An artist as an anarchist

Print edition : August 17, 2018

A.J. Thomas. His translation of Perumpadavam Sreedharan’s Malayalam novel “Oru Sankeertanam Pole”, on the life of Dostoevsky, has hit the market. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Interview with A.J. Thomas, author, poet and translator.

A FEW minutes into the conversation with the author-poet-translator A.J. Thomas, whose Like A Psalm, the English translation of Perumpadavam Sreedharan’s Malayalam novel Oru Sankeertanam Pole has hit the market, one realises that speaking to him is like peeling an onion—revealing layer after layer before one gets to understand the energy, the imagination, of a poet. He is a lover of literature, one who lives by the crests and troughs of the written word.

Thomas has edited Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal, and is its guest editor now. He has taught English in Libya for eight years. A recipient of the Katha Award, he counts among his guests many Sahitya Akademi Award winners. Amidst all this he has found time to do an English translation of Sreedharan’s novel. Based on the events of a crucial six-month period in the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the novel in Malayalam has run into 80 editions since its publication 25 years ago in 1993. It speaks of how Dostoevsky was tricked by a publisher, F.T. Stellovsky, into signing a contract that would have forced him to forfeit the royalties of all his works if he did not complete the new novel in a month’s time. To assist him with the novel, The Gambler, Dostoevsky hires the services of Anna Grigorievna as a stenographer. Though he finished the book in time, Stellovsky had by then left the town, but Anna had the manuscript taken to the police station and submitted it there.

The two go beyond their professional commitment even as Dostoevsky strives to meet his deadline and then retreats to his own world where the appreciation of others would not matter a bit. “Please do not think I am indulging in self-praise. There would not be a peak which can equal it in the whole world of literature,” Dostoevsky tells Anna, conscious of his abilities. Yet all these emotional undercurrents portrayed in the novel would have remained beyond the reach of a non-Malayali reader but for Thomas’ labour of love. Incidentally, he started doing the translation some 15 years ago. But he soon he realised that literature, too, had to sell like soap or washing powder for a publisher to pick a manuscript. That entailed a long wait before LiFi Publications came forward to open a window to the world of Dostoevsky through the pen of Sreedharan and the translation of Thomas. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Translation is a bridge to the original language. How far do you agree?

Of course. But the content of a book of this type is not a Malayali-specific one. The story is not limited to a geographical span. If it is a book specific to the culture of Kerala, then it becomes very difficult to translate. For such a book the translation would be a rickety bridge where you have to manoeuvre your way through. Translation is not that easy. I have been at it for 40 years. You have to have the mind of a pioneer to find your way out as a translator.

I am asking this because you have been on both sides of the fence.

In my case, one of my friends, Anwar Ali, tried to translate my poetry into Malayalam. We were in college together. The kind of language I write is very personal. In poetry there is a special kind of language, but when I saw the translation I found that it had become typical Malayalam poetry, the poetry of the old school! I was awestruck. Translation of poetry can only be done by poets. Others who touch poetry for translation will find to their peril that they will not reach anywhere. Otherwise, it will be prose. Only a poet can translate poetry. I can extend it to a level that only an imaginative, creative writer can translate a work of literature.

So, how did a poet like you decide to translate a novel?

Well, I have been doing it for a long time, some 40 years. But I am not a professional translator, the kind you can commission to do one. I only do friends’ works. I do it out of love.

What drew you to Perumpadavam Sreedharan’s novel that you decided to take it up for translation?

Dostoevsky has been my staple. We all grew up on him. Many Malayalam-speaking people have grown up reading his translated works. He was a passion for people of my age. Even for people in their 40s. From there on, there has been a disconnect. Many of the youngsters do not know even modern Malayalam masters. [Vaikom Muhammad] Basheer is an exception. [O.V.] Vijayan is an exception. They are icons. The younger generation retains some touch with icons, others they avoid. No nodding acquaintance even.

Is that because of the absence of new voices in Malayalam literature?

The kind of turn culture has taken, it is all about films, TV, visual and performing arts, gaming, etc. Then the kind of time these things take. Today, students, IT workers do not have much time. They are pretty intense, concerned, about their career. The time available for them is limited. During that time, they would read only the six-seven icons. The reading habit is getting more and more limited.

Is it like a guy in Delhi going to Delhi University or Jamia Millia Islamia and reading Chetan Bhagat on the Metro?

Yes, but I do not think even Chetan Bhagat is okay with them. He is for the young executive. The fashionable ones among them somehow lay their hands on some fancy names to read. The real intellectuals, the JNU type, will go in for theory, debate.

Chetan Bhagat, to me, is very racy. You can read him cover to cover, if you do not have that kind of reflective mind.

Or literary grooming?

It is one way. It is like you watch certain kind of Bollywood films. Everything now is a cultural product, or even a literary product. Unabashedly so. Only the literary reader, or a filmgoer who is interested in real cinema of, say, Mani Kaul, will understand the cleft between the real and the popular.

Like it was with the Manmohan Desai versus Shyam Benegal debate in the 1970s?

Yes, like that. And that line is blurring. Nowadays, there is nothing like a New Wave, or a Mani Kaul kind of person. It is unabashedly commercial. Everything is a product. People have come to terms with things sooner than expected. In the early 1990s, it was an emerging market, GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] was being replaced by WTO [World Trade Organisation], [and] every intellectual was apprehensive, at least in Kerala. But today Kerala is the most consumerist State.

How do you present this novel to the bubblegum brigade, youngsters in the 18-to-25 age group?

If you read through the book, you will find it is a love story. It is a fantastic story in itself. In the opening two pages you will find that Dostoevsky is bereft of love. Then suddenly this young girl, Anna, comes, and there is an air of expectancy. Life changes.

The way Anna’s character shapes up reminds me of D.H. Lawrence's women, the kind who will take in a man without giving themselves away.

Yes, but there is one difference...

But there is the same throb, the same unbridled passion.

But Lawrence’s work was about young men fixated on their fathers, this is about a young woman fixated on her father. And Dostoevsky is a father figure. In the subtext, Anna is very proud of her father. Dostoevsky’s own character, while being almost demoniac, retains certain classic traits. Sreedharan has retained that. I have tried to do that as well.

The intimate sequences have been done with great detailing, yet the passion continues.

That is where the original novel succeeds, without ever mentioning anything sexual or erotic. It is all very sensual. There is a high level of intensity that plays on. There is Dostoevsky’s confession in a weak moment that he craves the flesh. For Anna, it is never that. She never acknowledges that.

Do you think Dostoevsky is a practitioner of that old saying that the body knows no love, it respects only lust?

Dostoevsky is like that in real life. He goes here and there, everywhere. Anna is the anchor who always brings him back from the brink.

But he also has great confidence in his work that this is going to be the benchmark for generations. Is it not ironical?

Dostoevsky always had that. And this despite all the pressures of deadline. Only his physical strength, excitement for gambling or epilepsy, affects his work, but nothing ever makes him doubt the excellence of his creative energy. He has loads of confidence.

You talk of gambling and drinking. Yet, at another place, Dostoevsky comes across as a believer.

That is again the hallmark of Dostovesky, not only from this novel. He calls himself Christian. He knows the Bible, he is ascetic to the core. Yet, he has this other side.

Is there not a paradox of him being a Bible-believing person and an ascetic and a drunkard?

It is like two sides of the same coin. Even in our Hindu tantric tradition, in Buddhism too, the phenomenon, the material side, is all there, the body is the spirit. Without the body there is no spirit. You cannot do karma without the body. So your body is also a spirit.

Is it not like the body craving a thing, like, say, food, or there is lust of the flesh, yet at the same time, there is a higher connection with God?

Yes, this is exactly what Tantrics say. Sexual intercourse is sanctified by many sects. There is absolutely no eroticism involved, it is just the power, the energy, flowing. But this is anchored. Dostoevsky had no source to know about tantra, etc. He must have read Western literature. His life was very close to that of a tantric master. The only difference is he pulled through. He comes across as a creative being.

For a layman, he is eager for the next round of indulgence with Anna. At the same time, he has his mind on the next novel.

It is not just about Dostoevsky. I have seen it in real life with many poets and novelists. They have the most mundane flesh-and-blood life. They may have a bout of different activities at night, then they come back and write the most elevated stuff in the morning. That is always there. Human beings have boundless creative energy. Whatever you try to modify, you will never allow yourself to be subjugated. If you are an artist, you are autonomous. You are anarchist in the right way. You make rules for yourself. This is there in Dostoevksy’s writing. He wrestles with Jesus, yet he is a believer. He goes to church but stands outside.

Is it like a writer being an outsider everywhere? Within the community of sinners, he would be a believer. Within the circle of believers, he would be a sinner.

It is a paradox. Unless you stand out, unless you live your life like that, you are not taken to be different. You will merge with the crowd. Even going by banal standards, an office-going man or a bureaucrat who is a writer will obviously want to be free. If you are reporting to others, you cannot be a writer, a creative anarchist. So one finds bureaucrats quitting work to take up full-time writing.

For instance, Upamanyu Chatterjee, whom I met in Kerala after many years recently.

Why is it that Anna has to hand over the manuscript of the novel at the end rather than the author?

The author is beyond caring at that point. It is not like he would rather be in the shadows. He is in a bout of self-adulation and has a masochistic streak that he deserves this. To rescue him from that, Anna comes forward. He was a very complex personality. Having found out that Stellovsky, the publisher, has outsmarted him, he is beyond bothering. Anna wants to save him, build a life with him.

Is that why she claims to be his wife to the police inspector?

She has decided to be his wife, though it does not matter if it is not registered. For all practical purposes, she is. There, in that one moment, everything crystallises. There comes the decision point for a very orderly Anna. This happened in real life.

Can you talk about your challenges while doing the translation?

I completed the translation in 2003 or 2004. I contacted five of the big publishing houses in Delhi. They had no time for a book like this. I never heard back from them after submitting the manuscript. Some of them claimed to have read it, though. Ultimately, I adopted Dostoevsky’s way. I had done my job. I was beyond caring. Ultimately, Lifi Publications came forward. They were looking for a manuscript. I was in Libya. I had decided against publishing it. But Lifi Publications drew me out. Thus the book came out. They have published some 2,000 copies. I hope the book reaches readers now.