I write, therefore I am: Rakshanda Jalil

In conversation with literary historian Rakshanda Jalil

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Lliterary historian Rakshanda Jalil at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Photo IPP

Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar interacted with literary historian Rakshanda Jalil at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022 on Urdu translations, the state of the Indian publishing industry, her inspirations, and writer’s block. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Indian Printer and Publisher (IPP) – Tell us about your journey of becoming a literary historian.

Rakshanda Jalil – A literary historian is somebody who looks at the intersection of literature and history. I would look at big events. For example, it could be the partition of 1947, or the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, or it could be the First World War from 1914 to 1918 – any incident of that kind and how that real historical incident finds expression in literature. So, my interest is in the place where literature comes and meets history. I have been a student of literature, I did masters in English and my PhD was in a literary history, which is the progressive writers’ movement. I look at how history and literature not just intersect but influence each other and that has been my continuing area of interest. I continue to look at time periods rather than just isolated texts.

IPP – We would like to know something about your recent works.

Rakshanda Jalil – My work is in the area of translation. I write, I translate from Urdu and from Hindi into English. I write op-eds and opinion pieces for newspapers. I write my own critical writings in English about literature. I wrote a collection of 40 essays recently, which was published by HarperCollins India – it’s called But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim. It is about literature, culture, history, and society. It deals with questions of identity with politics and what it means to be a Muslim in India today.

IPP – What challenges do you face while writing for this genre?

Rakshanda Jalil – Well, first of all, one has to explain what literary history is because one understands literature, one understands history, so one understands people who are historians or students of literature, people who write biographies, and film actors. One even understands somebody who works in a bank or as a teacher or as an IT person. But the moment you say I am a literary historian, or a writer, people want to know what kind of writing I do. So it takes a little while to explain to people about the kind of writing I do. I am not a film journalist or a political journalist that people have necessarily known about my work. So, I think the first thing I need to do is to explain to people a little about the nature of the work itself.

IPP – How is your experience of working in the Indian publishing industry?

Rakshanda Jalil – I have seen it grow. My very first book was published in 1992 – a collection of Prem Chand’s short stories that I had translated. That was way back when the copyright for Prem Chand had just opened and a lot of people were translating Prem Chand. HarperCollins, which had just started in India at that time, was among the first to start looking at translations from the bhasha languages in a very serious way. From ’92 to now, I have published over 30 books with different publishing companies and almost all the big names that you can think of – Bloomsbury, HarperCollins, Penguin, Westland, Amazon, and Oxford University Press.

I think that for translations in particular, publishing companies are making a space: they are pushing for it for book reviews and sending writers of translation to literary festivals. I have seen a growing interest in publishing for areas that earlier were considered not hot enough. I think now people in publishing are seeing the value of translations of those of us like me. For instance, who work between languages. I think publishing companies and literary festivals, by extension, making a space for people like me.

IPP – You are an acclaimed writer and translator of several well-known works. Which one of your works is your favorite?

Rakshanda Jalil – It’s like asking a mother, which one of your children is your favorite. I don’t have a favorite but one that I worked the hardest over was naturally my PhD, which was published a few years after by Oxford University Press. I won’t say it’s my favorite but I know that I worked the hardest on it. I like it when somebody comes up to me and says, yes, all the hard work shows. It was called Liking Progress, Loving Change – A Literary History of the Progressive Writers’ Movement.

IPP – Inspiration is widely believed to be the heart and core of writing. Where do you get the inspiration for your books?

Rakshanda Jalil – I get it from everywhere, from the world around me but primarily from what I have read. Reading has to be the springboard for ideas. The ideas don’t come from just the world around you; it’s not in the air. It’s all very well for people who say I get inspired by life or I get inspired by my friends or by my environment – that’s all very well but inspiration itself will not take you very far. You need to back it up with reading. What you have read will find a reflection in what you write.

IPP – Research is vital to non-fiction writing and literary history. How do you conduct research for your books?

Rakshanda Jalil – Of course, it means spending long hours in the library. But the pandemic showed us that when libraries, museums and archives were closed, a lot of material is available online. We need to know where to go. There are inter-library loan networks which make books available to you if you can’t travel to those places. I think the pandemic has shown us ways and means of coping with things that you can’t physically access.

IPP – Writer’s block or creative shutdown is a familiar condition in the literary world today. Have you suffered from this predicament? How do you deal with it?

Rakshanda Jalil – Well, everybody suffers from a writer’s block. There are days and days when you don’t know what to write, when you feel that what’s the point? So, the biggest challenge is the despair that sets in. Sometimes you wonder why do you write! I think, if you’re honest, all writers will admit that is a question that we have asked ourselves, why are we writing? And that is the biggest challenge.

Descartes, the philosopher, had said – I think; therefore I am. I want to tweak it for myself and I say – I write; therefore I am. If I see my primary identity as a writer then I can’t afford to give up, I can’t afford to say that who cares and why nobody reads my books? Why should I bother? So you get over the despair, you find the courage to, sort of, go on.

IPP – How did you cope with the Covid-19 pandemic?

Rakshanda Jalil – I did something very interesting during the pandemic and I didn’t plan it. It just so happened, the timing was such. I was supposed to have translated Gulzar sahab’s Urdu poetry to English – all 780-odd poems in his collected works. I think during the normal course of the year I may not have had the time to do it. I think the pandemic gave me the occasion and the solitude and the necessary lockdown feeling to attempt something like this. I translated each of those. I would send it to Gulzar sahab, he would read it and that’s where technology came to our aid – every day, from three to five on Zoom, we would sit facing each other – he in Mumbai, me in Delhi. We would go over my translation line by line, comma by comma, full stop by full stop, over every word. I think it was only possible because of the pandemic.

IPP – How do you think the pandemic has affected the Indian publishing industry?

Rakshanda Jalil – One of the publishers was recently telling me that royalties have dipped as fewer people had spared money to buy books. I don’t know – it is two sides of the coin. I have two daughters. I think they were buying more books than ever before because there was no money to be spent on clothes or makeup, on eating out and going out. Even in the course of a normal year, they buy a lot of books but in the pandemic I saw them buying a lot more books because there was nothing else to spend money on. Everybody was sending it by Amazon and by delivery. So, my sense is more people read books. But my publisher friends tell me that royalties have taken a hit and they had to shell out lesser royalty to the authors because fewer books had been bought. I don’t know which side to believe!

IPP – How do you come up with the titles for your books?

Rakshanda Jalil – They somehow reveal themselves. There’s something in the book that reveals the title to you. It’s very organic. It’s not a thought out process.

IPP – There is a rising interest in historical writing in recent times. Would you like to comment on that?

Rakshanda Jalil – Yes, I think history is being appropriated by political ideology. So, there’s a lot of politics behind the choice of your historical subject material. It could be a figure, a period, or an incident from history. I think, what is dictating it is not our own pure interest in that area but a politics that decides that for us. So, we pick our icons from history according to a political ideology. I see that as a trend these days.

IPP – As you work in the translation industry as well, would you like to comment on the rising interest in translations?

Rakshanda Jalil – I see a great interest in translations – it’s burgeoning day by day. I see publishers showing a lot of interest. I see book review editors making a space for translations. I see booksellers making a place for translations in their bookshops. Readers, of course, are buying these books. We are occasionally even given advances against royalty, which never used to happen earlier. All of this indicates that there is a growing interest in translations.

IPP – What message would you like to give to emerging authors?

Rakshanda Jalil – People should read before they are in a hurry to write. I keep saying this – read, read, read. You need to read more before you begin to write. What you read is going to make the foundation of what you write tomorrow.

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