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Stories That Unveil the Many Worlds in Kerala

'Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories', translated by J. Devika, gives us as complete and satisfying a synoptic picture of the literary scene of a major culture as is reasonably possible in a single volume collection.
Kochi. Photo: gaurav kumar/Unsplash

The increasing availability of the literatures of many distinct regions is one of the achievement of contemporary Indian publishing. In this regard, Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories, translated by J. Devika (Penguin, 2023) is a notable contribution. The stories cover a wide range of themes as may be expected from a mature literary ethos – migration, ecology, social friction, marital and familial discord, political and spiritual entrepreneurship, and so on. And few translators in the present have accomplished as much as Devika in the sheer quality and quantum of translations.

Devika’s introduction to the overall volume, and smaller introductions to each story, though occasionally polemical, gives us a helpful initial handle. The anthology succeeds also as the short story is a particularly favoured genre in India. The short story is not a miniature novel, but rather often captures the entirety of a sentiment, one complete in itself, and one that invites the reader to a stilled and concentrated contemplation. Many of these stories are worth re-reading, and often require that second reading to fully unpack. One cannot hope to summarise all the 13 stories, but a description of a few will give a flavour of the wealth of the book as a whole.

Feeling Kerala: An Anthology of Contemporary Malayalam Stories
Translated by J. Devika
Penguin, 2023

Yama’s story captures the bleak frustration and rage of a young woman: “she had stored away pieces of lead from pencil stubs in the hope of ending her life… as a child, she thought that all buses ran on towards the ever-receding horizon”. She is trapped by a complaining mother and a school dropout brother ever hovering on the edge of criminality. Events unfold in a blur – her brother, perhaps inadvertently, kills the mother in an attempt to steal her last piece of jewellery. The blur continues with the police arriving, the brother fleeing, and the protagonist needing to seek urgent employment to stave off hunger and isolation. Over the following weeks she keep hallucinating both her brother’s face, and her dead mother returning to demand her stolen gold. There are recurring surreal images of thefts at night – gold under a distant palm tree under a dark sky’s moon – and it is not always clear what is real and what imagined.

Something of that female frustration and anger is also present in the last story by Shahina. A single street and lane (Street No. 10, Mangala Lane) is used to connect diverse stories of harassment – within the home and bathroom, toward boys or girls scarce a decade old, in crowded public transport. The story ends with a fantasia of a “seemingly never-ending line of naked women…not shrinking in shame, not crouching… [moving] slowly, unhurriedly, leisurely. Like the wind, the sun, the leaves and flowers…”

There are other wistful stories of melancholy – the large houses that dot the Kerala countryside often have a single older person in them, with all their family scattered in distant parts of the world. Kerala anticipates presciently so many of the problems India will inherit soon enough – the desolation of an isolated, indefinite old age. Home nurses are often the last true relationships of many of these seniors, for the children have been reduced to large photos on walls of inner rooms: “I am the end of the journey from illness to hospital, then from hospital to the restrictions of one’s own bed.” It is hard sometimes to love that nurse even if one is grateful to her: “the smile of friendship lay dead on her lips…when she held the thin, twig-like arms, Sujatha [the nurse] felt that the muscles, loose and hanging, were as soft as clouds”.

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There are other dispossessions too – Indugopan’s story writes of those who work in airports performing menial labour. Airports are places of middle-class stress, a stress often loaded onto workers – thus, when the protagonist Muniyandi is interrogated by a policeman, he replies that he was “not scared of dying in custody, Saare [Sir]. The daily wages I get, my family can make if they take to begging.” These men take pains to educate themselves, but this is two-edged:  “… your literacy will show when you speak—and that’s a headache. The listener won’t like it.” Such a dispossession is only topped by the even more brutal maiming of harmless animals – for example, the turtles that routinely lose their feet due to the propellers of commercial fishing that trouble Kerala’s coastline.

Many stores are examples of fine storytelling. Unni writes humorously of how a family in financial distress realises that they can refurbish their small house temple into one that claims to particularly cure sexual ailments – a foul-mouthed neighbour is promoted to oracle, a Bastar statuette to main deity, and the priest is given motivational books to read in case he is bored. Even more moving and elaborated storytelling (with themes of police firing, and the caste systems within Kerala Christianity) are provided in the exceptional stories of Shajikumar and Prince Aymanam. It would be hard to adequately invoke here their dexterity with the invocations of brute fact, heroic histories, corrupt political and media manipulations of caste-tragedy, as well as the continual oscillations of personal and community memory.

Devika retains the flavour of Malayalam through many means – sometimes through spelling (‘intellectchuals”), by pronunciation and idiomatic usage (“ Now its all terrorists and cheats—comblete!”, or “ drivers are beg’nning to spout lit’rature?”), and often by leaving the Malayalam in roman script before providing an approximate translation. The adept translations capture well the colloquial and idiomatic speech. All this helps restore verve and sparkle to a language that is always at the risk of being dulled by translation. By keeping the pungency and heat of language so alive, Devika gives us as complete and satisfying a synoptic picture of the literary scene of a major culture as is reasonably possible in a single volume collection.

Nikhil Govind is a Professor of Literature at the Manipal Centre of Humanities, Karnataka.

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