Oxford University Press has got yet another feather in the cap by publishing Oxford Novellas, six this time. The novella as a genre is an underestimated and under-read form. To translate novellas from different Indian languages is, indeed, an act of opening a new horizon. To read them together was an experience in itself. Manageable in time, unintimidating in size but nevertheless complex in its narrative and themes, it lures the reader into unknown worlds and times in Indian literature.

Of the six novellas two are by women and translated by women — Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok (Defying Winter, Bengali, translated by Tutun Mukherjee) and Saniya’s Tyanantar (Thereafter, Marathi, translated by Maya Pandit). The other four novellas are from the four major South Indian languages: C.S. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal (Arena, Tamil translated by N. Kalyan Raman), Na. D’Souza’s Dweepa (Island, Kannada, translated by Susheela Punitha), Kesava Reddy’s Moogavani Pillanagrovi (Ballad of Ontillu, Telugu, translated by the author) and Johny Miranda’s Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (Requiem for the Living, Malayalam, translated by Sajai Jose). The three men are from various professional backgrounds while the women are from the discipline of English studies. I find this significant and worthy of consideration. English studies has been at the anvil of major re-thinking from the 1980s along with the discipline of history in India is set to firmly put translation studies on its map. As series editor Mini Krishnan notes, “Having absorbed words from nearly 400 languages, English is opulently equipped to interpret and express the cultural energy of the regions it once entered as the coloniser’s voice.”

Vaadivaasal is the oldest novella in this collection. First published in Tamil in the 1940s, it spearheaded the entry of new writing. Set in the interior parts of southern Tamil Nadu, the novel documents the traditional sport of bull taming. It is a sport still discussed animatedly every year in the State. The novel gives us both an ethnographic insight into it and also lets the narrative weave through many other layers of communal pride, sexuality and power hierarchy in a feudal context. The novella also contains a brief note by the author’s son describing his father’s commitment to Gandhian values and literature. Krishnan’s preface gives a very brief introduction to the theme and the form in Tamil context but does not do justice to the scope of the modern novel/novella in Tamil.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Defying Winter was written 25 years ago. The then-young author chose to write on ageing and narrated the story through the character of a writer. The novella is a commentary on life and philosophy. Her character’s comments on writing are a treasure trove. “I am trying to make this novel a story excluding men. What’s the harm? Why shouldn’t there be man-less novels?” Apart from ageing, the novel deals with living with terminal illness, perspectives of different women on life and the ethics of care in a totally consumerist, materialistic society. Tutun Mukherjee’s introduction gives an excellent overview of the social and literary context of Bengal with special focus on women writers.

Na. D’ Souza, the Kannada writer, is described in literary circle as “the submersion writer”, says Sreedhara in his introduction to Island. A prolific writer of many genres, including children’s fiction, D’ Souza’s career is almost a mapping of many writers in Karnataka. This novel was first published by K.V. Subbanna, a veteran theatre personality who founded Ninasam. The modern literary movement in Kannada has a lot to offer to the nation. The overlapping of interests in different genres, the relatively non-egoistic mentoring of creativity and the recognition of young writers seem to have been the hallmark of Kannada literary tradition. This novella was made into a film by Girish Kesaravalli. Published in 1970, Dweepa is a moving saga of developmental discontent and displacement. The vision with which the novella captures the ecological and social damage is bound to make this work a monumental contribution.

First published in 1993, the Ballad of Ontillu is set in the 1950s. Almost a bio-sketch of his father, the author builds a narrative on the attachment to land/soil in the erstwhile years, a whole folktale evolved out of the life and death of a devoted farmer. The author has translated the novella into English with an introduction by Narendra and an overview of the text by Snyder. The background reading provided leaves much to be desired, unlike the others in this series.

Saniya’s Thereafter is a Marathi story dealing with a middle-class woman’s life after her husband’s sudden decision to ‘go away’. Shattered but reflective, Radhika wades through this experience. As Maya Pandit says, in her translator’s note, the novella contains, “subtle tones and delicate syntactic rhythms that carry deep psychological tensions.” Maya Pandit’s detailed introduction to women’s writing in Marathi highlights how important it is to build our regional histories as autonomous subjects without being subsumed within the ‘national’ framework.

The Malayalam novella by Johny Miranda enters a hitherto unknown territory that J. Devika poetically calls “The Delicate Task of Recovering Cochin- Creole” in her title to the introduction. The author says, “To this day, portrayals of Anglo-Indian lives appear as if cast from the same mould, with the same mix of prejudice, fantasy, and grotesque imitation. This book is an exception”.

All the novellas — with their translator’s note and an introduction to the context of the work in their respective source languages framed within a brief history of literature in that language — make for a rich feast to anyone interested in literature, culture and social history of India. As Mini Krishnan says, this series certainly is bound to “move the borders of literary enjoyment further and even further”, thereby expand the limits of our world by our exposure to many voices in many languages.

More In: Books