17 June 2008

Zero Degree – a transgressive wave

A talk with the translators

who’s that prankster

that plucked the stars out of the sky

and then scattered them here on Earth?

These are my favourite words in Charu Nivedita’s book, Zero Degree. His book speaks more poetry than prose. It was first published in Chennai in 1998, and later translated into Malayalam by Balasubramanian and P.M. Girish.

Fortunately, I know how to read Tamil and had the privilege of exploring this culture through words. What about the rest of the world? Don’t all readers need a choice of cultures to know about? The problem is that the works are not translated into other languages, making it available to everyone. BLAFT enters the picture, picks up a book (quite by chance) – revolutionary in Tamil writing, and now sweeping a wave in English (translated fiction).

Who are the translators?

Pritham K. Chakravarthy (PKC) is a theatre artist, storyteller, activist, freelance scholar, and translator based in Chennai. Her recent translations include The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, also available from Blaft Publications.

Rakesh Khanna (RK) was born in Berkeley, California. He has lived in Chennai since 1998 working as an editor for an e-learning website.

Why did Blaft choose to start with translations?

RK: The overall idea is that literature and art from India, published in English, is popular as the work of a narrow range of NRI authors. They provided a glossy, nostalgic view of India for their fellow NRIs. Therefore, the actual vernacular writing gets ignored, the books rooted in this culture is not available. To start with translations seemed a sensible path.

Who is Charu Nivedita?

Charu Nivedita is from a family of postmodern Tamil writers, which includes Konangi, Swadesa Mitran, and so on. He grew up in rural Tamilnadu, and spent many years working in Delhi. He has been a regular columnist, with his works translated into Malayalam.

Where did Blaft find Charu’s book?

PKC: We were at a lawyer’s office, when on his table was a ten rupee novel, with the back cover advertisement for Zero Degree, another ten rupee novel. Then, Rakesh and I got talking about Charu Nivedita. We tried out a basic translation and then figured we wanted work with it.

RK: Zero Degree is so surprising. It shocked me that such a book would be successful here. It shows how out of touch people are with what’s going on in the regional languages.

So, to which genre does Zero Degree belong? Charu sounds scattered, abstract, but the compulsive name dropping of Latin American intellectuals makes him seem pretentious? He even seems to love denying his whole work as a bunch of random notes and writings.

RK: “Transgressive fiction” describes it (this is a genre of characters that feel confined by society and use abstract, unusual, illicit ways to break free). Muniyandi, one of the protagonists, with all his phone sex antics and caste-riot inciting, is a transgressor. The whole work is a transgressing against a literature establishment. For all the pretentious aspects of Zero Degree, I think he shows some humility about his own life. For all the name-dropping and hyper intellectualism, he makes fun of himself.

PKC: Charu uses a lot of gimmicks throughout his book. This beauty has a nice non-linear storytelling pattern. There is a constant challenge to the reader, making the reader to be an ‘I’ and crochet one straight story.

Is it just his love for Kathy Acker? Does Charu walk the same plank that Kathy Acker walks?

PKC: In some sense, yes, and in many, no. I am not saying men cannot be the bold feminist, like Kathy Acker. There are enough instances in Zero Degree that makes it clear Charu’s views on female sexuality (Aarti, Avanthika, Brihanalai, etc.) Fuckrunissa was the only positive woman.

What was your experience working with this book?

RK: It was a lot of fun, like a roller coaster. It took us from grossed out horror parts, where we got sick in our stomachs, and to some really tedious part; we always knew that we were about to go over some crazy drop.

PKC: Weird, challenging, and had fun finding out mistakes. Translating poetry is tiresome.

Thus by treacherous sex

Shakti’s powers were stolen

Creation, Protection, Destruction

The three men divided

the chores amongst themselves

tired, they returned

to ask Shakti,

“Where’s my chapathi?”

Everyone should read this book for its crazy drops, unexpected images, beautiful poetry, poignant moments, grossed out horror, and the persistent attempt to probe the psychic wounds of humanity. It is a startling publication of South Indian fiction. Don’t forget to get yourself a copy. Visit www.blaft.com


monikhaa said...

Good to know Zero degree is getting translated. We all do share our liking for it for it feels fresh even now when you read it and certainly a bench mark in Tamil Literature. By the way have you read S.Po's short story "Eetha"?

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