When I was 11, my mother enrolled me in Malayalam language classes at a cultural centre in Abu Dhabi. Although the centre called itself Indian – by literally placing the word in its name – it was clear that it was only for Malayalees. They taught all the traditional dance forms associated with Kerala, along with painting and drawing classes paired with instructors shipped from Kerala, and the only holiday they celebrated was Onam. And more glaringly obvious: the Malayalam classes.
This was the point in my life where I was an NRI child involuntarily returning “home,” from where I had to learn English to settle in the Gulf, only to commit to learning my mother tongue all over again to go back. Although I’ve settled in Kerala – or more specifically, India, as I did go to college in Delhi-NCR for four long years – for more than a decade, I still fumble through my Malayalam, as I do with my English, walking on the tightrope that my hyphenated “ex-NRI-Malayalee” identity necessitates. But I didn’t think I needed a relearning of any kind until I read J Devika’s Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories.
Devika’s anthology brings together English translations of contemporary Malayalam short stories. Anthologies, as a genre, are a form of canon formation, and the anthologies of short stories are only successors of the anthologies of poetry. In the books of this genre, compilers often borrowed poems from its habitat – a collection of the author’s own, or a play like is the case of Shakespeare’s couplets borrowed from his plays – letting those pieces behave differently, adjusting to a new lodging.
According to David W Hopkins, the Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Bristol, this genre was so powerful that its arrival through books like The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics contributed to the displacement of poetry and the rise of prose as the primary vehicle for argumentative, reflective, and narrative writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century. That’s the power of the canon.
It’s simple maths: Inclusion serves as a reminder that experts, scholars, critics, or cultural authorities, who typically play a role in selecting which works should form the canon, are conceding that the canon they helped develop will not remain static – it will eventually face relegation to just a period, theme, or genre. This is rarely a hope that the canon formers acknowledge, so it’s refreshing to see Devika desire it.
Reforming the canon
In her preface, Devika describes her anthology as a “tour”, suggesting that her book is a planned itinerary with scheduled stops or activities. She’s clear about her intention, which is to reformulate the canon and move beyond the 20th-century characterisation of Kerala, coloured by a communist egalitarian spirit and matrilineal families. She’s not wrong. “Oh, that communist state,” is the first comment that every cab driver who recognises my broken Hindi tells me about my state, after confirming whether I’m from Kerala. This anthology isn’t just for intellectuals, the first sign is that a trade publisher put out the book. But it’s emphasised by how Devika translates the short stories.
Her translation often explains itself. In Yuma’s “The Funerary Palm,” the moment that changes the protagonist’s life is her mother’s attempt to keep her arimani chain. Anyone who reads Malayalam knows what the arimani chain looks like, ari meaning “rice” and “mani” meaning beads, so it’s unlikely that Yuma would’ve added the afterthought “it’s beads shaped like grains of rice” since she was writing to the Malayalam reader, but Devika does.
The story in which the necklace clings on underscores the tightrope that families of “highly educated but undervalued” Malayali women force them to walk. Within the first few pages, the protagonist, Raji, admits that her grades “did not matter, really.” Instead, she hopes for a lover with whom she can escape the life she endures with her hard-working mother and good-for-nothing brother. When her brother accidentally kills their mother in a tussle for more money than he can waste, this hope, too, shatters. We witness her attempts to rebuild her life, only to realise that, for women, love will never be enough.
God, only if I could love someone. Only if someone loved me. I need to run away…somewhere. But where to? Where to run in this world where bottomless abysses lie in wait with jaws open at either ends of the land? What hell is this life in which one cannot live even a moment without adding up for tomorrow?
Each of these stories has its cover letter – “a short introduction” as Devika calls them – to a point where I could take a few notes from these introductions and piece together a passable review. You could skim over these introductions, but like a tourist visiting a foreign museum, reading all the art labels of the first few sections before dreading having to walk so much. Devika, however, will make you want to pay attention.
Melding Malyalam and English
Her translation makes it evident that it’s a translation. Parts of the anthology stand out, not like a sore thumb, but as a friendly reminder that pays homage to the source text. In GR Indugopan’s “Skyrocket,” the reader meets Muniyandi, a menial airport worker with a “traditional job”, which is to scare away birds from the runway to ensure they don’t hit the planes. When Muniyandi says, “Ooh” – which in Malayalam, and more specifically, the context of this short story where he’s speaking to a policeman and the airport manager, is a submissive “Yes, of course.” In the English language, “Ooh” is an interjection used to express surprise, amazement, excitement, or curiosity, depending on the context. What it is not is a submissive response. Let’s read this excerpt:
The SI fixed him with a pointed stare. “I’ll ask the questions,” he said. “And then you’ll answer.”
Muniyandi withdrew. But he was still mumbling.
The SI sounded angry.
In the habitat to which Devika has displaced this short story – from the habitat of Malayalam to that of English – “Ooh’’ indicates a sound of surprise or concern from Muniyandi in response to the SI’s statement. It suggests that Muniyandi is taken aback or startled by the SI’s stern demeanour, but that doesn’t seem like what the source text was trying to say. By attempting to preserve the cadence of Malayalam, Devika challenges the non-Malayalee reader: Will you see this as awkward or not? “Skyrocket” is no longer GR Indugopan’s – it also becomes Devika’s.
The power of her translation, however, is that the displacement doesn’t contaminate what the short story distils: All the characters imply or explicitly claim that Muniyandi’s job is meaningless, something they’ve “retained”, emphasising how upper-caste and upper-class people resent it when those they deem inferior revolt by stealing back what capitalism snatched from them: work that they find meaningful, giving purpose to it, even when others deny it.
When the translation doesn’t explain itself, it stands on the periphery like a brooding man, letting its position in the text speak for itself. Take, for instance, this excerpt:
There’s that Meera Jasmine movie...Ah, I forget...enthootta tha name...Paadham Onnu Oru Nelooli...You grabbed the neck of the guy who said that the movie was no good and pushed him hard!
“Enthootta” appears to illustrate an expression of uncertainty or forgetfulness, indicating that the speaker is struggling to recall or remember the name of the movie they are referring to. In this preservation of cadence, nothing is lost.
One explanation of this inconsistency in how Devika translates speaks to the noble task of wanting to retain at least the notes of the writers she compiles and translates. But there’s also an attempt to preserve the note of Malayalam publishing, illustrated by how in Nirmala’s “Sujatha’s Houses,” Devika preserves the em dashes sometimes used in place of dialogue tags in Malayalam books:
—She’s here, did you hear?
—Get the coffee now?
—No, after we ask.
Devika also goes as far as to highlight how Malayalam and English meld in the state with high literacy rates, often in undesirable ways: “Great piece, that boy is lucky.” That’s a male character from PV Shajikumar’s “Null and Void” speaking about a woman whose sex tape was shot with the promise that her partner wouldn’t show it to anyone else. From what I can gather, only “great” is translated, “piece” functions as a Malayalam-English word, with a carnivorous and salacious inflexion, the way you’d speak about a piece of chicken leg in a curry.
My favourite translation choice that Devika makes in the anthology is from my best-liked short story in the anthology, Unni R’s “The Temple of Vatsyayanan,” where we encounter Parameswaran and Chandran, sly entrepreneurs running out of money, who open a quasi-temple, a makeshift sex clinic, with the veneer of religiosity, only to offend people anyway. In the story, Chandran’s relative Suresh abuses him for converting their family temple for a so-called debaucherous enterprise and calls him a “mayire” which Devika accompanies with an English coinage, “crotchfur,” which sounds more humorous than crass and beautifully awkward in its English habitat. But that’s the point. The story wasn’t written in English, after all.
It’s always nice to revisit your home after you’ve been away. As I read this collection sitting in my room in Kannur, I felt like I was falling in love with my state again, warts and all. How does it serve the rest of the readers? By creating and calling attention to a new literary canon, hoping for it to break as well.
Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories, translated by J Devika, Penguin India.