Why was Sara Aboobacker's acclaimed first novel 'Chandragiri Teeradalli' not published in Malayalam

Late Kannada writer Sara Aboobacker. File photo: Special arrangement

"A world beyond her knowledge, her imagination waved its hand and invited her.
Nadira walked towards the pond of the mosque and stood there. She looked intently at the water. The pond was still. She saw the faces of Rashid and her son Papu on the water.
'Allah willing, we will meet again on the Day of Judgement,' she thought to herself and plunged into the pond.
The serene surface agitated. A lot of muck was thrown up. In a moment, it all settled beneath the blue waters. Once again the pond turned placid. The sky turned dark again. The clouds thickened again and started to come down in a torrent."


Kasaragod-born Kannada writer Sara Aboobacker wrote her first novel 'Chandragiri Teeradalli' (On the Banks of Chandragiri) in 1982 at the age of 46 years.

Back then, she told reporters and at public meetings that she could have made Nadira hang herself, slash her wrist or make her consume poison or take sleeping pills. "But Sara Aboobacker was adamant that her Nadira should end her life by jumping into the pond of the mosque," veteran social activist Narayanan Periya recalls the author saying.

"It was not merely death. It was a protest," Narayanan says, attributing the quote to Sara Aboobacker

'Chandragiri Teeradalli' -- first serialised in the progressive weekly magazine 'Lankesh Patrike' -- was a story of women in the Muslim community, particularly from her Beary community. Nadira was a victim of patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, instant triple talaq, and the evil practice of 'nikah halala', where a divorced woman is forced to marry another person for a night and get a divorce the next day to reunite with her first husband.

Sara Aboobacker (left) and the cover of her novel's Malayalam translation 'Chandragirikarayil' that was serialised. Photos: Special arrangement

In the novel, Sara Aboobacker wrote in the narrator's voice: "She must have chosen the mosque, the very symbol of god for registering her protest".

"The pain of humiliation" was too much for Nadira to bear.

But when the novel was translated to Malayalam and serialised in a now-defunct magazine called 'Ee Aazhcha' (This Week) in the mid-1980s, Nadira was killed in the Chandragiri river.

Forty years on, the ghost of Nadira is still haunting the Malayalam literary world. For no one knows who tweaked the final plot of Sara Aboobacker's first novel.

On January 19, 10 days after Sara Aboobacker (86) died in Mangaluru, noted Malayalam poet Kureepuzha Sreekumar accused renowned translator the late C Raghavan of changing the pond to Chandragiri river in the last scene.

Writing in Janayugom, the Malayalam daily of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Kureepuzha said a former journalist and poet told him that the translator's cowardice was responsible for the change in plot.

Malayalam poet Kureepuzha Sreekumar. File photo: Manorama

Raghavan died at the age of 79 years on February 20, 2010. His son Giridhar Raghav, a retired banker, says the allegations shocked him. "I had to go through the old manuscripts of my father to exonerate him," says Giridhar.

"We are lucky we found the old file," he says.

Kasaragod's short-lived weekly
In the early 1980s, Taj Ahamed, a businessman in Kasaragod, started a Malayalam magazine to publish translated works and give a platform to young writers of the region. "He wanted it to be modelled on The Week and so he named it Ee Aazhcha (This Week)," says Giridhar. But it was a biweekly run on a shoestring budget.

Taj Ahamed roped in a young Satheesh Babu Payyanur as the editor of Ee Aazhcha. "Satheesh Babu was in college and was barely 20 years old then. But he was active in literary activities from his student days and took up the job as a challenge, says Giridhar.

(Satheesh Babu, who went on to win the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for his short story collection 'Peramaram' in 2012, was found dead on November 24 last year.)

Cut back to the 1980s, Taj Ahamed contacted Raghavan to translate Sara Aboobacker's 'Chandragiri Teeradalli' from Kannada to Malayalam and serialise it on 'Ee Aazhcha'.

Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award winner Satheesh Babu Payyanur. File photo: Manorama

"It was very bold of him. Even today, a magazine such as Mathrubhumi Weekly could not support a work like Meesha," says Giridhar.

Back then, Sara's debut novel was opposed by Muslim organisations such as Jamaat-e-Islami in Bengaluru. "The wind would surely blow towards Kasaragod," he says. Two, Taj Ahamed lived in Thalangara, a Muslim neighbourhood perceived to be conservative.

Raghavan, an expert in Kannada and Tulu, translated the novel and 'Ee Aazhcha' published it in 15 episodes. "The controversial edit happened in the last episode. So there is no question of Sara Aboobacker asking the publisher to discontinue publishing the novel," says Giridhar.

But 'Ee Aazhcha' shut shop soon. "I don't know if the novel was the reason. But running a literary magazine needs a deep pocket and a vast network," he says.

An ailing Taj Ahamed still lives at Thalangara. "He is not in a position to talk," says Giridhar.

Late translator C Raghavan (left) and a photocopy of his manuscript featuring the original translation of the final plot. File photo: Manorama

When Kureepuzha accused Raghavan of tampering with Sara's original work, Giridhar dug up the old manuscript of the translation. "My father stayed true to Sara Aboobacker's work. I showed the original manuscript to Kureepuzha," he says.

Sara Aboobacker, who never backed down on her work despite pressure, also knew Raghavan did not tweak the plot. "That's why she allowed my father to translate her other works such as Nafeesa and Chuzhi," he says.

Giridhar says the plot must have been changed by the editorial board of the magazine. "But the author, my father, and the editor Satheesh Babu, are all gone," he says.

After seeing the manuscript, Kureepuzha was convinced that Raghavan did not make the change. But he says he was not wrong because Raghavan, as the translator, did not publicly protest when the changes were made back then. "He maintained silence," the poet alleges. "Now we will never find out who made the changes," Kureepuzha says.

To be sure, the English translation 'Breaking Ties' done by Vanamala Vishwanatha, the former English professor at Bangalore University, stayed true to the original work.

The novel, in English and Kannada, is taught in several universities in Karnataka.

Chandragiri, a running character in Sara's work
Narayanan Periya, who used to frequently invite the author to Kasaragod for talks, says the Chandragiri river was a running character in her works.

In her first novel, Nadira stood by Chandragiri and said: "Oh Chandragiri, I can't possibly take refuge in you". She then walks towards the pond.

Narayanan Periya says Nadira's character is a work of fiction, not her story.

Sara, born on June 30, 1936, grew up in Chemnad village of Kasaragod. Her father P Ahamed was an advocate. The women of the neighbourhood used to come to her house and share their lives with Sara's mother Zainabi. "Sara used to listen to these stories as a schoolgirl. Nadira's is one such story," says Narayanan.

Nadira's manipulative and lazy father Mahammed Khan engineers a rift between her and her progressive husband Rashid, when the son-in-law refuses to financially help him. Later, he gets Rashid to proclaim talaq thrice to separate him from Nadira.

But when Rashid wants to get back with Nadira, the radical clergy and society invoke the nikah halala system.

Her village has a billy goat named Sheik Ali who is always available for nikah halala in the area. "Together, her father, her husband, and the maulvi had punished her severely though she was not at fault," the novel's narrator says.

The final pages of the novel that was translated into Malayalam and serialised in a now-defunct magazine called 'Ee Aazhcha. Photos: Special arrangement

Nadira ends her life on the night of nikah halala. In a foreword written for Sara's translated novel 'Chuzhi' in 1997, C Raghavan wrote: "Why did she choose the pond at the mosque? Of course to keep the radical people on the edge of a precipice".

If Nadira was a martyr of instant triple talaq, 'Naseema' in Sara's next novel Sahaha (1985) boldly took on the plague of polygamy, Raghavan wrote.

Naseema's husband abandoned her and married another woman when she contracted TB. But her mother nurtured her back to health.

When the husband returns to her, Nassema whips him with a searing question: "You married another woman when my health failed me. How would you feel if I went with another man when you were to fall sick?"

The question did not have an answer but it did disrupt the sleep of the righteous, Raghavan wrote about the novel.

Sara Aboobacker not only wrote about issues of Muslim women but she was also an activist, helping Muslim girls get an education, said Raghavan's son Giridhar.

Raghavan had won the Kendra Sahitya Award, the Karnataka Tulu Sahitya Academy award, and the award of Kuvempu Bhasha Bharthi Pradikara earlier known as the Translation Academy.

Narayanan Periya says Raghavan's Malayalam translation of Chandragiri Teeradalli done for 'Ee Aazhcha' magazine was never published as a novel. "We will be working to publish the novel. Soon," he says.

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