The Book of Bihari Literature | The Financial Express

The Book of Bihari Literature

In the Editor’s Note, Abhay K. writes movingly about how curating this collection has been a transformational journey for him through his learning regarding the treasure trove of literature from Bihar.

Book Review, The Book of Bihari Literature, Bihar literature, bihar education, bihar book review, Abhay K, Buddhist monk scholar, lifestyle
The cover of The Book of Bihari Literature

By Jonaki Ray

“An azure pool winds around the monasteries, adorned with the full-blown cups of the blue lotus; the dazzling red flowers of the lovely kanaka hang here and there, and outside groves of mango trees offer the inhabitants their dense and protective shade.” This was the description of the vibrant culture and learning at Nalanda (and the state of Magadha, among other parts of India) in 7th century BC by Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar, writer, translator, and traveller HiuenTsang when he visited it. This long and rich tradition of learning and literature in Bihar is mostly forgotten, and an attempt to unearth it has been made through the anthology, The Book of Bihari Literature.

It’s an interesting coincidence that poet, diplomat, and now, editor, Abhay K., was born in the Nalanda district, and is the editor of this anthology. In the Editor’s Note, he writes movingly about how curating this collection has been a transformational journey for him through his learning regarding the treasure trove of literature from Bihar.

A massive project that took nearly two years (starting from November 2020), the anthology comprises the translations of book excerpts, poems, and short stories in Magahi, along with the other languages of Bihar such as Pali, Prakrit, Persian, Maithili, Sanskrit, Urdu, Bajjika, Hindi, Angika, and Bhojpuri. The fascinating aspect of the book is thus the wide range of voices as well as the trajectory through various periods of history. Thus, the first two poems are from 600 BCE and written in Pali by Buddhist nuns, Mutta and Sumangalmata. These are followed by selections from Chanakya Niti by Kautilya in Sanskrit, translated by Abhay K., whose words of wisdom are true to this day:

“A true friend is one who helps us,/ when we are sick or surrounded by enemies, / in performing state duties/ or by cremating us after death.”

Similarly timeless is the wisdom offered in Selected Dohas from Mahamudra by Sarhapa, translated from Prakrit by Pandit Vairocanaraksita:

“Just as a crow flies away from a ship,/ circles in all directions and returns to it,/ the desiring mind, even though it pursues thoughts,/ returns to the natural primordial mind.”

In an anthology of such diversity and range, it is difficult and even unfair to critique each piece—however, some pieces lingered in the mind long after finishing the book. For instance: An excerpt from The Travels of Dean Mahomed by Sake Dean Mahomed, the first Indian to publish a book in English;  and The Untouchable’s Complaint by Heera Dom translated from Bhojpuri by Abhay K., considered to be the first Dalit writer. The Selected Poems by Abdul-QādirBēdil, translated from Persian by Nasim Fekrat, are like miniature paintings in their precise beauty.

The Messenger by Phanishwar Nath Renu, translated from Hindi by Rakshanda Jalil, depicts social mores in rural Bihar through the plight of the widowed eldest daughter-in-law and her attempt to send a message to her natal home. Similarly, Chilled to the Bone by Mithilesh, translated from Magahi by Asif Jalal and Abhay K., is a sad commentary on the elderly and marginalized facing bitter winter conditions with very little to their name, where even getting a blanket can turn into an obstacle race.

Fish by Rajkamal Chaudhary, translated from Maithili by Vidyanand Jha, has a gentle humour and reminded one of Wodehouse stories, especially with its end. The Scam by Tabish Khair, on the other hand, has a satirical note, especially in the descriptions of the  ‘reporder/jurnaalis’ world and brings out the cynicism that we are all left with towards news. Yet, the ending shows that all hope is not lost. Ashwani Kumar’s poem, Pablo Neruda in Gaya is a whimsical piece and evoked memories of Il Postino. Transformation by Kavita, translated from Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry, is a taut story about the choices faced by a family when a widowed mother wants to remarry, and the hurt caused even by the ones expected to support such personal decisions.

One would have liked more work by women writers, but as mentioned at the beginning of the book, this collection showcases a fraction of the literature that is waiting to be celebrated.This is an important beginning, and one can only hope that more such anthologies are published in the future.

The reviewer is a poet, writer, and editor in New Delhi. Honours for her work include 2018 Pushcart and Forward Prize nominations, as well the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. Her poetry collection, Firefly Memories, and chapbook, Lessons in Bending, are forthcoming from Copper Coin and Sundress Publications, respectively.

(Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)

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First published on: 18-01-2023 at 17:54 IST