Books

Book Review: ‘The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told’ Explores Tales Of The Human Predicament

The cohesion of ‘The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told’, which carries 50 well-written stories, lies in the thematic exploration of our collective and personal dilemmas through compelling character development.

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‘The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told’, selected and translated by A J Thomas
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The poignant portrayal of the complexities of external realities unfolds tales of long-term relationships, affairs, separation, unrequited love, betrayal, redemption, and rebellion. These tantalising, occasionally titillating stories abound worldwide; yarns that come off as profoundly serious and subversive, and stay with us. They elicit many emotions, acquaint us with a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems, and provide context to situate issues we face today with the ones that surfaced in the past.

Such short stories showcasing the elemental human predicament about impossible choices and a certain ambivalence create a sense of intrigue, no matter what their subject. It is an undeniably daunting task to cull the 50 greatest stories ever told in Malayalam, a major Indian language in which the short story as a distinct literary genre appeared in 1891. Equally onerous is the job of translating a bunch of seemingly non-germane stories into a coherent and perceptive whole in order to make the multi-author collection a delightful reading experience. This is what A J Thomas, celebrated poet, skilful editor, and translator, articulates in the anthology ‘The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told’ (Aleph, 2023).

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The cohesion of the collection, which carries 50 well-written stories, lies in the thematic exploration of our collective and personal dilemmas through compelling character development. Brimming with tension, the stories offer a retrospective of cherished memories and vibrant perspectives on struggles for dignity and self-sufficiency across gender and caste. The publication period of the stories dates back to the last seven decades; newly discovered authors also find space in the book along with the stalwarts. One tends to agree with the compiler Thomas, who describes the stories as modern classics.

An acuity-laden, detailed critical introduction maps out the creative terrain of the Malayalam story. In it, Thomas points out: “The Malayalam short story had begun as a loosely narrated, often verbose model, then moved to the properly structured photographic-realist, socialist-realist, sentimental-romantic, romantic-realist, psychological-realist, dirty-realist modes shot through with naturalism. Next, it passed through the rigidly structured modernist phase with its allegories, fantasies, and parables from the 1960s until the end of the 1970s.”

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Postmodernism has gained currency for over three decades; now, it surfaces everywhere, and Malayalam is no exception. Thomas too mentions it, but he seems jittery about translating uthtara-aadhunika as postmodern since he holds the view that in the context of Indian literature, it will be misleading to term anything “postmodern” as it makes for instant comparison with “Western postmodern”, which is an entirely different phenomenon. Well enough, but so are modernism and romanticism as they are also loaded with European connotations.

While selecting emotionally intense and deeply heartfelt stories portraying quiet moments of meditation on the ultimate concerns of life, Thomas leaves readers ricocheting between layers of reality. It does not overwhelm them but lays bare the dangers and possibilities of the world they inhabit. The anthology carries stories by outstanding writers such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Karoor Neelakanta Pillai, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Uroob, Kovilan, Madhavikkutty, T Padmanabhan, M T Vasudevan Nair, O V Vijayan, Zacharia, Sara Joseph, and N P Mohammed, among others. The selection forms an arc that stems from various phases. The works of living literature/progressive literature authors and the after-modern phase writers are also included.

The first story, ‘Wooden Dolls’, by Karoor, rendered through illustrative actions and suggestive dialogues, offers psychological insights wrapped in conceit. The conversation between the female protagonist and the census worker directs readers away from obvious moralising and an ever-growing sense of victimhood. The feel of art in well-honed translation runs through the story. Uroob’s story, ‘The Fair Child’, a seemingly surrealist children’s narrative, sensitively situates a young demon in the unflinching bond of motherhood. The gripping story shows readers how a considerate and caring mother transforms into a demon. In Thomas’ opinion, it is a fantasy that grows into an allegory, and in the most phantasmagorical settings, human virtues and vices are delineated. NP Mohammed’s ‘Candle’ too candidly explores the contradictions and overlapping sentiments that intense tripartite relationships concerning mother, beloved and other family members produce.

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OV Vijayan’s story, ‘The Hanging’, poignantly explores the ways in which ordinary people are oppressed by the indiscreet and unbridled power of the state. The meeting of the son with his father on the eve of his execution for unknown reasons illuminates the monstrous nature of prosecution agencies that force innocent citizens to pay a terrible price. The current of unease grips readers until the very last word.

Much ink in fiction and non-fiction has been expended on gender equity and women’s empowerment, but ambitious and absorbing stories with the scope to contain more than a woman’s distress still elude us. MT Vasudevan Nair’s story, ‘Vision’, however, is up to the challenge. In it, the female protagonist, Sudha Kutty, displays indomitable grit and imaginative capacity in facing an extremely hostile and unkind world. The story sensitively illustrates the layered and redemptive power of self-determinism.

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Modernism’s much-touted espousal of alienation and abstraction does not go well with Paul Zacharia, and his story ‘The Garden of the Antlions’ spins a riveting narrative on feminine consciousness drawing on compassion and caring. Sara Joseph’s ‘Sweat Marks’ deftly unveils the machinations of the academic world that trample on and dehumanise deprived sections of society.

Besides the above-mentioned stories, the anthology includes stories by Kesavadev, Basheer, Lalithambika Antharjanam, M Varkey, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, S K Pottekkatt, Saraswathi Amma, Vaduthala, Kovilan, Parappurathu, P Karunakaran, Nandanar, V K N, Rajalakshmi, Sreeraman, T Padmanabhan, N Mohananan, Madhavikkuty, Kakkanadan, Anand, Vastala, Narayana Pillai, Kunjabdulla, Mukandan, Sethu, M Sukumaran, Padmarajan, Leenus, Sivakumar, Madhavan, Maanasi, Jayaraj, Gracy, N Prabhakaran, Balakrishnan, Charuvil, Thomas Joseph, and Chandramathi, among others.

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The anthology showcases the dexterity and depth of Thomas’ critical acuity and translating skills that immerse readers in the 50 stories; incredibly, each one is absorbing and different. The artistry of the stories that defined and shaped the landscape of Malayalam fiction is splendidly retained in translation. A praiseworthy attempt is made to keep the prose from turning flabby, though there are occasional traces of turgidity. The stories read well and the translation creates a flavour of vernacular authenticity; verbal phrases and prepositions are jostled. The punchy anthology features different kinds of stories but a deep sense of human compassion binds them together.

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(Shafey Kidwai, a bilingual critic, is a professor of Mass Communication at Aligarh Muslim University. Views expressed are personal.)

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