I read Valli while I was travelling to Wayanad with an aunt who’s part of the community seeking to make the idiom “lost in translation” an adage. A garbage-bag-lined bucket sat on the seat beside me; the hairpin bends usually make me barf, but this time Sheela Tomy managed to distract me. Jayshree Kalathil joined in Tomy’s endeavour as her translator.

Their novel – and I’ll tell you shortly why I call it theirs – Valli begins with a telling sentence: “There was a time when Kalluvayal was a dense, deep forest.” Kalluvayal is a village in the Western Ghats and the home of Valli’s characters. Scroll.in published an excerpt from Valli, appropriately calling it a “family saga”. Along with Tessa, the granddaughter of Sara and Thommichan, who eloped to Wayanad in 1970, this 420-pager traverses half a century. Susan, Tessa’s mother, left behind a diary for her. In this diary, the familial boundary of the novel canopies the migrants and Adivasi communities in Kalluvayal.

Exploratory if not experimental

After reading the novel, I took a notebook to draw the family charts of its characters. I gave up after graphing three trees. Tomy mentions Garcia Marquez enough times to ensure you can’t help notice the sheer number of characters residing in her prose. It’s not a stuffy house; they huddle inside the sentences of conventional writing. Take, for instance, Ivan Ouseph’s family of four: wife Annamkutty and children, Luca, Isabella, and Peter.

Ivan, a timber merchant, speaks in spools of spits and abuse. “Pha!” he spits when he jumps up to abuse anyone who crosses him: his son Peter, by marrying someone from a lower caste, his in-law Varkey, by drunkenly calling him by an insulting nickname, and his tenants, the labourers, revolting for what he owes them. Tomy animates Ivan like a wriggling lizard that you cannot splat.

He’ll regrow his tail and return to your house, asking for his dues, as he did to Theyamma after her husband’s passing. His malice is vicious, expected, and unsurprisingly seeds itself in his son, Luca, a quintessential colonialist who rapes and ravages everything he finds under him. Tomy argues that these men are the real savages, along with women like Rahel, Ivan’s wife, who turns a blind eye to her husband’s infidelity for the modest price of gold jewellery.

Peter’s family nestles in Sara’s diary because of his friendship with Thommichan, but Tomy doesn’t blindside us with a singular perspective. As Kalathil points out in her translator’s note, Valli uses letters, diary entries, folk songs, lore, Bible quotations, popular film songs, and Christian devotionals. The second you think, “Yes, I know how this story will go,” Tomy snaps right in front of you and mockingly laughs, “Hah. No!”.

However, while Valli is exploratory in form, it’s not experimental. Lines of premonition speckle the story like someone who laughs before they’ve finished telling you the joke. The star-crossed lovers –Peter and Lucy, Isabella and Prakashan, Kalluvayal and its inhabitants – live the same tale. Although aboriginal characters stream into the story, Tomy steps away from writing from their perspective, making a politically correct decision that distances the reader from the community. Instead, Sara, and sometimes an omniscient perspective, who talks in a language that’s not theirs, speaks for them.

A universal story in translation

“I am not sure if they influence my writing.” says Tomy, talking about Garcia, Roy, and Rulfo. Platelets of these writer’s styles transfuse her prose, making it as common as Type O. But Valli, the novel as an English translation, doesn’t need the literary adornments. When a book can breathe in another language, it speaks to how universal it is. Tomy says, “Kalluvayal is universal,”; Kalathil’s translation strengthens this idea.

Without the English language reinforcing the otherness of the scriptless Paniya language, Valli wouldn’t radiate its universality as strongly. Kalathil accompanies the English translation of Paniya with their romanisations, giving the reader the choice to offer a voice to a scriptless language. This choice isn’t a mere symbol, but an illustration of how Tomy wrote Valli and how Kalathil approached its translation. Tomy might’ve written a book that we’ve read before, but she wrote it in a way that the reader can suspend that belief for a while. Kalathil’s translation, however, argues that this suspension is redundant for her rendition of this novel.

When a group of men burn a slope in Kalluvayal into a graveyard, Peter shouts at Luca, holding a nearly dead child in his hands, “Eat her, why don’t you, you sorry son of a bitch.” You cannot but notice the coexistence of multiple languages in this sentence: Malayalam, English, the inflexion of anger, Luca’s dehumanisation, and other things I’ll catch when I read this novel a second time. Really, what’s lost in this translation?

Tomy says, “Jayasree’s translation was far beyond a literary recreation, and it was even rethinking the idea of (sic) original text,” and I can’t help but agree with her. While Tomy wrote a novel that comfortably sits on the bookshelves of Malayalam literature, Kalathil’s translation stirs English language readers, illustrating the limits of the language by using it to her advantage. I mean, didn’t you notice? The font size of the translator’s name on the cover is only around three sizes smaller than the writer’s.

Valli, Sheela Tomy, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India.