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Language No Bar

A 137-year-old woman tells stories in Gopallapuram; an idealistic student meets an abandoned bride on a boat. A look at translations

Written by Amrita Dutta |
December 3, 2011 12:09:21 am

Once upon a time,all stories began in villages,when darkness had fallen and the cows had tinkled home. Then an old crone,her face lined with wisdom and eyes glazed with the past,would gather around her little children and ancient spirits and begin. Gopallapuram (translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy,Penguin,Rs 199) by Tamil writer Ki. Rajanarayanan,is about such a village,where myth and magic have not become tawdry in the light of modernity. Ki. Ra,as he is better known,spent decades collecting the tales of a drought-stricken,unyielding land — Tamil Nadu’s Karisal Kadu. These are stories tilled from the earth,but not dull and common for being so. The characters of this slim volume are proud men and women. In their tradition-bound lives,we find all that makes people human everywhere — greed and lust,courage and guile,fear and violence,and unsparing humour.

In the vast Kottaiyar home,the village’s richest household,where the kitchen fire never burns out,and where the doors are always open to visitors,lives Mangaiathaar Ammal,hundred-and-thirty-seven years old,an ocean of experiences and stories. Her grandsons,the seven Nayakkar brothers,retire to her chamber to hear her tell and retell old tales — how they fled their homes in Andhra to escape the oppression of a Muslim king to Gopallapuram,where they coaxed a stubborn land to fertility and how they met death and divine grace on the way. Her tales weave the past into the present.

Gopallapuram is less one family’s story than a collection of vignettes about a village. A band of dacoits attacks the village and is foiled by quick thinking and a slippery carpet of ragi seeds. A highway robber kills a pregnant woman for her dazzling ear ornament. Village justice brooks no mercy,he is impaled on a stake,and lies in mortal pain for days. But his remorse in the last moments of his life turns him into a village legend.

A village is again at the centre of the narrative in Mahidhara Ramamohanarao’s 1965 Telugu novel Swarajyam (translated by Vecunta Mohan Prasad,OUP,Rs 495). But in Munganda,a Brahmin-only village in the 1920s Andhra,the certainty of tradition is contested. The Telugu title of the novel is Kollayigattitheynemi,the refrain of a popular Telugu patriotic song,meaning,“What if he wore a loin cloth?” It’s a fond reference to the “half-naked fakir”,and Gandhi’s call for satyagraha frames the novel. Here,the British are not cast as the Other; the probe instead turns inwards to a civilisation caught in the fog of caste discrimination. In Munganda,a man loses his caste if he crosses the seven seas,Dalits wait for hours for a kind Brahmin to draw water for them from common wells,and a man has to “atone” for having eaten food cooked by a member of another caste.

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Ramanatham is a young man of the village. Stirred by Gandhi’s call to students to leave studies and work in villages,he returns home. His family is dismayed,his friends are uncomprehending,but the test of Ramanatham’s idealism has only begun. On a boat ride,he meets Swarajyam,the daughter of a freedom fighter and abandoned bride,who is rejected by her in-laws because she insists on continuing her education. Ramanatham finds himself left with few allies and thrown into prison in a false case,all of which lead him to reject the pernicious division that passes off as tradition. This is not a story told in the subaltern’s voice,though; the Dalits remain minor characters. But in its story of a man confronted with the ramifications of the reform he endorses,Swarajyam has a contemporary connect.

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First published on: 03-12-2011 at 12:09:21 am

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