The Great Tamil Novel

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Our mother-tongue has a special cultural significance for us — it bespeaks our heredity, thought process, and identity. And so, there is a sense of guilt when we are not as adept at it as we should be. But is that cause for concern?

I find that when I read English translations of Tamil books, I make it a point to hide what I’m reading, much like how I hid Sidney Sheldon novels from my mother when I was fifteen. This is basically because I feel a sense of shame that I’m not proficient in Tamil, the language I call my mother-tongue. This was inevitable — and you would agree — if you had taught yourself to read and write the language with the help of a syllabus that consisted of Ananda Vikatan and lyrics to film music. I like to think I have improved over the years, (and in spite of poor effort on my part), picking up a short novel written by Sujatha every time I needed motivation. Experience taught me that all books of over 150 pages result in disturbed sleep patterns (arising from stress, no doubt), and they take so long to finish that I become one of those people who complain they have no time to read.

In his wonderful introduction to the anthology A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, David Davidar quotes A.K. Ramanujan:

As we grew up, Sanskrit and English were our father-tongues, and Tamil and Kannada our mother-tongues. The father-tongues distanced us from our mothers, from our own childhoods, and from our villages and many of our neighbours in the cowherd colony next door. And the mother-tongues united us with them.

We may conclude that this tug of war I witness between my mother-tongue and my adopted mother-tongue has existed long enough.

As though David Davidar knew of my shame, he says:

I think it is fatuous to consider Indian writing in English unauthentic for two reasons: (1) Those of us who write in English do so because that is the language we are most comfortable with (‘our father-tongue’) and it makes us no less Indian, nor our reality any less Indian and (2) English has been an Indian language for many hundreds of years now, and is as rooted in this soil as any of the other ‘Indian’ languages that arrived from beyond our borders.

I feel better, thank you. My embarrassment now lurks behind an ill-deserved sense of accomplishment, in a hurry to assume that knowing a language is the same as knowing it well.

By means of aimless internet browsing leading to the right webpages, I happened to order a copy of Kurunthokai — Love. Loss. Landscapes (translated and illustrated by S. Ramachandran). In her introduction, she writes:

Despite my fascination with these poems, I was limited by my lack of formal education in Tamil. I still plodded on, aided by various commentaries and dictionaries, often repeating the poem to myself until the cadence of the poem grew on me. I drew the vignettes the poem suggested, an activity that brought the poem alive before my eyes.

Now this just made me feel more ashamed than before. Clearly, S. Ramachandran has reserves of dedication and concentration I can only dream of. However, she gives me hope that someday I shall understand one of these poems without having to call up friends or performing a Google search (or reading a translation). There is one question that lends itself to endless debates in my mind — which words to translate, which words to leave untranslated? In my brief but memorable correspondence with the author, she answered me:

I don’t think I am very happy with most of the poems I have translated so far. Some words and phrases are untranslatable according to me. The kurugu, for instance. It’s a heron-like bird, but it’s also a symbol of secrecy, shyness and finesse. It is a discerning bird: it rarely comes out of its nest, concentrates on its task, usually without making the slightest sound. Mentioning the name kurugu conjures up an image of placid waters and a bird with a monk’s mind staring into the waters. This is a cultural, poetic context that is known only to a connoisseur of the poetry. How does the translator convey this wealth of meaning into a poor word like heron? She may choose to ignore all that meaning – the poems are still quite nice, although impoverished in my opinion. Or she may work the context into the poem and be more verbose than necessary, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but not a great choice either. Or use footnotes to provide context. Or leave the word untranslated, and let the reader discover the meaning when he reads multiple poems. So yeah, this is particularly difficult when it comes to Sangam poetry.

Let us look at the short story Stolen, by Amrita Narayanan. This story is not one you easily forget. The writing is not shy, even when describing the sexual encounter between two women; it aims to provoke reactions from the reader. It is also impossible to not notice how rooted the story is in a Tamil context. The author freely uses Tamil phrases, and doesn’t bother to explain them too. “ Ippodhaan chutney panna aarambichirukkiyaa? [Have you only now started to prepare the chutney?]” or “Uma yenna time vanthaa? [What time did Uma come?]” Why are these lines not in English, when some of the other dialogue is? How did the author arrive at this decision?

The question of choosing was on my mind when reading Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation of Perumal Murugan’s Pookuzhi (Pyre), in which there is a lot of direct speech, as opposed to exposition (which I imagine is easier to translate). This is a frightening book, because it needn’t be fiction at all. A pop culture reference sets this novel in 1980 (the release of the movie Gramathu Athiyayam), but it might as well be present-day Tamil Nadu with caste politics and savagery lurking just beneath the surface. There is a charming exchange between the leads, who are romantically involved. They belong to different castes and therefore speak differently. She calls a matchstick vathuchippullu, while he calls it neruppukkuchi. These words are left as such in the book, but I assume this must have been an easy choice, because translating all of it to English leaves the dialogue with no significance at all.

In what I consider to be the gravest of transgressions, I ended up reading a translation of Silapathikaram. Yes, that great Tamil novel which seemingly set the standard for virtuous Tamil women, translated by Alain Danielou (a Frenchman — it’s as though the universe wants me to feel guilty). So many…um…nuggets of ‘wisdom’ — the duties of a good wife, or how a married woman’s only deity is her husband, or even how the fertility of a land is directly related to how virtuous its women are. Amusing and terrifying all at once.

Interestingly, the guilt doesn’t make an appearance when I read translations of literary works in other Indian languages. If that were the case, I could have, at the very least, emotionally manipulated myself into learning more languages, and found fame for a brief amount of time as a self-declared polyglot. But this absence of guilt also marks the absence of any other emotion. I don’t find myself cringing over the choice of a word, or I don’t find myself translating the text back to its original language in my head. I don’t find myself making promises I can’t keep, I don’t find my mouth going to its sheepish-grin-position.

Is it true then, what they say about the connection with one’s mother-tongue? If so, why isn’t the connection deep enough for us to want to do something about it? And so we languish, neither here nor there, expressing our thoughts in two or more languages, adept at none, starting our train of thought with one and ending with another, marveling at the ease with which we switch, failing to realise we now know lesser of everything.

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