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Speak easy: Hitting the Bull’s Eye

A 1940s Tamil novella can explain why jallikattu inspires such passion.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
January 29, 2017 12:00:31 am
Man vs Beast: Jallikattu in Palamedu,Tamil Nadu. (Source: AP) Man vs Beast: Jallikattu in Palamedu,Tamil Nadu. (Source: AP)

Chennai’s Marina beach was cleared of pro-jallikattu protesters with all despatch on Monday for two pressing reasons: because Republic Day loomed and the Marina is its preferred habitat in the city, and because some firebugs had the temerity to set cars alight in the region of the Ice House police station, which is not too far from the police headquarters. That must have been provocation beyond endurance.

But the jallikattu issue is scarcely over. Proponents and detractors are still silhouetted in picturesque action poses online, horns stubbornly locked. They are mostly fighting over animal rights — humans are getting away with murder because bulls cannot join hooves and form statewide bovine chains, and so on. Which is entirely missing the point, and naturally the debaters don’t understand why Tamil public citizens, including a world-beating grandmaster who should be polishing up his little grey cells in silent privacy, are impelled to step out and support the practice.

To get all of this to fall into place, to appreciate the place of jallikattu in Tamil culture, there is nothing like a slim volume published in the 1940s by Tamil author and editor CS Chellappa. Vaadivaasal (the ritual arena for jallikattu) was translated into English by N Kalyan Raman, and appeared in the series of novellas which marked the centenary of Oxford University Press in India. It does not attempt to explain the culture of jallikattu. It takes the reader directly into the arena on a blistering hot day in Madurai, to witness the coming of age of a boy, Picchi, who squares off against a famous bull who gored his father.

The English media have been going on about “bullfighting” in Tamil Nadu, which evokes images from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. The Spanish version is clearly a blood sport — except that aficionados see it as a sacrament, a stylised ritual rather than a sport. Except in very rare cases when the bull is so sporting that he is granted retirement benefits, the idea is to maim and then kill the animal. With sharp instruments. There is no ambiguity about the objective of the ritual — the death of the bull. Aficionados don’t see a problem here. The rest? Aficionados scoff that they have no aficion. It’s the same with fox-hunting in England. “Sportsmen” and women fiercely defended the sport until it was banned in 2004. Representing the sentiments of the rest of humanity, Oscar Wilde wrote of fox-hunters as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”.

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Jallikattu should not polarise humanity quite as much, because it is not a blood sport. Kalyan Raman accurately translates the phenomenon as “bull-taming”, rather than “bullfighting”. The objective is to hold down the bull with one’s bare hands, not to kill it. The fate of Picchi’s father suggests that if any blood is shed in the arena, it’s likely to be of human origin. It takes about an hour and a half to read Chellappa’s novella, and it will rapidly wipe the mind clean of the accumulated miasma of days and days of reading about the pros and cons of jallikattu in the press. Kalyan Raman’s translation of Vaadivaasal was one of a beautiful series edited by Mini Krishnan of OUP Chennai.

The books are still in print — for ridiculously low prices — but the series appears to have been discontinued. At least, one has not come across a new title for a couple of years. Which is a pity, since it was a fine example of elegant translation publishing on a tight budget. For instance, the covers of all the 10 books published appear to have been based on a single Photoshop file, which contained a texture. Layers of a single colour and stark monochrome artwork were superimposed to make up the whole image. Simple, sophisticated and stand-out different. And, while translation editing is strangely a lost art in multilingual India, this series was consistently readable.

It included authors known across India, like KR Meera (Malayalam), Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Bangla), La. Sa. Ra. (Tamil) and Mahabaleshwar Sail (Konkani). Girish Kasaravalli’s award-winning film brought Na. D’Souza’s Dweepa international attention even before Susheela Punitha translated it. But there were also novellas which brought regional writers like Johny Miranda (Malayalam) a national readership.

If OUP has put this translation series on ice, a window of opportunity stands open for other publishers. The novella is a popular form in the Indian languages and a bumper crop appears every year in special and festival numbers of publications. However, it is poorly represented in translation, which is focused on short stories and novels. The middle distance is open territory, offering interesting possibilities to imaginative publishers. And, as with Vaadivaasal, sometimes they will happen upon a work which makes sense of contemporary reality better than the news.

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