Presenting Harmony's silvers - sparkling lives, success stories, accounts of endurance, courage, grit and passion


In search of self

Author: admin

Award-winning Nepali-Assamese writer Gita Upadhyay gets ready to pen the story of her life

When Gita Upadhyay booked a tour to Europe in 2005, it was to be no ordinary vacation. One of the stops on this whirlwind trip was Amsterdam, where the itinerary listed the home-cum-museum of Anne Frank, the young Holocaust victim whose story had captured the hearts and imagination of people around the world.

Along with her tour group, Upadhyay stepped inside this iconic venue. And when she looked around, she spotted two books on display: the Nepali and Assamese translations of Anne Frank’s famous diary, The Diary of a Young Girl. “When I saw both my books there, my joy knew no bounds. It was the climax of a pilgrimage for me,” says the 78 year-old award-winning, bilingual writer and translator of Nepali and Assamese literary works. “I had done both those translations in the ’70s, so imagine my surprise on finding them still there.”

Anne Frank’s diary is a daily account kept by the 14 year-old Anne as she and her family hid away in an attic from the Nazis during World War II. Published after she died in a concentration camp, the book soon became a classic. Finding translations of the book in the home where Anne spent the last two years of her life is the kind of validating experience not many writers are fortunate to have. For Upadhyay, it ranks right up there with the two Sahitya Akademi awards she has received.

“My first Sahitya Akademi award came in 2012 for Darbar Ki Susare, the Nepali rendering of Karengar Ligiri, a famous Assamese play, while my second came last year for Janmabhumi Mero Swadesh. This is a biographical account of my grandfather, a freedom fighter who died at the age of 98 in 1980,” says the soft-spoken resident of Tezpur, Assam. According to her, Janmabhumi Mero Swadesh is the story not only of her grandfather but of the journey of people who came from Nepal to Assam over several centuries, and is her most important work to date. “I used to spend hours listening to his stories of the freedom movement and the people and places where he lived and worked. He used to insist that I noted down the stories. These notes were a treasure trove of information, which I used to write the biographical novel.”

A retired professor of political science, Upadhyay began her writing career late into her 40s and is astonishingly prolific. She has 23 books in her repertoire, including translations and original works, in both Assamese and Nepali. She has also authored over 100 short stories in both languages. In addition, Upadhyay, who never married and has no children, published a children’s novel in Assamese called Maa Moi First Halon in 1997, followed by a Nepali version of it in 2000. She has also adapted The Diary of A Young Girl for children.

Upadhyay’s fluency in Nepali and Assamese stems from her roots. The daughter of Nepali immigrants in Assam, she attended Assamese-medium schools and picked up Nepali at home. She also inherited her love for reading, writing and translating from her father. “My father had studied only up to Class IX but he was a voracious reader,” she shares. “Even though he lived in a remote village in Assam, he managed to get a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. Later in life, he translated two plays, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice, into Assamese. He became a well-known translator and short story writer in Nepali and was published in Kathmandu.”

Upadhyay completed her master’s in political science in 1964 and started teaching at Sibasagar College. “Although I taught political science for 34 years, my first love was always literature,” she says. “I had never dreamt I would become a writer. But my urge to write was latent and flourished while I taught in college, which had a rich stock of books in the library.”

As a budding writer, Upadhyay spent two decades poring over books in various languages in the library at Sibasagar College, where she taught. Thus, she honed her linguistic skills in Assamese, English, Hindi and Bengali as well as Nepali. Finally, in 1987, she took the plunge and completed her first major work: an Assamese translation of Bhanubhaktar Ramayan, a book by 19th century Nepali poet Bhanubhakta Acharya.

For the most part, Upadhyay translates books that have influenced her in some way. “Every year, when we, the Nepali people, celebrate Bhanubhakta Jayanti, my Assamese friends want to know more about him,” explains the veteran writer. “Bhanubhakta is a Nepalese poet and writer who translated the great epic Ramayana from Sanskrit to Khas, a Nepali dialect. This prompted me to translate his book into Assamese.”

Sometimes, Upadhyay’s prodigious talent takes her on unexpected journeys, as did her fascination with the story of Anne Frank. Returning to that chapter of her life, Upadhyay says she was so moved by the young girl’s diary that she tracked down Anne’s father, Otto Frank, in Switzerland. He was the only one to survive the concentration camps of the group of eight people holed up in the attic in Amsterdam, including his own family.

“I had read a column in Desh, a Bengali magazine, where the writer had mentioned meeting Frank,” she recalls. “On my request, the editor of Desh got Mr Frank’s address from the columnist. So I wrote a letter to Mr Frank, telling him about my interest in Anne’s story. We corresponded with each other for several years and he also sent me two books, On The Trail of Anne Frank and a picture book on Anne.”

The writer’s tryst with the young Holocaust victim’s legacy had moved her very deeply. When the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war broke out, she adapted Anne’s story for theatre and directed a play that was staged by the drama club in Sibasagar College. It was her first significant work in writing and the proceeds of the play went to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. For Upadhayay, though, the highlight was sending Otto Frank a picture of the play after the performance. Frank appreciated her attempt and liked the pictures of the protagonist who had played his daughter. “He said she was very similar to Anne. He also appreciated the costume, which we had designed in a Western way.”

Upadhyay believes in maintaining a balance in life, and despite her prolific writing, she makes time to engage in other meaningful activities. So, although closely associated with various drama clubs and literary bodies, she is also president of the Seva Sadhan Sangha, a voluntary organisation that works among women and children in Tezpur. She is also a member of the Sonitpur district Juvenile Justice Board and a managing board member of Tezpur University. “Despite all these commitments, I set aside three to four hours a day for writing, in addition to household chores,” she says with a smile.

After almost four decades of writing and translating, Upadhyay is finally set to, quite literally, write the story of her life—she is working on her autobiography. “I have done a few chapters and hope to complete it in about a year,” she says.

Why an autobiography? “My life is full of varied experiences,” she responds. “My grandfather’s life as also that of my parents, the experiences I have collected growing up in a bilingual atmosphere, life as a college teacher and a writer, and then as a member of the Juvenile Justice Board and, above all, the influence of books like Anne Frank’s diary have made life very interesting. That is why I thought I should tell the story of my life too.”

―Text & Photo: Dr Tapati Baruah Kashyap

May 2017