The inner life of an enduring language
An ambitious anthology brings Tamil stories to Anglophone readers
By Gwee Li Sui
Unwinding and Other Contemporary Tamil Short Stories
Tamil boasts about eighty million speakers in the world, close to the number of Korean speakers. Three modern-day countries India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore list it as an official language. It is also among the few surviving ancient languages, having been in unbroken use since the second century BCE.
During allegedly the most connected human age ever, what Tamil literature has to offer should excite us. English is, after all, already a functional global bridge language, and cross-cultural experiences are energised more and more by translation work.
Yet, Tamil-language writing remains one of the realms unloved by general readership. We may be able to find with ease classical epics such as the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, and the Aeneid in English, but who can claim knowledge of the Silappatikaram?
Apart from exceptions such as Perumal Murugan's fine novel One Part Woman (2013) superbly translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan which modern Tamil book is talked about worldwide?
This situation does not get better within Singapore. Latha's The Goddess in the Living Room (2014), collecting some of her Tamil stories in English, is a rarity. Meanwhile, once-too-often miswordings on public notices add to an impression that the language is confusing, arcane, insular, and even passé.
If only to counter all this, Jayanthi Sankar's Unwinding and Other Contemporary Tamil Short Stories is a welcome read. The aspiring 486-page tome has brought together forty-three Tamil stories, written and translated by fifty-two individuals from ten countries.
It is an undeniable labour of love on the editor's part, herself a gifted writer based in Singapore. As her selection does not direct our reading, we soon discover the sheer range of its themes and styles, as well as its implicit suggestion of dominant narrative trends in Tamil.
There are the traditional, slice-of-life stories as exemplified by Maalan's "Rocks and a Feather", which relates a young woman's fortitude. More experimental stories include Sathyanandhan's self-reflexive parable "Words of Wings", and Era Murukan's longish, weird corporate tale "Unwinding".
The pieces written outside India help to widen the scope of cultural sensibilities and experiences in modernity. Rajeswary Balasubramaniam's hilarious "Police Guard for Jesus" uses a bus trip to observe race, religion and class in Britain today. Sumathy Balaram's "Frozen Woman" explores a conservative middle-aged woman's dream of love in Canada.
I personally find the Singaporean tales told by Latha, Azhagunila, Ramchander, Rama Suresh, and Sankar herself special. Fiercely socio-realist, they capture not just the atmospherics of island life but also the beauty and challenges of mundane multiculturalism.
In fact, given the book's global make-up, the human familiarity in it appears somewhat revealing of a culture. Many characters show an inward sureness, only sometimes guided by tradition, that does not sink into nihilism in the face of trouble.
The stories themselves faintly gesture at some structure but prefer to meander towards a conclusion. They are often coy and rhythmic rather than tight and complex, with plot details tending to be broadly sketched.
All this makes Unwinding a wonderful entry point into contemporary Tamil fiction. It can tease, delight, and enlighten, and would have made a great travelling companion if it were published in slim volumes.
No culture-specific knowledge is required as everything alien to a non-Tamil speaker has been footnoted with care. But information on the writers and translators themselves could have been arranged better, as this section currently takes a rather mysterious format.
In fact, sorting through who did what, I come to notice that the bulk of contributors are based in India, with a fraction from Singapore and an even smaller fraction from Sri Lanka. The remaining countries have just one or two names including Malaysia, where Tamil is among its languages of education!
I would have loved to read more from Sri Lankans and Malaysians. I would certainly wish to see in this company established Singaporean writers such as M. A. Elangkannan, Rama Kannabiran, Puthumaithasan, and J. M. Sali.
If what I am implying still sounds hazy, let me speak plainly. The volume curates not so much the best in contemporary Tamil short fiction, as stories by Tamil writers around the world, with their spanning themes and styles.
Such a plan is not bad, although it seems a missed opportunity to bring out, for this size, something definitive. But the choice of stories feels less unfortunate than the unevenness of translations. Some stories read more confidently than others, and it may be down to a question of precise English rendering.
Yet, going through the book, it stands enough for me to understand why it should exist. Unwinding can help change minds about the inner life of an enduring language. It can offer readers clarity on what modern Tamil literature involves, as well as how Singaporean literature and South Asian literature can be bridged.
More crucially, it can entrench a notion of Tamil culture that embraces its diaspora, absorbing linguistic and thematic turns that arrive with geographical moves. This development transforms the anthology into a means that creates paths and fills gaps. It lets those of us outside of a language hear the conversations form among its speakers, across the vast oceans.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020