A version of this article first appeared in In Other Words: the journal for literary translators
Lakshmi Holmström became widely known and respected as a writer and translator, particularly in her rendition and dissemination of Tamil literature. So significant was her contribution that, shortly before she died, her fellow author Amit Chaudhuri wrote to me: “I think Lakshmi is the best Anglophone translator India has.”
An initial anthology, The Inner Courtyard: Short Stories by Indian Women [Virago,1990] contained translations from Urdu, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, with Hindi and Tamil, in Lakshmi’s translations. It was the first time that a 300-page compendium of a rich diversity of women writers from the subcontinent had been published by a major anglophone press.
In 1992, a volume of short stories by Ambai (pen name of CS Lakshmi) appeared with an Indian publisher, Manas. Translated and introduced by Lakshmi (Holmström), it introduced themes personally familiar to her: the life of an Indian student arriving in the ‘mother country’, having grown up under the patriarchal legacy of British rule; the dislocation of identity brought about by marriage to an Englishman; experiences of racism, and the necessary inventiveness of available responses. What Lakshmi writes in her introduction of Ambai’s ‘liberation’ through writing could be applied to herself: “... in breaking new ground, she had to invent a new vocabulary and style. Given that the linking theme throughout her work is that of self-liberation, her stories are shot through with images of freedom.” In 2007, there would be a reprise with Ambai’s In a Forest, a Deer [OUP, New Delhi, 2006], for which Lakshmi received the Crossword-Hutch Award.
Lakshmi’s ‘self-liberation’, through the dedicated fulfilment of her intellectual potential, came only in her fifties. It was a hard road with an inconspicuous start. She was born near Bangalore in 1930 into a part-Parsee family with Christian roots. Her father and grandfather were theologians; her maternal grandfather, the founder of the First Church of South India; both Lakshmi and her mother graduated from the Women’s Christian College in Madras. Although her mother committed suicide when she was a toddler, for reasons it took a lifetime for Lakshmi to clarify in her own mind, she retained a close memory of her: her portrait gazed down from above her writing desk throughout Lakshmi’s life. Aged two, she was sent to live with her maternal aunt; her subsequent sudden removal from this beloved “second mother” only served to intensify her loss.
Her father rapidly remarried, to the chagrin of Lakshmi, her older sister (Nalini) and her younger brother (Marcus). Their childhood was not a happy one. Nalini is a retired academic, now a Buddhist theologian living in Toronto; Marcus was an outstanding neurophysiologist who died suddenly in 1997.
Lakshmi’s BA in English literature at Madras was followed by one at Oxford. She put her passion for the subject down to an uncle who read her Shakespeare’s history plays - energetically playing every part and battle scene - when she was still a child. There she met her fellow undergraduate and future husband, Mark Holmström, and they married (cursed and disinherited by Lakshmi’s father) in Mumbai in April 1960. Then came two years in New York, where he worked for UNESCO and she as social secretary and librarian at the Indian Consulate General.
The couple resumed their academic research on returning to Oxford in 1967. Lakshmi’s focus had shifted, and she wrote a B Litt on Indian literatures in English: the novels of R. K. Narayan. Mark was awarded a PhD in Social Anthropology, leading to a Sociology lectureship at the University of East Anglia.
Lakshmi also discovered a talent for teaching, completing her training and spending nine years at Bowthorpe Comprehensive School, where she became Director of Sixth Form Studies. From 1988, she went wholly freelance and only resumed a very different form of teaching in 2003, when she spent three years as a Royal Literary Fund fellow at the UEA. As her work became more widely known, she was invited to teach short courses in far-flung places, including India and Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, North America and continental Europe, as well as the UK. Even during the 18 months of her final illness, she devised an online distance learning translation course for a Singapore university.
Daughters Radhika and Savitri, were born in 1963 and 1966 and attended schools in Singapore, Bangalore, Malaysia - and Norwich. Once they were grown Lakshmi dedicated herself to Tamil literature, always seeking to re-evaluate even its earliest classics in the light of contemporary events and relevance.
In 1980 Sandam press, published Kannagi: a modern version of Silappadikaram, “a rendition of Ilanko’s Tamil classic rooted in Dravidian history”. The 5th century narrative poem is related in English by Lakshmi, who in her Afterword insists that its epic status should not relegate it to the annals of fantasy. “It is a realistic poem. This comes out in the careful detail with which the townships of Puhar and Madurai are described, the vivid placing of events, the sense of lived life, even the popular mythology of demons and spirits.”
Further epic translations followed, (including the companion to Silappadikaram, Manimekalai) and contemporary novels (including Water by Ashokimitran and Beasts of Burden by Imayam). At the same time, Lakshmi was increasingly involved in the women’s movements, co-founding first a South Asian Women’s Group (in London) and a Black Women’s Group (in Norwich). What applied to Kannagi could be applied to a feminist world view: what appeared far-fetched, fantastical even, to a male eye’s view, might also be a literal experience.
Anthologies multiplied, including Writing from India: Figures in a Landscape [CUP 1994]; Waves: An Anthology of Fiction and Poetry [Manas, 2001]; The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry: The Rapids of a Great River [Penguin, 2009]; Wild Girls, Wicked Words [Sandam, 2012] and a final volume of poetry in Lost Evenings, Lost Lives [Arc, 2016], her second collaboration with US academic, Sascha Ebeling. In his words: “Lakshmi brought riches from Tamil [into English] and her work has profoundly influenced me and many others”.
It makes a fitting swan song: an impassioned defence of Tamil women suffering the most horrific war crimes during the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka, and a vindication of poetry as truth-telling, throughout a period when news blackouts prevented media communication. It was what Lakshmi fought hard to convey in such a different new language striving to find the right voice and cadence, a new lexis and syntax.
Other prominent translations, undertaken with an ever surer touch - of short stories and novels by Ambai, Ashoka Mitran, Imayam, Sundara Ramasami, Na Muthuswamy, Cheran, Mauni, Madhavayya, Salma, Pudhumaipithan and the life story of Bama, a Dalit Christian nun – ensured recognition in India, including in the mainstream press. On 8th May, the Mumbai Mirror, paid homage to Our Lady of Tamil Literature: “She leaves behind a formidable legacy for (sic) how the language and its politics has evolved over decades to an entire generation of Tamil and non-Tamil readers”.
Lakshmi herself, in an interview for The Hindu Times in 2013, noted some of the changes in Tamil women’s literature over the previous 30 years: “Many women are feminists, and articulate their feminism very clearly. But I believe the driving force in their writing - or in the best examples of their work - is not cerebral and generalised but springs from personal, felt experience. Hence Bama’s Dalit politics; hence Salma’s insights into the restricted world of Muslim women; hence the focus of Sri Lankan poets on the violence done to women during and after the war; hence the younger women poets of Tamil and their politics of sexuality.”
Writing was increasingly accompanied by activism. In 1999, Laksmi co-founded the South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive, dedicated to archiving the works of British writers and artists of South Asian origin. Like Laksmi herself, it was dedicated to making unheard voices public, and to raising consciousness both in her country of origin and in her adoptive homeland, where she was based for over 60 years.
According to her daughter, Radhika, “Lakshmi’s professional life was effectively one of two halves. She should have been less ladylike in her thirties; she was much happier in her later life”. Lakshmi’s first half-century combined working in a variety of professions with education and family (hers and theirs). The next thirty years brought unexpected public recognition as she won numerous literary awards in India, Britain, the US and Canada and an MBE in 2011. Ever modest, Lakshmi, described feeling “unworthy and overwhelmed”.
To her the mission always mattered more than the recognition. “The most difficult part of translation is, I believe, finding the ‘right’ pitch and voice of the original, and to try and match that. I won’t say ‘replicate’; that’s impossible. But there is also the hard graft of familiarising oneself with the history and cultural background of the work. A translator should never be afraid of asking questions.”
It was in scrupulously following her own advice that she made her pioneering and historic literary achievements.
Lakshmi Holmström is survived by her husband, Mark Holmström; her sister, Dr. Nalini Devdas; her daughters, Radhika and Savitri; and her grandchildren Miriam and Naomi, Isaac and Noah.
The Power of Prose