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Biography of a Cult Classic

Translating Anuradha Sarma Pujari’s My Poems Are Not for Your Ad Campaign

This essay is part of Transpacific Literary Project’s monthly column, with art by Mit Jai Inn.

Summers in the city of Guwahati are unbearable. The modest office of the Guwahati Press Club on June 7, 2023, where a book discussion of Anuradha Sarma Pujari’s novel My Poems Are Not for Your Ad Campaign is about to take place, is hot as a furnace due to a power cut. Pujari, a bestselling author in Assam, starts making calls to the local administration and finds a high-level officer. He turns out to be a fan of hers and promises to personally oversee that there is power throughout the event. Despite the brutally hot afternoon, a large spillover crowd is outside the hall, eager to get in. Inside the hall, there is no place to sit. 

Observing the crowd, I start to worry. The author has such a huge following. Have I done justice to this novel? 

It has taken me almost seven years to translate Pujari’s book. This isn’t at all due to its length. It is the centrality of the novel in the public imagination that exerts pressure on me. I didn’t realize how this would affect me in 2014, when I first received permission from Pujari to translate it. As I shuttled between my first academic job in India to a second one in the United States, the unfinished English translation, too, traveled with me from Minnesota to Assam to Haryana to Georgia. 

The pressure of translating a novel that occupies such a special position in the reader’s mind was heavy on me. But over the years, my conversations with Pujari, who allowed me to take creative liberties and found my English translation of the title defiant and appealing, made the process easier. 

Yet, away from Assam for most of the year, I sometimes forgot Pujari’s reach in the state and the power of a novel that hasn’t gone out of print for twenty-five years. All of this starts to dawn on me now as crowds pour in to hear how their favorite novel sounds in English. The Assamese title is far more poetic, and translates literally as “The Heart Is Advertisement.” I obsess over how a random Facebook user had pointed out that the sonorous lyricism of the Assamese title doesn’t translate in the English language. The source language is far more textured and figurative, and some readers complain on social media that the English title sounds far different than the original. But isn’t that what translation is all about? To create a new text? A new avatar?  

I am sweating, but I’m not sure if it is because the room hasn’t completely cooled down and it is very hot outside or because of the large crowd here who loves the author.

My Poems Are Not for Your Ad Campaign was published in 1997. The late nineties were one of the darkest times in Indian democracy. This phase of terror, when people who were perceived as supporters of the anti-India armed insurgency were arbitrarily picked from home and killed allegedly by government-sponsored assassins, is remembered as the secret killings of Assam.

This climate, of course, percolates into the literary expression of the period in strange ways. Many writers remain entirely silent about the militancy and counter-insurgency measures of the state and focus on what is known as “samajik novels” or “social novels” in Assam. The cost of speaking up was high: in 1996, Parag Kumar Das, a radical writer who wrote a novel sympathizing with the insurgents, was gunned down by AK-47s, in front of his son’s school, which was also near my house. So other authors focused on mundane urban realities, fetishized craft like white American MFA workshop instructors. The poetry turned more and more inward and called itself postmodern and symbolic and abstract. 

But something else happened in India during this time, which Arundhati Roy describes with the metaphor of unlocking. In a 2010 speech, Roy said: “In 1986 when capitalism won its jihad against soviet communism in the mountains of Afghanistan, the whole world changed and India realigned itself in the unipolar world and in that realignment it did two things, it opened two locks, one was the lock of the Babri Masjid and one was the lock of the Indian markets and it ushered in two kinds of totalitarianism—Hindu fascism, Hindutva fascism and economic totalitarianism.”      

Pujari’s novel looks at one such kind of “totalitarianism.” As people tried to understand this rapidly changing India, the number of private TV channels proliferated like mushrooms, new brands arrived, daily soap operas became a norm, people watching free national television were inundated with commercials, and cable TV reached our bedrooms. After liberalization, after this new kind of totalitarianism was unlocked, everything was perceived through a commercial lens. What was salable and what was not decided the fates of people’s careers and livelihoods. The commodification of svelte bodies, especially women’s, became rampant. 

This new wave of commercial culture was a jolt to a wide class of people who had had little access to the outside world of Western capitalism so far. It clashed with conservatism, morality, and tradition, making it harder for the many people walking into the public sphere to negotiate life. These concerns may seem prudish to many in 2024, but at the time they dominated the imagination and conversations of an anxious people bewildered by the rapid changes. 

Pujari’s novel, set in the heart of this commercial culture, in an ad agency, tries to answer these questions through the lens of the character Bhashwati: a young, middle-class woman who has moved from Assam to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the early nineties with her husband. After finding a job in a prominent advertising agency, she is exposed to a wide range of fascinating characters and situations that are often at odds with her belief system. She is not Peggy from Mad Men, but she is also not Don Draper. She represents the bafflement of the educated middle and lower-middle class: to what extent would you go to sell a product? What is the thin line between women’s exploitation and empowerment, between choice and capitulation to commercial culture, between frankness and vulgarity, art and pornography? 

In an early section of the novel, Bhashwati is disgusted when one of the ad-film directors rates different body parts of a model. How much is she ready to “expose,” and at what rate. He then brags about his ability to angle the camera for maximum exposure of parts of her body that she is not contracted for. Later, when the character Chinmoy is judgmental of the models, Bhashwati remains silent, unable to form an adequate response. The book, like the society of that period, grapples with these questions. It doesn’t frequently provide us with answers, but mirrors this confusion. 

In a climate where literature was either plunging headlong into the violent history of Assam or avoiding it entirely in the form of esoteric experimentation or fiction about mundane realities, Pujari’s novel filled an important void in the literary conversation in nineties Assam. Writing against dominant themes, a debut author provided us with answers about a new world. The criticism of this world wasn’t stringent, but in a climate when no one had answers, Pujari urged us to start questioning. 

Like many people of my generation, I encountered My Poems Are Not for Your Ad Campaign in high school. It was a gift. I had befriended a romance novelist who was almost fifteen years older than me and wrote for Bismoi, the highest circulated literary monthly in Assam, which at the time boasted a readership of 2.5 million. His novellas were all the rage, and he was dating my mother’s acquaintance. When he learned that I liked to read, he introduced me to Pujari’s work and the pleasures of black tea, “essential for writers and readers.” He was also a journalist, and often, during his visits, he regaled me and my parents with stories of the insurgency. These stories were mottled with blood and mutilated dead bodies unlike the novellas he wrote and the books he gave. 

In My Poems Are Not For Your Ad Campaign, when the characters Prayag and Bhashwati discuss if getting married is a mistake because it reduces them to a routine mundanity of life, many of us readers also wanted to reject or question marriage. “If Prayag wasn’t her lover, they would have spent this moonlit night on this bed, not sleeping at all,” Bhashwati wonders in an early scene. This contrasts with another scene of their passionate lovemaking under the open sky on a beach when they were still lovers, not husband and wife. Later in the novel, Prayag and Bhashwati decide to adopt a child instead of birthing one of their own. This inspired many readers to think widely about kinship, about the futile obsession with bloodline quite central in India. Pujari’s novels also regularly feature feminist men who do not possess toxic masculine features and rather question men and masculinity. In My Poems, Bhashwati is surprised by the love showered on her by her husband. It reminds her of her mother’s love. She concludes that even men can glow with motherhood, “sometimes.” 

Pujari’s characters are not always transgressive. They are tempted by transgression and sometimes even cross a line, but they are never disruptive. Their choices are individual. Even if it is an act of cheating, it remains a secret, and never comes out as a plot twist. It never leads to further conflicts among characters. The point is to swim in the act of transgression or toy with the thought of transgression. And when characters reject society, such as the protagonist in The Rains of Sahebpura (another popular Pujari novel), they often do it when the society has already rejected them, shunned them. They act to bring themselves inner happiness. In that sense, Pujari’s women characters flirt with radicalism and transgression, but only if it does not disrupt order. They like privacy and keeping to themselves. They are realistically radical, thus muting their radicalism. But the radicalism is still there. 

Perhaps, this is why many women readers find themselves in either Bhashwati or Mohua—the mysterious character Bhashwati meets in the novel. She is fascinated and attracted by Mohua’s free-spirited nature. Bhashwati is questioning but not radical. She is the voice of those baffled people who are pulled into the vortex of the commercial culture and try to remain afloat. The new corporate practices and the novel inhumanity disgust her. But within this workplace, she finds people who comfort her and remind her of the values of literature and art and history and humanity. 

But Mohua is radical and takes risks. She fights with her boss because he wants to use her poem in a detergent powder commercial. Her poem is not for sale, she says, and definitely not to sell detergent. She resigns from her job, refusing to sell the rights to her poem even when she desperately needs the money. She has a child out of wedlock and becomes a single parent, after practicing an unconventional notion of marriage with her now-deceased husband, who believed that getting married wasn’t the point, but love and trust was. Her radicalism and subversion are inspiring and satisfying, as the narrative doesn’t punish her at the end for being who she is. She provides a glimmer of hope for women to follow on her path to be free, flirt with transgression, or speak openly. Yet, her actions don’t discomfort the reader because Mohua gets the most meaningful life at the end despite her struggles; she gets to live a life on her own terms. Mohua keeps to herself. She is the subject of gossip and scandal, but she prefers to stay outside domestic bonds. 

In that way, Mohua and Bhaswati are opposite as well as similar. People want to be them; one can choose to be either because both eventually find inner happiness. In Pujari’s world, a win-win situation is inner happiness and self-care. But her characters don’t accept victimhood. They fight and get what they want within the limitations of their situations. 

The air conditioner works throughout the event, and the power stays on, as promised by a fan who loves Mohua and Bhashwati. A bookseller shares fond anecdotes of people coming to buy the book when it first appeared; a veteran publisher speaks about what that book and the author means to him even though he isn’t the publisher of the book; film star Barnali Pujari performs a dramatic reading; the first reviewer of the book shares how his love for the book has remained consistent even after twenty-five years. A person stands up to share, “I went to Calcutta last month, and I kept wondering if only I met Mohua Roy.” I realize that even though this event is to celebrate the occasion of the English translation’s publication, none of us—the author, the booksellers, the first reviewers, and me, the English translator—are what draw the audience to the event. 

We are all just cameos in a drama where Mohua and Bhashwati, the main characters of the book, are the stars forever.