Sheela Tomy’s novel set in a Kerala forest is a universal study in human savagery
I read Valley as I traveled to Wayanad with an aunt who is part of the community seeking to make the idiom “lost in translation” a saying. A bucket lined with garbage bags sat on the seat next to me; hairpin turns usually make me vomit, but this time Sheela Tomy managed to distract me. Jayshree Kalathil joined Tomy’s effort as a translator.
Their novel – and I’ll tell you later why I call it theirs – Valley begins with a revealing sentence: “There was a time when Kalluvayal was a dense and deep forest. Kalluvayal is a village in the Western Ghats and the home of by Valli characters. Scroll.in published an excerpt from Valley, rightly calling it a “family saga”. With Tessa, Sara and Thommichan’s granddaughter, who fled to Wayanad in 1970, this 420 pages spans half a century. Susan, Tessa’s mother, left her a diary. In this diary, the family boundary of the novel spans the migrants and Adivasi communities of Kalluvayal.
Exploratory if not experimental
After reading the novel, I took a notebook to draw the family pictures of its characters. I gave up after drawing three trees. Tomy mentions Garcia Marquez enough times to make sure you can’t help but notice the sheer number of characters residing in his prose. It’s not a stuffy house; they huddle inside the sentences of conventional writing. Take, for example, Ivan Useph’s family of four: his wife Annamkutty and his children, Luca, Isabella and Peter.
Ivan, a timber merchant, speaks in spitting and cursing reels. “Pha! he spits as he jumps to his feet to insult anyone who meets him: his son Peter, marrying someone from a lower caste, his brother-in-law Varkey, calling him drunk by an insulting nickname, and his tenants , the ploughmen, revolted for what he owes them. Tomy animates Ivan as a wriggling lizard that you can’t crush.
He will push his tail away and return to you, asking for his due, as he did in Theyamma after his husband died. His wickedness is vicious, expected, and unsurprisingly spills over to his son, Luca, a quintessential colonialist who rapes and ravages everything he finds beneath him. Tomy argues that these men are the real savages, along with women like Rahel, Ivan’s wife, who overlooks her husband’s infidelity for the low price of gold jewelry.
Peter’s family nestles in Sara’s diary due to her friendship with Thomichan, but Tomy doesn’t blind us with a singular perspective. As Kalathil points out in his translator’s note, Valley uses letters, journal entries, folk songs, lore, Bible quotes, popular movie songs, and Christian devotions. The second you think, “Yes, I know how this story is going to turn out,” Tomy slams right in front of you and laughs mockingly, “Hah. Nope!”.
However, while Valley is exploratory in form, not experimental. Lines of premonition speckle the story like someone laughing before they’ve finished telling you the joke. Star-crossed lovers – Peter and Lucy, Isabella and Prakashan, Kalluvayal and its inhabitants – live the same story. Although Indigenous characters flood the story, Tomy strays from writing from their perspective, making a politically correct decision that alienates the reader from the community. Instead, Sara, and sometimes an omniscient perspective, speaking in a language that is not their own, speaks for them.
A universal story in translation
“I don’t know if they influence my writing.” said Tomy, speaking of Garcia, Roy and Rulfo. Platelets of these writers’ styles transfuse his prose, making it as common as Type O. But Valley, the novel as an English translation, does not need literary ornaments. When a book can breathe in another language, it shows how universal it is. Tomy says, “Kalluvayal is universal,”; The Kalathil translation reinforces this idea.
Without the English language reinforcing the otherness of the language without Paniya writing, Valley would not radiate its universality so strongly. Kalathil accompanies Paniya’s English translation with their romanizations, giving the reader the choice to offer a voice to a scriptless language. This choice is not just a symbol, but an illustration of how Tomy wrote Valley and how Kalathil approached his translation. Tomy may have written a book that we’ve read before, but she wrote it in such a way that the reader can suspend that belief for a while. Kalathil’s translation, however, argues that this suspension is redundant for his interpretation of this novel.
When a group of men burn a slope in Kalluvayal in a cemetery, Peter yells at Luca, holding a nearly dead child in his hands, “Eat it, why don’t you you sorry son of a bitch. ” One can only notice the coexistence of several languages in this sentence: Malayalam, English, the inflection of anger, the dehumanization of Luca, and other things that I will understand by re-reading this novel a second time. Really, what is lost in this translation?
Tomy says, “Jayasree’s translation was way beyond a literary recreation, and even re-thought the idea of the original text (sic)”, and I can only agree with her. While Tomy has written a novel that sits comfortably on the shelves of Malayalam literature, Kalathil’s translation stirs English-speaking readers, illustrating the limitations of the language by using it to one’s advantage. I mean, haven’t you noticed? The font size of the translator’s name on the cover is only about three sizes smaller than the writer’s.
Valley, Sheela Tomy, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India.