[NU Press; 2020]

Tr. from the Tamil by Martha Ann Selby

It could be said, perhaps, that every story is a process of translation. For the Tamil-language writer Dilip Kumar, however, the makeshift truism rings a bit more, well, true. Kumar, a Gujarati who’s chosen Tamil as his vehicle of literary expression, sits poised like a bird on a wire, hovering between interpretative frameworks. He situates his plots in a tightly woven nexus of racial, class, and language stratifications; and as translator Martha Ann Selby remarks in her introduction to Cat in the Agrahāram, “Kumar uses his stories to explain the intimacies of Gujarati daily life to his South Indian Tamil readers,” Through his stories, Kumar obsessively mediates language, class, and race — embodying what the literary critic and translator Subramanian Shankar has termed “vernacular humanism” — allowing them to become little factories of difference, perpetuum mobiles of self-interrogation. 

To this end, most of Kumar’s stories are set in an extensive compound, inhabited by Gujaratis and orthodox Hindus, located on Ekambareshvarar Agraharam Street in the chockablock northern section of Chennai. As Selby points out in her indispensable introduction, the particularity and the reality of Kumar’s favorite setting distinguishes him from more famous Indian writers like the English-language novelist and short story writer R.K. Narayan, whose fictional South Indian town of Malgudi — first appearing in 1935’s Swami and Friends — served the latter as a representational microcosm of sorts, or in short, as a way of prettily packaging India for Western audiences. Kumar’s commitment to the unfolding of his setting, meanwhile, is wholehearted; as Selby recounts in her introduction, the level of physical detail in the writing was sometimes so high that she had to ask Kumar for advice when translating descriptions of apartment layouts and hallways.

The miraculous thing about Kumar’s writing — a quick realization for the reader — is that there are still breathtaking plots and lovingly turned emotions visible through the marbling of sociocultural issues and journalistic detail. The stories in Cat in the Agrahāram are often rambling in structure, a product of Kumar’s capacious consciousness — his narrative focus trundles along like a camera on a dolly, documenting life as it emerges from the backdrop of the habitual. In “Crossing Over,” an old woman named Gangu Patti has once again raised a disturbing ruckus in the apartment complex where she lives; like clockwork, the reader learns, she threatens to die, only to emerge from her death throes unscathed, the cause of her convulsions revealed to be little more than a buildup of gas.

After Gangu Pattis’ recovery, the story abruptly expands its scope, shifting its tone away from a lightsome Rabelaisian body comedy and easing into an extended flashback. We learn of Gangu Patti’s tortured past, of her abduction by soldiers and the years she spent as a sex slave, and how she was later found again in Bombay, “roaming, pregnant, her left knee twisted, her mind muddled.” For the next several decades she abides in silence, reading voraciously all the while, until, at the age of seventy, she bursts forth suddenly into loquacity, going from apartment to apartment and chattering away, reintroducing herself, in a sense, to her neighbors. She becomes an educator to the women of the community, teaching them about sex and other taboo topics — her symposia are ribald, impromptu, but never less than sincere. She views herself as a defender, a haven of sorts for other beleaguered women.  

The discursive logic of “Crossing Over” sets the tone for the collection as a whole, as it moves seamlessly between a variety of modes: from the Hemingwayesque depiction of a frustrated affair in “Mirage,” to the brutal, language-defying violence limned in the collection’s final story, “The Path.” In between, Kumar’s stories tend to center on softer themes, namely those of senescence and community life. In “The Letter,” Mittu Mama, an elderly relation of the narrator, needs help writing a letter to his brother asking for money. The narrator, a writer figure and stand-in for Kumar himself, serves as an amanuensis; but after a briefly narrated introduction, the bulk of the story is given over to Mittu Mama’s letter. (Kumar’s writers are often shunted off to the side like this, reaching obliquely into the action; as Selby, drawing on the work of historian and translator A.R. Venkatachalapathy, notes in her introduction, “the ‘motif of the ever-poor author’ has been a recurring theme in Tamil fiction for quite some time.” Kumar takes this trend one step further, imbuing his writers with a structural, almost ontological paucity — as though to suggest the vertiginous status of Tamil literature.)

The letter itself is a rhapsodic blend of elegy and plaint, a masterclass in wheedling interspersed with bitter nostalgia. Mittu Mama plays up his own frailty, placing himself on the edge of death; he claims “there is no one left in the Ekambareshvarar Agrahāram who would mourn [his] absence.” Everything has changed: the world seems to have passed him by; the “agrahāram itself has lost its glow.” The wall around the temple tank has been demolished, and the tank itself is now filled only with a perfunctory film of water; ever-silver merchants are filling up the complex’s empty rooms. The death of place, for Mittu Mama, means the death of the self. “The whole meaning of life is in the atmosphere of a place,” he writes, “and if it goes, life goes.”

Kumar is a writer of proximities, a poet of the close-quartered soul, so it’s not surprising his command of atmosphere is masterful; his stories emanate a sense of the simple density of life. In “Bamboo Shoots,” an energetic ramble set in Coimbatore and told in a casual first-person voice that hews closely to Kumar’s own (the story is set in the aftermath of the death of Kumar’s father, with only minor accommodations made for the purposes of plot), the narrator, an accountant in the tailor shop of Mr. Rao, realizes there won’t be enough money to pay the employees, or to cover the sum needed for his father’s death-anniversary rites. As he sets out on a string of potentially remunerative errands, the story’s emotional core reveals itself as an excuse for a tour through space. This calm, ambulatory quality is typical of Kumar’s stories: tragedies, even deaths, tend to be taken in step. 

Except, of course, when they aren’t. As far as stylistic tics are concerned, Kumar isn’t a particularly flashy writer, though he does like to speckle his stories with consciously framed conversational vignettes. “The Miracle That Refused to Happen” takes the form of a dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. James as the latter prepares to leave their childless marriage. There’s a self-conscious contrapuntalism at play: as Mr. James waxes poetic, begging his wife to stay, Mrs. James maintains her stony silence, so that the dialogue itself becomes a mirror of the couple’s sterility. Notably, Mr. James’s memories of the relationship smolder lyrically; he recalls “the blossoms from the red tiger-claw tree of our home, scattered like a beautiful kolam,” and an “ash-colored lizard, heavy with eggs, which would lie motionless on top of the partition wall in the bathroom,” so that what the reader is left with is an image of love as lyrical reminiscence, poised against a great silence. 

Kumar’s stories are filled with instances of performative lyricism, with characters who overflow, babbling on and spinning phrases out of thin air; though his treatment of them is always mildly self-mocking, making light of the act of writing itself. The key to Mr. James’s effusiveness, we learn, lies in its dramatic over-extension and nearly Baudelairean self-intoxication. “Suppose that I do blather away in euphoria,” he exclaims. “But only while floating can you see the meanness of life tethered to the ground.” In the end, the story suggests life itself might be just this: an act of poetic involution; an effusion over emptiness; the lyrical extension of the self through a void.

But Kumar’s wry lyricism serves another, more immediate purpose as well — it stakes a claim. “Five Rupees and the Man in the Dirty Shirt,” in which the narrator meets a famous Tamil literary figure, now fallen on hard times, and is forced to throw him out after his begging grows violent, is more than just a parable about the futility of artistic endeavor. It’s a surfacing, too, of much finer anxieties, among them the attendant pressures of writing in a language that’s rarely translated or given its due as a vehicle of serious literature.

In a sense, Kumar’s floridity is fundamentally metatheatrical, his heightened language limning the inner state of his characters while at the same time asserting their right to be described in a rarefied literary register. In “A Walk in the Dark,” for instance, the protagonist strolls depressively through the streets in the early hours of the morning, luxuriating in his sorrow and bemoaning the idle musings that distract him, “like shapeless corpses that sucked time dry.” When, at the end of the story, the narrator returns home to his mother and, in a fit of embarrassment, throws out the food she’s earned from begging, we sense the eternal return of economic concerns. Life, as Kumar knows, is so often reduced to accounting, to a dull matter of annas and paise, but that doesn’t mean it can’t birth fine sorrows — and that, in turn, these can’t be finely expressed. 

Bailey Trela is writer living in New York whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and The Brooklyn Rail.