Mirror to a terrible beauty

Mirror to a terrible beauty

This collection of stories is an unflinching look at women (and sometimes men) at the receiving end of oppression written in language that is electric.

The Lesbian Cow and other stories

Power dynamics and hierarchies in relationships and society, gender politics, betrayal, race, religion, war, sexuality, desire...Indu Menon’s ‘The Lesbian Cow and other stories’ in Malayalam, translated into English by Nandakumar K, is a powerful read, challenging one to confront the ugly realities of patriarchal structures, the oppression of the state and authoritarianism. 

It is also an unafraid and unflinching look at women (and also men in some cases) at the receiving end of oppression, be it by the state or the patriarchy. The first story, ‘The Creature’, revolves around exploitation of tribals from Bastar by the big corporation — here, the woman who is rescued by one of the company’s men from the torrents of the river is later raped. However, she avenges the rape by killing the men.

In ‘The Bloodthirsty Kali’, the woman avenges the rape of her sister while she is possessed by the goddess. Then, there is the story of ‘The Lesbian Cow’, which centres around a nurse who has a bovine look and desires another woman who comes to the hospital for treatment. The author alludes to punishment for her lesbianism by referring to a cow being beaten to death. It is only death that stops the nurse from pursuing the woman, though. There is no meek submission in any of the stories, and protagonists almost always hit back. 

Atrocities across the globe

In other stories, the woman faces oppression from the state. Take the story ‘D’ for instance. Here, Pashumala, a Sri Lankan national and sympathiser of the Tamil Eelam, avenges the oppression heaped by peacekeeping forces on her people by turning her nephew’s wife into a human bomb. The author draws parallels to the public torture and execution of Robert-Francois Damiens for his attempted assassination of Louis XV in 18th-century France and pays tribute to Michel Foucault.

In ‘The Fantasy Fruit Orchard’, Rudeethai avenges the destruction of her village and her life by the Charlie Company’ during the My Lai massacre. “We used our own bodies as a biological weapon,” she says as she refers to the pathogen brought in from traders from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to infect the men of Charlie Company. She notes how it is the women who eventually pay for the “hubris that comes when power meets and mixes with impunity.”

Amidst the blood, gore and stench are some visually striking lines such as these: “Swathes of touch-me-not plants — their purplish-pink flowers mimicking dwarf suns in disguise — lay in wait for the children with their prickly needles.” 

No wonder then that the translator of this collection of stories, Nandakumar K, mentions in his preface that he was taken in by their “terrible beauty.” Excerpts from an interview:

You say in your preface that Indu Menon’s style and verve impressed you. Could you elaborate?

Once I started on Indu’s stories, I realised that here was an author who’s like no other; at least in contemporary India — bold, with an astonishing style of her own, if a complex and quirky one, and with a devil-may-care attitude, taking on the politics of majoritarianism and bigotry, calling out hypocrisy, and using her tales to empower women against both paternalism and patriarchy. But, at the same time, she is very sensitive, very woke and with her heart in the right place — a bleeding heart, if I may say so, for the disenfranchised and the weakest, and willing the meek to inherit the earth. I have rarely seen stories written with such brutal honesty and panache. I was quite impressed by her literary devices such as in ‘D’, which is my favourite among the stories. 

What were the challenges you faced while translating this collection? Did any of the stories particularly come across as more challenging than the others?

Her language, as I have said above, is very complex; it doesn’t lend itself for easy translation. The sentence structures are complex, sometimes convoluted. Many things may be packed into one sentence. There are allusions, which are typical to Malayalam’s rich tapestry of legends and lores and sometimes to the Indian epics. She has a very expansive and descriptive style, which is alien to English.

Since I am very conscious that I am just a vehicle to convey the author’s words and expressions, I have tried to match her style as closely as possible. I cannot pick any one story as more difficult than the others because her diction is probably unwavering through all the stories, but if you would hold a gun to my head and ask me to choose, I would say that ‘The Fantasy Fruit Orchard’ is the one. 

What is the one work from Malayalam that you’d love to translate in the future?

I hope to do a retrospective of M T Vasudevan Nair’s novels. What I read as a child still lingers in the mind. He’s probably the most translated author in Malayalam, if I am not mistaken. Therein lies the challenge. 


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