Thinakkal Padmanabhan, or TP, as he is fondly known to many, is a doyen of the short story in Malayalam. As he turned 90 last year, Samyukta India Press brought out a collection of his short stories, translated into English by Sreedevi K Nair and Laila Alex. The edition with its deceptively simple title, Stories, sits as a fitting capstone to what has been one of the most distinguished literary careers in Indian literatures. And for those unfamiliar with TP’s oeuvre, the collection is an excellent starting point.
TP is an acclaimed writer in Malayalam, having been a two-time Sahitya Akademi awardee, and having received all the major literary awards in Kerala including the Ezhuthachan Puraskaram, the highest literary award of the Government of Kerala, in 2003, the Vallathol and Vayalar Awards in the same year (2001), and the Basheer Award most recently (2019), among many others. In the words of the translators Nair and Alex, “T. Padmanabhan’s place in Malayalam literature is comparable to that of Edgar Allan Poe in American Literature.” He writes within an august literary tradition that has seen many greats, and a long career spanning many decades since the 20th century has meant that TP has seen many literary movements and fashions come and go. Born in 1931, TP began writing at the age of 19 and has penned nearly 200 short stories of which Prakasham Parathunna Oru Penkutty (The Girl Who Spreads Radiance, 1955), Oru Kathakrithu Kurishil (A Writer Being Crucified, 1956), Makhan Singhinte Maranam (The Death of Makhan Singh, 1958), Kala Bhairavan, Gouri (1993) and Maraya (2017) have become canonical.
The alchemies of translation
At a time when translation studies is undergoing a kind of heyday in India, this collection introduces the Anglophone reader to one of the most significant voices from Kerala. Translated into several Indian languages as well as into Russian, German and French, TP’s short stories were first compiled into an English translation by Prema Jayakumar in 2008 (titled Fifteen Stories) and published by Tarjuma. In 2015, a memoir and collection of essays, Ente Katha, Ente Jeevitham (My Story, My Life) was brought out by Olive Publications with an afterword by Pinarayi Vijayan, the current Chief Minister of Kerala, who has long been an admirer of the writer. Along with Jayakumar’s edition and TP’s own memoirs, this expanded collection of stories, introduced by the widely respected poet and literary critic E V Ramakrishnan, provides a notable corpus of TP’s writings for English readerships that merits further scholarly and popular reach. Nair and Alex have included some of TP’s most well-known and admired stories (such as ‘Gauri’, ‘Across the River And Into the Trees’, ‘Harrison Saheb’s Dog’, and ‘The Yellow Rose’) and have translated others that should have a broader appeal beyond the borders of Kerala (such as ‘Desh, a Hindustani Raaga’, ‘Disease and Cure’, ‘Gul Muhammed’, and ‘The Old Man’). Together, the collection brings to the fore a representatively diverse selection and tying it all together is TP’s laser-like focus balanced with a benign, all-pervading humanism that shows him as a master of the short story genre.
Nair and Alex’s note on translating TP’s stories is insightful for the kinds of hermeneutic challenges the stories posed for them and how they sought to combine the (fraught) quest for equivalence with one of sahrdaya or empathic connection, of sharing a common heart. It is an evocative way to speak of relationality and adjacency between languages (and not necessarily equivalence and fidelity) as comprising the fulcrum of translational activity. With such metacritical discussion, the note alludes to an important conversation that animates contemporary Translation and Adaptation Studies, which is the theme of ‘foreignness’ in a text and the vexing question of textual fidelity. The discussion of their translational method allows the reader to understand what Nair and Alex mean when they say, “Translation is proof that a work had a past life in another language. It is also a pointer to the possibility of future lives in other languages.”
The art of storytelling
To understand TP’s stature in the Malayalam literary tradition, one has to see him in the light of other greats of the language: Kumaran Asan, Karoor Neelakanta Pillai, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Parutholli Chalappurathu Kuttikrishnan ‘Uroob’, and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, among others. Each of these writers carved out a style and dominated a genre in the Malayalam wordscape, and it is hard to imagine what kind of unique space could be chiselled out within what has been an eminent literary tradition. And yet, TP’s has been a prolific and successful literary career in which he has taken the short story to new heights in the language. While great subcontinental novels form the pillars of Southasian Anglophone literature of the 20th century, it is to the short story one must turn to better understand regional and vernacular literary traditions.
At a time when translation studies is undergoing a kind of heyday in India, this collection introduces the Anglophone reader to one of the most significant voices from Kerala.
And in that chain of representative writing, TP is an essential link. The great scholar-linguist K Ayyappa Paniker noted that TP’s deeply introspective tales introduced Malayali reading publics to the ways in which the short story can be as intense and moving as lyric poetry – the latter, a domain in which a great tradition had already formed in Malayalam. Further, at a time when novels of social progressivism and romantic idealism ruled the roost in Malayalam literature, TP’s stories refreshingly explored the individualistic themes of loneliness, despair, and existential angst. This timely edition allows new readers to see this modernity of his style and the catholicity of his themes.
While there are some recurring themes to the stories, TP is the living embodiment of what Susan Sontag once said of great writers: “someone interested in ‘everything’.” The translators do an excellent job capturing TP’s elliptical style, for he is known for restraint in writing, building up a situation via dialogue and juxtaposition, and in general, avoiding verbose description. Nair and Alex employ ellipsis, short imagistic lines, and staccato paragraphs to capture TP’s suggestive and contrapuntal style of rendering reality. By under-telling, the stories convey a great deal. A story (‘About Something Not All That Important’) about missing slippers becomes an exploration of casual casteism, and one (‘Just Our Fate!’) about a greedy child wanting vadas turns out to be about poverty and a child’s love for his mother. Both stories, like others in the collection, freely move between memoir and fiction, embedding the writer (and his immediate circle) in the story’s own world, all rendered with a gentle irony reminiscent of the great comic genius of Basheer, an influence TP himself acknowledges when he speaks of the only story he has translated from Malayalam to English – Basheer’s ‘Manushyan’ (Man). To some readers, it may seem that TP’s stories lack the grit and grime of urban modernity or the kind of cruelty and malignity that makes our worlds so inhuman and brutal a space for so many. But the darkness of the human heart is a looming spectre in all the stories; while TP’s prose does not often turn to the macabre or the horrifying, there is no doubt that death, melancholy, and grief pervade his fictional world and all his characters struggle existentially to understand their portions of human woe and to make sense of their place in the universe.
A master of humanism
There is a story to appeal to every reader in this collection. ‘The Death of Makhan Singh’ is unique for it is a Partition story in Malayalam, possibly one among very few of its kind, and draws on TP’s many travels in North India. Set in Banihal, a small town in Jammu and Kashmir, the story follows the lonely Sardar, Makhan Singh, who has survived the 1947 Partition but is without family. He is haunted by the deaths of his loved ones, the loss of his land, and the diminution of his way of life. Once a flourishing farmer, he is now a driver who ferries things and people across dangerous terrain. Singh’s life is the slow, tortuous build-up of external pressures and internal collapse and the story follows his ruminations and changing worldview with a patient interiority. It is a story whose end is foreknown from the title, but Makhan Singh’s death still takes the reader by surprise. It is a tale told masterfully and TP is in full command of pace, unfolding, and authenticity, all of which makes for a story that Ramakrishnan ranks among the best Indian short stories on the Partition.
To read TP is, in some ways, to see him in this imagined and continuous conversation with other writers whom he has read, and the dialogic wordscape provides a zone of contact between worldviews, writing styles, and different kinds of literary affect.
A recurrent stylistic feature of the stories inheres in TP’s ability to invest simple events with significant, even calamitous, import. ‘Makhan Singh’ unravels on account of an off-hand, callous statement. ‘The Woman of Kadayanellore’ opens innocuously with, “That day, for the very first time, he spoke to his neighbour,” hurtling thereafter to the narrator’s alarming brush with illicit desire. ‘The Man Who Forgot to Live’ is about a prison security guard, a man whose job does not let him sleep. Furthermore, an affinity for children and non-human agents (dogs, cats, birds proliferate in the stories) enables the reader to see their impact on the adult world in moving, affective ways. The frail figure of a girl child – in both her redemptive and indicting avatars – haunts the pages of the book, much like the figure in many Fyodor Dostoevsky short stories, reminding us of the many missing, marginalised, and deplorably forgotten in our societies.
While great subcontinental novels form the pillars of Southasian Anglophone literature of the 20th century, it is to the short story one must turn to better understand regional and vernacular literary traditions.
The cover design by Arun Gokul and illustrations by Supriya Menon and Parvati Menon are exquisite and make the book truly a collector’s item. For the bilingual reader, the translators provide at the end of each story its title in Malayalam, but readers may wish for more: for each story to have been dated by the year, where possible, and/or a brief note regarding the genesis of each short story (when was it written? Where was it first published? Did it achieve acclaim?) to provide the reader with a sense of the evolution of TP’s sensibility and craft over the many decades of his career.
To this day, TP is known for his fiery public intellectualism and has courted controversy by refusing awards, making critical remarks on contemporary political issues, and most recently, by speaking in favour of the Justice Hema Commission report, which outlined issues of harassment and inequality faced by women in the Malayalam film industry but which has been held back from becoming public by the current government in Kerala. At a time when the issue of women’s safety at the workplace and in public spaces occupies the conversation around Kerala today, TP’s unequivocal support for the cause of women’s rights makes for a significant intervention. For a writer whose public voice remains a clarion call in his social milieu, perhaps it is ironic that so much of his writing is devoted to exploring intensely subjective states of consciousness. Or, perhaps these two sides of the writer are contrapuntal and complementary, something that emerges in the interview with which this collection ends.
In Nair’s conversation with TP, he comes across as a generous reader of other writers: his affectionate words for Asan, Basheer, Karoor, Woolf, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and many other global writers point to that rich world of literary cross-pollination that is the bed from which great writing often emerges. To read TP is, in some ways, to see him in this imagined and continuous conversation with other writers whom he has read, and the dialogic wordscape provides a zone of contact between worldviews, writing styles, and different kinds of literary affect. Stories is a salutary addition to the increasing library of translated works, especially in Southasia, and provides English readers a great opportunity to inhabit the multi-splendoured world of TP’s writings. A must-read on all counts.