“Kamala Das is undoubtedly among the most sensitive writers of short fiction in India today, a perfect artist who captures the complex subtleties of human relationships in the smooth textures of her simple and lyrical idiom. The Sandal Trees and Other Stories presents an excellent sampling of her work in Malayalam and includes her celebrated masterpieces like ‘The Sandal Trees’, ‘The Smell of the Bird’, ‘The Boy in Naval Uniform’, ‘The Faceless Navigator’, ‘Letter from Radha’ and ‘The Hijras’. All the distinct characteristics of her oeuvre — her magnificent obsessions with childhood, ageing and death, her sure hold over the primary passions, her unerring understanding of unconscious drives, her deep insight into human relationships, her confident yet delicate handling of sexuality, her eye for the minutest detail and her contempt for the hypocrisy at the heart of man-made institutions from family to religion — are dramatically present in these disturbing narratives of painful and enigmatic relationships. They have the smell of wild flowers and basic instincts. The translators have successfully captured the nuances of the author’s vision and the intense poetry of her narrative surface. Beautiful. Tragic. Evocative. Disturbing... a real reading experience for the common reader as well as the discriminating aesthete.”
KAMALA DAS, whose fame outside Kerala rests mainly on her poems in English, has published hundreds of short stories in Malayalam under the pen name Madhavikkutty apart from several short novels and other writings in both the languages. Not surprisingly, her position among the Indian poets writing in English is more than matched by her contributions to the short story in Malayalam, a genie to which she has given a greater subtlety and power in dealing with human relationships and questions of love, life and death. Her poetry collections include Summer in Calcutta which won the Kent Award, The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, The Descendants, Collected Poems, winner of the Asan World Prize, and The Best of Kamala Das. Her other publications include the enormously popular and controversial My Story, The Alphabet of Lust, A Doll for the Child Prostitute arid Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories. She was poetry editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, and Chairperson, Kerala Forestry Board. The present volume is the first collection of her short stories to be published in translation. Kamala Das now lives in Ernakulam.
V C HARRIS, a PhD in English, teaches at the School of Letters, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. He has published a number of books and articles in both English and Malayalam and has another volume of translation forthcoming: Third Coming and Other Stories from Kerala.
C K MOHAMED UMMER teaches English at Farook College, Calicut. He has translated into Malayalam a section of the UNESCO History of Mankind and is currently preparing a collection of Latin American short stories to be published in Malay alam.
I think I was compelled to choose a name because I did not want to embarrass my conservative family. I knew that I was a misfit within my family. I flunk I practised writing as people practise a secret vice. Like boys going to the bathroom to smoke. Especially, I didn’t want to hurt my grandmother who was my favourite human being. And I don’t think she knew that I was Madhavikkutty till she died.
Thus spoke Kamala Das in an interview (Indian Literature, May-June 93). For Kamala Das, whose several collections of poems have earned for her an unassailable position among our prominent poets in English, remains, to the people of Kerala, Madhavikkutty, the incomparable author of hundreds of exciting short stories that have helped redefine the genre to a considerable extent in Malayalam. This dual identity, which in a sense seeks to draw a veil over what she calls a “secret vice” has not, however, stood in the way of close links between her poems in English and short stories in Malayalam. Being “the same person”, as she puts it, “1 see poetry in an experience, and then see good prose coming out of the same experience.”
With forty years of story-telling behind her, Kamala Das has by now explored to the full the various vicissitudes of her life and times, and her work, displaying a strange sort of consistency even amidst the bustle of enthralling variety, has left its indelible imprint on short fiction in Malayalam. Of course, she does have her predecessors —. Lalithambika Antharjanam (1909-1987) and K Saraswathiamma (1919-1975) who spoke the woman’s language in a series of stories that both covertly and overtly challenged the male order. Yet, when Kamala Das entered the scene, the short story in Malayalam acquired a vibrance, a dynamism, that surely was the contribution of a full-blown genius, and a very disturbed, and disturbing genius at that. This is amply borne out even by her early stories such as ‘The Red Dusk’, ‘On the Mountain Slopes’ and ‘Unni’. The kind of human relationships that these stories portray is repeated and reinscribed in all its awesome complexity across the whole gamut of her work, and this is reinforced by the recurring thematics of love and marriage, sexuality and the question of death, and tyranny and oppression of various hues. No wonder she was compelled to choose a name, to draw a veil over her sell, her identity, and to forbear from hurting her favourite human beings. Yet she did hurt or offend many — in the guise of both Kamala Das arid Madhavikkutty.
To return to the basic notes struck in the early stories, one finds the sense of deep mystery that spreads over a tale like ‘Unni’ being repeated in more significant ways in ‘Kalyani’ and ‘The Smell of the Bird’ and later in ‘The Boy in Naval Uniform’. About ‘Unni’ Kamala Das says, I just imagined, you know, if a man died, in what form he would come back to the woman who had loved him. Would it be in the same form as she had first seen Mm?” Questions of this sort come up over and over again, and they are often caught up in the tangle of human relationships that go awry for a variety of reasons. The husbands and wives in ‘The Sandal Trees’, ‘The Story of Arunachalam’ and ‘The Flight’, Anasuya and the Wild Buffalo in ‘Marine Drive’ and the mother and daughter in ‘The Cruel Ring of Truth’ all reveal the oddities and angularities, not to say the pain and suffering, inflicted on them by certain dominant filial/sexual power relations that demand a rigorous analysis in any reading of Kamala Das’ work. But these stories also offer a solid resistance to the working of power relations and, at times, one finds the protagonist, almost invariably a woman, breaking free and running out into the open, as in ‘The Flight’ for instance.
As opposed to this, ‘Letter’ from Radha’, ‘Ghanshyam’ and Radha...Anuradha’ offer a safe though rarefied discursive site where wild passions can be sublimated (and defused?) at some metaphysical level and where the question of the female body as the locus of warring forces can be legitimately’ posed. The very fact that Kamala Das is quite able to project the truly contemporary issues of sexuality and hegemony onto the Radha Krishna theme speaks volumes for her narrative skills. And the same can be said about the more directly ‘political’ stories such as ‘Panther Hunt’, ‘Marine Drive’, ‘Lock-Up’ and ‘Royal Avenues’, which, along with the three little gems, ‘The Boy Who Defied God’, ‘Holy Cow’ and ‘Holy Book’ together textualize a whole lot of questions that help problematize the distinction between the personal and the political.
The stories collected here span a long period stretching from 1956 to the present. The arrangement is roughly chronological, the single major exception being the title story, ‘The Sandal Trees’ which, though published in 1988, is here given at the head. The stories have been culled from various collections and periodicals, and the selection, it is hoped, is fairly representative, though in the case of a writer like Kamala Das it can always come under attack. Let us only hope that whatever could not be included here would form a subsequent volume for which there is ample scope.
We do not wish to utter the customary apologias regarding the translation; nor do we claim faultlessness or total faithfulness to the original. Suffice it to note that we have not taken major liberties with the texts and that Kamala Das being a writer of great repute in English as well, we have tried to capture her peculiar idiom as best as we can.
We are extremely grateful to Kamala Das for her valuable suggestions and wonderful cooperation. It was really a proud and happy moment for us when she expressed her satisfaction with the translation. We would also like to thank our friends and colleagues, too numerous to be named here, who have helped us in many ways in the course of this project.
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