MUCH OF MY READING over the past year has been of modern Hindi fiction, encouraged by the fact that this literature is now increasingly available in English. Remarkably, it is only in the last five years that several landmark Hindi novels have been translated: Yashpal’s voluminous account of Partition and its aftermath, Jhootha Sach; the first of Upendranath Ashk’s six-volume Girti Divarein; Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahon ka Devta (described as “Hindi’s highest-selling novel”); Jainendra’s Tyagpatra; and Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginaama, which will be out soon. Along with these, I was able to read more recent Hindi works also now out in English translation, such as Kamleshwar’s Kitne Pakistan, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Khilega Toh Dekhenge, and the fiction of Uday Prakash and Geetanjali Shree.
I belong to that class of Indian readers which has a shadowy relationship with Hindi, in that I read translations from that language without prior knowledge of the original, but with enough of a grasp of the idiom to be able to savour a good translation. But I have also been trying to form an idea of Hindi literature as a whole, not just judge individual works and their renderings. Do these recent translations create a faithful picture, or even a satisfyingly representative one? How can I, as a reader in English, fruitfully compare what the field looks like in the original to how it appears through the lens of translation?
To get the beginnings of an answer to that question, I asked a dozen Hindi writers, readers, translators and critics to tell me what they consider the most worthwhile fiction in the language. Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, which was first published in translation in 1992 and reissued in 2012; Nirmal Verma’s novels, whose translations too have been reissued; Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach; and the stories of Uday Prakash appeared at the top of several lists. But also prominent in these rankings were titles not available in translation, or whose translations are no longer in print—the iconic 1950s novel Maila Anchal by Phanishwarnath Renu, for instance, and Vinod Kumar Shukla’s famous Naukar ki Kameez.