Interview: Poomani, author of Heat
Poomani’s Vekkai is one of the great Tamil novels of the 20th century. Heat, the English translation of this extraordinary work has just been released. In a telephonic conversation facilitated by translator N Kalyan Raman, the author spoke about the book and its protagonist, the 15-year-old Chidambaram who murders a landlord to avenge the death of his elder brotherUpdated: May 25, 2019 10:11 IST
Tell us a little about the boy on whom the story is based.
Poomani: The novel is based on an actual event but there’s no need to reveal the name of the boy. I never interacted with him but I saw him. He was a boy from a neighbouring village.
This is also about family bonds within the larger story of a revenge murder by a child.
P: When something like this happens (when a child murders someone), people focus only on the violence. Nobody talks about the kind of inner world the child comes from. In Chidambaram’s inner world there was nothing to instigate violence. It came only from the material conditions outside and from what he saw. In his own world, in his own tendencies, there was nothing to engender violence. Nobody spoke about this and so I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to write about the unspoken and undisclosed side of the child, about what is not paid attention to.
In a sense, the child himself is a victim, isn’t he?
Kalyan Raman: The way the novel is written is that victimhood is not stressed, humanity is stressed; the elemental humanity with which they deal with each other.
Descriptions of the landscape and the rituals of the community seem to come from “insider” knowledge.
P: It’s my own land and I know it very well. When I was a child, I roamed around a lot just like Chidambaram does, in the forests and hills and jungles. I’ve also hunted small game so I am intimately familiar with what I have described in the novel.
You don’t use long descriptions and the conversations are not drawn out.
P: Right from the beginning, my style has been to use brevity. This particular story is told in seven days, the whole thing happens over seven days, so I couldn’t really make it elaborate. I was also saying it more or less from the point of view of the boy and a boy doesn’t have an elaborate vocabulary. Though I was using a terse style I was confident of evoking the inner world of the child and also that of the adults.
KR: The father affected me more than the child. He is so complex. He is broken and at the same time he is trying to be dignified. He is a fantastic character!
The story is moving because it deals with bonds, familial love and the universal struggle against oppression. It is also very located in a particular culture. What do you think readers from other cultures will appreciate about this book when they read it in translation?
P: This story is told from the point of view of a young boy and therefore no matter where the reader is -- and the reader must have been a young person at some point -- it will be easy for him or her to identify with Chidambaram. Once they do that, they forget themselves and enter the story and understand what it is trying to tell them. The reader can enter the child’s psyche easily because he doesn’t have to go into a big back story. The whole thing is constructed around Chidambaram’s playfulness and his wandering around.
This boy is so beautiful and unthinkingly brave and sad. The part where he imagines playing with his dead brother made my heart ache. Chidambaram has murdered someone but he remains a child. It makes one view child criminals in a more humane way.
P: If I had only written about the revenge then this would have been a very ordinary story, but I wanted to write about where this boy was coming from and exactly who he was, including his playfulness, and his own love for people, his sister. I wanted to show what his behavior was before he did it and even after, what preoccupied him. I wanted to present a complete portrait of this boy. And also speak about the antecedents of his father, the stories he hears, and also how the community itself is beleaguered by the social structure. His brother gets killed and that drives him to violence, which is not even in his nature. And he only wanted to cut the man’s arm but…
The character of the adult males -- the ineffective father who is unable to do what his younger son does, and mama -- both are full of life. The landowner Vaddukaran embodies a certain power-hungry type.
P: Both these adults are described form the perspective of the boy. He notices all the things about these men. He is able to see much of the truth as it exists. You don’t have to have an adult’s perspective to get at all these things. The child’s perspective is enough to understand the world.
(To N Kalyan Raman) You’ve had to use scientific and bookish names while translating plant names. How much effort did it take?
NKR: Oh, quite a lot. There are many lists online of Tamil flora and fauna with their botanical and zoological names and their common names. There is garden variety research that you do. The more difficult part is incorporating the names to fit the flow of the prose. This is one of the most challenging texts that I have worked with. I did about three or four versions. I used a lot of phrasal verbs and English idioms that aren’t alien to the mood and culture of the people (in the book) so it took some time.
What did you think of it?
Oh, it’s a beautiful novel. That’s why we are featuring it!
NKR: I’m glad. My friend the translator Srinath Perur said it is one of the best novels he has read in any language. And imagine it is about 35 years old. It has aged well. It’s an indicator of how good Poomani is!