Monday, June 29, 2009

Not about Lemuria

I'm reading a book by Su.Ki. Jayakaran on Lemuria aka the lost Kumari continent. (குமரி நில நீட்சி by kalachuvadu publications). He traces the history of the pseudo-scientific Lemurian myth, its growth into a holy-cow, colonial politicization of Indian archaeology, anthropological history of India, polemics of linguistic research etc. He dismantles the myth effortlessly by simply showing the quality of 'historical research' that has been done around this subject and placing the evidences that has come from more obviously pertinent oceanographic tools that have been applied very late. This post is not about Lemuria.

The book is written directly in Tamil and not translated into Tamil from English. Jayakaran is the brother of the more popular columnist Theodore Bhaskaran - who writes about environmental issues and ornithology and is also a national award winning film hisorian. He contributes to the Hindu as well notable middle-brow journals in Tamil. Jayakaran too contributes to English journals and made this his second book after making his debut with a highly accessible primer in Tamil on Anthropology and Evolution a few years back.

This book on Lemuria attracted a curious comment from a colleague in the office cab. He thought it was a poetry collection. When I answered in the negative and told him what it was, the response was "why are you reading it in Tamil ? "

Now let me consciously avoid trashing the kid and instead do some armchair sociology on where he was coming from.

A few things to admit, first:The book is not a regular in Tamil. The regulars are the novels, political essays, rhyme-free aphorisms and short story collections. Cookbooks, self-help, superficial biographies (of Asim Premji!) and astrology are other regulars. The essays written in science, literary criticism and such 'serious' fields fall in two categories
a) Insultingly superficial
b) Imports from English, where the writer acts as a kind of reader's digest.

I had a professor who used to have a deadly question at student's research seminars: "All this we know...what is your contribution ?". Wonder what would happen if he was unleashed on these writers.

On the basis of no information except my prejudice, I generalize this should be the case in all regional languages in India. It is in that context that the Jayakaran's book stands out as an exception. The quality of writing generally available would justify my colleague's opinion that regional languages are for the arts and translations for those unfamiliar with English, and not for original technical writing.

Among other reasons, it is so because in some way we resigned to it being so. And also because the usual linguistic-fervour types we generally see aren't exactly the ones we would like to imagine to be in the same side of the table with !

Granted that English is indeed facile but that's not the only reason our comfort-gap between English and vernacular is widening. Another argument for why English is the 'obvious' choice is the wider reach. Here Jeyakaran's book is unique as far as the target audience goes. The Lemurian myth was created to further notions about Tamil antiquity. It was willingly swallowed and not sufficiently strongly reexamined despite mounting evidence contradicting it. To be able to write a balanced book dismantling it in Tamil is far far more necessary and effective than writing the same in English.

While I rue about the decline of supply and thus demand for quality content in regional languages, I must say I don't have illusions of being a representative reader (thereby I subtly declare myself to be exceptional).

Overall, we are letting our ease with English - our much touted usp against China - eat into our capacities in vernacular, when it was not seen as competing even one generation earlier. Even those with the capacities are now plagued with self-doubt and hesitation.In 1998 P.A.Krishnan's 'The Tigerclaw Tree' was published by Penguin, which Asokamitran reviewed in Hindu as ' a Tamil novel written in English'. It took the book's success, goading of friends and help of literary stalwarts for PAK himself to translate it into Tamil with some enhancement as Pulinaga konRai a full five years later (as he himself says in its foreword). And it is one of the finest Tamil novels I have read.

While preserving the ancient poetry and all that is indeed all very good, we can't be rooted in the Lemurian lust for antiquity. But what really matters is keeping abreast with the times in our languages. And this reluctance is difficult to overcome, unless there is a conscious decision to understand the need to do so and invest in the effort to do so.


  1. Every time I visit the annual book fair in Chennai I am dissapointed by books stalls of Kizhakku Puthagam etc , what with their Azim Premji and Sehwag biographies and the lot. Niche publishers who may not be members of publishers association or book trusts might be putting out great publications. I certainly found this to be the case in at least one instance - a case where the work of a sage had been totally destroyed by clueless translations and this book trust published the explanations for the Tamil originals - the latter were of very good quality.

    Translations + Publishers with too much money to throw away = Shallowness.

  2. dagalti:
    I might write about it one today. Translations are like easy money - they introduce lots of distortions and unfortunately a lot of it is from people who don't realise that tyranny of good intentions often has more negative consequences than planned evil. I guess that's the difference between intelligence and wisdom.