This Penguin edition of Waves comprises a set of 14 short stories (dating from 1958 to 1991), authored by the versatile, innovatory, yet low-profile Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy (1931-2005). It merits mention here that this collection has its roots in an earlier Waves collection (of Ramaswamy’s short stories, poems and critical pieces) published in 2001 by East West Books, Madras. I draw attention to this small matter simply to shed light upon the deeply entrenched nature of Ramaswamy’s oeuvre.
Here is an eclectic set of stories that will by turn have one chuckling, reflecting, empathising, and (as with The Hollow from 1979) even gasping with horror. It would be prudent though to start off with the light early stories, simple yet profound time-markers to the period. Prasadam (1958) and Sita Brand Soapnut Powder (1959) are absolutely the funniest in this collection. The humour in Prasadam arises from the laughable desperation of a policeman, who is too innocent and incompetent to be really corrupt. Ironically, the intended victim (a temple priest) ends up having the last laugh. And amidst all the chaos, what is significant is the humanity resident in both protagonists.
The other funny tale effectively portrays the author’s earthy sense of humour as well as the translator Gomathi Narayanan’s skill in bringing to life the Tamil dialogue with all its piquancy and irreverence. Aasari, the impoverished artist, has managed a commission to paint a long-tressed Sita for a soapnut powder marketer. And still the man’s skeptical wife teases him, thus: ‘Your folk….are adept at hoisting up your loincloths and waving them as banners.’ Such tales leave one smiling, but many others leave the reader perturbed. In Caprice (1964), we meet a sensitive, plump, toothy, spunky, plainspeaking unmarried 32-year-old girl Alamelu. We also meet her lone family member (a frantic father), a prospective groom, his kindly mother (who wills the marriage to happen). And yet…life goes on unchanged.
Ramaswamy’s silence through the years 1966-1972 was followed by a return with stories that reflected the gloom and violence inherent in the post-Bangladesh war-Emergency torn India. The stories of this time are generally first person voices, contemplative, self-questioning, disturbing. In Essences (1973), a deeply religious man finds himself driven to violence. Waves (1976), the titular story (in my opinion, vague and unsatisfying), features a tormented, confused individual desperately searching for life’s meanings — on wave-swept wild seashore.
But in general, most of the stories are as intriguing as they are delightful, detailed, reflective of the quiet unknown Indian’s heart-felt secrets. Window (1958) takes the reader into the mind of a bed-bound invalid with only a window for company. And some stories shed light on Indian societal attitudes, as in Heifer (1959) where a fifth girl child is unwelcome, but the family cattle shed warmly welcomes the birth of a milch heifer.
A motley bunch of eccentric characters enliven Ramaswamy’s stories. There’s Ibrahim Hassan Rowther, the human calculator in Blossoming (1990). The introduction of technology makes him feel temporarily redundant — yet he survives the change with wit and wisdom. Crows (1991) features a person who understands crows better than humans.
Translated stories need to retain the original voice if they are to be effective. The English language in this anthology resonates warmly with the lilt of the Tamil spoken in Kerala-Tamil Nadu border areas around Nagercoil, the geographical base to these tales. ‘De Ambi, get up,’ says Appa to his son in Blossoming. ‘De, have your bath and breakfast, and go at once to Aanaipalayam.’ One can almost hear the Malayalam accented Tamil of the region. And translator Lakshmi Holmstrom wisely retains terms like De and Di, words that indicate the degree of familiarity among speakers.
Su-Ra’s Tamil-Travancore world is worth exploring.