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Sowcarpet chronicle: Review of Dilip Kumar’s ‘Cat in the Agraharam and Other Stories’

Bustling: Just another day in Sowcarpet.   | Photo Credit: M. Prabhu

The wealth of contemporary Tamil literature has always been tantalisingly out of reach for readers like me who speak their mother tongue well but tend to stumble over the printed word. But you do not need Tamil roots to appreciate this delightful new book of short stories, translated from the Tamil original, Kadavu, published two decades ago. In fact, the author, Dilip Kumar, is not a native speaker of the language.

In the title story, we meet Babli Patti, a devout old Gujarati lady who wants to get rid of a stray cat that has taken to raiding her flat to lap up milk meant for the god Krishna.

It’s real

Her son asks their godless relative, Surendran, “the one-man kangaroo court for all of the wrongdoing in the Agraharam.” This hooligan, who can swear fluently in both Gujarati and Tamil, breezily says, “Consider the job done!” Eventually, this humane layabout ends up saving the cat from the clutches of his pious aunt.

Unlike R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, the agraharam of the title is a real place on the map. Ekambareshvarar Agraharam is a set of three-storey buildings around the 350-year-old temple of the same name in Sowcarpet, an old neighbourhood of north Chennai. The translator, Martha Ann Selby, an American scholar of Tamil and Sanskrit at the University of Texas in Austin, provides the context in the introduction.

The Gujaratis of Sowcarpet come alive for us, in English, via Tamil. Sowcarpet has been a stronghold of north Indian immigrants for centuries. As Chennai burgeoned into a centre of commerce in the 17th century, Gujarati weavers

from in and around Madurai took up residence near the Ekambareshvarar temple. Then came the Gujarati merchants or sowcars, who gave the neighbourhood its name. They were soon joined by Rajasthani traders. These relatively affluent immigrants are known as saits in local parlance. In Tamil films, the stereotypical sait is often a moneylender who speaks broken Tamil interspersed with nonsense words like ‘nambal, nimbal’.

Dilip Kumar’s ancestors moved from Kutch in Gujarat to South India nearly a century ago. He belongs to a family of rich businessmen and has relatives in Sowcarpet. Following the early death of his father, he dropped out of school and took up jobs to support his family. These difficult circumstances gave him plenty of experiences to draw on later. His humanistic, hyper-realistic fiction is laced with gentle humour.

Pitch perfect

Ekambareshvarar Agraharam teems with relatable characters. My favourite is Gangu Patti who makes “beautiful use of vast numbers of Gujarati swearwords, turning them into cubes of jaggery.” Young women seek her advice on everything, “including sex, religion, pickle-making, and the nature of time and god.” As Patti holds court, her tragic backstory is narrated through a series of conversational vignettes. The hardest part of translation, Selby says, is rendering dialogue correctly. These conversations sound pitch perfect. Indeed, the best of the 14 stories are those set in Sowcarpet.

But other stories too have their own appeal. Selby points out that a few stories have autobiographical elements: the young worker in ‘The Bamboo Shoots’, the suicidal poet in ‘The Scent of a Woman’ and the letter writer in ‘The Letter’ are all versions of the author. (A Tamil film, Nasir, which premiered and won an award at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, is based on Dilip Kumar’s ‘A Clerk’s Story’, not a part of this collection.) ‘The Miracle that Refused to Happen’ is the Indianised version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

In all likelihood, this book will whet your appetite for stories by other Tamil masters. In that case, pick up a copy of Dilip Kumar’s comprehensive anthology, The Tamil Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides, which traces the evolution of modern Tamil short fiction through 88 stories.

Or you may want to read more of Dilip Kumar. Selby points out that the author, who taught himself Tamil by reading newspapers, writes in short, “almost telegraphic” phrases. This suggests that even an intermediate reader of Tamil like me can hope to read his work in the original. It is an unexpected but inspiring takeaway from this book of superbly translated stories.

The reviewer is a Boston-based science journalist.

Cat in the Agraharam and Other Stories; Dilip Kumar, trs Martha Ann Selby, Northwestern University Press, ₹2,500

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 5:51:32 AM |

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