South Asian Literature in Translation: Heat

Heat by Poomani; translated from Tamil into English by N Kalyan Raman

Publication date: 23 May 2019
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
ISBN-13: 978-9386228949

1) Tell us about this book and its original author.

NKR: Heat is my English translation of the Tamil novel Vekkai, which was first published in 1984. The novel is unusual in many ways. It has a simple storyline,  which is based on a real-life incident. A fifteen-year-old boy kills a man. Then he goes into hiding with his father in the forests and hills near his hometown. They spend a week surviving in the wilderness under harsh conditions before they eventually surrender to the police.

During their life as outlaws, father and son spend their time in a variety of locations: forested tank bed, rocky outcrop on a hill, graveyard, abandoned temple, and cane fields, among others. They forage for food, cook, clean, endure hunger and thirst, scout for hiding places, trudge very long distances over hills and plains, and also, in the case of the boy, find ways to amuse themselves with diversions. They also reminisce, together and alone, about the past and the incidents that sowed enmity in the boy’s heart and led to the murder. The story is narrated through the eyes of the boy.

Poomani (pen name of P. Manickavasagam) has portrayed how the innocent, carefree world of a boy, secure in the love and affection of his family, is overturned when he is drawn into the brutal contradictions of the adult world that had existed from long before he was born. His courageous quest for justice plunges him into a situation that can only lead to a dark future in prison. Poomani has said that he drew on his own boyhood experiences in the hills and forests around his native village to describe the fugitive life in the novel

2) Why were you drawn to choose the book for translation?

NKR: There are many reasons to love this novel, which has remained a modern classic in Tamil for more than 35 years. Poomani describes the boy’s family, the love that binds them, and the spirit with which they face their endless troubles, with a profound humanity that never sees them as mere victims of oppression. We get a clear view of a social world that is riven by great imbalances in wealth and power.  Poomani’s language and craft are close to cinematic, rendering the characters, along with the natural world they traverse, vivid and dazzling. I chose to translate Vekkai for all the light the novel could bring to the reader and for the power of Poomani’s art. 

It was in 2012 that I first realized. with not a little contrition, that Poomani, one of our great contemporary Tamil writers, had had no work published in English translation. As a literary translator, I felt that it was my duty to rectify this anomaly by translating at least one novel by Poomani. It didn’t take me long to settle on Vekkai.

3) What were the key challenges and surprises for you during the translation process/journey?

NKR: The conversations in the novel are brief, subtle, and layered exchanges that can convey a whole universe of feeling with small variations in tone and inflection. To bring on to the page exactly how something is said, and to do it page after page till the very end, was truly a daunting task. It was further complicated by the author’s use of the regional dialect and idiom. Secondly, the author’s descriptions of the natural world—the terrain and play of the elements—and the characters’ navigation through it were very precise and detailed. They had to be rendered in prose that was readable, yet without any abridgment of the fine details as in the original. This, too, was a major challenge.

There was a pleasant surprise at the end of the journey. Everyone who read the translation, starting with my editors, found the novel as moving, wonderful, and pulsating with life on every page as the original had been to countless Tamil readers including myself. It was quite thrilling to get such a response to the translation.

4) What’s one thing you wish readers knew or appreciated more about this book?

NKR: There is no reference to caste in the novel, but it is very subtly present—not as identity but as manifested in oppressive social relations. A pitiless description of the caste-based social order in rural Tamilnadu underlies the events in Heat. But there has been no discussion on this aspect of the novel by leading proponents of the anti-caste discourse across India, even after it has been made available in English. There is a whole corpus of fiction by subaltern writers in Tamil that can serve as an excellent source of information on caste relations. In a milieu where social history is so poorly documented, I wish more people would come alive to the potential of this novel as an epistemic source. 

5) What’s your next translation project that we can look forward to?

NKR: The one I am working on is a novel, Vittu Vidudalaiyagi (translated as ‘Breaking Free’), by Vaasanthi, a veteran journalist and writer. Breaking Free is a novel set in the first half of the twentieth century and deals with the tribulations of two young girls from the Devadasi community whose life-trajectories turn out to be very different from each other. The complex and often devastating impact of the “reforms” implemented at the time of Independence on individuals and families of the devadasi community are brought into relief in this compassionate work of the imagination. I expect to complete it in the next three months.

I am also working on a collection of poems by a well-known woman poet whose poems are informed by a postmodern sensibility and worldview. She experiments with form, language, and themes in wholly new ways.

Author Bio: Poomani, the name by which generations of Tamil readers have known the writer P Manickavasagam, is considered to be among the greatest living writers in Tamil. Over a career spanning 50 years, Poomani has published seven novels and more than 50 short stories. Vekkai, published in May 2019 by Juggernaut Books as Heat, is the first of his novels to appear in English translation.  Poomani published Vekkai in 1982. It was his second novel, unfolding in a subaltern rural Tamil landscape, like his first, Piragu. Two books together established Poomani, then in his mid-thirties, as a new star in the Tamil literary firmament. A thirtieth-anniversary edition of Vekkai was brought out in 2012, acknowledging its status as a modernist Tamil classic. In 2014, Poomani won the Sahitya Akademi award for his magnum opus Angyadi, a historical novel whose central event is set in the late 19th century (for which he researched the Nadar community in Madurai and Tirunelveli with the aid of a two-year grant from the India Foundation for the Arts.) Poomani lives in Kovilpatti in southern Tamilnadu. [Image Source: N Kalyan Raman]

Translator Bio: N Kalyan Raman started life as a literary translator in the early 1990s and published his first work, The Colours of Evil, a collection of Tamil short stories by Ashokamitran, in 1998. Twelve more works of fiction, by eminent contemporary Tamil writers, have followed, including Manasarovar (2010), Farewell Mahatma (2014), The Goat Thief (2017), and Heat (2019). His translations of contemporary Tamil poetry have been included in anthologies of Dalit and feminist writing, and published in literary journals in India and abroad, such as Poetry International, Circumference, Indian Literature, Caravan, and The Little Magazine, among others. His works have been shortlisted for several literary prizes in India, including the JCB Prize, Crossword, Hindu, and Atta Galatta. The Story of a Goat, his translation of Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, has been longlisted for the National Book Awards 2020 for Translated Literature. He was the recipient of the Pudumaipithan Award in 2018 for his contribution to Tamil literature. He lives and works in Chennai. [Image Source: N Kalyan Raman]

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her story collection, Each of Us Killers, and her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, were out in 2020. Her writing has appeared in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, NPR, BBC Culture, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, and others. Having worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.

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