[Book Reviews] Translated works: Doubly delightful

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.







Me, me, me

This is a long overdue post. Doaa Jabir A.K.A Hungrybirdsdoha tagged me a while ago, and I finally got down to it.

What is your blog about?

I don’t know. It’s just my verbal incontinence finding another  platform.

How important is it to be blogging in today’s world?

Any form of expression is welcome. So blogging at any level is good.

How do you inspire yourself on a boring routine?

Honestly, I don’t feel or get bored. In fact, my problem is the opposite. There’s way to much to be done, that’s interesting, than time could permit. I blog when I really feel a need to say something, that I can’t do on the work platforms.

What motivates you to keep up with your blog on a writer’s block phase?

My earlier answer applies here?

What would you change in your early 20s if given a chance?

The correct answer is ‘nothing’. Right?

I wish I hadn’t been so careful and had taken some reckless decisions. Owned my sexuality, indulged in my health and tripped a bit more… More of that here.

What is your favourite post?

This is a tough one. There are a few.

One that made me question my role in everything I criticise.

The one on how I fell in love.

The one on making big changes.

A short story.

Favourite form of social media?


Favourite travel destination?

There are so many. But one that is very personal, and was about me alone. Bhutan.

Suggest a new book to read?

There are plenty. And the book reviews should offer suggestions.

One that I am completely hooked to now is The Monk and The Philosopher.

What is your favourite quote?

Look top right. That was the first thing I added when I started blogging.


So now I am supposed to:


  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to their site (Check!)
  • Write a post answering the questions you were given (Check!)
  • Nominate 5 – 11 other bloggers for the award (let them know you have done so!) and come up with a set of 10 – 11 questions for them to answer (All of you reading this, pretty please answer the questions below? And tag me if on your site, or leave it in comments.)
  1. If tomorrow you could wake up in a different place and situation, what would it be?
  2. If you were to woo yourself, what would you tell yourself?
  3. Your favourite song at the moment?
  4. How are you feeling today? Describe it in the minutest details… It’s therapy.
  5. Where in your body do you physically feel love?
  6. And pain?
  7. What would you want to be doing at 80?

Making love to myself

Everyday and at my will. Slowly and gently… but not always. Some days I pump it up.

No one told me how powerful making love to yourself could be. No one told me that it would awaken nerve endings I never knew existed.

Why wasn’t I taught to do so when I was in school? When I hit puberty and saw only a struggle in the mirror? Why didn’t I realise it when I was old enough to let someone else make love to me? Why didn’t I realise that that’s what one of my favourite writers was talking about…

To treat every morsel I place on my tongue as a caress and not a curse.

To throw my shoulders back and own what I hid behind clutched books and bags, or an ugly stoop.

To make my overbite part of my laugh.

That’s just the beginning… you truly start making love to yourself when every action of yours checks back with what you truly want.

As I look deeper into the mirror, taking in the shape of my lips and eyes; the way my skin changes in colour and texture depending on exposure; how my hair curls and greys; how my jaw goes awry as I smile. I spend time seeing myself. I feel my skin. I touch myself. The smoothness and the bumps. Some days I start making love to myself by feeling who I am on the surface.

Somedays it is by immersing myself in a job well done. I let my brain feel passionately loved. And when it is not a job well done – because that happens too – I don’t lick my wound, but kiss it better. I love it back to well-being.

I make love to myself in a myriad different ways, every single day…

As I pump weights or do a cardio routine, sweat dripping and pulse raising.

As I buy the largest waffle cone at Cold Stone and sit in the middle of a mall slowly savouring every lick, even as my embarrassed daughter looks on.

As I stand at the sink chopping a stack of vegetables, feeling the juices stain my fingers, smelling the chicken on roast.

As I politely turn down jobs because it doesn’t woo my soul.

As I kick my longterm tenant Mr Guilt out.

As I make time for my tears and fears and listen to it without judgement.

Just as importantly, as I make time for all that makes me laugh and gives me joy.

As I binge-watch Scott and Bailey.

As I stand under the shower, with no thought of what next.

As I lie in bed, woolgathering.

As I make fearless plans, without hedging my happiness on its realisation.

As I walk into a crowded cinema alone, because I don’t need company to enjoy myself.

As I look people in the eye, ready to embrace their criticism or praise, making neither about me.

Thing is, I was making love to myself for months before I knew what I was doing. Realisation crept in when I stood in front of the mirror, and saw myself as ‘beautiful’. And finally saw that the best day of my life could only be TODAY.

Bad hair day? So what!

A sudden panic attack? I will do what good friends do . Listen and be kinder to myself.

Skin breaking out? Will just smile wider.

Big breasts? Yes, thank you.

A roll of fat for paunch? Nothing a good jeans won’t forgive.

Too broke for a massage? Well, that’s a little hard to fix…

A bit of heartbreak? I will just love myself more intensely.

This making love to yourself business is not a one-off investment. It’s not easy either. It’s undoing years of doing the opposite. It’s a daily practice of falling in love again and again. One that I am learning from celibate monks.

How do you make love?

Dear Sir/Madam, May I trade my dignity for some food?

A split second’s flash of anger, followed by breaking of eye contact, a visible swallow – of pride – and a hesitant nod.

There’s a pattern to how able-bodied, hard-working adults accept help.

And in that moment when he or she says ‘yes’ to food handout, there’s a shared self-loathing. You, the voyeur, for being privy to what they see as humiliation. They, for finding themselves in this situation.

3613704216_72e268eff1_o It wasn’t for mere livelihood that these men and women travelled thousands of miles. It was for prosperity… a desire to provide their children with a life dramatically different from their own. Just like me. Just like you.

The bunch of straws they are clutching at get pulled one by one, leaving them with useless shreds in their clenched fists. You watch them struggle. Do we pack up and leave? Do we stay on and fight?

In the seconds before they renew eye contact with you they tell themselves this is temporary. This once, and never again. A bag of rice, a few vegetables, a couple of eggs. This once. Never again.

On a wing and a prayer they continue to struggle out of the the gridlock of failed promises, discriminatory laws, and above all, their invisibility.

Forced celibacy (or something like that), leaving loved ones behind, mounting debts… all of that has to count for something, it’s not easy to give up.

Then, the rice runs out, the last of the riyals go into telephone cards, promises are broken, they are lost in a system they don’t comprehend. This time around the eye contact is not broken. Yes, please, a little more food stuff.

It’s then that you go from being voyeur to deceiver. The sympathy (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not empathy), providing bandaids for a festering wound, and moving on having spent three lattes worth of money on their worries.

You see, when the media (we) writes about exploitation and abuse, about the dead and dying, about the laws or lack of, it swathes it in a blanket of statistics. We forget about their dignity. Their desperate desire to be productive. We forget that accepting charity is emasculating (I use that word for want of a gender-neutral equivalent).

And that’s the last thing that these men and women signed up for. Charity is aplenty in the countries they come from, be it due to the guilt of feudal societies or that of Western powers (aka developmental aid).

Charity shouldn’t be what their lives depend on here. Definitely not while building the capital of the richest country in the world.

Photo courtesy: Flickr

16 thoughts on life in Qatar (or beating the 15 year milestone to death)

Hitting the dunes, and falling in love with it... a snapshot from 1999, with friends who soon after moved to boring Dubai.

Hitting the dunes, and falling in love with it… a snapshot from 1999, with friends who soon after moved to boring Dubai.

“Where are you from” and “How long have you been here” are probably the two most asked questions in Qatar.

I am from India, and this October marks the beginning of 16 years. This is when, depending on whether you are a lover or hater, you exclaim:

“16 years! You are half a Qatari.” Or, “16 years! How did you survive this long?”

No I am not, and I survived really well, thank you for asking.

Here are my 16 thoughts and memories on life in Qatar.

1. A lot has changed in 15 years, a lot hasn’t. When I landed here for the first time, the bleak beige I could see from the plane made me tear up. That beige is now decked out in bling. No tears either.

2. There was never a ‘culture shock’ for me. I come from a country with similar values and mores. Be it intrusive dress codes, or that social don’ts outnumbered the dos. What I had to get used to was calling this the Middle East. This is West Asia, folks. Get over the colonial hangover.

3. And isn’t it time we stopped calling stationery shops libraries. I can still taste the disappointment from all those years ago, running from one ‘library’ to another, only to stare at racks of notebooks, pens and charts. While at it, can we have some real public libraries.

4. Fifteen years ago, you didn’t need to learn Arabic to live and work here. You still don’t. A big part of me wishes this would change. A small part of me that failed to learn conversational Arabic after several attempts, is glad. Qatar desperately needs a good conversational Arabic programme.

5. Where is home? Long ago, I thought Chennai was. It isn’t quite now. Neither is Qatar. And this has nothing to do with the place, but everything to do with what I think of as home. It’s a place that’s populated by people I love and care for. So, I am tempted to say What’s App or Facebook.

6. But for my children, this is home. These are two fairly well-travelled children, and to hear them speak of Qatar is funny, and sometimes a little embarrassing. They compete with narrations from cousins and friends from Dubai, Toronto, Singapore, Bangalore, Colombo… Their fabulous Qatar is a match to all those places. The dunes, beaches, MIA park, Katara, Karak & Chapathi, Mathaf workshops, Mangroves, camping and Inland Sea.

7. Which is why I challenge anyone who tells me there’s not much to do in Qatar. My children have taught me well. There’s plenty to do, and our guests who visit us go back pleasantly surprised. Just put a lid on the comparisons, and move your derriere off the bar stool or your snout off the shisha pipe.

8. However, a pet peeve is that not everyone we love can visit us, even if my husband and I have 32 residency stamps between us, our parents are too Asian and too old to be allowed easy entry. 

9. That probably is the only personal ‘bad’ that I attribute to the country. There’s not anything else I perceive as a Qatar-specific problem. Most are problems that many other countries suffer from too.

10. Still, because it’s not Qatar-specific doesn’t mean it deserves any less censure. Bad things happen in Qatar, just as it happens elsewhere. What we need is more people taking a stand. To quote Rev Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And we are not talking about the oppressed outside of Qatar.

11. Which brings me to stereotypes. A popular blogger recently wrote this: “After a belief passes the front door, it usually doesn’t get much scrutiny. It becomes part of your “body of knowledge,” which is just another name for your impression of the way the world is…”

So no, not all Qataris are lazy and stupid. Some are. Some Indians, Brits, Egyptians, *insert the nationality of your choice* are lazy and stupid too. It’s a human trait, not a nationality-specific one.

12. And no, not all expatriates are here only for the tax-free salaries, though for many of us, including yours truly, it’s an attraction. Then over a period of time, one starts investing in the country and community, and it becomes more than just about the tax-free moolah. You find a job you enjoy, a person you fall in love with, or a karak addiction you can’t shake off.

13. Qatar at its best? The 2006 Asian Games when residents regardless of nationality volunteered in the thousands to make it a success.

14. Qatar at its worst? Child jockeys. Brutalised, scarred… the stuff nightmares are made of.

15. By the way, when I complain about Qatar, you have no business asking me to leave if I don’t like it. It’s not your call to make (unless you have wasta at the MoI). After 15 years, my complaints are not about ‘you people’, but about ‘we people’.

16. How much longer do I plan on staying? We came here just for a year, and refused to invest in proper furniture (heil Souq Haraj!) the first 18 months, and didn’t buy a car till 2004; because you know, we didn’t plan on staying long. Now our furniture is of better pedigree, and there are two cars in the garage. But the plan stays the same.

PS: I was asked to do a retrospective by an online news site on the ’15 going on 16 years’ in Qatar. But the too-bloggy post was not quite a fit. So Ummon hosts it instead.