The first Kannada novel, Indira Bai or The Triumph of Truth and Virtue, has been recently translated into English, for the second time, by Vanamala Viswanatha and Shivarama Padikkal. Originally published by the Basel Mission Press, Mangalore, in 1899, the novel was first translated into English in 1903 by ME Couchman, the Collector of South Canara. The new translation is especially notable for two reasons. First, it succeeds in preventing the English translation from becoming opaque to the multi-lingual social registers embedded in the original Kannada novel. Since the use of five different languages in the Kannada novel marks out the hierarchies of caste and class in the social world from which the novel emerged and indicates the intersections and overlapping of different epistemological worlds, the success of the translators in making this overt in the English translation is laudable. Secondly, through the extensive and appropriate use of footnotes which provide glossary and reference for concepts embedded in the indigenous life world, titles that signify socially specific status positions, terms denoting caste practices which do not have an English equivalent, the translators succeed in the project of translating across languages, a historically specific cross section of a socio-cultural world in all its dense materiality.
The novel is important for its regionally inflected, caste located and historically nuanced articulation of the transformations that were taking place within the Saraswat Brahmin community, to which the author Gulvadi Venkata Rao belonged, in the nineteenth century. The re-formation of Indira, the protagonist of the novel, takes place at the nexus of several social worlds that historically overlapped as well contested with each other. In the nineteenth century, the narrative crafting of these intersections of different epistemological and socio/cultural worlds was being worked through the new genre of the social novel, while the production and dissemination of the novel was enabled through the newly instituted site of modernity—the printing press. The Basel Mission Press in which Gulvadi’s novel was printed, also printed text-books, the first Kannada newspaper and publications of the colonial government. Thus, it was an important site for the dissemination and construction of modernity in the Canarese region. Indira’s own progress towards a reformed femininity is seen as being initiated through her reading of the books published by the padres.