By Anita Nair
In Peggy Mohan's novel, Jahajin, I stumble upon a phrase: Un coup de foudre. An attack of madness. She describes it as "a swarming melee of manic energy seeking a focus". Chemmeen -- the translation -- was born of one such coup de foudre.
I was between novels. The writing of Mistress had filled my life so absolutely that suddenly I had a huge empty space when the novel was written. What was I going to do with myself? And then came a thought: Unnayi Warrier's Nalacharitham. I had fallen in love with Kathakali all over again on reading Nalacharitham. Surely, the rest of the world ought to be able to draw pleasure from it as I had. Find the solace it offered in moments of abject darkness. It became a dream project that grew in my mind until one day I mentioned this grand obsession to Karthika at HarperCollins.
As all good editors and as all good friends, she counselled that I cut my translation teeth on something not as ambitious but just as magnificent. Like what? I asked.
Chemmeen? she suggested.
From somewhere the strains of a song wafted in my head. The desolate Pareekutty singing his heart out on a moon-drenched seashore. The restless Karuthamma standing with her bosom heaving, wanting to escape everything and run to Pareekutty's side. The gleam in Chemankunju's eye when he spots Palani for the first time. Scenes from the film Chemmeen played out in my head. Was chitchat turning into something of consequence? Was that how it happened? Was that how I took on Chemmeen? Un coup de foudre.
What else? I had no formal education in Malayalam. What I did have was an ability to understand and comprehend the nuances of the language. I was already enchanted by its wondrous innate lyricism where a butterfly has the magical wings of a "chitrashalabam" and a weevil is a "nikrishtanaya puzhu".
During the writing of Mistress, I had worked in a few translations of Kathakali attakathas into the narrative. But this wasn't going to be enough. A translation would require me to walk the way of another writer and see his landscape and characters through his eyes. Would I have the restraint to bridle the desire to tweak a thought here, add a dimension there? I am a writer of fiction first and it was going to be hard to keep myself out of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's Chemmeen. To bring forth the beauty of a book without succumbing to the need to edit. To let the grammar of the region prevail without making it seem like an idiomatic translation...
In contrast, the author has it easy. Write as your heart leads you and damn everything else...
And there was one other thing. I was going to have to summon great stamina. Each time a word flustered me, I would have to dive into a Malayalam Nigandu. (Dictionary is too sanitized and limited a word unlike the bottomless abyss of the Nigandu.) I would have to find my way through, inch by inch, word and word. The very first line of the book had me in knots. Chemmeen is written in fishermen's dialect. This was unfamiliar territory and I put the pen down. What was I going to do?
From somewhere the mysterious voice of the God of translation spoke to me: Dialect - Ear - Hear it - and that became the key to this translation. Over the course of the next fortnight, I roped in my secretary Mini Kuruvilla, a Malayali, to read out the book to me. I heard the novel read out loud rather than read it myself. A certain familiarity with the cadence grew into a natural ease. I heard it read again and then one day I was ready. Thakazhi wrote his Chemmeen in eight days. It took me two years and at least four rewrites before I was satisfied to let it go. Over the two years it took to complete the translation, words and phrases that weren't in Nigandu had to be deciphered. Help came from a friend in Trivandrum -- VS Rajesh of Kerala Kaumudi.
And then it was done. It is ironic but most of the books that we consider to be the finest examples of contemporary writing are translations. Whether it is Marquez or Kundera, Grasse or Xingjian, what we have had access to are the translations of their works. Here is one more. A classic novel that no matter how many times you read it nudges your soul.
Chemmeen is a novel about forbidden love. It is also a novel that bares the seams of the mind of a fisherman who goes out into the sea. What brings him back to the shore? What causes him to lose his way? Chemmeen is about hopes and hopeless love. It is a story that lives long after the book is read. And reverberates in the mind just as the waves dash on the shore. Again and again.
(Anita Nair is the critically acclaimed and best-selling author of several novels. Her translation of TS Pillai's Chemmeen is part of the Harper Perennial special anniversary series. She can be contacted on Twitter @anitanairauthor)