Rizio Yohannan Raj, author of “a tale of things timeless”, yearns for truth and beauty in her writings
A tale of things timeless is the English version of Avinasom, a Malayalam novel by Rizio Yohannan Raj published in 2000. The novel, translated by Supriya M. Nair, revised by the author, and published last month, begins with the suicide of Avinash Suvarna, a minor poet, whose suicide note sets Laya, a young journalist, on a course of discoveries about Avinash and her own self. Rizio has also published another novel in Malayalam, two poetry collections and translated major 20th Century Malayalam poets such as Kumaran Asan into English. She responded to questions in an e-mail interview.
Given your experience as a translator of Malayalam into English, why wasn’t your novel Avinasom auto-translated?
The Malayalam original of my novel took shape in 1998-99 even as I struggled with an inexplicable inner turbulence provoked by the suicide of a stranger. Writer T.P. Kishor’s irreverent final words to the world, which tried hard to impose ordinariness on him, possessed me to such an extent that I resigned a ‘decent’ job, confused my family with my silence, and wove this story around my experience. When my editor proposed the idea of bringing it out in English, I thought a verbatim translation would be irrelevant; I had to intervene to make this text relevant to a new language and reader. This required a ‘faithful’ English draft, which I felt I could not make lest it painfully churned my memory. I wanted a translator who would give me a literal translation that I could rewrite. My friend Supriya Nair did it so well, and we have this new English version, a tale of things timeless.
Laya’s experience mirrors your own. What kind of research did you do into Kishor’s life? What role did imagination play?
I didn’t do any research. Avinash and Laya are not Kishor and Rizio, but they embody our spirit of adventure and self-examination, and that of many questers like us.
Is it significant that Laya and Avinash are intensely religious? How has your faith contributed to your writing?
I have a student’s curiosity about the origin and development of religions, and a poet’s eagerness to partake in the passion and mystery that only faith can evoke. I relish the atmosphere of ritual, magic of words, and intimation of transcendence associated with religious practice. But I do not follow the diktats of any religious establishment. The intensity of spiritual experience matters to me; I receive it from wherever I find it — the beautiful or ugly, powerful or weak, abundant or scarce. I try to translate this longing for spiritual experience into writing.
Talking of translation, you have called it a ‘life-act’. In the light of that statement, what does one make of the ‘untranslated’ words like kutti, ettathi, etc. in your novel?
Well, translation seems to me a fundamental human act through which we ceaselessly try to forge connections within ourselves and with the world around. As in life situations, in this translation, too, I have modified/ retained the given. The use of transliteration could also enrich English in India. I think such a sahaja path of mutuality alone can connect a text with a new context. This road parallels my ultimate quest to understand the timeless connections of things in the world. The interlinking genius of ‘translation’ as an idea has revealed to me newer ways of transforming myself.
Laya and Avinash are both acutely aware that their words do not quite translate their depth of experience. (“But where would she find a readership of faith that would believe in the meaning beyond words?”/ “He feared that his words would fail to fulfil his meaning.”) Is it what you felt too, given your book often seeks to understand complex and slippery areas of experience?
The dialectic of limitation/ possibility inherent in the ‘word’ is the very puzzle that keeps me on my writer’s path. The moment one solves this puzzle, one is redeemed of one’s lot as a quester. There is a poem, “What It Means to Search for a Word” in my collection Eunuch, which ends like this:
I wander, some meaning
pining for a willing word
You also have two books of poems. How are the claims of writing poetry different?
There are particular issues that one confronts in different genres of writing. For instance, sensuousness and deep reflection are both integral to my poetic expression, and I bring in sensuous rhythms and images to convey abstract ideas. Writing fiction, on the other hand, involves thinking in terms of characters and situations, and framing the plot, and so imagery, rhythms and visual appearance of ideas on page become more incidental than substantial. But the ultimate concern is the same in all my pursuits: a yearning for beauty and truth in our afflicted times.