In Freedom's Shade

When I wrote up a proposal to the New India Foundation for a fellowship to translate Anis Kidwai’s Azādi ki Chhaon Mein in English, I never expected to be even invited for an interview. I had never translated into English before, and my academic credentials were in a completely unrelated field—formal linguistics—not literature or history. What I did have was three chapters translated, and some inchoate thoughts about communal violence, the activism of ‘ordinary’ women in the face of Partition violence, and the intimacies and distances between two sister languages, Hindi and Urdu.

To my surprise, despite the fact that I was a complete greenhorn, I was not only called for an interview, I was awarded the fellowship. It was only when I actually settled down to the task that I realised that I had taken on a task that was extremely onerous, at several levels. For one, to be able to translate this text, I realised, I would need to know much about the factual events and popular opinions in the actual time-line of Partition as it played out than I actually knew, were I to translate both the meaning and the intent of her text. To do that, I had to learn far more than I knew—truth be told, far more than any of us know, coloured as my generation’s imaginaries of what Partition felt and looked like are by dramatic moments captured by the lens of Partition photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and the pens of Partition stories by a Sadat Hasan Manto. In Anis’s non-fiction Partition, there is an lived-in tedium to this long Partition, no moment of individual insurgence or instance of revelation of the social neurosis it produced, but groups and individuals but acts of daily resistance in reaction to slowly changing circumstances. To be able to translate Anis, I had to live through the long Partition with her by reading around her text. Luckily for me there were several sources available, both in terms of scholarly and popular literature, newspaper archives, as well as elders in my own family (specially my mother, Amina), who could help me decode both specific references to events that I had no knowledge of as well as what inform me more generally of what those times felt like.

A problem of far greater difficulty came from the fact that Anis was my paternal grandmother, with whom I had the good fortune to have lived for fifteen years, and whom I loved dearly. I was determined to carry over to the English translation somehow, the distinctiveness of her perspective, the idiom and registers she employs, rather than merely translating the sense of what she was saying. The narrator of In Freedom’s Shade had to speak in the same voice and manner that the narrator of Azādi does.

To speak as Anis, I learnt however, required much more than just background knowledge. Anis’s eyewitness testimony is specially compelling, one feels, as much because of the emotional quality of her telling as the content of her report. From the searing first chapter, where she speaks of the murder of her husband Shafi Ahmad in Mussoorie in October 1947 to the her descriptions of the camps at Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb, it is the sincerity and frankness of Anis’s expression that establishes the reader’s faith in her as a commentator. Hers is an expression that does not dissemble—she is often despairing, exasperated, fatigued, conflicted, sometimes moralising, and ironic, and there is virtually no paragraph in the entire book in which Anis’s personal opinion does not inflect what is being reported.

The voice in which Anis speaks in the Urdu original has many resources available for these modulations, but how was I to preserve these inflections in the translation into English? In the Urdu original, Anis relies on the knowledge she and her readers have to a vast storehouse of words from Awadhi, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, and even English to signal some of these inflections—for example, when Anis is engaging in moral, religious, and political reflection and critique, her choice of words is always from the high literary Perso-Arabic stock of words. The same resource of words was not available to the English reader worldwide, but it is accessible (at least partially) to the English reader in India. As a consequence, in instances where the choice of Hindi/Urdu word was significant, I decided to use it, alongside an in-text English translation. When taken together with the transliterations of Urdu and Persian couplets and their translations into English, In Freedom’s Shade comes to resemble more closely the multilingual world of Āzadi.

Another problem related to maintaining the quality of Anis’s voice was the extent to which Anis exploits Hindi-Urdu’s grammar to signal discursive meanings; however English does not exercise exactly the same syntactic options, and even when it does, the discursive meanings yielded need not be isomorphic to the ones in the Urdu text. I had to learn therefore to translate an Urdu sentence form to an isomorphic English sentence form only where the same discursive function was served, and elsewhere aim to match the function that was being served by the Urdu word order variation by choosing an appropriate English syntactic construction. This strategy had the result that quite a large number of different English syntactic constructions ended up being used across this large text, creating a sense of the richness of Anis’s writing style.

What started out as an attempt to capture my intimate personal knowledge of Anis’s persona has over the years become something of ideology of my translation practice. Translation is not an activity designed to protect its audience from the knowledge that it is a translated one or that the source of this text is itself a multilingual socio-cultural milieu. Rather, if translation is to genuinely be an act of intercultural communication, one of its goals must be to communicate the target culture the fact that the source text’s culture and society is not a monolingual one, that several languages collaborated within the writer of the original text. A translation that translates every single word, where no trace of the multilinguality is left behind, makes a different meaning out of the source text. Furthermore, where the multilinguality is an integral part of a writer’s craft, as it is in the case of Anis, not letting the reader ‘hear’ at least some sort of reflex of the many languages in her repertoire would be to rupture the communication of an essential meaning.

Translating Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein has had a profound impact on my life and thinking, not the least because it turned me into a translator—a second volume of Anis’s writings has just appeared, published by Zubaan Books and NewText. In my academic life, Anis’s account of the role of Mridula Sarabhai and her band of women social workers in the rescue of abducted women have led me to research and publish about them, as well as on Muslim women’s life writing and the Hindustani vs. Hindi–Urdu—Hindustani debate. In my personal life, translating Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein has given me the unique opportunity to really know my grandmother, both independent OF the bonds of kinship as a real person as well as the master preceptor, whose candour, hopefulness, generosity and belief in women’s autonomy form the bedrock of the values held dear by my family.

Originally written in Urdu, Anis Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade, is a soulful narrative about the untold agonies of Partition, translated in English by her granddaughter Ayesha Kidwai, under the aegis of the New India Foundation Fellowship. Published by Penguin India, In Freedom's Shade is available online at Amazon.


Ayesha Kidwai’s new translation of Anis Kidwai’s writings Dust of the Caravan has been released by Zubaan Books. Available online at https://zubaanbooks.com/shop/dust-of-the-caravan/

The New India Foundation