Introduction to Crimson Rainclouds (Thema Books, 2012)
Translation of Asangba Nongjabi by Binodini

Sumang Leela“Whatever people in other lands might say, as far as we are concerned, no Manipuri dialogue has been written that is more beautiful than this, “ Eigya Syam said. It was, no doubt, a gentle word of caution. It was winter, early in 2011. I was in Imphal for the extended mourning rituals following the death of my mother Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi on January 17, 2011. I had once again approached Eigya Syam, as I called the film and theater director Aribam Syam Sharma, about subtitling his television film my recently deceased mother’s play Asangba Nongjabi (Crimson Rainclouds). As a film curator based in New York, I had been badgering him to subtitle this film for some years, feeling that it could be shown internationally. So having recently been asked by a festival in Norway to send some shorter film works written by her, I broached the subject again.

No one knew the playwright, my mother, and her work, better than he did. Eigya Syam started collaborating with my mother, who wrote under the single name of Binodini, starting in the early 1960s, He had directed the first stage production of Crimson Rainclouds in 1966, as well as the hour-long Manipuri television film in 2003. So when Eigya Syam added said that since he found the dialogue in the play so beautiful that he left the it all intact, changing only the scenario and sequences as a film required, I decided that I would translate the play itself. And then Eigya Syam could extract the subtitles from it for the film.  It was in the course of the next few weeks in Manipur that I finished the first draft of my translation.

I had read Crimson Rainclouds in its original Manipuri as a young teenager back in the 1970s, some years after my mother had published it along with two of her other plays.  I had translated my mother’s works before: some short stories, the screenplay of My Son, My Precious (Cinewave, 1981), and the yet-unpublished translation of her last work, The Maharajah’s Household (2009). In each, I had worked directly with my mother, she often reading them out to me, and I consulting her on the finer nuances, tuning it, fine-tuning it.  She had often read out the drafts of her works to me as she was writing them, or as finished works. But I don’t remember her reading Crimson Rainclouds out aloud to me. Revisiting the play right after her death, I could hear her voice in every line, almost as if she were finally reading it to me.

The linguistic distance between Manipuri, or Meiteilon, to use its ethnonym, a Tibeto-Burman language, and English, an Indo-European language, posed the expected difficulties. But my mother had made the character of Keinatombi in the play, an uneducated village woman, speak, and use, Manipuri differently from the other characters. A straightforward translation of the words the writer had put in her mouth sometimes did not work at all. How to render kaosing? Trash? Too negative, dirty. Flotsam? Who uses that word in daily speech anyway, especially a village woman? Yet what Keinatombi has to say went beyond that of a mere village woman, for what she said, and how she said it, was as important a part of the discourse on the nature of art, the artistic process and eternal yearning of the artist, as the dialogue given to Gautam, the idealistic painter on one side, the pragmatic Uncle on the other, or to the educated city girl, Indu, poised, suspended, torn between the twin poles.

That Gautam, the protagonist of Crimson Rainclouds was inspired by Ramkinkar Vaij, the Indian artist discovered by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, is known to the writer’s inner literary circle. Ramkinkar was my mother’s teacher when she studied art in in the early 1940s at the university established by the Nobel Laureate in Santiniketan. She became his muse, and Ramkinkar created a large body of drawings, paintings and sculptures of Binodini. I grew up hearing stories of Ramkinkar from my mother and as I translated Crimson Rainclouds, I encountered these anecdotes once again, bringing me back to the days of my childhood.

I heard once again the familiar writer’s voice of my mother that I had come to know in my own little way growing up with her. Perhaps there are works of literary criticism out there that I am not aware of that have delved into the stylistic influences upon my mother’s works of the giants of Bangla literature, like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra and Tagore, that she had loved so much. But for me, the romance and imagery of the dialogue, written to be delivered by characters on stage, proved to be another challenge. Therefore, I request readers who are conversant in both Manipuri and English to be a little forgiving when I have not captured the nuances just so.

It was precisely these nuances of translation that I missed working out with my mother when I was translating Crimson Rainclouds. As late as 2010, she and I would sit out on the front verandah or out on the lawn of her home in Yaiskul. She would sit in an easy chair in the weak, winter sun, eyes closed, as I, a painfully slow reader in Manipuri, had my friend Shantimo read her memoir essays out loud, and I typed into my laptop. “Should I use nonchalance or carelessness forthis word?” I would ask her. “Carelessness. I mean it more informally. Nonchalance is too fancy,” she would answer promptly. So without her there, providing incomparable insight into her writing process and inner thinking, I turned to Chongtham Kamala.

Cheche Mani, or Elder Sister Mani, as I have called Chongtham Kamala all my life, was my mother’s cousin. She was the person my mother trusted the most, and in all things. It was not just for her literary acumen and insight, but as my mother once said to me, because she had a large heart. My mother discussed everything with Mani, my very own Precious Jewel, as I often heard my mother refer to her, translating, playing with her beloved cousin’s name. Growing up next door in Yaiskul, Mani Ibema, as my mother called her, using her household name, wrote out all my mother’s drafts for her in her neat and clear handwriting. She was one of the few people who could read my mother’s handwriting, an idiosyncratic calligraphy full of character and beauty, but near impossible to decipher for the average reader.

So it was Chongtham Kamala whom I consulted on especially ambiguous passages or the tone of a turn of phrase during those days in Imphal. For she was the person who was always there, who first wrote out Crimson Rainclouds for my mother back in 1966. What I got from her was an acute literary analysis of the play, as she explained how that passage meant this phrase ought be translated thus.  “I have to say I worry a bit,” she said to candidly, gently, at the outset, in her lovely singer’s voice. “We love this play. It is so lovely to our ears. Will your translation convey what we feel about it?” These were words from an artist herself, one who had sat for hours with my mother, listening to her read out passages, draft after draft.  And so my eternal gratitude to her, with only the hope that somehow this translation bears even a trace of the beauty that she so deeply felt. I simply could not have done this translation without the help and insight of my Cheche Mani.

“Terrible.” That was Eigya Syam’s judgment of my first draft. It is only a first draft, I pleaded. But you can’t use that word, he would say. We sat and talked, oh, about how the bumblebee, a symbol of romance in Manipuri culture, conveys ungainliness, an aeronautical improbability, in English. So for the many linguistic, literary and cultural bumps he helped me negotiate, I am indebted to Eigya Syam, who continues to be the mentor he has been to me since I was a little boy.

When I came back to New York, I worked more on the translation. Back in the English-speaking world, all the delicious intricacies of language and differences of cultural perceptions that a Manipuri-English translation threw into relief gained an added dimension. I went to American PEN’s poetry slam at the Bowery Poetry Club, listening with bemusement and a sense of shared misery as an elegant Parisian woman and an American man in a cowboy hat read competing translations of a French poem. It showed me how many translations are possible, and in as many voices. But it also underscored that I was not a native English speaker.

So I turned to two writer friends: Lady Belinda Morse in London and Hope Cooke in New York. They combed through my drafts, standardized the style, ironed out Americanisms and Indianisms, and gave me valuable advice on how to handle the more romantic passages. It was Lady Morse who finally helped me come up with the English title. I had until then been calling it Crimson Rainclouds, Azure Skies, a more literal rendering of Asangba Nongjabi, the original title in Manipuri. Both she and Hope had found it too awkward. I labored to explain to them, with my limited knowledge, the significance of Nongjabi, the fiery speckling of rainclouds in the evening skies, in Manipur, whose wise men could read cloud patterns for omens, and wrote an ancient manuscript called Leichil-lon, or the Language of Clouds. Little did they realize that in suggesting a shorter title - the Crimson Rainclouds that Lady Morse preferred - they were hearkening back to my mother’s original title for her play, which was simply Nongjabi. It was he, Eigya Syam had told me earlier in Manipur, who had added the Asangba, or Azure, to it.

It was during one of conversations with Eigya Syam that we decided to send the translation to Samik Bandopadhyay. I cannot thank him enough for immediately agreeing to publish it, and for arranging for the translation of the Rabindra Sangeet lyrics in the play, saving me the tortuous and nigh impossible task of translating from my mother’s translation from the original Bangla. I also thank him for the wonderful two days we spent together in New York, discussing this play - and almost every other conceivable subject imaginable between our two worlds. As a cultural critic and thinker who has been pivotal in introducing Manipuri culture to the outside world, and a personal friend of my mother as well, his taking on the publication of this translation would have had a special meaning for her.

Translating Crimson Rainclouds turned out to be a special endeavor for me too as I took it up just a few weeks after my mother’s death. The exercise turned out to be my own personal tribute, my grieving, my way of saying goodbye.  In the process, I talked to Yengkhom Roma, who, as a mere slip of a girl, played Indu in the original production and once again in 1972, opposite Kangabam Tomba as Gautam on stage as well as in the radio play version. Both actors gave me insights into the play and into my mother whom they knew so well. Those conversations with them, whom I had grown up with, were in their own way a form of grief counseling for me.

While working in Imphal, I worried that I would not have a finished draft that I could take back with me to New York. Once again, I had my neighborhood and dear childhood friend Aribam Shantimo Sharma, to whom I owe so much, read the play out to me. I typed, once again, into my laptop. And into the night, alone upstairs in the house that my mother had built with my father, where she had brought me up, where the play had been rehearsed and which had served as the location for the television film, and finally, where she had died, I revised the day’s work. It was then that I wept, hearing her voice come alive, shedding the tears that I had held back until then.


An honorific mode of address, usually used for Manipuri Brahmins.

Many of the works can be seen at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

Maharaja Churachandgi Imung (The Maharajah’s Household, 2009)

L. Somi Roy, New York, December 2011