An Insider’s View

Speech delivered  during the launching of the book,
VAARI CHOODINUM PAARPPAVAR ILLAI—Kavithogai, the ‘Sangam Literature’ of China
[EVEN IF I ADORN, THERE’S NONE TO BEHOLDShi Jing, Book of Songs, the Classic Anthology of China]

Translated into Tamil by M Sridharan (Payani), at a function held at Delhi 25 February 2012. First ever direct translation from Chinese to Tamil.

Tamil version of the talk available here.

His Excellency Ambassador Menon, Mr. Wang Xuefeng, Minister, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Prof. A R Venkatachalapthy, Mr P A Krishnan, Mr R Mukunthan, General Secretary of Delhi Tamil Sangam, Mr Kannan, Mr Sridharan, and friends! I am delighted to stand in front of you to say few words about the making of this book. Let me start with a small story. Dean Gilmour is an actor, playwright and a director. He lives in Toronto, Canada. Muttulingam is a Srilankan Tamil writer, also living in Toronto. Muttulingam, impressed by Gilmour’s plays met him and talked to him. It was 2004, and at that time Gilmour had staged a play called ‘Ward 6’, based on a short story by Chekhov. In one of the scenes, in a psychiatric hospital, a cot should be pushed and should land on the stage. Gilmour says to Muttulingam how painstakingly it was rehearsed so that the cot lands at a particular time and at a particular place in the stage. What if the cot lands a second or two later, or one or two foot away from the intended destination? The audience will not know. True, but Gilmour says “I will know”. The director knows where and when the cot should fall. Not a second later, and not an inch further. He would work for hours, and for days to achieve what he wanted. He is a perfectionist. He will not compromise. 

When I read Muttulingam’s interview with Gilmour, I was not too excited, because, I had seen a person very similar to Gilmour in Hong Kong, where I used to live. During 2002, the Hong Kong Tamil Cultural Association staged a play called Nirabaradhigalin Kaalam. It was based on a German play, named ‘Time of the Innocent Ones’, written by Siegfried Lenz. In that play, there are nine or ten people from various walks of life on the stage at all times. Only one person would talk. Our “Hong Kong Gilmour”, who directed the Tamil version of the play, wrote a movement script, which set out in detail things like where the non-speakers should stand or sit or lean, what his or her expression and body language should be, and so on. I was one of the innocent ones in the play, most of the time in the background. And to show my character’s disinterest with the centre stage conversation, I should subtly play with my palms.  During rehearsals, I used to miss many such movements. The director had appointed few movement coordinators to watch the movements, expressions and mannerisms of all the actors. And he kept reminding me of my movements. At one point of time, I got vexed, and asked the director, ‘I am in the background, who will know if I miss a small movement’. The director did not reply to my question, but insisted and ensured that every person in the stage followed his movement script. Two years later, in 2004, I got the reply, not from the Hong Kong director, but from a Toronto director, and the reply is “I will Know”.  Yes, the Hong Kong director- Sridharan knows what he wants and he would strive to achieve the goal and nothing less.

Another fruit of his hard work is this book, released minutes ago, the Tamil translation of ancient Chinese poems.

Sridharan started his diplomatic career with the Ministry of External Affairs in 1996 as an Indian Foreign Service-IFS probationer. In 1998 he was posted in Beijing as the Third Secretary. It is a professional requirement for any IFS officer to learn a foreign language, and Sridharan opted for Chinese, and excelled. He wanted to share with the general public the knowledge of Chinese that he had acquired and was now brewing within himself.  In 2000, he was elevated to Consul and posted in Hong Kong. This is the place where I met Sridharan.  From 2002 to 2003, I was the president of the Hong Kong Tamil Cultural Association. During my tenure, apart from staging the play of Lenz that I just now mentioned, the association took pride in releasing Sridharan’s Tamil language book named ‘Chinese Language-An Introduction’. The book was the first to use an Indian language to teach Chinese without going through the medium of English. Both Chinese and Tamil are Classical languages, more than 2000 years old, and have been spoken in Asia, but the relation between these two languages is at best episodic. Sridharan established through his book that learning Chinese through Tamil is a far easier way for a Tamil speaker than through the conventional pin-yin method.

Days after the book release, I attended a function organized by the Consul General of India in Hong Kong, Ashok Kantha.  The chief guest was none other than His Excellency Ambassador Menon, then Ambassador of India to the People’s Republic of China. I was introduced to him as the President of the Tamil Association. The Ambassador shook my hands, very hard. I was surprised, is it a great thing to be the president of a Tamil Association, I asked myself. At that time, the association’s membership stood around 200. Within seconds, I understood the reason for his warm greetings. The Ambassador told me that the Hong Kong Tamil Association had done a good thing by releasing Sridharan’s book, which would be a path breaking mile stone in Sino-Indian cultural and literary activity. I pocketed the compliment, as if I had written the book myself.

Ten years later, I now have an opportunity to meet Ambassador Menon again, on the occasion of another mile stone, the release of Sridharan’s even more important book.

From Hong Kong, Sridharan went to Delhi in 2003 as Under Secretary, and then transferred to Beijing sometime in 2004 as a First Secretary. This was his second tenure in Beijing. During the first tenure, he learnt the language, and during the second tenure he decided to try his hands on Shi Jing, the ancient Chinese poetry. He took private lessons in Chinese from two teachers at Peking University and the Beijing Institute of Economic Management. He formed a weekend discussion group comprising of Antoni Cleetus and Maria Michael who were Tamil Nadu natives working at China Radio International’s Tamil Department in Beijing. ‎ Mr Jed Zou and Ms Han Chong, who both did their graduate studies in Tamil and have an interest in Chinese literature, also attended these weekend discussions. Jed Zou‘s Tamil name is Aravindan and Ms Han Chong is christened as Thilakavathi. Sridharan’s wife Vaidehi also supported and participated in the discussions. These six people met on Saturday afternoons. During that time telephone charges between Hong Kong and China were were slashed so much that we thought at some point it might become free. I used the opportunity and called Sridharan from Hong Kong on Sundays, and used to talk with him for hours, discussing many things, and he used to appraise me on the developments of the Shi Jing project.

After a lapse of nearly three years, and after several rounds of classes, researches and discussions, Sridharan started translating. In mid-2007 he formed a Google group called “Tamil-Shi Jing”. All the members were Tamil scholars except for me who Sridharan had included into the group for the sake of friendship. He started sending the draft translations and notes through Google Documents. Many of us offered comments, varying form grammar to structure, form to content, and our Hong Kong Gilmour, now in Beijing, took into consideration whatever was appropriate. He responded to almost every comment, thanking the commenter if his/her view was taken on board, and if not, explaining why the comment was not appropriate in his viewpoint. In addition to translation he also wrote and circulated essays on introduction to Shi Jing.

Many exchanges took place. Respecting the time allotted to me, I will share two instances. Out of all the people in the group, for some odd reason, Sridharan asked me to translate an essay called “Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character”. The essay explains how exotic translation done by some English translators could be misleading. Shi Jing poems are simple, yet profound. I enjoyed translating excerpts of that essay into Tamil. Later Sridharan felt that this essay deals in detail on Chinese characters, their structures etc, which might be beyond the scope of the book. He has used some parts of the essay in his Afterword, to explain the difficulty of translating from Chinese.

The second instance is about a song numbered 189, ‘Four Horses’ is an ode sang which wishes the brothers of a family. The wish is to enhance the relationship between the two brothers with two specific qualities, namely, sturdiness and flourishing. Bamboo is taken as the example for sturdiness and pine for flourishing. Bamboo has wide spread root system and large canopy and pine has a pronounced characteristic of horizontal branching pattern

“Sturdy like the bamboo

Flourishing as the pine

Let the brothers

Love each other

Without malign” 

When Sridharan introduced this poem to us, I was writing a paper for an engineering journal on bamboo scaffolding which is extensively used in Hong Kong. Bamboo scaffolds, lashed together manually,  acts as one big unit. Any weight loaded onto it will be effectively re-distributed. In case of failure, the loading will be re-distributed away from any failed member, and thus, the bamboo scaffolds can take up additional loads, even after local failures. The 9/11 collapse is called a progressive failure in scientific terms, meaning failure of one or few structural members leads to successive failures leading to an eventual collapse. In bamboo scaffolding, such local failures will not cause the system to collapse. This made me to appreciate the poet’s greatness by using bamboo as an example of brotherhood.

Sridharan completed his translations and introductory essays in 2008, but was not satisfied.  The Beijing Gilmour felt that the cot had not reached the intended destination on the stage. So in 2008 when he left Beijing for Fiji Islands as a Counsellor, a yet another elevation in his professional career, he decided to refine the poems further before it went to print.

In early 2010 Sridharan came to Chennai on holiday. At that time I had started working in Chennai. I had been deputed by my Hong Kong employer to Chennai for an infrastructure project in Chennai. Among others, Sridharan had sent his introductory essays to Crea Ramakrishnan, his friend and a publisher. He had refused to offer his comments by email, but preferred to explain in person. I accompanied Sridharan to go meet him. The discussion lasted for more than two hours. Crea-Ramakrishnan commented on every single line of the essay. He said the first line looks like of that of a journalist, the second one from a poet, the third one seems to have been written by a researcher, and the fourth line from a fictional writer. The trouble is Sridharan has all these faces- journalist, poet, researcher and short story writer, and this was reflected in the essays. But Crea-Ramakrishanan insisted for consistency and more importantly simplicity. Sridharan listened to all the comments with open mind, went back to Fiji and rewrote not only the essays, but carried forward his comments to the already completed poems as well.

In 2011, Sridharan was reverted back to Delhi and a more important position was vested with him, Director of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. By now the translations had all been completed. But our Gilmour after seven years of work still felt that the cot was few inches behind the intended position. Since I started with Muttulingam, I wanted to finish with him. Muttulingam released a novel in 2008 which is a sort of an autobiography. The book contains 46 chapters. Each one can be read independently as a short story, and if read in order will form a novel, and also a biography. In the introduction to the book, Muttulingam said that he had been working on this book for over two yearswith no end in sight as new memories kept coming to the surface. At this time, he remembered what his mother used to say- if the rice has boiled, place it down from the stove. Few months ago, when I was talking over phone, I offered this advice of Muttulingam’s to Sridharan. He laughed. Meaning not agreed. He kept working.

And finally our Gilmour released the manuscripts to Kalachuvadu Kannan, the publisher, a month ago.

I am happy that I have been part of this project, however small my role might have been. I am happy that I could share some of the inside stories of the making of this book. I am happy to participate in the launching of the book- first ever direct translation from Chinese to Tamil.

Thank you one and all.

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