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.