The Tamil novel, Koogai by Cho. Dharman, in English translation by Vasantha Surya invites us to read it within the ongoing debates over region-nation dilemma of Indianness. The culturallyrooted narrative needs to be read without getting caught in this simplistic debate and in issues regarding loyalty to the source text. The narrative potential captured through the translation makes it a text of its own, creating a dialogue between region and nation.
Attempts to use any cultural tool for identifying a unified Indian national self always meets with resistance from the region. Equally difficult is the task of finding factors uniting us as ‘Indian’. There is no easily identifiable thread within our Indian context which helps us proclaim the ‘Indianness’, as scholars like A.K. Ramanujan often insisted. While the region raises claims of autonomy, the nation invents strategies to integrate regions. Finally, a consolatory word needs to come from the political side to satiate our disappointment by pointing out that we have to see our ‘unity in diversity’.
The closer we get to national identity, the heavier the cataclysm takes place within the structure. However, we all agree that something binds, and upholds us as ‘Indian’. It is this consciousness that Nehru regarded as constituting the national ‘myth’. According to him India is a myth not in the religious sense but it has to be identified in the literary sense of the narrative. It is the narrative that upholds us as ‘Indians’. Nation in narration as we could see in the early Indian English writing, by virtue of its fictionality, cannot be trustworthy. It is here that English translations of the region claim to be trustworthy narratives of the (Other) nation. The neglected and submerged voices (of women, dalits, and adivasis) are now heard through this ‘translation revolution’. The howl of the owl that we hear now in Dharman’s novel, Koogai is part of this revolution. Here, the debate regarding English functioning as a tool of imperialism becomes insignificant as it carries the potential to offer us a nation, which otherwise remains slippery. Through translation and by bending the English language to different cultural flavours, translation into English has become more than a link between the region and the nation. English language in this context strives to establish the cultural ‘self’ of India. Oxford translations of Indian regional writing, under the editorship of Mini Krishnan, play a significant contribution in achieving this.
It is not just the cultural flavour that gets transmitted in the translated text but its narrative capacity identified and captured in translation that establishes this national self. It is important to note that when we read Russian classics we do not try to evaluate but only read and appreciate. Researchers have identified drawbacks in Constance Garnett’s translations. But her identification of the narrative potential of Dostoevsky alone wins worldwide readership toward Russian classics. Some of the cultural aspects which went missing in the English translation do not prevent our appreciation of the Russian classics. The narrative that represents the Russian national self reaches the readers across cultures. Vasantha Surya’s translation of Cho. Dharman’s Koogai into English achieves this in representing the cultural self of the Indian nation located in a region. The story of Koogai is the best example for this unique narration of the region—the Karisal region that includes three districts of southern Tamil Nadu—and for locating the caste-specific issues that encourage a dialogue with dalit literature elsewhere. The unique narrative highlights the significance of the problems faced by Pallars in this region, thus adding to the growth and potential of dalit literature.
The stories of the main characters along with the branch stories form an organic part of the novel. The first segment of the story covers the life of two young dalits who venture to eat in a hotel in a nearby village. Instead of taking the assigned place given to dalits they dare to enjoy their meal with the upper caste men. The infuriated Muthaiya Pandiyan, an upper caste man, punishes them and Seeni, the elder and saviour of the Pallar caste, rescues them.
Muthaiya Pandiyan almost behaves like a dictator in the village and decides the fate of the dalits. He exploits the couple Sanmugam and Karupi. The social and sexual exploitation reaches its extreme and pushes the oppressed to protest and break the bondages. When Muthaiya Pandiyan takes advantage of Sanmugan’s daughter, Sanmugam no longer tolerates it but burns him in his hut. The landlord Venkatram Iyar decides to lease the land to the Pallar community because they are the ones who worked in his field since his forefathers’ time. Upper caste men oppose this, fearing that they might lose the vassals if the Pallars are provided with land for cultivation. A feud ensues where Ayyanaar and Appusuppan—both of Pallar caste—slay some upper caste men.
Appusuppan escapes from the police to Kovilpatti where he meets Peichi, a destitute woman who accommodates him in her house. They share each other’s past. She introduces him to her daughter Sandiyar, a valiant name. The Zamindar in Kovilpatti starts to give trouble to the dalits by lodging false complaints saying they had sown thorn seeds in his land. As a punishment, he forces them to remove the weeds without giving wages. In this situation Peichi and Appusuppan rescue them with the help of ‘lion of the law’, Nataraj Iyar. So they become the heroes and formidable enemies to the Zamin and the police. They concoct a false case against Appusuppan and send him to jail. Peichi hears the Koogai, a species of the Owl, a bird of the night, hooting. She takes that as a good omen for revival.
It is Seeni who brings a new life to the Pallars by acquiring the land for cultivation. But his people start to despise him because of their improved lifestyle. They also gradually lose faith in the Koogai god. They plan to demolish the Koogai temple. In its place they build a Kaali temple. Seeni takes the Koogai statue and starts his journey into the magical land. At the end of the novel, some boys drag the powerless Koogai on the road. This comes to signify the exploited dalits and their past glorious history. The Koogai once reigned in the night with its nocturnal power. But now during the day its powerlessness prompts even insignificant birds to attack this Koogai. The Koogai with all its symbolic significance reminds us of Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Albatross’. As long as they soar in the sky they are the kings of the heaven. But the moment they land on a ship their mighty wings become a great hindrance to them. They become weak and powerless to bear their own wings. He says: This winged traveler, how he is awkward and weak! He, lately so handsome, how comic he is and uncomely! Someone bothers his beak with a short pipe, Another imitates, limping, the ill thing that flew! In the same way, Koogai has become a play thing in the hands of boys as did the Albatross in the hands of the sailors.
This paradoxical power of Koogai represented through a magical narrative informs us of the ambiguity of the place or the region within the discourse of nation that we find in Indian fiction. What exactly do we mean by the narrative potential in this context? Can we simply regard it as realist or socialist realist as we could find in Mulk Raj Anand? What brings together those Indian English narratives and the regional narratives such as Bama’s Karukku within the discourse of the nation? What is Indian about such realist representations of dalit narratives? Of course, the social dimension is inherent to the form of the novel. It is here that Koogai departs. Its form, not just the content, upholds the region, making it part of the tradition of the Karisal land. This is what the cultural historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy highlights in his brilliant introduction to the novel. By calling Kovilpatti as ‘modernist literary renaissance’ he argues that in this fertile land of storytelling tradition the novel form has moved beyond a simplistic realism to reach a culturally-rooted realism accommodating modern tendencies in the narrative.
Koogai has become the symbol which pervades the narrative pattern of the novel, thus adding a regional colour to the canon of dalit literature. In this context the role of the translator is not an easy task. The novel demands the translator to work on its narrative as well. By doing so the translator Vasantha Surya has created another text. The translated narrative is the region-specific narrative of the Indianness. Such an Indianess achieved through translation will be the pragmatic self of India with its region-specificity unlike the so-called imaginary self-construction in Rushdian magical realism with an imperial protection in a foreign land.
R. Arul, a research scholar in the Department of English, Madras University has published reviews on Imayam’s Arimugam, a few poetry collections in Tamil and articles in English on American Modernism. (Melville) and the Tamil novel Vellai Yannai by Jeyamohan.