So, here’s how I am celebrating the diversity of India, and the 70th year of Independence. 

One of the best things about moving back to India is the easy access to English translation of books in regional languages.

So my review of these books is as much about the plots of the story as the depth of the translation.

(1)Pyre & (2) One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

pyre_2807812e Perumal Murugan quite clearly is in love with the couples he sketches. So you have no choice but to follow suit. These are couples that you may walk past in the railway station with barely a sideways glance; but later seek them out in a crowded compartment as in the general chaos they are the only ones in sync. But you know that that may not last. Be it Saroja and Kumaresan (Pyre) or Kali and Ponna (OPW), his couples come and stay together against many odds… Then there is that one seemingly unsurmountable problem, of not their own making, but of what society deems right.
UnknownThe childlessness of Kali and Ponna or the violent reaction of a village that cannot tolerate Saroja’s caste, by the end of Perumal’s storytelling one is left with a gloom that refuses to dissipate even days after the books go back to the shelf. Yet, in neither of these books does he attempt to give a conclusive end.

We could imagine that Kali finds it in himself to forgive a misled Ponna; or that Kumaresan arrives in time to save his beloved. But Murugan’s characters are too real and too raw. His understanding of the environment he writes about too deep. So you know the happily ever after is not what the author intends.

There are so few books that speak of the non-urban milieu. Apart from the occasional holidays in villages around Tamil Nadu, my limited knowledge of life outside of Chennai is thanks to Tamil movies. Except for Karuthamma of Bharathiraja, rest of those films were rural romances that appealed to an urban audience.

Perumal Murugan’s work provides a valuable input to fill those blanks. I don’t want to comment on the controversy surrounding the author. Pyre which shows a far uglier side of our society didn’t bother people. But there was zero tolerance for perceived insult to our religious beliefs. What does that say about us?

Translation: I will at some point read these books in the original, and will be able to give a more educated analysis of the translation. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s writing does not read as a translation. He has taken the story and retold without compromising on language or context. You never for a moment forget it’s a book set in rural Tamil Nadu, the nuances are so on point. And you never for a moment are reminded that this is just a translation.

Chemmeen by T.S.Pillai; translated by Anita Nair

Unknown-2I’ve seen bits and pieces of the much acclaimed Malayalam film (1965), but couldn’t for the life of me sit through 3 hours of Madhu’s face. What a horrible casting judgement. Because T. S. Pillai’s Pareekutty is more than Madhu’s constipated attempt at being in love.

The book was published in 1956, and speaks of the love between a young and poor Hindu girl from the fishing community and the son of a rich Muslim trader. Revolutionary no doubt. More so when you consider that the relationship doesn’t end with Karuthamma’s marriage to a man from the community, with whom she bears a child.

So with that in mind I went back and watched the film after reading the translation. That the movie was a hit and so well received is a reflection of the mindset of the audience then. I wonder if a story this ahead of its time would have been a success anywhere but in Kerala.

It’s more than just a doomed love story though. Pillai’s rendering of the fishing community is exceptional, that the translator has managed to bring forth in English. You are transported to the west coast of India, taking in every little detail, the rough seas and salty breeze; the smell of dried fish and the air of despair of a people stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Translation: Anita Nair mentions that she had the book read to her (probably several dozen times) to translate it. This is quite evident, because she is not translating Pillai’s work, but telling Pillai’s story, quite faithfully. She has kept the translation contemporary enough to attract young readers.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh; translated by Srinath Perur

Unknown-1This is going to be a quick one. A family’s rise from want to riches, and greed. Money does taint relationships. It gives it hues that poverty can’t afford. Shanbagh tells the story from the point of view of the son caught between his conscience and his inability to break free. A quick read, each of the characters are etched quite definitively, until you reach the end and you wonder if you read the book right. Maybe once I am done with the stacks of unread books I will re-read this.

Translation: I have a fair grasp of how stories are told in Tamil and Malayalam. The original is Kannada, and I’ve neither seen films nor read other translations. As a first, it does a fairly good job. However, I didn’t quite feel the cultural nuances that I did with the other books reviewed in this lot. Not sure if that’s the author’s or the translator’s shortcoming (or intention).

Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar; translated by Jerry Pinto

UnknownFirst the disclaimer. I have a huge literary crush on Jerry Pinto.

Now to gush about the book. What the, what the, what the… We are introduced to the protagonist by two people who fall in love with him. Tanay and his sister Anuja. And in their describing of this man who consumes them, they reveal themselves. That they are both left heartbroken is just an aside.

Aai and Baba (Mrs and Mr Joshi), the boring Aseem, Tanay and Anuja form the family that are affected in many different ways by the paying guest who in his most intimate interactions is still consumed only by the himself.

The protagonist is never named. ‘He’ could only mean him. As Tanay says, He and Tanay had one thing in common, they were both in love with ‘him’ (paraphrased), and the same is true of the relationship between Anuja and Him.

If Ghachar Ghochar missed the cultural nuances, Cobalt Blue has it in spades. How delightfully identifiable are the Joshis. For me personally, Tanay’s story was far more intimate. Anuja’s not so. The author quite clearly has a better knack of sketching male characters than female ones. I would like to believe that this is not a lack in translation as Pinto’s Em was so beautifully sketched, she still sits firm in my heart.

Cobalt Blue also manages to touch upon the politics of LGBT movement, even if sparingly. When Tanay seeks to find acceptance in our religion for a campaign against the more popular West-centric campaigns. It’s to the author’s credit that he opens windows of discussions just enough to get people thinking, and not too much that it might scare readers away.

Translation: What do I say? Spectacular. Pinto can take melancholy and humour and package it with romance, and dare you to find a genre for his writing. I haven’t read anything else by the author or seen his films (which I sure will now), but Pinto’s work I am familiar with. This is unlike his original work, which shows great discipline. He so easily could have made it his story (which to a degree Nair does). Like Vasudevan’s translation, this too respects the culture and context, and doesn’t force a linguistic translation at the cost of narrative.