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Updated: April 6, 2013 17:09 IST

A strange and dystopian universe

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The Masculine of ''Virgin by Sarah Joseph. Translated and Introduced by J. Devika.
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The Masculine of ''Virgin by Sarah Joseph. Translated and Introduced by J. Devika.

Stories that disturb in the most fascinating way.

In his acclaimed essay on translations and translators, Eliot Weinberger writes that the translator’s anonymity is the joy of translation. For me, though, it is the formidable presence of the translator that makes reviewing Sarah Joseph’s The Masculine of Virgin such a joy.

Yes, one is usually not ‘aware’ of a good translation most of the time, but it is unrealistic to forget that the translator has rewritten a work when we applaud the author. One of India’s formidable feminist writers, Sarah Joseph disturbs the reader through the 21 stories in this book, the first collection of her stories in English translation, dedicated to the memory of Lalithambika Antharjanam, “Sarah Joseph’s literary foremother and an inspiration to all Malayalee women who struggle to write”. And thanks to J. Devika, the translator, the stories disturb in the most fascinating way.

Against the backdrop of voluminous discourse available on Sarah Joseph — whose writing is often considered the cornerstone of Pennezhuthu (women’s writing) in Kerala – Devika’s introduction ‘consecrates’ and ‘de-consecrates’ Joseph in the context of women’s anti-patriarchal writing traditions. One of the principal arguments is that, while many anti-patriarchal themes from Joseph’s predecessors re-emerge in her stories, they are transformed by the preoccupations of the late 20th century: the “predatory global capitalism, eliticisms of caste, religious fundamentalism, and new forms of patriarchal control.” The exhaustive introduction is truly a scholar’s delight.

However, it is undeniably the stories that I find most endearing. Written across almost four decades, these stories create a strange and dystopian universe that exists both inside and outside a female mind. And every now and then, this dystopia is informed by a dark and ironic humour. The title story ‘The Masculine of Virgin’ (‘Kanyakayude Pullingam’) announces right in the beginning that “it is tragedy that prowls beneath such an instantly titillating title...” This line also hints at the role of titles in Joseph’s work, which have been deftly modified into English by Devika.

This story — in which the nameless characters are a mother, father, daughter, grandmother and a son who wants to know the masculine of ‘virgin’ — in which the narrator keeps warning the reader she may not like it, allegorically recreates a dysfunctional family. The reference to the Holy Family and the Holy Ghost is kept noticeable throughout, also in the way the mother “sees many white doves fluttering around Daughter” as the latter nears her death. The story ends with a post-mortem report that descended from the clouds above pronouncing the girl “bore a son in her womb”.

Joseph’s humour, which does not make us laugh, surfaces when man-woman dynamics are examined, or when a society is ridiculed. Her 1990 collection Paapathara (1990) has several such stories. Quite often, the man — husband or lover — is sweaty, insecure, ugly, looking for love and juxtaposed with an angry young, beautiful woman. ‘Conjugality’ (‘Dambatyam’) explores such a relationship while its twin story, ‘Love’ sweeps into “a tornado of hate” that follows love which “itself is good enough reason for murder”.

My favourite, nevertheless, is ‘Scooter’ (from Paapathara again) for its formidable imagination and language that illustrate the story of a traveller-man and a traveller-woman attempting a scooter ride, amidst expressions and deliriums of love and hate. The unreal and real collide as the scooter starts to rot, its decayed womb oozing discharge. The story ends with people loading the scooter’s rotting corpse on to the stunned couple’s heads, and chasing them away.

The people form a fascinating subject in stories like ‘Dimwittitude’ in which the author pokes fun at a society. Joseph’s humour targets the Syrian Christian community from the Pala region in Kerala, from where Gracykutty is selected for a space mission. In the original story, we are told that Joseph coined the word ‘Poothalayam’, a nominalised quality derived from the slang poothayalan in Malayalam meaning ‘dimwit’. Devika is on a roll when she does the same in her translation of the title.

Devika also gives us the famously charming ‘Mallu English’ accent, when translating the central-Travancore Malayalam dialect. Listen to Mathacchan who says, “Whot you mean, gerl go-vup? Howwu you maary hay-r when she com-u down?”

But a similar linguistic effort falters in ‘Jatiguptan and Janakiguptan’, a delightful story. At the risk of sounding like the nitpicking translation police, I felt uneasy finding shades of African-American dialect in dialogues like “Fur whaa ya need...Ar ya crazy” or “Whud-yuh-doin” combined with the typically South Indian “saar” (Sir).

Yet it is the very presence of such problems that lead to the pleasures of a translation, of reading The Masculine of Virgin. The author, translator and reader through their triad of experience-dream-language, allow for the stories to grow and enchant at multiple levels.

The Masculine of Virgin, Sarah Joseph, Translated by J. Devika, Oxford University Press, Rs.325.

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