Poomani is a distinguished Tamil novelist and Sahitya Akademi Award recipient who rose to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, he remains one of the most discussed authors in the Tamil literary scene. Born in 1947, he published his first novel, Piragu, when he was just 19 years old. His second novel, Vekkai, was recently published as Heat in an English translation by N Kalyan Raman. Poomani spoke to Scroll.in about Vekkai, his other works, translation, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
Why Chidambaram (the fifteen-year-old protagonist of the novel)? How did Poomani become Chidambaram?
This was a true story that happened in a village next to mine. I don’t think it would be in good taste to speak about the case now, so many years after it happened. For young criminals, the court procedure is different. They don’t go to jail, they are sent to corrective schools instead. That’s why those who wanted to kill the man sent a 14-year-old boy to get the job done.
Chidambaram’s story is a little different, of course. There is a vekkai in his heart, that never cools, it is his own. The people around him are helpless, they cannot do anything. The justice systems fail him, the police fails him, he is forced to take justice into his own hands. Even then, he doesn’t want to kill Vadakkuraan. He wants to shame him, cut off the hand that killed his brother.
The nature scenes, geographies he describes – I have seen all of these myself. I have gone hunting for rabbits, climbed hills, roamed in these forests – these are my experiences growing up in a village. Life was integrated with nature, with the surroundings.
It makes us think differently of child criminals and the violence that society pushes them to participate in.
He is a boy, he is simple, surrounded by family who love him. He is the sole heir to the family, that’s why the father is very protective of him. He should not go to jail, he should not take any rash decisions. He counsels his son, but he burns inside with a jealousy that he could not accomplish this himself. He struggles to accept that his son is grown up and become a big man. But after all his violence, Chidambaram is still human, his heart is still loving and craves comfort. Society pushes him into violence, he doesn’t know violence on his own.
The father-son relationship is one of the less-talked about familial relationships. And it is interesting to hear about the jealousy.
The father is a man who came from a violent background. He had killed a man back in his village over land and gone to jail. He comes back, falls in love with Chidambaram’s mother and, despite her family’s resistance, marries her with the support of her elder brother, the Mama. He owes loyalty both to the woman who loved him in spite of his past and to her brother, who becomes his closest confidante.
With such virility in his past, he believes he should have been the one to kill Vadakkuraan. But while there is a jealousy that he could not kill Vadakkuraan himself, he simultaneously also feels pride that his son has killed him in his stead.
But he did help his son by turning off the lights
Yes, but Chidambaram is the one who plans everything. First, he plans to murder Vadakkuraan in the barber shop. Then, he finally kills him outside the sweet shop. And the mother, she is a violent woman as well, reminds you of Draupadi, the fierceness.
There is criticism that Vekkai speaks of caste only in hidden ways and not explicitly.
Chidambaram is a boy, he doesn’t know or understand identities and the power structures behind them. He doesn’t know that Vadakkuraan is an upper-caste man. He only knows that he is an oppressor and wants to take all the land. He doesn’t know much about Vadakkuraan at all. We don’t, either, since it is completely from Chidambaram’s point of view. And according to him, Vadakkuraan is the bad guy who has to be brought down.
There’s a lot of anti-establishment thought in the novel, and you are also interested in Marxism, we hear.
I don’t have any leanings, I have read different doctrines and I apply them as they are relevant. In the novel, government institutions, governance, the police, and their abysmal state are all described from Chidambaram’s view. How he sees justice, punishment. And how he looks at power, who is affected and who is not. It is a small story, you can draw a single line from start to finish. But how much the young mind is stuffed and forced to swallow!
You are very invested in the idea of humanity with all your characters.
In my novel Kommai, I talk about how the characters in the Mahabharatham are human. They are! Krishna is a human avataram. But people make him and the Pandavas gods. I don’t like that; they are not beyond human desires and mistakes. Arjunan is scared to go to war, Krishna must have only whispered to Arjunan for five minutes. He has one goal, to make sure Arjunan fights. He says “I tell, you fell.” When he dies, Arjunan cries about how a god has been reduced to such a state. Krishna consoles him, “I am human, my death has to come, and I have to pay for my actions.” He goes to Naragam (hell) with the Pandavas. Maybe he was bored of Vaikuntam (Vishnu’s abode) (laughs).
Your next book is also supposed to focus on Andal and her humanity.
I don’t want to talk much about the novel, I am afraid it will lead to unnecessary controversy. I envision it to be a travelogue. Ashwatthama is cursed to live for 3,000 years. He travels across India, meeting different people before finally arriving in Srivilliputhur to meet Andal and her father, Periyazhvar. When speaking of Andal, people only talk about Thiruppavai and not of Naachiyar Thirumozhi. How beautifully she has written those poems! She cries. Out of love, desire. She was curbed by her father from realising herself, diverted into a life of Bhakti by Periyazhvar. This book is my reading of different texts.
You are a translator yourself. What did you translate? When?
This was back in my college days. I translated from English to Tamil. There’s this Polish author, Slawomir Mrozek. He has written very well in the genre of satire. I really liked his stories and wanted to translate them into Tamil. I translated some 20-30 short stories and they were published in a collection called Vana Adigāriyin Kadhal. What did you think of reading Heat in English?
I thought there was a distance in the English version, I felt like I was not completely with Chidambaram. After reading four pages of the original, I could see how the reader becomes a part of the chase itself, but I didn’t feel it so strongly in English.
This novel is a subjective novel, that’s where the involvement comes, you feel like you’re being chased yourself. If you look at it from an observatory point, it will feel like we are looking from the outside. There will be a distance because this is not an observatory novel and cannot be translated that way. But nonetheless, he (N Kalyan Raman) has made a very sincere translation.
He told me he worked for two years on this novel and how it was the most difficult text he had translated.
Kalyan Raman is a friend, he worked really hard and was focussed on perfection. He consults the writer often, gets all his doubts cleared. Not him, but most other translators think authors know nothing about translation, that we don’t know English. They think what they’re doing is right. I have seen it happen around me. But still, show me the Tamil book. (He reads the first line from both the original and the translation) Do you see the difference?
[Poomani’s wife: (interrupting) At least it is out in English. Think about how much work the translator put in.]
But I worked hard on this novel as well. You should not Anglicise this translation. There’s this theorist who says a good translation does both a cultural translation and an ideological translation. You need to feel the Tamil, be immersed in the situation of the novel to get a good translation.
You talked a lot about translation, and your book is getting translated after 37 years. Translations have only recently started getting recognised. Who are some of the Tamil authors you think should be translated into English? Why?
Pudumaipithan. More of Sundara Ramasamy also. There is a wonderful writer named Krishnan Nambi, he’s no more now, but his kind of stories must come out. These are areas and themes no one talks about English. Some of my short stories too, they show a different world. Translations must bring these worlds to more readers. And they should be done by translators who are dedicated and sincere, who bring the Tamil into English. How is it a Tamil story otherwise?