The Tamil Story


Imayam Annamalai, Kannan Sundaram, Perumal Murugan, and Subhashree Krishnaswamy in conversation with Sudha Sadhanand


By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger


The short story in Tamil has had a much briefer history than the poem or the novel; it was created through the influence of European literature and then subsumed into the great Tamilian literary tradition. At the first ever all-Tamil panel at ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, the story of the short story was narrated by stalwarts of Tamil literature.

Edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subhashree Krishnaswamy, the anthology titled The Tamil Story compiles some of the best short stories from the Tamil literature canon. Imayam Annamalai’s moving story about a scribe is, in her words, a story about how ‘helpless, poor, marginal people approach power.’ The helplessness they experience in the face of established power structures in society has been captured in desperate, exquisite detail. ‘The marginal people can never move towards the centre of power,’ remarked Imayam. ‘That is where the story begins and ends.’ translated onstage by Kannan Sundaram,

The crow forms the central image in Perumal Murugan’s contribution to the anthology. ‘In Sangam literature, the crow is a very prominent bird,’ said Murugan. In Tamil culture, it is a representative of one’s ancestors. ‘To understand the story, one cannot view the crow as just another bird,’ explained Murugan. ‘One must know its importance in Tamil culture.’

The panel agreed that the process of translation is fraught with this cultural baggage. ‘Tamil is spoken differently in different parts of the state,’ pointed out Krishnaswamy. All of those dialects have their own rhythm and cadence that translators should ideally try to capture. In addition to these nuances, there are the subtle aspects of conversation that are practically untranslatable, especially to English. ‘The descriptions always become a little formal in English,’ she confesses, but conversations are even more difficult. The only way the camaraderie and humour of an actual conversation in Tamil can be transferred to English is by depicting English, not in its pure form, but as it is spoken in India. ‘I want to capture all the original rhythms,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to flatten the language out.’

Geographically, politically, and socially, the anthology has been used to explore and express the ‘entire gamut of Tamil psyche and emotions’. It should, thus, be contextualized within Tamil culture to be read. Annamalai’s gave the example of Kumbakonam P. Rajagopalan, whose story on the topic of jallikattu captures why the practice is important to Tamil culture. Translators who do not understand Tamil cultures as well as they understand the English language, produce rootless translations that do not do justice to either. The flavour and life of a Tamil text is then bereft of its full richness. This problem persists for translation of texts in many Indian languages.

However, the future looks set to improve. As a member of the audience pointed out, more writers who are adept at English, yet grounded in their own culture, are publishing now. Sundaram noted that short story collections by well-known writers such as J P Chanakya and Ambai have caught the attention of readers. Murugan, who is a teacher as well as a writer, believes that more students read Tamil literature now than ever before. ‘In my youth, I had to travel a hundred kilometres to get a book,’ he says. ‘It is much easier in this time and therefore we have many more readers now.’ These observations on the patterns of literary culture ended the session on a bright note for the future of Tamil literature in India.


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill


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