Interview with… Roberto Calasso

A book on Indian mythology, written in Italian in the 1990s by a leading scholar and publisher from Florence, translated to great acclaim into English, then into Hindi, Malayalam and now Tamil.

That’s Ka for you, a remarkable work of scholarship on the stories of the Vedas and the Puranas that’s been on quite a remarkable journey. Naturally, its author Roberto Calasso, who was in Chennai recently for the launch of the Tamil translation of Ka, turns out to be a pretty remarkable man himself.

“It started very early, really,” he says, referring to his love of Indian mythology, adding casually, “Just like one gets interested in Russian literature as an adolescent, I started reading these texts, and it went on from there.”

‘These texts’ include everything from the Rig Veda (“the most difficult and mysterious by far,” he says) to the Brahmanas, which are the focus of his latest book, L’ardore (which refers to the act of tapasya). He began by reading translations but has since learnt Sanskrit, just like he studied ancient Greek in order to be able to read those great old mythologies (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, one of his earliest and most well-known works, is a retelling of Greek mythology).

“Myths are the original form of storytelling and a way of knowledge – certain things you can get only through stories,” he says, his passion evident. “A mythology is like a large tree of stories and it’s essential to get inside its branches. It’s can be very illuminating, a way of giving account of the vast net of elements that make up the world.”

Not surprisingly, he draws parallels between the two mythologies with ease (between the stories of Helen of Troy and of Saranyu, for instance, or Shiva and Dionysus), but cautions against making direct connections. “These stories have specific elements in common, and one can understand one mythology better through another (myth can be a lingua franca), but it’s not helpful or even possible to talk about direct influences,” says the author who is also heads Adelphi, the literary publishing house in Italy.

What is of concern to him is that these great storehouses of cultural knowledge not be lost. “It’s really quite depressing to see how little people take advantage of what is available to them, both here and in Europe,” he says. “It’s not just about knowing something of the past; these are things that can be used even today.”

Which is why the current spate of translations of Ka in India is heartening to him – first by Raj Kamal Prakashan in Hindi in 2005, then in Malayalam by DC Books, and now by Kalachuvadu in Tamil. “I’m particularly happy it’s in India, the most important place for this book to be read,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Tamil culture – about which too little is known, even in India – so being published in this language is significant to me.”

For Anandh K., who did the translation to Tamil (from Tim Parks excellent English translation), it’s been a challenging yet fascinating journey. “It took me nearly seven years – as long as it took him to write the original!” he laughs. “Many of these stories are familiar to us from our childhood, but revisiting them through the eyes of another, who was looking in from the outside… it was a journey into the realm of my own subjectivity. He’s brought to them a whole new perception.”

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