The Heroine and Other Stories
Deepalakshmi J is a business writer with many years of experience in technical, marketing, and corporate communication. She also writes creatively and her work has appeared in leading English and Tamil publications. This is her first published book of translations. She lives with her family in Chennai and welcomes interaction at firstname.lastname@example.org
Travelling into the World of JK
The first time I ever heard the name Jayakanthan, or JK, was in the early 1980s. Those were the days when entire streets would congregate in a single house in the neighborhood to watch the weekly Tamil movies that DD would air. That evening, it was Sila Nerankalil Sila Manithargal. The movie is about a young woman, who is seduced by a stranger one rainy evening. Predictably, the girl regrets the encounter and confesses to her mother. The family reacts badly and throws her out as the fallen woman. Even as the movie was playing, my mother was all eyes and hands, emoting to the small audience at home about how JK rewrote his original story as a response to his critics. In the original story, the mother calms down quickly, gives her an oil bath, tells her all is well, and that she’s now pure again. Obviously, the women folk loved the original story, even if it did involve a metaphorical cleansing.
Not more than 5 years of age, but already sprouting feminist wings, I had mentally made a note to read JK, but never realized that it would remain a dream for a while. That is, until the release of The Heroine and Other Stories, a collection of JK’s short stories translated by Deepalakshmi Jayakanthan.
Deepalakshmi has brought alive each of JK’s characters with all their subtleties and, I must say, idiosyncrasies effortlessly. She’s meticulously selected these 11 stories from a very large collection to introduce arguably a true legend of his times to an English-speaking audience. Each one of the characters is etched with absolute finesse by the master storyteller. Women and men come alive in the stories that JK spins around them. In some stories, JK holds your hand lightly and takes you on a sprightly walk through gardens filled with tender blossoms and greenery. In other stories, he plunges you right into the eye of a massive tornado that will refuse to leave without thumping its footprint in your mind. One uniting theme across the stories is the abiding capacity of the human heart to straddle all sorts of emotions, sometimes blithely and sometimes clumsily. JK’s pen expertly pries open the inner conflicts of women trapped in loveless marriages, the selfishness of saintly motherhood, the depravity and utter vulnerability of men in intimate relationships, and the strangeness of love that at the drop of a hat will traverse from the self-sacrificing kind to the ready-to-kill.
JK’s narrative intrusions are par excellence. The black kitten in New Horizons keeps making its appearance ever so often, eyeballing the characters, slurping its milk from the saucer, or purring loudly, and all the time insidiously heightening the tension that keeps building with every single word. As the story comes to its inevitable end, leaving the reader clutching her heart in her hand, the kitten returns and looks on with its glinting eyes (sic!).
JK, I now know, is some master at creating a killer climax. If the story is too subtle with very little drama, he brings it all with a bang right in the end. In Beyond Cognizance, after what seems like a nice little chit chat about mundane philosophy that defines the existence of well, the everyday, peppering it with a little humor, he delivers a death blow in the last couple of lines, which left this writer massaging the center of her forehead while envying wistfully JK’s unparalleled art. In stories that have drama snaking through every blade of emotion, he provides the much needed respite in the climax.
The sounds and sights that JK creates in these stories are surreal, to say the least. In Its Only Words, he draws the reader into a dark world illuminated only by sounds and touch. The story is filled with sounds of a faraway train, someone playing a flute, someone singing, the owls hooting, or the familiar touch of a little stray dog cuddling by one’s feet. His imagery is rich with colors, common people, temples, flower vendors, and so many elements that define every day in the Tamil milieu. In the novelette The Masquerade, JK brings alive Chidambaram, a small town off the East Coast Road, in all its splendor, complete with the temple cart, the roads, the small time textiles, the bus stop teeming with people, and of course, the site of all drama, the railway station. Next time, we drive down the ECR, Chidambaram will no more be just a name board for me. It will certainly bring to mind the undying pain of Kumaran and the large-heartedness of Veeran, and the absolute indifference of the temple town that stood stoically amidst all that heart-wrenching drama.
JK’s immense understanding of human nature makes his stories and characters deeply meaningful and filled with insights on the human psyche. Just as some people, no, many people, in real life confound us with their ways, JK’s characters come in various shades, offering us a ringside view of all that goes into making a person good, bad, honest, righteous, and so much more. Many a time, his stories tend to ask us uncomfortable questions, shifting one’s center of morality irrevocably.
The one recurrent theme across this amazing collection of stories on human emotions is that the idea of empathy and schadenfreude, each in equal measure, defines humanity.
If it was Gregory Rabassa who built a sturdy bridge for us to experience the beautiful land of Mocando, it’s Deepalakshmi who’s done the honors for us to experience the amazing world of JK.
The Heroine and Other Stories is indeed a fitting tribute by a prodigiously talented daughter to a legendary father.