At the babel of an airport someone vaguely familiar tapped a tremulous finger on my shoulder.

‘Don’t you recognize me?’ she said. ‘I am your mother.’

We hugged the usual way. Normally I am the one who visits her in Delhi. Perhaps that is why her arrival in Canada that summer of 2007 felt vectorially imprecise, and inaccurate.

We collected her bags and while driving home I reminisced about our phone conversation in April, barely a month before her flight. She had asked if I was eating all right. Before we hung up she was curious about my new work. Cryptically I managed a few lines about a difficult novel in progress. We had talked briefly then about my first book, a collection of short stories.

‘I read all the cuttings you mailed me. The reviews are fine. But has anyone translated the book?’

Ajai nahin,’ I said.

She paused longer than expected.

‘A friend’, I added, ‘has shown interest.’

‘In which language?’

‘Spanish. Perhaps.’

‘What do you mean perhaps? And what about translation into your own language? Have you forgotten?’

Punjabi, my mother tongue. How could I forget? Our April 2007 phone conversation didn’t take place in English or Bengali or Tamil or Urdu. Mother and I, as usual, spoke in Punjabi that day. It is a language that wobbles inside me, still.

‘Still’ is a wrong word. I would like to replace it with ‘always’. In my adult life I rarely get to read and write in Punjabi, but I speak it all right. I recall growing up with my mother’s exaggerated fears that this language of ours would soon become fossilized. Painstakingly she would teach me the alphabet and grammar at home. I didn’t understand then the real reason behind her fears. Or the fact that Punjab’s rich literary tradition took a severe blow in post-independence India.

‘Why don’t you translate my book then?’ But the moment the phone call ended I forgot all about it. I was certain she too would expunge the translation business out of her mind. My mother had never translated before.

When her jetlag relaxed, Mother opened her bags and took out a few gifts and a small package.

‘Here, a sample.’

The package was as light as air.

‘Story Number One,’ she announced. ‘Tarjama kar dita hai.

Tarjama means ‘translation’ in Punjabi.

‘Tell me what you think?’

I kept the sample and promised to read it soon.

After dinner she slept uninterrupted for fourteen or fifteen more hours. In my room I sat in front of my Mac, but found it impossible to edit old chapters or write something fresh. The ‘sample’ stared me in the face. Unable to delay any further I opened the small and slim package.

Her handwriting had not changed. Like slices of lost space and time those eight or nine sheets drew me in hypnotically, I recall. They felt like brittle old yellowing photos. At school we never had Punjabi as a subject, so she taught me how to read and write at home, and this was always a major problem. Punjabi lessons reduced the time I spent playing cricket.

I placed the sample on my desk. Then almost involuntarily tried to write a word or two in Punjabi. On the title page my right hand made an attempt, which resulted in a shock of a disaster – an absurd mixing of Punjabi Gurumukhi script and Devnagri. I couldn’t even write my own name properly.

Embarrassed, I remember thinking about Mother’s near perfect relationship with Punjabi. And her strange relationship with the English language. She is unable to speak fluently in English, and yet faces no problems reading or writing. In fact she reads twice or thrice faster than all of us in the family, and her comprehension is quite good. Back then, when I was growing up, she would often read a book in English and summarize it in Punjabi for our benefit.

Such was the state of my mind when I gazed at the opening line of the translated story. I started slowly, but to my surprise picked up speed, and read properly till the very end. It was a faithful translation. What struck me was that she got the emotional impact right.

Next day during lunch Mother asked again if I had already read the sample. I said it was very good.

‘How did you do it?’

She emphasized the usefulness of a dictionary. She recalled discussing a few translation challenges with my father.

‘But what you have here is more than a dictionary or discussions. You have preserved the emotional impact. How did you do it?’

She didn’t respond. Within minutes she transformed the kitchen table and started work. My mother translated the remaining stories in the collection during her visit. She would ask me a few pointed questions, and spend her days walking or translating. She used no laptop or desktop, not even a typewriter. In six weeks she had the first handwritten draft ready. There are fourteen stories in the book (Seventeen Tomatoes), and she translated thirteen of them. What about the fourteenth one? When I brought this up, she said, Why not publish thirteen stories instead? The fourteenth story was really the ninth story in the collection. She had more or less followed a linear order. But something had made her skip story number nine.

It didn’t take me long to figure out the exact reason. This was the same story that had offended her when she first read my book in English in 2004. The story, set in India in the year 1984, involves a Sikh teenager, a chemistry student, on a train to Delhi . . . He has long hair and wears a turban. His interior monologue involves a deep repressed desire to cut his hair short and remove his turban.

She promised me she would translate the fourteenth story back in Delhi. When I dropped her at the airport (23 August, 2007), we discussed at length a long list of the challenges she faced translating from the ‘source’ to the ‘target’ language. Punjabi is a gendered language; English lacks gender. We discussed pronouns, echo words, reduplications. Baroqueness, density, concision. We talked about the complexities of Punjabi and the defects of English especially when it comes to setting a story in India.

Her bags were heavier now, filled with notes, dictionaries and the translation.

I resumed work on my novel and once again forgot about the translation project. In December I submitted the finished version of the novel (Chef) to my Canadian publisher. That winter when I visited my mother in Delhi I spent time looking at the proofs, and after the proofs were done I felt human again and asked her about the fourteenth story. ‘Did you translate?’ She nodded.

‘Yes. But.’

I didn’t say a word.

‘You read it,’ she said. ‘And tell me if it works?’

She handed me the handwritten fourteenth story or rather the ninth. I read it right away. But something was imprecise and inaccurate with the Punjabi version. My mother translated the story I never wrote.

I reread. Once again I experienced a rising wave of astonishment, and anger. Part of me felt betrayed as an author. Perturbed, I stepped out of the apartment and spent the next three or four hours in a cafe.

She had even changed the first line of the story:

Arjun is merely fifteen years old. His hair, a knot, on top of his head, is hidden gracefully under the navy-blue muslin turban. But right now he is unaware of the significance of long, unshorn hair or his turban.

The original line was:

Arjun raises his hands and feels his turban. He lifts the navy-blue muslin turban by about half an inch, allows his head to breathe. The thing slips back. He rotates it to cover his ears and the nape of his neck and the line that deepens his forehead.

Why can’t I do things to my own body? He is talking to himself.

My mobile phone rang an hour later. She asked me to return.

‘Let us just keep thirteen stories.’

‘Let us not keep anything at all.’

Unable to express my anger properly I stepped out of the cafe and walked an aimless walk. Delhi was a changed city now. So many years had passed. So many moments lost to time. We had first moved to the capital city from Srinagar in the summer of 1983. I was fourteen years old then, a proper Sikh boy with long hair . . . This was a few years before my mother said to me: I don’t know you. In 1983 I was the one who would often feel that I didn’t know her. And I would ask questions and sometimes she would respond. She always wanted to become a writer but didn’t know how to go about it. When in college she wrote a story for her college magazine. She kept diaries. Sometimes she would burn the diaries. She always wanted to study literature. Her well-meaning father asked her to study medicine instead, but she fainted at the sight of a corpse. She stood again in front of her father. Now do I have your permission to study Punjabi literature? But how will you support yourself? he asked. You are good in maths. You will study economics, he said. So she got a master’s degree in economics, and taught at a college until she married my father arranged and moved to an army camp in Shillong in the Indian north-east . . . As a child I would see her reading and writing in Punjabi. Her bookshelves were filled with Bhai Vir Singh’s Punjabi Renaissance novels. I would see her ears glued to a shortwave transistor listening to radio dramas. Often she would tell me the partition stories. Stuff she has heard from her father and others.

I read the translation again, and again felt that by ‘translating’ the fourteenth story my mother, too, had become a writer.

Fiction had allowed us to talk to each other. She had finally found a powerful way to deal with her own demons. Through that fuzzy mix of fiction/non-fiction she had told me the problematic stuff we avoid going near when we get together.

She did approve of certain passages in my story and kept them without any ‘corrections’.

But this new fourteenth story was my mother’s story and not mine. No translator, no one has a right to change my story, I thought. Not even my mother.

She creates me, and I create a story and she recreates the story.

I returned home with these thoughts all jumbled up.

‘If you feel like we will not include that story in the collection.’

‘But that will ruin the book.’

‘What do you mean ruin the book?’ she said. ‘We must make some changes anyways.’

Satara Tamater makes an unappealing title in Punjabi. Casually, she told me it was not a good idea to transliterate the English title Seventeen Tomatoes.

‘I will call your book Halka Dard. Small Pain.

‘One more thing,’ she continued. ‘If you insist on keeping the fourteenth story I will preface it with a little note.’

‘You are a writer, Mother. And you must write your own book.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Forget the translation, and write your memoirs.’

‘So you don’t like the translation?’

‘It is not a translation. But your own story.’

She wanted to say something, but changed her mind.

‘Promise me you will write the memoir.’

She looked sad, as if her most creative act would never see the light of the day.

‘Okay, you keep the fourteenth story. You write a short translator’s note about the alteration. But start working on the memoirs. Please.’

That is how it happened.

I don’t know why. I don’t think I will repeat the thing now. But I said it then for a strange reason as if all the boundaries between the author and the translator had been abolished.

You get to do that. But promise me you will write your memoirs.

My mother was born in British-occupied India in 1944. When in the right mood she tells the most hypnotic stories about partition. Part of me has always felt the need to urgently record all her memories. There are very few accounts by women of her generation about 1947. How life was lived in post-independence Punjab. The 1965 war with Pakistan. And that horrific year: Nineteen hundred and eighty four.

My mother, too, had become a writer.

She promised all those stories, but found it difficult to start. The Punjabi edition of my book was published as Halka Dard (Small Pain) in 2009. She saw her ‘first story’ in print, and started writing then. The glow of the printed words most likely provided the right kind of inertia to begin her memoirs.

That is when I began worrying. Will she be able to pull it off? She had never formally learned ‘creative writing’, I thought. Never attended a single writing workshop. So I created a long reading list. Left a pile of books in her room. To my surprise she left everything unread. On her side-table I planted Vikram Seth’s mother’s memoir as a model. I don’t need someone else’s mother’s writing as a model, she said. I am my own model.

Every winter during my travels to Delhi she would hand me work-in-progress. Spiral bound photocopies of her handwritten chapters. For some reason I kept delaying reading those pages. But wherever I travelled I took the slim spiral notebooks along. They accompanied me in a black suitcase all the way to Brisbane, Florence, London and New York.

Last summer in Banff in the Rockies while working on my second novel – a heavy book set in Delhi in 1984 – I found myself slipping into a depression, when I was advised to take a break. It was in Banff I finally read my mother’s work. Struck by her compelling voice, I immediately started translating the spiral notebooks. She had called her work-in-progress: Physiology dé practical (in Punjabi). I titled it The Anatomy Experiment (in English). Other than that, I followed the Benjaminian advice – fidelity and freedom. Translation as a tangent line to the circle called the original. While working I could not help but think that I, too, am largely a product of translation. I, too, have read (and continue to read) the whole world in translation (in the English language). But so far I had not thought of ‘translation’ as ‘healing’. In Banff in the mountains I was healed by the mere act of translation.

She read my ‘sample’ a few months later very slowly, savouring each word. She was quiet for a while and then without reservation approved my Punjabi-to-English translation. The most difficult stories in her work-in-progress are the ones about our family’s forced migration, and the Indian Partition, which left two million dead and twelve million displaced. My mother’s book is filled with the trauma of that event, her pages haunted by convergences of memory, cities, post-memory and unfinished histories. This June I will try to finish translating the first half.


Image courtesy of Jaspreet Singh

A Gentle Madness