For the Love of Language: `The Manipur Arbiter`

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By Soibam Haripriya
‘The only reason to learn a language is to be able to read its poetry’ – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

What prompted this write up was a two years old photograph of the banner of the North East Theatre Festival 2011 organised by N.T. Theatre, Manipur. Sophocles’ Antigone was performed by Theatre Mirror (directed by Wareppa Naba), Dr. I.R. Babu’s name was stated as the translator in the banner. It is daunting to write a tribute to him especially when one is not conversant with his oeuvre and this piece should not be treated as a tribute but rather an attempt to revisit part of his work and part of his life.

He resume is formidable, so is his demeanour. It is interesting to observe that Dr. Irom Babu’s (more well known as Dr. I.R. Babu) training was in English (Hons) and he had pursued it further to obtain a doctorate in English Literature from Kalyani University, Calcutta (in all probability the first from the state to be awarded the degree) and had all the while until his demise taught Manipuri (language and literature). In principle, the idea of being trained in the literature of one language and approaching the literature of another language though an innovative idea; one would imagine it to be quite uneven a terrain to navigate. This innovation however was not due to radical ways of looking at language but more so due to practical difficulty of getting teachers trained in a particular discipline. The idea of language and script now seems overwhelmingly tilted towards the idea of identity. This trend if stretched to the extent of foreclosing the opportunity to learn another language or revisiting one’s own will be our loss. Translation has been a constant endeavour in literature of which Dr I.R. Babu too contributed immensely.

Inquired on the question of language and the question of identity in language Spivak had once remarked

‘But when you learn a foreign language, so called, it seems to me what is activated in a more remote way is that first experience. And it therefore seems to me very strongly that not to have had a good solid confident relationship with the first language is a misfortune’

To him it seems that within the act of translation was embedded his idea of love, of loving a work and wanting to share it by traversing barriers of language. There is no denying the ambitions he had set for the discipline and many of his students would vouch for his perfectionism. His attempt to a greater height of perfection was in every small act and not confined to the field of literature. It is believed that as a child that he was a perfectionist when he was herding cows too in the foothills near his home in Oinam Khun, Mamang Leikai.

His love for Bangla would be frown upon given the present circumstances but like an artist with many muse his love and contribution to the cause of Manipuri literature could be safely counted as substantially more than those who would rather burn not a reservoir of books for the cause of language. Equally at par was his love for English, not surprising considering his training. At the heart of it perhaps his true love was literature and he would have loved to read all the literatures of the world and the act of translation could be understood as trying to express this love. One could say that more than a translator he was a mediator trying to create a bond between languages, a negotiator of the rough terrains of making the literature of one language lends itself to another. Surprisingly though, those in the familial would vouch that he didn’t encourage them from pursuing literature, or more aptly than he was indifferent perhaps wanting one to find one’s feet alone just as he had done.

Little understood by those in his close familial circle would also be his penchant for alternative mostly his disdain for allopathy. He would happily discard one system of cure to try a new fangled idea, sometimes with disastrous results –one such instance being embalming his chest with mud during an asthma attack in winter. It is only in the luxury of introspection that one slowly marvels at his quirk and eccentricities and could attribute a whole new hue to those sepia tinted memories. Many an hour one had spent dissection a used envelope perfectly at the seam to turn it inside out and paste it back to be used again or listlessly spent a winter separating unwritten pages from note books to be bound and stitched together as note books for the new session. A book borrowed from him if returned with dog-eared pages would certainly be received with unconcealed wrath.

One wonders what trajectory life would have taken if his train ticket, wallet had not literally fallen down the drain i.e. commode of the train on his way to Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. He came back penniless losing everything he has and to begin anew in the discipline of English Literature.

Unaware of his clinical prognosis one can only suggest that the months long frozen-shoulder that
rendered him unable to write affected him adversely as if forbidden to write, as if the world of the written was foreclosed to him. His style of work and his eccentric nature rendered him unable to use the services of another to write out his thoughts. He passed away one indifferent morning of April, 2003.

(Dr. I. R Babu was posthumously awarded the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize for translating R.K. Narayan’s The Guide, titled Lamjingba, the book is long out of print though still as prescribed text in Manipur University. Lamjingba could as well have been a word for him. A noted critic, translator and writer, he was in his lifetime, involved in a variety of forums. He was at the General Secretary of ‘The Cultural Forum Manipur’ and sometime else also the General Secretary of Manipur Sahitya Parishad. His effort towards including Manipuri Folklore in the Manipuri Department of Manipur University and his many written works on folklore has also made people regard him as a folklorist.)
*The Manipur Arbiter is the name of a newspaper column that Dr. I. R. Babu once wrote.

(Soibam Haripriya is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi)

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