Before reading Bullocks From The West, I had only heard of Na Muthuswamy in an obituary written by Kamal Haasan. An experimental playwright and director, he was the founder of “Koothu-P-Pattarai”, which performs plays with contemporary themes in traditional therukkoothu (street theatre) forms, combining music, dance, martial arts and folktales. He wrote the plays Kalam Kalamaga and England, and he mentored Vijay Sethupathi and Pasupathy.

I didn’t know, however, that he wrote short stories too. The deep introspective gaze distinctive of his plays is palpable in the “Punjai” stories, as is the heavy presence of ancient folk and religious texts. But the fiction stands on its own. For one, the stories are lyrical – they sound, even in translation, rhythmic and pulsating. Also, they are dreamy – like moving jelly, they are reshaped whenever they are touched or prodded.

Still, they are very, very real, capturing the everyday life of common people in the Punjai land, the towns near the Kaveri delta, along with what amounts to a meta-narrative of the social and emotional history of the land.

Translated from the Tamil by David Shulman and S Ramakrishnan, Bullocks From The West is a collection of five of Muthuswamy’s Punjai stories and the acclaimed play, England. Marked by a simple narrative style, with no sentence going beyond fifteen words – yes, I counted – the stories seem like those we would hear our grandmothers tell us at bedtime.

There is a boy who wants to ride the two bullocks that his family owns. There is indeed a grandfather who narrates a story about his dead friend. There is a woman, Panchali, who chooses to play Draupadi in a theatrical disrobing scene. There is a Ramayya Padayachi who thinks he is the general in Rajendra Chola’s army in the eleventh-century.

Townspeople? Small desires? Yes, this is very much the quotidian. But unlike grandmother’s stories, these are not linear narrations with a moral at the end. The one-line summaries may be familiar, but Muthuswamy’s prose and perspective is not. He layers these stories with a psychological exploration of human beings, which of course is influenced by the colours, sounds, and people around them.

Simple stories, ample commentary

Here, the quotidian does not preclude complexity. Muthuswamy isn’t painting a sunny portrait of the Tamil countryside, shimmering in innocence and beauty. His everyday events are meaningful because he reveals their insidious intensity. For instance, “Panchali”, which begins as a story about “an actress in Punjai,” develops swiftly though his characteristic plain narration:

“She was a devadasi. You have Brahmin women, cowherd women, oilman women, farmer women. Like that, this woman is a devadasi. Who is a devadasi? A woman who stands behind her husband holding the ritual grass is a Brahmin woman. Women who make curds in the soapstone vessel, their palms calloused from pulling the rope tied to the churning rod and the stone pillar, are from the cowherd caste.

[Devadasi] is someone who gives pleasure by lying beside men who come to sleep with her one after the other. Isn’t it so? It would have been better had that one caste become casteless in Tamil Nadu, if it had become modern, after the practice of dedicating women to temples was banned.”

Note the gravity of this paragraph: women’s occupations other than the standard “stay-at-home-and-look-after-the-children” are recognised; caste-coding amongst them is furnished; the overpowering patriarchy is exposed. The euphemism of the term “devadasi”, literally “servant of god” is scratched out, and the continued prevalence of the devadasi system is recorded – by imposition or by choice ? – with a slap on the face of the society that legally denounces it, but ritually allows for it to thrive (even removing the caste barriers: the devadasi here lives in a Brahmin house, let’s not forget), and yet denigrates the devadasis into a separate, lowly caste.

Muthuswamy is scathing, but subtly. Neither the popular anti-hero of The Mahabharata nor the traditionally pure Brahmin of the village are spared:

“Like Karna’s hands when he reached for Bhanumati’s saree, the hands of the Brahmin priest decorating the image would finger the waists of the devadasi women.”

Through “Panchali”, a rapturous exposé (and my favourite story in the collection), Muthuswamy raises those feminist questions that are grounded in the reality of village politics and mythological patriarchy. Here, a devadasi woman, Panchali, chooses to play her namesake in the annual koothu performance. Like Draupadi, she loves multiple men too; but because the society deifies one and castigates another, Panchali has to don Panchali’s role, for dignity, even if that comes her way for a day. She wants to write her own story, “one that was better than Kazhuvadaiyan’s” (a male deity in Punjai who represents one of the Pandavas.

In the process, old questions inform new ones – “is the disrobing dharma?” – and the new ones travel to Bhishma and his entourage. Panchali asks the crowd: “What is disgrace? A single piece of cloth? Or having your period?” The audience never answer, nor can they accept her final walk through the village. It is too charged, as though the goddess really is present. They never really respected Panchali, did they? She was – look how the tables have turned – like the devadasi. The title of the “exceptional woman” was a facade.

“Thick time”

The words of these Punjai stories are very much like “floats of line cast on a stream of time.” The stream is an ocean here: The past, present, and the future have flowed into one body with no single direction. “Kalyani” begins as an anecdote of a dead man’s marriage, but one line takes the narrator to another, leading to a back-and-forth: From Periya Dadi’s antics, Kalyani’s teacher’s remarks, and a night of illegal arrack, the narrator moves to his granddaughter’s arrival later in the summer and (finally) to the dead man’s marriage.

Narrative links are forged from emotional evocations. Some of the associations are even metonymic: Girls remind one of gold, because “poNNu” (girl) and “ponnu” (gold) sound similar in spoken Tamil. Temporality is non-linear because narrative recollections and linkages are non-linear.

While this may seem like a stream-of-consciousness narration, both “Fortress of Fantasy” and “Panchali” reveal the constructed nature of the timeframe over which the narration plays out. In the former, conversations about the village, its past, and the erstwhile Chola age happen over a cup of tea that takes the entire story to be prepared. Muthuswamy cleverly introduces a village scandal into the story of the Chola’s wife. And in the latter, the koothu, its parai, the firewalk, the procession of the goddess, the history of the performances, the Gambheera Nattai mallari, the Tamil myths from Bharatiyar and Villiputtuuraar all spiral into one another:

“She went and sat on the packet of blood-red liquid. Outside the burst of crackers dislodged the mortar from the temple walls. The horn blew, expanding space all around them. She felt a shock. Her period came on. She let out a frenzied cry, the parai – even louder – egged them on.”

The elements and their sounds flow into each other inasmuch as they cut each other out. This is Muthuswamy’s choreography.

The abiding translation

The translation attempts to preserve such lyricism. It is easy to feel disjointed by the short sentences, the irreverence to grammar – “Kasturi Naidu lived opposite him” – and the increased presence of Tamil – “So the time had come…” instead of “so it was time…” These are informed choices, though, to alienate us from a well-flowing text – an effect which in the original is caused by syncopated and irregular narration. This also serves a point Muthuswamy is making: People don’t speak in completely coherent, grammatically correct, linearly progressive sentences.

Apart from this, the process of collaboration – Shulman writing and Ramakrishnan reading out loud – helps maintain the sound. Shulman concedes that the “complete isomorphism between the music of their words and thoughts and the irreducible music running through the language they speak and write” makes the Punjai stories untranslatable. The translators try, though, mostly successfully.

The word choices are attentive to both the tone and the meaning: “egged” instead of “encouraged”, “illicit” instead of “illegal”, “continually” instead of “continuously”. Shulman’s “Afterword” is a testament to his devoted interpretation of the stories before translating them. The title of “Neermai”, for example, is translated to “Waterness” – for Muthuswamy is here interested in the “unstable fluidity of awareness” – rather than medieval meanings like “nature” or “coolness” or the modern understanding as “fluidity”.

The translation, then, is not only committed to the spirit of Muthuswamy’s stories, but is also well-versed about its own nature, meaning, and movement. And what is this spirit? The young boy from Bullocks from the West tells us, clearly (oh, the irony): “[V]arious shades of memory now come to my mind. I don’t know which are imagined and which are real.” In all five stories in this book, Muthuswami tours the wandering consciousness of such a human mind: what it remembers, what it dreams, what it negotiates, what it projects. The mind – like the parai that has been witness to decades of performance – “wails on its own, independent of the beat” of a linear reality.

Bullocks From The West, Na Muthuswamy, translated by David Shulman and S Ramakrishnan, Westland.