Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Review

Wooden Cow

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: Wooden Cow

Author & Translator: T. Janakiraman, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan

Publisher: Orient Blackswan Private Ltd, 2021

T. Janakiraman (1921-82), affectionately known as Thi Jaa, is an iconic, widely read and revered Tamil writer and one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. Belonging to the Manikkodi movement in Tamil literature, which brought in new ways of writing, with an emphasis on the art of fiction as practiced by the Modernist writers in England, he wrote in a deliberately pared-down style and explored psychological ramifications. It is no coincidence that the hundredth year of his birth is being celebrated in 2021 in a great way. As a tribute to him, Orient Blackswan has just published a second edition of his Tamil novel Marappasu (Wooden Cow) aptly translated by Lakshmi Kannan, the well-known contemporary bilingual writer and poet. A novel quite controversial when it was written, it is basically the portrayal of a strong woman who lives by her own convictions, rejects the institution of marriage, and who remains true to herself, despite social censure.

Narrated in the first person by the protagonist Ammani, it is through her consciousness that the events of the novel are reflected. Divided into two parts, the first section delineates Ammani’s growth from a precocious child to a luminous, spirited young woman. She leaves her natal home for higher education to live with her Periappa and Periamma, her uncle and aunt, and starts living a non-traditional life. The opening sentence of the novel, “Almost anything makes me laugh” vouches for her strange beliefs and behavior. Her headstrong nature coupled with her intolerance of injustice results in her being mired in controversy over and over again. She ‘hardened’ her mind as she “knew there is no meaning in marriage and all that sham in the name of respectability”. She doesn’t wish to steal but wishes to live on her own terms. She spouts communist philosophy and rails against the unjust treatment of the poor by the government. Though financially very poor, she goes and invites the famous singer and musician Gopali to perform at her cousin’s wedding celebrations. Soon Gopali’s charisma draws her into his ambit. He takes her to Madras and also arranges dance lessons for her and moves her into a house he buys for her. Ammani rejects marriage as a bourgeois concept but soon accepts her hedonistic new life and begins her unconventional and volatile relationship with Gopali.

In the second part of the novel, we see Ammani as a woman of the world, divested of all her connections with traditional Brahmin society. Wary of marriage, which she sees as a lifelong imprisonment, she travels around the world giving Bharatnatyam performances.  Gradually her relationship with Gopali is strained when he realises that he is not her only male companion. Ammani’s many romantic entanglements provide her with a different view of the man-woman relationship. She gets into a relationship with a man called Pattabhi but laughs it off when he proposes marriage, thus wounding him deeply. Throughout the novel there are many more instances of her waywardness. She poses as a streetwalker in London and picks up a Vietnam war veteran called Bruce with whom she spends three weeks. Initially Bruce is convinced that he “got to know a rare human being”. He tells her, “You may have slept with three hundred people and kissed a few thousand. But you are a very pure woman”. But when he tries to be intimate with her, Ammani states: “I’m a public girl. At the same time, I’m also not public. I can be bought. But I’m also not for sale. It’s possible to stick to me, but it won’t last. Why are you looking at me as if I was an exhibit?”

She explains to him that she has no relations or friends. She drops each friend in their place and moves on. While on a train journey with Gopali, she makes a sardonic assertion that she is not Gopali’s wife and confuses the fellow English passengers travelling with them. Thus, far from adhering to the caste and class hierarchies and morality, the novelist portrays Ammani as a woman who lives by her own convictions and remains true to herself despite social censure. Towards the end of the story however she realises through the marital relationship between her servant Pachiappan and his wife Maragadham that a man and a woman can also be true soulmates, and this renews her faith in the institution of marriage.

The title is based on her perceptions when she sees a dead cow on the street one day. People were wary of the unpleasant task of having to dispose the carcass, even though the cow had provided milk and had borne calves when she was alive. Metaphorically speaking, she perceives herself to be similar to the cow that lacks functionality, and therefore wooden. By disclaiming the institution of marriage, she has been merely a shining curio that has not been of any real value to others.

Translation and its problems are nothing unique and hence critics have even labelled it by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation.’ In Mouse or Rat? Translation As Negotiation, Umberto Eco writes about a postlapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.” By suggesting that translation is a negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures, whether it be a loss or a gain on either side, Eco emphasizes that a translator’s job is to decide what elements are vital and which may be neglected. In another instance, the problems of translation are put forward by Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts (which she self-translated from Italian to English) attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”

That Lakshmi Kannan decided to re-translate the original Tamil text once again after a gap of nearly forty years vouches for the fact that a translation can never be declared as one and final. What she did in the first edition in 1979 left her dissatisfied and as she herself declared, trying to do a fresh translation of an older piece of work was like wrestling with “a new kind of beast that is hard to describe and difficult to handle”.

By paying more attention to enhance readability for a contemporary audience as well as to preserve the Tamil flavor of the original by retaining many original words in the text and providing a glossary at the end, this revised version has emerged rejuvenated as a new text.

As Anita Balakrishnan rightly points out in her foreword, the author wrote in the distinctive Tamil dialect of the Kaveri delta that created a characteristic style. This made the task of translating even more daunting, for the carrying across of the nuances of the Thanjavur Brahmin register is no mean task. Also, Jankiraman’s technique of interweaving the mellifluous strains of Carnatic music with his pathbreaking themes helped him to ensure his place in the great tradition of modern Tamil fiction. With a good command of both English and Tamil, Kannan’s translation ably captures the nuances of the original text, and she should be congratulated for bringing the works of T. Janakiraman to a pan-Indian as well as global readership. Her unique attempt to re-translate the novel once again by rectifying all the lapses in the earlier translation speaks of her sincerity, integrity and ultimately love for her mother tongue Tamil as well.

Somdatta Mandal is a critic and translator and a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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