I read the two works from Indian literatures in translation – both published by the same group – one after the other: The Rock that Was Not by Githanjali, and Here I Am by P Sathyavathi. Both are fairly unbearable to read – not because they are preciously written or feature laughable material. The reason is quite the opposite: They are starker and more sensationally horrifying than a fifteen-minute true-crime segment on a news channel, and as dispassionate and moving as a well-researched feature in a national daily.
Both these books remind their readers that we live in a world of cruelty, cruelty that can paralyse the the capacity of the mind to imagine, but not the the capacity of the word to mean. If you happen to come across these two titles, do bear this in mind: They are plain catalogues of gender-based atrocities committed against women – they are rightfully unadorned, and often read not like stories but much more like newspaper articles put together with unbearable clarity.
I read The Rock That was Not first. My table of contents was riddled with the following notes: breast implants – hysterectomy – neurosis – self-immolation – extramarital relationships – incestuous rape – vaginoplasty – child sexual abuse – marital rape – abortion. Almost every woman in this collection of stories (as well as the other one), enraged me. So did the narrator, whether in the first person or the third.
The translator of this collection, academician K Suneetha Rani, did not help either, writing with a simplistic, annoyingly textbook-style translation that made the book appear entirely foreign when read in English, but which predictably left me with the feeling that the sentences would have rolled right off the tongue in the original Telugu. The bone I have to pick with the translator is still a “pickable” one, as it were.
What could I bring to my anger towards the women in these stories? They were women who got raped, abused, molested, enslaved, and psychologically battered on a near-daily basis. And there they remained until the very last page, devoid of support and stripped of credibility by their loved ones. Every story revolved around a particular issue, which is why I could sum each one up in the table of contents as previously mentioned.
When I finished reading the eponymous first story, I wasn’t aware of how unbearable these accounts were, how devoid of variety, nuance, irony, or even the sort of eloquence one essentially looks forward to when one opens a book. But by the time I was done turning the last page, I wasn’t sure if I could entirely write off this book.
Perpetually presented to me within its pages was a world fitting precisely this description: devoid of variety, nuance, and irony. There was nothing heartfelt in the hearts of its people, no humanity in its humans. Both the writer and the translator seemed to have ostensibly thought: if the world to be portrayed is so horrendous, why should the style be anything but? And they’re right. But I couldn’t help thinking that these short stories – full of violence that makes one’s skin crawl and described in short but mercilessly detailed sentences – should not have been a book at all.
This is a question that I pose myself quite often these days. It’s all a result of various democratising changes made within and outside the publishing industry, and many of them are very much to be appreciated, because for the most part, these changes have meant that more narratives, differing narratives, are allowed to reach us. But there are so many books I come across that I acutely feel should not have been books.
They could have been exceedingly well-executed projects published elsewhere, presumably somewhere on the internet or as personal film projects, but as books, all they seem to do is disappoint. Both these collections of short stories are tragic reminders of women failing themselves in ways far worse than men ever possibly could – the condoning of actions, the ridiculing of beliefs, the rubbishing of suspicions, the discarding of evidence: Things all women do in all these stories, things most women do in all of life. These are versions of an unseeing stupidity, a dead complicity, a terrifying and depressing truth. And so perhaps, these collections deserve to be praised as books.
Sathyavathi’s stories deal less with direct violence and more with occasions that can entertain or afford some subtlety. But the area of reflection is still very much the same: violence against women. In one story, the children of a mother who deserted them in favour of a new life wonder about the force and cruelty of their mother’s decision; in another, a simple, unlearned homemaker fearfully confronts her daughter’s alienation, which is growing with the rest of her teenage body; in a third, an apathetic woman and an equally apathetic man confront their respective problematic roles when thrown together as a couple living in America, complaining petulantly across phone lines to India; in a fourth, women are likened to anxious cows rushing home to feed their calves, with the subsequent implication being, of course, that oxen don’t need to follow suit.
The reason it feels criminally wrong to criticise such narratives is their significance. They need to be heard. They are evidence of how far we’ve fallen and how much we fail each other as human beings. Therefore the avenue where I find fault with them would never be their subject; it is only their style that I would like to criticise.
The different translators in the case of Here I Am, and K Suneetha Rani in the case of The Rock that Was Not, all have in common an unsophisticated loyalty to the original text that makes it impossible to truly let the text wash over you, take over your imagination. The stories in both cases read often like chapters from a textbook, something basic and prescribed.
The subject matter, the themes, they stay with you long after you’ve put the books away. And this expertly creates – or reaffirms – the need to acquaint oneself with violence on such an intimate and unbearable level. But that is because these are very much issues that nobody should be allowed to forget or ignore. It does not, however, speak for the skill or the readability of their writers and translators.
To be impressed with books such as these two is essentially to be horrified and amazed at the willpower it must have taken for its writers to put pen to paper, for many of these stories are taken from real life accounts. But beyond that, it is sadly impossible to revisit these books or recommend them to anyone.
The Rock That Was Not and Other Stories, Githanjali, translated from the Telugu by K Suneetha Rani, Ratna Books; Here I Am and Other Stories, P Sathyavathi, translated from the Telugu by various translators, Ratna Books.