Female desire found in translation

One summer vacation in my teenage years, you made me read, and learn by rote, every single kural, I never realised it then, but that changed everything,”
Meena Kandasamy, an Indian poet, fiction writer, translator and activist from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. (Photo | Wikimedia Commons)
Meena Kandasamy, an Indian poet, fiction writer, translator and activist from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. (Photo | Wikimedia Commons)

CHENNAI: One summer vacation in my teenage years, you made me read, and learn by rote, every single kural, I never realised it then, but that changed everything,” writes author and poet Meena Kandasamy, dedicating 'The Book of Desire', to her father. This was her first encounter with Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural as a “performing monkey” reciting kurals back to her father. Decades later, this encounter led to the recently-released feminist decolonial translation of the Kamattu-p-pal, the often-overlooked third section of the book on desire. 

Penned by poet-philosopher Tiruvalluvar, the 1,330 couplets are divided into sections on Morality, Materialism, and Desire. This is a democratic text which is open about women’s desires, says Meena, in conversation with Member of Parliament Kanimozhi Karunanidhi inside Roja Muthaiah Library in Taramani. Marking the release of Meena’s translation, the women engage in easy dialogue in Tamil and English about female desire, gaze, and need for reclamation. 

Kanimozhi admits that she has loved poetry but has never been able to connect to Kamattu-p-pal as women seemed to be outliers within this portion. “Most women are allowed to pine but not lust, not a space a woman can claim...I’m glad she didn’t call it the Book of Love because the word desire has been taken away from women. Tamil culture is not above it and we have not allowed women to list or have desire,” says Kanimozhi. 

The MP says Meena has opened the doors for her to reclaim desire, femininity, and sensuality. In a country where Parliament sees marital rape as part of marriage and in a “political climate where women and people are not able to make choices, are not able to raise voices against violence…reclaiming it is very important.” 

Appropriation of Valluvar
A 400-m tall statue of Tiruvalluvar towers over the coastal town of Kanniyakumari, a mark of how the poet’s kurals still make waves every day in the lives of Tamils. “From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Governor RN Ravi, there has been the appropriation of Tiruvalluvar, who is over 2,000 years old. It has been a 1000-year-old attempt to appropriate Valluvar,” points out Kanimozhi.

Meena mentions Periyar’s stand that Tiruvalluvar was the answer to the Manusmriti and a “death knell for Brahminism.” Responding to a question about whether the poet-philosopher is beyond criticism, the author says all our icons are problematic. As she writes in her preface, he was a “man ahead of his times but he was inevitably a product of them.” 

According to Kanimozhi, “We have to protect and claim our icons, it’s not that we can’t question Tiruvalluvar but read him first.” She adds that not every text can be beautiful and acceptable as enforced in these times of political correctness. However, referring to today’s world ruled by Hindutva ideology, Meena points out, “If one individual writes feminist literature, they’ll say this woman is attention-seeking.”

Translation trials
From Parimelazhagar to GU Pope, the long line of translations of the kurals have been injected with misogyny or rigid Brahminical notions. Apart from removing the marriage framework (what if the poems were about a side chick?” Meena laughs) which was a later addition, Meena also began weeding out archaic words.  

For instance, in her foreword ‘Would I quarrel? Would I embrace, Meena cites the example of Kural 1251 where the word nirai has often been rendered by previous translators as chastity, “an imposition of post-dated cultural values”. However, the Madras University lexicon defines it as fullness and Meena chooses unwavering. “The battle axe of passion/breaks down the door of my unwavering mind/bolted with coyness,” is her rendition.

Meena was working on the project during the pandemic, and at a time, she was a mother, a figure that was meant to be devoid of pleasure. She did not feel any pressure taking on the translation of the Tirukkural. With the Tamil kurals on the right side and Meena’s rendition on the left side, the poet admits she was tense once published as source text is usually far from the readers’ reach. Yet this time, they could read the original verse and evaluate her translation.

“As a poet, being in love is my permanent state of being. I invite you, dear reader, to enter this beautiful world. I invite you to fall in love,” she concludes in the introduction. Purchase The Book of Desire by Tiruvalluvar and Meena Kandasamy and published by Penguin for Rs 499.

... I invite you to fall in love
“This text has lived with me for the last two decades. I go to this text whenever I am in love. As a poet, being in love is my permanent state of being. I invite you, dear reader, to enter this beautiful world. I invite you to fall in love,” she concludes in the introduction.

Rs 499
Purchase The Book of Desire by Tiruvalluvar and Meena Kandasamy and published by Penguin for Rs 499

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