Indira Nityanandam

Dr. Indira Nityanandam, Principal (Retd), Smt. S.R.Mehta Arts College, Ahmedabad, was Director, Bharatiya Bhasha Sanskriti Sansthan, Gujarat Vidyapith. She was vising faculty at IIM, Ahemedabd and is presently with EDI (Gadhinagar) as visiting faculty. She has presented papers in national and international conferences. She is Associate Editor of GNOSIS, a literary journal and has published six books. Her recent publications include Varanasix, a collaborative novel with Anu Chopra and Altitudinis, a ten-author collaborative novel. Her areas of interest are translation studies, ELT, Indian writing in English and Dalit literature. Her translations include Tamil poetry into Gujarati with a grant from Sahitya Akademi, a collection of Tamil stories in Gujarati, and Narayan Desai’s Gandhi Katha, the last of which she considers as her most fulfilling work.
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GNOSIS: An International Journal of English Language and Literature, Jaipur, Rajasthan. January 2015

Indira Nityanandam : Rarely do I get an opportunity to meet a good multi-lingual writer in flesh and blood. And that happened when I met Lakshmi Kannan at a seminar in Ahmedabad. As a writer writing with equal ease in two languages, what would you consider to be the difference between the two?

Lakshmi Kannan :This could perhaps be one of the vexed questions faced by a writer who writes in two languages. ‘Bilingualism’ is a term that may sound good on paper, but functioning in two languages brings you to a bewildering fork that calls for the choice of one language over another at any given point in time.

Some themes lend themselves to English very naturally and easily. English has an immense semantic range, and it’s such an evolving language that you can see it grow, expand and alter the colour of certain terms with every passing day. English is also exposed to all the knowledge systems available, including serious journalism, so it ingests them and assimilates them rapidly, leaving the older sense of a word far behind. I enjoy writing in English.

Yet, Tamil for creative use in fiction gives me an emotional high. It’s rich in its variants and it’s a pleasure to just soak in Tamil for the time one is writing in it. It lets me pick up all the natural speech rhythms and speech patterns of a people, the salty street slang, the rural cheekiness in expressions, vibrant, alive and full of punch. It can be as saucy and irreverent as it could be meltingly tender, what I would call negizhvu and eeram in Tamil. The closest translation of the word could be a certain ‘moisture.’ Within Tamil, I can easily include another class of people – maids, cooks, domestic help, gardeners, fruit sellers, vegetable vendors, fishermen, temple priests…I can go on.

Indira Nityanandam : Is Writing a talent that comes as easily as leaves to trees, or is hard work required?

Lakshmi Kannan: I love this line from Keats about writing coming as naturally as leaves to trees. A writer feels blessed when this happens. Inspired writing comes at one go. What calls for ‘hard work’ is editing done by the writer herself, pruning, shortening, weeding the draft of repetitions and so on.

Indira Nityanandam : Who inspired you to write?

Lakshmi Kannan: Teachers in my school who would often ask me to write for the school magazine, or the large board on a wall, on which they would pin some writings. But I wrote only sporadically. My main interest was in sports, games and track-and-field athletics. Nevertheless, I was an avid reader, right from my primary school. I grew up with my grandparents in Bangalore. Their house was well stacked with books in English as well as in Tamil. My grandmother subscribed to the leading magazines in Tamil.

Later, I started writing in Tamil. I’m grateful for this phase in my writing which had the ‘right literary climate.’ Perhaps fortuitously, around the time I wrote, Tamil was going through a powerful movement of modernity that was paradoxically riding on the frail back of what is called ‘the little magazine’, as opposed to glossy, popular magazines that covered the movies, the lives of stars, politicians and for that reason, enjoyed the financial support of the state. ‘Little magazines’ had a distinct literary flavour. They shunned the patronage of the government and media barons. Many of them were guest edited by the then leading writers such as Asokamitran, T. Janakiraman, Komal Swaminathan and the Leftist critic ‘Gnani’ Palanichami. The distinguished literary historian and culture critic ‘Chitti’ Sunderarajan also wrote to these magazines. I got interested in reading their writings and I sent my stories to these magazines.

Indira Nityanandam : Would you say that choosing a genre to write in is an important decision for a writer?

Lakshmi Kannan : O yes, It’s extremely important. So many poems, plays, stories or novels that are effective, owe their impact to the choice of the right genre by the writers. I’ve often marvelled at the choices made by a great, versatile writer like Rabindranath Tagore. I think it was intuitive, the way he knew something would work best as a poem, or a play or a story.

Indira Nityanandam : Where do you get your themes from? What is the amount of autobiographical details that you include?

Lakshmi Kannan : It’s difficult to say where I get my themes from, because they often come upon me in unexpected ways. It could be a spark in a situation or in an individual, a sudden insight into life, an epiphany if you will – the source can be from anywhere. Or it could be an issue or a problem that haunts me constantly. I usually wait out these moments and don’t rush into writing. I need to know whether this is a passing mood or something that can be sustained enough to become a theme for my writing. I also wait till I can discern a kind of a shape or a form and then, like you asked me, choose the genre which would be most suitable for the theme.

I do not include autobiographical details in my writings. There could be some subjective elements in the way I relate to rivers, mountains, gardens, trees, or children, but aside from these, my interests are in the protagonists. They take me out of myself.

Indira Nityanandam : Do you write with a specific audience in mind?

Lakshmi Kannan : No. During the phase when I did a lot of my writing in Tamil, I was aware of the Tamil milieu when I wrote, although I didn’t have a specific segment such as women, men, or their educational or social background in mind. I was only committed to the theme I had taken up, and concentrated on the demands of the language that I had chosen to write in. When I switch over to English, I am aware of a larger readership and they could be from anywhere in India and abroad. This readership is exposed to a wide sample of writings in English from across the globe. So, a reader in English is very different from a regional reader.

Indira Nityanandam : How important are awards?

Lakshmi Kannan : In the `celebrity culture’ that has taken hold of the country in every sphere – writing, films, acting, TV sponsored shows on culinary contests and a whole range of activities – it has indeed become very important. Where writing is concerned, a prestigious award does generate interest and curiosity in both the book and the author and that is a good thing to happen, especially if the book doesn’t disappoint. Yet, awards for books are also dicey, as we often get to see. But it is a joy to see a prestigious award go to a good book.

Indira Nityanandam : Who is your favourite author? And why?

Lakshmi Kannan : There are several! There are so many that I can’t just mention one author. I like Amitav Ghosh. He writes in English with such a deep Indian sensibility that at times I almost get a feeling I’m reading a lucid translation of a Bengali novel. I like the way a central intelligence works centrifugally in some of his best novels such as The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace. He writes with genuine compassion and can show a heroic potential even in people from a humble background. Among others, I like the contemporary British writer of Pakistani origin Kamila Shamsie for her style and the way she engages with history. I respect the Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini for the way he faces up to the reality of his life with all its contrary pulls. He never lets himself forget his Afghan roots. Likewise, I admire the binary vision of the great Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy who passed away recently. He boldly addressed the schisms in his vision, even if they all but split him apart, in his fictional ideologies. I like the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the way she returns to her cultural roots, despite living in the US. She feels so accountable to her people that some of her pages are fired by a moral indignation! I like the all-time great, the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow for the lifting power of his language, the poetry that flows through his prose, and his irrepressible humour. I like T. Janakiraman whose novel I translated way back in the late 70’s. He wrote sensuously about music and the disturbing undercurrents of man-woman interface in a language that had a subtly powerful impact, because it was understated and never loud or in-the-face. Amongst the old classicists, I like the intriguing stories of Honore de Balzac, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the consummate poet William Blake. I like some non-fiction writers too, who think about spiritual choices in an agnostic world, like Pico Iyer, but I better stop here.

Indira Nityanandam : When you translate your own works, do you find yourself bringing in changes to suit the cultural nuances of the target language?

Lakshmi Kannan : I know that an author-translated work is always suspect! But I don’t make any changes from the original text, whether it is my own work or the work of other writers such as Parthasarathy or T. Janakiraman or “Mowni” whose works I have translated. My first loyalty is to the text as it is. I shall take up the issue of `changes’ a little later because it needs an elaboration vis-à-vis publishing policies. Then there are two broad camps of translation – one is the `literal’ school, the “purists” who believe in being “faithful” to the text even if it is at the cost of the target language. This kind of translation can come through as clumsy, awkward, or downright unidiomatic in the target language. The other camp tends to take a less inflexible view and the changes, if any, may have to do with the behaviour and movement of a target language, and not the content. For instance, on a syntactic level, the order in which you say something in Tamil may get reversed in English, but that doesn’t change the meaning in any way. This kind of change would be minimal if I were to translate a line in Tamil into Kannada. I do become very aware of the cultural nuances of the target language when I translate (and here I speak only for English) because each language has its own interesting idiosyncrasies that are embedded in the very genius of the language. A translation has to go down well with the readers or it puts them off.

Coming to the issue of `changes’, one has to be an author, a translated author, and a translator to experience the fact that changes are beyond her control, and that they are bound to happen with re-editions of the original text in Tamil, then re-editions of the translation at different points in time by different editors and publishers. This reality has to be factored in. For instance, even my text, the original Tamil story I published in a magazine way back in the late 80s was altered a bit when it was included in a book at a later stage. Subsequently, in a re-edition in the 90s, it again went through some minor changes and this goes on. Likewise, my translation of the story also goes through similar changes each time it reaches a new editor of a collection. Again, one has to be an author, and a translated author who has reappeared in re-editions to realize the inevitability of these changes. In addition, the new editor has to conform to the house style of the publishing company he/she works for. The translation has to now get past the editor. If the author or translator is too rigid about a point, or tends to hug a pet theory that is frankly obsolete, then the story (or the novel) will just get dropped from their publishing program. Simple! It is more sensible to admit that language changes slowly and subtly, with time.

Indira Nityanandam : Is it always better for a writer to translate her own works?

Lakshmi Kannan : Not really. If I had found a sensitive translator right at the start, someone who would work hard on the language, I wouldn’t have bothered to spend time translating my works. But for me, it turned out to be a kind of a destiny! It has a lot to do with the trajectory of what I wrote in English, what I translated before writing in Tamil, all of which mark some time-zones in my journey as a writer. What came first, and what came next defined my destiny as an author-translator. It calls for a few details. Before I translated any of my works, I had first published my translations of the works of major writers such as the late T. Janakiraman, Indira Parthasarathy, and the enigmatic “Mowni” from Chidambaram. At that point in time, I was publishing my writings in both English and in Tamil and it never occurred to me to translate any of my own works into English. When some English editors of magazines and anthologies asked me to give them stories in translation, I submitted my original in Tamil and asked them to get it translated. They were quick to point out that since I’ve published my translations of the works of major Tamil writers, and I keep writing in English, why should they commission any other translator? I little realized that what began as a request for one story would catch on in such a way that I would get badly stuck some years down the line!

Even so, I must admit that what redeems the painstaking exercise of translating and the “double-time” spent on a work is the fact that the editors and publishers are happy, and I’ve plenty of lay readers and scholars from the academic community who relate to my translated work. This triumvirate is certainly any day more important to me than that narrow critic who tends to take a line out of my book in Tamil, and scans the English line to see the ‘departures’ and ‘liberties’ taken. He is still less important if he has not proved his own mettle in publishing even one line of his translation.

Thankfully, I have other translators- in Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, French, German and Malayalam who have rendered my stories in these languages. I feel grateful.

Indira Nityanandam : Thank you, Lakshmi, for such a wonderful response. Hope you continue writing and translating for many more years. Thank you again.