In an email conversation with Eos, journalist and author Reema Abbasi speaks about her new book: an English translation of short stories by the late Indian author Wajida Tabassum
What was your takeaway from translating the very bold stories that took form as Sin: Stories by Wajida Tabassum?
This was my first attempt at translation, so it was deeply daunting and an agony in a constructive way. However, I am so glad that the author was Wajida Tabassum. Hers is such a feminist voice, which is startlingly relevant, sensitive, detailed and refreshing. I confess that, as someone so stingy about expression, I struggled with the intricacies of intimacy and taking them to the crescendo they deserved and demanded. As one grew attached to Tabassum’s empathy and empowerment, it became easier.
She left a lasting impression of perseverance and ambition, and amplified empathy in me. I am not sure if these instances are rare — I would imagine they are — but Tabassum is certainly unique as a voice, a narrator, a woman and a rebel. I wish one could have worked with her on her translations. I have so many questions. Hers is a biography waiting to be told.
Tabassum’s stories were assumed to ‘shock married women’ and raised the question: could they be read by ‘noble’ girls? She was known to be the female Manto, stirring the literary world with erotic tales that portrayed the reality of her environment. The naked truth about the lives of Muslim women, hidden behind veils and traditions, led to an outcry. But she chronicled what no one knew of, or spoke of.
Tabassum’s stories are about social mores, injustice, poverty and exploitation. The theme of the ‘deadly sins’ runs through the book, the sections and chapters have been titled accordingly and stories selected to suit. The sum total became Sin — it is immortal, ever prevalent and too layered for judgement.
I can’t say if it’s a feat or not, but moving into Tabassum’s world and gazing at her characters, environment, dialogue and events from her perspective was not easy. I’m sure veteran translators have sound techniques and are able to glide through the process — such as Khalid Hasan with his work on Saadat Hasan Manto, or Arunava Sinha with Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell and Three Women, which are his immaculate renditions of Rabisankar Bal and Rabindranath Tagore respectively.
Tabassum’s is a beautiful, tender, yet forceful voice. She uses elaborate descriptions for a scene, atmosphere and emotions, and that too in the Deccani dialect of Urdu. Therefore, to work around all that, and for it to sit well in English, was the primary challenge and it took a while to resolve. It had to be done without diluting the merciless darkness, tragedy and betrayal in these tales, and keeping them cast in Tabassum’s own timbre, colour and force.
The stories are centred on Hyderabad Deccan’s old-world aristocracy of the 1950s, among whom lust and greed were rampant. Wives give befitting responses to wayward, unfaithful husbands, young girls expose the hypocrisy of degenerate nawabs… How difficult was it to encapsulate the essence of honesty and do justice to the original work?
The arduous aspect was to stay true to a relatively untouched [apart from ‘Utran’ which has been rendered in three separate anthologies as ‘Castoffs’, ‘Cast-Offs’ and ‘Hand-Me-Downs’, Tabassum’s works were never translated into English] author and the sheer sweep of her vision. This was easily the most intimidating endeavour I have undertaken. But I found that simplicity, with an honesty as close to Tabassum’s earnestness as possible, was a suitable approach. This translation is as close to the original as is permissible in another language, and in a new era.
One notices a strong Pakistani backdrop in your own work, whether it is the writing, the settings, the characters, or the artwork.
Is this part of your identity as a Pakistani writer?
I’m not too keen to confine myself to a particular identity in terms of treatment and mood of my work. It is the readership and the nature of my reports, the subjects and issues, that dictate or guide all of the above. Since my journalism and books have not ventured beyond the Subcontinent, therefore all these elements are South Asian, whereas reports and features are Pakistani, unless, of course, it’s an
opinion piece. The artwork is never up to a writer. There are multiple factors to be considered, from content and symbolism to marketing priorities.
How do you see your writing career unfold in the future?
About half a decade away from three decades, I can safely say that I wanted to be in this profession, but beyond that, there was never a plan. Be it a newspaper or a book cover, I am a byline.
How important does the written word remain in modern South Asia?
The written word — unlike the moving image — is the currency of thoughts, ideas and deeds. History is forgettable as footage, but becomes immortal in black-and-white. A region such as ours is still wired to focus on writing — textbooks, research material, theses, scripts, newspapers and books. Writing hones our behaviour as well as our environment. Human connection of any nature transforms into something valuable when penned. Therefore, empowerment, in all its forms, is learned from memory preserved in poetry, literature, history, social sciences and so much more. I believe that, as long as humans have speech, there will be writing.—SD
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 12th, 2022