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Desiccated roots

"Translations (like wives) are seldom faithful if they are in the least attractive," maintains Roy Campbell. On that criterion, Roots can be considered to be entirely faithful to its original text in Malayalam.

The disappointment of the reader with the novel is all the more acute because its author, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, is a venerated icon of contemporary Malayalam literature, and its translator, V. Abdulla, is another distinguished figure on the Indian literary scene and a veteran translator. And the novel itself, titled Verukal in Malayalam, had won the Sahitya Akademi award. Yet there it is — a drab, lifeless novel.

The worst thing for a translation is for it to read like a translation. The only way to make it work is to recreate the original work in the new language — transcreate it, as P. Lal defined the process — by taking liberties with the words of the text so as to be true to its spirit. But the translator is seldom able to take this essential liberty, being inhibited by his high regard for the novel he has been inspired to translate.

The rhythm of each language is unique, and so are the associations and nuances of its words — more so in languages that belong to widely divergent cultures, like English and Malayalam — so that a literal translation invariably turns out to be lifeless. This is so even if the translation is idiomatic. The problem is particularly acute in Roots because of its stilted English, which is often downright absurd, as the translator contorts himself awkwardly to maintain literal faithfulness to the original. This is especially so in Abdulla's handling of the Tamil-Malayalam lingo of Brahmins in Kerala, which distinguishes the novel in Malayalam. Also lost in translation is the sardonic wit of Ramakrishnan, which is not so much in what he says as in the way he says it.

Unimaginative translation, however, is only a part of the problem with Roots. The novel lacks narrative tension even in Malayalam. There are plenty of incidents here, even a murder and a couple of suicides, but they do not fuse together to ignite the novel. This again is surprising, for, the novel is semi-autobiographical, and Ramakrishnan is writing about matters of which he has intimate knowledge. But that intimacy in this case seems to have turned out to be a disadvantage, with memory crowding out imagination and preventing the author from realising the true potential of the novel.

The pivotal event on which the novel turns is the return of its protagonist, Raghu, to his native village after a lapse of several years, to raise money to build a city mansion for himself by selling his ancestral home. He sets about this reluctantly, under pressure from his shrewish and domineering wife. In the village, as he meets his sisters and others among whom he grew up, a flood of memories overwhelms him, and he abruptly changes his mind about selling the property. It is not clear exactly why he does so. There is no build up of thought or emotion leading to it, just a medley of random recollections. There has been no formative childhood experience binding Raghu to the village. Nor is there any indication of strong family ties in him, or of any sentimental feeling for the soil itself. There is of course some talk about roots in the novel, but they are superficial, and offer no insight into Raghu's decision.

Even the very notion of roots that the novel — and similar such books — propounds is simplistic and clichéd. One's roots are not necessarily where one is born, but where one puts them down — it could be in another region or community, or even in another country or culture. Sinking roots is not an automatic childhood event, but is a result, at least in part, of the process of maturation. It is essentially an adult event.

Realism in Malayalam fiction, like realism in Malayalam cinema, is vastly overrated. Yet, Verukal, for all its faults, is a creditable though not brilliant achievement. But it is an achievement only within the ambit of Malayalam literature, in comparison with the other novels in that language. It would probably also make a good impact on readers when translated into other Indian languages, considering the pulp fiction that generally goes for literature in most Indian languages. But a book in English, whether originally written in English or translated into that language, has to prove itself against world literature. That is where books like Roots fail.


Roots, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, translated by V. Abdulla, Orient Longman, p.140, Rs. 195.

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