Doing Justice to the Stories of Everyday Women

Justice Prabha Sridevan with the book 'Seeing in the Dark'. Credit: Aparna Karthikeyan

Justice Prabha Sridevan with the book ‘Seeing in the Dark’. Credit: Aparna Karthikeyan

As the fifth woman judge of Madras high court, Justice Prabha Sridevan (retd.) was well-known for several path-breaking judgements, including the one that recognised a homemaker’s work had economic value and another, supporting freedom of speech in the Da Vinci Code case. Later, as Chairman of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board, her rulings brought sweeping changes to the international pharmaceutical scene, and made drug pricing favourable to the economically disadvantaged.

Not many, however, know her as a translator. It’s a hat she picked up recently and one she enjoys wearing. And she took it up purely by chance. “I read a collection of short-stories by Tamil writer R. Chudamani, and told a friend about it. She replied that it was such a pity she did not read Tamil. That’s when I felt the need to translate the book.” Seeing in the Dark, her first translation, has been published by Oxford University Press and edited by Mini Krishnan. It will be launched in Chennai on September 13.

In this free-wheeling conversation, Prabha Sridevan talks about translation, what drew her to Chudamani (1931-2010) and the book’s relevance today. Excerpts from the interview:

How different is translating from writing?

Translation is far more demanding. I have written short stories in English and Tamil. But that was long before I became a judge. After that, it’s only been judgements and articles in Tamil and English newspapers. But when I write those, I can shut my computer and come away. When I’m translating, I stay with it. It is like tapas.

When I read Chudamani’s stories in Tamil, the writer’s words swamped me. Around the time I started the first story in the collection, I remembered reading that a translation is not a word more, not a word less. But when I mentioned this to my editor, Mini Krishnan, she said she’d look for both the voice of the translator and the original voice.

Translation itself is challenging because the tonal quality and cadence of the original language is one thing and, another altogether in the guest language. Besides, you’re not just translating across languages, but also across cultures. In English, moreover, there are no equivalents for the range and gradations of feelings, like in Tamil. There is only love. In one story, we came across a sentence: andha siripu oru kaaviyam (‘that smile is poetry’). It is the story of a woman, Devaki, who goes through multiple pregnancies. When her husband complains about carrying a heavy basket, her response is this smile. But to transliterate it would be unjust. Mini and I struggled and tortured ourselves. Finally we came up with: “And then Devaki turned to face him. Her smile… a saga of womanhood.”

Why did you choose this collection of stories, mostly about women and their daily struggles?

Chudamani’s stories talks about women in amazingly different ways. One is about a woman who is in a coma. As a child, her son prevented her from marrying again. He apologises to his mother who can no longer hear him and wonders why she listened to him. She also writes about a father and daughter. The father — who is blind — is blisteringly angry when he hears the daughter has a male friend. At one point, he realises she is doing what a conventional son would do.

Chudamani deliberately chose men; she knew when it hurt the woman; she goes under the skin and explores the darker child-parent relationship. Her sensibility and feminism were both gentle and instinctive. I don’t know how she achieved it. And she did all this even though she was restricted by an illness, and spent most of the time by the window, looking at a nagalinga maram (cannonball tree). In the coming and going of people in her house, her family, she saw the universe. 

The stories are set in the past. The original ‘Nagalinga Maram’ was published in 2010 but the stories were actually written between 1958 and 1998. Are they still relevant today?

In one story from 1996, a girl is raped in a village but the panchayat says a high-caste man will not touch a low-caste woman. This is happening even today! Likewise, to my mind, the most challenging story, published in 1972, was about a woman who marries thrice. The first ends when the husband dies young. The second marriage — and the relationship with her husband — is sensual, but she leaves him. The third time, she marries a much-older man, her father’s friend, who is a professor. She was a free-spirit.

I don’t think Chudamani has aged at all and neither has the literary nor the story value of her book. 

You are someone whose judgements have impacted gender justice positively. How do you think the woman of today will relate to these stories?

Chudamani’s women sometimes succumb. But quite a few do not. When they do assert themselves, they do it in her tone — softly. In one thought-provoking story, Brindha, a beautiful but poor girl, is ‘viewed’ by the prospective groom’s family. The boy has a deformed leg. His mother believes it is okay for the man to have a deformity. The girl offers no comment but talks about the Nagalinga maram (cannonball tree). She sees all the flowers as deformed legs. The feeling I got was that Brindha would not be a submissive daughter-in-law. Interestingly, she’s the only one in the story with a name, because she’s the object of a bargain.

Chudamani uses a different vehicle to talk about women’s equality. The entire book is about everyday women, and all are heroines in some way. Even though Chudamani’s world is mostly about the middle class, there are also stories about the life of a sex-worker and construction worker. They are not stories of a drawing-room family. Through these, Chudamani tells us that women can speak but also, realistically, about a cultural prison that prevents them from speaking their minds. 

If you had to draw a literary parallel, who would you compare Chudamani with?

Seeing in the Dark. Credit: Aparna Karthikeyan

Credit: Aparna Karthikeyan

Chudamani was very progressive. But she wrote with honesty. She did not paint women in perfection; she also wrote about their insecurity and selfishness.

If I had to compare her with someone, it would be Jane Austen. But Chudamani saw more. She saw poverty and picturised child hood, while Austen did neither. None of her characters are uni-dimensional. She deserved to have been praised and recognised more during her life. But she was at a disadvantage because she wrote (over 500 short stories) in mostly mainstream magazines. And that was probably not considered intellectual enough.

What do you plan on translating next?

I want to translate Justice Sotomayor’s biography (My Beloved World) from English to Tamil. She’s written it in a very accessible way, as if she’s talking to you. I’ve tried five chapters of that book. For my next Tamil to English translation, I’m hoping to pick a writer who is most unlike me.

Are you a fan of translated works?

I realised we read a lot of translations. Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk. We have not felt short-changed at all. For my work, personally, I think the best approval will be when somebody who has read the original finds the same emotions and gentle quality in my work as they did in Chudamani’s. 

How would you describe your experience of translating?

When I became a judge, it was with trepidation. But I enjoyed those 10 years. And then I became the Chairman of Intellectual Property Appellate Board. Those two years were heady and more exciting than the previous 10 years. I hope this phase is better than the last. In any case, I’m enjoying myself. Why worry about anything else?

Aparna Karthikeyan is a freelance journalist.