Life and language
by Shastri Ramachandaran

A Place to Live Contemporary Tamil Short Fiction
Edited by Dilip Kumar
translated by Vasantha Surya Penguin, New Delhi. Rs 250. Pages 276.

A Place to Live Contemporary Tamil Short FictionTranslations never fail to bring home the truth of the observation that the limitations of one’s language are the limitations of one’s life. Indian languages are a treasure house of literature. Yet a large majority of Indians, whose mother tongue is different from mother’s tongue, discover cultural experiences specific to their language only through translations. Small wonder then that in recent years, there has been a boom in the publication of translations from Indian languages. For those anglicised, and thereby alienated from their linguistic-cultural roots, such as this reviewer, the collection of Tamil short fiction, A Place to Live, is a refreshing reservoir to which one keeps returning to recover memory — of what was lived, felt, experienced, observed, heard, re-told but never captured in words and cast in text that one could read. Even for many who can read the script, dense text — anything beyond newspaper headlines and personal letters — is forbidding. To them the products of such translation projects, such as A Place to Live edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Vasantha Surya, is a welcome rendering in English of Tamil short stories from the 1960s to the 1990s.

It is an excellent and evocative collection of 29 stories of great writers in Tamil who are also great thinkers and known for their contribution to society, culture and politics, besides literature. The writers in the collection include Na Muthuswamy, Indira Parthasarathi, Ambai, Sujaatha, Thi Janakiraman, Sundara Ramaswamy, Ashokamitran, Ki Rajanarayanan and Aa Madhavan — names that are not unfamiliar outside the Tamil world. Given their creative and societal engagements, it is hardly surprising that their stories touch a variety of subjects — from myth, religion and sexuality to politics, social issues and fantasy — and a range of elements from the absurd and the tragic to the serious and the humourous.

Indira Parthasarathy’s A Cup of Coffee is the pathetic tale of a Brahmin fallen on times so hard that he is unable to get the morning cuppa for which he yearns; and looks forward to getting this at funeral rites. Na Muthuswamy’s Afternoon unravels the sexuality underlying the banter of domestic intimacy in a country home. The encounters of rural folk with ‘modern’ institutions and practices emerge as telling social commentary in Sujaatha’s City as well as R Chudamani’s Daktaramma’s Room. Each story is a delight delving the depth of some Tamil experience with a universal resonance in terms of the challenges of life and living.

Editor Dilip Kumar, a well-known Tamil writer, is a Gujarati. He aptly says in his Note that this anthology "is not wholly representative in the real sense. It is more a personal endeavour to re-assess the Tamil short story in terms of content, style and its ability to maintain its link with its rich literary past". Vasantha Surya, the translator, retains the flavour of the original especially when it comes to the spice and garnishings. She has resorted to what she calls ‘adjistment’ — "a picturesque word purloined from English". In her words, the Tamilian knows how to ‘adjist’ to almost anything. "This Tamilised term evokes not only flexibility in the practical world, and making the most out of a given situation, but also a whole philosophy and rationale of survival and acceptance".

Now it is for the non-Tamils to savour this delectable fare of the sweet, the sour and the bitter.