Eminent Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag talks about ‘Sakina’s Kiss’, translated by Srinath Perur, the importance of the unsaid, his literary influences, and much more

When Vivek Shanbhag’s Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar was published in English in 2015, it arrived like a breath of fresh air, generating significant interest in translated fiction. The brilliant novella was then translated into 17 languages, catapulting the book and Shanbhag onto the international literary stage.

Shanbhag, 61, is the author of a dozen works of fiction, including short stories and plays. Ghachar Ghochar (Entanglement) is the shortest of his novels, the reason why it was chosen first for translation. After eight years, his second translated novel Sakina’s Kiss (Penguin Random House) — an absorbing read with multi-layered narrative, originally published as Sakinala Muttu in 2021 — is out this month.

It is an intriguing family story suffused with irony and satire, which explores many themes from patriarchy to feminism, and family conflicts to caste differences. Both the novels have been excellently translated by Srinath Perur. Shanbhag, a former engineer, is now a full-time writer; his mother tongue is Konkani, and he is fluent in four languages. In this interview to The Federal, he talks about Sakina’s Kiss, the importance of the unsaid, the contemporary landscape of Kannada literature, his literary influences and much more. Excerpts from the interview:

Sakinala Muttu (Sakina’s Kiss) is your second book to be translated into English after Ghachar Ghochar. Was there any compelling reason to pick a book that would match or outshine Ghachar Ghochar because there’s bound to be comparisons?

If you imagine my literary world as a house, the Kannada readers have entered it through a certain door and have experienced a journey. English readers have entered the same house through another door, that is Ghachar Ghochar. Hence, the journey for English readers is slightly different. The books of a writer don’t compete, but complement each other. Though it was not the latest work at that time, Ghachar Ghochar was chosen for translation because it was the shortest of all my novels. The other novels are longer and take longer to translate. Translations of my other longer novels are `work in progress’.

Translator Srinath Perur did a brilliant job with Ghachar Ghochar. Did Sakina’s Kiss turn out to your satisfaction?

Without any doubt. As I have said elsewhere, successful translation is about bringing the unsaid of a work into another language, which Srinath has been doing consistently. His ability to see beyond the text to its underlying connections is what makes this possible.

Ghachar Ghochar’s translation into several languages catapulted you and the book to global acclaim, particularly among English readers. In hindsight, how do you look at the recognition?

I grew up reading writers in translations from all over the world. This has greatly enriched my literary sensibility and the way I perceive the world. I felt that I too belong to this group of writers in some inexplicable way when Ghachar Ghochar was translated into so many languages across the world. It is a great feeling that I am read in languages that I have no access to.

How do you look at the way regional literature translation has picked up in India?

There was a time when works from Indian languages were widely translated into other Indian languages. This has dwindled over a period of time due to various reasons and it is now difficult to find direct translations between Indian languages. The entry of talented and competent translators from Indian languages into English is making a big difference to the way literature from Indian languages is made available to the rest of the country.

Kannada literature has had a rich tradition; you had the likes of Shivarama Karanth, Kuvempu, Dattatreya Ramachandra Bendre, UR Ananthamurthy, et al. Some are of the view that today’s literature lacks that richness and depth. Do you agree?

It is unfair to make this sweeping statement without doing an in-depth study of the contributions of writers belonging to different times. One must also understand the sphere of influence of literature, or more specifically of the written word, in the times when the writers named by you were writing. The social context and times are not the same today. While there is no doubt about the rich contribution of writers listed above, the subsequent generation of writers has also produced significant works. Dalit writers brought a completely diverse experience and world-view into Kannada literature. The contributions of writers like Vaidehi, Pratibha Nandakumar and Sarah Abubaker is not small. Many contemporary writers have responded intensely and meaningfully to globalisation and its consequences. Also, a significant number of powerful women writers have emerged in Kannada in the last two decades.

How did the idea for Sakina’s Kiss come about?

I can’t point at a single experience or an instance as inspiration for this work. It has rarely happened with other works, too. Something simmering inside finds place in a story as a character or as a metaphor, which is when I realise it is time to start writing. The huge change we have witnessed in every sphere of our lives in the past three decades offers innumerable themes to explore.

The clever plotting and writing of Sakina’s Kiss leave a lot of unanswered questions in the mind, with readers forming their own perceptions. One also feels that the book is a reflection of the times we are living in; the era of post-truth where personal beliefs or opinions override facts.

In my view, a literary work need not answer every question it raises, but it must provide enough material within its body for readers to arrive at their own conclusions. An involved reader always finds ways to pursue such aspects and completes the picture with her or his own details.

I can’t stress enough on the importance of the unsaid in a work. These spaces are absolutely necessary for readers to connect with a work and fill it with their experiences. The end of a book doesn’t mean it is the end of a story; ideally, it must continue in the minds of the readers. A novel is not a guide book that provides questions and answers.

Similar to Ghachar Ghochar, which was told laconically, Sakina’s Kiss unfolds over four days. It is inevitable to liken your short fiction to Anton Chekhov and Isaac Bashevis Singer? Have they influenced you? Any other literary influences?

While I greatly appreciate these writers, especially Bashevis Singer, I don’t think I am influenced by any of them. Every literary tradition in the world tells you to be precise and use minimum words. In Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha, descendants of Raghu are described as people “who spoke sparingly for the sake of truthfulness”. I find this statement so powerful; it can be taken as gospel by writers.

Yashwant Vithoba Chittal, one of the great Kannada writers, to whom I have dedicated Ghachar Ghochar, influenced me in my early years of writing. We come from the same place and share our mother tongue, Konkani. Once I realised the extent of his influence, I started working on my text to remove any semblance of Chittal from it. In the process, I had to come up with something different and of my own to fill the gaps. This resulted in finding my own style and language.

I’m intrigued by the recurring motif of ‘disappearance’ in Sakina’s Kiss.

Disappearance is a motif in all my novels. We look at something closely and perhaps truthfully in its absence. When a person disappears, we are more kind and appreciative of that person. At the same time, disappearance doesn’t have the finality associated with death. How one responds to disappearance says a lot about that person. Disappearance of people and objects in the novel provided an opportunity to explore various characters and their inner world.

There is a quote before the start of the novel. “Things should not be understood in the here and now,” by a mystic poet. What does that signify?

It implies that experiences are never complete, especially in the post-truth world. It is also a suggestion about how to grasp the novel.

What are you working on currently?

I am working on a novel in Kannada.

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