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AJ Thomas – "If the narrative element is strong, the story will hold"

www.hindustantimes.com | December 16, 2023

The author, editor and translator on The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told, his new anthology that showcases the best of Malayalam short fiction

There could be various versions of books such as The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told. Each editor will perhaps have a different selection. Don’t you think that titles such as these are at best an aberration?

This is the title Aleph Book Company uses for their series. They already have The Greatest Stories… from 13 other literatures of India, such as Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Goan, Marathi, Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. 
I think the title has an allusive echo of the title of the Hollywood Classic, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), in effect, indirectly setting the standards for the selection of the stories. I wouldn’t call it an aberration, though. If other editors choose other stories than these, then well and good. We will have those many great stories out there for non-Malayali readers. But it is not likely that others would choose the same title, at any rate. At least, let’s hope.

Is it possible to think of the modern short story in Kerala without Western influences like Chekhov, Gogol, Maupassant etc? 

Although there are local narrative traditions in Malayalam dating back roughly to the beginnings of prose itself about a millennium ago (Bhasha Kautilyam came out in the 12th century) and even before that in the oral traditions, especially the oral narratives of ritual/performative forms like Theyyam, Thira, Padayani etc., modern narrative forms took shape influenced by western models. The process was not blind imitation, but adaptation and assimilation.

How is the Malayalam short story different from the Malayalam novel? Is one very different from the other? 

The Malayalam short story, generally, is a concise, pithy, tight-plotted creation, observing word economy, whereas the novel or any other long form fiction has its own separate logic or architectonics. It is usually laid out over a comparatively vaster landscape/s or mindscape.

The unfolding of the lives of characters can be portrayed on a larger scale within the time and space the novelist consciously assigns to them, whereas the short story delineates the movements of the main character and the side characters through their unique emotional heights or depths, within a tightly-bound time-space arrangement. In the short story, the gradual development or revelation of the character/s cannot be envisaged, but the highlights of their expressions in a unique situation would be delineated. The mimesis of life in a character in a short story turns more of an implied/allusory or resonating nature rather than one following a straight narration as in a novel.

In a short story, the atmosphere created by symbols, metaphors and ambience in a tight time frame is more important than the relaxed storytelling style in a novel.There is a unity of expression achieved this way, which is peculiar to a short story than a novel.

These points are true of the short story and novel in any language, not only in Malayalam.

Your anthology has several experimental stories. Would you consider the short story in Malayalam as the hotbed of experimentation? 

I wouldn’t say the Malayalam short story is the hotbed of experimentation. Like in any other literature with a tradition of creative churning, writers with originality would be always attempting to stretch the boundaries of imagination and language. Hence the process of experimentation. Certain writers in the modernist/high-modernist phase resorted to renewing language, moving away from the beaten track laid down by stalwarts in the realistic tradition. The best works of such pioneers also would appear to be cases of experimentation, especially in translation. I have striven to keep the ability of the translated story to communicate to the readers uppermost in my mind. I have, in fact, discarded a few stories after translating them, finding them to be quite opaque, though they are really great stories in Malayalam.

How were the stories chosen? How did you decide what to include from the large oeuvre of writers such as Basheer, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Paul Zacharia amongst others? 

I have collections of the stories of almost all the great writers in my personal library. Besides, as I have mentioned in my Acknowledgements, I have drawn from the anthologies, 100 Varsham 100 Katha (100 Years 100 Stories, which came out in 1991 to mark the centenary of the Malayalam short story) selected and edited by KS Ravikumar, who is an authority on the Malayalam short story. I have drawn on the anthology edited by the acclaimed short story writer and novelist NS Madhavan titled, 60 Kathakal (60 Stories) brought out in 2017 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of the Kerala State. I have celebrated short story anthologies of the modernist/high modernist period, Pathinonnu Kathakal,(Eleven Stories), Pathinouun Kathakal Veendum(Eleven Stories Again), Pathinonnu Kathakal Thanne (Eleven Stories, Still), edited by V P Sivakumar, one of the doyens of the "post-modern" Malayalam short story, along with D Vinayachandran, the charismatic Malayalam poet and scholar, (in one of the cases). I have a comprehensive anthology of 33 "post-modern" Malayalam short stories titled Prathibhasamgam (1986), (A Joining of Geniuses) edited by CH Haridas, a literary and cultural zealot who died young. I also have my own archives of old literary magazines and have access to these in the libraries. So the selection of stories was actually very broad-based and primarily relied on my memory of reading these stories over the last half-century, and my access to the physical texts.

You have also translated all the stories in the volume. Is there a specific reason for that?  You are also translating different writing styles. How did you manage the transition between writers? 

The selection and translation were parts of the commissioning by Aleph.

Faithfully translating different writing styles, which involves the use of colloquial expressions, dialects, patois of different regions and communities etc., is very difficult and almost impossible, and pointless, as Ronald E Asher has pointed out in his foreword to his translation of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s three novellas with the common title, Me Grandad ’ad an Elephant. In such cases I have resorted to using neutral language. If the narrative element is strong, the story will hold. I have translated Paul Zacharia’s Salaam America written in the patois of the Pala region, for another collection, following this method. It won the Katha Award.

Is the volume also confined to a time frame? I did not see many contemporary writers like KR Meera, S Hareesh, Subhash Chandran and others well known also for their short fiction in this volume? 

These stories are from the early 1950s to the early 2000s, following the chronology of the dates of birth of the authors, for want of a better method, and including largely the Living Literature/Progressive, Realist (various shades) modernist/high modernist, "post-modernist" and "after-modernist" (I have defined these terms in the Introduction) phases. Younger writers who began writing in the mid-1980s who reached their writing prime in the early 2000s and later, largely in the 21st century( I would call them 21st Century Short Story Writers) beginning with KP Ramanunni, George Joseph K, NP Hafiz Mohamad, KR Meera, V Vinayakumar, B Murali, Unni R, PF Mathews, Priya AS, S Hareesh, Subhash Chandran, K Rekha, EK Sheeba, E Santhosh Kumar, Santhosh Aechikkanam, Vinoy Thomas, and several others will be included in a companion volume coming out next year which Aleph has provisionally titled The New Wave Of Malayalam Short Story Writers. The parameters for the selection for this volume will be slightly different to include those writers who were trend-setters in breaking away from iron-clad modernist styles, ushering in new styles of writing and the beginning of new genres like short fiction writing by tribal people. Tentatively, there will be 50 more stories. Hopefully, a total of 100 great stories from Malayalam will be available to non-Malayali readers.

What was your aim with this anthology? Many of the writers are part of the canon. Is the anthology for the non-Malayali reader of Malayalam fiction? 

Yes. This is an anthology that is intended to showcase the best Malayalam short stories, most of which we can unhesitatingly call "modern classics" to the wider world.

This interview has been taken by Prof. Kunal Ray, Faculty of English Literature, FLAME University.

(Source:- https://www.hindustantimes.com/books/aj-thomas-if-the-narrative-element-is-strong-the-story-will-hold-101702663364346-amp.html )