‘Bullocks from the West: Five Punjai Stories and a Play’ by Na Muthuswamy: Like paintings of a moment in time

The translation has editorial lapses, but it’s the ticket to Punjai

February 02, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

A classic question perennially asked of translations is: who is to judge the merit of a translated text? Should it be those who have read the original or those who do not have access to the original? Readers not familiar with the writings of Padma Shri Na Muthuswamy will find it profitable to first read up about his contributions to the Tamil literary eco-system and then read David Shulman’s Afterword in this collection where he writes: “One has to know how to read the Punjai stories, and this requires attuning one’s ears to the utterly distinctive rhythms — lyrical, syncopated, non-linear — of Muthuswamy’s prose. I suppose not everyone can hear them…”

Capturing the everyday

Like O.V. Vijayan in The Legends of Khasak , Na Mu captures the rural landscape and its quaint characters but he does not share that writer’s intensity or pessimism. Like R.K. Narayan, the uneventful is the event to be chronicled for Na Mu, but he does not share that writer’s simplicity of prose. Na Mu stands triumphantly in his own space.

The Punjai region with its little villages — Kidarankondan, Melapatti, Sembanarkoil, Kaveripoompattinam and its agraharas

— come alive in these five short stories. It is the everyday and the usual and the non-spectacular that the ‘stories’ capture and archive. Young boys and their adventurous antics, regular temple performances where a devadasi wife plays the role of Panchali, a tea stall where the Paraiyars could sit and drink tea with everyone else — these look like paintings of a moment in time.

But why do the images linger in the mind long after the book has been kept aside? Is there nostalgia, criticism, sarcasm, irony or is there just an audacious attempt to foreground the meaninglessness of the cosmos?

An image that stays stubbornly in a corner of your mind is that of an ethereal, gossamer widow. She appears from nowhere; she is seen everywhere; she is seen in the pond like a forever person. In an agrahara where everyone knows everyone else, and families take turns to give her some butter, does anyone know if she is dead or alive? The story is titled ‘Waterness’.

Eternal moments

Charles Baudelaire wrote about Constantin Guys that it is as if the painter stepped out into the crowded street, caught a moment, rushed back to his room and painted his strokes, making that fleeting moment eternal. Na Mu is so much like that painter — except that he is not in a hurry to take in the scene. He is not interested in savouring the moment either. He receives the moment at its pace. He sees; he writes. People and events float into his lens. You need the ear to listen to the absence of comment that lurks around these characters.

The closest in this anthology that the reader will get to Na Mu’s brilliance is in the play ‘England’. Two strong motifs hold the performance: one, visual — the cutting off of the ropes that people tie themselves up in, and the other, aural — of how the carts run over the sand, then over the tarmac, then over the potholes, over and over — covering their tracks, then moving on to new tracks. These motifs entwine and disentangle our notions of time, history, progress and consciousness. Yet, the artist appears to be curating the changes and not commenting on them.

A note about the translation: Why do translators collaborate? How does that make the translation more effective? Some culture-specific words are not footnoted. “Kasturi Naidu lived opposite him” and several such sentences should have come under the editor’s or the co-translator’s knife. Na Mu is indeed a difficult writer to translate and that means the editor has to work overtime. The reader must overlook the avoidable linguistic distractions and bask in the beauty of Na Mu’s magical Punjai.

The writer, a Sahitya Akademi winner for translation, teaches English at Christ University, Bengaluru.

Bullocks from the West: Five Punjai Stories and a Play; Na Muthuswamy, trs David Shulman and S. Ramakrishnan, Westland, ₹499

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