Mythical Fiction in India feat Anand Neelakantan

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When I think of myth, I think of the delightful comic strip series Amar Chitra Katha created by Anant Pai. I think of my grandmother who cared to share. It sounds cliché but it’s real. Myth is so much a part of the story telling process that I’m not surprised that mythical fiction is now the biggest fad around in English writing in India.

Indian mythical fiction in English may be a relatively new phenomenon, but in Indian languages there has been a continuous output of retellings of the old epics. Why not? There are far too many characters in the Indian pantheon and everyone has a story to be told and retold.

At the BYOB party we had last weekend (update coming up soon), almost everyone shared book after book that delved into multiple points of view of the Indian epics. In case you are new to the Mahabharata, it’s about a family at war-five brothers called the Pandavas vs their one hundred cousins, the Kauravas. That’s a lot of plotline and this is just one epic- we have the Ramayana, the Panchatantra, the Avatar stories, the Goddess Stories, the Puranas,etc.

In fact, most winners of the Jnanpith award (a prestigious literary award in India) have written their adaptations or interpretations of the Ramayana or Mahabharata in their respective languages.

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I spoke to Anand Neelaknatan, writer of the acclaimed mythical fiction Asura, about the current myth fad. He doesn’t see himself as only a mythical fiction writer. He’s writing for TV now, has signed up for a Romedy film in Hindi and his next bookAnand111 Devayani will be a fantasy thriller with a hint of mythology.

“I grew up in a place where Puranas and art, debates, drama and music were all part of life. I have heard most of the stories before I read them, as most people do in rural India. There is no field in India in the present, past or the future where myths will be irrelevant. Indians have always been great storytellers. We have experimented with all sorts of story-telling techniques and have given the world most of its well-known stories.”

He believes that myths cannot be rewritten in English effectively enough. I think this goes for the mythical tales in all languages.

”English lacks the nuances that this kind of literature needs as it developed in a different culture in a different era. Indian English is a very nascent language and has had to develop its own idioms.  The queen’s English fails to convey most of our emotions in writing in an effective way.

When my character addresses another character as You, it does not convey much. In any Indian language, the form of you used conveys the social status, the character’s relationship to the narrator, the chemistry between them and many more things. An Aap (Hindi) is not the same as Tum or Tu, a Thangal (Malayalam) is not the same as Ningal or Nee. Each form of address conveys many things, which a plain You cannot. This is just a small example.

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Another difficulty is that even very common phrases in English jars with our culture. For  example,  when we say, it was a warm welcome, it sounds artificial. In a cold country, the  guests would be pleased  with a warm hearth. In Indian languages, we say we received a  “Sukha Sheethal” welcome or the  equivalent of that, which when translated gives the  opposite meaning in English- a very cold  welcome. Rain means romance for us, but in English, the word rain conveys dark, brooding, bleak    emotion. When we read, these nuances may not be visible, but in our subconscious mind it  could be  jarring. Indian English is groping in this confusing alley and unless it develops its own way of  evocating  emotions,  writing will not rise to the level of an M.T. Vasudevan Nair or S.L.Byrappa or many other  masters.”

Having said this, Neelakantan believes that the writing should continue as only time will tell which stories will be truly remembered as commercial success is but a small instance in the entire cosmos.

Only the story matters in the end.

 

5 Comments

  1. Works in translation are very topical at the moment and the recent announcement of the merging of the Man Booker International Prize and the IFFP International Foreign Ficiton Prize is excellent news, especially at it rewards the translator as well as the author and all the longlisted authors.

    When I read about the problems with translation, that which is lost in translation, it makes me a little sad, because it is often cited as a reason not to read translated works, as if they are somehow inferior. If we compare the experience of someone being able to read in the original language, that will logically always be the case, but that is not the purpose of translated fiction. It is not for the native reader, it is for those who can’t access the work at all unless it is translated into another language, whether it is English or any other reading language. Is it any better or worse when translated into French or Russian or Arabic or Chinese? I would hope that it doesn’t matter, that what the writer offers will translate into something that shares something of value to the reader.

    If I am to read a work of translation from another culture that tranlsates from a language, I know I will never learn, then I am enriched by the experience and usually I shouldn’t be aware that I have missed out on those cultural nuances. I read a lot of translated fiction and love to encourage others to do the same. Sometimes I read in French and sometimes I read French works translated into English, it is rare to read both the French and the translation of the same book, but I am curious so I have done so to compare, because I find no deficiency when I only read the translation, but if I then compare it lessens the pleasure of the reading experience. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

    Oh how I wish we could translate all the nuance and understanding, that is soemthing that only the oral traditon can compensate for and thanks to the opportunity to interview and listen to writers explain, we are all the more enlightened for it. Personally, I find that listening to an author expand on their work can significantly increase the pleasure of subsequent reading.

    Thanks for sharing a great interview Neelima!

  2. Thanks for your illuminating comment Claire. The problem of translating nuances of a culture has always been a problem with Indian writing in English. There has been a school of thought that says that Indian Writing in English can not amount to the same thing as the Vernacular rendition. Now all of this is changing as writing in English is extremely popular and mainstream. There is truth in what Neelakantan says about certain expressions being hard to translate because when you are an Indian writer, you could be mentally translating from your native tongue(this is also not a given), even though you are writing in English. This could come across to a reader (especially to the reader of that vernacular language as well) as very artificial. A reader who does not know the language in question is better off in that sense. I’m really glad you enjoyed reading the interview…Neelakantan went into great length about the problems of expressing mythical stories in English and I learnt a great deal talking to him.

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