Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Day I Discovered I Was Illegitimate

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 21 August, 2010)

“Do you know we’re illegitimate?”

It was one of the times I’d loved to have had glasses I could adjust before I looked up at my little brother and asked the obvious question.

However, he was too thrilled at this scandalous twist to the boring inception of his hitherto mundane life to get annoyed.

“It’s like this, Akka,” he said, calmly, “Ma says she is not legally married.” He suddenly looked past me, mumbled “aiyo” and scuttled off to his room, looking much smaller than his eight inch height advantage over my father warranted.

“What’s all that nonsense?” my father demanded, “what have you been telling the children?”

“Is it true?” I looked at my mother severely, and she shrugged rather sheepishly. I sighed, “Ma, did you lose your marriage certificate or what? In the termite attack?”

“What marriage certificate?” she laughed.

“What’s all this nonsense? What are you telling her?” my father repeated, in a louder voice, “you know she’s going to go write about this somewhere.”

“Our marriage has been sanctified by agni sakshi,” my mother grinned, “and so many witnesses that my mouth began to ache with all the smiling and thanking. What are we going to do with a marriage certificate?”

“Ma, that idiot says we’re illegitimate,” my older younger brother walked in, and stopped when he saw my father, “oh, damn.” Then he decided the damage had been done anyway, and went on, “so if you get divorced, you’re not entitled to anything?” Then he paused. "Can you get divorced if you're not married?"

“Can you get me coffee first, please?” my father had sat down by now.

“Deepu, they’re so cool,” my little brother popped in again, sufficiently emboldened by the three-pronged attack, “we can tell everyone our parents are in a live-in relationship.”

“You come here, mister,” our father stood up, sending the boy running to my mother, who stands a foot shorter than he.

Dei, you’ll spill the coffee!” my mother shouted out, her priorities right on track, as always, “a marriage certificate was unheard of in those days, unless you needed a visa to go abroad. It’s like your prenup.”

“Prenup?”my father asked, bewildered.

My mother made an impatient noise, “prenuptial agreement, pa.”

“That’s what they call it in your Desperate House, is it?”my father growled.

My little brother giggled. “They’re two different things. House is a doctor-based drama. Desperate Housewives is a…milf-based soap.” He high-fived my other brother.

“There’s a new milk-based soap?” my grandmother’s voice was always the first indication of her presence, “can you buy it? This Yardley really dries my skin.”

“The kizhams in our family are way too progressive,” the older of my brothers muttered, as the other one groaned.

“Whom are you calling old?” my grandmother demanded, “you know, our tenant thought your mother and I are sisters!”

“That’s an insult to Amma, not a compliment to you,” my brother said.

“Did you say milk-based or milf-based?”my grandmother asked, “what is ‘milf’?”

“I’ll look it up,” my father took out his BlackBerry.

Aiyo. If you trusted each other enough to get married illegally, why can’t you trust us at all?” my younger brother mumbled.

“Who got married illegally?” my grandmother demanded, “go read the Hindu Marriage Act. I’m a lawyer, aren’t I? Do you know, I can get you married to someone before you turn eighteen and the police can’t touch me unless you register a complaint! It is still recognised as a marriage until annulment.”

Between blushes, he sulked, “I’m nineteen, Paatti.”

Of spirited maniacs, porn-addicts and hot detectives

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 15 August, 2010)

Book title: Blaft’s Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Volume II
Publisher: Blaft
Price: Rs. 495/-

If you, like me, judge a book by its cover, you’d own this one by now. A woman with long, curly hair decorated with jhumkis and jasmine flowers, draped in a white translucent sari and staring out at you with long-lashed eyes on either side of a black pottu, calmly sips blood from a skull.

However, if your leanings are more intellectual than impulsive, you’d look at three parameters while rating a translated work – the quality of the original story, the smoothness of the translation and the production value of the book.

From a samasthanam on the outskirts of Madurai where a family of maharajas rules and loses its heirs mysteriously, to hideous monsters raised by scientists, to women addicted to ‘blue films’, to bloodthirsty ghosts, the collection has enough pulp to keep you turning the pages, half-curious and half-amused.

Pritham K. Chakravarthy excels as a translator. She is fastidious in her selection of which words to retain in the original Tamil, which to replace with equivalents and which to translate literally. Translation is successful when you either find it hard to imagine the book was not originally written in English, or when you feel the texture of the original and forget it is a translated work. Pritham’s technique is the latter.

While she prunes out the crudeness and vulgarity of the vernacular, one can still hear the dialogues as if they were spoken in Tamil. Except for a letter from M K Narayanan, one of the writers featured in the anthology, the translation is near-flawless. The best thing about it is that the stories don’t lose their flavour, albeit a rather pungent one.

Yes, pungent – because, while we feel the thrill of pacy narration, sadly, Indian pulp writing is way below par. It’s acceptable for one to take liberties with reality; but artistic licence does not cover amateur writing. We can laugh at them, but never with them. And little wonder, if vernacular pulp writers are churning out works at the rate they are.

For instance, a writer featured in this collection, Rajesh Kumar, has a bid under review by the Guinness World Records for writing nearly 1500 crime novels. Even over a period of fifty years, that’s thirty novels a year! How much time can one spend on writing and editing in ten days? That probably explains why he believes women can get so addicted to pornography and so turned on by it that they will seduce mechanics who land up at their homes to fix the air-conditioner.

Indumathi’s ‘Hold on a minute, I’m in the middle of a murder’ is gripping, but disappoints with its clich├ęs. The imagination involved has the promise of potential, but it hasn’t been honed, perhaps for lack of time. The result is a story that would make you go “aww!” if a child in Class 6 came running up to show you his or her first piece of detective fiction/ horror writing, but you’re left wondering why it merited publication in its present form.

Lines like “As an old man who had seen the world, he realised that Padma and Kadiravan must be under the influence of some evil spirit” (from M K Narayanan’s ‘The Bungalow by the River’) and “She was drawn to him by his competency in computers and other electronics. He in turn was attracted by her beauty and her sharp brain” (from Resakee’s ‘Sacrilege to Love’) cannot hope for empathy from a reader whose IQ is not in single digits.

Pulp need not mean trash. But a story where a brother, who brings up his sister and beats up wastrels who hound her, is rewarded by his sister falling in love with someone who plans to kill him with the sister’s approval really doesn’t qualify as good writing.

The woman-power trip in Tamil fiction is good fun, but again, women who go “if I don’t solve this, my name is not Archana!” or insist on riding a motorbike (instead of a scooter) because “I am Karate Kavitha, aren’t I?” are comical rather than inspiring (at least, one would hope so). The dialogue is reminiscent of old box office hits we like to snigger at, and the predictability is straight off the ‘megaserials’ manufactured for the entertainment of bored housewives.

Most of these writers fall into the bracket of the self-appointed guardians of Tamil culture, who take digs at women wearing ‘tight jeans’ and T-shirts that show off their curves, but will, nevertheless, devote six pages of a graphic novella to a heroine running around with an…ahem…wardrobe malfunction (as in ‘Highway 117’ by Pushpa Thangadorai.)

The book is important not so much for the quality of the stories as to start a debate on whether popular entertainment can’t be more refined. Resakee makes a start, by writing an alternative ending ‘for die-hard romantics’.

Two-year-old Blaft’s efforts to stir up interest in unlikely genres are commendable. And the production value of their books is excellent, while their daring innovations have been hugely successful. The publishers have laboriously dug up hilarious book covers and advertisements, which provoke a touch of nostalgia for a long-gone childhood even as you double up laughing over them.

Reasons to pick up this book: the three-hour long Subramaniyapuram is summarised in six lines; the tone of the stories reminds you of why Rajkumar’s ‘Eef you come today’ and ‘Lowe me or leawe me’ (which features Mees Mawlothy) are such huge hits on YouTube; the archived material used is invaluable; you’re guaranteed at least a hundred pages of laughs.

Reasons not to pick up this book: pulp horror scares you; you’d like to think modern writing in Tamil ended with Bharathiyar and Kalki.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Of Floral Palanquins and Old Wood Hulks

(Published in i-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 25 July, 2010)

When I myself am in want, it seems my sister-in-law is asking me for a floral palanquin!

It’s the sort of sentence that makes you go “huh?”, rack your brain for the corresponding Tamil proverb, and burst out laughing. Translation is tricky. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, the author of Hundred Tamil Folk and Tribal Tales, a translation of selected stories from Naattuppura Kadhai Kalanjiyam, says she was keen to retain the original flavour of the language, and speaks of ‘deliberate interlingual transfer’. But there is a fine line between charming linguistic exchange and jarring misusage, and when one writes in a language while thinking in another, figures of speech are bound to transgress this boundary.

Hundred Tamil Folk and Tribal Tales is a well-intentioned book. It attempts to bridge the gap between the inhabitants of the villages that dot this state and the city-bred elite. The author’s note is lyrical in its empathy with the people who make their living from temple festivals (Thiruvizha), which have been whittled down from lasting forty-eight days to eleven days over the years. Unfortunately, the flow of language doesn’t carry over to the actual translation.

The stories themselves make for interesting reading, and the manner in which ghosts, animals, humans and Gods interact with each other allows the reader an insight into the myths that have forged the identities, aspirations, fears and beliefs of the Peoples who are part of Tamil Nadu. For instance, the story Look Before and Behind You has a monkey bribing Lord Ganesha (who plays the Judge of the Forest) and is chillingly practical even while being humorous. The tales of wit are engaging, and some transcend cultural barriers. The story of a washerman and potter trying to get each other executed finds echoes in a Birbal tale. The story of a boy who kills flies and brands himself ‘He Who Killed Nine in One Stroke’ has a parallel in the Jataka Tales, and was retold by the Brothers Grimm way before the world shrank into a web village. There are pleasant surprises in the collection too – like a story-teller who claims Chekaspiyar (Shakespeare) was given stories by Shiva and Parvathi.

But one does feel the selection could have been better. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan had seven hundred and eight stories to choose from in the fifteen-volume Tamil version. Some stories, such as How Did You Get Here Before Me? strike one as pointless. The translator speaks of the difficulties of putting into print the dynamics of an impromptu performance, but doesn’t avoid the pitfalls she warns of. Humour that depends on timing loses its appeal in print. The same goes for the story Kuttiaandavar, which rambles on about magic ‘ponds’ (temple tanks), rather like an extended footnote. There is no element of fiction or interest that keeps the reader’s attention, and the story ends even while one is searching for its peg.

Sujatha Vijayaraghavan’s preface does acknowledge that the stories have only been translated, and not refined. But this is rather self-defeating. The book sets out to be an ambassador for Tamil folklore, but could scare people into thinking these tales belong to a bloodthirsty, barbaric culture. I wonder what feminists would have to say about a Goddess who only needs to be prayed to and appeased with food to forgive a man who has beaten his wife to death. Or about the story Upbringing, in which a man ‘tames’ his spirited wife by killing harmless animals that happen to cross their path, as if that were an act of supreme intelligence. He converts her into someone who is scared to open the door to her own father without her husband’s permission, and Daddy Dear is actually grateful to his son-in-law for this feat. Then, there’s the story of a woman who carries her sadistic, leprosy-afflicted husband to the brothel, and waits in the rain while he...umm...spreads his seed. Interspersed with stories of daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law who’re waiting for each other to die and wives who push their husbands into chasms so they can run away with lovers, the perception of women sticks to the Goddess-or-Whore stereotype.

Without temporal and social context, sayings like ‘A thousand lies can be told to conduct a marriage’and ‘If women laugh, it is the beginning of woe’ are potentially dangerous. Many of the stories are anti-rich, anti-Brahmin and anti-modern. While these earmark crucial points in the collective conscious, they need annotations to be interpreted correctly.

The literal translation of names is another area that could do with annotation. Names like ‘A Thousand Measures of Wealth’, ‘Two Thousand Measures of Wealth’, ‘Catch the Tuft’ and ‘Old Wood Hulk’ make the Tamil culture seem like an offshoot of the Native American one. While Anandavalli seems a perfectly ordinary name, ‘Happy Creeper’ doesn’t quite have the same connotations, does it?!

The original Tamil work, for which researchers travelled to various parts of the state, is certainly a laudable effort. The translation is a necessary piece of work too. But while it’s useful for Tamil speakers who want to know more about their folk-culture, it needs footnotes to be understood clearly by those who are not familiar with Tamil. The stories need to be explained, even if that means ‘refining’, to be acceptable to an audience that can’t relate to the people who own these stories.

At a Gathering of the Roundabout Write Wing

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 7th August, 2010)

The horrific truth that there is a book in each of us struck me at a reading-and-launch in the city, whose audience didn’t comprise the celebrated breed of ‘voracious readers’ so much as the dreaded genum of ‘aspiring writers’.

Against her better judgment, the publisher decided to humour the organisers and join the author and moderator on the dais. When the floor was thrown open to questions, the first few went:

“Madam, do you read all the manuscripts you get?”

“Sir, what technique you are following to write book? Myself, writing humorous short stories.”

“Madam, how do you select the books, and how do you promote them?”

“Sir, do you think you are a better writer because you are published than someone who writes for joy and is unpublished?”

After ten roundabout questions, of which the only one pertaining to the book was asked by a gentleman who is notorious for his presence at free events, his unkempt looks, and his penchant to microanalyse off-the-cuff remarks, the author turned to the publisher and asked: “So, how does one go about getting published?”

She gaped at him, and he added, “I’m sure they all want to know.”

A sigh of “yes” fluttered through the room, and the publisher, after a panicked look at the hundred eager eyes boring into hers, said, hoarsely, “uh…when I read this book…what struck me was…one particular incident. Maybe you want to read out this part?”

Over tea-and-snacks after the book launch, the prospective authors mentally wrote their magnum opuses.

“See, in my seventy-two years of life, I have seen so much,” one gentleman said to me, “I am masticating…” – I confess the word left me shaken as I tried to recall what it meant, and succeeded, with some relief, in remembering that it has no sexual connotations – “…masticating over the idea of writing about the events in my life and some pearls of wisdom for the younger generation like yourself.”

“Excellent idea,” said a lady, whose grand chignon, artistic strand of flowers and fifty-paise-coin-sized bindi declared her principles stood at the confluence of socialite-ism and avant garde, “I myself am going to write about a woman who is trapped in a marriage…an arranged marriage, and she realises suddenly, after twenty years, that she is nothing more than a wife and mother. Who is she? She needs to know herself. She walks out of her home. Then she meets a younger man. Through him, she discovers new dimensions to love, sex and life.”

Leaving the old man to masticate his pearls of wisdom as his interlocutor dreamily related the rest of what she considered her hitherto-unheard-of plot, I wandered over to the coffee counter, wishing a stronger brew were available.

“I think fiction is overrated,” a blonde man in a dhoti was saying to the author, “in India, we should look at spirituality. Maybe backpack through the country and scribble down these little things, which carry so much meaning.”

Just then, rather symbolically, a familiar sound made everyone jump. A woman sheepishly exhibited a piece of her sari that had caught in her chair, anxious to prove the noise was not quite what they had thought.

“You understand Tamil, right?” an NRI whom I’d met twice before asked, as I stuffed my mouth with bread to stop laughing, “well, I’m thinking of writing a book on the folklore of Tamil Nadu. You think we could do a tour of these villages, and get a book out of it? You could translate the tales of the bards.”

“And what will you do?” I coughed.

“What do you mean?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.

The mystery of what happens to these writers and their books after they force a hapless publisher to yield to their demands was solved when I visited Om Book Shop in Delhi.

"Madam," a man sitting on a reading stool boomed, and brushed away my apologies for stamping on his foot, "I am the author of a self-help book which you will find useful. Here it is. I can autograph it for you if you want."

Indian Culture and the Prostration Racket

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 24th July, 2010)

“Vizhu, vizhu,” she says, in rapture, signalling me to rush to the booty – the leathery feet of a lecherous professor from Salem, complete with gold watch and black shirt to advertise his political affiliations, “you might not get an opportunity again.”

Despite the ominous prediction, the octogenarian professor is beaming with goodwill, and the dancer I am waiting to interview is glowing with the fine fortune she has brought me.

“Back problem,” I mutter, putting a hand to my spine as I bend as far as his knee.

After cursing me with sixteen children, he moves on to better pursuits, while I thank my stars for the brainwave. A full prostration just might have merited thirty-two.

“They’re like vultures,” my grandmother grumbles, to a cousin who is six months older than she is, “at least those wait till a few hours before your death. These creatures have spent years queuing up to get our blessings before packing us off!”

She spends most festival days trying to outrun ten grandchildren chasing after her under the command of her children-in-law. With remarkable alacrity, the eighty-year-old matriarch of the family usually manages to jump into bed before the nimblest of us can grab her feet.

“Not anymore!” she screams out in warning, “if you touch the feet of someone who’s lying down, that means you’re equating that person to a corpse!”

All of us spring back, while she leans back with the triumphant smile of the proverbial cat.

My own turn comes during Pongal, as a shuffle of brothers and cousins line up, with grimaces and money, to fall at my feet. I habitually count the cash before blessing them with academic proficiency and abundant progeny.

“It’s unfair, ma,” my little brother whinges to my mother, “why do we have to give her money, and fall at her feet? I don’t mind falling at people’s feet for money!”

“Your sister is like a Goddess,” my father silences him, as I swear at the table for being in the way of my foot, “there’s nothing wrong with praying to the Lakshmi of the house.”

“Even if she’s more like Kali?” my brother murmurs resentfully, watching me put his pocket money into my purse.

“Duh,” I say, as he pouts, “Lakshmi gives money, Kali temples make money. Who do you think I’d rather be?”

“You should fall at Vimala Chiththi’s feet,” my littler cousin advises him, “she always gives me money to. And the thatha in her house is even more generous.”

I hear the below-waist-level population of my house has been running quite a successful prostration racket, using their respective distant relatives to nourish a common kitty. My cousin proudly tells me they have made enough to buy a Nintendo Wii.

They’re yet to squeeze a donation out of me, though.

“How can you be so comfortable with this?” my mother asks me, “it’s so humiliating. I had to fall at everyone’s feet; no one fell at mine! And thank God for that!”

However, her record was to break at a wedding reception.

As my father pronounced, “my wife”, the groom – who reports to my father at work – doubled up in deference. She tried to protest, but he persisted, moving the folds of her sari so that he could find the bottom of her feet.

I for one have no objection to embracing the dust at someone’s rear paws, as long as it is for the greater good of oneself.

A timely touch of my landlady’s feet was instrumental in sealing the deal for my tenure and rent in Noida.
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