The name "Kalki" Krishnamurthy (Tamil nationalist-writer and journalist beyond compare) is mentioned with admiration by my grandmom, and my parents. To them, he was the greatest Tamil writer of the 20th century. He wrote strongly on social reform, superstition, caste barriers and was a strong critic of British rule (both as editor of "Ananda Vikatan" and later founder-editor of "Kalki", both of which are still extremely popular magazines). His short-stories too were infused with his strong beliefs. His forte however was in writing epic historical fiction, and his novels like "Parthiban kanavu" (Parthiban's dream), "Sivakamiyin Sapadam" (Sivakami's oath) and Ponniyin Selvan were unparalleled classics. The grandeur of the ancient Chola and Pallava empires shone through, while tales of romance, valor and high culture mesmerized millions of Tamil readers. At least, these were my grandma's words.
Unfortunately, I never really worked hard to learn how to read and write (Classical) Tamil. I can barely read the signs on PTC transport buses in Chennai, so reading an epic like Sivakamiyin Sapadam really is not in my league. But my grandma's words always haunted me, and I was enthralled by the magnificence of even black and white celluloid efforts of these novels. Here, clearly, was a writer of stupendous ability, who had carved out masterpieces of literature. And here I was, unable to read any of his works. I wondered if there were any worthwhile translations of his works.
Just over a month ago, while browsing throught the shelves of Landmark (in Bangalore) I found a book staring at me. It was titled "Kalki: selected stories", and was a collection of twelve short stories by the legend himself, translated by his granddaughter Gowri Ramnarayan. Overjoyed, I immediately bought the book, and am now digging into the stories.
His stories are not as tightly constructed as those of some short-story writers (I find Roald Dahl's short stories extremely well constructed), but sometimes ramble on (in a nice way, not unlike R.K. Narayan). Some of his stories seem to finish in a hurry. His descriptive abilities however (even in translation) are magnificent, and images of little village houses on the banks of the Cauvery, surrounded by rice paddies float in. There are pointed references to superstition, caste oppression, freedom for women and of course, the freedom movement, and the strong characters in the stories always bring out these themes. Short story readers however desire a twist in the tale. They expect the unexpected. Here, Kalki scores very well. Some times I could guess the end correctly, but more often than not, the little red herrings threw me off. In other stories I just wanted to know what happens to the protagonist in the end, and couldn't wait to flip the page. O'henry would have loved these tales.
Can Gowri translate "Prathiban Kanavu" and the other Kalki epics please?? Pretty please?????
ps: Amit Varma in his earlier blog had lamented the lack of good translations of Indian writing, but found that upon searching there were splendid translations available. True, very true.