Strange Animals 19jan2019: Read Through for Profundity

Hello subscribers old and new. Last week’s newsletter seems to have struck a chord—I got quite a few responses on the lettering exercise saying that it clarified some nuances of lettering to them. If you missed that, you can check it out here. New subscribers: I should warn you in advance that I don’t talk about lettering every week—so caveat emptor et cetera.

Other than that, it’s two weeks down and fifty to go, for the newsletter and for the year in general.

Usually, at this point in the year, I start feeling like I’m falling behind, and by the end of January, it’s a free-for-all to guess what I’ll actually accomplish by the end of the year.

2019: that’s not the case just yet. I’ve been putting time aside to write—not quite everyday, but enough that I can see a near-future working week that has a writing slot built into every weekday. I’ve also integrated several hours of font design into my work schedule, so that’s also been moving along.

The plan by the end of this month is to finish first drafts of a prose short story and a comic script, both non-genre (a comparatively rare thing for me) and set in Pune, where I live. For inspiration, I’ve been reading a lot of short stories from India in translation, which led to the main topic of this newsletter.


I’ll be honest—I haven’t written Indian stories set in the world I know very often. As a teenager, I was one of those brown writers who thought they were supposed to write about people called Michael and Anna rather than Amit and Deepa.* I came to Indian writing late, and to Indian writing in other languages than English even later, and I never quite figured out how to write in this place and now rather than there and then. When I did start writing about Indian people, the environments I wrote had enough elements of fantasy or science fiction that I didn’t feel like I was faking it.

* There was a very good article about this phenomenon—brown writers writing needlessly Westernised characters because of what they grew up reading—that I found ages ago that I wish I could link here. If anyone knows of something like this, please send me links—I’ll know which one I’m looking for when I see it, or substitute it with one that covers most of the same points.

Faking what, precisely? Writing about lives I know with any sort of authenticity in English. Because the lives I know are not led in English, most of the time, and even those that are tend to be set in a wider context that has linguistic and cultural aspects that I can’t seem able to communicate with the specificity they require.

Reading translated stories has been an interesting guidance. Most of the stories I’ve been reading at the moment are translated from Urdu, which is a language I can understand (given its immense overlap with spoken Hindi) but that I can’t read. So I’ve been reading English translations, and, where I can find them, listening to the originals and comparing and contrasting.

It’s liberating, because I’ve realised that even people who specialise in translating across contexts often leave whole swathes untranslated because to do otherwise would render the text incoherent, like, say, this passage from the beautiful story ‘The Shepherd’ by Ashfaq Ahmad:

Dauji sat up erect on the cot, raised his hand and said, ‘Jaan-e Pidar, haven’t I told you to identify the subject first?’

To save myself from the torture of syntactical description I asked him, ‘Why do you call me Jaan-e Pidar? Why don’t you call me Jaan-e Dau?’

‘Bravo!’ he exclaimed with delight. ‘Now that’s an excellent question. “Jaan” is a Farsi word, and “dau” comes from Bhasha. You cannot join the two with a Farsi genitive. Those who write or say din-ba-din commit a terrible mistake. One should either say roz-ba-roz or din par din. Likewise …’

This passage plays with the idea that the characters live in a context where multiple languages have melded together, and one of them (the narrator) is happy creating neologisms, while the other (Dauji) is the kind of person who’d say “television” is not a valid word because it mixes Latin and Greek roots. If all these Farsi/Urdu/Hindi words were in fact translated into English, the entire passage would be rendered nonsense.

I also hit upon a phenomenon that’s almost a required part of reading translated works—that of filling in gaps of meaning that can’t be translated. You will sometimes encounter sentences or phrases that seem mundane in English, but that hint at a meaningful phrase behind the translation that the translator couldn’t capture or decided to leave to the reader’s imagination.

If you know the original language, you can sometimes fill this gap with the words the original author probably used. I experienced this while watching Tumbbad, a Hindi film originally written in Marathi and set in an entirely Marathi context. When I try to remember specific dialogue from the movie, it plays in my head in a mixture of Hindi and Marathi even though most of it was actually in Hindi, because I “read through” to the original language of the script.

But when you aren’t familiar with the original language or the specific context of a piece of writing, you make the allowance that some nuances of the original language are simply untranslatable, at least into English. So based on the overall tone of the piece, you’ll take in the literal meaning of the text and add in a certain degree of profundity you assume was present in the original.

Bringing it into comics (as I’m obviously wont to), sometimes in translated Manga, I’ll encounter a thought split into two balloons that to me reads as if it should have been one balloon. The translator is obviously working with pre-drawn balloons, so has to split the text, but I tend to assume that the original Japanese version was worthy of being split into two balloons in a way that the translation can’t convey.

Here’s a quick example, a lyric from Gulzar, first in phonetic Hindi, if you can read that, and then the translator Sunjoy Shekhar’s valiant but failed attempt at capturing both meaning and character, from the collection 100 Lyrics:

परछाइयाँ चुनता रहता है
क्यों रिश्ते बुनता रहता है
इन वादों के पीछे कोई नहीं
क्यों वादे सुनता रहता है

Must you
glean shadows
forge relationships
listen to promises
bereft of honour


Out this week with my lettering are the following comics:

Isola #6, beginning the second arc, written by Brenden Fletcher & Karl Kerschl, drawn and designed by Karl Kerschl, coloured by MSassyK, lettered by me, from Image Comics.

Days of Hate #12, the finale, written by Aleš Kot, drawn by Danijel Žeželj, coloured by Jordie Bellaire, lettered by me, designed by Tom Muller, from Image Comics.


A lot of Urdu poetry has a peculiar feature in which the (male) narrator refers to his (female) lover as male. This lover can sometimes be God himself, in which case, at times, the narrator feminises himself to portray a subservience to the male lover that is God.*

* I’m speaking here based on my experiences and readings on this topic, which are far from thorough. If I’m getting anything wrong/incomplete about the literal or figurative aspects of this, please let me know and I’ll make a correction.

From an essay by Frances Pritchett about ghazals:

At the most basic level, the ghazal is the first-person voice of a passionate lover who laments his lack of access to his beloved. This lover is always construed as masculine. In some verses the beloved is very clearly feminine (as for example when women’s clothing, veiling, etc. is mentioned); she is then either a courtesan, or an inaccessible lady in pardah. In other verses the beloved is very clearly a male youth (as when the beginnings of the coquettish adolescent boy’s beard are said to appear, destroying his androgynous charm). In most verses, the gender of the beloved remains unknowable. This undecideability is partly due to the brevity of the verses, and to the emphasis on the lover’s feelings rather than descriptions of the beloved. In Persian, it’s also due to the nature of the grammar: verb endings don’t vary with gender. In Urdu, by convention the beloved always treated as grammatically masculine. The notional femininity of the beloved remains powerful, however: as Owen Cornwall has pointed out, by far the two most popular archetypal ghazal beloveds, Laila and Shirin, are female.)

Ultimately, this abstractly masculine grammatical gender may also be due to the desire to keep open a mystical, Sufistic reading in which the supremely powerful and irresistibly beautiful divine Beloved is the real object of desire. Since an erotic pursuit of God by a male lover is not only wildly transgressive but also bound to end badly, the lover knows from the beginning that his passion is doomed and will destroy him. But he doesn’t care, since it’s so much more compelling and glorious than anything on offer in this flimsy, transitory ‘real’ life.

Translator Dr. Sarfaraz Niazi postulates where this might come from (I’ve removed irrelevant bits):

A rather touchy situation for the Western reader of Urdu poetry arises in how the male gender is used for the beloved. Translations […] are difficult to do using this scheme. […] The roots of this convention go back to the ancient Persians and Greeks; the Persians with their homosexual preference found the young Turkish boys taken in as slaves very attractive. In the 18th and the 19th century, it was fashionable to have these young companions as confidants, and cupbearers (saqi) to a point where the royalty began to profess their love for them rather openly. As a result, the poetry, which at that time was mainly for the consumption of the royalty, began to express the sentiments of the love of the male for the male. […] Soon it became fashionable to address the beloved as male and the tradition continues.

(Witness the word ‘saqi’ frequently being used to refer to the lover in ghazals and lyrics.)

The whole notion is obviously rife with sexism that people smarter than me should and probably have tried to unpack, but it’s also, to me, a pretty way to use a language to express something that the cultural context deems outside its purview. I attended a panel discussion once where one of the speakers, a lesbian activist working in rural India, talked about how some rural Indian lesbians would, in vernacular, refer to their female lover as ‘mitr’—the Hindi word for male friend. There is a fascinating tension between the expansive idea of love and eroticism versus the struggle to express it in a language that doesn’t include it by default.

I tried to use these ideas in a short comic where a woman writes about her female lover in this manner to, in some ways, separate the experience of being in love from what she has been told love should look like since she was a child. It was an interesting idea, although it’s entirely possible that, once completed, the story itself would’ve been too iffy to be published, considering my own lack of experience in being a lesbian. But I eventually abandoned it because I kept hitting up against the limitations of English to express gender within language. ‘He’ was the only word that helped me express gender, while in Hindi, not just pronouns, but even adjectives, adverbs and verbs are gendered. ‘My love’ does not read as male in the way ‘mera yaar’ does.

Reading translations is slowly helping me figure out how to navigate situations maybe not exactly like this one, but ones where it might be more prudent to leave stuff up to the reader’s discretion rather than do things like write ‘lentil soup’ when I mean ‘daal’.


Since I’ve gone on so long about this, I very well can’t see how my recommendations this week could be anything other than the collections The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, edited by Muhammad Umar Memon, and Bitter Fruit: The Best of Sa’adat Hasan Manto, edited by Khalid Hasan. Both are English translations.

If you’re familiar enough with Urdu to listen to stories narrated in the language, Radio Mirchi did audio narrations of a large number of Manto’s stories under the banner ‘Ek Purani Kahani’ (An Old Story), which they’ve uploaded to YouTube with illustrations. I’m not particularly enamoured by the soundwork, which is occasionally overblown and melodramatic at times, but the narrations themselves are reasonably strong, and stay true to the original text as far as I can tell. You can find those here.


From the commonplace book, dated June 2014, this might not seem immediately connected with the essay above, but trust me, it is.

Excerpted from an old Believer interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis, on conveying transitions in time, with reference to Godfather II:

“Visually,” I said, “I’m not going to change the color of anything, but I’m going to change the quality of the photography, so that when you go from 1958 in Tahoe, and then we cut back to De Niro on the streets of New York at the turn of the century, you’re going to know that you’ve made a turn.” It would be a mistake to do something stupid like: here we are in 1958, and now here we are at the turn of the century, so the turn of the century is going to be in black and white. That becomes invasive for an audience. They get confused, and it’s pretentious and it’s dumb. Instead, it’ll all be the same color, but the quality of the visuals will change in the period work. We’ll take the film and push it back a bit further, so it doesn’t look the same but it doesn’t get in the way.

Filed under #craft and #creativity.