Translations deserve our attention because we, as English book readers, miss out on many a treasure written in our country and beyond.

Reading Perumal Murugan Volga and other regional writers Why translations are precious
Features Translations Tuesday, June 26, 2018 - 14:12

Indian language literature is woefully under read in India. The excuse most of us, as book lovers, have is that we cannot read the language, although it might be our mother tongue. Even the most ardent bibliophiles, including me, usually don’t have Indian language books in their list of required reading.

A few years ago I decided to make a conscious effort to start reading more regional (specifically south Indian) literature and I was not disappointed. I can proudly say that it has expanded my horizons and helped me develop a more rounded and balanced world view.

I started with Malayalam, my mother tongue. The book that I absolutely loved reading was KR Meera’s Hangwoman (Aarachaar in Malayalam). Set in Kolkata, it tells the story of the Mullick family which boasts a lineage of hangmen with illustrious pasts. The tale revolves around 22-year-old Chetna who is appointed India’s first hangwoman as a successor to her old and ailing father.

The novel seamlessly weaves complex themes of death, love and politics to create a canvas of epic proportions. Filled with historical tales of deaths and hangings, and questioning the inherent barbarism of the death penalty, it is a glimpse into the minds and workings of the people who have been deputed to carry out these executions throughout the course of history.

J Devika’s translation is marvellous as she captures the little nuances and the rich details of KR Meera’s Malayalam. The theme of feminism, which is very central to the plot, is not forceful or in your face but the sheer power of Chetna in this male-dominated world shines through.

Another remarkable woman writer is Volga aka Popuri Lalitha Kumari, who has written the fascinating The Liberation of Sita. It is a collection of stories about Sita’s encounters with the Ramayana’s ‘minor’ women characters such as Surpanakha, Urmila, Ahalya and Renuka. The story occurs after Sita has been abandoned by Rama.

The powerful translation, by T Vijay Kumar and C Vijayshree, manages to capture the essence of the story beautifully. It essentially recreates the Ramayana through the eyes of Sita and from a feminist point of view. In the process, it explores Sita’s taxing journey to self-realisation. Each story in the collection throws up some interesting ideas as the women of Ramayana discuss their fates and stories with Sita. Volga has portrayed Sita with great sensitivity, like a friend and a fellow sufferer of the injustices and discriminations meted out to them for being women.

Talking about injustices and discrimination, there is probably no other community in the world that has been more discriminated against than the LGBTQ community, and in India where Section 377 criminalises homosexuality the struggle is very real. And an Indian language book about this topic is a rarity. Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra, originally written in Kannada and translated by Rashmi Terdal, is an exceptional book filled with stories of homosexual love and lives.

The book is a series of stories with the common theme being the protagonist Mohanaswamy, who is dealing with his homosexual longings, his denial of his own sexuality, his attempts at reforming himself and his struggles with his sexuality. Some of the stories are set in a village in Karnataka and some in Bengaluru. Vasudhendra paints a very realistic and sensitive picture of Mohanaswamy and takes the reader on a journey which is not often discussed or spoken about.

The stories, heartfelt, tender and filled with pain, exposed me as a reader to a world I didn’t know existed. It opened my eyes to gay culture in smaller towns and parts of India where people don’t speak English. For Vasudhendra, Mohanaswamy is an important book as it served as a way of coming out for himself. This is a brave and important book which should be required reading for all.

Perumal Murugan became a household name when his novel One Part Woman ran into some controversy in Tamil Nadu with some Hindutva outfits demanding an apology from him as they were offended by his fictional portrayal of traditions at the Ardhanareeswarar Temple in Tiruchengode, where the eponymous presiding deity is part-Shiva and part-Parvathi in one idol. After much struggle and many court hearings, he was vindicated but not before he had to issue an unconditional apology, at one point even deciding to give up writing. Poonachi is his return to writing.

“I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods,” Murugan writes in his preface to the novel. “Animals, at least outside of cows or pigs, will do less damage. Goats are problem-free, harmless and above all, energetic.” Translated by N Kalyan Raman, Poonachi reads like a fable but at the heart of it, it is a political novel. It talks about freedom or the illusion of it and how even the most free-spirited souls can be tamed. Murugan’s writing is sparse but meaningful and holds a mirror to the times we live in. A social commentary veiled as a story about a goat, this is a powerful book.

Some other notable translations which I absolutely loved are Vivek Shanbhag’s phenomenal family saga Ghachar Ghochar, originally written in Kannada. Sachin Kundalkar’s brilliant Cobalt Blue, originally published in Marathi and translated by Jerry Pinto, which is about love and heartbreak. Goat Days by Benyamin, that was first published in Malayalam as Aadujeevitham, is another notable work which is soon being made into a Malayalam feature film.

Translations deserve our attention and regional voices need to be heard because we, as English book reading bibliophiles, miss out on many a treasure written in our country and beyond. Like Italo Calvino famously said: “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

Also read: How language was king during IPL 2018: Viewership from regional markets shoots up

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