Book review
The book by Malayalam’s favourite travel writer V Muzafer Ahamed marks out the life and legends of the Arabian deserts in intimate detail, says author Benyamin.

There was a time when English translations of books in regional languages had to go begging for publishers. Mini Krishnan, Editor – Translations of Oxford University Press, stated in an interview that the translation of Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s celebrated novel Verukal (Roots) had taken seven years to find a publisher. It reflected the contempt English language publishers in India harboured for creative writing in the regional languages. It was a prejudice shared by the readers of English literature in general. ‘What have you other than sob stories riding away on bullock carts, stories of rivers and caste discrimination?’ regional language writers were asked scornfully. But, 20 years down the road, the situation has changed drastically. We now witness publishers scouting frantically for quality works in regional languages.

It is a sign of the paradigm shift in the attitude towards translations and vernacular literature in general. If vernacular writers now occupy front row seats on the Indian literary stage, it is not at anyone’s charity. It is because of the excellence of their works and the hard work put in by the translators and editors. “We should welcome this big advance also for the role translations play in protecting words in the regional languages that die slowly in a country that is steeped in illiteracy,” said Mini Krishnan in the same interview. “Indeed, the history, identity and mind of the Indian people reside in the regional languages,” she stressed.

The period also significantly coincided with the rise of a host of Malayalees writing in English, such as Arundhati Roy, Shashi Tharoor, Abraham Verghese, Jeet Thayil, Deepak Unnikrishnan, Anees Salim, Manu S Pillai, Manu Joseph, Kanishk Tharoor and others. The quality of their works should have encouraged publishers to look at Malayalam literature and find suitable works in translation. A spring tide of translations that ensued has enabled the world to read quality works from Marathi, Tamil and Bengali. Malayalam was the language that gained the most from this. Within a few years, a host of works by writers like M Mukundan, Sethu, Sarah Joseph, NS Madhavan, Subhash Chandran, KR Meera, E Santhoshkumar, TP Rajeevan, TD Ramakrishnan and Sangeetha Srinivasan have been translated and published. Several of them have attracted international attention, which goes to prove the high quality of Malayalam literature. And the fact that a work translated from Malayalam won the award that carries the highest prize amount in India and that no less than five Malayalam writers were shortlisted in the 2018 Crossword Award is sure to add impetus to translations from Malayalam in coming years.

Amid this advance, what disheartened one, however, was the fact that these translations were all works of fiction. No publisher ever cared even to take a peep at the rich store of poetry, essays, dissertations, autobiographies and travelogues that Malayalam offers. It is against this background that the English translation of Malayalam’s favourite travel writer V Muzafer Ahamed’s travelogue titled Camels in the Sky gains great literary relevance. And the fact that the work has been brought out by Oxford University Press (OUP), which enjoys primacy as the most valuable academic publisher, merits emphasis.

Muzafer Ahamed is a writer who has familiarised us with the wilderness and beauty of deserts and the lifestyle and culture of the Bedouin, about whom we knew very little. This cultural mapping was the outcome of his many travels in the Arabian deserts over the years he lived in Saudi Arabia. The articles translated and included in Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia published by OUP India, have been culled from the author’s award-winning tomes Marubhumiyude Atmakatha (Autobiography of the Desert) and Marumarangal (Desert Trees), which packed indelible impressions of the desert distilled over 13 years.

“Scorched desolation” was what Muzafer Ahamed expected to encounter in the desert when he boarded the aircraft bound for Saudi Arabia. But a chance encounter with a Bedouin in a restaurant impelled him to explore the desert for its hidden delights. Muzafer Ahamed then literally scoured the deserts of Arabia for 13 years. His wanderings could easily have been mistaken as a mad pursuit by people accustomed to touring the world on television screens. But, for someone stung by the travel bug, his encounters with the dangers lurking behind and the uncertainties of travel were all part of the experience. They gave him a host of great new discoveries and experiences. Such journeys enable us to cast off our yesterdays like the slough of a snake and move into new experiences. And each of the articles in this volume has been written with a meditative and lyrical mind.

The book begins with the experience of the writer getting thrashed for taking photographs of a well in a village, an experience that tells us how water wars turn into autobiographies of the desert. We who live amid surplus water may find it difficult to grasp how water could turn out to be a cause of war. Muzafer Ahamed’s next narration is about the rains in the desert that man cannot perceive and the elements that drive life in the desolation, and the magical tree that marks out the life in the desert by withstanding decade-long aridity reviving with just a single shower. The desert is the store-house of infinite such mysteries. Witness the mind-numbing extrication of a Nepali labourer’s body from a python’s guts. It lends to the authenticity of the narrative of the desert as the store-house of biodiversity. It is not a space devoid of life. It is rich in life with hares, lizards, snakes, scorpions, porcupines, jackals and infinite varieties of insects, just as it has infinite varieties of sands and pebbles.

The chapters that ensue describe the intoxicating brilliance of the desert moon, rivers that once washed the sands now turned into virtual fossils, oases that appear in the middle of nowhere like a miracle, the deadly lure of mirages and the quicksand traps that humble cocky drivers, birds’ nests on stilts driven into sand, lonesome overseas labourers fated to guard isolated farms in the middle of nowhere, village trade fairs, poetry festivals, folk life, Bedouin heroines in remote hamlets, archaeology, legends, myths, buried histories, forgotten graves abutting oil wells… In fact, the 23 articles in the book mark out the nature, culture, life and legends of the Arabian deserts in intimate detail. The narrative is a wholesome experience, like camels grazing in the clouds.

One point about the book that merits particular emphasis is the translation. Rendering Muzafer Ahamed’s extremely lyrical prose in all its beauty and verve into equally evocative English is no mean task. Word for word rendering into another language has been given up for good. Instead, it has become a “co-creative venture” as Shahnaz Habib, translator of Jasmine Days, put it and “my words and their rhythm” as Jessica Moore, translator shortlisted for the International Booker Prize said. It is not bare proficiency in English that is now demanded from a good translator, but a sensibility matching the quality of the original text. And with this book, PJ Mathew has unmistakably proved that he is a translator with that kind of mind. The editor’s job, similarly, is to act as a link between the author and the translator. That role has been played with utmost finesse by Mini Krishnan, who has edited over 90 translations for OUP India. Readers can palpably feel it in this volume.

Malayalam readers might have read this travelogue in the original when it appeared serially in the Mathrubhumi weekly or later in the two award-winning tomes published, respectively, by Current Books Thrissur and DC Books. But acquiring Camels in the Sky would be worthwhile to experience the beauty of the English translation. Or for presenting to friends who cannot read Malayalam, to demonstrate the beauty and quality of Malayalam travel writing as much as for experiencing the strange sights and sounds of the desert this book describes so compellingly.

Published by Oxford University Press India, Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia is priced at Rs 595.

About the reviewer: Benyamin is the author of acclaimed novels such as Goat Days and Jasmine Days. The latter won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature.