The history of Malayalam literature is built on two renaissances: the first took place in the 16th century, and was intensely devotional in nature. Three giants emerged, great poets all and contemporaries of one another, who established two traditions which are still followed: rules for writing literary Malayalam, and the use of Sanskrit to such an inordinate degree as cannot be seen in any other Indian tongue. They were: Ezhuthachan, who translated the Ramayana into Malayalam; Punthanam, who wrote the deeply philosophical Jnana-Paana – in Malayalam; and Melpattur, whose Narayaneeyam is revered as ‘the last great hurrah of Sanskrit poetry’. The second renaissance occurred in the early part of the 20th century, and was led by Vallathol, Asan and Ulloor. This one was distinctly nationalistic in nature, with strong foundations in philosophy and social activism.
In his slim volume ‘Punthanam and Melpattur – Two measures of Faith’, poet Vijay Nambisan seeks to link these two literary movements by serving us translations of Punthanam and Melpattur’s signature works, along with one by Vallathol. It is a unique attempt, which Nambisan appears to have conducted successfully. Just as importantly, he sets the stage with a superbly-written introductory essay – in part to provide background, and in part, to predicate his interesting thesis.
The background is simple: Punthanam wrote the Jnana-Paana in Malayalam, to overcome the agony of a terrible personal tragedy – his infant child was accidentally smothered to death when a heap of clothes was placed on the crib. Melpattur, on the other hand, was the doyen of the Sanskrit world, who pooh-poohed efforts at writing sublime poetry in the vernacular; for him there was only the sacred tongue, and nothing else. For this arrogance – and, because he appeared too conscious of his own, considerable talents – the Gods cursed him with Arthritis; or so the story goes, and that, from this pain of body rose a poem seeking forgiveness of Lord Krishna. Five hundred years later, Vallathol sought to bring these two contemporaries together in a fictional meeting constructed by verse, and submit his judgment on that ancient debate: who is better – Punthanam or Melpattur?
Nambisan readily admits that he has no serious Malayalam, and that the translations are based largely on inputs from his father. He is also touchingly open about his political leanings – hard to the left, and uses them to paint a picture of elitism against the subaltern; where Punthanam, writing in the people’s tongue is David, and Melpattur, master of Sanskrit, is a benign Goliath. He brings out numerous interesting points, like for example Puntanam’s gentle scorn for his own priestly class: ‘Brahmins consider themselves greater than the gods’. Nambisan concludes by appearing to side with Vallathol, whose poem on the apocryphal meeting ends with these lines:
‘To learning indeed [Melpattur] has a claim;
[But] The burning faith of Punthanam is dearer far’
For a Malayalee like myself, who has grown up with both the Jnana-Paana and the Narayaneeyam ringing constantly in his ears, the best part of this slender volume must necessarily then be Nambisan’s long, introductory essay; the man writes effortlessly, and with panache and wit. After all, why would I want to read either poem in an English translation, when I knew them both by rote as a youngster, in Malayalam?
And yet, I found myself running my eyes over the translated lines, and spotting a few delightful gems. In the poem by Vallathol: ‘The bells hang silent in the nave outside, beneath a spell of holiness, till searching fingers find their smooth, round mouths’. Superb, and so vividly familiar to those who frequent temples. Also: ‘…and when at last he wins to this near side of sleep’ – this line so touchingly conveys an image of Melpattur’s painful battle with Arthritis.
One small mistake in the Jnana-paana: Nambisan translates ‘fruit fly’ as ‘mouse’. I don’t know why, nor whether this is intentional, but rather than criticize, I have decided to use this line as symptomatic of the greater burdens of translation. To clarify: I suppose Nambisan’s biggest hurdle in translating the three poems was the strain of needing to retain idiom without losing a sense of what the pieces intended to convey; or, conversely, on losing idiom, then being forced to try and introduce idiomatic equivalence in English. It does not work.
My own take on this vexing problem which has confounded translators ever since man discovered high thought, is that translation is commentary. You cannot translate Marquez from Spanish to English and not lose a significant portion of the original’s beauty; or, you must have the gift of a Tagore to be a bilingual genius. Failing that, the effort of trying to hold on to both the sense and tenor of the original will sadly show – as it does here. Readers must kindly note that this is not meant as a criticism – in many ways, a great translation is a mightier literary feat than the source, but these happen only rarely. An example is Fitzgerald’s translation of the ‘Rubaiat’ from Persian; it stands out shining, and alone, if one looks back two centuries. Another example is the Holy Bible; and a third, Tulsidas’s epic conversion of the Ramayana into Awadhi in the 16th century. Agree or disagree, the third gave the world a Ram-Lila to complement the pre-existing Raasa-Leela, and made Valmiki’s original a poor shadow left to be read only by the truly learned.
With that in mind, I say that Nambisan’s effort may be taken as a reminder that there are no rules: if the message and sentiments of the original may be conveyed unsullied into a new tongue, with as much poetic fervor and flourish, then there is nothing to complain about. Literary licenses exist principally for such purposes, and we must use them with increasing frequency, courageously, if the world is to evolve into a truly global village. Translation is commentary, and we must recognize that.
And finally, what is the verdict on this great debate engendered into legend and immortalized by Vallathol – who wins in this contest of devotion and erudition? Is it Punthanam with his vernacular, or Melpattur with his Sanskrit? My own take is that Vallathol got it wrong. This was not a contest in any classical sense, between two different approaches to god; both contestants were unabashed advocates of Bhakti, of Krishna in particular, and merely sought to express their love for the same divine form in different tongues. Yet, the debate lingers, five hundred years after that era, after two literary renaissances have touched Parashurama’s land. I suppose there is no right answer to us, the axe-born; the best poem is the one you like, and to me, it is a tie. Punthanam’s down-to-earth pragmatism is without poetic parallel, while Melpattur’s masterpiece is undoubtedly, the last great Sanskrit poem written anywhere in India. Still, just to be on the safe side, I thought I’d run the contest past someone who has loved and sung both poems for nearly nine decades – my mother.
She shook her head to feign innocence and tried to brush the question aside, but relented with a sly grin when I persisted. “Puthanam talks about life like no one else has” She drawled, wrinkled fingers inching mischievously towards another chocolate brownie, “But Melpattur is something else – in a class of his own”. I smiled and snatched the last piece off the plate, even as the clear, high-pitched voice of P. Leela came back to me in a tumble of memories. But problem is, I couldn’t figure out which song she was singing – the Jnana-paana, or the Narayaneeyam! Maybe that is how it was meant to be, faith and erudition lying as two sides of one coin, and may it always be so – I like the world better that way. Amen.