When I met J Devika at the Malabar Palace Hotel in Kozhikode – where she would be attending the Kerala Literature Festival and moderating panels on topics like war and translation – she couldn’t eat the idlis on her plate without picking up a phone call or responding to an urgent text message. The act of eating, an act that extends survival, was concurrent with that of activism. Her quotidian life isn’t separate from her life as a translator, academic, and writer. She cannot afford to avoid a fellow activist’s phone call simply because she is eating, as her activism is dependent on erasing the necessitated partition between these roles.
This sentiment swathes Devika’s approach to her anthology, Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories. In this anthology, every story has an introduction written in a style where academia melds with public discourse, helping the reader contextualise each writer and their work. You don’t enter what Devika calls Kerala’s “subterranean worlds” blind.
Initially, I thought our preliminary conversation – where we discussed a series of incidents in Kerala that tugged at the dream of the state as politically distinct from the rest of the country – had nothing to do with the questions I would ask her. I was wrong. In this interview, Devika spoke to Scroll about the curatorial process for her anthology, the translation process, the changes in the Left discourse in Kerala and its representation in literature, and the short story as a persisting form in the Malayali literary sphere. Excerpts from the conversation:
Your anthology stemmed from your desire to write about Kerala. How did that initial desire to “write” transform into one where you “translate”?
I am by profession trained in social science and history. So, when I usually say, “I want to write about Kerala,” it’s about Kerala as an object of scientific enquiry, socio-scientific enquiry, or historical enquiry. That’s how it is as an object. But I kind of decided not to do that. I mean, it’s alright to do that because in some ways it gives you a critical distance. You must have that distance. I’m quite thankful for that training because it has helped me to get a critical distance from this object of love. For me, love can only be critical love. If your love is blind to justice, then it is not love at all, to me. So having this training in critical thinking is very important.
So when I want to write about Kerala, I want to also communicate something more sensuous, something more pulsating, you know, and contemporary. Okay, so that is not so easy. I could take a shot at it, but I’m not a trained journalist. I have done some travel writing and so on. But I don’t have the time to do it, nor the resources to do it, to be travelling in Kerala and writing what I see and feel. So the next best alternative is literature because what is important about literature is how it delves into subjectivities. And the short story form in Kerala has been thriving for some 20 or 30 years. The form is such that it is very close to what is happening. It’s contemporary. And it’s like a sponge that can draw. And without being empiricist. It is not simply documenting something that is happening.
Literature can delve into subjectivity in a way that is probably a little more difficult when it comes to other kinds of writing. And it’s also the most readily available form. And I also thought it was better, nicer to see what others, my contemporaries in Kerala – most of these writers are my contemporaries and some of them are much younger than my contemporaries – how they have been seeing Kerala and what kind of Kerala emerges through their eyes. And not just their eyes, but the emotional engagement of all these writers with Kerala. So that’s what produced this book.
How did you select the short stories for the anthology?
Many of my favourite authors are not there. And, of course, the publisher has their limitations on word limits. And frankly speaking, this kind of idea is very new. For the publisher too. It was very new.
The idea of?
The idea of this whole anthology focusing on a region, viewed through the eyes of its writers, was new. I also have notes on why each story is important. So, size-wise, it was essentially a random choice, dependent on factors like pricing, and not really on anything else.
I had a word limit. I had to choose these stories within those constraints. What I did was try to see, try to mirror because, as I told you, I’m looking at it through the eyes of the writer. I also wanted to see if I could match the diversity of Kerala with the diversity in short story writing that is available at present. So, for example, a much larger number of women writers, and also viewpoints. The particular story where all the women go naked [in protest], that is Shahina’s story. [“Like Wind, Sun, Leaf and Flower” by Shahina E.] Now, if you ask me, if it’s my view, maybe not so much. But I think it’s very important to map. It’s a story that brings out the frustration. I don’t think aesthetically it is great. But that is really not the point. The point is that it brings out the kind of rage and frustration that a whole generation of Malayalee women have been feeling, including my generation, from my generation onwards at the most. And it conveys it rather well.
It has the ability to, I think, boil what is simmering inside.
Yes, that’s the thing. It provokes your range. So I’m not picking up stories that are necessarily the most beautiful or the most evocative. I am trying to see where the emotional worlds – that’s the subterranean worlds, emotional worlds in contemporary Malayalam society – seem to be seeping up. For instance, in Prince Aymanam’s “Pothychhoru Offering” you can see the Dalit woman’s rage actually coming up in some ways.
In Indugopan’s story “Skyrocket,” you can see a certain kind of confidence. I mean, they’re the humblest of workers. And I’ve seen that, and it’s still there. Those are people who still carry the legacy of the old Left mobilisation, where workers, low-class workers, gain the confidence to speak back at their masters, even at the risk of a lot of violence.
So I chose the stories where this wellspring of emotional, the present emotional worlds that may not be very apparent otherwise, are springing up. I’m very sad that I couldn’t include one of my favourite writers N Prabhakaran’s stories. His stories are also aesthetically very pleasing.
And your choice to not include him was?
The size constraint. Otherwise, maybe I would have. There was this very interesting story of his that Jayasree Kalathil translated. I would have asked her for permission to use one of those. It’s a story about the land acquisition for an airport, and a single man refusing to give it. That’s one story I wanted to include, but then the size is such a constraint. Also, a story by S Harish, on a peculiar kind of vaidyan who didn’t treat human beings. He treated natural phenomena like rivers and so on. I wanted these two stories as well.
In your work, you mention that your anthology aims at “getting past” the 20th-century characterisation of Kerala. I have three questions regarding this. First, do you believe Malayali writers played a significant role, perhaps even leading, in establishing this characterisation? Secondly, the phrase “getting past” implies a necessity to move away from this characterisation. You seem to think we’ve not managed this so far. If so, why not? And thirdly, if that characterisation hasn’t been the reality for a while now, has Malayalam literature started to reflect that?
I think the Malayali literary domain has always been a critical space. So while there have been many, many eminent writers, especially of the Left and what’s called the Purogamana Saahithya Samghadana, which have built up this image of Kerala as this social development paradise – of course in their own nuanced ways – there have also been writers who have vehemently, even in the heyday of this idea, protested and pointed out that there are too many instances that were contrary to this depiction. And so we should not be so sanguine about it. And the number of these writers have only increased over the years. They haven’t decreased. I mean, of course, now all Malayali writers are very beholden to the ruling dispensation. Some of them are even lapdogs, advertisers. But even the lapdogs, if you look at their writing, that’s not necessarily comforting to Malayali society. They may need the patronage of the state, but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily all also servants of a certain idea of Kerala, they’re not doing that.
Secondly, I do think it’s very necessary. Perhaps a crisis is that because the whole idea of having a critical take on mainstream society seems to be excellent for the market, it seems to be created just for sale, not for anything else. You can read it, you can enjoy it, and that’s about it…but aren’t even critical of any power in real life. There’s somehow a niche separation that’s coming between what you read and how you live. That I think is the crisis of the Malayali public. I wouldn’t say literature, but Malayali public, not just literature – the literary public. And in Kerala, that’s been the beating heart of Kerala’s public sphere. The literary public has been very central to it, so it has consequences.
Where did that characterisation come from? It came from numbers. It goes back to your first question. It came from numbers, what is quantified. The number of literate people, the number of healthy people, the number of people who have gone to school. It’s all about numbers. What is so interesting about literature is that it captures precisely the stuff that slips through the number sieve. So that is the power of literature and I think we have lived up to that.
Did you always have this aim in mind, or was it a conclusion you arrived at after curating the stories?
I come from, as I told you, this number-cruncher background, and a historian’s background. So, I approached Kerala as my object from both these angles. From both these perspectives, as a historian and as a social scientist. I came with an understanding of how it can be criticised. So in social science and history, I have criticised the standard and persisting ways of understanding our society. I come to literature looking for even better resources to undermine this kind of one-sided limited representation that social science or history will allow.
There are so many anthologies in the literary landscape right now. I believe AJ Thomas just released one as well, and I want to know from your perspective: What do you believe draws both readers and publishers to the anthology?
I think the anthology is excellent because it allows you to map particular terrains. AJ is trying to map the terrain of the short story in Malayalam itself. So I think for readers, it’s perhaps a good way of actually getting a sense of that terrain. I think for publishers, they think that it sells rather well. So, all in all, it becomes useful to different players in this for different reasons.
In your anthology, it’s evident that many Malayalam novelists also excel as short story writers. This isn’t always the case in other literary traditions. It’s a dying form, they say. Only good to illustrate a writer’s prowess and nothing else. But it has managed to persist in Kerala. Why do you think that’s the case?
This is interesting. It’s like Urdu, you know? I mean, the first novel might have come very early both in Urdu and Malayalam, but it’s just that the short story form has really thrived. It has to do with being a regional language, a minor language, and that is important. And I think it was also a way of reaching out to an audience which probably wouldn’t have the time – because these are languages which quickly reached out to modern form – actually addressed a whole bunch of readers who did not read before, who acquired the skills of literacy only very late. The development of this form coincides with an expanding readership. So I think the short story was a way of reaching out to a much larger number of readers in a much shorter time with fewer resources because a novel would need a proper publication, distribution, etcetera. A short story can almost function like a pamphlet.
That was the kind of a historical moment, I think, which allowed the short story to grow in this manner in Kerala. So for example, MT Vasudevan Nair has written many, many novels, but he’s, I think, revered most as a short story writer. The same would apply to someone like Madhavikutty also.
Translating a diverse range of Malayalam writers in your anthology must have presented unique challenges. Do you find yourself altering your approach for each writer to capture their individual styles, or do you have a more uniform strategy for translation across different authors?
You can never do that! You can never do that precisely because every writer has their own very distinct style. You cannot, you just cannot do that. I mean, if you do that, then you’re a bad translator. And it also depends not even on the author, it depends on the book. I remember when I translated KR Meera’s first book of short stories, there were stories which required me to completely change the style because the short story itself was different. The writers themselves may not be very aware of it. However, translators read the work very closely. Sometimes you can even identify when the writer hasn’t paid enough attention. You can find out when the story is not pitch perfect. Where it kind of fails. I’ve been able to identify books that are very popular, but the writer has somehow been too hurried. The writer hasn’t paid enough time, spent enough time tightening the prose. Because that is how you read when you read as a translator. You read very closely.
So sometimes when I translate, I’m always in a conversation with the author. I ask if I can tighten the prose because in English it will sound very awkward if it is not. So, most authors are open to whatever needs to be done because the point is not to do a word-by-word mechanical rendering. But actually, communicate the affect in another language.
I mean if this story is producing a certain kind of affect in Malayalam, then that affect should be reproduced in the English version. So whatever changes that this is necessary to do, that one does.
In justifying the exclusion of NRI narratives from your anthology, you mentioned the daunting task of covering all aspects of contemporary Malayali society equally.
There is an NRI writer in it.
Ah, yes. There is. But considering the interconnectedness of many diaspora narratives with the Malayali quotidian in pockets of Kerala –
All over Kerala, you could say.
Did you personally encounter any internal resistance to this choice?
There’s this fabulous story where there’s a friend of mine who was coming from Assam. She got off the plane and took a taxi, and this guy was a very chatty driver. So he went on and on about how he was in the Gulf, he spent so many years in there and all that. And finally, he asked her where she was from, and she said, “I’m from Dibrugarh.” She asked him, “Do you know where Dibrugarh is?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, of course I know. It’s just next to Dubai.” [laughs] So, everything, somehow in our imagination, is next to Dubai. I completely agree with what you’re saying.
So I want to know whether there was an internal battle.
There was! Because you see, I don’t think Kerala – I mean, we’re talking about Kerala as a place – it’s no longer Gokarna to Kanyakumari. Sociologically, it’s definitely not. It’s also the diaspora. In a big way, it’s the diaspora. It’s people living here and there and so on. I would definitely have included it if the word count wasn’t so tight. In fact, it was tighter still. I managed to negotiate to add one more. I mean, Ambikasutan Mangad’s “Neeraliyan” – I had to negotiate to include that one. This was an experiment. I understand that the publishers were worried and they didn’t know. But now I think this has become a success and Penguin has got a lot of credit for that. So the next anthology will be on other regions – if someone takes it up – and it won’t be so short.
You mentioned, “Discourse of the revolutionary proletariat is heard no more in Kerala.” I’m interested in understanding your perspective on why you think this is the case. Additionally, do you see this sentiment reflected in contemporary literature?
Well, that’s true. It’s because the Left itself has changed a lot since the 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Left in Kerala has also kind of given up its socialist resource redistribution agenda, the militant redistributionist agenda is off the table now, so you do not hear that anymore. But gone with it is the idea of the state as essentially the leveller and the provider of social justice, et cetera, that is kind of in the vein. But I think the literature is one place where it is still persistent, not in everybody’s writing, but in the whole discourse of social justice. And literature is also the space where institutionalised, revolutionary discourse is criticised. And what did not figure in it is highlighted. In contemporary literature, I think there is a lot of very critical reflection on what the shape of this revolutionary discourse was, what went wrong with it, why was it so easily rolled back, and what it did not cover and with what consequences.
All this is being illustrated in the field of literature. So, I think it’s an interesting moment that they took. For example, mainly regional demotics. One of the aspects of Meesha [Moustache by S Hareesh], for example, the most interesting aspect of Meesha in Malayalam is precisely the demotic. You know, of the Kuttanad demotic. Or, Rajashree’s novel. [The Sthory of Two Wimmin Named Kalyani and Dakshayani]. Again, the two demotics actually almost function like characters. So the whole tension between North Kerala and South Kerala is literally expressed in a confrontation between these two demotics of Malayalam. So all that which was kind of obscured by the standard Malayalam was definitely accompanied by the discourse of the revolutionary proletariat. Now all that is being explored. So it is also a place where a newer imagination of social justice is being articulated.
You spoke a little about the editorial process. How did the editors intervene, if at all? Were they interested in making the text more accessible?
No, no, I don’t think they made any changes, except for copyediting suggestions. They didn’t debate anything. Of course, they had the constraints. That was mainly to do with marketing because it was a new idea. In fact, I was grateful that they were open to it. We badly wanted to do this and try it out.
On another note, the cover…
It’s terrible, isn’t it?
It is! Why? When I saw the cover, I thought, “Did Devika actually approve this?”
No, you know why I approved of it. I’ll tell you something. I was sent some options that looked touristy to me: Kotta [bamboo basket], and vatti [another type of bamboo basket], and vilakku [prayer lamp]. And I said, look, the whole point of the anthology is to go against it. So why don’t you just use the primary colours of Kerala and create an abstract piece? Blue, green, and brown. And I said, fine, it looks like a seashore or something. It’s a close-up of a seashore.
Oh, that was the intention.
I thought that. I mean, that’s what I imposed on it. Anyway, I told the editor, “Let’s go with it because I want to know if it sells.” And of course, they were aghast, because it was too late. The deadline was looming upon us. Otherwise, they would have redone the cover. They didn’t have the time. That’s the only reason why the marketing approved, so I told them that I wanted to try and see if a book without a nice cover would sell.
And you can change it during the reprint.
That is possible. But I said, “Look, I’ve been fooled with a fancy cover, really beautiful cover, many times.” The novel would be bullshit. There are so many instances. The book covers essentially function as pretty petals to a flower to attract the bees. It’s a bit like that. It’s a way of luring the reader to buy it. So I wanted to see if a book which doesn’t have an attractive cover will still sell, and it is selling really well. So I proved my point. That’s good enough for me.
Do you allow your authors to intervene in your translation?
I always do it as a conversation with them. So I keep sending them my drafts. I expect them to actively engage with my drafts. I get irritated when they don’t. I expect them to tell me something or the other. It always proceeds as a conversation. Of course, when the author is no more, you can’t have that conversation anymore. Then is a different thing altogether, because I then I approach this text as a historian. And so, all the books where I have translated of authors who are no more, like Lalitambika Antharjanam, and so on, I’ve had hefty, hefty introductions. But that used to be the style when translation was still an academic interest. So if you look at my publications with Oxford University Press, they have very hefty introductions.