There Is More Migration Now Than at Any Other Time in History: Perumal Murugan

The author speaks to The Wire about 'Estuary', his latest novel to be translated into English.

Noted author and poet Perumal Murugan’s much anticipated book Estuary (first published as Kazhimugam in Tamil in 2018), translated by Nandini Krishnan, and published by Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications, hit the bookshelves today (July 20). In an exclusive conversation with Ipshita Mitra for The Wire, Murugan and Krishnan discuss the ‘literary death and rebirth’ of a writer, the notion of ‘unity in diversity’ through an exchange between Indian languages, what a father-son relationship entails in a gadget-obsessed middle-class society, the urgent need to recognise and address why translators continue to be paid poorly, and the rising culture of ‘Instapoetry’, among other things.

Edited excerpts follow.

You were writing Poonachi (The Story of a Black Goat) during a time of literary exile, a self-imposed quarantined existence. Estuary is releasing amid a global pandemic and phased nationwide lockdown. As a writer, how has your journey been between these two quarantined segments?

Perumal Murugan (PM): My literary isolation was my personal concern. Today, the entire society—why, the entire world—is under lockdown, its people isolated. This causes me unbearable misery. At first, I felt a small sense of glee, some epicaricacy in thinking, ‘Well, let the world go through what I did.’ As if nature were taking revenge upon the entire world on my behalf. Then, I thought how silly this was and cleansed myself of the thought. I think, perhaps this ability to cleanse myself of ill-will is the major difference between these two periods of quarantine.

Perumal Murugan
Translated by Nandini Krishnan
Eka, July 2020

While there has been discussion on making regional literature global, in one of your earlier interviews, you had raised a pertinent point about inter-regional books that are not accessible within sister languages, “Malayalam (books) are largely getting translated in Tamil and everyone comes to read about it. However, those (books) written in Tamil rarely find a place and the Malayalam readers do not know what is happening in Tamil.” How important is it to address this divide?

PM: It is not just about Tamil and Malayalam. There has to be give-and-take between all Indian languages. I have no idea of the movements in Punjabi literature. North Indians don’t know as much about Tamil literature as Malayalis do. Unless there is an exchange between Indian languages, the notion of ‘unity in diversity’ will make no sense – we can only be a united federation of states when the literature of our languages speak to each other.

The core of Estuary (Kazhimugam) lies in the relationship between Kumarasurar and his son Meghas. Tell us about your growing up years and your relationship with your father. Does that seep into this book? 

PM: My father came from a family with an agricultural background. Our relationship was a typical one of its time between a landholder and his heir, one with its compatibilities and its differences. My father passed away when I was 20. The father-son relationship in this novel is, perhaps, more representative of my relationship with my son – or in a general sense, of the average middle-class father and son in today’s world. Many of my friends could identify with Kumarasurar. So, you might say, this novel deals with a contemporary father-son relationship.

Your debut novel, Eru Veyyil (1991) released in the English translation this month (Rising Heat). How have you evolved as a writer over the three decades and what makes it a relevant read today?

PM: I’m not able to articulate how I’ve evolved over 30 years. I still have the same mindset and ideas as the youngster who wrote Eru Veyyil. I believe my perspectives on life have acquired a measure of deliberation, my language a measure of diligence. But I feel sad that the experienced Murugan of today doesn’t have the speed, force and fieriness of that inexperienced youngster.

Eru Veyyil (Rising Heat) is a novel, which deals with migration and urbanisation. I believe these problems will be permanently tied to human society. Even during the coronavirus lockdown, we saw migrant labourers walking long distances on highways, with their belongings bundled up. You might see some shades of their sorrow and hardship in Eru Veyyil. There is more migration now than at any other time in history. For as long as people migrate in search of a living, I feel this novel will be relevant.

Estuary also comments on the education scene in India, where there is cut-throat competition, unreasonable cut-offs, draconian hostel rules and suicides. Your description of the institution of education as a ‘curated cemetery’ is haunting. What according to you are the current and new challenges in this sector?

PM: We’re turning into a society that prioritises very few branches of study, such as medicine and engineering. The notion that studying the arts and sciences is to be looked down upon is spreading. Its effect is seen in school education, which has been badly affected by the drive to focus on particular courses. The challenges we must counter have to do with society casting art and science education aside. A society that cannot respect these rich fields, which comprise thousands of branches, will lose its values. It will fail to create new values. I believe the most crucial challenge education faces (today) is figuring out how we will bring about a system that gives equal importance to every field of study.

A poet’s predicament comes through Kumarasurar’s story. How do you assess the condition of poets, do they disappear without any trace?

PM: There are poetic moments in everyone’s life and we all go through a phase where we find poetry in everything. But very few people are able to sustain this. Most people lose that frame of mind and become unremarkable. This is a great pity. This is the point at which we must analyse our lives. If only everyone were able to sustain the poetic moments in their lives and hold on to that feeling…I wonder how human life would change if this were the case.

Nandini Krishnan (NK): One of my favourite poets, Jeet Thayil, once remarked that poetry is the highest form of literature. In his case and that of Vikram Seth, I feel it is their poetic sensibilities that make their prose so intoxicating. This is a country that has produced poets like Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar and Vijay Nambisan. How can we say poets disappear without a trace? Their traces are felt for centuries, even millennia. Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, a collection of poetry, which has for its sources several poetic renditions of the Mahabharata in various languages, won the Tata Lit Live award for fiction in 2015, beating Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. 

Perumal Murugan himself made his comeback with a collection of poetry, Oru Kozhaiyin Paadalgal (Songs of a Coward). Protest poetry has fuelled movements and rebellions across the world. The Tamil writer Salma became a force with her poetry, as did Sukirtharani and Kutti Revathi. Most women who have irked the establishment are poets.

I still remember the classical Tamil poetry I read in school. My heart beats faster when I recall lines from Kalingathupparani, an almost subversive twelfth-century poem by Jayamkondar, the court poet of Kulothunga Chozhan. You can see the ghosts on the battlefield, hear them stirring blood and stewing the limbs and bones of dead soldiers, with elephant skulls for cauldrons. It is Thyagaraja’s and Kshetrayya’s compositions that have sustained my love for Bharatanatyam for over a quarter of a century, studying the Natyashastra which made me enrol for a Sanskrit course, ghazals and Sufi poetry, which made me learn Urdu, Pablo Neruda’s Un Perro Ha Muerto, which spurred me to learn Spanish, (Rabindranath) Tagore’s Gitanjali, which made me gravitate towards Rabindra Sangeet.

What could kill poetry, though, is its newfound popularity. People don’t have to work as hard on their craft, or read so much that they feel paralysed by the virtuosity of great poets and overcome that paralysis before they find the confidence to send their work to editors, at a time when newspapers carry poetry columns and a fad like ‘Instapoetry’ is given platforms even at literature festivals. I do worry that poetry will sell out to populism, and lose its exalted position simply because we’ve blurred the line between pretenders and poets.

Nandini Krishnan. Photo: Rebecca Dean

Nandini, please tell us how has the translation process been? Walk us through the interactions you’ve had with the author during the translation: what was the routine like? 

NK: I must tell you first that my acquaintance with prof Murugan predates his literary death and rebirth. My dear friend Aniruddhan Vasudevan had just translated Mathorubagan (One Part Woman), and I was commissioned a profile of the writer by Open magazine. I conducted an interview over several sittings in January 2013 and had naturally read all his earlier novels before meeting him. In a way, I feel I’ve seen him evolve from the youngster who wrote Eru Veyyil. I was delighted to see that the Madras high court judgment which put an end to the controversy over One Part Woman had quoted chunks from the profile I had written. So, prof Murugan and I had a double-bond even before Estuary brought us together—Ani and the judgment. 

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When his Tamil publisher Kannan Sundaram asked me if I would translate this work, prof Murugan and I brainstormed on everything from the very beginning, including our choice of the sections I would translate to pitch to prospective English publishers.

Translating him is as much a challenge as a delight. He is a Tamil scholar, a craftsman of language and narrative. And yet the dialogues are often in dialect, with local slang thrown in. I consulted him with doubts and dilemmas I had about the translation and will cherish those conversations because I had a glimpse of Perumal Murugan the professor. He would transport me to the interior villages of Tamil Nadu with evocative description, and could never resist speaking about the etymology of words and idioms. I believe these conversations gave me the tools to capture the lyricism and imagery that are as integral to his writing as his skill as a storyteller. I would spend hours poring over each translated line, changing the cadence and rhythm in an effort to recreate the original.

Prof Murugan is also a writer whose work is his politics – every literary device is used for a reason. In the foreword, for instance, he says, he has intentionally committed all the sins one must avoid in creative writing, including repetition and elaborate description. I had to be careful to repeat the words he did and find different words for the same object or emotion when he did.

Yes, exactly, some of the phrases like thom-thom of asura feet have been retained. How easy or difficult is it for a translator to get these nuances right, or closer to the original?

NK: The importance of sound and resonance was brought home to me at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, when Kannan Sundaram and I were watching the Eezham Tamil poet Cheran Rudramoorthy perform his work about Jaffna [in Sri Lanka]. When he recited in Tamil, I could hear the sound of gunfire in his syllables, the racing heartbeats of the people of Jaffna in the jagged alteration of vowels and consonants, the silence of terror in his pauses, and the rage in his voice. I turned to Kannan and showed him my arm, which was covered in gooseflesh, and Kannan smiled. A translator’s duty is not simply authenticity to the semantic meaning of a text, but also its sense and its beats. One must retain or relay what is called rithi in Sanskrit—the decorative aspects of the author’s vocabulary such as figures of speech, similes, alliteration, and proverbs. The translator must decide at several points whether to go with the literal, or take ownership of the book and translate the tone and flavour of its language. My craft as a writer has greatly benefited from working so closely with this aspect. It is something I will carry into my own writing.

I feel a translator should be proficient in both languages—the translator’s vocabulary in the target language must be as rich as the author’s in the source language, and the translator must be well-versed enough in the source language to be affected by these nuances. It is an investment of time and energy and emotion.

Sadly, translators are often paid poorly, across the world. I could not have done justice to this text without two crucial factors. First, the publishers cared enough for the author and the text, and trusted me enough, to recognise this investment. I know it’s considered bad form to use the ‘M-word’, but in light of the recent hashtag, #publishingpaidme, I think I should say I was paid well and that it did matter. Second, and this is more important because this is what justifies the first—my Tamil teachers from school – Usha Subramanian and Chitra Raghavan – gave me such firm footing in the language that I can weave its beauty into English. I asked prof. Murugan’s permission to include a dedication to them in the book.

Perumal Murugan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Sreejithkoiloth CC BY-SA 4.0

This book has beautiful lines and the sentiment that comes across through the story is that of confluence, merging of realities, truths. The phrase that particularly stands out is this – There was a subtle difference between the attachment kindled by proximity and the affection by distance. To welcome everything, to adapt. Please tell us about the story behind the title.

PM: I’m very happy to hear that the lines in the novel appealed to you. The title Estuary can be applied to various aspects of the novel. It really depends on the reader’s interpretation. An estuary is a place of conflict, where the contradictory flavours of salt and sweet mingle with each other. Our relationships are like that too.

NK: The answer is partly in your question, and I think I’d like to leave it for the reader to understand the literal and metaphorical significance of the title when the time is right in the novel. As an author myself, I know how much goes into choosing a title, and I was very keen to retain the original with all its connotations. Thankfully, there is an exact equivalent in English, with the same word count (one) and syllabic count (four). There is a certain quietude to the word ‘estuary’, and it is the quietness of the novel itself, which makes its moments of disquiet so searing.

Also Read: Perumal Murugan: The Before and the After

Are you working on a new book?

PM: I’m working on short stories now. I do have several ideas for novels. I’m not sure which of those will come to the fore first. I’m not yet in the frame of mind to write a novel. That needs to come about.

NK: Yes, I’m working on several actually. I’m done with my research and am writing a work of non-fiction about India’s missing children, another about my eighteen dogs and cats, and also two novels. And those stories prof. Murugan mentioned? I’m translating those!

What are your (quarantine) reads that you’d like to recommend?

PM: I’ve been trying to go deep into the Thirukkural, which I consider the pinnacle of Tamil classical literature, and learn it thoroughly. This work will not allow one to read anything else alongside it. This is one of the great qualities of classical literature, and I’m reading this wonderful work which has that quality.

NK: I tend not to recommend books because reading is so subjective. My life under lockdown hasn’t been drastically different, and I can’t eat or sleep without a book in hand, so I’m not sure whether I read these during quarantine, but I can tell you what I’ve been reading in the last few months—Jeet Thayil’s Low, which made me re-read (for maybe the 15th time) his haunting These Errors are Correct; a collection of short stories by Banaphool; Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, a breathtakingly beautiful book on life-and-cricket; Susan Hawthorne’s Limen, which is strangely heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time; Jayakanthan’s novels in Tamil; and Michel Houellebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire in the original, with an English translation as my crutch—or, more realistically, my stretcher. I also read or re-read one of J.M. Coetzee’s, V.S. Naipaul’s and Jim Crace’s works every year.

Estuary was released on July 20.

Ipshita Mitra is editor, TERI Press. She tweets @Ipshita77.