Found in translation

Narayan, author of Kocharethi, the first novel by an adivasi in Kerala, and Catherine Thankamma, who translated the book into English, talk about the book and its place on the literary scene.

April 27, 2011 04:21 pm | Updated 04:21 pm IST

Noteworthy achievement (from left) Catherine Thankamma, Narayan and Latha with different editions of Kocharethi

Noteworthy achievement (from left) Catherine Thankamma, Narayan and Latha with different editions of Kocharethi

Literature on adivasis, shaped by perspectives of authors who may or may not have interacted or studied the tribals and their lives, could be romantic flights of the imagination or grim portraits about trials and tribulations of the tribals. Irked by these fanciful and wrong representations of his community, Narayan, a member of the Malaarayar tribal community in Kerala, took up the pen to write the first authentic novel written by an adivasi in South India. All that he had to do was dip into his memory to pen Kocharethi, a novel that seamlessly fuses fiction and non-fiction, an elegy to a community and their lifestyle.

New lease of life

Recently the book came under the limelight, more than a decade after it was first published in Malayalam by DC Books, when Catherine Thankamma's translation of the book into English was released in Kochi.

“It was litterateur and academician Ayyappa Panikker who first suggested that Mini Krishnan, at present editor of Oxford University Press (OUP), translate the book into English,” recalls Catherine, a professor of English at RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Thripunithura. She considers it a kind of gurudakshina to Panikker, her former mentor and guide.

The translation, published by OUP, has given the book a new lease of life. At a time when tribals all over India are fighting a losing battle to preserve their lands and cultural identity, Kocharethi reminds us, yet again, how these children of the land were marginalised by the state, the establishment and organised religion. From proud farmers, practitioners of traditional medicine and guardians of the land, the tribals became displaced and dispossessed, dependent on the largesse of the State to protect their lands and, most importantly, their cultural identity.

“Many of the incidents in the book are based on real incidents that I remember or what I garnered from my elders' experiences, especially what my great-grandfather recounted of his life,” says Narayan, a former Postal employee.

Instead of waiting for a Dee Brown (American author who wrote Bury my Heart At Wounded Knee to narrate the colonisation of America from the perspective of the native Indians) to do justice to the tribal perspective, Narayan, like Nigerian author Chinua Acehebe ( Things Fall Apart ), took up the challenge to come up with a poignant sketch of the tribals' life and culture without being maudlin or didactic.

In the late Sixties many adivasis in Kerala began to vocalise their anger at the way popular culture represented the tribals in films and books. Letters to the editor and the publisher did not help. That is when elders advised Narayan, a voracious reader himself, to write a novel about his community instead of merely criticising what was there in print and celluloid.

“The misrepresentations were marginalising a marginalised community. I wondered what I could write about and that is when I decided to stick to what I knew best. So I chose to describe my life, upbringing and culture,” says Narayan

Thus was the spirited Kocharethi born. But his story had to wait for 10 years till D.C. Kizhakkemuri saw the potential of the story and published it in 1998. Several awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award, and six editions followed. Its Hindi translation Pahadin came about in 2009 and the Tamil translation in 2010. Then it was Mini's determination, drive and dedication that saw the book translated into English.

“It was a mammoth effort and I agreed to do it only because both Narayan and I happen to be living in Kochi. I felt this was a book that required constant interaction with the author. I was going to translate a book about a culture, a life style, and a people, all of which were completely alien to me,” recalls Catherine.

" Kocharethi articulates Narayan's anger, rage, pain and angst. It also shows that they were never isolated from all human contact as is presented in some works. The book also shows how the adivasis were economically exploited by traders who came to their lands to trade in pepper, tobacco and other valuable forest produce,” explains Catherine.

She lavishes praise on Mini for her “evangelical zeal” to ensure that nothing was lost in translation. Catherine also got one of her students K.S. Sudhish to illustrate the book.


Line drawings in black and white depict the surroundings, artefacts, customs and utensils described in the book. “I met Narayan Sir and was moved by his experience and his stories. But for a few changes here and there, Narayan Sir was happy with my drawings,” recollects Sudhish, a third-year student of Applied Arts at RLV College of Fine Arts.

The fact that the first edition of the English translation was completely sold out is proof of the success of the author and the translator. Narayan, who also has a couple of collections of short stories to his credit, says more than awards, what he treasures is what a young adivasi told him: ‘As the book is such an honest picture of our lives, this is something I want to bequeath to my children so that they understand where they come from and who they are.'

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