Letter from India ( Vol 1), 20 March 2019

India is a sub-continent. In terms of the book market there are many markets that reside within it. The vast variety of literature that exists in the Indian regional languages is a testament to this fact. For some years now translations from various regional lanaguages into English has been growing. Three of the recently published translations are from Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada. These are Outcaste by Matampu Kunjukuttam ( translated from Malalayam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan), Kalpakam and Other Stories by K. Savitri Ammal (translated from Tamil by Sudha Ratnam) and No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories by Jayant Kaikini ( translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana).

Outcaste ( Brushte) is an extraordinary story recounting the sensational excommunication of the high-born Namboodiri Brahmin Kuriyedathu Thatri and a large number of her lovers ( some say 64!) from the Hindu kingdom of Kochi. It is a true incident that rattled the aristocracy as well as the Brahmins. Although this incident occured in 1905, more than a century later it continues to haunt the imagination of Malayalis. Interestingly Thatri’s lovers belonged not only to the most powerful families of the Malayali Brahmin aristocracy but also were Nair and Sudra men. It was a scandal that was written about in the papers such as Malayala Manorama.

Mayampu Kunhukuttan wrote the novel in Sanskritized Malayalam. According to the translator Vasanthi Sankaranaryanan this encapsulated the grandeur of lifestyle of the Namboodiris and the practices that prevailed amongst them and the Nairs while also lacing it with the acerbic wit of the Namboodiris. While the story itself is fascinating for it evokes a historical moment when attitudes towards women were conservative despite the Namboodiris and Nairs following some matrilineal customs. The novel was first published in Malayalam in 1969 and translated in to English for the first time by Palgrave Macmillan in 1997. At the time the formidable editor Mini Krishnan was responsible for the list. In fact the novel was also adapted for theatre. Now that list is defunct but fortunately select titles from the Palgrave Macmillan backlist such as Outcaste have been resurrected. Aleph’s publication of it is timely. The issues raised in the story as well as the depiction of the strong women characters and the revenge wrought on her paramours by Thatri do not in any way seem dated. In fact the astounding events gain relevance in modern times with the conversations revolving around women and of course the #MeToo movement. While the story itself is gripping the presence of detailed footnotes while explaining the context/customs to the reader can also prove to be very disruptive to a smooth reading experience. Nevertheless Outcaste will be talked about for a long, long time to come.


Kalpakam and Other Stories by K. Savitri Ammal was first published in Tamil in 1958. While the primary focus of the stories is on upper-caste households in the early part of the twentieth century, it is the women characters that are unforgettable. Many of the situations, the predicaments depicted such as conversations about marriage ( “Sarasu’s Marriage”), finding the appropriate bridegroom (“Kalpakam” and “Remarriage”), the social pressures of being a childless woman (“Parvati’s Decision”), balancing career and love at a time when the concept of working women was considered unusual (“An End Unforseen”), treating single women irrespective of age as free labour ( “Dilemma in Kindness”), the idea of love and freedom of choosing one’s partner (“A Journey to Rangoon” and “Kalpakam”). Many of the situations described are very similar to scenarios women of today find themselves in. Take for instance the social attitudes towards single women of perceiving them as commodities rather as individuals with their own free will, barbed comments towards childless women and the insistence on getting married at the appropriate age. The gentleness of K. Savitri Ammal’s writing, with its even tenor of tone while sharing a story, however disturbing it may be, is conveyed beautifully in the translation by her grand-niece Sudha Ratnam. Not being familiar with the original language of Tamil in no way hinders the fine reading experience of the stories translated smoothly in to English. The translation seems to retain the flavour of the period when the stories were first written as evident in tiny details of using “Chennai” and “Madras” interchangeably without in any way being adamant about transfering phrases in Tamil in to English as is — a characteristic trait often found in translations of Indian regional language texts into English. The emphasis in this translation seems to be on the pure joy of reading about another culture through its stories in a more-than-competent English translation — it is a translation imbued with love.

Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories won the DSC Prize 2018. It is a collection of his short stories written in Kannada over the past few decades. They begin in the 1980s and some are as recent as a few years ago. These are stories of ordinary folk, ordinary situations, every day predicaments that exist in the vast melting point of Mumbai. It is a vast metropolis where the vast gap between the haves and have nots are stark. Mumbai is associated with vast crowds, masses of humanity moving from one place to the next. Whereas in Jayant Kaikini’s expert hands even the ordinary nameless person has a distinctive personality and identity. Some of the stories are moving, some are haunting, some are full of kindness and warmth, some are disturbing but the one common feature they all have — the stories are unforgettable. The stories were jointly selected by the translator and author. There is an essay included in the book about the translation process. It is insightful for the snippets of conversation shared between the author and translator particularly in translating “the flavour of speech, the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhani speech which is the cultural vernacular of Bombay and is signalled prominently in all the stories.” Tejaswini Niranjana continues “In the flow of plain Kannada writing, these hybrid phrases are signposts that function in such a way as to mark, in Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s phrase, a sort of territorial realism. Jayant an I argued about how much of this to translate into English. After he complained about my frugality, I put back some of the phrases I’d removed or translated out. But I also worried about the book what we were setting adrfit in the world, away from Bombay, and the fact it would acquire readers without proficiency in Hindustani. I solved the problem by doing parallel translations — leaving in the Hindustani word but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning. This way, nothing goes completely unexplained, even as the public language of the city makes itself heard in the sentences.”

The Indian book market is also known for its vast variety of original literature in English as well as for many international titles. It is a market that is growing at a phenomenal pace with a growing number of readers, particularly many young people, but it is also a price sensitive market. So for publishers to offer good literature while being acutely conscious of the pricing structures will always be challenging but it does not deter them from creating it.

20 March 2019

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