It’s almost a century now since the short story made its appearance in Tamil. Enchanted by the fresh literary form introduced from the West, the Tamils took to it immediately and wholeheartedly. They soon invented a tenor and sensibility that was compatible with, conducive to, and reflective of the grammar of the new genre. They looked for various ways in which it could be teased out in terms of their own milieu and ethos. Today it is undoubtedly the major medium of literary expression, convincingly capturing a startling range of human responses to the struggles and complexities of modern life.

We felt, therefore, that the Tamil short story deserved to be studied very carefully from its origins and through all its ascents and descents. This anthology traces the evolution of the Tamil short story through the changing landscapes of the different decades, straddling a range of social concerns relevant to the times. There are eighty-eight stories in all in this anthology, spanning nine decades (1913-2000).

Pick and choose

It proved to be a daunting task. For one, an embarrassment of riches stoutly stared us in the face. Also, since we were clear that the collection should represent all the aesthetic and political perspectives that define and characterise the movement of the Tamil short story, it left the field too wide open.

But the editor systematically waded through thousands of stories to make this selection. And stories were culled from every available source – little known magazines from the turn of the previous century and out-of-print editions from yesteryears to contemporary literary magazines and innumerable anthologies of both serious and popular short fiction.

What did we look for in a story? We set ourselves three vital principles to guide us through the selection. First, we looked for rich experiences that possessed a very strong sense of “story”, an attribute that would survive the conflict of nuances between languages during the process of translation. Second, we decided on stories that reflected diverse geographical, professional and social backdrops that are a composite of Tamil life and ethos. Finally, the commitment of the writer to the form of the short story was crucial. Only then would a truthful narration of the depicted experience be possible.

Through the tides, through the tides

While the early stalwarts gave a good start, it was the writers of the '30s who ushered in a fresh literary vibrancy. Then came the pre-Independence writers who combined nationalism with the human predicament, their stories always underscored by a noble idealism. Of course nothing happened in a neat pattern. Literary magazines and popular magazines flourished side by side, though they lived in parallel worlds. The post-Independence writers exhibited a new spirit, in keeping with the hopes and aspirations of a young nation. The Dravidian movement ushered in a new kind of writing, highly influential and popular.

In the ‘60s, idealism gave way to sharp social criticism and realism reigned supreme. The mid-‘70s and '80s saw writers who had rural beginnings. Quotidian happenings in villages and small towns were narrated with great compassion. The 1990s saw the emergence of a strain of writing which has come to be known as Dalit writing. Written in rich, earthy dialect, these searingly honest tales are nuanced, revealing a refined sagacity that hasn’t forsaken its political edge.

Identifying the authors

Most authors in this anthology are not full-time writers and are engaged in a variety of arduous professions to sustain a livelihood. It is astonishing that they have crafted such chiselled gems in such adverse circumstances, defying the perception of leisure and comfort commonly associated with literature. Such is their commitment to literature.

By stringing together these finely etched stories from various decades, we have tried to represent Tamil life in all its manifestations and resplendence. The stories, marked by the dominant impulse of the human predicament and the triumph of dignity, will surely find universal echoes, transcending all boundaries.

Notes on translation

Why do we translate a text? When a fine piece of writing resonates strongly with us, we are compelled by an urge to share it with people who can’t read the original language. We would like such readers to derive as much satisfaction as we did when we read the original.

But translation is tricky terrain, forcing the translator to perform many a precarious balancing act. As is well known, proficiency in both the languages will simply not suffice. One must have the ability to capture the spirit of the original. The translator’s sensibility has to be so finely honed that they must not only capture whatever the author intended – pathos, irony, humour, to name just three – but also make sure that the text works in English.

Style, tone and mood are conscious decisions taken by the authors and it is imperative that they be retained. Therefore, it was vital to us that the translated text retained almost all the nuances and the natural flow of the original, overcoming the inevitable losses that happen during any process of translation.

As with any piece of writing, a translator wishes to immerse readers in the world of the author, which though deeply rooted in its distinct milieu oversteps all cultural barriers. We kept a couple of things in mind when we chose a story: one, it had to have a universal appeal despite its unique cultural specificities. We also wanted to bring out the beauty of the source language in English.

So we didn’t iron out all the peculiarities so that readers get the impression they are reading the original. On the other hand, we are more than happy to remind readers that they are reading a translation – a world removed from the English-speaking one – which hasn’t sacrificed the nuances of the original, and which perhaps adds an enriching dimension to English, and also opens up newer possibilities.

Hence we hope the decisions we took will help the readers’ sharply tuned ears to engage with text imaginatively. We, of course, kept in mind that the translation has to work in English, but when it came to dialogue, we gave free rein to English as it is spoken in India, particularly the English spoken in Tamil Nadu, which carries with it distinct inflections of Tamil. So we didn’t have any hesitation in using: “Just like that only I came.”

The nuances of language

Our Indian languages abound in kinship terms, forms of address and colourful expressions. We decided to keep them so that the readers can hear the cadences of Tamil when they take that imaginative leap into a new world. Also, there are simply no equivalents in English. Astoundingly, sensitive readers can easily discern the context even if the words are alien to them – such is the beauty of our Indian languages. So you will come across sentences such as “What, ayya, how can you say this?” “Chee! Is this any way to hold a lantern?” “Why don’t you sit, di?”

A close reading of merely a handful of stories revealed that the writers had mastered the grammar and craft of the short story in a short span of time and had seamlessly subsumed it into the rich Tamil literary tradition. They effortlessly situated the stories in their milieu to reflect the concerns and issues of their society. This anthology, which is an evolution of the Tamil short story, is also a social history of sorts, spanning the entire spectrum of the Tamil society over the decades.

The Tamil Story: Through The Times, Through The Tides, edited by Dilip Kumar, translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, published by Tranquebar.