Marginal Man, a translation of the Tamil novel Exile (2011), is a sprawling, kaleidoscopic novel documenting the adventures of the writer Udhaya and his expansive circle of friends and acquaintances. During the course of Marginal Man, Udhaya recounts his travels through India, France, Thailand and Morocco, and along the way we learn about a person shaped by his literary tastes (predominantly French and Latin American, mixed in with Indian classics), his love of cinema, his sexuality, his heritage and his language (Tamil bookshops are a hotspot for diasporic encounters). Marginal Man is a series of vignettes, short stories and episodes of reportage that assume the written forms of the list, the letter, the spoken interjection, the diary, autobiography, biography, romance, journalism, gossip, travelogue and a series of direct addresses to the reader by the author. Or perhaps that should be the author’s avatar. In this autofiction it’s sometimes hard to decide whose voice we’re hearing. As you might have guessed by now, Marginal Man is a novel that’s hard to define.
Although Charu Nivedita is a prolific writer in his native language (and with a large audience for translated writings in Malayalam), his works tend not to make it to English language translation. And that’s despite the fact that Nivedita’s last translated novel, the experimental – in the sense of its experiments with form, from the lipogram and mathematical constraints to an idiosyncratic rejection of punctuation – Zero Degree (which appeared in English in 2008, a decade after it was published in Tamil) attracted widespread international acclaim. (Although other opinions persist in the realm of Tamil literature: the late author Sujatha called it a ‘piece of shit’.) In part this (the lack of translations and the mixed opinion) is due to the atypical nature of Nivedita’s writing, which, beyond the formal experiments, blends classical and slang registers, and his subject matter, which tends to touch on issues of caste, religion and race, and the violence associated with all of them. The registers are presumably a nightmare to translate, while the subject matter, in an age of Hindu nationalism, can be dangerous. Of course, that lack of translation is probably also due to the fact that Tamil is a marginal language on the world stage. Although, according to Nivedita, it’s marginal to Tamils as well: ‘Being a writer in Tamil Nadu is like being a musician in the Taliban,’ the author once told The Economic Times. ‘The powerful and influential sections of Tamil society can’t distinguish between eroticism and pornography or sexuality and vulgarity.’
Perhaps in recognition of all of the above, the author offers a yantra (a diagram designed to assist meditation or worship) as a gift to readers who have bothered to open the book, while simultaneously explaining that he’s not going to explain too much about the yantra’s origins in case Marginal Man becomes a novel about spirituality, a subject that is ‘frowned upon’ these days. The feeling you’re left with is of a gift extended and retracted at one and the same time. Naturally, alongside everything else, Marginal Man covers aspects of spirituality. Albeit in a particular way.
In one passage, sandwiched between a discussion of an episode from the epic poem the Ramayana and some musings on his own impotence (‘How the fuck could you expect me to fuck with a trembling dick the size of an areca nut?’), the narrator wonders: ‘How many kinds of human beings have we tried to write out of history? We have banished so many people from society just because they are slightly different from the rest of us and we relegate them to the margins.’ It’s for those people that Nivedita writes: if he uses language to destroy the conventions or distinctions between art perceived as ‘high’ and ‘low’, his subject matter is similarly arranged to attack the constraints of politeness and convention. (Albeit with humour too: as when he posits the G-string as a postmodern version of the Indian loincloth.) At a time when the issue of how art relates to life is the primary subject of cultural debate, you’ll find few authors who manage that collision more skilfully or dramatically than the author of Marginal Man.
Marginal Man by Charu Nivedita, Zero Degree Publishing, INR600 (softcover)
Read an excerpt from Marginal Man, also published in the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia
From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia