Me grand dad ‘ad an elephant: Celebrating a British Professor who fell in love with Malayalam – The New Indian Express

Many credit Professor Ronald E Asher, who passed away recently, for spreading the renown of the Beypore Sultan, as Basheer was known, and Thakazhi across the world.
Published: 14th January 2023 10:40 PM  |   Last Updated: 17th January 2023 05:12 PM   |  A+A-
Profesor Ronald E Asher. (Photo | Special Arrangement)
Even in Scotland, they are yet to let Professor Ronald E Asher, the British linguist who died a day after Christmas in Edinburgh, fully go. With the long holiday season there thanks to Christmas and New Year, the coroner is yet to release the body of the good professor who passed away in his sleep at the rich old age of 96. Here in India, Malayalam literature lovers might be even more loathe to do so.

The late Edinburgh University’s linguistic professor’s love for the language and especially for Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, both of whom he translated into English, made him a much-loved and much-revered name in the literary circles of Kerala. Many credit Asher for spreading the renown of the Beypore Sultan, as Basheer was known, and Thakazhi across the world.    
Professor Asher’s initial involvement with Malayalam was almost accidental – only because an Honors degree in French and German did not naturally lead in that direction. 
His first Indian association, in fact, was with Tamil in 1953, after he reached Changam in Tamil Nadu’s North Arcot district during his stint as an assistant lecturer in linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. It was ten years later that his love spread to encompass Malayalam too. And how it would go on to blossom!
“The spur was provided perhaps by an interest in comparative linguistics, and therefore a feeling that, having embarked on the study of Tamil, I ought to know something about other Dravidian languages. My first contact with the sounds of Malayalam was following a course on phonetics of Malayalam given by a Mrs Eileen Whitley at the School of Oriental and African Studies (where I spent the first 12 years of my academic career). My first real initiation into the language was when a friend who was a post-doctoral fellow (Dr Joseph Minattoor) at the school taught me the Malayalam script by going through some primary school readers with me. 
“This was fun, but I’d say that getting a real grip on the language was indeed tough, given that it is typologically very different from English — or any other European language. It takes time to learn a new language. If you don’t have constant practice over a long period, then you tend to forget the words. I didn’t live in Kerala. My only contact with the language was through reading books — a very passive occupation. The lack of any discourse or exchange made it very difficult,” Professor Asher recalled in an interview with this journalist many years later.
And yet… And yet! 
Once conversant with the language, he went on to focus his attention on two of Malayalam’s most difficult writers to translate — Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai.
In 1975, he translated Thakazhi’s 1947 novel Thottiyude Makan as Scavenger’s Son. Reading translations of Thakazhi’s own Chemmeen and Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, Professor Asher once confessed, had fuelled his love for Malayalam literature. Was this his way of repaying that debt?
Then there was Basheer. 
Professor Asher had in fact met the writer in 1963, the year he came down from London to Kochi to learn spoken Malayalam “with the help of Nalina Babu and his friend, N Unnikrishnan Nair” as he told Shevlin Sebastian in an interview with The New Indian Express many years ago. Nalina Babu introduced Professor Asher to Basheer’s works through Paaththummaayude Aadu
Soon, he would meet the great man. 
“I remember my first visit to see Basheer. After telling him the day on which I would arrive, I took a bus from Kochi to Calicut, and then another one to Beypore. When I got off the bus, he was waiting at the bus stop. I was amazed. How did he know the exact time I would arrive?!” he recounted in the same interview. Those were the days.
Asher found Basheer to be “likeable, warm-hearted, fascinating, enthralling and amusing. He was a wonderful person to talk to. His oral anecdotes were of the same quality as his published stories”.
Professor Asher went on admit that Basheer’s “style, his skillful use of what is superficially very simple language, his humour, his variety, his versatility and the poetic quality of his language” — qualities that made him the truly great writer he was — also made it difficult for the translator to capture the same shade of meaning.
But then the Professor was not one to give up. The famous story of what happened when he came across the seemingly insurmountable kuzhiyana in Entuppappekkoraananendarnnu (Me grand dad ‘ad an elephant) speaks eloquently of his tenacity and also, how translating Basheer was for him love’s labour. 
Asher checked with Basheer when he came down to Beypore on what the insect giving him this much trouble in translation actually was. An on-ground investigation was arranged and Basheer showed Professor Asher what soon gained life as an ‘elephant ant’ in English. Were discoveries of a word sweeter in those pre-WhatsApp days?
ALSO READ | A bakery which served Cochin raja, Mountbatten and Basheer
Paaththummaayude Aadu was published by Edinburgh University Press in 1979. In 1980, Entuppappekkoraananendarnnu, Balyakalasakhi and Paaththummaayude Aadu were published in a single volume by Edinburgh University Press under the title, Me grandad ‘ad an elephant
Professor Asher admitted that he never showed the translations to an expert in Malayalam “(doubtless a mistake!), so, any faults in the translations are my responsibility alone!” 
One of his favourite films was Basheer’s Mathilukal, the Mammootty starrer. He was quite familiar with Mammootty, as he had already seen him in Manivathoorile Aayiram Sivarathrikal
The late Professor always considered himself fortunate to have met a whole lot of Thakazhi’s contemporaries during his earlier visits to Kerala.
“I remember going to Kozhikode in the late 60s or early 70s to meet a young writer who turned out to be MT Vasudevan Nair. He is one of the outstanding writers of his time,” Asher had remembered.
Omana Gangadharan, an accomplished Malayalam writer, recalled her three-decade-long association with the Professor. “I lost track of the number of times we had met, but each meeting was enriching,  a mutual opening of doors to not just Malayalam literature, but the world’s best literary works,” she said.
Professor Asher could easily pass off as a Malayali. But he was too shy to speak Malayalam in public, lest he erred.
He never used a mobile phone. Only on rare occasions did he even use a landline in the course of his illustrious life. All his communication was done through the British Royal Mail and emails.
During his leisure time, Asher found time to listen to European classical music by Joan Sutherland, one of the most remarkable female opera singers. He was a tad disappointed that the impact of globalisation on Indian languages had affected the reading habits of even the young in Kerala. 
His advice for budding translators on how to excel was illuminating.
In one interview, he spoke of how the translator “should be sensitive to shades of meaning in the source language and the language of translation. He should also have a love for the work being translated”. 
While talking to me, he emphasised the need for them to have stylistic fluency and versatility in the language of translation, qualities that would help when it came to reflect the stylistic qualities of the source text.
To this he went on to add the need for having a real liking and appreciation for the work being translated. Finally, he said he had also found that, where living authors are concerned, it also helps to get to know the author personally.
Wise words from a very wise and very kind man. 

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