On August 17, 2023, at around 2 pm IST, my friend Gafoor Arackal passed away.
Later that evening, I was to launch Gafoor’s latest novel, The Koya, at a function in Kozhikode, a city forty-five kilometres away from my mother’s home in Kottakkal, Kerala, India, where I was staying at the time. I was dressed and ready and was waiting for the driver to take me there when our friend, the poet O.P. Suresh called. ‘Avan poyeda,’ he said, ‘ninnilla.’ He is gone; he didn’t wait. Suresh and I had gone to see Gafoor a week earlier, and we knew he would be leaving us soon. He was suffering from a rare form of nasal and sinus cancer.
I met Gafoor when we were in college, and we spent a substantial part of our college days hanging out together. Sixteen years old we were, and we had great ambitions to be writers. We read each other’s work, encouraged and critiqued one another. There were the rare occasions when I beat him in poetry writing competitions, but I knew even then that I was a dabbler while he was a poet at heart, in thought, in word.
As a writer, Gafoor had a successful career. He authored two collections of poetry, five novels, and several stories for children, including a unique retelling of One Hundred and One Nights. He wrote the screenplay for the 2015 film Lukka Chuppi (Hide and Seek) which won a special mention at the 63rd National Film Awards. Gafoor was staunchly political, an active member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India in his younger days, and involved in community activities including setting up the Sargadhara community library in the town where he lived.
Much of our conversations in the last couple of years were about his wonderful book for children, Hortusukalude Chomi (tentative English title: Chomi: Princess of Gardens). He was ecstatic when I submitted this project for the BCLT translator-in-residence programme and was selected. At the time of applying, I was asked to explain why I was interested in this post. I wrote about my search for a community of practice in a country where I live as a migrant woman of colour, my interest in exploring translation as a decolonising practice and in thinking about the question of translatability in relation to the racial, gendered, casteist and classist nature of languages.
I had another motive too, which I did not write about in my application. Gafoor’s health was already deteriorating by the time I started working on the translation. I was afraid that, in the middle of the ordinary rigours of everyday life, I might not finish the book in time for him to read it. The four-month residency gave me opportunities to discuss some of the issues I was interested in. Importantly, it also gave me the space and the financial support to finish translating the book, and Gafoor got to read it. He was in the process of commenting on the manuscript, arguing about footnotes (which I hate) and the format I had chosen for chapter headings (which he loved).
On my visits to the UEA campus, I took photos and sent them to Gafoor. He loved imagining Chomi, his magic-girl herbalist, stomping through the Norfolk Broads, sampling its flora. And it tickled him to know that I was using the book and the process of translating it to raise questions about cross-cultural issues in translating for children. Chomi is set partly in the seventeenth century and partly in the present and has several passages that deal with the violence of colonialism and caste, perpetrated against humans as well as nature. The two key questions I discussed in the workshop at the residency were: How do we take children’s books across cultures? Who is a child, and what determines this definition? These questions, and the tentative answers to them, came partly from my own experience of writing for children, and partly from how Gafoor engaged with children’s literature – without obfuscating, without patronising, without assuming a non-existent universality that saw ‘the child’ as a diminished human being.
I have, in the process of translating a book, forged close friendships with its authors. Translating Chomi has been a different experience because its author was already my friend, and in many ways, we had come into the adulthood of our writing lives together. To us, then, it seemed inevitable that we worked together on a book. Chomi continues on its journey to find a publisher and readers in a different language, towards a ‘life after’. Its creator did not believe in an afterlife, but I whisper to him anyway, ‘There’s more to come yet, my friend.’
Dr Jayasree Kalathil is the author of a children’s book, The Sackclothman, which has been translated into Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi. Her translations have won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2020 (Moustache by S. Hareesh) and the Crossword Books Jury Award for Indian Language Translation in 2019 (Diary of a Malayali Madman by N. Prabhakaran). Her latest translation, Valli by Sheela Tomi, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature and the Atta Galatta-BLF Book Prize in 2022. Before becoming a fulltime translator, Jayasree worked in anti-racism and human rights in relation to mental health and psycho-social disability for over twenty years. Her works in this area include Recovery and Resilience: African, African- Caribbean and South Asian Women’s Stories of Recovering from Mental Distress, and the co-authored textbook Values and Ethics in Mental Health: An Exploration for Practice. Jayasree hails from Kerala, India, and currently lives in a small village in the New Forest in England.
During her residency at BCLT in 2023, Jayasree translated a children’s novel, Chomi: Princess of Gardens by Kerala writer Gafoor Arackal. Told through the friendship between a young girl from the Kurumbar tribe in the 17th century and the son of a doctor in the present, the book deals with indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and present-day concerns about the environment. Alongside translating this book, Jayasree explored questions about translating history, especially colonial history, for children and around being a translator from a minority community living in the UK, and how these questions can be embedded in wider discussions on translation as a cross-cultural practice.