Short story

Such a long journey

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Constanzo Beschi. He was popularly known as Veeramamunivar.

Va. Ve. Su. Aiyar.

A. Madhavaiah. Photo: By Special Arrangement

C.N. Annadurai.

The anthology, remarkably inclusive and cohesive at once, is testimony to the abundant creativity found in regional languages such as Tamil.

AN anthology of 88 Tamil short stories in translation, spanning nine decades between 1913 and 2000, provides an unique insight into Tamil society, its politics, people, culture and diversity, and its transition from an essentially rural existence during the late colonial period to its present urban reality in a globalised environment.

Classical Tamil literature had a neat demarcation— agam (interior) and puram (exterior), where agam dealt with the interior or the mindscape of lovers and their relationships while puram dealt with social issues, governance, war and justice. For nearly two millennia, the dominant form of literature in Tamil was poetry. It was the language’s engagement with colonialism that produced its prose, which also marked the complex, multilayered transformation of a region ruled by chieftains and local rulers into an administrative unit called Madras Presidency and eventually the State of Tamil Nadu. The advent of prose in Tamil played three crucial roles: it democratised the society, gave the people a language to deal with their everyday challenges and blurred the line between agam and puram, leading to an intricate interplay between these two categories.

Theories about all beginnings are contested, and the beginning of the Tamil short story is no different. According to some Tamil academic scholars, the first set of short stories in prose was written by the Italian Jesuit priest Constanzo Beschi, popularly known as Veeramamunivar. His collection of stories, Paramarthaguruvin Kathai (The Adventures of Guru Paramartha), published as early as 1728, is known for parable-like renditions of tales that effortlessly fused theological inquiry, moral derelictions and elements of the absurd in its narration. However, literary scholars feel that this was just a beginning of prose writing in Tamil and that these stories are in reality re-renderings of the Fables by the 17th century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine. Their argument gains credence from the fact that though the first Tamil novel, Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram, was written in 1857, there was no short work of fiction in Tamil until the beginning of the 20th century.

Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy’s anthology, The Tamil Story, starts from the period when the short story, both as a form as well as a socio-political tool, was firmly established. The early anti-colonial struggle, the fight for women’s rights, the role of nascent media (especially magazine journalism), caste discrimination, and the urge to be a part of emerging modernity that promised an egalitarian future were the markers of the early short stories in Tamil.

Dilip Kumar is identified as the anthology’s editor and Subashree Krishnaswamy as the translator of these stories. However, a closer reading reveals that it is an organic collaborative effort that attempts to sew the multiple strands into a tapestry, which captures the vibrancy of this classical language’s journey from a strict, grammarian-driven written tradition to a new form of narratives that instilled the wonders of oral tradition into its prose. While Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy recognise that three stalwarts, Subramania Bharathi, Va. Ve.Su. Aiyar and Aa. Madhavaiah, are the pioneers of this genre of writing, they have managed to locate other fine stories from that period to establish the fact that the short story form took its own root in the language and that its practitioners not only mastered the art of storytelling but also tweaked the language to represent the new needs of a society in the throes of momentous change.

Those stories are Sankalpamum Sambavamum (1913) by Ammani Ammal (on page 95), Subbayyar (1921) by Selvakesavarayar and Moondril Edhu (1924) by V. Visalakshiammal.

The anthologists have tried to be as inclusive as possible to offer a glimpse of the richness of the new literary form in Tamil. “We set ourselves three vital principles to attain the larger objective of this collection and guide us through the selection. First, apart from all the conventional elements of the short story, we wanted the selected pieces to possess a very strong sense of ‘story’, so that they would survive the conflict of nuances between languages during the process of translation. Second, we decided to choose stories that reflected diverse geographical, professional and social backdrops that are a composite of Tamil life and ethos. Finally, the commitment of the writer to the form of the short story and to the truthful narration of the depicted experience was crucial. These parameters instilled clarity of vision in the work at hand,” says Dilip Kumar.

To be inclusive and cohesive

While the objective to be inclusive in the selection of stories is commendable, it also poses the challenges of providing a sense of cohesion to the collection. The compilers had to take into account three distinct political trajectories and two opposing ideas of what constitutes art in creative writing. The three political trajectories, broadly speaking, are the nationalistic stream inspired by the experiments in Bengali language, the Left’s social realism largely inspired by the Russian masters and the Self-Respect Movement’s desire to retain the wellsprings of the linguistic identity against the tide of homogenisation that flowed from Indian nationalism. The ideas contesting for supremacy were “art for art’s sake” and “art for social and economic change”.

Dilip Kumar and Subashree Krishnaswamy have managed to navigate these choppy waters rather well. They have chosen stories from iconic writers representing each of these streams. One can quibble about their various choices. Another set of editors may have selected some other stories of each of the authors represented in the anthology. They may have even chosen a different set of authors. For instance, C.N. Annadurai and T.K. Srinivasan represent the Dravidian movement in this anthology. Some may feel that S.S. Thennarasu and M. Karunanidhi should have been included.

One avid reader of contemporary Tamil literature felt that the stories of Konangi and Poomani featured in the book reflect their early styles and do not capture their later experiments with form, language and narrative styles. In this context, Dilip Kumar’s explanation of the selection criteria seems fair. He says: “Our collection tries to be as representative as possible, primarily focussing on literary achievements that stand the test of time. But we have taken care not to overlook some of the cherished pieces of popular writing. Popular writings in Tamil, always distinct, attempt to discuss and expose topical conflicts and human folly in a way that never breaks any convention nor hurts any tradition.”

The anthologists also point out that they had to leave out some of their favourite writers and their stories because those stories were not amenable to translation. “I kept these important things in mind when I finally chose a story: one, the story had to have a universal appeal, despite its unique cultural specificities. But that doesn’t mean that we settled for simpler stories. A challenging text which would prod me to bring out the beauty of the source language in English was what we looked for. It was also vital that the translated text retained almost all the nuances and the natural flow of the original, overcoming the inevitable losses that happen during any process of translation.

“A few translations had to be abandoned since they did not stand up to scrutiny after translation. Some stories hinged totally on local dialect, while a few were riddled with too many linguistic impossibilities, which, when elaborated upon within the text, made the reading experience cumbersome and laborious. Besides, a few stories that resonated strongly among readers in Tamil quite simply did not work with readers of the translation. Including such stories would have shown the authors in poor light,” says Subashree Krishnaswamy.

What makes this anthology ring true to Tamil ears is that it has retained the quaintness of certain usages and refused to smoothen the linguistic rough edges to sound right for an essentially English reader. “We were conscious that the essence of the original must be retained. We wanted the intonations of Tamil to come through—the slang, the idiomatic usage, and even the swear words, if possible. We would like the readers to experience the Tamil culture, the Tamil language. We have taken great care to retain the authors’ distinctly diverse voices from different regions, strata and times. We hope that the reader can perceptively sift the ironic gaze from the comic and the metaphysical. We also hope this text, a different avatar from the original, will usher in a new readership for the writers and introduce to the readers an entirely fresh world,” says Subashree Krishnaswamy.

The translators have used kinship terms unapologetically in many places, and this not only retains the essence of Tamil but also draws our sensibilities to its fluid syntax in the spoken form, which is the basis for most of the stories. The free use of Tamil words somehow seamlessly merge with the narrative, and the context provides the meaning. For readers who find it difficult to understand what a particular word means in English, there is an extensive glossary at the end where every non-English word is explained. This anthology becomes a great reading experience because it refrains from that annoying habit of adding footnotes and endnotes for almost every sentence that have a culture specificity.

In a larger sense, this anthology is an act of repudiation of the claims made by Salman Rushdie when he co-edited The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997. Rushdie’s claim was: “The prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen ‘recognised’ languages of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

None of the Tamil stories are second to any of the “Indo-Anglian” stories included in Rushdie’s volume. This speaks volumes for the abundance of creativity in Indian languages.

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