Literary Review

History, in short

The Tamil Story; ed Dilip Kumar, trs Subashree Krishnaswamy, Tranquebar, Rs. 799.  

I opened this mammoth of a book titled The Tamil Story with some trepidation. I was prepared to be disappointed but, to my utter delight, I found a great many of my favourites in the collection. The choices are impeccable, a few of them absolute gems that will find a place among the world’s best. Many are distinctly Tamil and will be read for their unique flavour.

The anthology features 88 writers, the oldest born in 1872 and the youngest in 1972. The earliest short story in this collection dates back to 1913. The world was different then. Oil lamps flickered at night, bullock carts carried people, and women would walk some distance to bathe. But, in the final story, the juddering of bulldozers can be heard at a distance.

The landscape of Tamil Nadu has dramatically changed in these 100-odd years and so have its people. The anthology tries to register these changes through the works of some of the most sensitive Tamil writers.

Though Tamil writers started late, they instinctively realised the residual mystery of the moment that a great short story captures and freezes for readers.

A. Madhavaiah’s ‘Kannan’s Grand Mission’, written in 1925, exemplifies this. It portrays some Brahmin women returning home after a bath in the river. One of them starts a song but her recital is continuously disrupted by chatter and distractions. The singer returns home, managing to sing only the first line.

Within the space of those few minutes and the confines of that melee, we encounter a woman who exudes sexual fulfilment, another, prickly frustration, a pubescent girl whose wide-eyed innocence is bewitching, and, on a different plane, the underlying caste tensions between the women and a man they meet on the way. This is easily one of the finest short stories ever written in Tamil.

The other masters are all here — Pudumai Pittan, Janakiraman, Ashokamitran, Indira Parthasarathy, Jayakanthan, G. Nagarajan, Jeyamohan and more.

Cho Dharman’s ‘The Scar’ is not an easy story. It is about a person who used to brew illicit liquor but has now given up his profession. He is falsely implicated by the police and his wife is forced to start the brewing again. It is impossible to brush the story aside as yet another indictment of our unjust system. It bristles with nettles of truth and they compel you to grasp them and feel the searing pain.

Imayam’s scribe, on the other hand, appears to be a gentle person who usually soothes his customers with sugary words before he writes their petitions to the Tahsildar. In the story, the woman whose petition he writes is full of gratitude first but later, when he asks money for his labours, she becomes quarrelsome. The conflict here is between two desperately poor people.

Meeran Maideen’s ‘Governor Pedda’ is about the visit of the governor to the locality in which Pedda lives. The governor is Fatima Beevi and hence the entire neighbourhood, overwhelmingly Muslim, is eagerly awaiting her arrival. When she finally arrives, she shakes hands with Pedda. The result is that the proud lady comes to be called Governor Pedda. She, however, nonchalantly dismisses this and says the governor is just like one of us. This is the work of a consummate storyteller, full of humour and compassion.

The final story of the book, written by Shriram, is about people who jump into wells but survive. Finally, when modernity catches up and when the wells are filled with rubble and levelled, an old man tries to make a statement by jumping into one of the wells that is about to be filled up. He dies. What makes this story remarkable is the jocular way it is told until the very end when it takes a sad turn.

“Every story would be another story and unrecognisable if it took up its characters and plot and it happened somewhere else” said Eudora Welty, the American writer. Every story may read like another story in translation too. Though human emotions are universal, their expressions take different hues in different languages. Thus, a sentence that is uproariously funny when read in Tamil may sound flat and yawn-inducing in English, if it’s not carefully translated.

It is to the credit of the translator that her versions in English read like the originals in Tamil. This is all the more remarkable since the originals were written in different times and different styles.

My only grouse is that the conversations in the book are liberally peppered with ‘onlys’ and ‘is it’s’ and other Indianisms. I am not a great fan of Indian English, although I myself might be writing it.

This is a beautifully produced book, and the efforts of the editor and the translator must be lauded.

P.A. Krishnan is a writer in English and Tamil, whose The Tigerclaw Tree is a cult classic.


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