Gautam Choubey interview: ‘I was quite smitten by the story’

Gautam Choubey, while talking about translating a Bhojpuri classic, delves into the lesser-known world of the language

Published: 07th December 2020 08:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th December 2020 03:58 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

Gautam Choubey’s English translation of the 1977 Bhojpuri novel, Phoolsunghi, is perhaps the first-one from the language to be translated into English. Originally written by Pandey Kapil, the doyen of the Bhojpuri language, the title derives its name from phoolsunghi or flowerpecker found around flowering plants. If caged, the bird loses its liveliness and eventually withers away. Used as a metaphor for free-spirited creatures, phoolsunghi, narrates the story of unfulfilled love between Mahendra Mishra, one the most enigmatic Bhojpuri poets, and the tawaif Dhelabai, and their struggles in a world where they feel caged. The Morning Standard speaks with Delhi-based academic and columnist Choubey on his translated book that released on November 20. Excerpts:
Once upon a time, a famous tawaif called Janakibai lived in Prayagraj. It is said that a devoted admirer of Janakibai was so completely besotted with her songs that he lavished all his wealth on her. However, he had never seen her face, not even a fleeting glimpse, for she always wore a veil. One day, as she absentmindedly lifted her veil and he caught sight of her dark and pockmarked face, he was shocked beyond belief. Could a sound so sweet emerge from a source so repulsive? As his world came crashing down, he exploded with rage and in a fit of uncontrolled fury, stabbed her over and over again. Janakibai miraculously survived the fifty-six stabs and got a colourful new moniker—Chappan Churi or fifty-six knives. Like Chappan Churi, Dhela, too, once had a real name. She was Gulzaribai. True to her name, she was a gulzar, a blooming garden of flowers. She was blessed with moonlike radiance and the beauty of a heavenly nymph. But, the deeds of a few fanatics, who clashed over her and engaged in a vicious stone-fight, got her forever renamed to Dhela, alias Dhelabai.

When and how did you decide to translate this book?
My maternal grandfather, Dr Chandradhar Pandey, was a major Bhojpuri writer. Growing up in a Bhojpuri-speaking literary family, Mahendra Misir and Bhikhari Thakur, and even Pandey Kapil, were household names. Besides, the exploits of Misir and Dhelabai — the story in Phoolsunghi — too, are quite well-known in the region, subjected to four novel-length explorations. However, it wasn’t until late 2017, after completing my PhD from the English Department at Delhi University that I turned to Bhojpuri. That too at the behest of a senior colleague. A year later, when I finally read the book, I was moved by the sentiments it invoked, in ways I had never experienced. It was perhaps the emotive force of the mother tongue. I felt duty-bound to share it with the world at large, and that’s when I decided to translate Phoolsunghi. I was really fortunate that people at Penguin — Meru Gokhale and Ananya Bhatia, shared my enthusiasm. 
What are the contributions of Pandey Kapil to the Bhojpuri language?
Pandey Kapil was an institution in himself, a pioneering author, editor and person who held together the entire Bhojpuri literati for close four decades. Although he started his career as a Hindi poet with a collection of Hindi poems, he soon shifted to Bhojpuri and remained devoted to it. He edited Bhojpuri Sammelan Patrika, arguably the most important Bhojpuri periodical of its times and established his own publishing house — Bhojpuri Sansthan — publishing over 100 books in Bhojpuri and mentoring young authors. These two, I believe, are his greatest of contributions.
Were there any particularly challenging segments in the book?
The Bhojpuri I speak isn’t as refined as the literary Bhojpuri. Moreover, there are multiple registers within the languages that I could joyously overcome with some help from my father, Bhojpuri scholars and the local populace. It was an experience, which at once was deeply personal and vibrantly collective.

Please introduce us to the distinct works in Bhojpuri literature.
Bhojpuri traces its origins to devotional poems of the Nath and the Siddha sects, medieval legends such as Gopichand, and more concretely, to the songs of Kabir — often considered the first poet of the language. The history of publication in Bhojpuri is nearly 140 years old, Tegh Ali’s Badmash Darpan (1885) being the first. Rahul Sankrityayan, Mahendar Sashtri, Ramnath Pandey, Awadh Bihari Suman, Taeyab Hussain Peedit, P Chandravinod, Krishna Kumar, Mrityunjay Singh are some of the major writers, each writing across at least two genres. Ganesh Chaubey, Maheshwarachary and Viveki Rai among the older generation, and Bhagwatiprasad Dwivedi and Braj Bhushan Mishra among the present, are the leading critics. The list must also include enterprising bibliophiles — Ranjan Prakash, Ranjan Vikas and Vishwanath Sharma — who have archived rare Bhojpuri books.
Could you reflect on the range of Bhojpuri language, particularly in fiction writing?  
For a very long time, Bhojpuri was associated with the peasants. Songs marking religious rituals, the rhythms of provincial life, migration and seasons still dominate Bhojpuri literary imagination. However, ever since the first published book, Badmash Darpan, authors have explored Bhojpuri ghazal, short stories and poems. Travelogues and translation, both into or from Bhojpuri, by contrast, remain under-explored. Considering that the legendary Rahul Sankrityayan — author of eight Bhojpuri plays — is often regarded as the greatest proponent of these two forms, these lacks in the oeuvre appear surprising. 


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