Sangeetha Sreenivasan

Sangeetha Sreenivasan

Sangeetha Sreenivasan is a novelist and scriptwriter who writes both in Malayalam and English. She has prviously been known to have translated Elena Ferrante's Days of Abandonment into Malayalam to much acclaim. Utterly gripping and powerfully unsettling, her phenomenal debut novel, Acid, is subversive in its intent and unravels the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of our lives and our pre-conceieved notions about society and its standards. In a conversation with us, Srinivasan lets us in on her relationship with writing, the politics of language and the challenges of being a translator.

When and how did your relationship with writing begin?  

I grew up in a literary environment but I was not very keen on writing. Indeed, when I was an adolescent, I used to have a private notebook which was mostly filled with random lines and quotes from my favourite writers at that time. My mother wanted me to be a writer like her but I never thought I could cross the invisible line and be a writer one day.

My relationship with writing began in the year 2004, which, I believe, was the most unpredictable time of my life. I was filled with a kind of spirited élan to do anything and everything I was capable of and maybe because I was imbued with such a strong desire to invest my energy into something I tried my hand at many things including ornamental art, stained glass works, dress making et cetera, and one day almost unexpectedly I opened my word page and started inventing fiction. My enthusiasm ended up with 13 stories at the end of the second week and an under-developed novel at the end of the second month. I stopped writing at that point. I was lucky enough to get my story “A Magnificent Elopement” published in Indian Literature, a literary journal from Sahitya Akademy and I still cherish the happiness I had had when I received a thousand rupee cheque from them. But my happiness vanished when I realized that Akademy will publish only one story a year by the same author, especially she is a beginner. I was not patient enough to wait for months and I had no idea about the other magazines that published English stories by beginners. That’s when I self-financed and published my first story collection.

After that I literally quit writing and focused my energies in the other games of life. But soon, I found my mind wandering aimlessly around filling me with a powerful urge to write. Moreover, the routine life of a teacher has started debilitating me and it was at this point I revived my old passion for words and my longing to appease my otherwise trustful tendencies. And thus my second phase of writing started in the year 2012 and this time I came up with two novels and two children’s books. 

Since you are a bi-lingual writer and translator, how do you personally deal with the politics of language and the dangers of words and meanings getting lost in translation? 

Though I was not a voracious reader during my childhood, like the many other children of my age I also grew up on translations, especially the translations of Russian & Latin American literature. There was always a peculiarly intriguing spirit about the unknown, the unknown language, people, names, culture, culinary habits, rituals, scents, snow-clad landscapes, derelict buildings in the midst of weed-grown yards, apple boughs, vineyards, a soughing wind in the poplars and pines, paramours with rose bouquets, courtly love, and so on. Maybe, that’s how I developed a strong liking or rather I fell in love with the language of translations, the language deprived of regional dialects and vernacular overtones. When I became a translator I began to sense in me a desire to take a conscious effort not to deviate from the language of the author. At a certain point of time during my translation of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment I sensed a vague feeling of apprehension that my language was abandoning me, slowly giving me up. This dilemma happened during the elaborate sex scenes; the scenes marked by hatred and disoriented interests where the author describes the body parts and sexual acts in detail. The obnoxious rawness of words in the original form made me stammer for words at times, particularly, when I know that the writer has deliberately used a certain set of words in a certain context was not to embarrass or shock the reader but to ravel out the disoriented mindset of a woman totally abandoned. 

There lies the challenge or danger in translating as the translator is in no position to mitigate the tone the author has used intentionally or make the situation palatable for the community or area in which the translator belongs. Malayalam tends to borrow highly affluent and polished words from Sanskrit to mask the unpleasantness of plain words, but in an emotionally charged and unsettled situations polished words may play a rather alien role, detaching the essence from the form, the scent from the flower, giving it a plastic appearance. Translation is not a child’s game and I was sure I was not meaning to turn back at this point or dally about with a child’s innocence of “truth or dare?” I was determined to do justice to the author even if it meant a cultural shock to my readers.  But when I translated my own novel, I had enjoyed the full freedom tweaking certain portions and elaborating certain other parts in the way I wanted it.

How would you describe your relationship with writing as?

The curious person that I am, I am always attracted to the five Ws of our existence, our storytelling: who, what, where, when & why. My active curiosity became a more committed activity over the years and I wished to try to explore our lives from every angle under the sun & moon & stars by taking pleasure in the glory of the written word. I have always wanted to invent my own realities, which, I think, is the point of art.

And I love the physicality in writing which makes me feel very alive—I tip, I twitch, I tumble, I turn. Writing makes me feel as if the breath around me is purer and sapid. And, of course, there is the freedom from duplicity and freedom from silence; as Audre Lorde told us, our silence will not protect us.


Sangeetha Sreenivasan

Your first book Acid was written in Malayalam and then translated by you in English. Does Malayalam perhaps dominate your artistic voice and would you ever venture to write in English first?

As I told you earlier, my first collection of short stories, Penguins Who Lost the March, 2005, was originally written in English. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a publisher at the time and to placate my own frustrated enthusiasm I was compelled to self-finance the publication. The book was blessed with a foreword by Kamala Das. But soon after that I quit writing and didn’t even write a single line for almost seven years. My mother, who always wanted to see me as a writer, maybe to inspire me, translated two of my stories into Malayalam and published it in Mathrubhumi. Like the cars on a highway, the memory of my mother’s efforts and the glamour of the magazines soon drove off leaving no permanent marks on me. But then after three or four years I got into writing again entirely by accident. This time I wanted to write in my language, my dream then was to write a book for children. I wrote a small novel for children and I was lucky to get DC Books as my publisher.  Then I discovered the happiness and freedom in writing in one’s own language than in a foreign language I have not yet mastered. I don’t think I can write the way an American writer writes, I can only dream of those wonderful idioms that ornate the works of a native English writer filling up my passages one day. Because I believe your mother tongue is inseparable from you and so is your culture. I don’t mind marvel about my ground getting covered in the fresh snow of the year, ninjas fighting to save my paramour, Lydia Davis filling up her book with fabulous idioms or Charles Bukowski calling me names, but when it comes to writing I can be sincere only when I translate my culture and my scents. In that sense, maybe, my language dominates my artistic voice in a better way. 

What inspired you to write Acid

I wanted to write about the fate of a woman wounded and destabilized in her pursuit of happiness and peace on earth. Lesbian theme was not my concern while I was writing her story, even acid was added on at a later stage of the novel. In fact, I was looking for ingredients to make the devastation perfect. Two crippled children, unrequited love, hidden sexual preference, and marriage to one’s own cousin—all these were my tools in molding my lady’s devastation. Acid was not meant to be a lesbian novel and it is not even though it tells the story of two women living together. This is the story of a woman. I believe each woman has a story to tell. There was Sappho, there was Avvaiyar, there was Héloïse, there was Lady Murasaki, who I call The First Lady of Novel, there was Emily Dicksinson, there was the Story of O, there were a series of letters addressed to “Dear Dick”. Invariably, all these stories unravel the mindscape of the universal femininity in parts and sex is a driving force in them. Some of these stories were inordinately strange to my rustic sensibilities but all the same I have devoured these stories of women with the rapturous zest of the one who wants to follow them. And there came Kamala, the heroine of my story who spends her entire time trying to figure out the ways of life. She tells the story of her failure and hope. I introduced acid into her life to take the ride of destruction to its zenith. 

Could you tell us about your creative writing process behind Acid?

I was seized by the story of two women many years back and was persuaded by my reading of the Malayalam translations of Kalidasa to create a woman who is exquisitely beautiful, tender and fragile and whose feet resembled the lotus petals of the early morning. The woman I envisaged resembled the water lily pond of Claude Monet. I called the skeleton form of my first novel as “The Toddlers on the Lotus Leaf”, a work of about two hundred pages. Many years later when I wanted to write a second novel in Malayalam, I dug up this first effort that has not seen the light of the printing house. It took me three frenzied months to complete the work of Acid, and at the end of it I found my characters wrapped around my entire body which was not easy for me to shake off. It was like a vertiginous trip down the memory lane. 

Acid deals with some very contemporary issues, from drugs to same-sex relationships and even some intentionally ignored issues related to family and motherhood. How do you think your work or any work of literature, affects these issues and as a writer, how do you grapple with these troubling realities and explore them through fiction?

As a writer I don’t think I am judgmental. Following Ovid I also believe that the world is made up of chaos. Everything exists together here, every person is an extension of the other person; like the roots of the trees are connected, human beings are also connected through the invisible and extended roots or limbs of nature. An angelic smile is followed by a Mephistophelean laughter and that is the way the world moves forward and we cannot expect goodness to bloom at every other second. If it does it would be a false world altogether.  We are in the network of a greater force of which we do not even have the rudimental knowledge. I believe each person has his or her right to happiness and I don’t really care about their personal choices so far as love and sex are concerned. In this particular story, as I have mentioned earlier I made use of same-sex relationships and family and motherhood issues as tools to complete the mission of annihilation, the annihilation of a simple, fragile woman. Here, her love remains unrequited as her partner is not a lesbian, she was forced to marry her cousin and she fails to fulfill the promises of motherhood due to a succession of hapless events. An unfortunate decision follows the other resulting in total chaos. I don’t mind if people go for the same sex or the opposite sex. These are all personal choices, and nothing really matters as long as love exists amidst confusions. The best thing about literature is that it gives space to all kinds of preferences and personal choices. 

For Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his magical realism was heavily influenced by the stories that he heard from his maternal grandmother. Since your book is also heavily imbued with versions of magical realism, are there any specific influences in your life from where these metaphors emerge from? 

Latin American writers have played a great role in inspiring the Kerala readers, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was not even a foreign writer as far as the spirited readers are concerned. In my case, I consider what I write is just an extension or borrowed version of the books I had read earlier or the music or movie I had experienced with my heart and intellect. Everything is a continuation, a continuous conversation, a tribute to the great writers or singers or artists of the past, because I believe it was those wonderful people who helped me create my sensibility, influenced me enough to help me with my initial steps. And there is my mother who is always a great inspiration.

What are your views regarding the current scenario of female fiction in the Indian literary landscape?

We have phenomenal women, from Andal to Jhumpa Lahiri, from Muddupalani to Arundhati Roy who have stripped away all falsehoods. I feel active and healthy, grateful and at peace while reading them, and re-reading them is confronting yourself at different stages of your life.

You have translated Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Are there any other books you are thinking of or are currently translating?

At present, for the fun of it, I am trying to make sense of a few Russell Edson pieces in Malayalam, a writer who has inspired my favorite writer Lydia Davis. Edson’s antirealism inspires and provokes me straight away. I’m totally drawn to his liveliness and his characters’ will to freedom.

I am also thinking of translating the Malayalam novel my mother has just completed.

Are there any specific reasons behind choosing a certain book for translation?

Certain books inspire me beyond means. I felt mysteriously connected with Elena Ferrante while reading her books. I loved the very intense, aggressive, feminine sensibility and the anger and frustration of an abandoned mother from Days of Abandonment. And translating the oddly touching, conflicted, feral eroticism of Ferrante was a real challenge. I have to say I put all my energies into writing this Malayalam translation.

Please tell us more about your future projects and literary ambitions?

My next novel Salabham, Pookkal, Aeroplane will be published in September 2018 by DC Books. In the future, even though more could be cited, I would also like to translate some of Montaigne’s essays ("It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him") and all those zesty, slightly scandalous women voices from Gatha Saptasati.

TEXT Nidhi Verma