Heat: N Kalyan Raman's translation of Poomani’s Vekkai captures the subaltern narrative of a boy on the run
N Kalyan Raman's translation of Poomani's Vekkai, based on a true story, unfolds over seven days of father and son sleeping in caves, wandering through farms, and laying low in cemeteries to avoid getting caught by men who are hunting for the boy after he murders the powerful local landlord, Vadakkuraan
Vekkai was first published in the 1980s and has received an English translation nearly three decades after its publication
While translating a story, Raman says that he stays close to his reading of the original work to ensure that its inherent qualities make it into the translation
Written by the author in the naturalist mode describing a subaltern life meant that one of the challenges while translating Heat was the local idiom
A 15-year-old commits murder. He then absconds with his father, hiding in the hills, following which they get themselves caught by the police. Uncomplicated and explicit, Sahitya Akademi awardee Poomani’s modern Tamil classic, Vekkai explores the vulnerability of a bucolic existence damaged irreparably by violent conflicts over class and poverty. Through Heat, writer and translator N Kalyan Raman has rendered a compelling translation of the story that was first published in the 1980s.
Chidambaram’s tale, based on true incidents, unfolds over a span of seven days, during which the father and the son flee from their village, after the son murders the powerful local landlord, Vadakkuraan. The father's urge to protect his son and keep him safe makes them sleep in caves, wander through farms, and lie low in cemeteries, as they dodge the men baying for the boy's blood.
“Among other things, Heat is also a portrayal of how the power structure operates in our rural areas. What happens in the novel could happen anywhere in India," Raman says.
However, in Poomani's narrative, the challenges encountered by the duo, as they calculate their options while facing adversity, take precedence over political representations of oppressive class structures. “What Poomani shows us is even more precious — the tenderness, dignity, honour and courage still alive in them, before and after the calamity," the translator points out.
He effectively brings the author’s ideas into the English translation, which is filled with striking descriptions of the harsh landscape of rural Tamil Nadu that mirrors the apprehensions of the father and son on the run.
‘To the best of their abilities and judgment, good translators try to re-create the complex web of responses that they as readers have had to the source text, versions that will establish a setting liable to elicit those responses in others.’ — Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translator’s Manifesto by Mark Polizzotti.
That's how he "roughly" tackles any literary text, Raman says. He stays close to his reading of the original work to ensure that its inherent qualities make it to the translation.
As for translating Heat, Raman, who has previously worked on acclaimed stories like Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi says, “What I read about Poomani and his work made me realise that he was a very important chronicler of the subaltern life who should reach a nationwide audience". He was also impressed by the writer's "humane approach and political vision" that are foundational to Poomani’s fiction about rural life.
Vekkai was first published when the author was in his thirties. Despite being widely acclaimed, it's only now, over three decades later, that the book has finally received its English translation. “It is indeed unfortunate that many such classics, which need to be translated simply because they represent important new voices, do not reach a wider audience," Raman says. The world would be all the better for it, he believes.
On the subject of Tamil to English translations, he continues by saying that so long as it's considered a project "based on happenstance and not prioritised on the basis of open discussion among the wider community, including writers, critics, translators and teachers", the situation is unlikely to change for the better any time soon.
Local idioms have always confounded translators, who are looking to find literal equivalents in a different tongue, while retaining the essence of the original words. And one of the major challenges faced by Raman, especially while working on Vekkai — which is essentially a novel on subaltern life — was the local idiom. Not only did it comprise the vocabulary, but also the way in which the locals lived and interacted with each other in everyday life.
“There is a certain brevity to their encounters with natural phenomena — how they experience sunrise and sunset, wading through a stream, trudging up a hill or moving through a cluster of palm trees. It colours their mood and influences what they say,” he says. “As a translator, I had to be alive to these connections,” he adds.
In what is Poomani's first ever English translation, Heat effectively captures the experiences of the father and son traversing the rural landscape to save their lives.
“In speech, I had to use phrasal verbs and idioms from English, a departure from my usual practice to bring fluidity and inflection to the characters’ speech,” he explains. “Normally, such usage ends up sounding culturally anomalous. But Poomani’s stripped down naturalist mode accommodated these idioms at a basic human level.”
Raman further talks about the loosening of cultural shackles for the English language over the last 70 years. While initially used by the British as a tool for colonisation, the language has gone on to narrate stories from diverse cultures across the world, and is no longer synonymous with the white gaze, which becomes apparent in stories written by the likes of VS Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, and Salman Rushdie.
Even so, certain words in his translation have been footnoted, such as names of local flora — like kamalai and sirattai, as they are very specific to the region. And yet, terms like mundasu — wrapping one’s head with a towel to cover the ears and keep the hair down – were not translated to English, as the meaning was clear from the context.
“It’s not that such terms were untranslatable, but the translation would have been unwieldy, interrupting the narrative flow,” Raman says.
In the story, Chidambaram grows up in a happy household with his doting mother, his older brother, and his loving cousin Janaki. However, there are inescapable undercurrents of oppression inflicted by the local powers-that-be, and the young boy “wakes to the gradual realisation that he and his people are up against the powerful who can get away with anything, including murder.”
His father would tell him stories of his youth— of how a day in his life involved fighting the landlord, back in his village, until there came a time when he was forced to run away, abandon his home and never return. This inspires and urges his son, Chidambaram, to fight back, and when everything the boy holds dear starts to fall apart, he is, as the translator aptly suggests, “engulfed by a 'heat' that was his lot from before he was born.”
“He sees his father being pressured by the powerful forces. Then his brother is killed, and there is no scope for obtaining justice from the state or society," Raman says.
Armed with a sickle and consumed with the thirst for vengeance, he decides to chop off landlord Vadakkuraan’s arm. Instead, he ends up killing him. Therefore, even before his father, Chidambaram avenges the death of his brother who had been murdered by Vadakkuraan.
One is almost immediately compelled to ask whether Chidambaram’s crime was justified. By killing a man who had been inflicting trouble on his village and family, did he commit an act of vengeance or justice? What had drawn a young boy like him to such extreme violence?
“In their world,” Raman explains, “if they hurt you and get away unscathed, they will hurt you again. Who knows, Chidambaram himself could have been killed next...Once the deed is done and the landlord is killed, being vulnerable to their enemies and the armed might of the state, all their efforts are focused on coping with the situation and keeping safe, and most importantly, living to fight another day. They are composed in the face of adversity…”
Poomani peels off the layers that lie beneath that one act, and offers a glimpse into Chidambaram's life as the story progresses. He has more to him than that moment of vengeance.
As Raman notes, “Heat is a masterpiece and there is much in it to discover."
Heat, an English translation of Poomani's Vekkai by N Kalyan Raman has been published by Juggernaut
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