Beyond the shadows and solitude

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CHENNAI : Stumbling upon the forgotten tale of vengence, the protagonist of writer Devibharathi’s latest translation The Solitude of a Shadow (Nizhalin Thanimai) has to now decide whether to stand up for his sister Sharada or be a faithful companion to the antagonist Karunakaran. Delving into the layers of societial hierarchies of caste, wealth and power, the writer places the intricacies of human emotions beyond the blacks and whites, into the crevices of each feelings.

The Solitude of a Shadow published by HarperCollins India is Devibharathi’s first novel to be translated into English. Amid the glory of winning the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, the writer speaks to CE along with translator N Kalyan Raman about the characters and their complexities.

“This novel is related to my childhood in a lot of ways. I had been thinking about it for many years. In 2011, I was invited to participate in a writers’ residency in the US. It was my first trip to America. Living by myself in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by an unfamiliar language, I wrote this novel in about a month. Though I was feeling low, writing the novel was an exhilarating experience. I received a lot of attention immediately after it was published. Now it is getting attention across India and the world,” shares the author.

Acknowledging that the award bestowed upon him is not just a personal triumph but a recognition of the profound significance of Indian languages in the realm of literature, he continues, “I am aware that I must continue to write and I still have to travel a long way. There are many writers more deserving of the award than me. I would like to share this award with them”

As the conversation turns to the power of literature, translator Kalyan shares, “Books like Devibharathi’s The Solitude of a Shadow bring important new knowledge about worlds unfamiliar to most readers with artistic integrity and grace. We must learn to value them in the right ways.”

Excerpts from an interview with Devibharathi

What inspired you to write Nizhalin Thanimai (the Tamil original of The Solitude of a Shadow)?

I have been influenced by great pioneers like Kafka, Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I took inspiration from their works. It was through them that I developed the language for my creativity. I thought that a writer should not dissipate his language. I had often steeped myself in thinking about various ways of writing Nizhalin Thanimai. The residency facilitated my solitude. Solitude is essential for a writer, isn’t it? It happened to me in that writers’ camp.

Do you frame your characters first and revolve the story around them?

Take my previous works: for example, Pirakoru Iravu or Olikkum Piraku, Irulukkum Appal or Kazhaikoothadiyin Isai (The Music of the Tight-Rope Walker). All of them were shaped primarily by language. Language is important to a writer, and I write several drafts of a story before writing the final version. I really don’t know how my writing style has evolved. In fact, I don’t see myself as consciously writing a story. I would simply call it the harmony of creation.

How do you interweave the social relations within a community (the hierarchies, caste distinctions) inside your narrative?

In truth, casteism is the most fundamental problem of Indian society. It is an incurable disease. Karunakaran was afflicted with that disease. He was able to conquer the young woman very easily. Sharada, her parents, the narrator and all the others found themselves in a helpless situation. You could even say that I have been directly affected by casteism. My family and I have suffered many indignities. We were subjected to constant violence and humiliation.

We lost our homes many times. On one occasion, we even had to vacate our home overnight. Even when I received the Sahitya Akademi award, many people were reluctant to come to my house. We live in a remote village. Even today, we are living in subjugation, facing many tragedies and being subjected constantly to casteist violence. I belong to an oppressed community. The oppression continues to this day. Well, I guess we shouldn’t talk too much about it. But there is much to talk about; a lot, indeed.

The story is told through the protagonist as a first-person narrative and he has no name. Was it a conscious choice to tell the story in this way as it talks about personal relations and revenge?

It could have been a strategy to tell this story. It is told as a first-person account, but at some point, the narrator mentions his name. Revenge is not the central theme of this story. Through it, the story raises some other basic questions which are ethical in nature. I have raised some definite questions relating to the morality of life. Sharada forgives a man who had sexually assaulted her by saying that it was not him, but someone else. That forgiveness is by itself a kind of punishment. Karunakaran has no option but to accept that punishment.

You have dealt with themes like sexual abuse, revenge, and complexities of interpersonal relationships. How do you write without stretching the themes to become triggering?

The intention is not to provoke bitterness in the reader, but to understand bitterness instead. I want to talk about the miseries caused by rancour. The human mind does not relish bitterness; it wishes to overcome bitterness and move on. But in the case of the narrator, the bitterness that has clung to him does not allow him to move on.

You said in an interview that you wanted to explore the meaning of life through language. What are your inspirations in writing?

Exploring the meaning of life is what drives me as a writer. Put another way, the task of an artist is to explore meaninglessness too. Sharada, the narrator and Karunakaran are all engaged in such exploration. It is a positive emotion. I should always like to believe in such positive emotions.

You have said, “A writer’s job is to find out about lives that he knows nothing of.” What kind of research have you done for writing this book and how challenging was the process?

I didn’t need to do any research. Following from my practice as a creative writer, I reflect on life. I believe that a writer should be vigilant about his creative practice. Actions performed by means of language should be undertaken with a commensurate sense of responsibility.

Who is your favourite character from the book and why?

It must be Sharada. She begins the story. In the end, she also brings it to a conclusion. Sharada and other women like her, women who endure pain and sorrows, are the basis for this story taking the shape of a novel. I wanted to write about those women. Among them, I would pick Sharada as my favourite character. Even Sulochana has known tragedies, and she faces them in her own way. Sharada and Sulo can withstand the pain. Karunakaran, who harbours an intolerable sense of guilt, could also feel guilty for the injustice he has done to Sharada — who knows? I still think about Sharada and Sulo.

Pain is a recurring theme in your work. Do you channelise your pain and grief through your characters and writings?

It is the tragedy of our times. We can never break free from such grief. To get an opportunity for such a release, we have to wait for a very long time.

Do you have a fixed schedule for writing or a process that boosts your creativity?

No. Often, I get lost in deep thought, or focus my attention on reading. There are books that I find thrilling. For example, Agni Nadhi (Tamil translation of Qurratulain Hyder’s Urdu novel, Aag Ka Dariya). It’s a book I go back to again and again.

Excerpts from an interview with N Kalyan Raman

Was translating Nizhalin Thanimai challenging?

The most challenging part was replicating two outstanding aspects of the original text: the voice of the narrator in all its complexity, which is vividly imagined, and the tautness of the narrative flow in spite of its frequent switches between the past and present, reality and fantasy, which is achieved through clear, sharp sentences. The author does a brilliant job of both in the original. I went about my task in the usual way — immersive reading of the text, and then sticking close to the text as it is written during the process of translation. Sometimes, it’s all you need to do.

You had already translated the author’s work Farewell, Mahatma. How different was this work?

Literary translation is never easy. It is always a challenge to get it right, sentence by sentence. Farewell, Mahatma is a collection of ten short stories; The Solitude of a Shadow is a novel. Devibharathi never writes the same story twice. Therefore, each story is new in its themes, craft and language, which make their own demands on the translator. But having translated the earlier work was not without its advantages. I became familiar with his unrelentingly modernist outlook and language of precision and clarity. It eased my way as a reader to some degree, and consequently in the translation process.

How do you retain the euphemisms and metaphors that stand in for caste and gender in Tamil?

I have retained them as they occur in the text, but it’s up to the reader to figure out the sociological context and meaning. For example, what kind of man is known and addressed only by his caste name, Kavundar? And his wife and children are also addressed in relation to that all-powerful ‘Kavundar’? What does it say about their standing in that milieu, and about social relationships in general? One hopes that the reader will discover these meanings on their own in this layered text.

As a reader how different was the book to you? And as a translator what stood out about it?

As a reader, I found the book remarkable for two reasons: it deals with subaltern lives in rural/semi-urban settings from an unflinching modernist perspective. It illuminates the inner torment of a man obsessed with revenge through a non-linear narration and brings it off successfully. Both were completely new to the Tamil literary milieu.

As a translator, I am filled with admiration for its language and craft, which appears to have come through in the translation as well. To have reader after reader tell you that they read it in one sitting is very gratifying. Gripping is not a word I would associate with a translation, not even my own, and it happened thanks mainly to the remarkable qualities of the original text.

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