Like many Malayalis, my introduction to world literature began with the weekly literary magazines in the mother tongue. M.Krishnan Nair’s Sahitya Varabhalam aka ‘Weekly predictions of literature’, a pun on the astrological weekly chart, introduced me to names like Umberto Eco, Fuentes, Toni Morrison and Marquez.
In an era when Internet was unknown and the foreign editions of literature in English/ translations cost high, here was an erudite professor, who purchased books and reviewed magazines ( Paris Review and TLS included) and in Malayalam, taught everyone from the fish seller to the auto driver to a school teacher and a college going girl, nuances of World literature through a weekly literary column. His pen was acerbic and acidic- often burning holes into the aspiring careers of budding writers; by comparing their novice like efforts to the effortless grace of an Eli Wiesel or of a brooding Virginia Woolf. “I lost my appetite after going through his short story…” Or something to that taste, would be his pithy take on some unfortunate amateur writer.
Once in the capital of my home state, I remember standing dumbstruck in admiration, as this tall and charismatic critic in pristine white, slowly made his way to his favourite book seller. My father, one of the greatest readers I have ever seen in my life, commented: “Yes, it is he. Look at his dedication in reading the latest books of the world. But he sets too high a standard for our writers, sometimes…”
Bengali literature, Gujarati literature, Hindi literature- all travelled to Kerala homes through translations in Malayalam. We had many brilliant translators who brought Rajagopalachary , Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and AshaPoornaDebi alive to us, and this tradition started almost a hundred years ago. The first books released in Malayalam, were translations by foreigners, of books in Bengal and English as early as 1850s. The first Malayalam novel that came out in 1887, written by Appu Nedungady, called Kundalata was about the daughter of a Kalinga King. The eponymous heroine of the next novel in Malayalam, Indulekha by Chandu Menon, was learned in both English and Sanskrit.
Anyway, these are asides. The vernacular magazine I spread out before me had an article on Marquez, as his ‘One hundred years of solitude’ reaches fifty years of enriching the world. There are unique photographs of Castro with Marquez, of Carlos Fuentes with Marquez, of Mario Vargas Llosa and Marquez with an interesting page dedicated to why Llosa hit Marquez! It is a translation of Paul Elie. It also shows the first cover of the Spanish original with the anecdotes of the total number of cigars smoked during the writing of the classic. 30,000 , if you may like to believe it.
( Magical realism is coloured yellow like butterflies and cigarettes…)
On a warm March afternoon, leaning against my sofa, I indulge myself in the peccadilloes of Latin American publishing industry. I read about Carmen Balcells, his Catalonian literary agent and a great woman known as ” La Mama Grande”… I am inspired by that story. As I smile at the photograph of the translator, Gregory Rabassa, the Professor and translator of Marquez’s Classic, I am drawn again to another great life. How many spirits come together to spread the word of genius! Apparently Marquez commented that Rabassa’s translation was greater than the Spanish original!!
I thank my parents who packed and sent the magazines in the North bound train along with red rice and papad and pickles. Love is translated as both food and books in my household. And I am the blessed one, undoubtedly. So much in this beautiful world- to learn, to appreciate and to be thankful about. First of all, my mother tongue.