When a language (culture) tells its own story …

A few years ago, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge was presented in Madras. Eddie Carbone, the play’s protagonist, is an Italian dock worker. He is a good man, but tragedy is brought about by his incestuous passion for his orphaned niece. He harbours two young illegal Italian immigrants in his house, one of whom falls in love with his niece. Consumed by jealousy, Eddie betrays the immigrants to the authorities, and is killed by one of them.

The audience watching the play in Madras was English educated, familiar with Western literature. Many of them frequently were abroad and had a living contact with the Western way of life. The production was a success. But most of the audience entirely missed the element of incest in the play; rather, they chose to ignore it as an unnecessary adjunct to an otherwise perfectly rational tale. After all, Eddie was his niece’s guardian, a surrogate father. It was only right that he should be interested in her welfare. You certainly could not blame him for trying to safeguard her future. On the contrary, the illegal immigrants emerged as unsympathetic, for they had betrayed their host’s confidence by seducing his niece’s affections.

Even apart from consideration of social roles that led the Madras audience to write its own A View from the Bridge, Eddie Carbone perfectly fits an Indian archetype: the father figure aggressing toward its offspring. Our mythology is replete with parental figures demanding sacrifices from their children—as in my own Yayati; Eddie’s position was not one in which the Indian audience was likely to find any tragic flaw.

(—Girish Karnad. ‘In Search of a New Theatre’, in Carla M. Borden, ed., Contemporary India. OUP, Delhi: 1989)

Cultural associations and achetypes are perhaps not always interpreted the way they’re intended by their producers. While one can concede the chasm between ‘Indian’ and ‘English’ cultures, is there a similar gap between the peoples of different linguistic groups in India? And, not to put too fine a point on it, is there, then, a cultural, perceptual, gap between speakers of different dialects of an Indian language? †Do we all have our own little realities ensconced in our own dialects (idiolects, even), somehow impermeable to speakers of other dialects? Is it even possible to concede “difference” and co-exist?

I’m going to try to look at this question from another angle.

While English and Indian languages are generally considered to inhabit discrete spaces as far as their literatures are concerned, I wonder if we can say the same of Indian languages themselves? What, for instance, is ‘gained’ or ‘lost’ when a Malayali tale is told by a Kannadiga writer in English, titled a ‘modern Indian tale’, and then translated into Malayalam by a Malayali ? Is the Malayalam translation a more authentic representation of the Malayali tale than the English?  How many levels of ‘translation’ are implicit in the English version?   What I’m referring to is Raja Rao’s English novel, The Cat and Shakespeare, a Malayalam tale in English, translated later into Malayalam by Ayyappa Paniker. And these thought-provoking questions are from a paper by a senior colleague, titled “The Cat and Shakespeare and pooccayum shakespearum: A Tale of Modern Indian Translation”. ††

The role of English in “translating” Indian culture/sensibility in Indian Writing in English is widely acknowledged. As my colleague puts it, “When English tells a story of non-English lives and speakers of other languages, its editorial/interpretive function far outweighs its naturally legitimate functions.” (Quite apart from the obvious Malayalam-Kannada layers, The Cat is a rendering of Vedantic philosophy in English, and this entails yet another level of translation, a cultural translation. How meet English is for this purpose is debatable.)

Would the same theory of ‘translating’ hold when a Kannadiga tells a Malayali story? How much “knowledge” can one take for granted? My colleague has had the “privilege” of talking to both Rao and Paniker about The Cat and its translation, and the resulting insights make his paper all the more fascinating: For Rao, the telling of a Malayali tale in English was itself a translation, “written in English, for Indians as well. So where was the need for another one?” At the same time, he approved the translation by Paniker as one by someone who “knew” both him and the tale. Certainly, most of us may have read The Cat (indeed, all of Raja Rao’s work) without knowing any south Indian language. But, as my colleague says, “ it is a story told in the language of another.” His thesis is that Paniker’s translation is more of a “narrative restitution” than a translation because it is “a language telling its story by itself” rather than mediated by English/Kannada.

The other insight from the paper I’m truly grateful to my colleague for (especially since I’ve always viewed Raja Rao’s fiction with the jaundiced eye of dislike for its overt upper-caste Hindu ideology) is that the novel asks the crucial question of who we call our neighbours, especially in situations of languages-in-contact: Ramakrishna Pai, the novel’s protagonist, a Konkani living in Trivandrum, is tutored by a Malayali, Govindan Nair, on Vedanta and Shakespeare, and tells his story in English.

Are Malayalam, Kannada, and English equidistant, or does that depend on whether you’re Raja Rao or Paniker? Just how much gap we perceive in those spaces must tell us something about ourselves.

I’m referring in part to the ongoing Telangana agitation; one of the abiding images of the agitation for me is that of the Vijayawada MP Rajagopal sprinting out of Hyderabad’s airport holding aloft the Indian tricolour. Taking recourse to a larger ‘national identity’ seems to be the stock response to sectarian/ linguistic separatist movements in India. A response that is simultaneously a decrement and an accretion of identity.

 †† Comparative Critical Studies. Volume 7, Page 69-81


  1. SS, you’re back with one of your thought-provoking posts.

    Perhaps it is unwise to display any curiosity, especially when a cat is involved, but would you be able to tell me just how different from, or similar to, Paniker’s translation is the original Malayali tale? It is reasonably certain that there would have been changes to the original Malayali story, dictated by language and culture, when Rao presented it in English. So, if Paniker’s translation is a ‘restitution’, does it therefore revert to the ‘pristine’ original? In which case, can it be called a translation? Because a translation has to accurately reflect the matter being translated, even if, in the eyes of the translator, the matter is flawed, or its representation of culture and/or reality is flawed.

    I believe – and it is only an opinion – that there exist material gaps between Indian languages, but the gap between them as a group, and English, is larger. There are a few underlying cultural similarities that ensure that these gaps between various Indian languages are not as large as between any of them and English. But then again, harking back to another of our favourite discussions, which English are we talking about? I am sure that the gap between Malayalam and “Malayalam-English” is smaller than the gap between Malayalam and “Bengali-English”.

    “Is it even possible to concede “difference” and co-exist?” I think societies and individuals the world over are grappling with this seemingly innocuous question. But I guess most of us need some form of affiliation: race, religion, caste, language….and as history has shown us, there is a very thin line between pride in one’s identity and animosity towards the ‘other’. I think co-existence is going to be increasingly tenuous, which each little group behaving as an island!

    Quirky Indian

  2. gaddeswarup said

    Interesting post but I have not read any of Raja Rao or many other Indian novelists who wrote or write in English. A slightly tangential reference which may interest you if you have not seen it:
    Flyover Country
    I have responded in part to your post in my own way in

  3. QI:

    When I said “original” Malayali tale, I did not mean that there was a story existing either in written or in oral form that Rao merely translated into English. No, the tale is entirely Rao’s creation. What makes it a ‘Malayali tale’ is that it is set in Trivandrum, centres on a Konkani (who is obviously an outsider there) and a Malayali, has observations on, and descriptions of, Malayali life and views, as observed by a Konkani (via the Kannadiga author, Rao) and so on. It is in this sense that it is a ‘translation’: the telling of a tale in a language not of that tale. In a language twice-removed in fact: told by a Konkani, and in turn narrated by a Kannadiga (Rao), in English.

    The ‘original’ in the literal sense is Rao’s novel. Paniker’s translation ‘completes’ the tale in some ways: the folkish Malayalam that lies beneath the English, for instance; even, as the paper illustrates, the “Malayali” interpretation of Vedanta and Shakespeare (by Nair) sounds less awkward when expressed in the original Malayalam. Of course, the “completion” is something only a Malayali will get.

    English very often flattens dialectal differences in Indian languages (and even differences across Indian languages). There are enough suggestions in Rao’s novel that the Konkani character and the Malayali characters speak a different Malayalam. They probably also speak a different English. Both would obviously be easier to ‘get’ in Malyalam than in English. And as we all know, some things (jokes, insults) sound different when translated from an Indian language into English. Therefore, as pointed out in the paper: “What sounds rather perplexing to the readers of The
    Cat might sound rather comic (and naturally so) to the Malayali reader of

    When Sir William Jones discovered, in the 18th century, that there are enough linguistic similarities between Latin, Sanskrit and Greek to suggest that they have a common root (spoken by a people who were the ancestors of the speakers of these 3 languages), he spawned what is now called comparative lnguistics, thanks to which it is entirely possible to argue that the linguistic gap between English and Hindi is lesser than that between Hindi and Tamil, on the basis of affinity to Sanskrit. A view vigorously promoted by the Dravidians. What makes Hindi and Tamil closer, in reality, is shared history and cultural experience.

    Swarup garu:
    Thank you, yes, I saw the link on your blog.

  4. SS, thank you for the clarification. Unfortunately, access to the paper is restricted to subscribers, but I am sure it would have made interesting reading!


    Quirky Indian

  5. vijayawada said

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