Sugandhi...review: Myth in translation

Sugandhi

This review must necessarily begin with a word of gratitude to the league of translators. Thanks to them, the imagination resident in vernacular literature is now accessible to those who grew up conversant in English while a sea of books in other languages lay unexplored. Priya K Nair has done a good job translating T D Ramakrishnan’s book, written in Malayalam, into English. The language was easy and the visualisation rich, the way vernacular literature typically casts it, yet not overboard, which is how English likes it. Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki felt as it aspired to be — the English translation of a novel in Malayalam.

If you picked up this book with no judgement or preconceived notions, then you shouldn’t be disappointed. As a story, the narrative moves smoothly despite its complex structure and penchant for fantasy. The backdrop of the book’s story is Sri Lanka’s civil war; the conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils and within that, the war between the Sri Lankan army and militant groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). But that is the only backdrop. The real story deals with our idea of womanhood, the culture of violence and violence against women; all this as active instruments used over centuries in the world of power and politics. Centuries ago, a king forces his queens to wear a chastity belt. In the turbulent politics of later years, patriarchal interpretation of female anatomy and what womanhood means, remain the same, right up to the present with its capacity for fascism (in both government and rebels opposed to government) and sex wielded as a weapon.

Ramakrishnan tells his story in a layered format. There is the near-present in which Tamil militant organisations, the government of Sri Lanka and other countries feature along with the strife that tore the island apart — something many of us are familiar with. Woven into it is the spine of the story: the narrator’s earlier partnering with a documentary film that didn’t get made, his current partnering with a Hollywood film crew making another documentary in which the earlier quest for documentary survives as a backdrop and the search for an old acquaintance whose tragic story soaked in violence is shared by many other women trapped in the landscape of war as victim, militant or human rights activist. The second layer is ancient history pertaining to Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala; the author draws on this with liberal fictitious twists of his own, added. The third is the realm of fantasy. Here the human capacity for myth is tapped into. At moments of life pushed to the extreme, the real transforms into the fantastic. The woman wronged becomes a mythological figure fighting such evil.

While the above is the narrative architecture of the book, the impression it leaves is one of continued entrapment. It makes you wonder how patterns of the mind have contributed to current political issues, their accompanying violence and unrest, all of which in turn seem nothing but old wine in new bottle. It is an unending cycle of violence and revenge, on since ancient days; the tyranny of repeating pattern. Ramakrishnan handles a load of ideas and idioms deftly. At no point did I feel left out because the story sank into some defence of the literary model and this style or that. The whole thing felt like a story and what feels like a story can always be read no matter how complicated its structure. Such eventual lightness to work despite potential excuse to stay inaccessible is — I would think — Ramakrishnan’s strength (and the translator’s too). That said, I must make a confession. Had this book not been received for review, I wouldn’t have picked it up. Ancient history and magical realism around it have been written to death in recent times. The moment I see a book harking of epic — typically heavy sword, bow and arrow or magnificent spear with the muscular arm to complement, on its cover — I turn away for I have no appetite for navel-gazing; being told that we hail from some great imperial or mythological past. As if it alters the present. This is what happens when a genre reduces to commercially successful formula. Good work gets overlooked; losers include both readers and writers.

Sugandhi Alias Andal Devanayaki made it through to my desk. And it did so without singing praises of us and holding a mirror to our dark deeds instead. Having missed reading Malayalam literature, the translation attracted despite myth, history, kings and queens in the brew. Its story merged to the present. The book was a quick read.

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Sugandhi...review: Myth in translation

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