It was in 2005 that I was asked by Mini Krishnan of Oxford University Press to translate Kocharethi, Narayan’s fictionalised history of his own community, the Mala Araya tribe. Our first meeting was definitely unpromising. Narayan greeted me with a brusque: “You’re not the first, several others have come here, stating they want to translate the novel into English. I have no more free copies to give away.”

Daunting! Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long friendship which definitely will not end with Narayan’s passing away on Tuesday, 16 August, 2022. Some relationships transcend death. I am lucky that I shared such a one with Narayan and his wife Latha chechi. For me Narayan is not just a writer whose novel I translated, but a proud and dignified son of the Western Ghats, whose writing echoed the hills and wafted the scent of the earth.

Writings of protest

Though Narayan wrote several novels and almost a hundred short stories, his most famous work is his first novel, Kocharethi, the writing of which was an overtly political act to counter the offensive misrepresentations of his community, the Mala Araya tribe, which appeared in a novel that was being serialised in a Malayalam magazine. Though Narayan, along with certain members of his community, managed to get a stay order issued, they realised that such attempts could happen again.

They could not approach the court every time or be certain of getting a favourable verdict again. Writing Kocharethi was the solution they arrived at, and Narayan was assigned the task as he had already published a few short stories. By writing about his tribe, its history and way of life, Narayan challenged those who viewed the Adivasi the way the white colonisers viewed us, as barbarians. Or worse, used the Adivasi as a trope to render their fictional world exotic.

Kocharethi was published in 1998. It won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award and several other awards. However, certain intellectuals critiqued the granting of the award on the grounds that the novel did not adhere to the tribal language and that it lacked literary merit.

To answer the first, there was no Mala Araya language to adhere to. The oral language that existed at one time got erased when in the 19th century, people from the plains climbed the hills and encroached on tribal land to grow cash crops. As a result the generations that followed lost their oral heritage. Surely the intellectuals knew that!

As for literary merit, Narayan attended school till the tenth standard, then became a clerk in the postal service. What stylistic wonders can you expect from one with such a history? What you have is a hugely readable, and well-crafted text that exudes the vigour of felt experience; experiences which Sunny Kappikad aptly describes as ‘non-transferable.’

A proud and honourable man

Translating Kocharethi demanded close interaction with the author. I met Narayan regularly, visits that lasted several hours. They continued even after the translation was published, even after it won the Crossword award in 2011, and after that as well. Then Covid struck and the visits ceased. But we would talk on the phone every few months. Meanwhile he was asked to vacate the house he had lived in for nearly two decades. Always a proud and honourable man whose shoulders remained erect till the end, Narayan immediately shifted to another one nearby.

A month ago I began to feel an inexplicable urge to meet him. When Professor KM Sheriff mentioned that Narayan sounded tired when he called, I decided to visit him immediately. He had told me the location of the new house, but that was almost a year ago, and I forgot. I tried his ubiquitous BSNL landline but no one answered.

Panicking, I set out immediately, parked the car at the junction near his old house, and wandered around asking people. Just then I was accosted by a call – ‘teacher!’ – and a scooter stopped behind me. I saw a young woman hurry towards me with a beaming face. She introduced herself as Sangeetha, my student from the 2003 batch. Sangeetha took me to sir’s house. He was standing in the veranda.

My heart broke as I watched his blank, puzzled, stare. He hadn’t recognised me. ‘Narayan Saar, I’m Catherine,’ I said going up to him. His face lit up. ‘Teacher!’ He replied. Tears pricked my eyes. As usual time just flew by. Narayan spoke eagerly about the possibility of Kocharethi being made into a film. He said he was working on the script. He also mentioned the brief spells of memory loss that he was now prey to.

The news of his death did not come as a shock. I’m glad he went without suffering. Years ago, when a doctor at Amrutha Hospital suggested surgery for his heart condition, Narayan said, ‘I came here by bus, then crossed the railway line on foot. Can you guarantee that I will be able to walk out of the hospital after the surgery?’ The doctor smiled noncommittally. The surgery did not take place. That was quintessential Narayan.

"Kocharethi" in Malayalam and its English translation by Catherine Thankamma.