About the Book
This collection contains fifteen of the finest stories by Lakshmi Kannan. These elegant pieces also carry some of the aroma of their Tamil originals. Gentle and understated, the stories are often about relationships, loneliness, and the nature of reality, about women irked by their bonds, and about lonely, confused men set among the poor, and the rich.
In ‘Genesis’, two scholars on a US campus are kindred souls but the Indian woman is held back by generations of denial. Ancient temples with their hallowed ambience can bestow some life-affirming experiences, as in ‘Cryptic Chords’ and ‘Rhythms’. ‘Kasturi, the Musk Deer’, set in Delhi, depicts the Tamil reality of the fifties as sixteen- year-old Shankari is subjected to strict control by her orthodox family, her parents rejecting her idea of buying kasturi because its fragrance might act as an aphrodisiac.
‘Mangal’s Requiem’ is about the last hours in the life of a dacoit who writes poems perhaps to seek release from his anguish, revealing what the world and his mother and wife cannot grasp; his young wife experiences relief when her abusive husband hangs. ‘India Gate’ showcases the regressive, unchanging elements in the author’s community, even educated, professional women being subjected to the patriarchy of their marital homes; the female protagonist bravely decides to go it alone. ‘Sable Shadows’, based on true incidents, focuses on a form of apartheid marring even international literary events while narrating a tale of friendship and understanding between a Nigerian man and an Indian woman. This collection will appeal to a wide audience.
About the Author
Lakshmi Kannan is a poet, novelist and short story writer. She is also her own translator. A bilingual author, she writes both in English and in Tamil. She has published twenty books that include four collections of poems in English, a novel and several collections of short fiction in Tamil, English and Hindi translation. She has received Resident Fellowships from the International Writing Program at Iowa (USA); Charles Wallace Trust with the University of Canterbury at Kent (UK); the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla: and Sahitya Akademi, Delhi. She lives in Delhi.
Lakshmi Kannan’s Genesis is very different from her other short story collections as it is a selection of those stories which have stood the test of reception and have also stayed in the mind of the writer. Naturally, the world it opens up is amazingly different as the reader travels with every story or a cluster of stories into a world of creativity, each different from the other: a world of relationships, of the confines of tradition or of loneliness and unfulfilled dreams and hopes, and at times of unusual degrees of courage. In terms of space and time too, they travel abroad, into different parts of the country and different crevices of the heart. But perhaps this may not have been enough to make this selection different: it is the inner growth and authentic involvement that each story displays and, in a way, they also mark the writer’s inward struggles, conflicts and maturity. One wonders: could one write a biography of the writer on this count?
Time, as the author points out in her ‘Note’, has revealed that a story grows out of its original context. When we read something, especially one earlier read or written, it jumps up to meet us halfway. One reason is that we all-the reader, the writer and the text-have grown in the meantime. The first two have added on to experience, understanding and emotional and perhaps linguistic sensitivity, and the third has begun to inhabit varied contexts. In innumerable ways an enlargement has been absorbed. The text has woven together a cluster of happenings and responses, spilled out of its frame and the reader has added maturity and philosophical depth to her understanding. Is this when the element of universality begins to invest it? Universality is a term we often use, implying applicability across cultures and across time and, apparently, it comes into being when the meaning rises out of the page and its original context. Some of the stories are familiar ones for me as a reader and hence when I read them I shared Kannan’s experience of going back to an earlier story, a going back which transforms even a writer to a reader. ‘India Gate’ is one such. At the time when I first read it several years ago, it did not strike me as an unusual story, but now it opened up in a three-dimensional way-the Tamil traditional household, the compulsion of marriage and the clash of these with the individual desire to grow, to evoke response and seek adventure. It brings out the side-effects of urban living, no matter which community or caste the person belongs to. It also throws light on gender differences, leading to women being less privileged, a reality applicable to a fairly large majority in our country. The opportunities which have opened up for women have liberated them from old frames. They have grown intellectually and gone ahead. But men, in the main, have found it more difficult to get out of the burden of a patriarchal heritage. In the process, the openness of spaces is contrasted with the narrow rear door in the family house, a household where the clock time is controlled by male needs who, in the process, have become their own prisoners. Education, ideas, modernity-none of these things have even brushed against their self-made confines. The myth of the great Indian family, and the hollowness of a marriage based on incompatibilities, comes through. The atmospheric pressures can be felt. How can one remain sane in these conditions? Secrecy, growing apart, an argument-and the marriage collapses.
In contrast to the close confines of the self, of the denial of individual choices in ‘India Gate’, is the cluster of three or four stories written in the first person, stories written about the creative process located in an intercultural and inter-religious space, where, despite prejudices, people behave in a more open way. Amongst the male characters is Bill, a colleague friendly towards Padma, the female protagonist. Bill, whose full name is William Haxton, is proud of the American Indian heritage and the defiances which abound in it; then in ‘Sable Shadows’ there are the African men who are different: Cliff Lubwa P’Chang from Uganda, Wizas Phiri from Zambia and Vincent Ike from Nigeria. Vincent reveals a rare sensitivity. ‘Sable Shadows’ is written in the first person and the writer breaks through the fictional wall to use her own name and in part either it is or it is based on her personal diary of her Iowa trip. The voice is of ‘Lakshmi’, the experiences her own. When she falls ill, Vincent takes care of her. The possibility of a relationship of intellectual friendship and understanding, a shared space, comes into being across gender and outside a sexual relationship placing itself in a humanist sphere.
The story ‘Genesis’ which bestows its title to the collection, is more focused on the process of writing and addresses the question, ‘What exactly is a story? There are stories after stories with all the colours of the real. Colours that elude us in life but condense with stark reality in a story, or in a photograph.’ In a short exploration she captures all the nuances, the constructs of the creative process and the sprawling elusive nature of life which eludes one’s grasp, is too close, one-dimensional and has no frames. As if by an inspirational insight the writer and the reader are allowed into a meaning of the skeletal ‘real’ hidden beneath the surface of the story. I would like to ask Lakshmi whether she experiences a similar feeling when she sits down to write. I am convinced that writers begin with an experience, an image or an idea, which inhabits the silent processes of the thinking mind and it is only in the process of writing, through the choice of words, that the idea comes to life. Even the sequence falls between the ‘already thought’ and spontaneity, for by now some hidden power takes over from the author, compelling it to follow its own internal logic.
In fact, unknowingly, a good writer teaches us how to read a story. In her ‘Author’s Note’ Lakshmi Kannan writes about the readers’ response to some of her stories. Response, if disapproving, is the overflow of the reader’s own viewpoint, ideology and location into the story, and if echoing a chord of understanding it is the combination of good reading, sensitivity and a bit of experience. For otherwise, how does a male reader understand a woman-centred story and how does a woman writer get into the mind and experience of a man? Gender, race and culture are transcendable realities; one needn’t grow out of them, but the human mind is quite capable of forgetting these fixities and reaching across to other minds and frames of experience.
One of the stories I definitely want to make a special mention of is ‘Mangal’s Requiem’, which is about the last few hours in the life of a man sentenced to death. Waiting sleepless for the dawn and his own death, he is inspired to leave something behind. Life has slipped away, a child is on the way, but what else is there to be remembered by? There is a parallel wait by the wife knowing with full certainty that he’ll die. His companions in his misdeeds talk about their memories of the past joys and bring to Mangal’s mind the shared collectivity. Mistakenly, or perhaps not so mistakenly, they feel he is ‘like a rock’, going to his death without any regrets. But then he writes two poems to leave behind as his legacy, poems through which he communicates his innermost thoughts, his regrets, and his unlived life. Writing the two poems is a way of seeking release from his own inner anguish: one of these is a farewell to his wife, the other is addressed to God whom he has imagined differently. The two poems reveal all that the world and his mother and wife have never understood or responded to. ‘Mangal’s Requiem’ leaves the reader lost in thought and carries within it the uncertainty of meaning which through its complexity and multiplicity allows writing to transcend the immediate.
It is here, in ‘Mangal’s Requiem’, that Lakshmi Kannan’s strength as a translator is also put to the test. True, that when the writer herself translates her work, intention more than fidelity to the original comes to the forefront. The writer as translator is a double creator and perhaps, at times, also an independent one. The translated text is increasingly judged by its ability to be simultaneously at home in two cultural and linguistic worlds. The need to carry the culture of origin is imperative for it defines the meaning both of the creative act in the first instance and of narration in the act of translation. This second narration is under an obligation to carry the original across into acceptability of a full reception in the new language for a non-cultural reader. When we read a story, it should not remind us that it is a translation. And if this has to be achieved, it necessarily involves a hermeneutic process-of knowing, of absorbing and carrying it across to a transferred reality with its meaning, its nuances and rhythm intact. Kannan is not only a translator of some of her own work, she is also a bilingual writer, writing frequently in English directly. Bilingualism, in Lakshmi’s own words, ‘brings you up to a bewildering fork that calls for a choice of one language over another’. The stories in the present volume are, all of them, without exception, translated from Tamil. In a private communication she accounts for the use of Tamil as ‘an emotional choice’ and describes this dominantly Tamil phase of writing as a period ‘when I discovered the creative potential of Tamil as a language, its seductive charms, its infinite creative possibilities and that certain "moisture" it bestows on a work. I luxuriated in it, the more so because I was hungry and thirsty, for I could not receive a formal education in Tamil. The language took me closer to a people who spoke, wrote, and fought in Tamil, who loved and swore in Tamil and occasionally lapsed into English. They were people who came across as "real", who "belonged" and just loved their speech, and the salty tang of their slangy street Tamil.’ Language has a character of its own, closely woven into cultural descriptions. It also has ‘sound’ that brings out the music of the words, a sound that adds to the meaning. Once I heard joseph Brodsky read a poem in English and then follow it up by reading its original in Russian. The second reading brought out the lyricism, the spontaneity and the meaning much more vividly. It had a strong aural quality. And this when I do not know a word of Russian! Does prose fare better? Perhaps it has an edge over poetry. I would like to share with the reader the memory of another occasion. Lakshmi Kannan gave a reading of her short story ‘Muniyakka’ with its occasionally Tamil syntax. It came across beautifully and I still recall that reading of hers. Thus translations, even though secondary in nature, can be effective.
Kannan, in her switch from one language to another, also foregrounds another truth: the manner in which subject and context determine the choice: urban lives, lived in non-Tamil environments, myths, eternal truths can safely be transferred to another language without much loss, but rural lives, themselves determined by social rules and orthodox environment, are more difficult to transfer to an alien environment because they carry within them many nuances and references with which the new reader may not be familiar. The choice is often difficult: does one skip or explain or translate, or does one carry the original, softening its unfamiliarity just a wee bit to carry both the flavour of the original and the meaning of the original? Several of the stories in this volume bear witness to this. ‘Parijata’, ‘Kasturi, the Musk Deer’ and ‘An Evening with You’ work equally well across different environments, because the emotions and feelings they express carry only marginal cultural differences. As _ compared to this, one may often find a diasporic writer indulging in a greater dilution and explanation than the native writer, primarily because in the very first instance the readership in the mind of the writer is non-cultural. I would also add that the atmospheric shifts are not captured when cultures are flattened out to soften the difficulties for a non-culture reader. It is here that Kannan proves her authenticity as a writer for at no point does she compromise there lationship of writing to the felt situation in the act of translation in order to prioritise the non-culture reader.
The stories inhabit different worlds-of the poor, of the rich, of women irked by their bonds, and men lonely and lost, aimless in their lives, characters who remain stagnant and refuse to grow into adulthood, and women who destroy their children. The last is especially true of a story like ‘India Gate’. I have already talked about it and commented on the changed nature of my understanding on a second reading after a lapse of time. I suddenly realised how rich it is in its meaning. It touches upon the claustrophobia in a joint family, the taming of the men, the need for freedom for women, the courage and determination they need to claim it. It also comments on the hollowness of institutions that live by a prescribed code and fail to evolve. One thing which is remarkable is the woman’s courage to go it alone, to take her own decisions. It indeed is a battle won, a new beginning. Contrasted with this is the cluster of stories involving mother-daughter relationships, especially when a young girl is slowly discovering her sexuality as in ‘Musk Deer’, and symbolically in ‘Parijata’; here the narration and the characters are different-gentle, silent, working through indirection, communicating through nuances.
‘Phantoms of Truth’, ‘Islanders’ and ‘Cryptic Chords’ are about relationships, loneliness and the nature of reality. ‘Phantoms of Truth’ takes us to Jagannath Puri and to a guesthouse run by an elderly Anglo-Indian woman, a woman whose hospitality is unmatched. But she lives in a world of make-believe, veiling the truth from the two young men who have come to board there, and has created a phantom help who exists only in her summonses. It leaves one with a sense of great admiration for her. Similarly, in ‘Islanders’ there are three generations of women in the same house: Sitalakshmi Amma, the mother-n-law, Chitra, the granddaughter, and Pankajam, the lady of the house. The area is flooded, practically creating islands. The title of this story is metaphorical; it works also as a comment on how the instinct of survival dominates our concern for our own self and our family. Pankajam has been able to get some fresh milk and keeps her family fed but what about the others? Villages have been covered by the flood waters, people are homeless and hungry, and children are ill. Pankajam is unable to get her concern for those people out of her mind. She finds the half dark of the pantry comfortable. But can she remain cooped in this space when ‘bloated corpses’ float by and children barely weaned from their mothers go hungry, with three tins of milk staring her in the eye? She cannot live as an islander in this almost marooned house, itself an island. Interspersed with her inner thoughts, the narrative probes our minds. Who are we? What are we? People who are complacent and self-contained or have some iota of sympathy and social concern? What, in reality, is the meaning of freedom? Is it also the right to act, to think and to share, to give of oneself, and move beyond the self and the family? The ending of a story is never a closure, even if a happening closes it. The ending lies somewhere in the world outside-in your mind and mine; in our worlds it lives out its meanings.
Moving between different locations, different issues and men and women, the collection opens up a varied world. The narrative consciousness also shifts between male and female. Each little nuance of the emotional moment is captured and etched on one’s memory. Genesis is just the beginning, where does it go? Where does it travel and how many different worlds does it open up? One needs to enter each one of them. Let me simply say I enjoyed the world of these stories, have been thinking of them in their varied expressions, cultures, languages-a world vibrant, alive and real, a world the reader is left to discover and share.
Introduction by Jasbir Jain
The Coming of Devi
Phantoms of Truth
An Evening With You
Kasturi, the Musk Deer
A Place in the Sun
A Key Issue
Sable Shadows (from Iowa Diary)
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