Critic and author Bhawana Somaaya on the pains and pleasures of translations, the Bollywood crisis, and more
Bhawana Somaaya has been documenting famous lives for decades now, but her newest project has her translating the words of the most important man in the country. The film critic, biographer and journalist’s upcoming book is titled Letters to Mother, a translation of the Gujarati book Saakshi Bhaav, a collection of letters by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The book features letters penned by a young PM to the Mother Goddess, whom he addresses as ‘Jagat Janani’, and explores his innermost anxieties, thoughts, observations and much more.
“Journalists can get sensitive about certain people they write about, there comes a point when we are told to stop being sensitive as if being sensitive is a crime. But here’s a man who is overflowing with sensitivity, not worried about being judged, and being vulnerable. In fact, after I was done reading the book I couldn't believe the amount of intensity in it, how he had laid himself so bare,” Somaaya tells Kaveree Bamzai about the PM’s letters, during the recent edition of Indulge Time Pass. The author and cultural commentator, who has written sixteen books till date, also explored several other relevant issues during the engaging chat. Excerpts:
On Writing About Great Men:
After a certain point when I would stop writing and turn on the TV, I wondered if this is the man I’m writing about. Even when I was working on a book on Amitabh Bachchan, meeting him or watching his movies was so distracting for my process. Translation is far more difficult than writing, because when I’m writing I’m only responsible for myself, but this is a dual responsibility. Though Gujarati is my mother tongue, I had never studied Gujarati, I just know it sufficiently well. On top of that I have to sync in my voice, a female voice with the PM’s voice, a male voice.
The Love Of Nature
Mr Modi addresses different experiences and subjects in his book, from the planet, to his mother’s emotions for him. When he talks about nature, the way he characterises nature, the details, the river, the moon, the constant dialogue with nature…. I felt how could he observe so much? His imagination is overwhelming and he uses it to camouflage his sensitivity and address broader issues.
The Idea Of Jagat Janani
I would hear stories about him of course, how he would fast for the goddess on Navratri. All of us have one god who we really relate to, for him, it’s the mother goddess. Even in cinema, Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan always addressed Shiva, Meena Kumari always cried before Krishna, female protagonists in parallel cinema have talked to the mother goddess, because she’s Shakti. For the Prime Minister I think it’s the early influences that shaped him because the idea of goddess arises from our own mothers for most of us.
The Politics Of It
I’m damned if I do this book, I'm damned if I don't! It’s releasing tomorrow, not many people have read it, but I really don’t care about what people think, I have never sought feedback, even from the people I write about. I’m not a political journalist, it’s not a political interview that I’m documenting. I’m translating a book… that’s it.
What Would You Ask The PM?
Why do so many people love you and why do so many people hate you?
A Line The Book That Touched You
There were many lines, in fact. So, when the language became too complicated I took the help of some friends to understand it better. There was a line which he used to describe the sea and river, it felt beautiful, in fact I felt lost in translation. In fact I think if there was a Gujrati actor with a great voice who could read these out, it would be lovely.
The Element Of Suffering
I was very curious to know more about 1986, the politics, his life, about RSS. I’m pretty familiar with the emotions of successes and non-successes so I could switch it on accordingly, but this was a new world to me, his suffering is constant. He is not throwing his suffering away, it’s collective, calm and meditative and used productively and had been put into these passages. It’s the same for anybody who overthinks, he’s never at peace.
The State Of Bollywood Today
In forty years I have not experienced anything like this, it’s become so messy, even commenting on it would be getting into needless controversy. The kind of bashing the fraternity is getting, it’s below the belt. I’ve been around the industry for many years, I've never encountered junkies or parties of this kind, maybe I’ve lived through a different world. I applaud Jaya Bachchan for what she said in Rajya Sabha. But just for a few rotten tomatoes you can’t blame the whole basket. Be it crime or suicide it happens everywhere, it’s not just the film fraternity, my friends are questioning if this really is a world of sin, but this is such an exaggerated perception.
On Kangana Ranaut
We should let her decide what she wants, when some critics did not like her fims they were called ‘deshdrohi’. So, commenting on her is walking into a red zone