Translations to the English from Indian languages yield texts of an assorted quality and, more often than not, disappoint the reader, especially if the reader has access to the work in both the source and the target languages. This is by default attributed to the skills of the translator, and less to a lack of editing, or to weaknesses in the text that fail to comprehend the expectations of readers from other cultures and languages. Indeed, there are also translators who consistently produce magnificent texts in translation – polished texts that are sought out by readers beyond the borders.

The rare case of the writer turning translator of their own text, time and again, ends up with mixed results. OV Vijayan’s much-acclaimed Malayalam classic, Khasakinte Ithihasam, which he translated into English as The Legends of Khasak, is not seen as a narrative anywhere near the original in quality. This, despite the fact that Vijayan had considerable mastery over the English language. On the other hand, Shanta Gokhale’s Tya Varshi, the state-award winning Marathi novel, was translated into English under the title Crowfall by the author and it read like an original, never once demonstrating the perceived bumps of a translated text.

Invisible Walls is a translation of Aparnayude Thadavarakal, Aswathy-yudeyum (Prisons of Aparna, Also of Aswathy) a novella by the multiple-award-winning and popular Malayalam writer Chandramathi. A retired professor of English, Chandramathi has translated her own work using her real name, Chandrika Balan. She has established her visibility within the text as also without, but while she maintains a distance from the story as a narrator, she is careful about bridging any cultural distance a translation could evoke.

A journey within a journey

Invisible Walls employs a cautious yet detailed craft to observe a universe of events in a story within a story format, where the reader, the narrators and the writer herself (or, in this case, the translator) belong to the same compact universe. A railway compartment is the venue and the vehicle of the chronicle, where Kamala is travelling back to her hip circle of friends and their licentious life in far-off Delhi. She reports back to her gang over the phone about how she was tricked by her family to go home for yet another marriage proposal, and how she was speeding back to her comfort zones.

They call themselves The Fourcentric, a foursome of firebrand researchers on a Delhi Campus, two men and two women living together without inhibitions. They are committed to not committing to a single partner. But of late one of them has been showing some interest in marrying Kamala. That’s Kamala’s backstory.

On the train, she reads Chandrika Balan’s book, in which Aparna, the protagonist, is also travelling to Delhi and is seen to be reading as well. That book follows Aparna’s life, which echoes Kamala’s own to an extent, but is actually quite different. Now, Kamala and Aparna may seem kindred souls, but it’s soon evident that this is only as far as their love for freedom is concerned. Both dislike children, abhor the concept of marriage, have a circle of close friends not limited to their own gender – and ignore or snub co-passengers who try to make conversation. When encountering sexuality, however, they have different approaches, as illuminated by various incidents in their lives.

Further in the story within the story, Aparna gives in to her mother’s plans for her and gets married, whereupon ‘life’ starts to rewind in disillusionment. Her husband is an aspiring young poet, and working hard on his way to ostensible glory. But how does life deal with the freedom-loving Aparna, now his wife? That’s what the writer wants Kamala to tell us, while manoeuvring her life story in parallel. As the story ends, fiction meets reality on a crowded railway platform.

Standing up to patriarchy

The dual narrative effectively recounts how the butterfly effect of patriarchy dominates the lives of women and curbs their aspirations to independence in various ways. This, in spite of the fact that the protagonists of the novel are champions of freedom and are able to hold their own. Eventually, it’s the women who emerge victorious in a battle for control in the story, but it’s not without plodding along the path mapped out by patriarchy and digging into their own exposure and education to find their strengths.

The translation reads quite smoothly, and the author has taken the liberty of renaming her narrator in the new text. Kamala was Aswathy in the original book. The structure, as in the original version, is in three compartments, viz. Theevandi (Train), Campus, Kudumbam (Family), and with Kamala making two appearances to tell the story. This assembly holds the storyline intact, without faltering along the possible fault lines of a binary narrative.

Several contemporary issues worrying the world around us, like sexual harassment on campuses, have been sprinkled around the narrative, adding flesh to the story. Tongue-in-cheek barbs at the current literary scene provoke many a smile, especially the wedding night scene, where Aparna is asked by the husband to go over his first contract for publishing, rather than get into the formalities of life as ordained. It’s quite indicative of what lies ahead in Aparna’s marriage.

I have just one regret about the storyline. One wishes Aparna’s workplace had been opened to the reader a little more. It would have added dimension to her character and enhanced the reader’s empathy with her personality.

The writer Chandramathi is known for a non-card-bearing “gentle feminism”, which many of her characters endorse within the family structure and in a middle-class milieu, as well as for portraying the struggles of a traditional, “bourgeois” woman. Aparna, likewise, does not disappoint, even in translation.

Invisible Walls, Chandramathi, translated from the Malayalam by the author as Chandrika Balan, Niyogi Books.