Cover image of the book 'Meeran's Stories' writter by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran, translated by Prabha Sridevan.
"Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating." — O’Henry, The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry was arguably one of the most respected short story writers the world of English literature has given us. If he had written nothing other than The Gift of the Magi, his name would have been carved in stone. His stories became the yardstick against which other writers of the short format were constantly compared. A simple plot, concise in development, highlighting human frailties and a startlingly surprise ending were his hallmarks.
I was instantly reminded of O. Henry’s narrative style when I started reading the late Thoppil Mohamed Meeran’s short stories. Written originally in Tamil by the Sahitya Akademi Award winner, Meeran’s Stories, translated into English by Prabha Sridevan and published by Ratna Books, this compact collection of 18 stories is a seductive read. It will not be possible for this reviewer to make an educated comment on how the English rendition stacks up against the original Tamil by Meeran. Suffice it to say that, in the deft and lucid hands of Prabha Sridevan, no stranger to the genre, I felt no loss of local colour or ‘feel’ that Meeran must have so eloquently brought out in his native tongue.
A major attraction that Meeran’s Stories provides us with is a rare peek behind the purdah into how the Muslim community, inhabiting the coastal tip of South India in the Kanyakumari district and its environs, conducted their lives and went about their daily rounds of duties and concerns. Oftentimes, the reader is left wondering if these tales emanate from Tamil Nadu or Kerala, given the unique dialect and references from both these neighbouring states that one comes across in the variegated stories so feelingly told. From a reader’s point of view, particularly in English, this provides a refreshing contrast from the Tamil classics that one has read which deal primarily with Hindu legends, pantheons and also common folk. One would even go a step further and say that the inherent beauty of these short tales is that, after a point, one becomes oblivious to the religion or caste that the characters belong to. It is the power of the storyteller that holds sway.
Many of the stories deal with human struggles and foibles, everyday problems faced with either fortitude or a sense of fatalism. Long lost relationships briefly revisited, a family patriarch driven out of his own home, the Calendar Bawa who could predict the sighting of the Ramzan moon with Swiss chronometric precision, the amazing, and darkly comic, journey of a coffin containing a body none of the family members wish to know about, an English saheb who pretends to help the local community only to exploit them mercilessly, a singular heirloom, a carved almirah, which the family avariciously seeks to get their grubby hands on, the last rung of a ladder that spells the near-fatal fall of Moothamma and many more such engrossing themes. However, Meeran’s imagination soars when he decides to delve into the fantasy world of a girl’s imagination that is Noorunnisa’s world of forlorn dreams. She daily scans (in a self-fulfilling mirage) the horizon for a ship that carries the dream love of her life, the indescribably handsome figure of Abdullah Ibnu Abubakker who would sweep her off her feet; but like Icarus’ waxed wings and his ill-fated flight close to the sun, Noorunnisa is tragically brought down to earth.
Above all, Meeran brings to us the sights, the sounds, the smells, the agony and the ecstasy of a community that ekes out its living in coastal areas where tranquility and tsunami coexist, matching the ebb and flow of a people whose every second of existence is pregnant with all manner of possibilities. Something seems to be waiting to happen just around the corner. It could be a snake, a temple elephant or just a street urchin looking for some fun. In the hands of Meeran, however, they all come alive in ways we can scarcely visualise. Tamil and Malayalam references, reflecting their geographical propinquity, frequently dot the pages. In the translator Sridevan’s own words, "There is an all-enveloping compassion in his world, it is a compassion which sees all the ugliness and meanness and is yet compassionate. Without brandishing any banner, he tells me of the lives of his people, the Muslims who live in the southern tip facing the sea."
It is mind-boggling to imagine the number of stories in the vernacular that must surely abound in a vast, polyglot country like India. Translating these into English, a monumental task, is probably at a still developing stage but it is a healthy work in progress. More and more talented writers are emerging to explore this virgin territory to make available such unique tales to a much wider English-speaking world. If such unheralded works are being brought to us thanks to the sterling efforts of visionary publishers and translators, it can only be for the greater good. In the case of Meeran’s Stories, one can do no better than to quote Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s lyrical testimony from the dust jacket, "They are about a particular people but more they are about people. They are about a particular place but more, about the place of feeling in the desert of custom."