(The Hindu, Ocober 7th, 2003)
A social novel
THE PULL of both classical Indian traditions as well as the influence of 18th, 19th Century English novelists can be identified in most early writings which come under the name of the Indian English novel.
Even while reading this book in translation, one cannot forget that it was written in the early days when the novel as a genre was beginning to make its presence as a saga of contemporary life. We are aware that the social realistic novel came late to Tamil and Madhaviah was one of the pioneers who paved the way for later novelists like Kalki and Pudumaipithan, by pointing out that the novel can be a powerful social force in shaping public thought.
The serious novel by and large we know, is expected to make a statement of the human predicament as the epic did in ancient times. Only the novel does not give solutions in the old forthright manner but poses basic questions inherent to life. The concerns of man in his journey of life, the choices before him and his efforts to connect with other humans in his loneliness, continue to be the motifs of Padmavati Charithram, as in the narratives of yore.
The blurb says quite dramatically: "A hundred years ago a salt inspector in Tamil Nadu had a grand dream of a story that spoke of love and jealousy and all things that lie in between — the stuff that dreams inevitably are made of even today." As a document of social history, the novel also conveys an authentic picture of the Brahmin life in the rural south as well as student life in the then city of Madras. The evils of child marriages, widow disfigurement and expensive rituals for the sake of societal approval, acceptance of concubinage among the wealthy, are highlighted during the discourse. The reader is left to ponder over how well the "Victorian novel" form was adapted to suit the Indian theme.
The author's didactic purpose of persuasion through entertainment is obvious. The translator, Meenakshi Thiagarajan, the granddaughter of Madhaviah, is sensitive to the subtle nuances of the text, possessing the ability to convey them in another tongue, while jealously guarding the flavour of the original. Generalisations and truisms peculiar to Tamil have been rendered with a sense of appropriateness. "It is far better to struggle for livelihood than live off somebody's largesse" or "if one accepts charity one becomes a slave" are everyday comments in most Tamil households.
The Indian novel may have been derivative in nature but today the story has finally gone out, with the "pattern" having come in as the basic form in fiction. However despite the fact that the book sometimes reads like a slice of biography, the episodic nature of the novel suits the theme, which has not yet dated. Part of the pleasures of reading Padmavati in translation is in the series of faithful encounters it offers with those who lived a 100 years ago.
By giving rare insights into a particular community with the inherent social tensions prevailing at a particular time and place in history, the story will continue to have readership in the original form as well as in the translated version. The translation has been brought out by "Katha" publications, well known for their judicious choice of texts in their endeavour of encouraging regional language writing.
PADMAVATI: A. Madhaviah, Translated by Meenakshi Thiagarajan; Rs. 250.
Published by: Katha Publications.
Delhi: A-3, Sarvodaya Enclave, Sri Aurobindo Marg, New Delhi-110017.
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Another review of the the novel's right here.