David Davidar and his publishing startup Aleph has done yeomen service to Indian literature and writing over the years, grooming ‘bubbling under’ talents as evidenced in the sheer brilliance that was last year’s A Case of Indian Marvels, an anthology curated short stories by some of India’s finest new writers. Aleph has also been bridging the gap between wider world out there and the dazzling gems languishing in the depths of vernacular Indian literature by its ‘greatest stories ever told’ series, which helps regional masterpieces find a larger audience with their English translation.
In fact, it is actually surprising that the series ventured into Malayalam only in its 13th edition, considering how refined and evolved Kerala’s literary scene has always been. The short story genre was perfected as back as the nineteenth century in the Malayalam speaking regions of Southern India, with not just translations of European masters, but a coming-of-age of this literary form through uniquely nuanced writers from Kesari Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar (believed to be the first Malayalam short story writer) downwards to the Padmarajans and Zacharias celebrated in recent times.
The stories were selected and translated by A.J. Thomas, who was, amidst many other illustrious milestones in his CV, the editor of the Sahitya Akademi’s bi-monthly journal Indian Literature. The selections seem comprehensive enough, give or take a few, subjective as such a selection is always likely to be. All the big names of Malayalam literature are there, almost as if referenced according to the social evolution of Malayali society itself. So there is Thakazhi’s short story The Farmer which talks about the travails of rural toils, to Kesavadev’s (wrongly spelt in the inner flap) The Oath. O.V.Vijayan, much celebrated outside Kerala as well, makes an appearance with his The Hanging, which pulls you so realistically into the grief of a father over his son. Moving on, the stories reflect the progression of Kerala as it transformed from an agrarian economy into a consumerist ‘modern’ society, stories tracing the arc through women’s empowerment and angst (stories by M.T.Vasudevan Nair and Madhavikutty), tribal rights (P. Vatsala) to sexual abuse (M.Mukundan’s haunting Photo) and even caste and class divides, with the stunningly relevant Sweat Marks by Sara Joseph.
What especially works for this book is that it not only lives up to the expectation of being an authoritative compendium of some of the best known short story works in Malayalam, it also offers a nifty intro to the nuances and mastery of some of the best known literary giants in the language. This is especially useful not just for literary aficionados, but especially for the increasing number of Malayalis, either inside or outside Kerala, who hold their identity dear, yet, don’t have proficiency in the language or its rich history beyond the picture-postcard-perfect 'God's own country' campaigns on YouTube.
With all of Thomas’s impressive works behind him (he’s even won best translator award at Crossword Awards), one does get a nagging feeling here and there that the nuances and ethos of the original do not get precisely translated into English. Thomas resorting to a formal and ‘high’ English feel a bit grating at points and deficient in bringing out the rustic background or social subtext of a plot or the intricate intensity of the moments the protagonists are going through. Basheer’s satiric classic Mookkan (The World Renowned Nose) is a classic case in point, which I relished reading in its Malayalam original years ago – in comparison, the translation felt clumsy at points. Perhaps this anomaly is only to be expected, since idiosyncracies of cultures, contexts and language markers are often next to impossible to convey perfectly in a different language and in a different time. Hopefully, shouldn’t be a big deal.
The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told
Selected & translated by A.J. Thomas
Rs 899 (hardbound)