How often do you pick up a book that is quite popular within a specific sect or religion only to see that the content is written in a language that is as alien to you as Latin? It happens to even the best of us, and because of this, that unquenchable thirst for knowledge within us remains...well, 'unquenched'! Debutante Malayali author Shaji Madathil has taken a big risk in translating his Malayalam novel Pathirapattile Thennila Pakshikal into English, so that us 'angrezi-speakers' can also enjoy reading his first novel, and he does so with the help of a physician in the US! Has it paid off? You can bet your pages it has! Excerpts:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what made you want to become an author?
My areas of interest are varied and includes painting, photography, music, creative writing and literature of all genres as well as social work. I am an active member of the Royal Punarjani, a voluntary organisation in Kerala. I was born in 1963 as the son of Madathil Narayanan and N K Bharagavi. I have three brothers — Madathil Manju Bash, Madathil Sudheer and Madathil Dr Sugathan. My uncle, MV Devan was a very famous Indian writer and artist. The number one lesson he taught me was to find my own place and style in the creative world. That was stacked into my brain from the time I was a little boy. I have completed Post Graduate Degrees in Commerce, Business Management, Computer Science and History and have been working as the Business Development Technical Systems Manager in Qatar Airways, Doha. Knowledge to me, is never ending. I am still a student in the creative world. I am more interested in creating experimental fictions and art work and wish to be recognised in the creative circles as a trend setter.
Please explain what your book, The Soul of Truth, is about. What is the meaning or the interpretation of the title?
The author, speaking through the soul of the dead protagonist, takes the reader on a tumultuous journey, reliving the memories, thoughts and dreams of Uthaman; dead and gone, and yet, very much alive in essence. In the shadows of the dark trees, in the corridors of moonlit nights, Uthaman's soul lives on for forty-one nights, telling readers a vivid, poignant and silent story. Set in verdant Kerala, on a backdrop of the magnificent culture and traditions of God's Own Country, this book has universal appeal as it attempts to untangle the puzzles that are life and death. The title is an enigmatic mystery that you must read to decipher! The light of day culminates in the darkness of night. Likewise, does the radiance of birth dissipate in the gloom of death? No one knows. A new day inevitably emerges from a dying night. Likewise, does new life arise from death? No one knows.
It was mentioned that the book is an English translation of the original Malayalam version. It is said to be written in the form of a 'soulful poetic prose'. What exactly does this refer to?
The book was translated by Dr Jessy Skaria, a Malayali physician living in the US. This is her first attempt at translating a full length Malayalam novel. The readers have provided positive reviews about her literary style and ‘soulful, poetic prose’ was part of the feedback we got from one of the very first readers of the book. The inspiration behind the English translation of my book was my elder brother Manju Bash who was an English teacher at an international public school. He felt that an English edition would reach out to more people. I myself have friends and even family members who could not read Malayalam. Unfortunately, my brother died in an accident last year and he could not see his wish being carried out. My story is also about the same kind of fate.
What kind of research did you undertake prior to writing your book? What or who served as the primary inspiration?
The death of a colleague at my work place made me ponder about the momentary nature of life. People who come to the Gulf work very hard to send money back home to their loved ones but they themselves are not able to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Anxiety about the present and their future prevent them from living in peace. So what I want to tell them is, “Live at least one day before it’s too late. Enjoy the fruits of your labour before you are packed off in a box.” My first novel in Malayalam took four years to write. I read many books on various subjects and also gathered information from libraries. Young readers don’t have much time to spare, even to read. An interesting story line is the ‘base’ with one plot leading to another. We should not give the reader a chance to get bored and put the book down. So as far as possible, I have kept my book short and interesting! Write from your heart and be passionate about your writing.
You book was launched at a literary fest that witnessed the presence of numerous dignitaries of the writing world. How was the experience, and what did you learn/take home from it?
The book launching ceremony was a wonderful experience! Well know Malayalam writers M K Sanu, C Radhakrishnan, Kunjikannan Vanimel and Ashadevi were some of the dignitaries who graced the event. A plethora of constructive criticism, guidance, their experiences in the world of writing and their words of wisdom all added up to an evening well spent in the company of writers, friends and families.
Your book cover earned a LIMCA national record spot in the Indian fiction-history genre. Please tell us more about this and what it comprises of.
I was a first-time writer and my name wasn’t known in the literary field. For a reader to pick up a book of an unknown author from the shelf, there must be something attractive or different about the book. This was then that the idea of a 3D cover struck me and thus, the Malayalam version of The Soul of Truth came out with a 3D cover! My Malayalam novel Pathirapattile Thennila Pakshikal’s 3-Dimensional cover earned me a national record in the LIMCA Books of Records for Indian fiction history (2016-2017). The book was very well received and I donated the entirety of the royalties from the book sales for the treatment of cancer patients.
Kerala was chosen as the setting for your plot. Aside from the fact that the book was written in Malayalam first, what prompted you to select Kerala as the backdrop?
The original Malayalam book is about Malayalis, their way of life and their rich, varied culture, especially focusing on the expatriate Malayali life in the Gulf. I myself am an expatriate Malayali, and the seed of this book was sown by the shocking death of a young Malayali colleague in Qatar. The book takes lots of instances from my own life, too. Since all this is inextricably linked to Kerala, the backdrop could be nothing other than our ‘God's Own Country’.
Who might your target audience be? Did you translate the book so that non-Malayali people can also read it or was there a deeper intent?
The target audience is, of course, the wider English-reading public, both in India and abroad. The book deals with traditional beliefs and rituals of the Hindus of Kerala, (which are somewhat uniquely different from those of Hindus elsewhere in India), and with the rich diversity that is inherent among Malayalis. Hence, it is our hope that this will be a refreshing read to all and a beautiful introduction to the vibrant and varied culture of Kerala.
When translating from a vernacular language like Malayalam into English, certain words or phrases lack accurate translations. Did you use any fillers in these situations or did you retain the originality in your own unique way?
Very true! As with most vernacular languages, it is sometimes difficult to find exact translations for certain Malayalam words or expressions, and even Dr Jessy admitted that it was a challenge. But she has tried to stay as true to the original meaning as possible with her wide use of English vocabulary, and sometimes by using the original Malayalam words themselves, the meanings of which are explained in the glossary. With my permission, she has also used some editorial liberties within the content to make the book more concise and accessible to English readers.