Broad Reflections #3: Tamil short stories

Posted on May 12, 2016


So this is a plug, not just for the book you’re going to read about in a bit but also for the Tamil short story. The first grown-up stories I read were in Tamil. Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys adventures and other kinds of English reading came from the library, but I’d get done with them very quickly – and what else to do the rest of the day? So I’d pick up the Tamil magazines strewn around the house. At first, it was just the jokes. Cartoonist Madhan, at the time, had a series with alliteratively named protagonists (Rettaivaal Rengudu, Muzhu-sombal Murugesh). But slowly, I started reading the short stories and the serialised novels (which were like short stories with a “thodarum” at the end) by Indumathi or Sujatha or Sivasankari or Pattukottai Prabhakar – they’d come with drawings by Maruthi or Vaani or Jeyaraj (who’d just call himself “Je…” and whose women were always sexier, curvier, than the ones drawn by others).

So these were the first adult fiction I read – in the sense of stories about grown-up people, with grown-up problems. (I think this explains my comfort-food love for the short-story-like Tamil movie – films like Sooryagandhi and Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal.) I have always loved acquiring new words, in any language, and I cannot say now whether these stories appealed to the language-lover in me or the narrative-lover. Of course, I learnt a lot from Tamil movies and lyrics as well (one day, I will narrate the story of watching Enga Ooru Raasathi and learning what the Radhika character meant when she told Sudhakar, shyly, “Naan pushpavathi aayitten”), but short stories were where it all began.

I sometimes wish I’d followed up on this – in the sense, I wish I’d consistently sought out Tamil reading the way I sought out English reading. I could have easily, for instance, bought Tamil stories during my vacations and taken them to fill up the hostel months – or I could have even taken the volumes my father made by scissoring out the weekly installments from the magazines and getting them bound after the instalment that ended with “muttrum.” But I didn’t, and I slowly lost touch with regular Tamil reading (except for web articles and suchlike). After returning to India, I tried to get the habit back, reading the little poems in Vikatan’s Solvanam, for instance, but somehow I just never committed. I guess it makes me happy, then, that so much work in Tamil is now finding English translations. I’d highly recommend Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s lyrical translations of Perumal Murugan’s novels. And now, there’s this anthology, edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, who has written a few words about the book (after the picture). Do read. — Baradwaj Rangan

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Why the short story?

Spanning nine decades, this anthology of eighty-eight stories not only traces the evolution of the Tamil short story but, in the process, also showcases the blossoming of contemporary Tamil prose. It seems to us that nothing pares the Tamil psyche to its essentials like the short story. The gifted writers of this anthology have wielded the pen like a peeler, sometimes delicately skinning just the rind, at other times stripping away layers and layers, to expose the scattered realities and truths that make up the Tamil existence: simmering violence is as much a part of life as is innocent joy, ghosts and phantoms lurking in the dark abysses of the mind seem as real as the fully fleshed out characters that traipse across the page, simple aspirations are just a hairbreadth away from demonic desires.

As is well known, the short story was an exotic import from the West. Much like our forefathers who paired the veshti and the turban with a coat and socks with equanimity and ease, this genre too was quickly subsumed into the rich Tamil literary tradition. The writers neatly and deftly situated the stories in their own milieu and the genre soon became the major vehicle of literary expression to convincingly portray a range of human responses to the struggles and complexities of modern life.

The Selection:

Writers mine the world they inhabit, holding local situations and contexts to intense scrutiny, but stories can be deemed excellent only if they carry a strong whiff of the universal. We combed every available source: archival material, libraries, anthologies, obscure magazines and private collections. As we read the stories, our rationale for choosing them fell readily into place. One, apart from the all the conventional elements that make up short fiction, a strong sense of ‘story’ is what we looked for, so that the depicted experiences would survive the tussle between languages during the process of translation. Second, we wanted the anthology to reflect the rich microcosm of Tamil Nadu that cuts across diverse geographical, professional and social backdrops. Finally, the writer’s commitment to the form of the short story was as essential as the veracity of the narration.

The Stories

The canvas is wide, ever accommodating – nationalists rub shoulders with Marxists, realists reside cheek by jowl with idealists, literary stars keep company with unsung writers, popular writers hobnob with path-breaking modern voices, and polemical Dalit voices rub shoulders with introspective writers obsessed with their inner world. One day we were steeped in the raw, earthy world of Bama, who with one telling sentence neatly overturned the story, exposing the harsh hierarchies of caste; the very next day we were in the Kafkaesque world of Mauni, where the protagonist, alone at home with his dead wife, plumbs the dark recesses of his mind. We were elated that the first story in the anthology is a delightful story by Ammani Ammal. It begins like a tame fable, but the unexpected, intelligent end reveals the deft hand of a skilled writer. If in just a page, Ambai poignantly yet crisply captures the throbbing emotions of a woman who has lost a newborn baby, Ki Rajanarayanan takes a leisurely tour of a village – which doesn’t even possess a chair – to tell a delightful coming-of-age tale. If humour is the thread that weaves together Meeran Maideen’s story, rancour bristles visibly in Vaasanthi’s ‘Journey’.

The Translation

We certainly don’t want to give the illusion that the stories are original pieces of writing in English, flattening out everything to make the reading facile. On the other hand, we are more than happy to keep reminding readers that they are reading a translation.

We are fully aware that the text has to work in English, but when it comes to dialogues, we have given a free rein to Indian English; more importantly, English as it is spoken in Tamil Nadu, with strong Tamil inflections. Like most Indian languages, Tamil abounds in kinship terms, forms of address and colourful expressions, for which there are no equivalents in English. We have unabashedly retained them.

All that we have said about Tamil holds good for any Indian language. It is our dream to see a bookshelf groaning under the weight of anthologies translated from every Indian language, packed back-to-back.