VJ James on ‘Anti-Clock’: ‘Time has imprisoned us’

VJ James’ latest work Anti-Clock (Penguin) is a riotous journey through space and time. A coffin maker, Hendri, wants to see the body of his sworn enemy, Satan Loppo, in a coffin, he has made. There is also a 112-year-old clockmaker, Pundit, who was part of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) who is trying to turn back time by creating an anti-clock.

“The anti-clock plays a critical role in this novel,” says James. “It augurs unexpected phenomena. Nature’s own direction is fundamentally anticlockwise. In the book, when man steps in the opposite direction of Nature’s movement, the anti-clock intervenes by seemingly travelling back in time. The narrative relies on the surprises wrought by the anti-clock in Hendri’s life.”

Each chapter of the novel starts with a passage from the Bible. “I try to adopt a unique treatment for each of my novels. In Leyka (2006), I adopted the narrative structure of a translation. Most readers, including Malayalam film director, Lal Jose, assumed that I had translated a Russian book! In Anti-Clock, Hendri reads the Bible every night before going to sleep. Hendri’s story starts with the passage from the Bible that he has read that day. The Bible becomes an inseparable factor, highlighting the unending pathos of the man’s daily life.”

One and many

Anti-Clock started as a short story. Talking about its journey from short story to novel, James says, “A short story typically centres around a unique experience or emotion, like a fisherman patiently sitting with his rod, to catch a particular fish. A novel requires a different creative prowess — casting a wide net to capture many varieties of fish and picking the best ones.”

As a short story, Anti-Clock had only two characters — Hendri and Satan Loppo, James says. “The novel travels beyond, and is a deep exploration of life, death and time. When Anti-Clock became a novel, it was necessary to create a village. Communism, quarries which impacted Nature, INA, Subhas Chandra Bose and the construction of the Neyyar Dam had to flow from different sources and merge in Hendri’s shop. Pundit, Antappan the grave digger and Gracy, the woman coffin maker, joined the cast of characters.

Deep dive

Considering the wide range of topics the novel covers, research according to the Thiruvanathanpuram-based author, included studying the lives of coffin makers. “I spent time with workers in coffin shops. The way they carved caskets, tools they used, wood they worked on, the competition existing amongst them, all became topics of study. It was equally important to familiarize myself with grave diggers. I explored places, which the human mind usually loathes, like the cemetery and asthikuzhy (pit of bones).”

Visiting Neyyar Dam and interacting with someone who had experienced those initial years of the construction was essential, James says. “I found a very old man in a remote village, who chronicled his tale of pain. When he said he turned from a prince to a pauper overnight, the old man wept.”

For clocks James says he turned to his friend, James P Thomas, who collects old clocks and enjoys repairing them. “He helped me get information on clocks including the German one that plays a key role in the novel. I also researched the Second World War, INA and the erstwhile Communist years of Kerala.”

Formidable challenge

Writing a novel, James says is a formidable challenge when compared to a short story. “I took almost five years to complete Anti-Clock. My debut novel, Purappadinte Pustakam, (The Book of Exodus, 1999) took 12 years while Nireeswaran (2014) took more than five. It was a great challenge to nourish and give life to the book while fulfilling my official responsibilities as an engineer at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and as a householder. Indeed, if I had any inkling of the time involved in completing each of my books, I doubt whether I would have attempted them at all!”

A novel, James says with its multiple characters demands great alacrity to weave the strands seamlessly into the plot. “Instead of plucking out high-sounding philosophies from thin air, showcasing such perspectives evolving naturally from a common man’s life was the toughest challenge while writing this book.”

Ruler or slave

On the question of whether one is a master or slave of time, James says, “When our egos start working, we feel like the masters of time. However, time has actually imprisoned us. Modern science discusses concepts like the elasticity of time while discussing the theory of relativity. Man can never claim to be master of time until he experiences timelessness and infinity where there is no separation of past, present and future.”

VJ James on ‘Anti-Clock’: ‘Time has imprisoned us’

Nature’s antivirus

In the introduction, James describes COVID-19 as Nature’s antivirus against mankind. “When our computers or phones get infected by a virus, we try to eliminate it using an antivirus. Let us leave aside the braggadocio of being a ‘human being’ for a moment, and think from Nature’s perspective. For her, there is no difference between human or animal or any other living creature. With endless avarice, mankind has devastated Nature’s balance. From Nature’s view point, humankind has become a threat to her existence.”

Ministhy S: ‘Can you imagine a world without asterix?’

Ministhy S, who has translated Anti-Clock from Malayalam says she remembers reading Ashapurna Devi’s Bengali novels, Prothom Protishruti, Subarnalata and Bakul Katha, in Malayalam when she was in high school. “I could not put the books down and was entranced by the state of women in undivided Bengal,” she says.

“That is the power of translation. Can you hook a reader through your translation so that she is transported to the original story? The language, cadence, vocabulary, spirit and essence all become part of a ‘veritable wholeness’ that bridges worlds. We have seen that greatness in Anthea Bell, Edith Grossman, Gregory Rabassa in world classics. Closer home, we have stalwarts such as Arunava Sinha, N Kalyan Raman, Srinath Perur, Dr J Devika, Jayashree Kalathil and Shahnaz Habib. If the reader can visualise Hendri’s world which James created, as she reads the translation, then I would be gratified.”

VJ James on ‘Anti-Clock’: ‘Time has imprisoned us’

A gift in itself

The intellectual stimulation of translation is a gift in itself, says Ministhy. “For example, while translating four books by VJ James, I ended up reading topics as diverse as the legacy of Hanuman, the Communist history of Kerala, the fauna and flora of my State, Advaita spirituality, the Holy Bible, Sanskrit, German and French poetic references and theories of physics.”

An IAS officer in the Uttar Pradesh cadre, Ministhy finds it bliss to immerse herself in this esoteric world. “It is an ineffable joy to be part of a creative project, where you know that your hard work will help thousands of readers across the borders of languages appreciate a great work. The challenges include the back-breaking work, incessant editing, loyalty to the original lines, humour and rhythm versus the balance required in conveying the words in another language. The fact that translation is actually a silent service to literature inspires me to overcome the challenges.”

Accessing different worlds

Batting for translation Ministhy says, “Can you imagine a world without Asterix? The fact that Anthea Bell gave us ‘Dogmatix’ punning on the original French Idéfix, (itself a pun on the French expression idée fixe meaning an obsession) shows the exquisite joy a genuinely brilliant translation can bring to us. Most Malayalees have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez only due to the translations. Many of the award-winning writers in vernacular literature today were introduced to Dostoevsky, Milkhail Sholokhov, Wislawa Symborska, Eduardo Galeano and Mario Vargas Llosa, in their mother tongues.”

Translations can be good or bad, Ministhy says. “Yet, rather than being forbidden from accessing the sparkling world of another literature and way of life due to language, I would prefer that I am able to read a translation even if it is not so perfect.”

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 9:39:10 PM |

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