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‘Devi – The Boundless’-Review in MUSE INDIA

          ‘Devi – The Boundless  A Daughter’s Inward Journey’

                                            Lakshmi Kannan

Devi: The Boundless – A Daughter’s Inward Journey |
Novel in Translation |
M A Susila (Tamil original) | Translated by V Kadambari |
Emerald Publishers, Chennai | 2020 | ISBN 9789389080582 |  220 | pp 191



                                            A flowing river

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said famously: ‘No man ever steps in the same river, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.’ The water we stepped into has already flowed on swiftly, and the new waters bathing our feet teach us that we too should flow on, and not stagnate.  

Yaadumagi, the original novel in Tamil by M A Susila, was very well received by sensitive readers and discerning critics alike. It is such a good thing that we now have the book in English translation as DeviThe Boundless by    V Kadambari, an erstwhile Associate Professor of English with Ethiraj College, Chennai. Her stint as Professor and Head of Gender Studies with RGNIYD (Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development) may have given her the desire and conditioning to translate this novel, undoubtedly as a labour of love.

Readers in English will get to know Susila, an eminent writer, outstanding critic and an excellent translator. Her publications include a novel, four collections of short stories, and six collections of critical essays, besides several books of translations. Her translations of the legendary Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpieces deservedly got her a prestigious award from Canada. Her translations of the short stories by luminaries such as Mahashweta Devi and Asha Purna Devi have a lucid readability. In the recent past, she translated Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, a book that inspired Meghna Gulzar to make her award-winning film ‘Raazi’.

Translations per se help us befriend cultures and languages other than our own. Without them, we’re like strangers to each other. Only a healthy interest in a culture and its ethnicity, both one’s own and that of others, can foster translated works. To share an insight from sociolinguistics, Joshua A. Fishman*, a specialist in multilingualism, observes: ‘ethnicity that functions as a collective self-recognition as well as an aspect of its recognition in the eyes of outsiders’ works well for a translation.  

In her Foreword to the novel, Hon’ble Justice Prabha Sridevan remarks that ‘the pen of the translator is like the bee, carrying the pollen to far off places, and enriching the soil she takes from and the soil she takes to’, taking off from a verse extolling travel in Aitareya Brahmana that says, ‘Therefore wander!’ And in her Translator’s Note Kadambari remarks: ‘Subversions and autobiographies of women are milestones in feminist literary tradition’, citing the autobiographies of Asha Purna Devi, Ismat Chugtai, Devaki Nilayangode and Durga Khote among others that ‘speak about the economic and physical exploitation of women’. It is classified as ‘recovery literature’ because it helps women ‘recover their self-esteem, recognize their worth and gain balance’. Malavika Karlekar calls them ‘Personal Narratives’ in her excellent book Voices from WithinEarly Personal Narratives of Bengali Women in the times of 19th and 20th century Bengal. Devi: The Boundless is a welcome addition to this genre.   

Devi, the eponymous character is a child who is widowed while still at school. She goes through a turbulent life before she emerges as a dedicated educationist, a strong mother, a supportive friend and a guide to many people. We understand the full import of the Tamil title Yaadumagi only after we read the entire novel, for Devi touched the lives of so many people, especially the economically deprived ones. They benefited by her timely help in resuming their studies, getting jobs, and Chelli, the daughter of a labourer even gets a mid-day by Devi’s clever arrangement.     

The book is a fictionalised recall by Devi's daughter Charu. Devi becomes a child widow when her boy husband drowns in the sea. Charu captures the arduous journey of Devi who struggles to complete her formal education and serves the student community with dedication. Education for girls being a contentious issue, Devi encounters misogynist objections from within her family to her studies with a mixture of concealed envy and resentment. While her father Sambasivam and her brother Babu are supportive, it is her mother Annamma who helps her after they die, braving the taunts and jibes of her relations.

Devi goes through these traumatising experiences to emerge as a strong, independent woman with a steely resolve to go ahead with her goals in life, no matter what comes in the way. She teaches mathematics in school, rises as the Head Mistress and is always dignified and impeccably dressed in nice silk sarees. She is reticent, for very early on, she learns not to wallow in self-pity, or wear her sufferings on her sleeve. She keeps her emotions leashed and is misunderstood for not shedding tears even when her dear father dies. She receives the news of her husband’s death too, with the same stoic acceptance. Charu notes the softer side in her as a caring mother who in addition, personally tends to infants born to her acquaintances like they were her own. And in the way she nurtures a lush garden blooming with night queen flowers with their heady fragrance, the canopy of mullai, a special variety of jasmine, the Edward Rose in a pot, especially for her daughter, papaya and curry leaf trees, plantain and so many other flowering plants that bear testimony to her green thumb.        

The years spent in Ice House in which Sister Subbalakshmi, the famous reformist runs a school for widowed girls, lay the foundation for Devi’s independent spirit. She actualises her ideologies and goals by sheer grit, courage and a certain alertness, a most important quality for women to cultivate.  Her sharp intelligence knifes through tricky situations when her siblings hatch a plot to trap her in a financial commitment.  

Subsequently, she marries an army officer, enjoys a brief period of conjugal life and a daughter is born to them. When her husband dies, she resolutely goes ahead with the construction of the house that she had planned with him, undaunted by set-backs like a cheating contractor who absconds with her money. When the house is completed with a puja, the reader breathes in relief that Devi doesn’t have to live with her wily family anymore.    

Like other strong women who scripted the story of their lives, Devi responds warmly to people who are genuine. Sambasivam is her exemplary father who dedicates his life to her education, cycling to the Ice House in the hot sun to teach her math and other disciplines. His reformist friends include Harindranath Chattopadhyay and Annie Besant who gives him a stinging rap about Devi’s child marriage: ‘Mr. Sambasivam, I do not know what to say about the decision taken by a scholar like you…’ After his death, her mother lives like a ‘dependent’ with her brother, despite having some money of her own that is used by him most unscrupulously. This docile and timid looking lady has hidden reserves of strength. Instead of confronting her family, she resorts to silent strategies to help her daughter. With a complete understanding of her mother’s socio-cultural status, Devi tells her close friend Sylvia that her mother was ‘A great woman who sent me again and again to get educated, when there was something or other to prevent it…If only she had hesitated then, I would have been for my lifetime in the kitchens of my brothers, grinding and cooking.’  

Others who helped Devi are the Senior Mother in the convent at Conoor, Meenakshi, a London-trained lecturer at Queen Mary’s college, herself a child widow and daughter of the distinguished writer-reformist Madhaviah, and the interesting character Krishnan, a Gandhian and freedom-fighter on the run, who visits their home at midnight. He motivates Devi to marry again.

Etched vividly in Charu’s memory is her mother’s fondness for bright coloured silk sarees that she would always wear with a white blouse, the diamond nose pins flashing on both side of her nose as she steps out of the puja room. The supple language of Susila’s language is laden with the smell of the flowers in her mother’s garden, and Cinthol toilet soap that was used by her father. Equally, it could go grim to show the Ice House that ‘offered shelter to the women who lived a frozen life.’

Kadambari’s translation carries the flavour of the original. Her choice of words like ‘hammock’ for the Tamil dhooli is evocative. She keeps her diction simple and follows the curve of the lines given in the original. Interspersed with pictures of Devi, the book takes us back to the mystique of the black-and-white era.  Some chapter headings are so apt that they prepare us to what may follow. In structure, the narrative is non-linear, oscillating between the past, the present and the remote past, with the names of places and the year given within brackets. If chapter 1 begins in Karaikkudi, 1967, the very next chapter takes you back to Conoor 1942. We go travelling back and forth in time, to Madurai, Madras, Tiruvaiyaru, a city into which the river Cauvery flows. Whenever there is an impediment to her studies, Devi looks ‘steadily at the narrow channel through which the river Cauvery is flooding.’

You cannot contain a river. The very next chapter which is the last, is set in Rishikesh 2013, where the Ganga flows, carrying hundreds of prayer lamps lit by her devotees, floating on her waters.

Like Ganga, Devi flows on without looking back.


*Fishman, Joshua A.  Language and EthnicityIn Minority Sociolinguistic Perspective. Cleveland, Philadelphia, USA, 1989, pg. 24.

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