Lakshmi Holmström, who died of cancer aged 80, was, according to the author Amit Chaudhuri, “the best contemporary anglophone translator India has”. Yet Holmström was in her 50s before Indian, and specifically Tamil, literature became her focus. Her first anthology, for Virago, The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women (1990), exhibited what would become the hallmarks of her translations and critiques of both classical and contemporary female writers. She was determined to produce an anthology based on a common identity and experience, linking politics to literature, and avoiding “foreignisation” or “exoticism”.
Further anthologies followed at intervals, including Writing from India (Figures in a Landscape) (1994); Waves: An Anthology of Fiction and Poetry (2001) and The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry (2009).
The most recent, Lost Evenings, Lost Lives (2016, with Sascha Ebeling), makes a fitting swansong: it is an impassioned account of the suffering of Tamil women in the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka, and a vindication of poetry as truth-telling, throughout a period of news blackouts.
Holmström fought hard to convey the right voice when rendering Tamil into English, such a different language: “Readers can’t quite grasp the notion that languages differ hugely in lexis as well as syntax; that one language doesn’t move into another automatically … Words and sentences may be the bricks and mortar, but it has a structure as a whole that you are continually aspiring towards.”