"Kaale kaale phalse..."
Whenever the faint voice of the phalsa seller reached my ears, I would dash down the stairs to call out to him. It was a delight to watch the man unburden the basket -- resting atop his head -- to unravel tiny, purplish blueberry-sized fruits. With much alacrity, he would add a handsome quantity of salt, pepper and chaat masala, quite artfully prepare a paper cone and hand over the bouquet of phalse to me. Soon, his chant would chase him like a shadow and I'd stand there to see him disappear into the sparsely populated streets during the summer afternoons of May-June. Too many summers have come and gone ever since. The phalsa lover cannot hear the phalsa seller anymore.
Pamuk's boza seller is a memory keeper
Noble Laureate Orhan Pamuk's latest offering, A Strangeness in My Mind, resurrected my childhood memories of the phalsa seller. Mevlut Karatas's life as a boza (a fermented wheat drink) seller in Istanbul is increasingly turning into something unrecognisable.
[When] Mevlut sings "Boooozaaaa..." Istanbul metamorphoses into the city it once was.
In the last 43 years of living in Istanbul -- from his early days of stepping into this unknown city as a migrant from Beyşehir with his father in the summer of 1969 to sustaining till the winter of 2012 --Mevlut has clung on to the only constant: his voice. His passionate "Boooozaaaa..." cries enliven the empty city streets every night, well past midnight. While concrete has suppressed the fragrance of the soil; bottled boza inside the refrigerators of people's homes has replaced the traditional drink that was once served, sold and bought with the help of "ringing the bell and rocking the basket", Mevlut's call is the only remnant of all things past. It's only when amid the familiar, "neglected cobblestone streets", now fringed with new and strange buildings - -where "Concrete Brothers" sell yoghurt in glass bowls and wooden barrels -- Mevlut sings "Boooozaaaa..." that Istanbul metamorphoses into the city it once was.
An epic out of a short story
A Strangeness in My Mind revolves around missing links, incomplete stories of characters placed in situations they aren't meant to be, said untruths, unsaid truths, audible silences, imagined sights and real smells. A tome of 600 pages, this book does not allow the words to cripple the sensuous journey the reader is led into by the author.
If Orhan Pamuk is a genius, translator Ekin Oklap is not less than a magician herself. When asked how the project of translating a novel of "epic" proportion, that initially began with the intention of being a short story, unfolded between her and the author, and whether there were any major stumbling blocks, Ekin Oklap said, "By the time I started working on the translation, the book was almost finished, and I already knew it was going to be long -- so there were no surprises there! Being too literal is always a risk, but I think it's possible to avoid that while still remaining faithful to the original text. I guess that's what makes it such a unique creative process: it's only partly creative."
'Pamuk's intervention, a source of encouragement'
As the translator, Ekin Oklap has done a marvellous job. Pamuk's works have been translated into more than 60 languages. Ask her if she feels an author's voice is lost in translation, Ekin takes a detour and says, "I haven't really done a huge amount of translation before so I think I'd rather leave it to you (the reader) to think about the voice and about literature in translation in general".
The present surrenders itself to the past, albeit momentarily. It's almost as if the author wants you to stalk your own 'Neriman' in life...
Though a woman of few words, she did not hesitate to describe the experience of translating Pamuk. Did the author's intervention in the Turkish to English translation prove to be a source of encouragement or was it an imposition on the translator's freedom? "Definitely a source of encouragement and a great help, too. No one knows what the author is trying to convey better than the author himself, but Orhan Pamuk's English is excellent, so if the sense or the mood of something he wrote happened to shift in translation, he was able to 'catch' it. If an author is lucky enough to understand the language into which their book is being translated, I think it makes sense for there to be as much collaboration with the translator as possible. (And it's so much easier to do that today than it might have been even ten years ago; all you need is Skype)," answers Ekin.
Eyes have it!
By now, everybody is familiar with Mevlut's story and how he ends up eloping with the wrong woman. Mevlut had hopelessly fallen in love with the eyes of the woman he unfortunately did not run away with. In his every letter to Rayiha, his beloved, (he spent three years writing letters to her) Mevlut would not forget to write about her bewitching eyes. Did the English equivalent prove inadequate (and restricting at times) to describe Rayiha's eyes and that too, occasionally, from multiple voices of Ferhat and Suleyman? "It definitely wasn't easy, but actually, those were some of the most enjoyable parts to translate. It becomes a kind of puzzle, to try to make the translation as beautiful as the Turkish without it sounding stilted, and without losing each character's voice in the process. There are some words which Ferhat might use, for example, that you wouldn't imagine Mevlut ever saying, and vice versa. So you have to bear all that in mind while trying to do justice to the original text," explains Ekin.
Not just an elegy; it's a plea
Many reviewers have described A Strangeness in My Mind as a "love letter to the Turkish city", an "elegy" and so on, but, for me, Pamuk's novel is a plea, a prayer, to let the city of your imagination live in you instead of wallowing in a longing for the past. Mevlut's pledge to sell boza "until the day the world ends" becomes the source of nostalgia for others who have come to terms with the "mercantile" and "industrialised" way of life. Radios and television sets might have drowned out the boza seller's voice but the emotion continues to echo and pull on your heartstrings. The passion in Mevlut's voice is irresistible and the charm is alluring enough to compel the people to move away from the mechanised world and lend an ear to the boza seller. The present surrenders itself to the past, albeit momentarily. It's almost as if the author wants you to stalk your own 'Neriman' in life that you know you can't possess but still run after with the glimmer of hope that she(it)'ll look back at you.
If you haven't read this book yet, procrastinate no further.
Book: A Strangeness in My Mind
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Translated from the Turkish by: Ekin Oklap
Published by: Penguin Books
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