Friday, February 20, 2009

“Inauspicious Times” by Appadurai Muttulingam – A Tiny Treasure Chest of Tamil Tales

Little did I know when I met Appadurai Muttulingam at a wedding on Nantucket a few summers ago what benefits would accrue from that new relationship. It turns out that this fascinating gentleman is an accomplished and gifted writer, who has penned over 100 short stories in his native Tamil language, as well as essays and interviews. After several earlier attempts to find a satisfactory way to translate his stories into English, he has partnered with Padma Narayanan to produce a thoroughly delightful English translation of 14 of his stories. The book is published under the title “Inauspicious Times.”

This tiny volume is worth its weight in gold. I found it to be thoroughly delightful, enlightening and engaging. The common thread among the stories is that the reader is invited to see the world through the unblinking eyes of men, women, boys and girls who are all struggling to survive day-to-day in “inauspicious times” - in settings as diverse as Somalia, Sri Lanka, U.S., Canada, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kenya. Author and translator have combined forces seamlessly to present stories told in a minimalist style that I found very appealing and refreshing. Simple events, gestures, words and coincidences are woven together to create a tapestry that highlights the universality of the human experience – transcending geography, culture, language and socio-economic status.

In his introduction, the author opens with an apt metaphor that grabbed my attention from the opening lines:

“For many years I have been buying and planting hydrangeas in my garden. I buy plants with pink flowers and plant them in the garden and the flowers promptly turn blue. In some instances the blue flowers change into pink on their own without any help from me. The plant actually stays the same and it is the acidity of the soil that changes the colour into blue or pink. It took years for me to realise this . . . All I have done in this collection is to plant the seed. Whether it will turn pink or blue in the hands of the readers, I cannot say.” (pages 9-10)

The thought that Mr. Muttulingam expresses in these introductory remarks strikes me as quintessentially Asian. In his recent book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that there is a marked difference between East and West in terms of expectation of responsibility in communication. In Western cultures, it is assumed that it is the responsibility of the sender of a message to ensure that the message is sent and understood clearly. Conversely, in many Asian cultures, the responsibility rests with the recipient of the message to plumb the depth of meaning. The author of “Inauspicious Times,” is telling me that the “acidity” of my heart and world view will determine whether I see his stories and his characters as “pink or blue.”

In keeping with this metaphor, the author paints his characters and settings in muted pastel tones, using a very light touch. Like all good artists, he often uses “negative space” to enhance the portrait that he is painting. In one story, for example, it is an unopened letter that ends up conveying more information that would have been available to the reader if the contents of the letter had been explicitly revealed. The effect is striking and indelible.

I loved the first story, “The Camel.” In this tale, the writer uses the opposite of anthropomorphism, attributing the attributes of a camel to his protagonist, the Somali woman, Maimoon. She is like the camels that surround her - in her gait, in her role as a beast of burden, in her ability to walk long distances in the desert without water. She ends up being sold into a loveless marriage for the price of 50 camels. Her story is told as through the unblinking lens of a camera. Life is hard and full of trials and tribulations. The skeleton of an infant that died along with its mother is described unemotionally as part of the landscape. Life is hard. Death is part of life.

In “Black Squirrel,” another protagonist mimics the attributes of an animal. Like the black squirrel he observes gathering nuts, Lohidasan “squirrels away” the coins he gathers up that are dropped each day by the patrons of the parking lot that he passes on his way home from work. This simple tale shines a light on the lives of quiet desperation being lived by thousands of immigrant day laborers in Canada.

Let me share some of the subtle beauty of the writing that fills the pages of this thin volume. In the story entitled, “The Cotton Flower,” a minor official in the Water Resources Department in Sudan is an ex-patriot from Sri Lanka. He loses his post because he diverted an irrigation canal in order to provide water for a struggling widow. Upon learning that he has been fired, he goes to pay a final visit to the widow:

“Ehdiram was delighted to see him. The cotton plants had grown tall and were covered with bunches of flowers. As far as is eyes could see, the plants filled the area and looked like a thousand women bent down, their heads adorned with white flowers. Would anyone believe that this place had been an arid land a few months ago? When the wind blew in spirals, the cotton plants swayed slightly and fanned away the heat.

The old woman’s face was as happy as a young girl’s. ‘What is it, Waldih? Why does your face look so sad?’ Ehdiram brought some kekkde for him to drink, well sweetened with kenana sugar. The woman had never before addressed him as Waldih, meaning ‘dear son.’ The endearment had its effect on him. He had seen bullocks shiver with pleasure when rubbed on their backs. Gunasingam felt a similar shiver at the touch of the word 'Waldih.' He felt like crying his heart out. He felt peaceful at the same time. He took leave of the woman knowing it was the last time and went back to his office.” (Page 76)

The bottom line is that I was sad to find that I had read the last of the stories. I was hungry for more. It is my hope that Muttulingam and Narayanan will collaborate again soon to translate more of his existing Tamil language short stories into English. In the meanwhile, I encourage you to find this book (Available on and enjoy both the blue and the pink flowers that you will see in the garden of your imagination.



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