The riches of literature in India are locked behind doors of language. Every one of our dozens of languages has its own history and traditions. And these literatures, arising out of the marginalised and silent experience, talk about these viewpoints with authenticity compared to the limited, urban-well-off perspective that Indian Writing in English is limited to. This hidden India needs, deserves, to be more broadly seen and understood. The publisher’s effort to create a series of translations from Indian languages, thus, is welcome.
The two books being discussed today are Echoes of the Veena, by R Chudamani, a collection of short stories, and On a River’s Bank, by A Madhavan. Both have been translated ably from Tamil, and both have as their theme, the unfortunate lot of women and the silent minority in a patriarchal society. But that is where the resemblance stops.
On a River’s Bank is a novel set in a poor worker’s home: a small family that makes its living collecting sand from a river bed to sell to construction projects. Angusami is the middle-aged patriarch, a widower still haunted by thoughts of his deceased wife.
His cleft-lipped stepdaughter, Panki, virtually manages the whole house, though she’s resented by him. Angusami’s only confidant is Damodaran, an orphan boy he’s raised as his own and who seems to care more for Panki than her stepfather. Life is precarious, with the day’s food coming from the day’s work. They’re not alone—there is a virtual community of sand miners by the river bank. While they are not rich, they are content with their lot. But time never stays still—the community falls on tough days as the river floods during the monsoon.
As his world descends into chaos, Angusami reminisces about the days of his youth and married life, and how he had eventually moved to the river to take up the sand business. Panki continues to yearn for her father’s love, trying her best to make him happy, but their shared past never lets him free of his memories. Like a Greek tragedy, the power of this story stays with you even as your heart goes out to the characters.
Echoes of the Veena focuses on a different milieu: the lives of the silent in orthodox Tamil society of the 60s and 70s.
The stories are marked by a sense of melancholy and rarely having a happy ending. So we have characters like Parvatam, the elderly widow whose life revolves around her sisters’ children when they come to visit. We have Madhavan, the blind typist who only wants to be recognised for his skill. In the title story, we have a Veena maestro, whose legacy is being lost in materialism. And in one of the most touching tales, we have Vanji, the 13-year-old girl who’s forced to drop out of school in order to care for her baby brother. These are not necessarily poor people, but they’re the sort of middle class that gets ignored in today’s materialistic age.
They live in small rented ‘portions’ of buildings, they have small-scale jobs, they value education and the arts, but struggle with money for the most basic necessities. The women especially suffer the most. Chudamani has a very simple yet hard-hitting language in her work. The stories are told from the perspective of the characters themselves, incorporating their feelings and prejudices, blaming no one but absolving no one, either.
These works have been acclaimed in their original languages—and the writers have an accomplished biography. But, as I mentioned earlier, they were largely unknown to other parts of India. The translations of both of these volumes are excellent, by M Vijayalakshmi, and Prabha Sridevan. Just the right percentage of Tamil words are preserved, enough to give us a flavour of the original without overwhelming the English reader. Hopefully this effort gains these books a larger audience.