Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Litanies of Dutch Battery...

Litanies of Dutch Battery by N.S. Madhavan Translated by Rajesh Rajamohan.
Published by: Penguin Books India on 25 Oct 201
Format: Paperback
Extent: 324 pp
Cover Price: Rs 350              

When a fellow blogger translates a good book and the translation is also critically acclaimed it is time to celebrate. The reviews and endorsements have  been very encouraging. This is what Khushwant Singh has to say about the book in his column with malice towards one and all (Hindustan Times, Dec 19, 2010) :

In the past I was able to read between 30-40 books every year. This time I could read only 25. But some of them impressed me deeply. On top of my list is N.S. Madhavan's Litanies of Dutch Battery, translated from Malayalam to English by Rajesh Rajamohan (Penguin). It is an outstanding work of historical fiction which tells the story of the inhabitants of the Malabar coast from ancient times to the present; from the caste-ridden Hindu past dividing Namboodris and Ezhera (sic) toddy-tappers to Arab traders who brought Islam with them, built mosques and married local women whose children came to be known as Moplaha. A second influx comprising Portuguese, Dutch and English brought Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and Syrian Christians. With the increase of means of communication Hindi films and songs of K.L. Sehgal came to Kerala and brought Keralites closer to Northern Indians. After Independence, it became the first State of India to elect a Communist regime, attain 100% literacy. It is a beautiful state, rich in its flora and fauna, inland waterways, which earned it the little of being 'God's own Country'. I only wish its title of the book was more comprehensible than it is. Click here to read the column as it appeared on Dec 19. The Hindustan Times is a paper which we subscribe to but I saw the issue of the 19th on the 20th after returning from seeing the Buddhist stupas at Sanchi (more on that later.)
A remarkable novel. Rarely has Kerala, the crossroads of global cultures and ideologies, been so sensuously and grippingly evoked’ - Pankaj Mishra

'Epic imagination . . . N.S. Madhavan has rejuvenated Malayalam fiction’ - The Little Magazine

Many of the writings on the book are endorsements or informative pieces.They would not qualify as reviews. Well, as long as they whet the appetite of readers...
From Himal: The stories of Dutch Battery (or Lantham Bathery, in Malayalam) are told by Jessica, who begins while still in the womb. She grows up to be a feisty teenager and a devout but reflective Christian. From her, we learn that the residents of Lantham Bathery name Vasco da Gama in their prayers, crediting him for both their conversion to Christianity and an end to their oppression as lower-caste Hindus. We hear how Amrita Sher-Gil, the painter, appears in Kochi and buys two easels, the most perfect that she has ever seen. We come to know that as a result of the rice shortage in Kerala in 1958, its communist chief minister introduced macaroni into the market – and was subsequently referred to as ‘Lord Macaroni’.

Litanies is set on the imaginary island of Lantham Battery, just to the north of Fort Kochi. ‘Historical’ anecdotes comprise the first half, with a prominent theme being the rise of communism in Kerala. The result, though, is the reader feels a little lost without a plot. One emerges in the second half, however, when Jessica is sexually harassed by her mathematics tutor. When she speaks up about the abuse, her family tries to shut her up, save for her grandfather. More interesting is that the response to Jessica’s plight by followers of god and Marx is the same: Let it be. The padre cannot intervene because her perpetrator is not a Catholic, and the local communist leader says she imagined it. In the end, Jessica has to choose between suicide and going mad – the latter her grandfather’s suggestion. (Meher Ali) (Click here  to see it on their website)

It was through Rajesh's blog that I came to know about Litanies of Dutch Battery. An excerpt: The mosaic Madhavan created when he inversed Jessica’s itsy bitsy memories through a glass has been a joy. I have traveled the places he narrated. I have studied in the school where Raghavan and Pushpangadan master taught in the book, I have watched the orange sunsets beyond the slender strip of Vypin behind Lanthan Batheri and I think I have met all the characters in person if I let go on this anachronistic time, really!

As a Malayali I feel it is sad that I can only read a translated version. That is the sad story of many like me who have lived all over India like gypsies thanks to their fathers being soldiers. But I am glad that a fellow blogger and good friend has enabled me to savour this piece of exquisite writing through such an exquisite example of good translation.


P M Ravindran said...

I am tempted to grab a copy of the book but there are quite a few books I have so grabbed and not read for a long time due to constraints of time. I have even been thinking of writing a book myself: Our Courts of Injustice. Enough material to write but ....

Dev said...

PMR: Please do grab a copy. It will be worth it...