Lives in Literature: ‘Telugu won’t put food on your table’

"One can’t choose one’s language of creative expression based solely on market dynamics," writer, translator and publisher Purnima Tammireddy tells Neeta Gupta and Sampurna Chattarji. Excerpts:

Purnima Tammireddy (Photo: Abdul Rasheed)
Purnima Tammireddy (Photo: Abdul Rasheed)

Neeta Gupta & Sampurna Chattarji

Purnima, hats off for setting up a publishing company during the pandemic! What made you do it?

Just before the pandemic in 2020, a couple of my friends got their books published and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. During the pandemic, I was struggling to put out Manto in Telugu. When we sat down and started brainstorming on where things were going wrong for authors, certain things emerged.

Authors weren’t really hoping for monetary compensation—what they missed was a basic sense of respect. That’s how Elami happened. Not only with the hope of bringing in fresh voices and uncompromised quality, but also to compensate authors/ translators with the money, credit and respect that is their due.

We also shared a firm belief that Telugu readers are out there in large numbers—despite the undesired socio-political decisions that have distanced people from reading/ writing the language—all we need to do is find ways and means to reach them. But honestly, if not for the Manto project I was involved in and the folks around me, I’d never be a publisher.

I hoped (and still secretly hope) to concentrate on producing creative work as my day job consumes me, leaving very little time for literary pursuits. But selling needs an ecosystem. In Telugu, the ecosystem seemed broken. Someone had to bell the cat, so I thought why not give it a try.

Tell us about Telugu readers and the market for books in translation.

Within the literary community, there are ongoing debates on whether we should be doing as many translations into Telugu, when hardly anything is going out of Telugu. There’s also a sense that translation is lower in the hierarchy than ‘original writing’. For Elami, the ambition is to create an ecosystem of translators both into and out of Telugu. Translators are the most neglected tribe, and when the situation isn’t too bright in terms of book sales, one needs to find ways to support and encourage them.

The market for Telugu books may be a fraction of the overall population, but given that a whopping 9.6 crore people speak it, with a literacy rate of around 65 per cent, sales per book can’t be in 3 figures! People say everybody is getting comfortable in English. I refuse to accept that. You may force kids to go to English-medium schools, thanks to government policies, but Telugu remains the primary language, which kids are exposed to in a zillion ways.

The influence of pop-culture, especially Telugu cinema, runs deep. Though I don’t have stats to prove my statements, my hunch is that dwindling book sales are because Telugu bookshops are limited to major cities and towns. Those in district headquarters or villages have bare minimum access. Platforms to introduce and review newly published books have been shrinking. The number of public libraries (or even those run by individuals) are abysmally low in Telugu states.

For various reasons, mostly political I guess, Telugu literature has largely focused on ‘heavy’ topics. Light reading, like pulp or humour, is rare. This lack of variety might also have discouraged readers.

What kind of challenges have you already faced?

We have been working with some reputed publishers and authors on the copyright front and are forced to drop any projects that come with hefty copyright fees as we simply don’t have that kind of money. From our initial math, it seems like we can break even, if we sell 1,000 to 1,500 copies, but those numbers are usually not met. Elami’s first book Siya Hashiye: Vibhajananaati Nettuti Gaayalu isn’t your usual ‘Best of Manto’. It contains lesser-known pieces by Manto and his contemporaries, with an elaborate introduction and heavy referencing and footnoting.

While working on the book, I was repeatedly warned that Telugus may not be interested in Partition, because it was a distant and remote event for them. But to our surprise, the book was well-received and readers showed keen interest. This gives me hope and makes the risk worth taking.

Lives in Literature: ‘Telugu won’t put 
food on your table’

Whose lives can we discover through the literature that you bring us?

As a translator, I’ve been picking and choosing stories about lives crushed by historical circumstances. The Partition (and its after-effects) is a subject close to my heart, because as a child, I was exposed to communal and political riots in Hyderabad.

Another aspect that stimulates me, both as a translator and a publisher, is that there are many literary gems that never got their place in the sun, perhaps because they couldn’t win battles against invisibility—due to caste, gender, location, region, or religion. If we could bring out lesser-known works, or lesser-known aspects of a famous work, that would be great.

Moving Manto directly from Urdu to Telugu—what kind of experience has that been?

People think that as long as you can read and write two languages, you can translate between them. No. Linguistic skills are only one part of the whole exercise. We need translations that grapple with language at different levels. As a reader, when I first picked up Manto, in English, I was sorely disappointed.

As a translator, thanks to Rajkamal Prakashan’s five-volume Manto Dastavez, which were Devnagari transliterations and not Hindi translations, I found a way to work with Urdu without knowing how to read the Nastaliq script.

The more I explored the world of Hindustani writers available in Devnagari, the more I understood that some treasures would remain unavailable if I didn’t learn to read the script. And so I did. Translating Manto from Urdu directly led me to appreciate how wonderfully accommodating Telugu is as a language. Because of various political and historical reasons, Telugu has taken many Urdu words into its fold. My joy was to discover them as I was translating.

Tell us a story that hasn’t been heard enough by English-speaking readers.

Statements like, “Oh, Indians have lost the ability to speak/ read/ write multiple languages” or “We’ve all come far from our mother tongues to the point of no return” take us nowhere. Neo-liberalism changed many things, and Indian languages did take a beating.

Some of us—who are also victims of the damage done—are doing our best to undo it. If I had a dollar for each time I have been asked, “But why write in Telugu when things are so hopeless? Why don’t you get published in English?”, I’d be a real-estate owner in Bangalore. One can’t choose one’s language of creative expression based solely on market dynamics.

Even though I was born in a Telugu family, raised in Hyderabad, and had Telugu as my first language at school, it was brutally taken away from me so that I could ‘focus’ on maths and science. All through my formative years, I was constantly warned, ‘Telugu koodupettadu’ (Telugu won’t put food on your plate). I didn’t have access to anything Telugu apart from a few movies here and there until I started earning.

I began buying books with my first salary, because I had earned my right to ‘waste it on books’! I picked up my writing skills thanks to blogging technology. The last I wrote Telugu before I started blogging in 2008 was in my 10th grade Telugu exam paper in 1999.

We can’t simply make blanket statements like the younger generation doesn’t care. They do. Let’s either pat them on the back or keep quiet, but let’s not pretend they don’t exist.

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