Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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A Look at the World of Tamil Fiction

Govardhanan Ramachandran

Courtesy www.govardhanan

Though the first modern Tamil short story, Paramartha Guruvin Kathai (Story of Paramartha Guru), written by Veeramaamunivar, appeared in the eighteenth century, and the first novella, Prathaba Mudaliar Sarithiram (History of Prathaba Mudaliar), written by Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai, appeared in the nineteenth century, the golden age of Tamil short stories began (and, as a few would say, ended) with the so called Manikodi writers. They were called so, since they regularly wrote for a small magazine by the same name, which had two short spells of publications during the 1930s and 1950s. The Manikodi writers include, among others, Puthumaip Piththan, Na Pichchamurthy, Ku Pa Ra, Ka Na Su, Si Su Chellappa, B S Ramayya, La Sa Ra, Mouni, Ku Azhagirisamy and Thi Janakiraman.

Even among these legendary writers, Puthumaip Piththan stands out. As Subrahmanya Bharathiyar happens to be the first and the greatest poet in the history of Modern Tamil, many people hold Puthumaip Piththan as Bharathi's counterpart in the realm of fiction - especially short stories. Ponnagaram (Name of a town, which literally means a "Golden City"), Saaba Vimosanam (A critical view on Lord Rama from the eyes of Akalya), Kadavulum Kanthasami Pillaiyum (Kanthasami Pillai and the God), and Kayitraravu (Rope-Snake) are some of his well-known stories. Karuch Chithaivu (Abortion) is one of my favorites, where he explains how a storywriter haphazardly develops his theme for a short story that he is writing, just to meet the deadline from the editor's office.

Some people rate Mouni very high in the list, but I couldn't so far lay my hands on any of his works but one. But that one happened to be a quite ordinary one. Mouni's works are very few in number though. His works are mostly allegorical, and I have seen some people referring to him as the (only) Kafka of Tamil literature.

I am yet to read any Ka. Na. Su. work, leave alone his experimental story, considered by many as a masterpiece, Poythevu, which figures in many lists of best Tamil short stories.

Ku. Pa. Raja Gopalan is another Manikodi writer that I like the most. Crisp story lines and sharp language. I have mixed opinions about Thi. Janakiraman (author of Mogamul that was made into a film recently) and La Sa Ramamirtham because of their general outlook and social mindset, but their writing caliber is unquestionable nevertheless. I remain neutral about Na Pichchamurthy and C S Chellappa. I haven't read any Ka Na Su., B S Ramayya or Ku Azhagirisamy so far.

A largely unnoticed writer, who I came to know about recently, is G Nagarajan. His approach is quite unorthodox, and is even brutal at times. Characters in his stories indulge in prostitution, petty thefts, adultery, and other such social taboos as nonchalantly as, say, one breathes. In one of his forewords, GN writes, "I am just writing those things that happen around us. If you are upset by my writings, ask yourselves why such things happen in the first place. Don't try to escape the issue by asking me why I should write about such things." Definitely a class of his own! Sundara Ramasamy, in his foreword for a recent edition of GN's collection of short stories, says that what all GN does is to open the door for the readers to see what's happening inside (the homes/souls of the characters), and to sit aside without any interference between the reader and the story.

During the Manikodi era, Ra Krishnamurthy (Kalki) came into the scene as the editor of the popular periodical, Ananda Vikatan. With him began the polarization of Tamil literature, and what had this resulted in are the two distinct categories of Tamil literature (commercial and serious - much like what one witnesses in the field of movies).

Under Kalki, who personified the commercial face of the Tamil fiction, Vikatan became a weekly, and its circulation had increased appreciably. Kalki's success effectively caused a whole series of commercial writers that followed his footsteps. Still, I find him very well readable compared to his so-called legacies - the commercial crap that one sees in Tamil magazines today (Sivasankari is one typical example, by the way).

Contrary to my expectations, Kalki's sense of humor was of top notch (esp. in his short stories and essays). He is the torchbearer for the historical novels in Tamil too. Ponniyin Selvan (a story set in Raja Raja Chola times), and Sivagamiyin Sapatham (Narasimhavarma Pallava times, the age of Mahapalipuram Sculptures) are some of his famous historical novels.

It was during the 50s that Jayakanthan (JK) entered the scene - only to reign supreme till the 70s. He is the only serious writer that ever wrote regularly in commercial publications without compromising his/her styles or content. Ironically, it was Ananda Vikatan that had published the most of Jayakanthan's initial writings (I guess Kalki had, by then, started his own magazine, "Kalki," after moving out of Vikatan).

A school dropout, who separated from his family at his early ages, Jayakanthan had spent his teenage and early twenties as an office boy in the Janasakthi office - the Tamil mouthpiece of the then unified Communist Party of India. That was where he fell in love with literature (as well as with the communist philosophy), and started writing. His stories have some raw quality about them in that they were very straight from the heart and were sincere (Though not so raw as those of G Nagarajan).

Mostly, people from the lowest stratum of the society filled his stories. For instance, Unnaip Pol Oruvan (A person like you), JK's first story to be made into a film (by himself), deals with a kid in the city slum whose widow mother starts living with another man. (According to JK, he was inspired into making movies after watching Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. His first movie, Unnai Pol Oruvan, had fetched JK national recognition when he shared the stage with Ray, who had won an award for one of his later movies - I guess it was Charulata, but I might be wrong). Yaarukkaga Azhuthan (Who did he cry for?), on the other hand, deals about an innocent room boy (played excellently by Nagesh) in a small lodge, being unjustifiably suspected of having stolen a jewelry piece from one of the guests (K R Vijaya). Yugasanthi (link between eras) and Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam Oru Manithan (a house a world and a man) are only two of his other outstanding stories.

Jayakanthan, though a Communist party member then, was predominantly an artist that had explored various predicaments of working class people. And, contrary to other leftist "writers," any visible propaganda was conspicuously absent from his stories - so much so that some of his bitterest critics were, in JK's own words, the party members themselves.

Curiously (looking back, still not entirely unexpectedly), sometime during the 70's, JK has transformed himself into a sort of "spiritual" writer. (It was during this period that JK had distanced himself from the CPI, and had started appreciating Gandhi and his means).

What else other than the famous novel (and movie - directed this time around by Bhimsingh - which fetched Lakshmi her best actress award), Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal could symbolize this transformation?

A fatherless college girl from an orthodox Brahmin family gets raped on her way back from the college (by a rich guy right in his car), gets abandoned by her brother, lives with her widowed mother, studies and finds a job with the help of her maternal uncle (who makes repeated advances towards her since he perceives her to be an easy target), suddenly decides to locate the person that had raped her, and, surprisingly, strikes a friendship with him.

An absolute gem, in terms of storytelling and exploring the mental agony of the mother and the daughter caught in such situation, this story is narrated in an authentic Tamil Brahminical dialect.

But ironically, this is when JK, in my opinion, has started slipping down. Jaya Jaya Sankara and Sundara Kaandam are some of his later works. It is more than ten years now since JK has written any fiction. Though a number of Tamil magazines today are ready to publish whatever he gives them, he keeps himself away from the print world.

Sundara Ramasamy is another serious writer that has come out with some of the marvelous works. Inspired by Jayakanthan, Sundaram Ramasamy went on to carve out a niche for himself, and now, curiously enough, he places a handful of writers ahead of JK in his own rankings. Sundaram Ramasamy's JJ - Sila Kurippugal (JJ - Some Notes) is held by many as the best Tamil Novel ever to have been written (A recent contender is Jayamohan's Vishnupuram - more of this later). Oru Puliyamarathin Kathai (Story of a Tamarind Tree) and Kuzhanthaigal Pengal Aangal (Children Women and Men) are his other masterpieces. JJ, to some extent, and K P A, to a large extent, are arguably autobiographical in nature.

Then comes Sujatha (a.k.a. Rangarajan). The "commercial king" that bordered the excellence in mass writing with his intelligently woven popular pieces, which could sometimes be termed as serious literature. I can go on and go on discussing him though I don't adulate him nowadays as I used to. Though it was Sujatha that introduced me to the serious side of the Tamil literature, he has, overall, remained a commercial writer. And, incidentally, in the history of modern Tamil fiction, Sujatha and JK are the only writers that had earned considerable money through their writings. After Sujatha had retired as the GM (R&D) from Bharat Electronics Ltd., Bangalore, in the early nineties, he settled in Chennai, where he continues to live now. In his latest avatar, he has penned story, screenplay and/or dialogue for many a successful movie venture. Muthalvan (Shankar), Kandu Kondaen Kandu Kondaen (Rajiv Menon) Uyire (Dil Se in Hindi), Roja, Kannathil Muthamittal (all Maniratnam ones) are some of the well-known movies that he has contributed to.

Ambai is another writer to have written excellent and effective short stories. Her output is, like Mouni, very less though. Nevertheless, any meaningful anthology of Tamil fiction without one of her stories would be grossly incomplete. Kattil Oru Maan (A deer in the jungle) and Veettin Moolaiyil Oru Samayal Arai (A kitchen in the corner of a house) are her two short-story collections.

Jayanthan, Sa. Kanthasamy, Asoka Mithran (Pathinettavathu Atchak Kodu), Naanjil Naadan (Ettu thikkum Matha Yaanai), Balakumaran (esp. his initial writings), Vanna Nilavan, Vanna Thasan, Valli Kannan, Neela. Pathmanabhan (Thalaimuraigal), Ki. Raja Narayanan (Goballa Gramam), Prabanjan, A. Madhavan, Nagulan, Thopil Muhamad Meeran, Na. Parthasarathy, and Indira Parthasarathy are some of the other quality writers in Tamil. Jayanthan, Asoka Mithran and Nanjil Naadan are my favorites, while others are either not so or unread by me so far. A few of Balakumaran's initial novels (Mercury Pookal or Mercury flowers, Irumpu Kuthiraikal or Iron Horses) and some of his short stories are worth reading. Recently, one of his short stories written during his early stages, "Chinnach Chinna Vattangal (tiny circles)," made me literally exclaim at the end. One wonders now, reading such stories, where had this guy fallen into.

Other serious writers that currently write include Ira Murugan, Perumal Murugan, Suresh Kumar Indrajit, Jayamohan (Vishnupuram, Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural - the voice of the following shadow), Poomani (who has written and directed the film, Karuvelam Pookkal), and Thankar Pachchan (the movie cameraman whose directorial efforts so far are the largely successful Azhagi (damsel) and Solla Marantha Kathai (the story that was forgotten to be told) - While the former is based on one of his own short stories, the latter is a work of Naanjil Naadan).

There are many small publications, where most of these neo-writers write. Unlike Kannada or Malayalam literary worlds (from what I've heard), quality Tamil writers find no place in the commercially successful publications. That is the sorry state of affairs in the Tamil literary world today. So, I may not be even aware of some of the best current Tamil writers. At the same time, looking from another angle, the so called "serious" writing has, again not unexpectedly, resulted in some extreme nutty cases over a period: These people could be read only by a few (possibly understood by none!). There are people to try out every kind of western exponents of literature like post-modernism and cubism (Since I have no exposure myself, it is better if I don't comment). But I have the right to say this much: All such works that I've read so far leave much to be desired.

If you are wondering why Akilan - the only Tamil writer to have won the Gnanapit Award till date - doesn't figure at all in these pages, then you are correct; he has no place here! His style is quite run of the mill. Some sections also consider Su. Samuthram and Rajam Krishnan to be good, but I differ with the former, while claiming ignorance in the case of the latter.

By any stretch, the list given here is not an exhaustive one. I may have even missed out some authors that I have read and liked. The order in which the names are mentioned herein does not necessarily reflect my preference either. And, finally, the details I have given about each author and his/her works may not precisely be up to the level I would like them to be. This was just an outpour that had resulted from a single sitting, and, for various reasons, I would like it to be left the way it is.

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