Pankaj Thakur - recipient of Sahitya Akademi Translation Award | an interview

Pankaj Thakur at Kafka Center, Prague in 2012

Academician, writer and recipient of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Translation Award - Pankaj Thakur is a known face in the literary world of Assam. While he worked for corporate giants like Tata Motors Ltd., Ashok Leyland Ltd., Hindustan Motors Ltd., ICML Ltd. etc, he also kept his literary interests alive by way of writing, translating and editing various publications including Ajir Asom, a vernacular literary magazine and Amar Somoy, a prestigious literary magazine in Assamese, published from the house of Times of India. He was the nominating editor of Katha Assamese chapter, from 1992 to 2002. He also wrote the story of the Assamese movie Ahir Bhairav. He has got sixteen books under his belt which include both fiction and non-fiction. Thakur talks to us about growing up in Assam, and an illustrious journey as a writer.

Q. We would like to know little about your birthplace, parents, education and work.

Pankaj Thakur: I was born in 1948, in Dergaon, a small town of upper Assam. But I grew up in my maternal grandparents’ house at Jhanji, a vast rural but quite enlightened area of Assam, which attributed a lot in the shaping of my life. From the very nascent age I had seen my grandparents' love for books. They gave me plenty of children’s books and as I grew up they supplied me with books suited to my age. This, possibly, paved my way to the world of literature.

I studied at Jhanji and later for higher studies joined Cotton College, which was named after Henry Cotton, the first British Commissioner of Assam. After graduating with honors in Economics, I did my M.A. in Economics from the Gauhati University in 1975. My career started as a lecturer in Economics in Mount Tiyi College, in Wokha, Nagaland. Subsequently, I opted for the corporate world having served in various corporate houses.

Q. You are known as an academician and a writer. What made you choose the corporate world when it comes to earning your living?

Pankaj Thakur: Yes, I did opt for teaching as my first choice in regards to my profession. But due to certain unfortunate social tensions of communal nature, which developed in Wokha during my time at Mount Tiyi College, many of us decided to look for jobs elsewhere. And there were not enough options at that time and I did not have many choices. It was a situation of so much tension that for the initial eight days of ethnic resurgence in Wokha, me and my wife had to abscond. I am still very grateful to young Yanthango, who constantly tried to make us comfortable and also to Benri Lotha and his family members for giving us shelter and food during that troubled period. After coming back from Nagaland, I took a job in Ashok Leyland Ltd., one of the leading automobile houses in India.

Though I had been changing my jobs for several times, but most of the time it was from one corporate house to another, without any plans down the line. Those changes were co-incidental. However, inspite of the heavy pressure of corporate culture, I had somehow been trying consciously to maintain a balance between the profession and the passion for writing. That awareness and act of balancing probably helped me to continue my writing till now.

Pankaj Thakur (right) with Gyanpeeth Award winning writer Dr Mamoni Roisom Goswami
in the year 2010 while releasing a special issue of Amar Somoy magazine

Q. Tell us little about ‘The Heart is a Secure Address’. We can see that the book is a translated version of your Assamese book – Jibon Juktir Bahirot which is quite popular amongst the readers.

Pankaj Thakur: The Heart is a Secure Address is a series of autobiographical experiences presented in storytelling format and many critics claimed that it is a new genre of writing. The original version was first published in December 2008, and it has been translated into English, Oriya, Hindi and Bodo languages till now. Bengali translation is going on. I am happy with this publication.

Q. How do you feel to be the first Assamese writer to have written a book that has been translated into five languages?

Pankaj Thakur: Well, seeing five different versions of my book within a period of four years, I feel happy. I feel more happy seeing its fast acceptance by the readers.

Pankaj Thakur receiving Sahitya Academi Translatation Award for 2012 at Chennai on 23rd Aug 2013

Q. You have received the prestigious ‘Sahitya Akademi Translation Award’ 2012 for Bidirna Baghjai, an Assamese translation of Vishwas Patil’s prize-winning Marathi novel Jhadajhadati. Tell us little about the experience.

Pankaj Thakur: The book came to me from Sahitya Akademi as an assignment for translation. Seeing the big size of the book I was a bit hesitant initially. I was not sure if it would be possible to complete the translation within the given time-frame of one and a half years. I took the challenge and started the job. The book required a few months extension.

Jhadajhadati is based on the issues involved in construction of mega-dams in the developing countries. Policy wise the government has very good schemes for rehabilitating the thousands of displaced people from the dam sites. But does it happen in reality? The answer is negative. The root cause of the never ending agony of the displaced people is nothing but the unabated corruption in all levels of our society. The protagonists of the displaced people in Jhadajhadati never said that there should be no dam. But they said that dams for development should not be constructed at the cost of their lives.

Jhadajhadati is a modern classic in Indian literature. Its storyline is very strong and the writer’s treatment of the subject is wonderful and captivating. I enjoyed translating the novel. I took the liberty of choosing Bidirna Baghjai as a metaphorical title for the Assamese version since Jhadajhadati does not have an equivalent single word expression in Assamese. Readers’ and critics’ appreciation for Bidirna Baghjai made me feel happy. Also I am happy that Bidirna Baghjai has earned for me the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Translation Award for 2012.

Q. Presently what are you working at? Is there any forthcoming title in the near future?

Pankaj Thakur: Well, currently I am engaged in translating another popular Marathi novel – Mahanayak, and that too is written by Vishwas Patil.

As regards my forthcoming title, the second part of my autobiographical writing is in the press and it is expected to be released in the later part of October 2013, and its title is Mon Mati Manuhor Gaan.

Pankaj Thakur with Mr Tarun Gogoi, hon'ble chief minister of Assam
while releasing the inaugural issue of Amar Somoy Magazine

Q. A little about your association with Assamese film Ahir Bhairav.

Pankaj Thakur: I wrote the story and the screenplay of Ahir Bhairav. The movie was produced by Rondeep Productions, London. The movie has been procured by the British Film Institute (BFI), London, for their archive, as they say that there is an unusual freshness in the story.

Q. A word of advice for our readers and upcoming writers.

Pankaj Thakur: Advice is a big word with lots of weight. Life till now has taught me that there is no short cut to success. One has to toil a lot to be successful. Even after long toiling success might not come. But toiling is a must.

- Team Eastern Fare

Pankaj Thakur with his wife Chandana Thakur and his son Kaushik Thakur