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Reading Across India: The Works of Feminist Legend Sarah Joseph

Tales from the subaltern, by a unique feminist voice

Your fortnightly Reading Across India pick. Noted Malayali Feminist Sarah Joseph retells the Ramayana with Angadan as the central protagonist.

Introducing Sarah Joseph

This week in Reading Across IndiaSuneetha Balakrishnan introduces us to feminist writer Sarah Joseph from Kerala. Care to join us as we read Sarah Teacher’s The Vigil in March?

Malayalam, incidentally my mother tongue, is the language spoken in the tiny coastal state of Kerala, located at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. Kerala is a place known globally for its beaches and backwaters and the most for its spices (which brought in Vasco de Gama from Portugal in 1498 and many more Europeans in his footsteps to our beaches) Our travel-bug-smitten and migration-happy people, their paradoxes as well as the excellent development indices and literacy rates within the geographical boundaries are the other things that have made headlines across the world. I should not forget how we have the credit of being the first ever state to democratically elect a Communist party to govern us, way back in the 1950s. We have a rich publishing field, excellent literature and we are people who get highs on world literature in translation. If you need proof for that, Malayalam was the very first language into which Marquez was translated into after he appeared in English. And we have every Nobel Prize and other major prize winners appearing in translation as soon as the award is announced.

Sarah Joseph, the author I introduce today, is a living legend, not only as author, but also as a prominent feminist and a social activist. You can read more about her here. She is one of the leading writers in Malayalam, and I have chosen her latest translated book for introduction in this episode of Reading Across India. Sara Teacher, as we call her (that’s because she is a retired professor), has opted to do a mythology retelling in the voice of a minor character – Angadan in the epic Ramayana – in her novel Oorukaval

Translated by well-established translator and Charles Wallace scholar Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, the English version is entitled ‘The Vigil’. This is certainly not the first Ramayana retelling – in fact it is the umpteenth one on the shelf – but as expected, someone of Sara Teacher’s stature would not do a retelling without adding her scholarship and literary skill to it. The character she has chosen as the central protagonist is ‘Angadan’, who is only a minor character in the Ramayana. He is from the monkey clan of Kishkintha, a prince, and the son of a slain king, as well as the nephew of the ruling one. Angada in the epic is the symbol of diplomacy, especially in the crucial days of battle, but his story is not dwelled on at length. It’s this space that Sara Teacher has tried to manipulate into her novel.

Retellings of Ramayana have mostly meandered around the religious aspect of the epic, but the author here has tried to look at its politics, especially the gender politics that begs to be spoken about in epics. She touches upon issues like the rights of tribal people, and an imperialism that is cultural rather than geographical. The glory that shrouds some characters in traditional renderings falls off in The Vigil, and we see them in less flattering shades.

I read the book in its original language, Malayalam, first, and then in the English translation. I definitely love the original more than the translation for various reasons. Sara Teacher’s use of language has certain nuances and her style of writing is not easy to catch in translation. I remember her other books here.

There is my favourite one calledOthappu’, which is available in translation under the title ‘The Scent of the Other Side. The novel deals with the decision of a nun giving up her habit to embrace a life free from the fetters of time-honoured religious standards and practices. ‘Marghalitha’, the central character in Othappu, comes to logger heads with the Church and the society.
Then there is her most popular book, ‘Alaahayude Penmakkal’ or ‘Daughters of God, the Father’. It is the first of a trilogy which is completed by ‘Othappu’, and ‘Mattathi’ which is the second book. The novel ‘Alaahayude Penmakkal’ narrates the tale of marginalized groups who are never acknowledged by the society, and are often displaced from their places of stay and livelihoods, in the name of development and change. The narrator Annie is the voice of three generations of her subaltern group, and it is written in a fiercely feminine perspective.

Her yet to be translated work that appeared in 2013 is ‘Aalohari Aanandam’ or roughly translated ‘Per Capita Happiness’. This is set in a large Christian household, and handles two subjects, man-woman relationships, and sexual orientation. It narrates the tale of homosexuality of a married woman and its impact. I should also mention her short story collection here titled ‘Paapathara’ which is considered a milestone in feminist Malayalam writing.

Sarah Joseph is not your usual woman writer or normal Indian writer. She chooses subjects and stories that are not seen in mainstream, and uses a quaint narrative style and tones of language that we don’t see around any longer. I would recommend you read any of her books, I am sure you are not going to stop at one, after that.

This article is published with permission from Suneetha Balakrishnan as a part of her project Reading Across India. It was originally published in her blog here. Suneetha is a writer and a translator whose works have been published in several Indian newspapers and magazines including The Hindu Metro Plus, The Hindu Literary Review, The Business Standard, The Economic Times, Caravan, Muse India and You can read more of Suneetha’s writings here.

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