Known for her powerful literary oeuvre that questions the prejudiced social and political opinions about gender, love, family and relationships, Manasi is considered one of the finest feminist writers in Kerala. Her short stories have resonated with many, winning the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award. One of her short stories was even adapted for the screen as Punaradhivasam. Though her works have been translated into several languages such as Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, English and Hindi, Subversive Whispers, translated by J Devika, introduces the English-speaking literati to Manasi’s Sheelavathi, Devi Mahathmyam, Spelling Mistakes, Square Shapes and The Walls, all of which present the award-winning writer’s resounding anti-patriarchal voice. In a candid chat, Devika — a feminist historian, social researcher, translator, and currently a professor with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala — talks about chasing the style of Manasi and preserving the voices of authors through translations. Excerpts.
How delightful was the experience of translating the anthology by Manasi?
Translating any author who has a distinct and engaging style is a challenge. When you translate them, you are not just lugging their meaning from one language to another, you are actually recreating their style in another language. That is a challenge, a thrilling one, always. Manasi’s feisty prose made me play around with words and phrases quite a bit. I loved chasing her style.
Tell us about your familiarity with Manasi and are there any writings of her that have influenced you or impacted you?
Well, I read her stunning stories — Sheelavathi for instance — as a teenager back in the early ’80s. We were hearing of the feminist movement in the Indian metropolises back then, and Manasi’s stories definitely carried to us the fire and the fury of it. I have always wondered why she was never counted as the leading figure of the Malayali feminist literary canon, always as a precursor. Now I think I understand. It was because we ‘ate’ her up — internalised her ideas and their political charge so much that they became a part of us, indistinguishably so. I mean, they seemed so familiar that we failed to remember that they were actually produced by her, and that we must acknowledge her.
The translation seems to be ‘one feminist carrying the baton of another feminist’. Her voice will now reach a larger audience and inspire women and give them a voice.
Yes, that is my fervent wish and hope. Indeed, you have just described my own life’s work as a translator. I started translating when I began to notice that so many powerful anti-patriarchal voices in Malayalam were being subsumed under weak and patriarchal interpretations. Letting these escape into another language like English seemed to be a good way to preserve the anti-patriarchal charge of these authors.
Were there any challenges while translating?
Every translation of a significant literary author is a challenge. As for Manasi, the real challenge is to carry into English the low, whisper-like tone which is foreboding and even threatening, pregnant with violence.
Which story/stories in the anthology is your favourite and why?
Well, each of these is a favourite in its own way. Sheelavathi, for instance, brings to mind my earliest days of understanding patriarchy and standing up to it. The Sword of the Princess is another unforgettable tale; I remember the sheer, raw excitement of reading it in a college hostel along with other girls.
Tell us about the title. It’s crisp and says a lot of things in just two words.
The title is independent, that is, it is not the title of a short story in the book. I used it because it communicates quite well the basic quality of Manasi’s anti-patriarchal writing. Many of Manasi’s most incisive short stories predate full-blown feminism in Malayalam. In the 1970s, many women writers sought to craft a ‘female modernism’ of sorts, which expressed the terrible anguish of living within patriarchy, yet did not openly reject it. Manasi broke free of that. Yes, she whispers, but those are blasphemous words, capable of blasting patriarchy.
What are you working on next?
The other translation that I am looking forward to along with Manasi’s anthology is another anthology of contemporary Malayalam short stories that I put together, titled Feeling Kerala. It is an attempt to bring alive the changing inner worlds of people in Malayali society through the work of our short story writers — interspersing non-fictional discussions with translations of fiction.