Reviews & Recommendations

A son’s labour of love

English readers can now read at least some works by one of Malayalam’s greatest writers

AJ Philip

The Ramayana became popular in the country only when it was translated into various Indian languages from the original in Sanskrit by Tulsidas, Ezhuthachan and Kambar among others. Similarly, Rabindranath Tagore created history when his Gitanjali (Offering of Songs) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He was the first Asian to get this prize.

Tagore translated his own work into English, gave it to poet-Laureate WB Yeats, who liked it and wrote a beautiful introduction. And when it was published with a very well-designed cover page, Gitanjali became an instant hit in the English-speaking world. The rest is history.

This shows how much important translation is to the popularity of a book. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk writes in Turkish language but he has a great translator whose translation is so good that the reader never feels that he is reading a translation. For every Turkish original, a dozen or so of his translated works are sold all over the world.

It is not that all books can be translated. There are writers whose works can easily be translated and there are writers whose works are a huge challenge to the translator. Kakanadan is one writer who belongs to the second category.

Says M Mukundan, well-known Malayalam writer: “Kakanadan’s oeuvre poses a permanent challenge to translation. It is not easy to render his powerful prose into any other language”. Small wonder that few have dared to translate Kakanadan’s novels and short stories into other languages.

This reviewer is glad that Kakanadan’s son and journalist Rishi Kakanadan has been bold enough to translate 14 of his short stories, spanning almost all phases of his father’s writing career, and publish them as an anthology titled Blue Eclipse and Other Stories. It can only be described as a labour of love.

George Varghese Kakanadan was a rebel who defied all notions of tradition. He was in many ways like his father who was known as a Red Missionary because he rebelled against the Church and gave shelter to the Communists when the police were hunting for them.

Once when this writer called on Kakanadan’s mother and introduced himself as a friend of the writer’s younger brother and painter, the late Rajan Kakanadan, she warmly received me with the comment, “When others’ children make money, my children make friends!”

I narrated this incident only to give the reader a peep into Kakanadan’s life and literature. He had a government job in Delhi and life seemed to be going steady when he quit and left for East Germany only to quit the research project, return to Kerala to take up full-time writing. It was quite bold of him to do so at a time when only a few writers could make a decent living based on the royalties they earned.

As a writer, Kakanadan stood apart from the established writers in Malayalam of his time. Either platonic love or momentary romance was the theme that most of them grappled with.

One of the greatest and most successful and most-translated novels in Malayalam, Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen (Shrimp) was about the yearning of two lovers for each other, based on a superstitious belief that the fate of the fisherman at sea depended on the chastity of his wife back at home.

Kakanadan had no ink or paper to waste on pulp romance. Instead, he introduced characters from everyday life who, too, did not have any time to salivate at the prospect of a physical union and would rather pay for such services.

He wrote about those who “at night, when the children go to sleep, they collapse somewhere, some after taking a bath, others without taking one. Then, at night, when the children go to sleep, they roll up to their wives — who smell of vegetables, sweat and dough — and get into the act of reproduction right next to the sleeping children, their eyes closed, as mechanically as they work in office.”

Where else do you find a brother who tells his friend, “I have two sisters; if they want to take up prostitution for a living, they are free to, but I cannot go to them and suggest that,” except in Kakanadan’s story titled The Rogue?

Seventeen is a title that raises hopes of some romance but it ends as soon as the story begins. “I had two Rupees in my pocket. She smiled at me. That night I gave her the two Rupees in a by-lane behind Curzon Road (now Kasturba Gandhi barracks. As I tossed and turned sleepless in gnawing hunger that night, I was still happy — with the joy she had given me”.

Arrack, ganja, booze and pimps, not necessarily in the same order, find expressions in story after story. From the Babel to Sidhartha to Sri Chakram, the writer draws his inspiration from various personalities to narrate his own stories which are at once as outstanding as they are beyond belief.

Sri Chakram that touches on dualism and non-duality in Hindu philosophy is, arguably, the most seminal among all the 14 stories, when you feel that the model is the real. Kakanadan raises the outcasts to heroes and angels.

The book leaves in the reader a desire to read more of Kakanadan and that is no mean achievement for a translator. Here I must confess that I do not remember to have read any of these stories in their original in Malayalam. Rishi Kakanadan has done a commendable job. His language is simple, flawless and it flows like a river when it is not in spate.

For those who are not familiar with Kakanadan or his works, M Mukundan’s Kakanadan: Life and Writings and A.K. Abdul Hakkeem’s Interview with Kakanadan which are included as a postscript provide a pen-portrait of the writer and his work.

All those who cannot read Malayalam will feel indebted to Rishi and Harper Perrennial for introducing to the non-Malayalam readers one of Malayalam’s greatest writers. This success needs to be replicated to cover the whole body of his work.

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