The following is an excerpt from an interview of the translator of the book The Princess and The Political Agent and the author of the newly released children’s book, And That Is Why (Manipuri Myths Retold), which is a retelling of Manipuri mythology. The book is published by Penguin under the Puffin imprint. L. Somi Roy is the founder of Imasi Foundation, a translator, a cultural conservationist and also a museum curator.
IRAP: Your new book And That Is Why (Manipuri Myths Retold) was released in June of this year. How has been the response? Was it difficult releasing it during this pandemic?
Somi Roy: “Actually Lakshmi, your review was the first one from Manipur! So, thank you! Otherwise, the coverage from major media from across India has been an embarrassment of riches. So the response has been amazing. And the book is doing spectacularly well, not just here in Manipur but in the rest of the country as well. I did kinda think it would draw some attention, what being about the puya (for here) and as a book for kids (for here and everywhere else). And it has, on both fronts. But, especially from your take on it, I now realize I had no idea it would be of such interest here in Manipur with the younger generations of readers in particular, who have not grown up with these stories but have read other mythologies whether Hindu or Greek or whatever. The book seems to have struck a chord: that we too have a mythology. Now told in English.
Oh yeah, it was a nightmare launching it here during the second wave of covid. Even my editors at Penguin couldn’t get their hands on the book! Their warehouse was locked down and ravaged – deaths even, I’m sorry to say. So to get some copies here for His Highness Leisemba to launch it was like pulling teeth.”
IRAP: What was the inspiration behind this book project?
Somi Roy: “Oh, that’s simple. Penguin asked me. For the book, that is. I’m pretty banal that way.
Otherwise, the book has its roots in my interest in digitizing Manipuri manuscripts for international scholarship access. And then, a few years on, for an art exhibition of the illustrated Manipuri manuscript I was planning for Brooklyn and Berlin. Long story, several morphings. But it all began with Pabung Khelchandra who showed me, interested me, taught me. Amazing man, amazing scholar. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another scholar like him, ever again. The book is dedicated to his memory.”
IRAP: What were the challenges you faced while making this book project a success?
Somi Roy: “It’s really all because of my publisher Penguin. They got really interested in it. So we worked – actually are still working – on framing and presenting the book.
Challenges? Well, no one knows of even the existence of Manipuri mythology. It’s not like this book is about the Mahabharata or such like. It comes with virtually no infobank for most people. So we had to start with creating that. From scratch. Even positing that there IS a Manipuri mythology in the first place.”
IRAP: How did you encounter the artist Sapha Yumnam? Was the book always going to be a book with illustrations?
Somi Roy: “I was introduced to Sapha by my cousin Wangam Somorjit. He’s a very clever fellow. He knew from me I was writing this book. But I never told him I was looking for an artist. I was looking elsewhere; quietly despairing I wouldn’t find the right artwork. So yes, it was always conceived of as a book with illustrations. The stories are based on myths pre-18th century, pre Hinduism. Sapha’s art is based on the subika forms, also pre-18th century. One look at Sapha’s work, and I knew my search was at an end. They are a beauty. One look at it by Arpita Nath, my editor at Penguin, and she was head over heels as well. What can I say; it was love at first sight for both of us. Somorjit is very smug about it all!”
IRAP: Are there more myths coming to life through another book project in the future?
Somi Roy: “Penguin Young Adults wants me to do another. Do I have it in me? I’ll have to think, as I have a couple of other books in the works. But it sure is tempting! If only because the mythology is so rich, so untold, and there are so many stories I have had to leave out. And heck, I enjoyed this retelling! But we approached this book somewhat gingerly, as this is Penguin’s first children’s book from northeast India. Let us see how this one does eventually.”
IRAP: Why is this book a children’s book and not an adult’s book since as an adult, I immensely enjoyed reading it.
Somi Roy: “Thank you Lakshmi! I won’t drop any names, but a couple of scholars of mythology, both international and in India, have sought the book out and are reading it. So yeah, adults are also interested: those who are interested in comparative mythology, Asian mythology, religion and ritual, philosophy and history. For them, it is opening up a whole other world, heretofore unheard of. It is a children’s book because Penguin Young Adults approached me. That’s just how it panned out. But here’s the thing…. I’m not a writer-writer. I only write under pain of publication, self imposed or otherwise.
IRAP: What advice would you give aspiring translators and budding Manipuri fiction writers who are into Manipuri mythology?
Somi Roy: “Good question. For translation in general, I am ironically of the school that it is vastly more important that works, mythology or otherwise, are translated into Manipuri. You translate in, not out. That’s the fundamental, basic wisdom of translation. This would enrich the receiving culture. Ours. And how best to understand one’s own mythology than by reading other mythologies? Actually, it is the only way. As for general fiction, I guess you write what you know, what strikes you, what grows out of your life. What more can I say? I am not a capital W Writer.”
Writer at IRAP