“I don’t think there will ever be a time when we have enough re-tellings”

A Q&A with writer Arshia Sattar

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This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das on Indian books and authors. In this post, Das interviews scholar, translator and creative writer Arshia Sattar.

Arshia Sattar, one of the founders of Sangam House residency for Indian and international writers in India, has a Ph.D. in classical Indian literatures from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Her translations from Sanskrit, Tales from the Kathasaritsagara and The Ramayana of Valmiki have been published by Penguin Books. She has also written two books for children, Kishkindha Tails and Pampa Sutra, both published by the Kishkindha Trust. Sattar has been a story consultant for Usborne Publishing in the UK and writes widely on books and literature for various Indian and international publications. She also teaches narrative techniques and classical Indian literatures at various academic institutions in India and abroad.

Nabina Das was the 2012 Sankaran Fiction Fellow at Sangam House.

Nabina Das: DW Gibson and you are in charge of running Sangam House. I read that the idea originated at Ledig House, another residency in Upstate NY. Could you tell us more about the inception of SH?

Arshia Sattar: I was at Ledig House (now called Writers Omi) in the spring of 2007 and DW was the director running the residency program there. It was beautiful and I couldn’t believe how much work I got done. So I wondered about starting something like this in India–for two reasons, mainly. One, Indian writers cannot always access information about such residency programs, especially if they’re working in “bhasha” (vernacular) languages. And two, since residencies don’t cover travel expenses, Indian writers often cannot afford to travel abroad to avail themselves of these wonderful opportunities. DW and I talked about doing something like Writers Omi in India–what we needed was a space and money. We were very lucky to have found both rather quickly and we were able to do our first Sangam House season late in 2008.

ND: After several seasons, do you see SH as a major player in shaping writing, vernacular or English, in India today?

AS: Sangam House will have its fifth season this winter. I can’t say that we can lay claim to being a major player in shaping writing of any kind. But we’ve always intended to nurture literary cultures, among writers of different languages and genres as well as in local communities. And I think we’re able to sustain this rather more modest claim. We’re located in India and we hope that Sangam House will have some impact on writing in this country. But we are also an international program, as committed to bringing writers from different cultures together as we are to supporting Indian writing specifically.

ND: How do you go about making SH known abroad? Is it through universities, institutions or just word of mouth?

AS: DW’s been primarily responsible for us having such a vibrant international community through his contacts in publishing and with various European arts councils. The Writers Omi alumni have also been very enthusiastic. And yes, we count very much on word of mouth from writers who have been with us, both Indian and international. Now there’s Facebook as well–so word gets around and we get more and more applications each year.

ND: Apart from providing a nurturing space to writers away from the humdrum, how else do you support a specific author’s work?

AS: We’re not yet in a position to provide more than a space to work with ease and comfort. We have a Facebook group–only for Sangamites –but that’s more for people to stay in touch and connect with each other’s work. We have a fledgling publishing program, but it hasn’t focused on Sangam alumni. Maybe we’ll get to the stage where we have a literary agency as well. But we’re very happy with what we have in the moment and it certainly takes up enough of our time, so we’ll see what the future holds.

ND: How do you go about choosing “bhasha” or vernacular writers, given that India speaks myriad tongues? Are there separate “language committees” for choosing writers from diverse languages?

AS: It’s shocking how difficult it is to raise money for Indians writing in languages other than English. We approach private individuals with the suggestion that they support a writer working in a particular language. And if we are able to secure the funds, we send out the application announcement. And yes, we have different selection committees for the different languages. At the moment, we are able to invite writers in Tamil, Hindi and Kannada, apart from Indians writing in English. We add on the languages as we increase the specific funds.

ND: Sticking to Indian language writers, how do you see them positioned vis-à-vis English language writers, in terms of advantage, exposure and opportunity?

AS: There are many Indian languages that have very strong literary cultures and rooted publishing traditions: Hindi, Bangla, Malayalam, Tamil, Oriya, to name the few that come immediately to mind. Most Indian language writers are better known in their linguistic communities than Indians who write in English. Of course, it’s true that “bhasha” writers are less protected in terms of royalties and sometimes copyright as well. Indian writers in English grab headlines and international awards but let’s not kid ourselves about how vibrant our smaller literary worlds are. I think those that write in Indian languages are no more or less disadvantaged in terms of English than Danish writers or Chinese writers, given that English is hegemonic.

ND: I wasn’t able to attend SH’s new event, Lekhana. Tell us about it a little.

AS: In many ways, Lekhana was an extension of our regular readings in the city. This time, we partnered with three other literary organizations in Bangalore and pooled our resources to create a literary weekend of readings and discussions and performances. The point was to bring Bangalore writers together–in all their many languages and political shades and diverse interests and persuasions. Having the international writers from SH was the cherry on the cake. We all had a great time and Lekhana was a wonderful success.

ND: What propelled you to specialize in classical Sanskrit scholarship? Do you still find a wide readership of the Ramayana or the Kathasaritsagara among the growing readership of English writing in India, or this is just a niche readership for only those interested in classical texts?

AS: I didn’t specialize in Sanskrit scholarship–I specialized in Hindu myth and epic, and had to learn Sanskrit to read the stories that I wanted to read. Sanskrit is still very secondary in terms of what I care about. It’s the stories–the language is just a tool to get to them. There’s a growing readership for re-telllings and re-interpretations of myths and epics rather than a genuine curiosity about the texts themselves. My books do remain somewhat niche. On the other hand, each year I’m pleasantly surprised at the royalties I receive from sales of the Ramayana.

ND: There’s a strong trend now, especially in Dalit writing, to bring to the fore a re-telling of the mythologies as different from the mainstream, “upper-caste” renditions. Feminists have given us Sita’s Ramayana. What about Ekalavya’s version or Shambuka’s version? And stories that were part of the epics and yet remained untold?

AS: Everyone has the right to tell any story they want in the way that they want. Each decides whether or not that telling appeals to us–on the basis of our own politics and ideology and aesthetics. I don’t think there are stories from the epics that remain untold. The epics are at least 2,000 years old; so, imagine how many people have mined them for inspiration. Because of our own gender and caste identities, we may not have access to some of the stories that have been re-told for centuries, but they are out there and always have been. Sometimes, we choose not to access the stories that others tell. And I don’t think there will ever be a time when we have enough re-tellings. Or a time when we know them all–that would be so boring, not to have a new version around the next corner.

ND: As an avid translator, what’s your next project?

AS: More Ramayana, of course. Thank god it’s such a rich text–it’s given me a lifetime of work.

ND: I’m amazed how you divide your time between writing, translating, being a director at SH, and lecturing in classrooms. Tell us how!

AS: Well, it’s not as if I do all these things every day. There are seasons of teaching, and seasons of Sangam and seasons of writing and seasons of translating. It all just happens…

ND: We Sangamites, as we like to call ourselves, have this unique bonding from and faith in SH’s ongoing work. Do you visualize bringing this pack of writer-power for more future Sangam activities, say, a reunion, a yearly reading event or something more exciting and creative?

AS: We’d love to do all of these things; we just have to find the money.