Translation Books

God save the thief: Review of V.J. James’s ‘Chorashastra’, translated by Morley J. Nair

Imagine that you could open a lock simply by looking at it. Moreover, imagine that this little trick was the hallmark of a discipline practised and honed over the centuries by ancient masters, who distilled their wisdom onto palm-leaf texts in Sanskrit and Tamil with scientific precision, leaving them to be discovered by an eccentric modern-day professor who could transmit these teachings to his chosen disciple, a hitherto undistinguished member of the thieving fraternity.

That’s the conceit of V.J. James’s Chorashastra — ‘the science of thievery’ — a Malayalam novel published in 2002 and freshly translated into English by Morley J. Nair. But it’s not a straightforward romp by any means. Certainly there is humour and even lewdness, especially in the earlier parts, and plenty of adventure, but this is leavened throughout by a thread of spirituality that thickens over the course of the story as we worry about the state of our thief’s — he is unnamed, like most characters in this book — soul.

Our concerns are reflected in the thoughts of the Dravidian king, a powerful yet almost helpless figure whose own story is imbued with a certain amount of pathos. Philosophical interludes and quotations from ancient texts are found interspersed, while deities — particularly Subrahmanya (Skanda), who is constantly invoked as the patron god of thieves — are frequently called upon, at first to provide moral justification, but finally as a refuge in desperation. It ends as a morality tale, with a very traditional Indian lesson on the dangers of attachment.

And as a tale rooted in tradition, it is important to realise that this book is sincere. James fully leans into the trope of magic-adjacent ancient Indian super-science, which was perhaps not so worn out in 2002 as it is today. Despite the early humour, this isn’t the place to look for satire or subversion, at least in that regard.

The translation is serviceable. Certain choices, like how the thief’s family consists of his “she-thief” and their “child-thieves” can elicit a chuckle. It could have been more consistent in how certain names are rendered — is it Skandan or Skanda? There is the odd typo, and the tendency to leave certain Malayalam terms untranslated is another peeve.

Chorashastra; V.J. James, trs. Morley J. Nair, Eka, ₹299

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 3:55:00 PM |

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