The English translation of Tamil novel Karisal, titled Black Soil, has hit the stands at a time when it has almost slipped from the memory of Tamil readers. The literary oeuvre of social realism, which the book is themed upon, is considered outdated by a section of critics in the wake of the collapse of communism in the erstwhile U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. Karisal, by Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Ponneelan, was first published in 1976.
By translating her grandfather’s novel to English, J. Priyadarshini not only bridges a generational gap, but reminds readers of the valour and struggles of ordinary working-class people in a “rain-dependent landscape”. She seems to have carefully chosen the term ‘rain-dependent’ instead of ‘rain-fed’ to better convey the meaning to a native speaker of English.
Black Soil also reminds readers of the massacre of 44 Dalit agricultural labourers in Keezhvenmani in the eastern part of Thanjavur in 1968. In some ways, Kannappan, the protagonist, bears a resemblance to Ponneelan, who wrote the novel after his transfer from Kanniyakumari district, a fertile land, to Nagalapuram in Thoothukudi district — “an extremely barren, underdeveloped, remote area with no transport facility”.
Bringing to life
“Suddenly, a giant dust storm picked up and started advancing with a funnel tip, ripping off the soil, swirling dusty wind all around. It whirled in one place for a while and then headed towards the south. Kannappan stared at it fixedly.” This could have been the author’s first experience in the barren landscape, and Dr. Priyadarshini, a gynaecologist by training, succeeds in conjuring up the scene with her translation.
Another sample: “Like a tired pale mother, heavy with a prolonged pregnancy and waiting eagerly for her mother to come and help with the delivery, the crops looked mature — yellow, ripe and heavy with ears of grain.”
Dr. Priyadarshini says in her translator’s note that she was 12 when she first read Karisal and finished it at a stretch in three days. The impact of the novel stayed with her and she ventured to translate it to English to convey the “beauty and pain of the people of Karisal to a large number of readers”.
She says she carried the novel around in her pocket even at work and completed the translation on her phone. “I used nearly every minute of my free time, and sometimes even while waiting for a baby to be delivered,” says Dr. Priyadarshini, who has carried forward her grandfather’s legacy.
Ponneelan, trs J. Priyadarshini