24 October 2010

Review of Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? - Folktales from Tamil Nadu

Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? – Folktales from Tamil Nadu
by Ki. Rajanarayanan
translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy

artwork by Trotsky Marudu

235 pages

The gist, in 100 words
A feast of pickings from the collection of a raconteur. For freshness of stories, nothing else comes close. People who enjoy a good time will love this, as will those interested in human relationships wherever they are. Save the planet. Reduce overpopulation! So folks who choke at sex in books: open and read the sealed section.
Criticism: Although the glossary is well organised and easy to use, it is somewhat hit-or-miss. Another dozen words would have been illuminating.
Summary: A must-have for every decent library. This book goes in my bag of Books To Save If the House Burns Down.

Further, and further thoughts
I had overheated my brain so much in urging it to tell you what you need to know about this book that it was a cool breeze to both of us when we were interrupted by 'So did it work, or not?'
'I don't know yet. Whadyou put in it?'
'That flour you said you liked, and oatmeal—'
'Not that. The stuff in the middle.'
'Banana and prunes.'
'We never had prunes in food when I was growing up.'
'You never had a lot of things.'
'Prunes were always medicine.'
'So you don't like the taste?'
'I didn't say that. Prunes are medicine.'
'I should have cut them smaller. I should have made sure the filling was all dark.'
'No prunes.'
'You'll never see a prune again!'

And as it is for the delights of the sundried plum, so it is for folktales. There are people who even as you read this, are having folktales administered to them—formerly delicious folktales, now plumped in a chlorinated syrup-of-improving-messages, and served as something so goodforyou that—on the label, 'Moral' looms over the 'folk'.

Ki. Rajanarayanan, on the other hand, is a first-rate scamp. His 'naughty and dirty' section, sealed with red ribbon—the first section any unruined human will open in this book—will hold readers enthralled at the very least, though if Blaft were another publisher (and not the most seriously fun quality publisher in the world) the term 'naughty' would not be used; the 'dirty' would be fumigated, then eschewed. The proper word in higher circles, is 'Chaucerian', though 'bawdy' may also be employed if Chaucerian shares the bed. Ki. Ra., as his name is abbreviated, says in the introduction that is so good, it's worth reading before opening up the sealed section (though I wouldn't like to know the person who would):
Though I used to tell and listen to such tales all through my childhood, the idea of recording them came to me only after I read Boccaccio's Decameron. So many of those stories resembled the ones from my own soil; the Italian had seen fit to write down what people here considered too vulgar to be published.
One thing I can guarantee. If you get a copy and loan it to a friend, your likelihood of getting it back matches the lack of luck I've had getting back my annotated copy of Aretino's Dialogues (about which this book reminds me, with all its strong and lusty women).

But Where... is an extraordinary collection ranging over many topics (and seven named sections such as Birds & Beasts, Gods & Goddesses and Husbands & Wives), and the individual stories have strong differences in the telling. Ki. Ra. makes a point of saying there are different stories for different audiences, and in his retelling of them, his written style follows through – a marvellously sneaky way to get us readers to be even more involved. He further enhances this relationship by refusing to make the stories archaic.

While, for example, Calvino's Italian Folktales, a masterpiece, never veers from the dreamy never-neverland past told so cleanly it's spotless, it's a jolt that makes a reader sit up and feel the sting of mosquitoes when one reads in one story in this collection, 'motherfucker'. This reminds me of a sweet old grandmother's recipe-telling. 'You piss a little bit of this, a little bit of that.' Other stories in Where…, such as 'Two Brothers and Two Boiling Pots' are gruesomely Grimmish, or sound as if they could have fit well into Calvino's collection, as reading those Italian folktales is like traversing the whole of Europe in one book, so many stories seem familiar.

How many stories have come how far, to be told in the 'dry red-earth country down south' of Tamil Nadu? Who knows? But as Ki. Ra. says:
'If a person masters a hundred folktales, his knowledge about the world in general increases.'

This collection shows above all, how alive folktales can be, even when the setting is historical, as in my favourite, 'The Brinjal' in the Rajas & Ranis section—about an eggplant and advice. History? History lives, and wherever we live, everything here that makes us laugh in unwishing recognition. The advisor in this story reminds me of my favourite folktale hero, Nasr-ed-din-Khoja, who under many names, made his way into folktales from Europe to India, to China. The story goes that he was, in reality, a composite of two real people, unbelievably.

But I have never read any collection that approaches the freshness of the tales told by Ki. Ra. here (though one contender, also a must-have, is Speak Bird, Speak Again, Palestinian Arab Folktales, by Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana. University of California Press, 1989—this book has other similarities, as its earthy sex made Hamas apoplectic). It isn't just the sex in folktales collected by Ki. Ra. that can offend people. Claiming to be harmed by what ones sees is an addiction that loves company.
'The chap who wrote that book you're always reading? Put Me Among The Pigs, isn't it called?'
'On The Care Of The Pig.'
'That's right. Banned in Boston, I believe.'
– Galahad at Blandings, P.G.Wodehouse, 1964
Ki. Ra.'s introduction makes distinctions between the types of stories that do offend, and the purpose of stories themselves. But his opus has not censored stories because they could offend. Rather, he has included them because they are as much a part of history as war is. Considering that the Blaft English translation is an abridged edition of நாட்டுப்புறக் கதைக் களஞ்சியம் (Nattupura Kadhai Kalanjiyam), his 944-page compilation of folktales published in 2007, we who can only read English are fortunate that the selection was relatively unsparing of our morals, and that the superb Pritham K. Chakravarthy is the translator.

I probably shouldn't judge her, as maybe she murdered those stories, but if so, then she murders with panache. In both of Blaft's indispensable Tamil Pulp Fiction collections, and now in this challenging folktale collection, she is invisible, and leaves no fingerprints. So many voices resound in these stories. I assume that Ki. Ra. led her on a maddening chase as she tried to match his many voices, from the most ribald and earthy, to a story that would truly keep young children awake, 'listening with their mouths agape, not noticing as the mosquitoes flew in and out.'

Not only is the text something to treasure, but the book itself is quite attractive. The droll cover and rather calligraphic full-page illustration introducing each section are by Trotsky Marudu. His art fits the book like a melon does, its skin. Though Marudu's style is different, the humour in his line reminds me of some of the best of Sukumar Ray, who could have inspired Doctor Seuss. And Blaft does it again, by accident or purpose? Not only is the book a pleasure to behold, but to hold. The paper and board choices of this well-bound book are excellent (no bright-white paper!) and in terms of the cover, unusual.

And now, an irresistible comparison
There are certain books that are more important than themselves. Ki. Ra's collection is an example. Another is Le Cheval d'Orgueil by Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1975) known in English as The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village, translated and abridged by June Guicharnaud, and first published by Yale Press in 1979 but still in print. The photograph that faces the very first page of this memoir is 'A Breton storyteller fifty years ago'. That storyteller was surrounded by Breton peasants, people of the earth, not towns.

That picture is not as evocative as the description of the storytellers, their dress and features, their styles of telling and their audiences, everything so exotic—but maybe so familiar to Ki. Rajanarayanan, who paints another unforgettable picture in a book that is so important, it needs to be produced in a library edition.

'The people of the neighbourhood,' Rajanrayanan writes, 'after returning from their fieldwork, having their bath, and eating their dinner, would gather around Paangyam Veerabaagu to listen to his stories … As a child it would seem to me that Beerabaagu had just begun the story, and almost immediately the cock would crow to announce the dawn.'

That folktale. It's alive!
Hélias writes at the end of his book:
'Folklore continues to take on new shapes right under our very eyes. Its shapes evolve, of course . . . It is very adaptable.'

Rajanrayanan, in the intro:
' Once, when I was invited by Kerala University to deliver a talk on folktales, I was asked by one of the students: "Will new folktales still be created, in these modern times?"
A very good question! "Why do you doubt it?"I asked. "If all the jokes that were told about our last Defense Minister, Baldev Singh, are not a part of folklore, then what are they?" '

On the tip of the tongue
Translating from the oral to the written, and from language to language, Laurence Wylie wrote in the forward to Horse…, about Cheval d'Orgueil:
'When I first read the book I was saddened by the thought that it could not be made available to English readers. The task of translation seemed impossible. The style is colloquial. There are many Breton expressions, and sometimes even the French translation sounds strained because Hélias wishes to convey a flavor of Breton, the language in which he obviously feels . . . For most of us, a farmer is a farmer, but when one describes peasant France one must be precise about social and professional nuances among different kinds of farmers . . . June Guicharnaud has accomplished a miracle in this translation. To the degree that is possible she has been precise, but at the same time she has expressed in English the earthiness of the text.'
This could be paraphrased to describe the work cut out for Pritham K. Chakravarthy. If there is some high and recognitiony prize for brilliant translating, I hope she gets it.

As to Ki. Rajanarayanan, his life's work is what the Nobel Prize in Literature should be all about. His introduction alone is worth more than many a laureate's entire oeuvre. So I hope that he is nominated and awarded the P.—in his full name—which by the way, I would like to have seen somewhere in this translation.

Like that other master storyteller, Twain, he can tell a story in many ways. See him tell one that could not make it into either of his collections, here:

Now buy the book, and tell those reviewers in important places that this book should be on Bestseller lists around the world, even if the title and author take up two lines.


Bala said...

Loved the review. Nice to see Ki. Ra transcending cultural barriers. And IMO this is among his lesser works. (since this is just a collection of tales). His Karisal Kaattu Kadudhasi and Gopalla Grammam are far better examples of his writing style.

A Few minor corrections:
>>'dry red-earth country'
Its actually dry-black earth country. (The word "Karisal" translates as black). The soil is actually black and cracked there.

>>Nattupura Kadhai Jalanjiyam
Its Kalanjiyam with a K, not a J.

anna tambour said...

Dear Bala,
Thank you very much for these corrections. The red-earth will cause red faces at Blaft, but that J is my mistake, and if it's my only one, I'm amazed. No wonder I couldn't find a link to the Tamil edition. So now that you have put this straight, I've corrected the text above and added a link, and I'm much obliged. Also, I'd love to know more about these other works you mention.

Bala said...

Dear Anna,

The red earth was a translation mistake!. I thought Pritham was well versed in Tamil. :-).

regarding the other books. Gopalla grammam (Gopalla village) and its sequel Gopallapurathu Makkal (people of Gopalla village)are the best known (and typical) among his works. He received his Sahitya Akademi award for the latter.

Both chronicle the story of a village through the eyes of its people. The narrative jumps all over the place with lots of sub plots and old wife tales. The plotlines are similar to the folk tales in the reviewed book, but are more alive because they are part of the characters lives.

Karisal Kattu kadudhasi (Letter from the black earth country) is a two part series published as a series in a weekly mag. Both are collections of autobiographical vignettes. Written with his usual self deprecating humour Ki. Ra tells stories of his childhood, his actions as a Communist in the Indian independence movement and his struggle to make a living as a progressive writer slash farmer.

I read these books first when i was eight or nine (my aunt was horrified when she found out i had filched them from her collection :-)) and did not understand the "adult" portions!

There should be a translation of Gopallapurathu Makkal somewhere out there (most of the sahitya akademi award winning works are automatically translated). But its difficult to find a translator who can capture the flavour of karisal kaadu. It is different from the usual Tamil village mileu and even translators who are from rural TN bungle it badly. (No wonder Pritham mistook black for Red)

anna tambour said...

Bala, thank you for taking the trouble to write such a helpful post, yet again. As to that red that should be black mistake, I'm curious as ever to know what Pritham thinks — and I wonder if this isn't a case of misinterpretation, but a slip of the brain caused by spirits who specialise in this sort of mischief – causing Pritham to write red when she meant black. Once the damage is done, the spirits gleefully await the post-publishing fun. This type of error is never caught before publishing. As a word, even a phrase, it looks perfectly normal. And best of all, it lurks smack where the most outstanding spirit-caused mistakes always do. In the most invisible-to-proofreader place of all: the first page. The only effective spirit-dampener that I know of (there is no effective repellent or spirifugent), is laughter. Even non-translated works are filled with spirit-caused errors on the first page. Poetry is their forte. John Masefield must be blessing the internet from his grave. His line published in his lifetime as "I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky" is now commonly corrected online.

Your description of these other works and that delicious passage about your reading as a child, add up to a lot of frustration. In seeking, I found this listing:
Gopallapuram: Village & the People
Publisher: Penguin India
Author: Ki Rajanarayanan, Pritham K Chakravarti
Edition: Paperback

Note the translator.
The book is "out of stock" and not on the Penguin site. So maybe with help from you, there is going to be a resurgence of interest.

As a language expert yourself and a wide-ranging reader, your thoughts will always be interesting, so please keep posting. And what about translations by you?

Bala said...

>>As a language expert yourself

ay-ya-yo. me not an expert of any sort. I am just a consumer of both English and Tamil fiction (as the Tamil proverb goes - a leg in the river and another in the mud bank)

I write in both English and Tamil Wikipedias and some generic Tamil and English books (not talented enough for fiction).

And regarding the translation error (how black became red). I was talking about this with my mom (my parents grew up in and around Karisal Kaadu) and she says it is a common enough mistake. The land all around Karisal Kaadu is indeed reddish (and more fertile). All visual depictions (films) of Southern Tamil Nadu are of the "red earth country". People forget the dry black country sandwiched between two wide swathes of red earth country (madurai in the north and Tirunelveli to the south). Maybe thats what came to Pritham's mind as she read the original.

I will try to find copies of Ki. Ra translations from second hand stores. There should be some of them floating around.

anna tambour said...

Better a leg in the river and another in the mud bank, than two in a rosebush. And don't underestimate yourself. Your Wikipedia entries are valuable. And fiction is like anything ridiculous if you think about it first, which includes all great inventions. If you've got a story in you (and I'd be willing to wager both my ears [for all the good they'd do anyone else]) that you have many more than one story in you dying to get out; and furthermore, that you possess more than enough of the means to let those stories fly. The world has too many contemporary works of fiction and assorted writings clouding the atmosphere, spewed by people with lots of confidence but nothing to say, while too many people who do have the untamed inside them, stories and other creatures that would thrill and stimulate the living, are self-intimidated into playing dead, their tongue roots tickled by flapping wings and claws.

And your description of the sandwich is kind of Alice in Wonderlandish. And like a joke about a newspaper. Maybe mistakes are meant to be with this. I wonder what Ki. Ra. actually wrote.