Kumaoni stories come back to India via Russia

Ivan Minayev first travelled to Kumaon in 1875, while on a trip through India and Nepal. SCOTT KEENAN

IN 1998, the Munich-based translator and publisher Roland Beer was working on taking the writer Namita Gokhale’s novel Gods, Graves and Grandmother into German. Over the course of their conversations, Gokhale was surprised to find that the German knew a good deal about her ancestral home, Kumaon—a region of Uttarakhand, tucked into a corner formed by Nepal and Tibet. Beer had read about it, in German, in an old book of folk tales from the area. Gokhale asked to see a copy, but Beer couldn’t find one.

Then, at a conference in Budapest in 2012, Gokhale met a Russian scholar, Sergei Serebriany, who was also familiar with Kumaon thanks to a book of Kumaoni folk tales, though in this case one in Russian. Gokhale was convinced Beer and Serebriany had been reading the same thing, and resolved to find out just what it was. “This became a quest for me, an obsession,” she told me over the phone in May.

Later that year, Serebriany sent her a copy of what he’d read: a volume of 47 short tales compiled and translated into Russian almost a century and a half ago by Ivan Minayev, the first Russian Indologist. It was first published in St Petersburg in 1876, titled “Indian Tales and Legends,” and printed again in 1966. As Serebriany and others translated the tales for her, Gokhale realised she’d heard many of the same ones from her family growing up. (As did I: Gokhale is an aunt.) “The smell and feel of the Kumaon hills came alive for me,” she said.

Gokhale determined that the book was in the public domain, and arranged for a translation. This month, a publishing house she runs will release it in English as Clever Wives and Happy Idiots: Folktales from the Kumaon Himalayas, including a foreword by Gokhale, an introduction by Serebriany and Minayev’s original preface. Some of the stories echo famous ones from other cultures—‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ or ‘King Lear’—but others are unique: animal fables with dark endings, or tales of unfaithful wives and abducted princesses. All together, Minayev’s compilation adds up to what Pushpesh Pant, a Kumaon-born professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, described to me as a “priceless source of social history,” offering “a very different perspective from that of the British colonial administrators or Christian missionaries” who recorded much of what we know now of Kumaon in the late nineteenth century. But, Pant said, Minayev’s work is still largely unknown among Indian scholars—something the new translation looks to set right.

Minayev was born in 1840, and studied Sanskrit and Buddhism at university in St Petersburg. He gathered the tales over three summer months in Kumaon on a larger trip through India and Nepal in 1875. In his preface, Minayev recounts journeying from Almora to Mussourie on foot, meeting drunk people in wedding processions and Brahmins singing the Bhagavata Purana. He also describes people “drinking tobacco”—smoking, translated literally from the Kumaoni tongue. He declares Kumaon more beautiful than even Switzerland, but isn’t always as flattering of its people. Kumaoni women, he writes, would look “disgusting even to the most un-squeamish person.” The book was a hit in Russia, and trickled into Europe in translation. In 1877, Leo Tolstoy wrote to a friend that he was intrigued by the philosophical questions and answers in one of the stories, ‘The Disbeliever.’

Serebriany told me over email that Minayev made two more trips to India, on orders from the Russian imperial ministry of war in the 1880s, to gauge local attitudes towards any possible arrival of the Russian army. His detailed reports warned against such a move. Minayev kept a diary throughout, recording his views. He was very critical, Serebriany wrote, of Indians with Western educations, especially Bengali babus: “He might have envied them for their freedom of expressing critical opinions. The freedom of the press in India must have impressed and perplexed him. He called the British rule in India ‘a mixture of despotism and freedom.’”

Bringing Kumaoni tales into English via Russian involved considerable linguistic detective work. “Everything was coloured by the syntactic and lexicographic lens of Russian,” Madhu Malik, one of the new edition’s two translators, wrote to me. “We often travelled back in time to those remote hills with Minayev, guessing, consulting other books, examining endless footnotes, asking people from the region,” Bulbul Sharma, the second translator, writes in a note in the book. This was not always easy, since the original Kumaoni is now an endangered language. One of their revelations was that all Minayev’s uses of “brother-in-law” are actually synonymic misinterpretations of a less innocent word: sala.

मोहिनी गुप्ता अनुवादक और लेखक हैं और फिलहाल ऑक्फोर्ड विश्वविद्यालय से डीफिल कर रही हैं.