gandhi, grandson of Kasturba, and his wife Sunanda Gandhi, published in America. It was not available in India, I had to manage a copy of the book from America.

Q: Share your experience of translating this work?

Manisha: It was an absolute joy. You get to read about famous people from multiple perspectives but rarely do the ‘supporting cast’ get that kind of attention. In a patriarchal world, the ‘supporting cast’ is often peopled with women — in this case it is a woman who is truly worthy of admiration. I like speculating about those who get less attention and in this novel Giriraj Kishore has done just that. He has focused his attention on Kasturba very sensitively.

I found the language and idiom comfortingly familiar and I would look forward to sitting down on my computer and entering the world of Kasturba through his words.

Q: Translation is an art and it is very important to retain the original essence of the work. Your thoughts in general and this book in particular?

Manisha: It is a demanding art that requires a lot of rumination, humility and a willingness to revise and revisit the text multiple times. For me, the most important thing is to be true to the feeling of the author whether or not I personally agree with all parts of his or her representation. In fact, I decide to translate a book only if it touches me somewhere and I get a sense of what the author is attempting at the feeling level.

This book is about a strong woman who grows and is therefore interesting to me. The author has much empathy for her and has tried to imagine her in the huge swings of fortune in her life and she has emerged as a figure of dignity and quiet grace. This is how I have also imagined Kasturba and I hope that the translation reflects that.

Q: How was the experience with the book and what are your expectations?

Giriraj: As regards my experience about the book Baa (In English, Kasturba Gandhi-A bio-fiction), it is the first novel written on Kasturba, she never talked about her pains and sorrows even to her husband. I am happy that imaginary whispers, awakening inmates to get ready for Dandi march are still alive. She stayed back to look after ashram and inmates. Kasturba is re-introduced to our people anew as lady of determination, sacrifice and courage. She was fighter, both in life and in politics. There are anecdotes which show, at times, she had taken cudgels with her husband.

Q: Your views on the status of translated books in India?

Manisha: The status of translated books in India is quite worrying. In spite of being a multilingual country, when we talk about translated books , we most often mean ‘translated into English’. There are not enough translations between other Indian languages and if they are there, they are not publicised enough. There are so many languages in India where translations would be easier to do as there is a shared cultural matrix. Efforts to develop the market for translations within Indian languages are not very visible.Even the translations into English have small print-runs and the market is underdeveloped.

There is little professional support for translators of creative writing so it remains a fairly marginal activity for a small band of people who pursue it out of personal interest.

Q: Your suggestions to people who are hesitant to read translated works?

Manisha: I would remind them of the many classics that have become part of our collective imagination that are actually translations. Whether it is One Thousand and One Nights or the Russian classics, as readers, their treasures were revealed to us through translations.

Q: What do you aim while writing a book?

Giriraj: A writer is always interested in giving his best to his readers. Same is true with me. I wrote novels, short stories, plays, articles on contemporary issues, literary criticism and memoirs etc. My effort had been that readers share my life experiences also. A writer, is not a writer if he hides things from his readers. Writer and reader are equal partners in this trade and honesty is the basic ground where both of them stand.

Q: What next can the readers expect from you?

Giriraj: As regards my future plane, If time permits, I my may write my own autobiography.

Manisha: I have worked on another important non-fiction book on the forest movements in Uttarakhand written by someone who has a very deep and scholarly understanding.Since it is a work in progress, I would urge the readers to wait for more information!

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