Reading Malayalam Fiction – My Tattered Jacket

I did not grow up in the land where I was born. Every year during summer vacation, we would cram a month’s worth of clothes, chicken nuggets and schoolbooks into four, heavy suitcases and we would fly three thousand kilometers across oceans and deserts till all we could see through the frosted aeroplane windows were the lush, rolling hills of Kerala.

We would be on the same flight a month later, our suitcases just as full, only this time, there would be books in place of the chicken nuggets. We’d have finished all the chicken nuggets a day after we had landed.

I couldn’t really buy many books where we grew up. Small paperbacks I could finish reading in a day cost about as much as a video-game I could play for a month. So, I’d save up my pocket money for our annual trip to India and I’d pester my parents till they took me to the bookstore. And then, for a couple of hours, I’d be in that peculiar heaven we book lovers are intimately familiar with. Only, it was different for me. This would be the only time I’d get to go to a bookstore all year.

The attendants there in their neat, brown polo shirts would observe me, rapt, as I loaded a trolley with enough books to last me a year. Fourteen was the highest that tally ever went up to. When I was twelve and thirteen, the books all belonged to roughly the same genre. The fantasy-YA side of things. These were the books that gently directed me to the rabbit hole that is Speculative Fiction. I still don’t know how deep that rabbit hole goes. My dog-eared copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Horse and His Boy, their once creamy pages now flecked with every shade of curry and condiment, still sit on my desk, almost begging me to reread them. Year fourteen to sixteen, I broadened my horizons. I began reading historical fiction, horror, crime and even non-fiction. But there was still one shelf I assiduously avoided.

This year, the last year I’d ever undertake this voyage before settling in India for good, I bit the bullet. I began furtively eyeing the Indian Fiction section and the Translated Works shelf in particular. I added a few books translated from Malayalam into the pile. I went home and burned through them even before the flight back.

My previous and sole experience with Kerala through literature was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which was written in English. From my first foray into the Translations shelf, I read Mira Nair’s Hangwoman and Benyamin’s Goat Days and The Yellow Lights of Death. I adored all these books. The stories told ranged from sweeping epics to poignantly personal narratives, sometimes in the same book. I could culturally understand these characters so  perfectly. I was amazed by how beautiful my national literature is.

But, I was also filled with a new and peculiar kind of shame. I asked my parents to read sections for me from the original Malayalam and I was blown away by the sheer baroqueness of that language. What made these books award winning, critically acclaimed masterpieces was not their detailed plots or the richness of their characterization. It was this gorgeous, self-aware, consciously crafted language.

And that was something I couldn’t tap into. It was like looking at a stunning winter vista through an open door but not having a thick enough jacket to actually venture out. It felt crippling.

I am trying to learn to read Malayalam. Right now, I can manage to finish one children’s book in three hours and comprehend maybe half of it. I’m hoping to be able to graduate to perhaps middle grade fiction by the end of this year. I am hoping to be able to be acquainted with the language enough to access the great wealth of my own national literature.

I am hoping to be able to walk through that door. I’m stitching my jacket. But what this humbling little experience has taught me is the importance of the original language in literature. We read for telepathy. We read to access another man’s thoughts. Only, I can’t do that with Malayalam fiction. I can only read those thoughts as interpreted by someone else in the language of the very people who oppressed my people for centuries. So I’m stitching my jacket. Stitch yours as well.


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