Writer-diplomat Pavan K Varma joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1976 and is currently the Indian Ambassador to Bhutan at Thimpu. He has held several key positions in the Ministry of External Affairs. A prolific writer, he has over a dozen books to his credit, including many books on contemporary India. His 'Gulzar - Selected
Poems' presents several poems of the noted poet and lyricist in translation. Incidentally, we engage Gulzar too in conversation in this Issue. More details on Pavan K Varma is available in his profile.
Here, Charanjeet Kaur engages him in a wide-ranging discussion touching on his books dealing with India and Indians, literature and the art of translation.
CK: How does it feel to be described as a Diplomat and Author extraordinaire?
PKV: I do not know if the word ‘extraordinaire’ is justified, but I have for the last two decades, or more, managed to deal with both vocations, that of a diplomat and a writer. I am, therefore, by now, used to such a description.
CK: Gabriel Garcia Marquez has said “Everyone has three kinds of life – a public life, a private life and a secret life”. As a writer how do all these three lives get reflected in your writing, which spans across genres?
PKV: Writing is a personal journey. The writer is seized with an idea or subject, and pursues it to produce a thesis or a story. However, in my case, many of my books deal with public issues or personalities in the public realm. To that extent the private and public worlds are bridged. I do not know if I have a secret life, but there is an inner, unseen process which is very private to a creative writer. I suppose one of the “secrets”, I also grapple with, is time management. I am often asked how in spite of a demanding career as a diplomat, I have produced so many books. My answer, however, is that if you love something, you will always find time to do it.
CK: Your book “The Great Indian Middle Class” has been responsible for initiating the debate on the role of the middle classes in Indian public life. In the light of the middle class alignment with Anna Hazare on the issue of corruption, do you see (a) a paradigm shift on the way the middles classes perceive themselves today and (b) the possibility, however far-fetched, of the middle classes being galvanized to address the overwhelming problems of the invisible and marginalized sections of Indian society?
PKV: My book “The Great Indian Middle Class” was not only an analysis of this burgeoning class, but also a critique of its social insensitivities and insular approach to national issues. Some things are, however, changing, and Anna Hazare seems to have caught the curve. The Indian middle class, as defined by any household where estimated annual income is Rs one lakh, is already close to 170 million people and is slated to grow by another 100 million in the next four years. This is a sizeable critical mass. It is pan-Indian in scope with the same aspirations and angst, and has the same exposure through media to national issues. There is a visible sign that this class is willing to assert itself on issues which otherwise it kept aloof from. When Anna Hazare travelled from Tihar Jail to the Ram Lila Maidan in New Delhi, an estimated 80,000 people were out on the streets. The need is to channelize this discontent and frustration, and to include in the agenda issues of the poor and marginalized. This would be in the interest of the middle class itself. Except in fantasy, you cannot build the higher floors of an edifice (which the middle class wants) without a strong foundation. Concern about those who are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder strengthens the foundation.
CK: ‘Being’ and ‘Becoming’ seem to be crucial concepts in your world view – significantly included in two of your books which were published almost on the heels of one another. Obviously you view them as dynamic social and political processes, which draw from each other and continuously complement each other. You also seem to be drawn to them as philosophic categories. Your comments, please.
PKV: “Being Indian” was an attempt to honestly analyse who we are, and not who we ought to be, or should be, or what others think we are. I believe that more than sixty years after Independence, notwithstanding the colonial legacy, we should have the courage to see ourselves honestly, and then draw up a balance sheet of our strengths and weaknesses. Although the title appears similar,
“Becoming Indian” deals with the totally different subjects of culture and identity. I strongly believe that these are areas which are critically affected both by the colonial rule of the past and the current phase of globalization. The aim of colonialism was not only physical subjugation, but more importantly, the colonization
of our minds. In the area of culture, globalization works incipiently, and the victim is usually the last to know. India is not only a nation, but also a civilization, which goes back to the dawn of time. We cannot afford to become a derivative civilization, or nurture a culture, which excludes our own heritage and roots, or become one where people are unable to decide on what to borrow (from outside) and what to preserve. Such an exercise does not require us to be xenophobic or chauvinistic. What is required is an exceptional alertness and ability to observe oneself, and to notice those traits or areas where we are in danger of becoming ‘mimic’ people, indifferent or ignorant about our own languages, heritage and culture.
CK: I have been fascinated by your translation of poetry. More so, because as in the case of Gulzar Sab, the romanticism of a very personal vision and idiom is very difficult to capture in English. A translation could either slide into sentimentalism or it could miss the delicacy or the fine nuances of the original shayari. But your translations sound not only good as translations but also as poetry. Can you throw some light on the processes by which you arrive at these effects?
PKV: The job of a translator, especially of poetry, is not easy. The translation cannot be a transliteration. It must be able to catch the cadence of the original without losing the brevity of expression, and this is an extraordinarily difficult task. Of course, no translation can be perfect. Somebody has said that translating poetry from one language to another is like transferring perfume from one bottle to another. In spite of one’s best efforts, some of the fragrance is lost. I suppose it helps if you know the language of the original work as also the mind of the poet. In a living poet this is easy, but I have also translated the poetry of Ghalib, which requires not only linguistic skills, but also deep understanding of the poet and his times. I consider myself fortunate that all the living poets I have translated have been over-generous in their praise.
CK: Salman Rushdie had predicted about a decade ago that the major literature to emerge from India would be written in the English language. This stand had been ridiculed and valorized by different groups, and the debate continues, especially, with reference to creative writing – the novel form to be more precise. However, one area that has been over looked in this context is non-fiction prose writing. From the early writings of Raja Rammohan Roy, to Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Amartya Sen, Gurcharan Das, you yourself, among a host of political and social commentators, this genre of writing has not been awarded the literary recognition it deserves. Your take on this, Sir.
PKV: Salman Rushdie’s views are shallow and based both on ignorance and inadequate exposure. I cannot agree with you more that non-fiction prose writing has been significant in India, but has not received its full recognition as a process of creativity that deserves to be awarded. This needs to be rectified. Novels make for easier reading, and if they are in English, often have a pan-Indian impact. But this does not necessarily make all of them good. Much of fiction writing in English is woefully derivative and written with a foreign audience in mind. I feel writing in one’s mother tongue makes for greater authenticity and credibility, and one of my lasting regrets is that my education did not make my mother tongue, Hindi or Hindustani, my first language, although I have subsequently worked very hard to correct this weakness.
CK: Your work often takes me back to the work of another diplomat thinker and author, - Dag Hammarskjold - whose only work “Markings” has left such an impact of generations now. The spirituality and introspection that suffuses “Markings”, is present in your translations, particularly, and your concern with questions of culture and identity (or should I say identities?). And your forthcoming novel “When Loss is Gain” has been heralded as “a powerful story dealing with life and death, loss and gain, happiness and fulfillment, the physical and the spiritual, the rational and the inexplicable, and the perennial dialogue between dukkha or sorrow, the key word in Buddhism, and ananda or joy, which animates most of Hindu philosophy.” Is this introspection a necessary corollary of a very public and active career as a diplomat?
PKV: I think people do live on two planes. Indians, in particular, I have noticed, are harmonious schizophrenics. We are able to effortlessly harmonize our lives at several contradictory levels. I suppose I have not been an exception to this trait. In the midst of the humdrum and substance of my public commitments as a diplomat, there is an inner world to which I can withdraw, and which remains as a constant presence. In a sense, it is a source of great solace when I need to escape from the public world, an autonomous, private realm, whose door I can open whenever I wish to. My first novel
When Loss is Gain, which is to be published in January 2012, was the result of precisely such a process, and from my point of view, is a powerful story about personal lives and their dilemmas and the redemption that is often within our grasp.
CK: Finally, before I thank you, Sir, a word to our readers about the vitalizing role that literature can play in national rejuvenation.
PKV: I strongly believe that literature has a very strong contributing influence on national rejuvenation. India was distinguished as a civilization for its power of original thought,
maulik soch. For instance, 600 years before the birth of Christ, we had a man called Bharat who wrote the
Natya Shastra in 6000 Sanskrit slokas, which is a meditation on aesthetics!
Literature to be transforming must be powerful and original. And, very importantly, readable. People must make the effort to read beyond merely pulp literature. We have learnt to co-exist with too much mediocrity. Also, I do not believe that only literature in English can make a nationwide impact. We need to do much more about the output of our own languages through excellent translations and wide distribution. I have for long argued that we need to set up an Institute of Excellence for Translators, who would translate works from one Indian language to another, and to English.