“When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation”- Borges
That everyone has a story to tell must be true because at least once a week I receive mails and telephone calls from people who feel they have to record their lives. Is it a genuine sense of the hours running out on them, or is it a need of the times to be visible? Fame and glamour trail performers in sports, films, politics and literature. What about people who are not from any of these categories but also significant contributors to progress, social good and humanitarian ideals? Teachers, physicians, scientists, travelers, lawyers.
The thought that ordinary lives should matter as much as those of extraordinary ones occurred to me when I read a review of the latest biography of Darwin. Are not all humans a force of Nature? Some years ago when I heard that a waiter in Katpadi had written about his life, I tried hard to get a copy of his book but in vain. Not that it is possible to publish everything, but I felt I had missed sharing in the life of an ordinary Indian who might have had extraordinary insights to share if his works were translated. Why shouldn’t ordinary lives matter more? “Madras Man” S Muthiah repeatedly said that we should all keep detailed journals of our lives so that generations to come will know what life 50 or 60 years ago was like. Today I wonder …what it was like to have been the child of a tailor in the Madras of the 1930s? Or a teacher of music in the 1960s? My old ayah once described how her father had taken the family from Vannarapet in Bangalore to Tirupathi by bullock-cart and how it had taken them four days, one way. I have often regretted not having spent sufficient time with people who were witnesses to a previous mode of life as it gave way to a newer and yet newer age. Trivial things bring this sharply into focus. Recently a 20-year old who was listening to a discussion about a collection of antique snuff-boxes didn’t know what a snuff box was, and just last month, the son of a friend studied the cover design of her book which included a typewriter and asked, “What’s this thing?”
The “I” of the Storm of Life
Of all the genres, it is the autobiography that calls for the deepest soul-searching and honesty. Looking back accounts. I refer not to the “My years in Jail” or “When I was CEO” kind of memoir which focuses on careers but an examination and interpretation of a person’s life-graph either an average one without any major publicized ups or downs or a rise from obscurity to eminence including shaping a particular profession or zone of artistic or intellectual activity. The idea of public good vis a vis personal progress and profit as goals of life seems to have disappeared in our generation. As a literary form, autobiographies have provided a testing ground for ideas such as authorship, selfhood and representation. For a long time, the form was considered unique to modern western civilization which gave us accounts of fully formed western selves as compared with the self-writings of non-western cultures. Autobiographical accounts are usually carefully selected and constructed film scripts of what the writers are willing to share with readers.
Though everyone’s top-ten reads in any branch of books is unstable with new ones unseating venerables, descriptions of the material aspects of an India long gone and the psychological toll of struggle viewed from unusual angles repeatedly show up in my list of choices."My hunger made me look at all the hunger around me. Not just the hunger of men, women or children who survived the city on one stale meal a day but I also saw the resolute trees that called this city home, trees that unlike humans had nowhere else to go. They had to die where they were born. A tree that sheltered the roadside barber who nailed his mirror to the trunk, the vendor of parathas, the homeless beggar, the cobbler, parked cars, stray dogs, birds with no nostalgia, spiders, insects and ever-optimistic bees. A tree that could be proud of even its shadow, unlike a human whose body can’t think beyond itself."(Venkat Raman Singh Shyam/ S Anand: Ganja-Mahua Chronicles)
Chronicler of a time long gone
Devaki Nilayamgode who made her first startling appearance in English translation ten years ago (having begun in Malayalam ten years before that) continued to write about her life 70 or 80 years ago in rural Kerala and was recently rendered in English yet again through the creativity of her first translator, Indira Menon. In a chapter on the sacred grove, the wooded portion allotted for the shrine to snakes she draws a neat parallel (impossible for today’s apartment dwellers to experience) saying that the worship of the snake god could also be said to encompass the worship of Nature.
A half-acre land was enclosed within walls where trees clustered together and vines swung from their branches. The huge trees and the smaller ones sprouting from the scattered seeds around them were all bound together by creepers. Nobody dared to go in there but every day a lighted wick was placed outside the wall near its entrance. She also describes “Kashi” Nambisan, a remarkable character, impossible to find today, a do-gooder who sought no personal benefit whatsoever. He was as detached as a yogi with no desires of his own but with an ability to recognize what others needed. He ate only once a day and during Onam time would accept only two towels: one to fasten about the waist, the other to tie like a girdle over it. …He moved around in the village clearing the path to village temples of grass, thorns and stones…or transporting children to other worlds as he sang and narrated stories from the Puranas. By helping people and expecting and receiving nothing in return Kashi Nambisan translated his prayers into action. “All is as Unnikrishnan wills,” he would mutter to any word of inquiry or gratitude.
Clarion call books
In some cases, life accounts become the story, metaphorically or descriptively of a whole movement or community. Lakshman’s Samboli! translated from Kannada by Susheela Punitha is one such book. Samboli! is an equivalent for “echcharike” in Kannada “Be careful!” It is a cry that has painful origins. In his author’s note, Lakshman explains: Manu the lawgiver decreed that people belonging to any of the untouchable castes had to hold a pole with jingling bells tied to one end and pound it on the ground at every step to make a sound – jal – jal and call aloud “Samboli! Samboli!” This is the Samboli pole warning others of their presence. They were not to walk on main streets and only around noon when their shadows were tucked under their feet. Samboli! by extension could imply “Beware!” in the present context of Dalit uprisings, a clarion call for Dalits to fight for their humanity.
The lives of others are our lives too being as we are all bound each to each in our bubble of humanity. The pandemic we are facing has shown us that.
Mini Krishnan coordinates a programme of translations for the Tamil Nadu Textbooks and Educational Services Corporation.