Sudha G. Tilak talks about the translation of Pasitha Manidam by Karichan Kunju which is said to be the first Tamil novel with openly gay characters
Sudha G. Tilak talks about the translation of Karichan Kunju Pasitha Manidamwhich would be the first Tamil novel with openly gay characters
Karichan Kunju, author of many short stories, short stories and plays, and an underrated but important Tamil literary figure, wrote his only novel Pasitha Manidam in 1978. Its English version titled hungry humans, translated by journalist Sudha G. Tilak, does what is expected of any good translation – it releases the book to a wider and more recent critical reception. Kamal Haasan describes the book as the “pioneering novel that launched transgressive fiction in Tamil literature” in the advanced eulogy of the book. Set in Kumbakonam, it is also a commentary on the decline of the Brahmin community in a changing world.
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The hero, Ganesan, is a leper. After the death of his father, a wandering minstrel who had taken to stealing in the last desperate days of his life, an orphan Ganesan inherits both poverty and the traditional wisdom of body-soul duality. The city and the characters are only specificities here. The story is about the enigma called the human being.
Tilak talks about Kunju, its unflattering realism, and translation challenges in this interview. Edited excerpts:
The selling point of this book is that it features gay characters for the first time in Tamil fiction. And yet homosexuality is a small part of the novel and is represented more as an exploitative perversion. Can you comment?
Tamil Critics Didn’t Call Out Homosexuality Pasitha Manidam‘s ‘selling point’ but noted that openly gay characters are introduced here for the first time in modern Tamil literature. The novel is populated by trans men, autistic adults and children, reckless and ambitious men – likely familiar characters from other novels. However, gay characters like Singam Rauth stand out because readers had not read about gay characters in novels of that era.
Cover of “Hungry Humans”
Rauth and his ilk are forced to lead double lives, stealthily seeking underage partners outside of their socially acceptable heterosexual unions, while Ganesan’s former neighbor Kitta may be blatantly sexually exploited as a cis man. .
Kunju shows Ganesan seduced by Rauth’s cushy life to become his partner. This is worrying because the decision is influenced by Ganesan’s poverty.
Almost all of the key female characters are presented as having a “huge appetite for sex”. What do you think?
Many of them are self-employed looking to get married or having sex on their own. The novel also shows women in traditional domestic roles who are sexually uninhibited or who cuckold their husbands. Teenage girls or middle-aged women don’t apologize for their sexual desires. Women want sex to satisfy their desires, while a heterosexual man like Kitta uses it as a method to control and exercise his power.
Is this book dealing with Brahminical hypocrisy, as Mani Shankar Aiyar points out in the advanced eulogy?
You could read it as a critique of a community and also as a novel about human struggles – social, sexual and economic. Kunju shows that certain Brahmin characters are capable of profound acts of kindness. Ganesan’s adoptive father is anonymous and simply referred to as a teacher. Perhaps Kunju wants to show that compassion goes beyond names and caste placeholders.
The temple city of Kumbakonam and its Brahmins were once considered the vanguard of Thanjavur’s culture and social rights in Tamil Nadu. Kunju knew both and turned his unflattering gaze on human duplicity and Brahminical pride within and without.
Philip Roth wrote about Newark and its Jewish family because he knew them intimately. His works spoke of his self-hatred at the sexual frailties and hypocrisies of Jews and the irony inherent in their sense of self-importance. All humans pretend. Many authors call the pretext more clearly when writing about one of their own.
Are there any biographical overtones in the novel?
Yes, Kunju lost his father when he was little and his young widowed mother struggled to raise him. I also read that he spent time as a child in the chatrams or caravans for the homeless in and around Kumbakonam. Despite being a prolific writer and translator, he never saw much money. But he was a socialist and tried to educate his daughters with his meager income.
By showing Ganesan become an ascetic, what do you think is the message of the novel?
I would summarize this as the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, specifically the last conversation between Ganesan and Kitta. Salvation or liberation is achieved when the human self realizes that pain and pleasure on earth are transitory. No one has ever achieved holiness without swimming in sinful currents, right? I felt relieved that there was no glaring message in this novel.
What were your choices as a translator with replies like “We have enough for a vegetable side” or “I ran to ruin by marrying a person who is neither here nor there”?
Hard choices! And I had many more. I thought to make it easier for the reader who is comfortable with English but also familiar with Indian bhasha cadences.
Did your interpretation of the novel interfere with your translation?
I started as a critical reader of Pasitha Manidam. But as a translator, my job was to be as faithful to the text as possible and not to judge it through the moral prism of the 21st century or the eyes of a critic.
Interviewer, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, is associated with Christ University of Bengaluru.