(Published in the Business Standard in December 2015, January 2016 and February 2016)

The Tirukkural: A New English Version
Tiruvalluvar, translated by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Aleph Book Company


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One of my most cherished possessions was a T-shirt, hand-painted by a friend, that said simply: “Mirabai Lived.” It was a typo; she had meant “Mirabai Lives”, but I preferred the accidental version.

“Mirabai Lived” was a reminder that historical figures had once been alive; that the past is never frozen in amber. Reading Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s crackling introduction to a new English version of (Aleph Classics), I felt reminded of the same simple fact: that Valluvar, far from being an abstract name, a poet set on a pedestal, had once been as alive as any of us.

“No stone tells us, nor any ancient leaf, whether he was a sage or a minister, teacher, soldier or even king.” But reading his famous couplets, Gandhi draws closer to Valluvar: he knew what poverty meant, he lived along the coast and “knew his sea for sure”, he knew animals, birds and plants well, he had compassion “in a very modern, very humane way”.

For Tamil readers, this translation of the Tirukkural will stand perhaps as an unusual, often sparkling, addition to the translations already made by and G U Pope. For the non-Tamil reader, especially for those unfamiliar with the 1,330 couplets of the Kural, Valluvar’s fresh, pragmatic and sensual poetry will be a revelation.

For Indians who read in English, this has been a rich decade for poetry from the medieval and ancient world. Particularly stirring are the translations of poets by poets – Lal Ded (Ranjit Hoskote), Kabir (Arvind Krishna Mehrotra), an anthology of Bhakti poetry edited by Arundhati Subramaniam. Surdas’s poems, The Therigatha and now The Tirukkural have found able translators in scholars. These translations cast ripples into our understanding of Indian thought; and besides, the poetry is beautiful.

The translator is often seen as an interpreter, but Gandhi’s view has far more juice to it: “When smitten by a book, readers want to become part of it, immerse themselves in the life of the volume they hold in their hands… The most ambitious, even audacious, way of finding a union with the work – for that is what the smitten want – is to try translating it and thereby enter the work’s very soul.”

The three books of the Kural are a complete education. Being Good explores what it means to lead a virtuous life, sets down rules for domestic life, right speech, gratitude and self-control. Valluvar’s meditations are positively contemporary: “Forgiving the wrongdoer, in life’s book, has grace/ But forgetting the wrong itself has an even higher place.”

I was initially uncomfortable with the neat rhymes, craving the occasional astringence of blank verse, but the rhythms soon become familiar, and welcome, as in this couplet: “The heart, the heart, it knows the true from the false.

It burns, yes, burns when falsehood breeds within its walls.” This is a book to be read aloud, not to be read silently on the page.

Being Politic is where you see the worldly side of emerge, and his advice to kings is shrewd, its sharp wisdom carrying down the ages, applicable to rulers in our time.

“The king guards his realm, yes, but who guards the king?

His sense of doing right by each and every thing

The king who isn’t easy to reach is blinded by his biases

His nemesis is certain, whatever its shape and size is.”

These warnings are followed by pragmatism of the highest order: “The spy must watch the king’s foes, of course, but also his officers and kin…”

The third section, Being In Love, reveals yet another Valluvar, one capable of savouring, and lamenting the loss of, pleasures of temporary variance. This is the poetry of breathless seas, and love’s iron-fastened door, and fatal glances. Behind it is Gandhi’s warning murmur, that Periyar didn’t think much of Valluvar’s view of women, but that caution has to war with the Kural’s ancient sweet-tasting nectar.

“His couplets, called ‘Tamil’s epigrams’ read like Time’s telegrams,” Gandhi writes. “Telegrams speak in the words, signal in the gaps. Telegrams convey tidings both good and bad.

So do Valluvar’s.

And they are always urgent.”


 

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by Ann Goldstein

Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin India

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In Other Words is the kind of book that sets editorial-and-sales meetings on fire in publishing houses. A well-known of four of fiction, revered for her fine style and insight, will write her first non-fiction book in Italian, about “a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language”.

The book, “written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Nabokov” (from the blurb again), is translated from the Italian, In Altre Parole, by back into English, the language in which most of Jhumpa Lahiri’s readers know her best.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s most personal work, breaking the skin of her usual reticence, but only the skin: the tone is intimate, not autobiographical. It begins promisingly, as she makes the reader a secret sharer in the grand love story between her and Italian.

The flirtation commences with a pocket dictionary, “the dimensions of a bar of soap”, clad in a green plastic cover, which she buys at Rizzoli, a bookshop in Boston; the details, you understand immediately, are as significant as a first meeting with someone who will later become a lover.

Over 20 years, she pursues Italian, infatuation turning into obsession. “I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.” In 2009, she takes lessons with the third of her teachers, who is from Venice, and the future shapes itself: she will move to Italy, as one does, to be closer to the beloved.

This is where her quest, the obsessiveness with which she stalks Italian, is most tantalising, as her writing life takes a sharp, unexpected swerve. What does it mean for a writer to admit that her first language, English, no longer satisfies her, and that she wants to read, and write, in the unmapped territory of an alien tongue?

She is both renunciate and novice: she suffers the humiliation of never knowing enough, of losing the tools -words, contexts, allusions – that were hers by right in English. “I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures,” she writes, and it is around here, 89 pages in, that you start to suspect that the remaining 114 will be a long slow slog.

There are two problems with In Other Words. The first will sort in time, as Lahiri develops the same fluency and dexterity in Italian as she had in English. Until then, the reader must settle for admiring her bravery in writing a book on such demanding subjects – language, belonging, exile and memory – in a language that she possesses, but does not yet entirely inhabit. But admiring a writer’s courage is of no consolation when you would rather have been in a position to admire her turn of phrase, which is lost somewhere between the first language, the second, and the translation.

There are cliches, as in this sentence on falling in love with Italian: “It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.” There are clunky metaphors: she constantly hunts for words, they seem more valuable than money, she collects them in a basket, and finds that scarcely a handful remain, for “the basket is memory”.

I survived the phrase “the sweater of language”, because it appeared in a short story, about a woman searching for something lost, that had a touch of the classic Lahiri magic. But there were thickets of banal epiphanies: “Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.”

This flaccid prose is annoying, but Lahiri is too intelligent and too fine-grained a writer to continue writing baggy-sweater sentences, in any language. What can’t be fixed is everything that’s missing from this meditation on language. In this century, millions of people have been evicted from their homelands, and often forcefully exiled from their mothertongues. Knowing this, it is sometimes difficult to empathise with Lahiri’s hardships as a new learner, given that her exile was voluntary and self-imposed.

She touches lightly on her awkward relationship with Bengali – she knows it haltingly, and has never felt at home in it. She mentions her struggles fleetingly, but she need not have shared the personal in order to explore the political choices she made. Language choice is always political, and this is not so much about Italian versus Bengali as it is about the pull of Europe over Asia.

In the last few pages of In Other Words, Lahiri discovers the writings of Agota Kristof: The Illiterate, The Notebook. She reads Kristof obsessively, “both stunned and comforted”, treating her as a guide, a companion, kin. And yet there is a fundamental difference: “Kristof was forced to abandon Hungarian. She wrote in French because she wanted to be read. I, on the other hand, choose willingly to write in Italian. I don’t miss English…”

Kristof’s voice has clarity, resonance, a diamond edge. “I read. It is like a disease,” says the protagonist of The Illiterate. She learns French with her body; the women at the watch factory where Kristof worked taught her the words for body parts, used body language to teach her the names of objects. Following Lahiri’s lead, I read Kristof’s books, as obsessively, flinching from some of her experiences, seduced by her knifeblade prose. It is a strange feeling: one writer, Lahiri, arouses your curiosity about language, about moving house from one to another. But Lahiri’s essays only play with that curiosity; it is Kristof’s harsh, rich novels that answer all the reader’s questions, the difficult ones, the unspoken ones.


 

Ghachar Ghochar

Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur,
HarperPerennial

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The Indian domestic novel has long taproots, many of them carefully nurtured by male writers as much as women: Rajendra Yadav’s (The Endless Sky), Saratchandra’s (The Final Question) or O Chandu Menon’s Indulekha.

As a general aside, here is a truth about novels that centre on the home – both sexes write them, but it’s only when women tackle this territory that they are belittled for being too domestic, too narrow, too safe in their ambitions. And yet, writers (of all gender orientations) who tackle “home” know what rich quicksand this is: home is where humanity goes to be itself, with all the yearning, the ferment, the danger, the joys, the irrevocable mistakes, the risks and the unvarnished truths that accompany “being yourself”.

Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar, runs to just 115 pages, but it’s one of those novels that are bigger on the inside than on the outside. The narrator is at Coffee House; he has no real reason for coming here, except as respite from domestic skirmishes: “But who can admit to doing something for no reason in times like these, in a city as busy as this one?” For a moment, you think that his story will be moored at Coffee House, that he will observe the world from the safety of those tables, with Vincent the waiter pulling everyone’s quarrels and meetings into some sort of narrative order.

But Ghochar has a lovely riverine curve to it, and the story slides easily into introductions of the narrator’s family. They used to live in a small house with “four small rooms, one behind the other, like train compartments”, before prosperity descends upon them, which his Appa enjoys “with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved”. They shift from a life of oil lamps, where the purchase of a gas stove is a luxury, to a new house, crammed with expensive mismatched furniture.

There are two big changes in the lives of Amma, Appa, Chikkappa, Malati, the narrator and his wife Anita: wealth changes the relationship between the family and its possessions, they have the luxury of treating things, and then people, carelessly. And they live without the ants who are the only legitimate tenants of a certain kind of rented house in India. In their old house, the ants gathered around rings left by tea cups on the floor, squeezed into boxes where the lids hadn’t been shut tight, raced in lines along the window sill. “In time we began to be openly cruel to ants… became a family that took satisfaction in the destruction of ants.”

In Shanbhag’s hands, the Indian family is revealed in layers; as one layer peels away, what lies beneath is left raw and exposed. Violence is part of living, of running a business – even a small one like Sona Masala – part of family life, of excluding a brother’s former lover from the circle of the loved and accepted, part of terrorising in-laws under the pretext of claiming back one’s inheritance. Cruelty lies strewn around the pages of Ghachar, Ghochar – an evocative term for the inevitable ghich-pich of human relationships that is explained beautifully in the book – like rubbish heaps; small and large incidents that readers negotiate just as we do broken foothpaths and scattered garbage in our daily lives. You only stop when the rot, and the violence, piles up in sufficient quantities to obstruct your way forward.

But family is the thing you cannot escape because you don’t want to; the narrator doesn’t know what to say about himself that isn’t connected with family, and in this predicament, he mirrors so many other Indians. Privacy, solitude and individuality fit uneasily with family life; it is only in a moment at home, when his wife has left for a while, that the narrator stumbles across “a strange mixture of feelings” that lie outside his grasp – “love, fear, entitlement, desire, frustration”. And this emerges when he is going through his wife’s wardrobe, almost stealthily, discovering a person who is, like everyone else in the family, possessed of a secret self that has little to do with her family role.

About the only thing missing from Ghachar Ghochar is a translator’s note; Srinath Perur translated Shanbhag’s novel from Kannada. I have no access to the original, but Perur’s translation carries what I imagine is the quiet observational quality as well as the repressed electricity of the original, and it would have added to this book to have one writer known for his ear for voice talk about another who has the same gifts. Despite this omission, Ghachar Ghochar is one of the most striking novels you’ll read this decade – don’t miss its persuasive, slowly unsettling world.


Collected Stories

Naiyer Masud, translated by Muhammed Umar Menon,
Penguin India

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The photograph shows a boy, about five, lying on a richly caparisoned couch against a backdrop of redoubtable carved wooden almirahs, a finely embroidered curtain breaking the gloom of the dark wood. The boy faces the photographer, Lucknow’s Mirza Mughal Beg; he clutches his favourite plaything, a ball.

This photograph of was the preface for a classic translation of The Essence of Camphor; it had been taken when he was ill with typhoid. He told his translator, Muhammad Umar Memon, that after he had gone through 40 days of fever, his parents feared he would not survive and commissioned this as a future keepsake.

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In this short anecdote, you have many of the qualities of Masud’s stories: the unexpected depth behind the rich, detailed surface, a touch of the macabre, a sense of being taken unawares by life’s surprises.

The wide divide between those who read in Urdu and those who have not had the pleasure of knowing Urdu are perhaps at their sharpest with a writer like Masud. For readers familiar with Urdu, Masud’s short stories – 35, written slowly over a period of decades, typically about one or two a year – are part of their emotional and imaginative landscape.

I had never taught myself Urdu, and part of the punishment was to read like a scavenger, grabbing Masud’s now-classic stories in fragmentary pieces – Sheesha Ghat, The Essence of Camphor – then looking for Memon’s translations in The Journal Of Urdu Studies and other places.

It took the skills of R Sivapriya, something of a legend herself as an expert translations editor, as well as Muhammad Umar Memon’s thoughtful work over years to produce a volume as monumental and definitive as this one – Naiyer Masud: Collected Stories (Penguin Books). Masud has always had a following as a writer (and a scholar) in the Urdu world, but this collection should make him visible to readers in India and outside the country as one of our greatest living practitioners.

All the short stories from Seemiya (The Occult), Essence of Camphor, The Myna From Peacock Garden and Ganjefa are included here, plus a few miscellaneous, uncollected stories – Dustland, Whirlwind, The Aster. An interview is included; at one point, Asif Farrukhi, the interviewer, says to the writer: “People don’t work nearly so hard on revealing as you do on concealing.”

In response, Masud explains that he tries not to refer to specific times and places – a habit that gives his stories some of their uncanny, dislocated, time-transcending atmosphere – because of an exaggerated sense of responsibility, a fear of getting place and time wrong in even the smallest of details. He denies that his stories are “fantasies”, even though they are often claimed as such, and this is true – he is just a better fisherman of reality than most.

I would not recommend reading Collected Stories at one sitting, any more than you would watch all of Bela Tarr or Wong Kar-Wai’s films in one weekend. But at present, two of Masud’s stories are bringing me some comfort. Dustland, a brief tale set in a city prone to duststorms, where an “earth-coloured haze had begun spreading”, is perfect for winter this year, when the pollution is so intense that you can taste the yellow smog on your tongue as you walk around Delhi.

And I am growing as obsessed with Custody as I once was with Masud’s The Essence of Camphor. Custody is less well-known, and so is less well-worn. The narrator, Saasan, who lives above Nauroz’s shop explains that there has always been a Nauroz, some of whom go mad in time.

Then the present Nauroz disappears, leaving behind two tiny girls. The narrator finds Nauroz, briefly, and asks him, “What are the girls to you?” “Merchandise,” Nauroz says. What was their mother to him? Merchandise, Nauroz says again, before leaving. But Nauroz’s Shop must always have a Nauroz; and some of the Naurozes grow mad in time. This much would be enough for many short story writers; it is Masud’s genius that he keeps the reader as interested in everything that happens before the ending as in the ending itself.