Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Kural by Tiruvalluvar, translated by P.S. Sundaram, reviewed by Leela Soma

The first rhyming words one hears as a child, a mere play on words to infant ears, steep into one’s conscience and are never forgotten. The first couplet of the Kural by Tiruvalluvar, translated by P.S. Sundaram is ingrained in the DNA of most Tamil children:

“A begins the alphabet

And God, primordial, the world.”

The cadences, inflections and richness of the mother tongue become part of our heritage, of who we are. As a child I remember the joy of reciting this couplet and feeling proud to have mastered the tongue-twisting beauty of these words. Rereading this Penguin Classic ‘Tiruvalluvar The Kural ‘translated by Professor P.S Sundaram was a wonderful task, reliving those moments of childhood etched in my mind.

Scholars debate that the date of the ‘Kural’ could be anything from the second century BC to the Eighth century AD. As Professor Sundaram has explained in his excellent introduction, translations of the Kural have been in existence since 1700’s, first in Latin by the missionaries and then in English by various authors. So what is unique about this edition by Penguin India as part of their Penguin Classics Project? The author’s introduction clearly illustrates both his erudition in Tamil and English as well as his vast research on the classical texts. He has read extensively on the Kural, starting with the ‘terse and obscure’ work of the thirteenth century commentator Parimeelazhahar.

The Kural itself is unique. It is comprised of 1330 couplets written in a “metrical line of two feet, or a distich or couplet of short lines, the first of four and the second of three feet.” The work is also divided into the three themes of Virtue, Wealth and Love. Such clear and concise explanations by Professor Sundaram assist a layman like me in understanding the layers of this ancient text which has survived for centuries and continues to be read in Tamil, a “living language” unlike Sanskrit.

The book is set out in a simple format. Here is an example from page 15:

“Valluvar knew the value of words and didn’t waste any. He took delight in rhyme, repetition, pun and alliteration and exploited them to the full to drive home a point

“Cling to the One who clings to nothing
And so clinging cease to cling.”

is typical in its English of much of the brevity and wordplay of the Kural.”

The author has translated the couplets in language that has not diminished the beauty of its rhyme. The copious notes at the end (pages 157-168) would help all readers to understand the nuances of the text. He has often compared them to Western literature: for example Stanza 5 is compared to Milton’s Lycidas, stanza 702 to Hamlet, stanza 716 to The Pilgrim’s progress by Bunyan. He also makes references to the Manusamhita, the Bhagavad-Gita and Arthasastra.

I would highly recommend this Penguin Classic as a great ‘dip-in’ book for one to keep by one’s bedside. This is a book that one will never tire of, a book that one could revisit for the sheer universality of its messages. Its words, scribed on palm leaves, can be read and marveled as they resonate with life in the twenty first century. The Kural would be a valuable addition to everyone’s collection of well-loved books. To paraphrase the Kural Stanza 783:

“Good books are like good friends - A perpetual delight.”

Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa, translated by Chandra Rajan, reviewed by Vijay Krishna

Penguin Classic's "Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie" by Sivadasa translated from the Sanskrit and with an introduction by Chandra Rajan is an interesting and informing read. Penguin is to be commended for imaginatively adding value by the design of this book, starting from an excellent translator, to an exhaustive and learned introduction by said translator and an appendix containing 'bonus' stories.
Many of us (Indians) will have been exposed to these stories in one form or the other earlier. They are alternatively known to us as the tales of King Vikram and the vetaal (betaal). I read these stories (actually not these stories but other stories in the same format!) as part of the "New Tales of King Vikram and the Vampire" series of the Chandamama magazine, and many others of my generation will fondly remember this. Chandamama did a good job with those stories with questions and answers that honestly probed moral and ethical issues as well as encouraged reasoned thinking, a salutary experience probably for a young mind.
The construct, for those not in the know is as follows: as a consequence of of string of events, King Vikramaditya is set the task of bringing down a corpse hanging from a tree in a cemetery. The corpse is possessed by a genie which then tells King Vikram a story. At the end of the story a question pertinent to the story is asked by the genie. If the king answers the question correctly the corpse/genie flies back to the tree and the cycle starts again (if the king knows the answer but remains silent he will die -- but the reader never gets to know if this is an empty threat as this option is never exercised by the king in the story). "Now tell me O King.." is the genie's inevitable refrain at the end of each story. In this fashion the genie tells 24 stories, asks 24 questions and gets the right answer. The 25th time, something different happens and leads to the resolution of the story.
The structure then provides an opportunity for good storytelling, the potential of which is fully realized. The crown jewel in each story of course is the Q&A at the end. We are keen to challenge ourselves to answer the question too and see how we fare in comparison to the king.
To a modern reader the stories are amusingly long-winded and digressive. A conversation in the story will normally include a half-a-dozen poems and asides expounding on all manner of topics breathtakingly irrelevant, it would seem, to modern's mans mind, so boringly obsessed with sticking to the point and getting on with the story. In today's world, therefore, it takes a certain kind of mood to sit back, relax and appreciate the storyteller's efforts. But if one does, the rewards are there. There are thoughtprovoking discussions of human nature that resonote even today. This is also an authentic peep back into time to see how Indians of a bygone age lived. I found the actual stories inconsistent in quality but uniformly interesting. The Q&A at the end is also varied, sometimes the question is thoughtprovoking and the answer is insightful and satisfying, sometimes not so much.
The substantial introductory notes by Chandra Rajan are quite an impressive piece of scholarship. Chandra Rajan obviously cares a great deal (sometimes it seems a trifle more than justified) about her subject and more generally, ancient Indian literature. This is shown in her dedication of the book to Vyaasa, Vaamiki and Vishnu Sharma, "the three greatest storytellers of all times". She throws much light and useful context on the stories and the King Vikramaditya of history.
"Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie" is a set of stories within a 'framing' story. In fact some of the inside stories contain a further level of story within. This technique of stories within stories is seen very often in Indian literature (including the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panchatantra), resulting in massive story complexes. The translator also introduces us to the idea of recensions which are different versions of a story or story-complex that arise in the course of oral transmission. The bonus stories alluded to in my first paragraph above, are stories from a different recension of this book, by Jambalabhatta.
Poetry forms a central part of the enjoyment of this book, so I will excerpt a few here.
Central to the framing story is the attempt by the villain to gain 8 great Siddhas or powers:
To be minute as an atom, or enormous as a mountain,
light as air or heavy as rock; to be invisible at will,
to have all one's desires fulfilled, to subject others to one's will;
and t have lordship of the world.
King Vikramaditya's actions are defended through the following statement of ethics:
Pay a man back in his own coin;
do harm unto him who has done harm to you;
I see no harm in that;
adopt foul means towards an evil man.
Sivadasa makes the following claim for the book:
A simple and straightforward narrative
pleases some learned readers;
some, wiser, delight in the figurative -
irony, ambiguity, metaphors,
while others love a tale filled with flavors
of fine sentiments plentiful and pleasing.
So there's something here to please every palate.
As Rajan says, it is a not unjustified claim.
The book is quite frank about sexuality:
Ha! For the enjoyment of a woman!
What can give greater pleasure in this world!
No, not even the Elixir of Life!
All senses, altogether, all at once,
find in it their perfect fulfilment!
At least one tale is disconcerting in its emphatic position that women are inferior to men:
Woman, and she alone deserves censure
here in this world of ours; not men, never,
for men are directed to, and instructed
in matters of good and evil.
Here is Sivadasa on secrecy:
Even if it be a trifling matter,
if to rulers of the earth it relates,
it should not be uttered, said Brhaspati,
in the open assembly.
Magic spells, medicines, matters of sex,
good works, cracks and flaws in one's house and home;
forbidden foods, slander, vital secrets:
a shrewd man does not broadcast these to the world.
Heard by six years, a secret breaks;
heard by four ears, it stays secure;
and not even the Creator himself
can get to the bottom of a secret
that is heard by two ears alone.
Climbing right up to the top of a hill,
going in secret to an open terrace;
in deep woods or in some spot desolate:
in such places is a secret disclosed.
An interesting aside from the translator is regarding her choice of the word 'genie' to translate 'vetaala'. The author gives a nice description of the word 'vetaala' and explains why she rejected various English words for its translation (including 'vampire' which was often used in the past) in favour of 'genie'.
A lot more could be written about the book, but let me stop here in the hope that I have accurately described the book and given some people reason to make a note to read it. This is a book that will not appeal to all, I had mixed feelings about it. But it justifies its selection as a Penguin Classic.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Winter Night and other stories by Premchand, reviewed by Tracy Jose

Only a small number of writers can write about the underprivileged the way Premchand can. His short stories, A Winter Night and other stories, narrate the stories about the aged, the unnoticed and the poor in a way that communicates their sorrows and poverty without them seeming like objects of pity. Like in Kaki’s story, that of an old lady, who is considered as a misfit, it ends with the realization of a mistake. Although the times of Premchand is something that the young reader of today’s generation would not be able to understand, those situations are prevalent even at this period in India. This book is certainly a must-read and a must-have.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Legends of Khasak by O V Vijayan, reviewed by Dharmajsoni

First, The Legends of Khasak by O V Vijayan is a classic for sure. Which necessarily means that you don't read it in a jiffy, understanding everything at a go. You proceed slowly through the narrative, absorbing the scenario, and get into the mood.

And, each chapter is a story in its own right; even if you lose the book (unfortunately!) after having read it half way through, you won't feel so bad as you would if you read a general, plotty novel. You gain something with each page of reading. This novel is of that type.

It is set in a remote fictitious village, Khasak, in Kerala, some decades into the past. The author shows us various facades of the life Khasak's inhabitants. There are two communities, Hindus & Muslims. Some myths are prevalent around the founders of Khasak, which are very powerfully ruling the people's mind. Not many comforts of life are present, but the ever present alcohol is surely there, as toddy, a local drink from palm trees. The Muslims have their own legends around the settlement founder Sheikh and the Hindus have their own about their Godesses. But mixing of the two is not uncommon. Often, religious festivals are celebrated with great fervour by all, even though sometimes communal colours are seen in the village.

Ravi, the protagonist is himself not sure why he has landed in such a place as a school founder & teacher, even as he could have got better jobs at better places in the world. But he likes his job, does it well and tries his best to get the village children educated.

The novel has its share of weird characters, who are nevertheless real, and punctuate the general attitudes towards life. Reading through, you get a glimpse of the cosmic law of Karma, essentially the unending cycle of birth and death for most living entities, most & not all, because some do rise above it.

A very important point is that the novel, originally written in Malayalam, has been translated into English by the author himself, thus there are no doubts as to whether the original sense is being conveyed.

Also, the novel sheds light on the social conditions, especially of women, who get the stick for almost anything gone wrong. Maybe not much has changed from when the novel was written, and emancipation is largely a city issue, even after the various movements which were undertaken to this effect. Ravi is not the usual hero, he has his shortcomings, which make him look real and lend support to the story.

It was a new experience, especially for me who has never been to Kerala, and has made me aware of some other people's outlook on life. I think it was a good read.

Kalidasa: The Loom of Time by Chandra Rajan, reviewed by Revathi Sampath Kumaran

For more than a month I have been caught in a fascinating web woven by Chandra Rajan through ‘The Loom of Time.’ I have read, in the original, two of the three Kalidasan works presented in this book, albeit with the help of translations. So, I can say, with some assurance, though I’m far from being a scholar myself, that Chandra Rajan has captured the spirit of the original works, which so often is lost in translation, particularly of Sanskrit works.

The author’s erudition in Sanskrit and English, as well as her trained ear for music have undoubtedly come together to create this masterpiece, which could be called a classic in itself. Her scholarship in all three areas also makes for highly nuanced comments such as the one pertaining to raga Saranga in the Introduction [p. 81].
Shrungara rasa binds the three works together, though it is an assorted collection: two poems and a play. However, while Rtusamharam is a pure celebration of love and passion, there is an underlying pathos in Meghadootam and Abijnanasakuntalam. I don’t know if it was the publisher or the author who was responsible for bringing these three works together, but as a reader, I think the choice is inspired and so is the order in which they appear in the book.

Much as I hesitate to expose my ignorance by saying anything on the flip side, I guess it would be an incomplete critique if I do not put down the few points that occurred to me, which could be considered as suggestions for future editions of the book.

Some of the original Sanskrit verses are so beautiful that an audience that knows the language, which would, I think, be a natural market, would enjoy reading the original, at least in transliteration. A couple of such verses have been thoughtfully included, but one omission that could be made good is the sloka pertaining to Kalidasa’s prowess, in the Introduction [p. 21]. The word ‘anamika,’ without the original verse, makes little sense and even the ‘note’ on p. 325 does little to make the explanation complete. Similarly the sloka in Acknowledgements [p. 10] and the Rtusamhara verse referred to on p. 19.
I also feel that the opening page of the book, which introduces the author and the translator could do with sub-titles to indicate that they are, respectively, about the author of the classiscs/ Kalidasa and about the author of The Loom of Time/ the translator, Chandra Rajan.

The book also refers to Marica and his consort Aditi [in the Introduction, p. 83], a character in Abijnanasakuntalam. Appendix II [p. 317] refers to Aditi as one of the wives of Kasyapa. As far as I know, Kasyapa gets the name Marica by virtue of his being the son of sage Marici. To the uninitiated, however, it may appear as if Aditi is wedded to two sages – Marica and Kasyapa [whereas both are the names of the same person.] This may need to be clarified.

However, as the author herself says in the introductory chapters, Kalidasa can be read with pleasure even without any of the explanatory notes. Though, of course, the scholarly explanation and the comprehensive glossary add immeasurable value to the book.