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Thinking Places, Placing Thoughts

Sreedevi K. Nair

(Random Thoughts Occasioned by the Symposium on Writing, Translation & Place)[I]


The Welcome                                                 

Wow! that was a smooth landing! After ten long hours in the sky, the land appeared infinitely inviting.

Standing in the long queue for immigration clearance, I stretched my back and looked around. The elderly gentleman behind me obviously needed help. Filling up his immigration form, I handed it over to him. He smiled heartily, thanked me and asked,

‘Where you from?’

‘From India’

‘Yaa…India, but originally from?’

A good question, to one who has just left her country!

Where am I originally from?

…Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

          Hath had elsewhere its setting

               And cometh from afar;

          Not in entire forgetfulness,

          And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

               From God, who is our home’ [ii]

‘Next, please’, the officer at the counter called out. Collecting myself and walking towards the counter, I smiled to my friend and said,

Originally from the same place where you come from.’

‘Have a great time in England!’, he smiled and  said.

‘You too!’

Certainly that was a good welcome to a great country! Reminding me of my original home, and of everyone else’s too!


English Spring                                   

Comfortably seated at the back of the car which took me from London to Norwich, I looked out. The sky was hung over with dark clouds. My phone told me that the temperature was 9 degrees. I sat looking out of the car window with a heavy heart. After a while, it started drizzling. I could bear it no longer. I asked my driver, Mr. Richard,

‘Isn’t it spring now?’

’Technically, yes! But this is how the weather is going to be for the next few days.’

When I was invited to be at the British Centre for Literary Translation as the Charles Wallace India Trust Translator-in-Residence, I was delighted also because I was going to be in England, for the first time during spring. I had expected to see sunlight flooding the land; flowers dancing in the breeze; wind whistling through the leaves; birds singing and chirping endlessly, but …all around me was the dark sky, the chilly wind, and the shivering land. I kept asking myself wistfully,

‘Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?’[iii]

Buildings, farms, trees, bushes were sliding back fast. I felt sorry for them; they appeared to be quivering in the cold. Just then…oh God! What a sight! A yellow sea of flowers waving in the breeze! I was delighted! Here was a bit of the English spring I was hoping to see! After all Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and all of them were speaking the truth! My joy knew no bounds! I felt jubilant!

‘Richard, what’s the name of these lovely flowers which carpet these fields?’


‘I mean, what do you call these yellow flowers?’

’Oh, these? They’re the rapeseed flowers. They make oil out of them, for cooking.’ ‘Rape seed?’

‘That’s it.’

Oh, God! What an unkind name! To call these lovely, innocent flowers that …it put me off! Suddenly, the ‘truth’ dawned on me! These are daffodils, the golden flowers that Wordsworth saw beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze, when he set out for a walk one fine morning in the Lake District!

I wandered lonely as a cloud 

That floats on high o’er vales and hills, 

When all at once I saw a crowd, 

A host, of golden daffodils; 


Ten thousand saw I at a glance

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance![iv]

‘Bye, Daffodils! Lovely seeing you! You made my day! Please forgive this well-meaning gentleman for getting your name wrong!’

For the rest of the journey, I was happy –didn’t I see a bit of my English spring?


What is this Thing Called Luck?

It was Mariana Gordan, author of The State Property who assured me that there is in this world, such a thing called luck. She was the only one in her family who had managed to escape in a dramatic way from dictatorial Romania nearly forty years ago. After she settled in London, there were three attempts on her life. On one occasion, she promised to meet her friends at a restaurant for dinner but as the evening neared, she felt extremely uneasy and just could not make herself go. She rang up her friends at the restaurant and apologized for not joining them but that was the last she ever spoke to them. They all died in a blast a few minutes later.

Sitting on the green grass outside the Writers’ Centre, Norwich, she told me, ‘People might say there’s no such thing as destiny; that it’s all superstition but I’m convinced of its existence.’ When she narrated to me events of her life which sounded stranger than fiction, I sat stunned. Finally, when I had to leave, I stood up, took her hand in both mine, and said with all my heart, ‘Mariana, thank you, thank you so much for sharing your story! May you remain lucky for the rest of your life!’

Some people have a rare faculty. You just need to give them a whiff of something and they will follow it to the end of the world. Mariana had got me thinking – is there really such a thing as destiny or luck? Isn’t it just another name for hard work, determination, and right choices? Wasn’t the word synonymous with chance, co-incidence, or what some call God’s grace? I could call to memory a passage from The Mahabharatha where Uttara, the mother-to-be was being blessed by Kunti, the Grandmother to have a fortunate baby.

 ‘May you beget a fortunate baby

No matter courageous, no matter scholarly,

But lucky, let him be!’

Life is a play of chance incidents, no doubt! I thought of how I happened to be part of the symposium at the Writers’ Centre, Norwich, on ‘Writing, Translation & Place’. Wasn’t it that two minute chance meeting with Kate Griffin at the library of the British Centre for Literary Translation that found me a place in the symposium?

Anyway, there’s one piece of luck available to everyone in this world, and that is – for anything one wants to believe, there’s God’s plenty of proofs lying around. One just has to bend down and pick up the right card!


On Not Saying Thanks

When I walked across the road and into the trees, to cross over to the restaurant on the other side of the river for dinner with Kate and some other friends, I could think of nothing else but Mariana and her story. At the restaurant, I sat at one corner of the table, silently contemplating the aliens on my plate (I had ingeniously sought the advice of Google sister to figure out what was what on the menu card before I placed the order). My mind dwelt uneasily on the story Mariana told me. I only half listened to the voices from across the table, smiled wistfully into the space, and warily trod my lonely way on the plate. Kate, sitting next to me, noticed that something was amiss and repeatedly turned her attention to me. She assiduously drew me into the conversation by mentioning some interesting issues that had come up for discussion during the day. After a time, I was talking enthusiastically. Yet, I knew only too well that I was very kindly being offered companionship. As we all walked out of the restaurant, the lines of a song borne by the wind reached us:

Little deeds of kindness, little words of love, Help to make the earth happy, like the heaven above[v]

Malayalam is a strange language. In Malayalam, ‘thanks’ is said on formal occasions but when it is really meant, it is often left unsaid or is at best, said with a smile or a look. Unheard is definitely regarded sweeter in our language.

‘Oh, I enjoyed my dinner! Google Sis, you were so helpful! Thank you so very much!’

‘Now, are we going straight to the theatre?’

We had planned to walk to the Norwich Arts Centre after dinner to watch the play ‘…No Indians’.

And…I had smiled, did anyone notice?


The Play of Siddhartha Bose ‘…No, Indians’

Norwich Arts Centre – a place where God has given way to Art! An old church was here turned into a play house! A small garden in front added to its charm. A narrow paved pathway led to the interior. I was excited about watching my first play in Norwich. The theatre was a small hall with a fairly big stage. Chairs were set in close rows to seat, about 120 spectators. When we had settled ourselves comfortably, a lady sitting a couple of seats to my left wanted to go out. People moved their legs thiswayandthat, just as Arundhati Roy had described in The God of Small Things, to let her squeeze out.

The play began. The actors did a wonderful job, especially Archana Ramaswamy. I noticed that stage properties were minimal. In Shakespeare’s time, they used to hang boards to indicate the scene of action. Here, Archana made places come and go by the snapping of her fingers. Carried aloft on the waves of that snapping sound, the audience reached places, times! I remembered listening to the playwright Siddhartha Bose that afternoon. He made a good presentation and certainly had the gift of the gab but the title of the play continued to trouble me – No Dogs, No Indians!

Why make the British in theatres hang their heads in shame, the Indians in humiliation? After all, India did not defeat the British with guns. She vanquished Great Britain with ahimsa; the non-harming of any creature through deed, word or even thought; the feeling of universal benevolence and compassion, both towards oneself and others. True, there’s little else one can do other than baring one’s chest and daring the opponent on to shoot, if one is confronted with a powerful enemy when one doesn’t have even a toy gun to hold up. Yet, it was the victory of the spiritual over the physical. And, it could have come only from a culture which had always prayed not just for its own good but for the good of the whole world, right from the earliest times – ‘Loka samastha sukhino bhavanthu!’ (May good come to the entire world! May all the world be happy!) Everything does not need to change with time; some things are good for all times!

Writers can give countries a makeover. Pottekkatt has done that for Germany through his Tales of Athiranippadam[vi]. In the novel, Pottekkatt introduces Herr Silh, a German whom Sreedharan – the protagonist , meets in one of his journeys. Herr always carried two umbrellas with him – one was for himself; the other for any stranger who might unexpectedly get caught in a sudden cloudburst. Silh was once a rich man. He gave loans freely to friends who pretended to be in distress. When he had finally taught himself to say ‘no’ to such people, there was no need for that. He had already become a pauper. Still, he tried to help people with what he had – his spare umbrella!  To those who read Pottekkatt, Germany ceased to be the land of just Hitler. Herr claimed a bit of that land too. Not that the old feeling of hostility for Germany disappeared altogether from their minds but they stopped referring to Nazi Germany. They could now simply say Germany – the country was relieved of its unpleasant baggage!

Art, sure, need not always be didactic. But names often reach far, and many who will never read the play will quote the name. They may read it out of context and may even draw up wrong associations! Naming is a serious affair!


Me is who?

The two-day symposium on ‘Writing, Translation & Place’ held at the Writers’ Centre, Norwich, was an intellectually invigourating experience. One of the things the symposium jolted me into doing was to take stock of my life and work. Thanks to the symposium, I appraised what I had done, and what I had let fall on the wayside; what to me was most precious and what remains to be done.

When I was drawn into the programme in the last minute, I had frantically asked,

‘What am I expected to do?’

‘Make a presentation on you and your work; and share your thoughts on the topic of the symposium ‘Writing, Translation & Place’.


Language is a wonderful medium. Every phrase or sentence presents multiple possibilities of reading. I asked myself, do I want to read the instruction as ‘You and your work’? or ‘You, and your work’? The second, I decided – me, and my work!

Who is ‘me’?



Yes, Sreedevi

Sreedevi? A name?

No …this very physical me too

This body?

Thoughts & emotions too….

Body, thoughts and emotions?

Well, something besides that too….

What is that something?

Something besides all that I mentioned, more and beyond….

What beyond?

I groped on and on, until finally my questions got stilled in a stillness which is the answer to all questions. Certainly, this exercise could not be what the symposium organizers had in mind but ….

I remembered my conversation with a kind friend who felt annoyed that I did not receive my travel fare reimbursement at the airport. I got it a couple of days later, thanks to dear Anna Goode who took it upon herself to see to it that I got it at the earliest, but he felt unhappy that I did not get the payment at the airport. I said to him, ‘That’s okay. Such things can happen.’ He said, ‘How can you say so? You don’t want it to happen first thing in another country.’ ‘But one can always understand that. I got the money now, and I am happy about it.’ My friend got exasperated and said in a huff, ‘This is how it is with the Indians; they can take all things in this way.’ You’re right, my dear friend! What else can be expected of a population which is fed on The Gita from birth to death!

Whatever happened, happened for the good.

Whatever is happening, is happening for the good.

Whatever will happen, will also happen for the good.

True there’s something that can be called Indian though I have never been able to put my finger quite on that. Is Indianness a way of thinking and perceiving as well ? Persistent enquiry into the self and the very rhetoric of questioning, even when it leads not to any greater understanding, is also part of Indianness? Whatever that may be, somewhere deep within me, I perceive that though I am I, I am you too!


My Work

I was to take stock of my work too! What have I done in this world in all these years? A very good question to one who has spent quite some years in the world. Have I done anything worth mentioning? What is my greatest contribution, my best work? I thought of my books in Malayalam, in English – my translations of Shakespeare, Ananda Coomaraswamy, S.K.Pottekkatt, Sholom Aleichem, Bapsi Sidhwa and many others. Was it the website which has provided the women writers of Kerala a local habitation and a voice? Was it my project on the teaching of English in the schools in Kerala which had prompted a rethinking of the context of English teaching in the state? I did not feel happy with any of these answers. I sat pondering. Slowly, the image of two young boys dawned on my mind – I smiled happily – two fine young men, two wonderful human beings -my sons! The picture of many many of my students followed…didn’t I play a small part in their shaping too?

I am a rain drop flopped down from the clouds I could have landed in a river or the sea… Or could have fallen from the heights  Into a desolate dreary desert… Chance was there to have fallen on a rock Lying scorched in the heat of the mid day sun… But fortunately for me I happened to fall into fecund soil Where there lay in wait a few seeds  Hankering for the cool touch of moisture… Absorbing the drops that came after me too They, into towering trees eventually grew… Now as I see them crested with flowers And bearing clusters of luscious fruits I feel I am there in each leaf and bud My essence too flowing through their veins! .…[vii]

I am happy about my contribution to the world, about the treasure I will be bequeathing to the world!

Again, could this be the appraisal expected? Probably not. Then…?

Simply this – sometimes, it feels good to speak the truth even if it means being politically, contextually incorrect! Moreover, the poet  has said,

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to anyone.[viii]

To kiss or kill, one has Shakespeare’s company!


Poetry is that which is Retained in Translation

The afternoon session of the symposium called for a discussion on Robert Frost’s widely quoted comment on translation and poetry – ‘Poetry is that which is lost in translation’. Dear Mr. Frost, did you really have to say that? Didn’t you borrow this very idea from Dante’s Convivio which you read in translation? Yet you told the Paris Review: “I don’t like foreign languages that I haven’t had. I don’t read translations of things. I like to say dreadful, unpleasant things about Dante.”[ix] And that, when you had borrowed heavily from Dante! Another poet who influenced you greatly was Ezra Pound, and he was a master of translation. It’s true that cadence or music is an important aspect of poetry. True, each language has its own distinct music which is difficult to be carried over but it is also true that, that which is there in one language is most likely to have its likeness in another language to perform the same function. In the case of great poets, what is retained is always greater than what might have been lost. When Pablo Neruda sings

‘I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains –

bluebells, dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.

I want

to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees’[x]

don’t we listen to precious poetry? Maybe, he created a spring in the original and we get only a garden in English but such lines have helped thousands of readers feel flowers cascading over them; they get thrilled, ecstatic… and all the love in the world becomes theirs! I do not say that all translations are fabulous or that poetry is best presented in translations. I only resent the absoluteness of Frost’s statement; its refusal to let in even a ray of light.

I think of Neruda, of Omar Khayyam, of Tagore, of Gibran, of Rumi, of Dante and a host of others whom I have read only in translation, and I tell Robert Frost  – Dear Poet,  you’ve gone overboard!


A Little Reading is a Dangerous Thing

A boat ride on the Hickling Broad was planned as part of the ‘Writing, Translation & Place’ symposium. Returning late in the afternoon after a few hours of real holy communion with Nature, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant near the sea.

The sea foamed mildly along the coast. The water stretched beyond my vision, and touched the horizon somewhere in the far distance.  Looking from the ramparts above, I could see the waters gently touching the shores, the rays of the sun playing hide and seek on the salty waters. In spite of the bright sun, the breeze was chilly. I stood watching the people boldly entering the cool, shallow waves.

Just then I saw two little ones walking flip-flop, with outstretched arms to the sea. They were rushing forward as if into familiar, safe hands. I held tight on to the iron railings. A couple of minutes later, someone, maybe their father, carried the children off to the pebbled shore. Soon, they wobbled forward again. Their father carried them yet again, and sat the little ones on the shore with strict instructions perhaps, not to venture out into the sea again. They sat there on haunches, with hands stretched out. It was sad to see them sitting like that. After a while, the father wanted them to leave and began persuading the kids but they started crying. Did the mother of these little ones go into the sea, leaving them and their father alone? Were the children telling their mother, ’Mother dear, we cannot stay! The wild white horses foam and fret’? As I stood transfixed, the man led away the children who were turning back again and again.

Come, dear children, come away down;

Call no more!


She will not come though you call all day;

Come away, come away![xi]

I felt sad for no reason and was glad when I was asked to get onto the bus for the rest of the journey.

Thank God, thoughts are silent! Even otherwise, I must have been safe, for the father and the kids had walked far out of the beach….


The Finishing Touch

No seminar on writing or translation into English, gets to a close without a discussion of the coloniality of the English language. Macaulay’s now (in)famous statement was read out at the symposium held at the Writers’ Centre too. His intention to raise ‘…a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’[xii], as part of his ‘civilizing mission’, was discussed and critiqued.

Is English still the colonizer’s language? Wasn’t it Ezra Pound who in the last century lamented that ‘…one can learn only a series of Englishes’? Every country speaks its own English now. The English, for a time, ruled the world and the world, as compensation took from them the English language, and made it their own.

It is interesting, however, that great minds in very early times, and in the very country which was going about colonizing the whole world, were quite conscious of what was happening. Shakespeare may in that sense, be regarded as one of the earliest post-colonial(?) writers, and The Tempest may well be considered one of the earliest post-colonial plays ever written. In the play, Caliban, the traumatized colonial subject, shrieks at the colonizer –

I must eat my dinner.                                                                               

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,

 Thou strokedst me and madest much of me…

 and then I loved thee

 And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,

 The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:

 Cursed be I that did so!

…….. Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me

In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me

The rest o’ the island.

The passage written in 1611, is one of the best descriptions of what happened during colonization; of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Britain, at that time, under the rule of King James had begun to lay claims to North America and the smaller Caribbean isles. Caliban’s speech foreshadows the birth of ‘Englishes’, and the use to which the English language is put to –

You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is, I know how to curse….[xiii]

Today, the English language belongs to the whole world, and the world has the choice to use the language to curse or to sing! Englishes array themselves in a long row – British, American, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, Indian and so on. Those in the former colonies now spread their wings in the limitless sky of the English language and sing with rare confidence ‘catch me, if you can’!


The Symposium Ends

When the symposium on ‘Writing, Translation & Place’ ended, the question that loomed large was a very simple one – what is a place actually? There was consensus in that it was not just the terrain, the landmark buildings, the woods, the forests, the lakes or the ponds; that it certainly was not the blazing sun or the pelting rain or the calm breeze; that it was not even the people alone. Then, how does one write a place? Further still, how does one translate it?

I cannot truthfully say that we arrived at any definite answer after two days of serious deliberations. Perhaps, this is how all fruitful seminars end. They may throw up innumerable questions, point to many faint glimmerings of answers in the long alley way, create space for dissent, and instil the realization that each of the many possibilities ultimately light up the road forward!

Sreedevi Nair

[i] The reference is to the Symposium on ‘Writing, Translation & Place’, held at the Writers’ Centre, Norwich from 23-24 May, 2017

[ii] Wordsworth, William. ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, The Complete Poetical Works. London: Macmillan and Co., 1888. ( lines 59-66)

[iii] Keats, John. ‘Ode to Autumn’, The Poetical Works of John Keats. London: Macmillan, 1884. (Line 23)

[iv] Wordsworth, William. ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (ed.) The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919.lines 1-4, & 11-12.

[v] Fletcher, Julia A. “Little Things.”  1845. <>

[vi] Pottekattu, S. K. Tales of Athiranippadam. Sreedevi K. Nair & Radhika Menon (trns.) New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2013.  Tales of Athiranippadam is the English translation of S. K. Pottekkatt’s Oru Desathinte Katha.

[vii] Translation of an Urdu poem by Valsa George. (George, Valsa. “The Song of a Rain Drop.” <>)

[viii] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Harold Jenkins, ed. The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series. New York: Methuen, 1982. (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-81)

[ix] Gayle, J. K. “Poetry Found in Translation by Robert Frost.” 2012.


[x] Neruda, Pablo. ‘Love Poem XIV: Neruda’s Sublime’, W. S. Merwin (trns.). 2007. <>

[xi] Arnold, Matthew. ‘The Forsaken Merman’, The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1919. (Lines 23-24 & 28-29)

[xii] Minute by the Hon’ble T. B. Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835. Bureau of Education. Selections from Educational Records, Part I (1781-1839).  Edited by H. Sharp.  Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1920. Reprint. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1965, 107-117.

[xiii] Shakespeare, William. The Tempest, The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series. New York: Methuen, 1982. (Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 368-69)

Sreedevi K. Nair is Associate Professor & Head of the Department of English, NSS College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, India. She did her doctoral and post-doctoral research in Translation Studies, and translates from Malayalam into English, and vice versa. She was the Charles Wallace India Trust Translator-in-Residence at the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia in 2017. She has tried her hand at translating poetry, fiction, plays and treatises on art. She received the Lalita Kala Akademi state award for translation into Malayalam. In 2011, she won the award of the International Translation Grant from the International Centre for Writing and Translation, University of California, Irvine, USA, for her joint-translation Tales of Athiranippadam (English). Sreedevi Nair is also one of the two editors of Samyukta: A Journal of Gender & Culture.

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