Pavithra has translated several books from English into Tamil and vice versa, including Kalki's 'Ponniyin Selvan', apart from writing, illustrating and now, farming in Thiruvannamalai.

From translating Ponniyin Selvan to being a farmer Meet author Pavithra Srinivasan
Features Interview Wednesday, August 01, 2018 - 13:56

Writer Pavithra Srinivasan is someone with an undying love for history. “How I started writing happened by chance. It was exactly like in the movies. You won’t believe me if I were to tell you,” she laughs.

The author of books like Little Known Tales from Well-Known Times: Back to the BCs and Yester Tales (a collection of her short stories initially published in The Hindu’s Young World and later as a book in 2017), Pavithra narrates her story that might as well feature in one of her books.

As someone who didn’t fall under the college - employment norm, Pavithra shares that a fateful discussion among her friends turned out to be her unexpected launchpad, much like her twist-in-the-tale endings.

“I was telling them that I wanted to write (to raised eyebrows) when a friend of mine who was good at poetry wagered a bet. ‘Let’s both write and send our work to magazines/news papers and whoever gets published by March 15, 2002 will have to treat the other to lunch’. The condescension in her tone was obvious. We both knew I didn’t stand a chance because unlike her, I had not sent my writings anywhere. Yet, I had to try,” she begins. 

As fate would have it, Pavithra got a call from a writer who wrote for the New Indian Express. “She was working on a piece on Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan and wanted to talk to someone who knew the series well. Little did she know that she had stumbled upon a Ponniyin Selvan nutter,” she laughs. Pavithra had her first article published, just a day before the bet ended, when she was 23 in The New Indian Express.

Having been introduced to the cult series at 12 by her mother, Pavithra devoured the books the minute she set her eyes upon them. “I had a little difficulty with the first book, especially with the names - Chinna Pazhuvettarayar, Irattaikkudai Raajaaliyaar,” she says laughing, “but I was hooked. I raced through the series and I’ve been a history buff since.”

An artist first

For someone with a keen interest in history and writing, Pavithra confides that she indeed began as an artist first. “My style was the female figure and I did a lot of freehand sketches as a kid. I drew on any and every paper I found,” she says.

Pavithra also shares that it was her mother who nudged her every time to pick up varied interests. “During exams, when we did not have cable connection, my mother took me to the terrace and taught me astronomy,” she recalls.

Pavithra, who took a brief hiatus from drawing, shares that a suggestion made by artist Dhanapal, retired Arts College principal, to her mother stuck with them for long. “When my mother wanted to enroll me in an arts class, he said I’d do much better without one. He said, ‘She has a style. If you put her in classes, they’ll tell her that she’s got it all wrong. You should just let her do it her way.’ Somehow that stuck and I never took up classes,” she shares.

As a self-taught artist, Pavithra developed her own style when she picked up drawing again just a few years ago. “I used to keep scribbling on the back covers, scraps of papers as a kid and I don’t remember using very costly stationery, I used Natraj pencils and black pens only. Then I stopped drawing completely at one point,” she says.

Pavithra, however, picked up the pen from where she stopped in 2015. And this time, with renewed vigour, she brought alive the city’s different faces on paper and pen. Her miniature series, 61 in total, were recently exhibited at the Madras Literary Society, a feat she took two years to complete. “I visit as many places as I can and click pictures from as many angles as possible. In Chennai, it might be difficult to sit in one place and sketch for long. Hence I go back home and work with the pictures I’ve clicked.”

Connemara Library interior

Pavithra’s miniatures are exceptional for one reason. Looking at the sketches, you’ll know you’ve probably seen the place somewhere but the perspective will be one that you haven’t noticed before. There are sketches of the Senate House, a lone chariot, an old pen company, a particular balcony from inside the Connemara library… And these are all crucial pieces in a book she’s currently authoring, Pavithra shares.

“I can’t tell you more but I’m writing a historical adventure fiction series for young adults and these places feature in my book,” she adds, with a giggle.

Love for translations 

When Pavithra turned her attention away from art, she went back to paper and pen with writing and translating books. “I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew books. I’ve always wanted to be a children’s writer,” she says.

As someone who loves writing historical fiction for children and Young Adults, Pavithra's stories have been published in several magazines. "I began writing historical fiction for Chandamama. The first book, in fact, was Back to the BCs, which was a collection of six historical short stories with an O'Henry-esque twist in the end," she says. Later her serialised collection of historical fiction in The Hindu's Young World was published as Yester Tales by Vishwakarma Publications in 2017.

In early 2000s, Pavithra began translating Kalki’s other masterpiece, Sivakamiyin Sabadham, a challenge she took upon herself. “There was a webzine that I got introduced to and I suggested that they translate Sivakamiyin Sabadham. That’s when I got a proper taste for translations,” she says. Pavithra also worked in Katha, a publishing house, for a few years as editor, an experience that enriched her knowledge as a translator.

The first volume of her translation was launched on September 9, 2012, almost after 12 years of her involvement with the series, by Helios Books. The book was launched to coincide with Kalki’s birthday by doyens like writer Ashokamitran and Bharatanatyam dancer Srikala Bharath. Three years after its print edition, the book made it to e-format in 2015.

Talking about translations, Pavithra shares that although Tamil language has rich literature, our translations are yet to be perfected. She goes on to add, “Translation as an art form is only now getting recognised. It is not considered one’s own work, which is a completely wrong approach. A translator is giving a part of themselves to it. Only the translator knows what the original source is. Therefore, the readers trust the translator to give them the most accurate, rich experience.”

She also believes that the true success of a translator is in hearing a reader say, "I am so happy with this translation, I don’t feel like reading the original."

National Art Gallery Front

Wall art outside Stella Maris College

Pavithra began translating Ponniyin Selvan in 2011. “It so happened that I published the first chapter on Sadhaya Thirunal - Raja Raja’s birthday. It was completely by coincidence,” she laughs. Book 1 and 2 are out in e-version, Book 3 is being edited and Pavithra is currently working on Book 4. She has also translated journalist/cartoonist Madhan’s popular Tamil series from the '90s - Vandhargal Vendrargal as They Came; They Conquered, published by Zero Degree Publications this year.

Pavithra has translated Jeffery Archer’s collection of short stories A Twist in the Tale as Mudivil Oru Thiruppam, the first ever Tamil translation of Archer’s work. This book was released by the author himself in May 2009.

In addition to these, Pavithra has also translated the popular fiction series by Amish - The Immortals of Meluha as Meluhavin Amarargal commissioned by Westland Books, and launched in January 2014. After completing the Meluha series, she is soon set to launch Sita - the second book in Amish’s Ram series.

From journalist to farmer?

Just like her stories, Pavithra’s journey too has had twists in the tale. From writing for the four main English dailies in the city - The Hindu, The New Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle and Times of India in 2008, and for several popular magazines like Southscope, Ritz, Inbox1305 etc, she decided to move to a village near Thiruvannamalai in December 2013 to become a…farmer!

“My mother was the brains behind this idea. We moved to a delta-like area in the middle of nowhere, a land to which we share no ancestral ties. Imagine the shock the locals must’ve had,” she laughs.

Harbour view from atop Royapuram Bridge

Pavithra animatedly talks about her family’s experiences, of mistakes and their learning from them. “Our journey is almost similar to the incidents narrated in Gerald Durrel’s My Family and Other Animals. I published a series in the Express about all the incredibly funny characters we've met and the conversations we’ve had,” she says.

“The most amusing part for the villagers was that we wanted to farm organically - using cowdung manure. They guffawed when they heard what we were planning to do,” she says. From being dejected farmers who were a joke in the village in 2014, Pavithra and her family learnt agriculture the hard way and are now harvesting as much as the rest of the village does - a feat that's not as easy as it sounds, she says.

"Life in a village, more specifically, the life of a farmer, is different. The cycle there is completely different,” she shares. 

This life, however, has given her ample time to delve deeper in what she loves - history. Pavithra also makes frequent trips to visit historical places in Tamil Nadu. “I’ve been on this journey for a few years now. I found many such treasure troves in and around Thiruvannamalai itself.” These places will feature in her books, she confides. “It is a series of books. The first one begins in Chennai. It’s a kind of a historical treasure hunt,” she smiles.

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