Told in Malayalam: A new anthology presents the best of 120 years of Kerala’s literature, in translation

A book of this nature, and ambition, immediately raises the question of the criteria for inclusion. It could be what the anthologist likes best, or it could be representational.

Written by NS Madhavan | Updated: July 8, 2017 2:52 pm
Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature, Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature book reviews, P.P. Raveendran, G.S. Jayasree, Malayalam culture,Malayalam Literature  Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature

Book name: Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature

Author: P.P. Raveendran and G.S. Jayasree

Publisher: OUP India

Pages: 1008

Price:  1,750

Modern Malayalam is a young language, not more than five centuries old. Thunchathu Ezhuthachan, who is near-unanimously reckoned as the father of the language, lived in the 16th century. Right when he was writing his epic poetry, elsewhere in Kerala, the Portuguese were building forts, fervently trading, fighting bloody battles, and, in the process, loaning many words to the fledgling language. Not only did Malayalam borrow words from successive aggressors — and prior to that, from traders to the Malabar coast — it also took genres like the novel and the short story from European sources. This part of its literary tradition is not dissimilar to that of other Indian languages. In short, what makes up modern literature in these languages, except poetry, is only a little over a century old. Therefore, the two-volume Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature edited by PP Raveendran and GS Jayasree, along with project editor Mini Krishnan, covers only recently trodden ground in the language — a time-span of about 120 years.

A book of this nature, and ambition, immediately raises the question of the criteria for inclusion. It could be what the anthologist likes best, or it could be representational. There are some extreme examples in the former category, like Salman Rushdie and Elizebeth West’s The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997, in which the compilers found it fit to include only one work (that of Saadat Hasan Manto) from the Indian languages. This anthology falls in the second category. It tries to open a window to Malayalam literature, across periods, gender, and even communities. Even then, choices will be questioned; the anthologist’s life is tough.

Poetry stands out in this anthology, perhaps for historical reasons. Verse was the natural literary form of early Malayalam, with smatterings of prose interspersing texts. In those sparsely literate days, literary texts were transmitted orally and that called for metre and rhyme; the poems selected in this anthology follow this tradition. No blank verses or prose poems. While some of the translators (like Rizio Yohannan Raj, KM George, AK Ramanujan and PP Raveendran) have captured the cadence of the original, some lapse into bland prose arranged in broken lines. I would have cherished the Changapuzha poem more, had it been mellifluous and alliterative, like the original.

Drama is not Malayalam’s strong suit and it is reflected in the book as well as the state of theatre in Kerala. It was, not long ago, a medium for social change, with reformers and the communists using it effectively. As a result, works of early stalwarts stand out, followed by a bit of a whimper. C.J. Thomas’s Crime 27 of 1128, a play written in 1954, suggests early intimations of modernity in Malayalam literature and the translator, Sherine Upot, did well in sticking to the staccato speech of the original.

The essays are a mixed bag, clearly pointing to the crisis in education in Kerala. Centuries of classical education based on Sanskrit had produced formidable scholars in Kerala. So did colonial schooling grounded in English and Malayalam. With the wilting of both systems, the scholarship and clarity required for writing lucid prose slowly disappeared. The compilers seem to have realised this; the youngest essayist in this section was born in 1968.

Malayalam has always put its best foot forward in fiction. In 1962, when Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen, the first Malayalam novel to gain a readership outside Kerala, appeared in English translation, it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. One of the two volumes of this anthology is entirely devoted to novel excerpts and short stories. (Disclosure: One of my stories is included).

There seems to be some blindness on the part of the editors regarding the younger generation of writers. In the introduction to Part 1 of these volumes, they write, “the younger writers of the present age have been chosen keeping in view their representative status rather than canonical merit.” This hesitation seems to have kept the youngest poet in this anthology at 48 years of age and the youngest fiction writer at 41. But there are writers in Malayalam as good as those included in the volume, who haven’t yet started wearing bifocals.

Malayalam, unlike its sister languages like Tamil or Kannada, does not have renowned translators to English. If Malayalam books have done well in English, more often than not, it owes to thematic strength rather than elegant writing. This becomes a problem for an anthology in which each writer is expected to speak out in his or her unique voice. Uneven in quality, some translations in this anthology fail to live up to this benchmark.

Translations are also zeitgeisty. By the time OV Vijayan got down to translating his classic novel, The Legends of Khasak, (included in this volume), some two decades after the original appeared in Malayalam, attitudes towards sex and politics had changed. Vijayan practically rewrote the novel in English, taking care to be in consonance with the ideologies of the day. An egregiously bad translation I found in this volume is that of Allopanishad (Allah’s Upanishad, translated by KM Sherrif), an iconic short story by the late Pattathuvila Karunakaran. The title is changed to Akbar’s Upanishad, even though the Allopanishad, a book of dubious origin probably written in Akbar’s time, is a historical reality. If this is cowardly concession to times such as these, then some deft editing was called for.

Such minor glitches apart, this book is what it set out to be — “a comprehensive anthology of modern Malayalam literature which would be useful to researchers, literary treasure hunters and votaries of the language, which can only be read in translation.” This is OUP’s second major anthology of translations from Malayalam. The first was The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing. Sadly, no similar compilation has ever been published in the mother tongue, Malayalam. Publishing in the Indian languages requires commitment like this; few initiatives of this nature are visible in their domains.

NS Madhavan is a noted Malayalam fiction writer
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