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Translator’s Note: Heat

This novel is unusual in many ways. It has a simple storyline, based on a real-life incident. A fifteen-year-old boy kills a man. Then he goes into hiding with his father in the forests and hills near his hometown. They spend a week surviving in the wilderness under harsh conditions before they eventually surrender to the police.

During their life as outlaws, father and son spend their time in a variety of locations: forested tank bed, rocky outcrop, graveyard, temple and cane field, among others. They forage for food, cook, clean, endure hunger and thirst, scout for locations, trudge very long distances over hills and plains and also, in the case of the boy, find ways to amuse themselves with diversions. They also reminisce, together and alone, about the past, the incidents that sowed enmity in the boy’s heart and led to the murder.

Vekkai, the Tamil original of Heat, has earned a special place in the canon of modernist Tamil literature of the last century. It is the second of two landmark novels with a subaltern backdrop that Poomani, now a distinguished elder of Tamil letters, wrote in his early thirties. Both for the poignant story it tells and for its exemplary craft, the novel won wide critical acclaim at the time of first publication and has been regarded ever since as a classic. A thirtieth-anniversary edition was published in 2012, ensuring that this special work, which has remained fresh and original even after so many years, will be available to younger readers in the years to come. Vekkai is also the first of Poomani’s novels to be translated into English.

What makes Heat unusual is the extraordinary humanity with which the author brings alive the world of low-caste, poor Tamils. The novel does not reduce the boy’s family to victims of oppression who belong to this or that caste. They have their battles with landlords and their henchmen, factory owners and commission agents, the police, protest rallies and politicians, the illicit liquor business and the courts of justice. And yes, it is these events that create the plot of the story.

But the novel sets the politics in the background, essentializing it in many respects, and draws instead an extraordinary cast of characters – complex, tender, written with real empathy – and their relationships with one another. Since very few novels of the subaltern life had been written in the naturalist mode at the time, Poomani had to invent a language along with the story that brought real life closer to literary fiction.

The prose is economical – yet the brief, pregnant exchanges between the individuals lend a vivid and vital shape to each character. A few details evoke a whole landscape. Small shifts of wind, light and a few leaves on the trees set the mood for a situation. And there is love. The eminent Tamil writer B. Jeyamohan observed once that a fine thread of love runs through every page of this novel. Familial love – between father and son, siblings, aunt and nephew, cousins, sisters-in-law – is expressed in countless ways in every situation in the narrative, through attention, touch, empathy, gesture and play.

As the translator I have tried hard to reproduce the evocative magic of Poomani’s narrative style and language. Inevitably, there are challenges. The idioms and phrases that arise from the life lived in the region where the novel is set could not always travel smoothly to English. Some plants and vegetation local to the area were given their formal botanical names that will not be easily recognized by readers of the English text. Beyond these constraints, there is enough in the translator’s art, one hopes, to bring the story and people of Heat alive in a new language.

I thank R. Sivapriya and Chiki Sarkar of Juggernaut Books for commissioning the translation and ably transforming the text through the editing and production process into a splendid volume. I am grateful to the author Poomani for the gift and grace of his friendship, which has played no small part in inspiring and enhancing the quality of this work.


N. Kalyan Raman

17 December 2018

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