Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things directed the literary world’s attention to Kerala, and the language of its people. The novel was written in English, enticingly beautiful English, to be precise, but it could easily have been in Malayalam, so rooted is it in the society, culture and psyche of God’s Own Country.
So much so that Benyamin, one of the most-widely read Malayalam writers of his generation, called it a Malayalam novel written in English during an interesting discussion at the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) in Kozhikode last week. Not that writers from the State were unknown beyond its borders before Roy; on the contrary, they were recognised mainly through translations.
Benyamin brings up an anecdote from 2015 when he attended the Karachi Literature Festival. “The first thing people asked me when they realised I was a Malayali was if I had met Vaikom Muhammad Basheer,” he says. “I found out that Basheer is hugely popular in Pakistan through the translation of his works in Urdu.”
Like Basheer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, another colossus of Malayalam literature, too has admirers outside the language. In fact, some of his works, including his masterpiece Randamoozham, have had several translations in English.
But there have also been instances, as Benyamin points out, when some rather popular Malayalam books — Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s Yanthram, for instance — have had to wait for years for the English translation to find a publisher.
Things are changing, however, and publishing houses today are always on the lookout for the latest Malayalam translations. The popularity of the current generation of authors such as Benyamin and K.R. Meera is a testament to this.
‘We are known as Malayali writers and not Indian writers’
The quality of translation has also improved, according to author M. Mukundan. “I remember being disappointed by the French translation of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s Chemmeen,” he says. “The English equivalent of its French title was An Indian Love Story and it seemed more like a translation from Chemmeen’s film version than the book.”
Mukundan is glad that Malayali authors are getting their due. “Without translations, we are known as Malayali writers and not Indian writers,” he says. The 80-year-old won the 2021 JCB Prize, India’s biggest literature award, for his novel Delhi: A Soliloquy (translated by Fathima E.V. and Nandakumar K.). “I didn’t expect to get it,” he says, “because the prize had gone to Malayalam authors [S. Hareesh and Benyamin] in 2020 and 2018 as well.”
Ravi Deecee, publisher and chief facilitator of KLF, says that the year Mukundan won the award, another Malayali writer, V.J. James, was in the running too. “This year also, there is a Malayali, Sheela Tomy, among the nominees.”
Hareesh, whose debut novel Meesha won the JCB Prize in 2020, says he found the readers of the English translation of his book ( Moustache) were not prejudiced. The novel had created a controversy in Kerala and its publication — it was serialised in a leading Malayalam magazine — had to be stopped after protests from Hindu religious outfits. “ Meesha was read and discussed in a certain context in Malayalam, but that wasn’t the case with its translation,” he says. “Malayalam books need to be translated to more European languages.”
J. Devika, author and translator, shares that globalisation, for all its faults, has made it possible for Malayalam works to reach a wider audience, citing the example of Benyamin’s Aadujeevitham, the stunning debut novel that became a bestseller in Malayalam.
“The protagonist of the novel [a labourer in Saudi Arabia] could have been from any country — Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Pakistan,” she says. “The novel speaks to all these societies. I feel we have a lot of themes and experiences to share with the rest of the world.”
Malayalam cinema making waves too
For a language that is spoken by some 3% of India, Malayalam has done rather well — not just with its literature, but its cinema as well. From the 1970s onwards, Malayalam cinema has made its presence felt on the global stage through the films of masters such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan. After a lull, there is now a fresh energy in the film industry with OTT platforms taking Malayalam films far beyond the borders of Kerala.
Director Jeo Baby of The Great Indian Kitchen fame says the first interview he gave after the film’s release in 2021 was to a Tamil publication. “Because of the OTT boom, my film reached out to audiences I could not have imagined,” he says. “I had planned for the film to be a theatrical release, but the pandemic forced me to go online.” All the major OTT players rejected it and the film was released on Neestream, a Kerala-based streaming platform, to widespread acclaim.
Several other Malayalam films too, such as CU Soon, Drishyam 2, Joji, Nayattu and Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, have made it big on the small screen. Baby, however, is worried by the tendency of streaming services to focus more on the stars and less on the content.