The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu

September 9, 2022 | Author: Jenny Bhatt, Writer, Literary Translator, and Book Critic

The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu, translated from Gujarati into English by Jenny Bhatt, is the first book-length translation from Gujarati to English published in the US, despite the large population of Gujarati diaspora in the country.

Below is a Q&A with Jenny about the book and her thought process while creating the translation.

Let’s begin with why we should read books in translation.

Reading a translated work increases our understanding of another world and culture in ways that
might otherwise not be possible. Translated works are also about uplifting and celebrating
different literary traditions beyond the dominant western ones. They’re about embracing the
plurality of our cultures. So there’s a lot more “found” in translation than “lost.”
One of the many pleasures of reading in translation, especially when we’re in the hands of an
experienced translator, is the “best of both languages” aesthetic that comes into being because
they make strategic choices to give us certain words and phrases close to the original/source (e.g.
by “carrying over” certain idioms and phrases into the target language for specific, intentional
reasons.) This allows us to sense the rich layers and musicality of the underlying source language
and appreciate the work as an extraordinary act of literary and linguistic co-creation.

Tell us a bit about the original author, Dhumketu.

Dhumketu (1892-1965) was the pen name of Gaurishankar Govardhanram Joshi, one of
Gujarat’s most prolific writers in the early-twentieth century. During his lifetime, he wrote some
600 short stories in 26 volumes, 29 historical and 7 social novels, various plays, travelogues,
memoirs, and more. Characterized by a fine sensitivity, deep humanism, perceptive observation,
and an intimate knowledge of both rural and urban life, his fiction has provided entertainment
and edification to generations of Gujarati readers and speakers. He was also an avid translator of
Rabindranath Tagore and Kahlil Gibran.

This is the first-ever book-length translation of Dhumketu’s prolific works. Why is this a
milestone?

When Dhumketu’s first story collection, Tankha, came out in 1926, it revolutionized the genre in
Gujarat. It is fair to say that he is the Gujarati Chekhov, Tagore, or Manto. He pioneered the
short story in Gujarati literature, taking it beyond mere storytelling to a creative art form with
advanced literary devices, universal themes, and characters drawn from all walks of life—rural
to royal, young to old. His independent-minded women and emotionally sensitive men were well
ahead of their time. Many of these stories resonate just as well now as they did in their time.
Unfortunately, in addition to suffering the same neglect as many other regional language writers
in India, Dhumketu’s brilliance has been forgotten because the short story form has also lost
readership.

With 500-600 short stories, how did you decide which ones to include? Did you read all of
them?

It was hard to pick a “best of” selection. “Best” according to whom? I wanted to show Dhumketu’s chronological progression as a short story writer, showcase his range and skills with
different themes and styles, whet the reader’s appetite for more of his works. So I selected one
significant story from each of the twenty-four volumes. There are two additional stories: ‘The
Post Office’, which is the most recognized of his works, and ‘Kailas’, to which I have a personal
connection.

I’ve discussed the above and more in my Translator’s Introduction (read online at Literary Hub).

You are a writer of fiction and nonfiction. What brings you to Gujarati-to-English
translation?

Literary translators have many metaphors for their work: building bridges across cultures;
curation; transplantation; collaboration; co-creation; re-creation; channeling; performance on the
page; migration. For those of us who translate from our mother tongues into the languages of our
former colonizers, it is also an act of decolonization. It is a process of recovery and reclamation
of our own cultural traditions. It is a mode of appreciation and celebration of our literary heritage
and legacy. And, increasingly, it is a crucial intervention in particular kinds and topics of public
discourse.

This is also the first-ever Gujarati-to-English translation published in the US. Why has it
taken so long and why is this an important matter?

Despite the Gujarati language being the sixth most spoken in India and the third most spoken
among the South Asian American diaspora, its literature has not been translated as much as some
other languages. This is due to the South Asian language pyramid, where literature from certain
languages gets translated more (and, hence, is more accessible, visible, and dominant): Bangla,
Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, to name a few. There are many sociopolitical reasons
for this dating back to pre-colonial times.

I’ve said this elsewhere too: when literatures and literary traditions from under-represented
languages lack or lose attention (whether in the original or in translation), they also become
endangered. Ethnologue, which shows that India ranks fourth in the top ten countries with the
most languages, also shows that 30% of those languages are endangered. And when we start
losing a language, we also begin losing the diverse ways of being within its culture and its
people. We lose the storytelling traditions that are possibly unique to them. Translation from
such languages brings new attention to its literary and cultural traditions.

 


Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the founder of Desi Books, a global forum that showcases South Asian literature from the world
over. And she teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America
Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, won a
2020 Foreword INDIES award. Her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: Dhumketu’s Best Short
Stories, was shortlisted for the 2021 PFC-VoW Book Awards. One of her short stories was included in The Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021. Her nonfiction has been published in various venues including NPR, The Washington Post, BBC Culture, The Atlantic, Publishers Weekly, Dallas Morning News, Literary Hub, Poets & Writers, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Star Tribune, and more. The US version of her Dhumketu translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories, just released in July 2022. Find her at https://jennybhattwriter.com. Sign up
for her popular, free, weekly newsletter, We Are All Translators.