A Reflection on culture & Confinement

Working Without Books


Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature


School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

When my university, SOAS, University of London, closed its buildings on Wednesday 18 March, a few days ahead of the UK government lockdown and after most colleagues had already started teaching online, I must confess that I made no mad dash for the books in my office or in the SOAS Library.

In the months coming up to that day I had been on sabbatical anyway, and had been to the library and my office only rarely and stealthily. On the 18th of March my mind was absorbed by the Covid-19 related hospital crisis and sharply rising death toll in Lombardy, my home region, and by my 85-year-old mother sheltered (trapped?) alone in her small flat in Milan. (As it happens, she is hale and hearty, thank you, and has been more optimistic and positive than I throughout.) The “future planning” option in my brain had jammed or could only focus on the most everyday necessities – food, air, and family. Books, what books?

“Working without books” sends comparatists, of course, straight to Erich Auerbach’s claim of how he wrote Mimesis in Istanbul during World War II – and to Emily Apter’s brilliant essay “Global Translatio: The “invention” of Comparative Literature, Istanbul, 1933” that partly debunks the vision of the great scholar working alone in a cultural wasteland, reliant only on his memory. Apart from the fact that I am no Auerbach and what I am working on is no Mimesis, surely the big difference is that we have our material scanned and we have internet resources! So no books, but the internet… and more time?

More time and nowhere to go has turned out to be providential for my current work on world literary flows in the Cold War context. Indian readers encountered world literature – typically in the form of the short story – on the pages of magazines. Unprecedented numbers of contemporary stories in English translations were made available thanks to the competing internationalisms and publications programmes of Cold War powers. Hindi editors of story magazines like Kahani (The Story, 1954), Nai Kahaniyan (New Stories, 1959) and Sarika (Starling, 1960) took ample advantage of this wealth of material, though they generally keep quiet about sources.

As a result, Hindi readers in the 1960s and early 1970s were already reading the whole Postcolonial African and Latin American canon, as well as the Indonesian Mochtar Lubis and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (had any of us heard of him before Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities?), the Egyptian Mahmud Taimur, and the Syrian Layla Laalbaki, together with European writers such as Heinrich Böll and Alain Robbe-Grillet!

In the case of some of them I was familiar with their novels but not their short stories. Other names rang (vague) bells. (Name recognition is an experience of world literature that we have yet to reflect properly on. How do authors acquire name recognition? And how does recognition build up in our particular readers’ lives?)

Working without books (and libraries) meant that, after amassing thousands of Hindi magazine scans over the past couple of years in libraries in India and the US, I now had the time actually to read the stories, to scout around for the originals, and to figure out the logic and geo-literary vision (the “significant geographies”) of editors’ choices. This has been an interesting experience that has made me reflect not only on doing research in quarantine, but also on reading more.  

Normally I would have tried to find the original magazines where the stories were first published or translated into English. Alas, very few magazines have been digitised (I have written a short blog on ones which are here). For some, like the London Magazine, only a few issues are available, and with many gaps because of copyright issues. Lawrence Lessig has made a powerful case in Remix (2008) for the de-criminalisation of artistic sources for creative, non-commercial use. Non-readable pdfs of old magazine issues (many of which are now defunct) would give a better sense of how texts first appeared without being in direct competition with commercial printed or e-book formats.

Underscoring Shital Pravinchandra’s point that the short story comes into its own in world literature in the classroom, I found most of the stories’ texts on college websites, or on “greyzone” sites. Many of us, particularly with friends and colleagues in countries where universities have shallower pockets, have been practising “greyzone” copyright for a long time – i.e. passing on to them material behind journals’ paywalls.

Through https://apersonalanthology.com/category/jonathan-gibbs/ I found links to the text of Ngugi’s story “Martyr” (published in Sarika as “Deshbhakt” in 1969), or the English translations of Garcia Marquez’ “Siesta del martes” (1962, tr. “Dopahar ki nind” in Hindi in 1973), or Robbe-Grillet’s “La Plage” (1962, as “Samudra ke taṭ”, 1969). (This rich site has very few stories from Middle Eastern and Asian languages, and contributing to it is now a priority!) And without the temptation to spend all my energy burrowing into archives, I finally had the time to read the stories – and to imagine how Hindi readers may have read them.

Juan Rulfo’s stark and laconic “Pahari” (originally “La Cuesta de las comadres”, 1953?, identified courtesy of the website gradesaver!) shows the grim realist quality of this father of the magical realists, while B. Traven’s very funny “Gadhon ka vyapari” (“Burro Trading”, originally written in German in 1929) pokes fun at its gringo narrator in a way reminiscent of Phanishwarnath Renu’s humour. Mario Benedetti’s Naya budget” (“El presumpsuesto”, 1949, published in Sarika 1969), about listless office workers enthused by the illusory prospect of a new payscale, could have been written by any Hindi New Short Story writer of the time (Amarkant, Bhishma Sahni, or Krishna Sobti’s office novella Yaron ke Yar). The title of João Guimarães Rosa’s hallucinatory “Nadi ka tisra kinara” (in English “The Third Bank of the River”) inspired Sarika’s editor, Kamleshwar, to suggest that such world literature stories offered a “third bank” between (or beyond) the two shores of the Cold War.

Published side by side in bumper special issues, these stories convey a powerful sense of world literature as a multitude of texts and languages to be discovered (as the cover of Sarika suggests), a “sensational internationalism” that is at odds with our current sense of the global Anglophone. And thanks to the quarantine, I could become a fitting, grateful, and awe-struck reader.

Francesca Orsini, SOAS, University of London

PS In the course of writing this, I think I have now found where the Hindi editor found at least some of the stories, the New York magazine Short Story Internationalwhich I definitely have to try and get hold of… once libraries re-open!

The cover and table of content of Sarika’s January 1969 special issue, with stories by J. Guimarães Rosa, H. Böll, V. Sangi (Nivkh), Ngugi, M. Hejazi, M. Lubis, M. Djilas, Dhep Mahapaurya, Mario Benedetti, A. Unnath, M. Taimur, H. Slazer, Abioseh Nicol, Nguyen Vien Thong, Fouad al-Tikerly, Abdul-Salam Ojeili and A. Robbe-Grillet, among others.

Short Story International March 1954 issue (ed. Sam Stankel), from where Kamleshwar probably got the stories by Traven and Borges.


Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature


School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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