If Sundara Ramaswamy is a verbal artist, so too are his translators.
Reading Sundara Ramaswamy is like negotiating a minefield. Step on his stories and something goes off inside your head. Not many can match the sheer thematic and stylistic range of his work and the enduring nature of his vision. Compelling and delightful, his stories have a strong feel for humour. That he is available in English translation (has been for some time, thanks to the Manas imprint) and now as two delightfully produced Penguin modern classics: Waves, a collection of short stories, and Children, Women, Men, a novel, is cause for celebration.
Stylistically speaking, and in terms of the emotion that drives them, no two stories in Waves are the same. What they do share though is a sense of humanity and a compassionate vision. Translated by Lakshmi Holmström and Gomathi Narayanan, they make you smile at the harmless foibles and the innocence of their characters, even as they make you, at times, uncomfortable. Young Balu who helps his father negotiate the complexities of a telephone call but receives little thanks for it; Rowther, the human calculator-accountant at a small clothing store who is temporarily outdone by the mechanical calculator; Elizabeth teacher, quietly determined, painstaking and yet, in the end, flawed; Alamelu, over-aged and plump, who hopes to be married … each of these characters become real people for us.
Deceptively simple, ‘Our Teacher’ is a complex study of psychology, unparalleled in its delineation of character. The small, enclosed space of the school acts as a crucible for an intense playing out of rivalries, between the students of sections A and B as well as between the two teachers, who are each keen that their section should win the Sitalakshmi Memorial prize. The sense of drama and conflict, both internal and external, leading to a clear climax and the subtle psychological shifts within Elizabeth make this a flawless story, structurally and otherwise.
Negotiating a technology that seems strange and sometimes spooky is the theme of ‘Blossoming’ and ‘A Day with my Father’. In the former, the arrival of the mechanical calculator throws an entire family and their blind accountant Rowther, a gifted human ‘calculator’, out of gear. In a world where the death of the telegram is being mourned and each day brings with it some new advance in technology, stories such as these will continue to resonate. The most poignant stories in the collection, ‘Caprice’ and ‘Window’ and the deeply ironic ‘Waves’ stand testimony to the narrative heights Sundara Ramaswamy can attain. Impossible to describe, they are iceberg stories and much lies beneath the surface.
Not for nothing is Sundara Ramaswamy praised for his versatility, his skilful negotiation of various literary forms: poetry, short fiction and the novel. Almost epic in its scope, the novel Children, Women, Men, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, works with a massive canvas of characters, perspectives and ideas. This dark novel, like the short stories, deals with change, plumbing the innermost depths of the human mind. Sundara Ramaswamy fully exploits the potential of this form. Set in the pre-war years 1937-39, the novel chronicles the events in the life of a Tamil Brahmin family and their move from Kottayam to Nagarcoil in Tamil Nadu.
In microscopic detail, Sundara Ramaswamy re-creates for us the universe in which that family lives and moves, slowing down enough for us to enter their world. And yet, not once does he let the narrative ball drop. Impressive in its scope, the novel is as much about the intense conflict between Srinivasa Aiyar (SRS) and his son Balu as it is about the burning political and social issues of the time — from widow remarriage to the nationalist movement. The novel also takes a peek at the claustrophobia of intra-familial politics.
Translator Lakshmi Holström argues in her preface that “the post-modern richness of Kuzhandaigal, pengal, aangal owes in part to the layered and allusive quality of its language with its wide range of reference and constant border crossing”. In the original Tamil text, Holmstrom points out, the writer uses a standard Tamil for the main narrative but employs both the Tamil Brahmin dialect of the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border and the Malayalam spoken by the local people. Linguistically too, therefore, the novel is clearly ambitious. If Sundara Ramaswamy is a verbal artist, so too are his translators.
Despite their apparent ‘invisibility’, readers cannot miss the presence of Gomathi Narayanan and Lakshmi Holmström in these landmark literary texts which have now come to life in English.