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‘So, here you are / too foreign for home / too foreign for here. / Never enough for both.’

—Ijeoma Umebinyuo

Once upon a time I worked at a corporate bookshop in England, and it infuriated me so much that I wrote an angry article about bookshop politics, or the many ways in the shop is physically arranged to assert a subtle form of imperial legitimacy in a post-colonial world. I spent my formative academic years in India reading postcolonial and decolonial literature, which should explain my feelings of frustration; it certainly didn’t help that for the seven months I worked there I was the only person of colour on staff and regularly received queries about “books on jihad” or the “ancient art of snake charming”. Answering these questions— “Middle Eastern history around the corner”, “Indian religions on the third floor”— when I wanted to get into an argument, or even a polite conversation that questioned these biases broke my heart. For a while after I quit, I refused to go to large bookstores. When I wrote about the experience, a part of me was despondent that this wasn’t going to change much.

I’m South Asian. I picked up the label when I left India for a Master’s degree abroad, and for a while it sat uncomfortably along with the other ambiguous labels I had been collecting all my life. I grew up in Maharashtra, where I called myself Tamil, and completed my undergrad in Tamil Nadu, where I posed as largely Maharashtrian. Neither identity sank in too deeply, because my childhood was spent immersed in English, a language my mother believed would tilt the balance of the future in my favour. I spoke Tamil like a Maharashtrian, stretching the wrong syllables, and Marathi like a North Indian, with Hindi tripping me up at my most vulnerable lack of vocabulary. I thought in images and expressed them in English. For some bizarre reason I also spent five years learning French, with an intensity of purpose I can no longer justify. Then in 2022, I skipped out on all of it and arrived in England.

For someone who spoke in English for a substantial chunk of her life I could not grasp the forms of communication English offered. The English listened to my trailing sentences with polite impatience. They waited for my rambling thoughts to resolve into coherent ideas for a long time before giving up on the whole thing. After being battered by my sudden loss of a strong medium of communication, I dissolved into silence. When I took the job at the bookshop, I repeated phrases like a parrot: “What a lovely book, absolutely marvellous plot, delightful characters,” meaningless compliments to their covers and the ingenuity of the authors that I recycled with less enthusiasm than if I were drinking a cup of sludge from the Thames. My references grew outdated within hours; the shop bustled with new books and new information every day and I was buffeted along, my legendary language acquisition skills reduced to a rote-repeat. When it felt like I was saying everything wrong I stopped speaking at all. I resorted to reading and silently watching. I eavesdropped on conversations in an effort to jumpstart my own curiosity and a rapidly diminishing ability to hold my end in a chat.

When I called home I spoke in Tamil. Brokenly at first, but with a flood of relief. I couldn’t explain my dissonance in being abroad in English but I could tell my mother it felt like my mouth was full of soil all the time (vaayile mannu alli irrikku). It was the place my thoughts went to be buried.

Tamil had some of the metaphors I needed to explain the exactness of my feelings. It wasn’t enough to say that, distanced by language, I was becoming numb to the world. To explain that my numbness was the kind that was watching the world passing in front of my eyes while I stood, untouched, repeating the cycle of my life in a bewildering boredom required the stretch of Tamil imagination: yerimamadu mela mazhai peyyara madhiri nikkuren. I stand like a buffalo getting drenched in the rain. Unmoving, chewing my cud. Not unbothered, just not knowing what else I could do.

But I didn’t have enough Tamil. Just like I did not have enough Marathi, or even Hindi. I half-heartedly looked at French, and found it mortifying to scream my frustration: it me fait chier. It makes me shit. But it doesn’t; my feelings activated nothing in my gut and certainly left my bowels untouched. Summary dismissal was imminent. I returned to English beleaguered. I limped onward in agonising quietness.

After I graduated, I returned to the bookstore not as a bookseller but as a browser, and walked straight into Meena Kandasamy’s The Book of Desire, a translation of one of the most prolific and profoundly influential books of Tamil poetics, the Thirukural. Over a hundred English translations of the text have been brought into the world since 1794. This iteration by Kandasamy was a feminist intervention that imbued the English text with the universe of Tamil poetics, creating a microcosm for the protagonist of every set of verses that is both like the macrocosm— the lush landscape of Tamil Nadu, its hills and lakes and beaches and flowers and wildlife— and paradoxically, also containing it.1

Imagine my hunched shoulders and my head dipped into the pages of the book. Kandasamy’s text placed English alongside Tamil, alongside an English transliteration of the Tamil. For a moment, it felt as though my life, lived in translation, had crashed into the shores of meaning. The author’s Tamilness, and her love for the language felt so powerful, so all-pervasive, that it slipped past the scripts and infused tamil into the English. By tamil, I mean not merely the language, but the flavour of it, and more distinctly, a proud, almost arrogant expectation that the reader shall embrace the context of it.2 She offered translation as interpretation, translation as a decolonial practice, but above all, translation as an expression of love, in this case, both theoretically and literally, for she had translated over three hundred kurals from the last section of the Thirukural, Inpattupal, The Book of Desire.

I was flooded with relief. For the first time in a long while I was reading something whose meaning I didn’t just grasp as the level of linguistics, but at the level of soul. I knew what she was speaking of. My heart was beating in my throat, and I struggled not to cry. So when my moment of implosion ended, my ears latched onto the tail end of a conversation a pair of women were having by my side, peering at the translation, “… probably one of those Kamasutra-type books.” It was a struggle not to step into that conversation. I was not a bookseller and felt little obligation in setting their perception of the book right, but it did set me off thinking how these women and I had experienced the book in such a radically different way. Kandasamy is one of the authors whose works and politics I have found influence and inspiration in for years; to these women, she was, in fact, merely the writer of a “Kamasutra-type” book.

The longer I stood at the shop, the more I felt my reflexive rage at the way the shelves were arranged return. The Book of Desire, I realised, was Meena K.’s only book in the shop. Even the titles of her other works would have been too inflammatory, or too obscure. Perhaps that was it: a book entitled ‘The Book of Desire’ spoke directly into the cesspool of imagery built around a colonial, Oriental India. And nowhere on the cover was there a mention that it was a translation of one of the most frequently quoted verses of poetic philosophy in Tamil Nadu. And this seemed to be a phenomenon of the UK. My friend had bought her copy of the book in India; on its cover Thiruvalluvar took his rightful place above Kandasamy’s name.

Every time I read The Book of Desire after that was an exercise in relief an endurance at once. Buttressed by a sudden ability to experience Tamilness so far from Tamil Nadu, I set myself on a desperate attempt to relearn Tamil, and form a vocabulary to replace as that I seemed to have misplaced in English. I would have academically postulated this as a kind of ‘reclamation’ of selfhood, but the story of rediscovering one’s culture as a migrant has been sold too many times. Besides, my first desperate attempts to ‘reclaim’ a language were both inadequate and ill-informed. I laboured through a script I hadn’t bent my fingers to in years, wrestled with words for familiar objects in unfamiliar settings, grappled with the effort of turning my muscle memory of Tamil into a conscious flow of thought. And all the while I seethed and seethed at an arbitrary dismissal of the book that had given my identity shape again.

I had already spent a good deal of time wading through commercial publishing abroad, feeling cheated by how the Global South was portrayed in the West. But this was personal; in removing the reference to translation on the cover, in excluding Thiruvalluvar’s name, and the name of the source text, the Thirukural, Galley Books had resorted to the age-old marketing ploy of collapsing the text into one of the established ‘genres’ of South Asia. Marketing in the West has made a habit of subtle assertion of power.Taking the name of the source text off the cover of The Book of Desire divorced it from its origin as a Tamil text and placed it squarely within the marketable category of ‘South Asian/Indian poetry and fiction’. Lacking the immediate grounding in Tamil poetics, the book could now pass for a collection of erotic poems, from a people still perceived in the West through references to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t wish to believe this is consciously done. But to have borne witness to the text be referred to as a “Kamasutra-type book” (with the appropriate Victorian derogation attributed to this text as well, whose rich poetry and variety of philosophy and thematic will be steamrollered by a Western imaginary of Indian porn) felt unjustified. Especially because three pages into her introductory essay, Kandasamy writes about how she hopes this book isn’t mistaken for “a technical manual on how to reach an orgasm”.

This was, of course, nothing compared to my own reckoning with the Tamilhood of the text. In the West I expected that all literature from the Global South be placed in context: of its histories, its cultures, its languages and societies, its peoples, and also its interactions with the West. I asserted, over and over, that even if a story has travelled to a bookstore in south England, it traced a heartbeat to its origins, and that heartbeat needs to be heard. And here I was, reading a feminist translation of the Thirukural after having absented myself from the landscape it emerged from for twenty-three years.

“Colonialism is erasure and appropriation; colonialism is the attempt to subsume.” Kandasamy makes it very clear that Tamil has continuously fought for its place and respect against the overwhelming Sanskritisation of India. Sanskritic culture is as much as coloniser of Tamil as European.4 Kandasamy’s politics is loud, is overt, and puts me in my place: it locks its eyes on me and forces me to search for my position on the spectrum of privilege, and grimly glares as I search for connections to a language a people like me destroyed.

In a story drawn straight from the anthropology of the Tamil Brahmin middle class5, my parents either lacked the time to ensure, or instinctively shirked an education for me in Tamil, and sublimated it to English. On an individual level they did what they thought was best for upward social mobility, and my education in English proliferated free of history and politics. I want to sympathise with them, but in my own search for Tamilness, I am faced with the urgent need to condone my Brahmin-ness for the further losses it has unconsciously led to me afflict on a people I want to associate myself with, and the ones it has led me to incur: a loss of a history of struggle towards self-respect, a Sanskritisation of my faith, and a hypocritical sanitisation of my values, where I can openly, ignorantly question one kind of colonialism but ignore the other. Above all, I am overwhelmed by the sudden and jarring recognition of embodying the privileges I do while wanting to rectify the wrongs I have inadvertently caused. I will grapple for a long time with the enormity of a linguistic history whose edges I had only fleetingly set eyes on.

If there was ever a time to begin to unlearn, it is to be now. I envisioned this essay as a means of continuing a critique I had begun around marketing in bookshops; I end it on a critique of my own politics and the spaces in which I seek reclamation. Both are complete acts on their own. Both acts are potent in the environments I inhabit. I have embodied privilege without recognising it. In a political era in India rife with injustice, hatred and deprecation of Dalits and non-Hindus, I continue to embody a kind of safety that is not afforded to them. And when that safety is threatened in a place where my brownness becomes the focal point of my identity, I am made aware of how one navigates life faced with the materiality of power structures, while being forced to provide an account of who I am and why I find myself in the institutions I do, and being forced to do political labour merely to exist. At such a point as we are in history, learning political awareness does not deserve brownie points; it is an education I should have strived to seek long ago. This story, ultimately, is not about brownie points, I promise. It is about talking of the thing I was once uncomfortable to speak about: existing at once in privilege and oppression, you learn empathy. You learn, quickly, that one-sided revolution is hypocrisy.

And colonialism in any form needs to be rebelled against. I have been living my life in a state of translation, drawing a line I had no right to between my medium of expression and the context from which it derives meaning. The Book of Desire is not merely translation; in Meena K.’s interpretation is a work alight with political and personal commentary. In it, I find the poems with which I speak to a lover; in it I find a Tamil womanhood that answers for every inadequacy I have felt in embodying any other kind of femaleness. If I ask for it to be mine, in Tamil or in translation, it shall come with the wounds of its people and its history. I would be playing the role of Brahmin scholar all too well when I critique Western commercial marketing for books, if I refuse to look at how Tamil has survived and thrived to make it to this moment in time, with nearly all the pieces it began.


  1. A.K. Ramanujan’s afterword to The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems goes into the formal aspects of Tamil poetics, which uses the landscape to create ‘insets’ or extended allusions known as ullurai uvamai to create an “inner meaning” of the poem. 
  2. Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Is there an Indian way of Thinking?’ examines how philosophy, logic and literature from the subcontinent is deeply contextual, and even “systems of meaning are elicited by the context, and by the nature (and substance) of the listener” (53). https://profcohen.net/reli113/uploads/texts/ramanujan.pdf 
  3. I examine this in my essay titled ‘Bookshop politics.’ https://www.thebookseller.com/comment/bookshop-politics
  4. Kandasamy’s introductory essay in The Book of Desire talks about how Tamil manuscripts have been lost not only to fire, floods, insects and religious taboo, but also through a Sanskritic tradition that was bent on the destruction of indigenous Tamil knowledge. 
  5. C.J. Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan’s book Tamil Brahmans: The Making of a Middle-Class Caste, is in fact almost completely on the money in terms of predicting the direction of my life thus far.

Samyuktha R. is a student of literature. She writes essays and stories to make sense of the world. When it fails, she writes terrible poetry on Instagram @bookbakk.

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