Alappuzha Vellam

Poem by Anitha Thampi, translated from Malayalam by J Devika 1

Poem by Anitha Thampi, translated from Malayalam by J Devika

Many years ago, Attoor Ravi Varma, a senior poet who was editing an anthology of new Malayalam poetry, asked me (with reference to a poem of mine), why I used the word jalam for water, instead of vellam. (While jalam is a Sanskrit word one uses in Malayalam, vellam is the “local” Malayalam word for it.) I didn’t answer him then, but the question followed me persistently over the years, carrying me back to Alappuzha town and the villages where I spent most of my childhood. That was the watery terrain where the seeds of my language sprouted. For those of us living in water-borne Alappuzha, jalam and vellam were not one, they represented life-forces and experiences of power that were worlds apart. Attoor’s question dragged me to the originary sources and primal impulses of my language; my language seemed to take a dip and rise from those muddy-red, turbid waters. Leaving acquired and refined spaces behind, it yearned towards a place of its own. AT

The town of Alappuzha stands on what was probably once a primeval forest, burned down sometime in the dim past. The fine light topsoil in that area shines silvery-grey in the summer sun. But if you dig even with your toe, you will encounter black, heavy, moist soil beneath. If you dig some five metres, you may actually meet the waters of Alappuzha, murky, cloudy, brooding in that shallow depth. But still deeper lies the forest. I come from that area, and my people have often recovered the forest’s stubborn body that refuses to decay after thousands of years. No wonder, then, that the waters of Alappuzha are extremely fertile, but also fatally acidic. Every year, it is the monsoon that flushes out that terrible acidity, the memory of a ruined forest, to make the waters of Alappuzha nourish an abundant paddy crop. We sensed, then, that these waters brooded; that they had a past. Anitha’s wonderful poem brings alive that silent shared feeling, and the strange pain we feel at being separated from it. JD

First Drop of Monsoon A Ramachandran Oil on canvas, 78” x 56”, 2005

First Drop of Monsoon 2005 | A Ramachandran | Oil on canvas, 78” x 56”


This poem is being joint published in India by The Indian Quarterly and in the UK by Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT). Follow on twitter @MPTMagazine


One Comment

  1. Kasturi G November 6, 2017 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Simply excellent and the accompanying painting by A. Ramachandran adds real impact to the poem that flows like Jalam .
    Thanks and Good Luck

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