In the introduction to his fourth novel, Kanganam , Perumal Murugan talks about the word kanganam and what it means. It refers to the ritual yellow thread that people undertaking an important event, such as wedding or temple feast, wear around their wrist. Especially significant for a groom, the kanganam signifies that from that moment on, its wearer will bring all their focus and energies only to the task on hand and not leave the wedding hall or take on other responsibilities. Over time, the word came to mean an absolute determination to finish a task, a single-minded focus.
But the English word, ‘resolve’, while containing multiple meanings in itself, becomes in the translation only a person’s determination to finish a task. Gone are the layers — the idea of weddings and rituals, the carefully concealed social commentary on changing mores. Marking time from when the kanganam was a reminder to focus, to stay true to the event, the house, the relationship, to when the kanganam merely became an ornament, a phrase.
That loss in translation in the title is carried through the entire book. This is not to say that the translation is bad or inadequate. In fact, Aniruddhan Vasudevan carries the tone and import of the Tamil novel faithfully to the English version. The story’s slow build-up, the layering of events, the people, the settings, and the little touches of rural Tamil Nadu of the 80s and 90s — they’re all there.
Resolve is the story of Marimuthu, a farmer in his 30s. Marimuthu yearns to be married, to feel the touch of another human next to
him, to have someone to hold on to. He has felt this need from when he turned 18. However, circumstances and the actions of people around him have denied him marriage. We come to Marimuthu via Kuppan, an agricultural labourer bonded to Marimuthu’s family, whose entire life has been spent in service to the family. Through Kuppan and Marimuthu, we see and hear Marimuthu’s family, Paati, Ammayi, each carrying generations of resentment, grudges and anguish, and occasionally voicing them. In particular, Paati (Pooavatha) and Ammayi (Virumaka) are two old women who have lived through changing times, served the men they married and the patriarchy they were wedded to, but still managed to hold on to will and agency.
Toll of expectations
Then there’s Thanavadhi Thatha, a go-between for anything from marriages to land deals to brokering peace between clans. Given Marimuthu’s one preoccupation, there are many marriage brokers, including the sharp-tongued Veeduthi and the retired maths teacher. There’s Selvarasu, Marimuthu’s estranged cousin, a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, and who is prepared to let old grudges go. There’s also Raman, Marimuthu’s friend, confidante and co-conspirator.
Then there are the women — Rosamani, Vasanthi, Poovalayi and more, who could have been Marimuthu’s wives if things had gone well, but end up instead as the objects of his dreams and nightmares. These are minor characters, but each with a full life behind them.
Underpinning this are the twin systems of caste and patriarchy. Murugan explains a bit in his introduction, but it comes through in greater detail in the story. The desire for sons that has created an unequal male-female ratio. The pressure to be a conforming, fecund member of society. The toll it takes on women and men.
On caste, Murugan presents his commentary with no fanfare but it still hits you with force. It explains Kuppan’s ties to the family: Kuppan recalls, at the very beginning, that the coconut palms in Marimuthu’s farms were planted when he, Kuppan, was but a boy and had just begun working for the family. In all likelihood, Kuppan will die in bondage to the family. There’s the subtle difference in how Marimuthu and Raman — seen as friends — are treated by the village. Despite his promises to Raman, Marimuthu has no qualms turning over land to his cousin, keeping property within the family. Through the book, caste along with its hold on people is presented as is, with no heavy-handed commentary — which makes it all the more powerful as you realise how ingrained it is.
Translations are always tricky. Especially between two languages that are as idiomatic, with regional quirks and dialects, as Tamil and English. The translator has to weigh the needs of the story, the style and form in which it is presented, the limits of the source language, the capacity of the target language.Perhaps at those points, the story and its overall arc will weigh more than the styling or the flavour.
While I understood the compromise in Resolve , I could not help feeling sad. A bit like the death of a public figure you admire; it’s not a direct personal loss, but it still hurts you. Would it have helped if one simply rewrote the entire thing in English, less of a translation and more of a retelling?
There is this term terroir , which describes the character a crop acquires from its environment. The soil, water, air, they all impact the final flavour. Change one, and the taste changes. Tamil is like that, especially the Tamil Perumal Murugan employs. The language in Kanganam is like Marimuthu — deeply rooted to the land, deriving its nourishment from it, its accent and flavour. Importing this into English would require an equally flavourful dialect. Not a faithful rendition of the word, but a justice to the spirit.
It is thus a tad unfortunate that we have a very good translation, but not a great retelling.
The reviewer is a writer and researcher, with interests in history and archaeology, gender, Internet, and technology. @nadjanadika