Dreaming in Sanskrit

In September last year, at exactly the right time, an opportunity came my way for part-time freelance work. Since then I have worked as a ‘proof-listener’ on audio book production. It’s a dream job- professional actors reading, skilled sound engineers recording, and me backing up: quality checking for accuracy and meaning, anything the first two miss or which needs clarification. I work at my kitchen table, comfortable and close to the kettle, feeling both surprised and proud that I can actually work the tech (a split screen with pdf of the text and Skype).

It’s a fascinating glimpse into a new world for me and great to be connected again with London, especially since I used to live a few doors down from the recording studio in Queens Park. I’ve learned alot: about the technical and interpretative skillls needed for high-quality audio-recording; about literature; grammar; the construction of worlds and meaning through language. My ‘O’-levels in English, French and Latin are turning out to be of some actual use! Oh yes, and I get paid, and feel useful.

The books have varied widely, Salman Rushdie essays, Shirley Jackson’s scary psychodrama, ‘chick lit’ and Booker Prize nominees. But nothing prepared me for 15 days of the Mahabharata!

Equipped with only a smattering of knowledge of Hindu myths and philosphy, the three of us, Shaheen (the reader), Matt (the engineer) and me, walked into a truly formidable task. Nearly 800 pages of esoteric narrative, including hundreds and hundreds of difficult-to-pronounce names and places in Sanskrit. Although I didn’t actually dream in Sanskrit, in my half-awake early morning thoughts the rhythmic names of the characters (Yudhisthira, Sahudeva, Draupadi, and, our particular favourite, Jamavati)- would float like clouds around my tired brain. This translation took John Smith (former Cambridge Professor of Sanskrit) over a decade, and he helped our work enormously by providing sound recordings of the correct pronunciation of the Sanskrit proper nouns.

It was a HUGE experience, most importantly as an immersion in Indian cultural history, as well as confusing, contradictory, violent, unfamiliar in so many ways, and often really boring! There were dizzying dramatic tricks to contend with, it jumps about in time, there are stories within stories, and changes in narrative voice. Light relief and help for the reader were provided by the inclusion of gong sounds to signify transitions between condensed and narrative text- which made us laugh, exhaustedly!

It says that anyone reading the Mahabharata is blessed. If so we are all grateful for that! The first big surprise for me was that so much of the book concerns an epic power struggle and brutal war, serving (I think!) as a key metaphor for the instructional content. The Bhagavad Gita seems to be reassurance by Krsna of the ‘rightness’ of violence and killing in war! Secondly, the hierarchical and patriarchial structure of the society, including the invisibility and oppression of women, whilst predictable, was more extreme and brutal than I could have imagined. It was more comforting to discern some of the universal stories that have come down to us in folk tales, other religious texts, fairy stories and even Shakespeare. Thankfully there was also some ‘kinder’, more accessible and constructive philosophy, humour even, but it was hard to find in this grand narrative of the Warrior.

The massive compensation for the difficulty of the task was the bonding that developed between the three of us. Under lockdown, it was great to work so closely together. We became a bit of a mutual admiration society and have been congratulated on doing a good job. These simple things- connection, support, having a laugh, sharing our own stories, achieving something difficult through collaboration- are even more precious now during these strange times. Or maybe we are just more aware of what matters and open to appreciating each other these days. That’s what made me want to post these thoughts, never mind Hindu epics!

Here is the team plus John Smith, chatting on Zoom just before we finished the read. We were grateful for his time to chat with us about the work.

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