“Banaras Talkies” by Satya Vyas

Banaras Talkies, Satya Vyas, Himadri Agarwal (trans) (Penguin Random House India, July 2022) Banaras Talkies, Satya Vyas, Himadri Agarwal (trans) (Penguin Random House India, July 2022)

Satya Vyas’s 2015 bestselling campus novel Banaras Talkies—telling the stories of three undergraduate friends who have just started law school—has recently been translated into English by Himadri Agarwal and is full of humor, wit, and undergraduate antics.

As these first year law students enter the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), the seniors at the school put them through ragging, or hazing, to initiate them into the Law School. The first years are ordered to infiltrate the women’s dormitory and take something that’s decidedly female. Upon success, one of the seniors speaks about ragad, the Banarasi name for ragging or hazing.


Welcome to BHU. Welcome to Law School. Enjoy the journey—it’s called the golden phase of life. If you have any issues, personal or academic, don’t hesitate to approach us. Every senior will help you as much as they can. No hard feelings. No personal bias. Everything done here was just to break the ice between us. Okay, then, all of you can go now. And remember, you are not to discuss the tasks given here with anyone else, because their ragad is still left. And one more thing, if any faculty member asks about ragging, then you know what you have to say, clear?


Suraj is the narrator and mainly pals around with friends Anurag (nicknamed Dada) and Jaivardhan, skipping class, copying assignments, and chasing female students. Most of the book is structured around dialogue between the friends, but also with others at the university. The friends learn that they need an attendance rate of 75% to graduate, yet they try every excuse they can think of to get out of this requirement. Suraj tells one teacher that he suffers from jaundice, which precludes him from meeting the attendance requirement.


“Suraj. You had got jaundice the last time as well,” he said, looking at his register.
      “Yes, Sir.”
      “And you had made this excuse in your first semester as well. As far as I know, a person can’t have jaundice more than twice,” Abhay Sir said, drawing the number ‘2’ in the air with his pencil.
      “Sir, it was a hepatitis B issue this time. I was admitted as well. You can have a look at the medical certificate if you wish,” I said in one breath.
      “No, no. There’s no need for that. I have full faith in your attempts. Anyway, you are a hepatitis patient, you need prayers as well. I will not let your trust go in vain. Please go and prepare for the exams,” Abhay Sir sneered.


But when it comes to cricket, the students find themselves balancing their enthusiasm all while presenting a studious demeanor so as not to appear as if they don’t care about their classes. A cricket match between the seniors and juniors. Suraj joins the juniors’ team.


I had just reached the crease. I took an off-stump guard and waited for Ranjan Bhaiya’s ball; I thought he would bowl a Yorker. But contrary to my expectations, he bowled a short ball, and contrary to my luck, the ball did not come up to my bat. It trailed the ground and hit my middle stump. I was left staring at the pitch.


Translator Himadri Agarwal includes a note at the end to describe his work with this novel, which helps to understand the different layers in the original.


Vyas does not hold back, whether it is with his characters, with the setting, and most strikingly, with language. This book has no pretensions about itself—it is loud and it is hilarious. Hindi, English and Bhojpuri do not clash; they mix and do not merge. As a translator, this was a bit nerve-wracking. How much Bhojpuri would I keep? How much Hindi? How would I indicate which language it was from? Banaras Talkies is extraordinarily rich in language, so would I be doing it an injustice by bringing it all into English?


Agarwal goes on to explain that he kept some words in the original when he couldn’t find a suitable English equivalent and how this style lent the book “humility”. He goes on to say there’s something unique about reading a book in translation and not understanding every single word. The same could be said for the book as a whole. For people who have not attended university on an Indian campus and aren’t familiar with cricket, for example, the setting may seem unfamiliar. But it’s a testament to the author and translator that the campus life rendered in this book is both vivid and memorable.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.