Writer Perumal Murugan on ‘Kazhimugam’, now translated into English as ‘Estuary’

In a first, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, celebrated for his works set in the rural milieu, narrates the tale of generational differences between an urban father and son

Updated - July 25, 2020 01:48 pm IST

Published - July 24, 2020 05:21 pm IST

The book cover

The book cover

Kumarasurar is in the middle of a generational crisis. His young adult son Meghas (a trendier version of the popular name ‘Meghasurar’ that his wife suggested) has been distant lately. Kumarasurar feels estranged from his son who would once fight to cling on to his little finger. This middle-class father’s unending struggles to grapple with the changing world view of the younger generation forms the crux of author Perumal Murugan’s 2018 novel Kazhimugam , the English translation of which was published earlier this week. Titled Estuary (Westland Publications) and translated by writer Nandini Krishnan, the novel, set in an urban landscape, is decidedly one of the most deviant in his celebrated milieu of work that is deeply rooted to rural life.

In the modern town of Asurapuri, a fictional world that houses demons or asuras who are no different from us, is where the story of Kumarasurar’s family begins. This world however, first took form in his 2017 novel, Poonachi .

Why asuras ? In the foreword to Estuary , Perumal Murugan writes, “In a world where everything is straightforward and where perfection prevails, what work does the writer have? It is the world where ugly habits prevail, where rules are broken, a world with no values, a world of greed and desire and cruelty, a world that has rotted from all these that best lends itself to fiction, and this world is that of asuras , Asuralokam.” Apart from this, he adds that the controversy surrounding Madhorubagan also led him to rethink the names of his characters and their characterisation.

Though Murugan has written short stories from an urban, middle-class lens, fleshing out one of a similar theme as a novel is a first. Over phone, the writer says, “After Poonachi , I didn’t have the mind to return to a village-like setting. I thought, why don’t I change the battlefield and see.” A lot of Murugan’s experiences and observations of life in the city have translated into the novel. In fact, he says, the character of Kumarasurar is representative of people he often meets and at times, even reflects his own self. “There was no difficulty in creating these characters. It all came together in a predestined manner,” he says of the work, the first draft of which was written while he was on a one-month-long residency at Manipal University.

Inner turmoil

Kazhimugam or Estuary as a title rightly depicts the duality between Kumarasurar and his son, Meghas. The turbulence that is associated with an estuary (where the tide meets the stream), is an omnipresent emotion in this work that also touches upon mental health. However, there is a story behind this particular title: “While I was writing, I wasn’t sure how I would end the story. During those times, I happened to visit an estuary, some 20 kilometres away from the University. Many things about this phenomenon fascinated me. Apart from the fact that it shows duality, isn’t the co-existence of salt (from the sea) and sweet (from the stream), a thing of wonder?”

While translating the work into English, Murugan had only one requirement: “I wanted the satirical tone of the novel to be reflected in the translation as well.” And, Nandini’s aim was precisely that. In effect, she did not want the translation to read like one.

Nandini recalls, “The first time I translated him was at the Jaipur Lit Fest in 2019, where he had written a poem in Tamil and wanted to read it out.” The translation was done spontaneously. This event also incidentally led her to Estuary . Explaining her process with the novel, the former journalist says, “Each day I would translate one chapter literally from Tamil to English, and then put that aside. I would come back at night (after many hours) and read it again like it was an English novel and see how I could change it so that it doesn’t sound stilted.”

“The opening chapters are very light but it builds up in intensity. It is a very mature novel and something you have to read two or three times to really uncover the layers. He does speak about female infanticide and foeticide, the education system, caste issues; but he speaks about all of it in subtle ways, just like it is in life. He even speaks about mental illness, which I don’t think he has done in such an intense way so far,” she says admitting that she knowsentire chunks of the Tamil novel by heart. “It’s a very internal novel. There’s a certain quietness to it. The title is representative of the turmoil in our minds and the contemplation of that turmoil.”

The words that each character uses expose their behavioural traits and background. This is something that Nandini had to be careful about during translation. She adds, “He is so skilled at language. He uses certain words that I haven’t seen outside poetry. There were often times when I would ask him why he used that specific word.” And, while editing, she would again go back to the Tamil novel to justify certain words and sentences that she had used.

Nandini is currently working on translating a few of Murugan’s short stories apart from her own writing. “An interesting thing happens when you translate someone else’s work. It, in a way, becomes your work. And you become very protective of the original and the author. I think, at some point, I almost started thinking like him about his characters,” she concludes.

Estuary published under Westland’s language imprint , Ekais priced at ₹499.

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