I kept waiting for something to go wrong. I was on my way to Alappuzha to be part of the Thakazhi Centenary celebrations organized by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. For once the line at the check in counter was short, the flight was on time and there was a Sahitya Akademi official to meet and greet me. And lo and behold, this one didn’t affect the bored expression of a government official asked to do a job, and instead was an epitome of chivalry, rushing to take my baggage, opening the car door for me.
I kept waiting for my luck to run out. We managed to turn into a service road before the traffic ground to a halt. The skies opened up and a true blue Kerala thunderstorm drove with us all the way to Alappuzha.
As the boat headed towards the resort, I felt a curious feeling of awe. I had seen nothing like this before. On either side of the backwater were two strips of land on which were small houses. Coconut trees curved into the water like in a painting and I saw two women in a ‘kodumbuvallam’ row towards a little jetty. I sighed: Heavenly Bliss!
Not really, I thought later that evening as I faced the audience consisting almost entirely of men. Wasn’t Chemmeen a book women read? Or, had the thunder-storm frightened away the female readers of Alappuzha despite their 6 pack Popy umbrellas? Or, was this the destiny of all translation events – to be mostly ignored?
Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai wrote his Chemmeen in 8 days and then for the rest of his life had to deal with everything the book brought his way. From saccharine sweet eulogies to vicious recriminations; from awards to insults, from glory to disrepute ─ Thakazhi had to endure it all. And I understood why as the Q & A session began.
“This is the story of three people,” One old gent began and proceeded to unravel the plot.
[Er, why was I being told the synopsis I wondered. ]
Mostly there were comments disguised to sound like questions. Mostly these were readers not seeking an answer, and instead merely sought a platform to voice their voices.
A few real questions ensued. Then a drunk appeared debating the use of a word in the translation. “Pareekutty didn’t ‘stare’,” he said.
What do you think he did? I asked meekly.
“He didn’t stare.”
[And I had thought this was going to be a day of Heavenly Bliss.]
“Pareekutty was accused of looking at the bosoms and buttocks of women. What else do you think he would have done?” I asked trying to make myself heard above a clap of thunder.
Then came a man who wanted to know if I had imparted a moral in the translation. A member of the audience stood up demanding, “How can you ask her that?”
They squabbled till they were separated by a couple of Akademi officials and asked to sit down.
[What had I got myself into? I wondered again.]
Next was the turn of the angry young man. A representative of the fisherfolk community Thakazhi wrote about in Chemmeen. “He just propagated a myth; he spread a superstition. He didn’t do right by us,” the young man waved a fist in the air.
Someone from the audience called out. “You should be asking Thakazhi this!”
“Yes, but he’s dead. So Anita Nair has to answer on his behalf.”
That was when I burst into laughter. It was a day of heavenly bliss after all.
At most book events, the audience maintain wooden expressions. They have either not read the book or have no questions to ask of the author. In Kerala, one can be sure there will be no dearth of questions. And multiple reactions.
You might feel snubbed, attacked or lionised or sometimes even be wooed but if you can speak Malayalam, you can be assured of a lively interaction. Questions that make you think. Comments that make you cringe. Compliments and insults. Acolytes and critics.
Bizarre madness but what a joy to behold a reader who is as passionate about literature as you the writer or translator are!
Anita Nair is the author of five works of fiction: Satyr of the Subway & Eleven Other Stories, The Better Man, Ladies Coupé, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting; a collection of essays: Goodnight & God Bless; a collection of poems: Malabar Mind; and has editedWhere the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala. Nair has also written four books for children and two plays Nine Faces of Being and A Twist of Lime. She has also translated Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen into English.