Book Review | C.N. Annadurai's witty social realism lost in translation

Annadurai's fame as a politician tends to overshadow his accomplishments as a storyteller

C.N. Annadurai, a journalist and fiction writer before he entered politics, was known for his wit, his wisdom, and his empathy. He was hugely successful as a politician, rising to become chief minister of what was then Madras state in 1967, dying of cancer just two years later at the age of 59.

His fame as a politician tends to overshadow his accomplishments as a storyteller. This selection of Anna’s stories is dated before Independence, towards the last decade of the struggle for independence, from the 1930s and 1940s, some of the most punishing and stirring years of the history of the subcontinent.

Anna’s stories sprang from his politics, and, more visibly, the compassion in which his socialist views were rooted. His feelings on British rule, brahminical superiority, widow remarriage, and what were to become known as “self-respect” marriages — marriages free of priests and dowries — all show up in them.

Finally, he was one of the pioneers of using popular fiction to promote a political party, first as a writer of short stories and then as a writer of movie scripts.

So Anna was into mass appeal. One of the limitations of concentrating on mass appeal is that, in those simple times, stories had to be down-to-earth and topical.

In the title story, for instance, he tells of a friend of a respectable judge. The friend, visiting the judge, finds the judge in a dilemma. He has to rule in a “tricky” case: that of a man with a reputation for doing good, who has been arrested for cheating. He has tried to pass off a brass gold-plated necklace as a gold necklace, and been caught by the jeweller. He does not deny the charge, and instead narrates how he was in turn cheated by the man who gave him the necklace and why he tried to sell it to the jeweller. The judge’s conflict is immediately apparent: should he follow the letter or the law or his own sense of justice. The story ends without a conclusion, the friend leaving without hearing the judge’s decision.

Other stories follow similar patterns. In ‘Kolaikari (Murderess)’ he tells of a woman who kills her own children because of her poverty, while elsewhere he tells the story of a man who kills his own mother for similar reasons. In ‘Six Anna Saroja’, he tells of a trader who hears, with outrage, of Saroja being quoted at six annas and Pankaja at ten, and assumes that they are victims of the flesh trade. Later, however, he discovers that they refer to the changes in the prices of yarn from mills called Saroja and Pankaja, and that people are profiteering on the rising prices of yarn. The story ends with the discovery that a couple have been forced, by sheer poverty, to sell their girl child for six annas, and the girl has been named Saroja.

The weakness here lies in the translation. The translator claims that translating names like ‘Sumaar Subbaiah’ (sumaar in Tamil means about, or around) is easy — the translator’s rendering is ‘Approximate Arumugam’, which sounds clunky, unlike the original, which rolls off the tongue. There’s a degree of pedantry, too: the original sentences, which probably sound natural and fluent in Tamil, seem stilted and long-winded in English.

Given that the stories are topical and the translation not the best — Anna’s wit and mastery of the language hardly show up — it’s not clear how these stories would interest anyone without some knowledge of the times in which they were written.

Help Me With This Tricky Case
By C.N. Annadurai
Translated by Ramakrishnan V.
Bloomsbury India
pp. 200; Rs 599

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