Return to the playful delta

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Different strokes NS Madhavan
Different strokes NS Madhavan

This translation of a Malayalam masterpiece preserves most of its wit and ambition, says Arul Mani

IF THERE is one word that would capture NS Madhavan’s career as a Malayalam writer, it would have to be ‘resurfacing’. His work has been fuelled and perhaps hindered by the exigencies of bureaucratic employment/ exile. Lanthanbatheriyile Luthiniyakal, his first novel, was published in 2003 — a good 11 years after he began work on it, and a full three decades after he first came to attention. Our narrator Kanakkukattathil Edwina Theresa Irene Maria Anne Margarita Jessica is born on this island, which takes its name from the long-gone guns of Dutch colonisers in 1951, the year when “unpredictability became part of storytelling” after the film Jeevitha Nauka dropped mythology for realism. “All that I am writing,” she declares, “is born out of what I saw, heard or experienced… Oh chumma! I am kidding. I made up some of them. I didn’t have enough playthings in my childhood. I had to invent stories to kill time.” Jessica is still at it 16 years later while they strap her up for shock therapy: “Ayyo! I’d forgotten my name. Oh chumma. I was kidding. In the end too, there was the word, and the word was with a stutter.”

The ludic ambition that underlies this novel is visible in other ways. At a felicitation for Tenzing and Hillary, the Sherpa sets off only after singing a Saigal number, Hillary has to be dragged to the peak, and yet when the photograph is taken Tenzing doesn’t quite figure there. Jessica looks over Lanthan Bathery and announces that “History grows dense” there since “it couldn’t break free of the island’s confinement.

Stories had to be invented to temper its pent-up intensity.” We must politely disagree with the Khushwant Singh blurb that calls it “an outstanding work of historical fiction”. History is only straight man to a shape-shifting narrativity here.

If, as Jessica says, “an island was a state of bridgelessness”, then each character’s quest makes him a builder of bridges — Matthaeus’ capacity to extract from timber the memory of a given year, to Pushpangadan who spends years trying to prove Fermat wrong and to Santiagu’s attempts at writing new libretti for Chavittunatakam.

MADHAVAN FREES the novel from the yoke of ordinary resolution to carry other burdens; the unrecorded memory, the demotic, and the great acts of bricolage by ordinary folk from a time lost to us.

There is no denying the translator’s sincerity. but he approaches English with a strange deference. Apart from the euphony the title loses when he turns Lanthan Bathery into Dutch Battery, Koonankurishu becomes Hunchback Cross and Vadakkan Paattu becomes northern ballads. And there is his unhealthy fondness for the word ‘garbanzo’. A more consistent refusal could have produced a translation closer in audacity to the original.

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