There is a film in Malayalam called Panchagni (Five Fires), scripted by M.T Vasudevan Nair anddirected by Hariharan. Released in 1986, the film is a nuanced look at the socio-political lives of the afterlife of the revolutionary movement in Kerala. It traversed the everyday performances of violence, desire, anxiety, unemployment, social stigma and entitlement that played out as names, people, places, their identities.These stories became synonymous with the sacrifices that the modern day Keralites claim as their legacy.

The film had as its protagonist, Indira, a young woman who is serving a life term for executing a landowner who raped and murdered a tribal woman. While she is out on parole, a journalist takes an interest in her and seeks to secure her release. There is Sharada, Indira’s friend and Savithri, Indira’s sister- female characters, married, with homes and husbands- women who are subconscious nudges to the audience showing an alternate universe that Indira could have occupied had she not set out to avenge the gruesome incident. The journalist manages to secure a pardon for Indira and she is overjoyed. She can see her whole life playing out before her, a family that has gradually begun to accept her, a life of marital bliss with the journalist- there is even happy music in the background. She runs to the residence of Sharada to give her the news and finds that Sharada’s husband and friends have assaulted the young servant girl. Frozen with shock, she sits by the girl.

The husband looks at Indira and smirks. It is a smirk that reeks of entitlement, a certain repugnant human insouciance- one that comes from privilege- be it social, economic, political or sexual. She shoots the man and returns to jail.

That smirk, and all that it conveyed- that was my first brush with translation. The multiple meanings that I read into that expression, the meanings that it signified for the protagonist, for life, for the innumerable different possibilities that the day, the incident, the reaction could have taken in the film, have haunted me for decades. Over the years, I have become more acutely aware of the ways that we translate our world around us into bite-sized, relatable, tolerable experiences. How we transmogrify thoughts into sounds, into language, signs, expressions, gestures, food, a pat on the arm, a crinkle on the forehead and how all this is converted into Time- the present, the past, the fast-approaching unseen.

The last three years have witnessed some concerted efforts at promoting translations especially in India. What was once a means of merely cashing in on the popularity of mainstream English fiction by making the same available in Bhasha literature, has now evolved into a practice with serious political, cultural and linguistic purposes. There is a canon of Bhasha literature building up in English, with regional writing from the 1930s, 1970s and even the Sangam era making waves in English in the last three years. The rising political confidence and the factors of shifting demographics, the presence of a more interested readership are also factors that play a vital role in the boom being witnessed today. Apart from these, the common person, the middle-class person is in the middle of a quest. The quest for making sense of the changes they witness in the world around them. These translations help a better shaped picture to emerge about the mind-boggling dynamics of India which often seems to be held together by adhesive tape and willpower. Running a finger through the 2021 JCB Prize shortlist, I was pleasantly surprised to come across a lot of translations and many of them from Malayalam. VJ James’ Anti-Clock is my current forerunner, The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could Not Land by T.P. Rajeevan is not exactly fiction and has a strong sense of the local that it derives its spine from. And Daribha Lyndem’s Name Place Animal Thing while not a translation, evokes a childhood I left behind. The crucial insight these and other shortlisted and random translated works present in this day and age is into the conscious use of history- political and inherited. This is the sort of fierceness that can bring an anti-clock into existence – one that challenges the Anglo-centric notions of time, of progress, of our readings of directions. What is up is down and down is North? Its all in the perception, isn’t it? There is a comfort that translations bring- that lives and people who exist elsewhere go through the same grind as we do. That Jas from Marieke Rijneveld’s Discomfort of Evening wonders about dusks and the wide world like D from Name Place Animal Thing, like I, and possibly you did at one point of time. That the quivers felt by Mohanaswamy as he lays eyes on a handsome man (in Kannada) are echoed in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar in English and Sachin Kundalkar’s apprehensive protagonist in Marathi- among others. This is the community that translations can create by introducing one to a world that is so like and so unlike the ones we live in.

October 14 was World Translation Day- a very commendable idea that marks the need to be able to speak and think in the language and experience of someone else. It is also the way to keep languages alive- especially those languages that are being decimated under the march of ‘progress’. This edition of Samyukta Poetry honours a Malayalam poet- Rosemary- a poet who in her native tongue has woven elaborate tapestries of experiences that are transitioning- from the narratives of a reminiscing daughter to that of sheets of rain, from the misted mountains to the singularities of falling in love. It made me think that what is poetry if not a fluid act of translation- one that effortlessly speaks multiple languages at the same time?

Rosemary, born Maria Goretti, is one of the most decorated names of Malayalam poetry. Often considered a natural successor to Kamala Das- a reference that she modestly denies- Rosemary’s poems carry a tinge of melancholia. The winding notes of many of her poems evoke the image of nostalgia that is seeking a home. Home itself is a shapeshifting term for Rosemary. It is sometimes a mountain topped with snow, while sometimes, it could well be within the fragile heart of a bird. Her images are etched out and laid out in elaborate detail.

“The love of an old man

Is like the slanting showerIt

wets the blades of grass

But penetrates not

The thirsty root.

It doesn’t cause

The boughs to tremble

No vibration…

It rustles down –

A quiver

Of arrow-like tears

Unable to penetrate

The caverns of the earth.

(Slanting Showers-translated from the Malayalam by Hema Nair R.)

The translator remarks, “What makes Rosemary’s poems worthy of translation and what makes it interesting to a reader of English poetry is the thread of universality that is apparent in the depiction of the experience of the individual psyche.” ( )

Columnist, Journalist, Activist, avid gardener, there are many words that describe Rosemary. But for me, she speaks through her poems, the images of black jagged rocks rising from the seashore are the images her works commonly evoke in me. The presence of an all-seeing, non-interfering God is indeed very interesting in the works of Rosemary. Mercy is a derived commodity in her poetry. It may not be present as an overflowing pool but needs to be squeezed like blood from rocks. Her landscapes are unforgiving and the birds wary.

A mediocrity

With all the novelty already gone”

Is love a solid mass

That decreases when shared ?

Is it gold pledged at the pawn shop ?

My love is a spring that comes down from the mountain mist—

A never ending flow !

It is like a lamp that burns for ever

Nothing is lost

How can it go out

When passed to new wicks ?

I don’t believe in a love that is protected

And cared for all the time

Why should I protect and protect my love

Like a fungus-discoloured bronze vessel

Thus making a worthless thing of it ?”

(A Spring from the Misty Mountain- translated from the Malayalam by Sudha Warrier )

Translating Rosemary presents unique challenges, her line breaks, the nuances that are ensconced within her choice of words make the work move with glacial speed. And that is, ironically, the charm of it. One can rethink the lines over and over, but there hardly comes a time when the glide, thrust and parry of English matches the simple, elegant desolation that Rosemary wafts in from Malayalam. It must be the same with all translations. I suppose, in translation, as in life, there is no satisfaction. There is always something more to be done. Something to be added, changed, possibilities to be considered, a smirk deferred?

Sonya J. Nair


Rose Mary is one of the best-known poets in Malayalam. She has a number of accolades to her name including theSergei Yesenin Award, SBT Poetry Award, Muthukulam Parvathy Amma Award and Lalithambika Antharjanam Best Young Woman Writer Award. Vakkukal Chekkerunnidam, Chanju Peyyunna Mazha, Venalil Oru Puzha, Ivide Inganeyum Oral, Vrishchika Kattu Veesumbol, Nalinakshan Nairkk Snehapoorvam and Marikkunnuvo Malayalam are her major works.

About the Translator:

Dr. Nair’s nuanced and committed translations have seen her becoming the first person from Kerala to be awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Translator Fellowship which was spent at the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia, UK. She is currently translating Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour from the French to Malayalam. She can be found at

House with No Door

Facing the sea,

hewn from granite,

monumental in its desolation,

stands your ancient house.

Its wooden door

etched with memories of the sea.

Day in and day out, the waves pound.

The incessant roar of the sea

            envelops the house.

You, a plundering pirate!

and I, your bondslave,

bound in servitude by the

ropes of your love.

Our dusky chamber

fragrant with khus,

bathed in amber light.

Serpentine bodies, coil and uncoil,

as passion plays the snake charmer’s reed;

Muted hisses.


in the wee hours of

 a lust-filled night,

you jolt awake

on some strange impulse

to wordlessly disappear,

flinging ajar the wooden door.

At times, answering

the call of unknown waters,

you leap into the outstretched arms of the sea,

wrenching free of my embraces,

smashing the wooden door.

Ill-fated voyages….

            Returning vanquished, enraged

you slash the door

with your keen dagger.

Your endless mood swings;

volcanic outbursts,

 lightning arrivals and departures….

half-abandoned kisses….

My poor heart,


 a trembling bird,

quivering on snowy paths.

            The bolts of the door

give way

at your merciless handling;

its ceaseless creaking

on moonless nights

make me sad, depressed.

Rattling like skeletons

on mountain tops,

it falls quietly,

one day.

Ah, the house without doors!

Before me

infinite vastness,

reaching to eternity!

Wind, rain, sand dunes,

tidal waves,

all within the reach

of my hand.

Towards me,

the waves come charging

with infernal growls,

and plunder your treasures.

An ardent wind

coming from the west

gathers me into the eye

of its hurricane love.

my arms turn wings,

and I, like a seagull

 glide weightless over the sea.


the conqueror

          of many worlds,

returns triumphant,

          victorious flags

          fluttering bright,

and far flung seas

          under his feet,

          before him


the majestic tower –


eyes aflame,

like a leviathan

from ancient times.

In its inner yards

the scent of the sea;

the furniture

cold, frozen;

long, regal curtains

swaying in the wind.

When you,

frantic, bellowing,

roam the empty rooms

 like a marauding lion,

I, on the wings of the wind,

 soar, whistling!

Moonlight silver

and sunlight amber

lend sparkle to my wings.

My heart turns

wild with ecstasy!

In my soul,

neither this earth


nor the pirate lover


Broken heart, deep sighs

sad, gloomy nights,

all memories of

a long-forgotten life!

Between You and Me

Do not

 be afraid of my love;

it asks

nothing of you.

Do not

doubt my friendship;                 

it wishes not

to own you.


on a dark


fairies came, and

filled my heart

with love.

I was

in deep slumber,

when they gave

this gift of love.

When I woke up

my heart

was overflowing.

The sad

and the lonely

came, and

snatched it

from me.

The rest I poured

into a chalice.


the vast sky,


open lands,


desolate paths,

I kept wandering;

the chalicein my hand,

spilling over!

Do not

feel guilty

about my love;

I didn’t take it

from someone

to give to you;


my telling you

of love

going waste?

of the chalice



I want to make clear –

if ever

you come to me,

be not

like a king

visiting his maid.

I do not

want tax-free lands,

or stately provinces.

Do not

come like God

revealing Himself

to a devotee;

I do not

want boons

from your bounty;


is my heart

an empty void,

to be filled

with your radiance.


like an emperor

visiting another;

a friend

visiting a friend;

let’s meet

on equal terms!

Like a flute

looking for a raga,

a question

seeking out

its answer,

let it be


My Poetry

“Where does poetry come from?”

asked the man with spectacles.

Do they drizzle

 from cloudlets

floating in the sky?

In the mysterious green

of dark dense forests,

do they hide?

Is poetry

the bloom of the soil

lush with dreams?

Is it

the tingeof despair

spreading on

failed romance?

I know not, truly!

My poetry –

it springs

from extreme anguish!

Like mushrooms

bursting forth

when thunder roars,

from every blow,

 a poem blooms!

It’s blood

oozing from

my heart’s wounds.

From sorrows

 never shared,

 it breaks forth!

It’s my life;

my poetry –

it’s me!