"Thirumoolar of Tamil Short Story"
A Literary Profile:
M. Sundaramoorthy 1993
S. Mani (1907- 1985), who wrote under the pen name 'Mowni', is one
of the rare writers of 20th century Tamil fiction with his unique
contributions of short stories. He was born at Semmangudi village in
Thanjavur district, home of few other noted artists, including the
famous carnatic vocalist, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. He had his high
school education in Kumbakonam and lived there for fourteen years,
since his marriage. He then moved to Chidhambaram permanently to
look after his family properties. Mowni had a Bachelor's degree in
Mathematics, but he did not take up any job. He was very fond of
classical music, had very strong exposure to western literature, and
showed deep interest in Indi-an philosophy.
His creative power was enriched by his analytical ability obtained
through science education, his artistic mind due his love for music,
foresight as a result of his deep knowledge in philosophy and
literary awareness from his exposure to western fiction. He started
writing (in mid 30s) around the same period as Pudumaipithan and
Ku.Pa.Rajagopalan. His earlier stories appeared in `maNikkodi',
widely recognised as avant-grade of Modern Tamil fiction.
The `maNikkodi trio',
Pudumaipithan, Ku.Pa.Ra. and Mowni are considered to be
the leaders of the movement that shaped the art of short story in
Tamil. They represented three entirely different trends of
short story writing and left a legacy of rich writings. However,
unlike the other two, who inspired scores of writers to continue
their trends, Mowni stands alone, without any predecessor or
successor, that is considered both as his success and failure. This
is one of the few reasons that brought him extreme criticisms: some
recognize him as a great writer and some others do not. It is often
said that his becoming a writer was accidental. He himself insisted
that he never had any intention of writing, though he was very much
interested in literature and involved in literary discussions with
It was B.S.Ramaiah who suggested at their first meeting in 1933,
during an informal chat in a group of friends that Mowni could make
a good writer if he had tried. This suggestion steeped in his mind
for more than a year and wrote five short stories and a long story
at a stretch in late 1935 out of curiosity. He was not keen about
publishing, but gave them to a friend to comment. To his
astonishment, his friend praised them of very high standard and were
new to Tamil.
He handed them over to B.S.Ramaiah who was the editor of
`maNikkodi' at that time. The first one `En?' appeared in February
'36 issue with the pseudonym Mowni, who was originally S.Mani.
Mowni's stories are based on the uncertainity of human life, human
relations and their manifestations like love, disappoint- ment,
failure, death etc. The theme for most of his stories is the love
between man and woman (to be precise, boy and girl). Though most of
his stories appear to be built on the manifestations of romantic
experiences, they pervade through many dimensions of human life.
They are not stereotype love stories nor do they move towards the
marriage of the people involved, family etc., which is commonly the
case with the romantic stories. (Only one of his stories,
`kudumbaththEr' is based on family life).
The relationships are beyond physical attraction and sexual appeal,
and there is hardly any physical description of the characters in
his stories. They hide behind the abstract images characterized by
the feelings and thoughts of their inner minds that are beyond the
common experiences manifested by the materialistic life. He
successfully portrays the characters through their feelings and
thoughts and introduces them in the dark or twilight by which he
could avoid the narrations of their physical features. Most of his
stories are set in dawn or dusk. His characters wander in a world
that is in between real and dream worlds, without strong attachment
to the materialistic world. The stories often change between
realistic and metaphysical worlds.
His characters lack strong social identities and hence the stories
as such lack the social character. The characters do not represent
any particular section of the society and the stories do not portray
the life of any particular class and discuss any social issues.
Essentially his creative world is romanticised one and does not have
the social and political dimensions. His stories are synthesis of
semi-realism and romanticism. This brought him strong criticism from
left wing critics that he lacked social concern.
The `form' of his stories is one of the main reasons for their
success. His stories are sculptured meticulously with great artistic
touch. His story-telling techniques and the narrative power
definitely added a new dimension to the prose writing in Tamil.
Mowni's stories are very difficult to comprehend at the first
reading because of their unique nature both in form and content.
Several reapeated readings are needed to fully appreciate his
stories and with each reading they are capable of unveiling a new
dimension and providing a new experience.
He wrote five short stories in late 1935 and added nine more between
1936 and 39. He did not write anything for a decade. He wrote two
short stories at the request of his contemporary writer M.V.
Venkatram in 1948 that appeared in `thEnee' magazine. He stopped
writing again till 1954. Afterwards, he occasionally wrote short
stories and the last one `thavaRu' appeared in 'kasa- dathapaRa' in
1971 (the translation of this story, `Loss of identity', is included
in this issue). During a span of 35 years of his literary career he
wrote only two dozen short stories, which is surprisingly small.
Mowni's first short story collection `azhiyaac chudar' was published
in 1959, the second one `Mowniyin kadhaigaL' in 1967 and the last
one in 1973. A complete edition Mowni's works, comprising 24 short
stories, his only interview (`dheepam',1967), a memoir about B.S.
Ramaiah, the editor of `maNikkodi' ( `enakku peyar vaiththavar',
'B.S. Ramaiah 60 aaNdu niRaivu malar', 1965), a memoir on his
village ('Semmangudi: than oor thEdal', 'aanandha vikatan', 1968)
and a couple of essays by Ka.Naa.Subramanyam on Mowni, was published
by Peacock Publications, recently (1991)
Described as "Thirumoolar of Tamil Short Story" by his contemporary
writer Pudumaipithan, Mowni occupies a distinct place in the annals
of Tamil literature.
A Loss Of Identity
- Translated by Albert Franklin - From "Tamil Short Stories",
Selected and Edited by Ka.Naa. Subramanyam, Authors Guild of
India Cooperative Society, First Edition (1978). - Contributed
by Sundara Pandian
He awoke suddenly, wide awake in the night, cleanly awake, as if
something had startled him. Trailing across the edges of his
consciousness like tatters of dream were junctures and disjunctures,
meetings and partings of his entire life. Outside in the breathless
dark, the sibilant cry of some nightbird faded, answered by, or
answering, the sharp scolding of the owls. The steps of a man,
perhaps two, passing along the street in that unseasonable hour
before dawn seemed to fade without disturbing the surface of the
silence. Beggars huddled in sleep on the walk below. Far into the
night, till sleep had come, they had gossiped, now and then shouting
uproariously, coughing, coughing their way toward beggar death. Now
they would sleep until daylight.
Why hadn't his life with her ended with the same sweetness it had
had at the beginning? What had made events follow a course which
confirmed the passing suspicion that had fallen between them? The
world indeed blamed her, but was she really to be blamed for moving
about in the world, showing her sweet beauty, delighting all who
might see her wherever she went? He wasn't sure.
The blackness of the night in his room was overpowering. He opened
the window, pushed aside the shutter, and looked out. The immense
expanse of the universe seemed to extend before him. Townlights
merged with stars, as if the stars had come down from the sky to
parade in long lines in the streets.
He wanted to retrace in his mind just what had happened at the
evening before, to get a clear idea of how it all had gone. To do
this, he would have to gather the long shadows cast by things to
come and piece them together with memories of things long past and
It had all started evening before last when he had run into him at
the corner of the side street. That had been unexpected. "Hello
there! What a surprise to find you here! I never dreamed..." There
must have been some meaning behind these excessive reactions. You
could tell by his face, his manner, that he was living on the top of
the world. Could it be that *she* was living with him now? He had
asked for his address, noted it down, promising to call on him the
following afternoon at half past four. Then he had hurried away. The
dull yellow of the lowering sun had glowed for a moment in the
street and quickly faded.
His upstairs room was larger than he needed for himself alone. From
up there, through windows looking in all directions, he could see
off into the sky as well as look down to see what was going on in
the village. But he had to stumble and grope up a long steep
staircase to get to his room. The anticipated difficulty of getting
back up usually quenched his impulse to get out on the street and
wander around the village. Holding the shutter, he gazed out into
the distance. He could see the first gray of the dawn.
The evening before, from four o' clock on, in his excitement over
the expected visit, he had begun to worry that the hour would come
and the visitor not arrive. The effect of this had been to cause him
to cease to focus on the exact time the visitor had promised to
come, as if to console himself with the thought that it was not yet
really late. And, then it often happens that, when one was waiting
for someone, the identity of the person one is waiting for slips
from one's mind.
Couples with their children had been pouring in a flood down the
street toward the seashore. What a fuss they made, and how they
decked themselves out to wash away the humdrum of their lives with a
few minutes in the sea breeze! The sky too, as if preparing for a
celebration in the heavens, held a special clarity, poised for
sunset and the sharp plunge into darkness.
The street lights, not yet lit, ranged along the street in regular
files to a distant vanishing point.
The time had come. The silence in the room had become a torture. It
had been impossible to stay there quietly and wait. He had made his
way down into the street. He had moved along staring intently at
each passer-by so that his visitor would not pass without his seeing
him. He had sidled up to a man wearing a wrist-match and asked,
"Sir! the correct time, please?" The man had given him a side-long
glance, looked at his watch, and mumbled something to the effect
that he was always forgetting to wind his watch and it had stopped.
Then the man had said, "It must be about four-thirty. In any case,
it's not after five", and had gone away.
He had considered going back to his room. Perhaps his vistor would
already be there waiting for him, perhaps even sitting in his
armchair, ready to chide him for having made him wait so long when
he had arrived exactly on time. Walking along, pondering over how he
would answer that the idea of returning his room had slipped from
his mind. The thought came to him that, on coming out, he had only
closed his door, not locked it. He had gone on walking down the
He had come to a house within a garden wall. Walking past, he had
found himself watching a beautiful young woman on the veranda
languidly turning the pages of a book. Her reading and the play of
her imagination were reflected in her features. It had occurred to
him to walk straight up to her that he had come exactly six o' clock
as agreed, and that if she was bored, he was not to blame. But a
doubt flashed in his mind whether he could become "him" to her, and
he had walked on. It seemed absurd that life should ensnare one in
such hazards through unexpected occurrences. Cars whizzed past,
along the street and across the crossings, sometimes even grazing
him. The street lights had not yet been lit.
Then the milk woman had come up to him in the street and he had
stopped short. She had smiled at him and spoken "Why Sir! what on
earth are you doing out so early in the evening! You even forgot I
was coming to your room!" At first he had considered taking her back
to the room with him. But what if his visitor is 6 there waiting for
him? What if he should see them together? He had dropped that idea
and considered whether to tell her to go there herself and leave
some milk. Then he had said, "I don't need anything today. You don't
have to go to the room", and had walked off, basking in the sun of
her smile, "Poor thing, how she loves me!"
Aimless wandering, earnestly pursued, finds its own goal somewhere
beyond the limits of intention. The railway station was there before
him, glittering with a thousand lights. He stood awhile looking at
it. Then somehow he was caught in its pull and became an atom in its
bustling crowd. Railway stations usually give an impression of
isolation and helplessness. Both in their empty moments and their
crowded ones, they are essentially sheds for people coming or going
on the railway.
But a great railway terminus is the point of origin and the point of
return for travellers. From here, trains move out in all directions
and return here again. People set out from this place to everywhere;
people come to this place from every- where to take up new lives,
new relationships. In such a place as this many people become
detached from their essential natures, their souls, and here also
those natures become lodged in other beings. A beginning-ending
place, a place of crowds, noise, and straining, itself unshaken, a
lofty, enigmatic shrine.
At that moment there was a great surge in the crowd, an enormous
confusion in which some arriving passengers became thoroughly
mingled with a crowd waiting to leave. Noise seemed to come from
everywhere. One seemed to be part of the noise. Forms seen and
unseen, sound heard and unheard, all these rolled together into one
great confusion, one great undifferentiated mass of noise, which
rose and rose and broke as a wave breaks on the beach.
Then each shap, each sound, each word or name seemed to have lost
its harmony, slipped from its place, so that the senses could not
grasp the message the mind seemed to be trying to convey. One of the
trains about to depart seemed to be waiting, delaying
unintentionally, purposely flaunting the temptation to travel. Its
intended occupants swarmed and whirled about it, peering into it
here and there, looking for a place.
Some were already packed sardine-like inside the train, some were
clinging to the steps and windows, others had even climbed onto the
roof. Those who could not find a hold were giving vent to their
frustration by shinnying up the posts, onto the platform shelter,
even onto the roof of the station, like a frolic of blind monkeys.
The engine stood belching smoke in a monstrous plume, snarling and
gasping its exasperation at not being allowed to move now that it
was ready. The cars strung out behind it were a massive braid of
human beings. Departure was announced and the police moved into
impose order. They dragged those they could reach off the train,
beat them, and drove them away.
Some of these circled back to get a new hold everywhere else.
Jolting first back, then forward, the train lurched to a start,
shaking off several passengers. Those who failed to get a new hold,
ran alongside until they dropped from exhaustion. In all this
confusion, somehow or other, he had got on the train. He was
crouched in a luggage rack. He pulled his knees up, rested his head
on them and went to sleep. Whenever the train stopped or slowed down
anywhere at all, passengers who had gotten on the train apparently
for no particular reason, suddenly found some new reason to get off,
and disappeared into the darkness. Now that he had more room in the
luggage rack, he stretched out his legs and fell into a deep sleep.
He opened his eyes and raised his body up.
Shreds of dream fluttered in his consciousness; he had the feeling
that he himself was a dream- image. A mischievous smile on a sleepy
face was looking up at him from below as if waiting to speak to him.
Smiling-face said, "That conductor came through while we were
sleeping. He thought we looked like people who would not be
travelling without tickets, so he didn't disturb us. He won't come
He patted his shirt pocket. No ticket there! He couldn't remember
either buying or not buying one, or even starting out on this
voyage. He suspected that if he had bought one, smiling- face had
picked his pocket in his sleep. The conductor might come. He'd
better get away from there. He dug his fingers into his scalp as if
he drag himself off by his hair. The train was crawling past a small
flag-stop platform 8 apparently uncertain whether it had been
flagged or not. The carriage he was on came almost to a stop in an
open field. He prepared himself, calculated its speed, and swung
down neatly and expertly before it stopped. He had no luggage to
hinder him. As the train stopped and moved on, he looked sharply
about and sensed, rather than saw that there was no one else there
But in that black void, the darkness itself seemed to glow and to
illuminate objects and forms. Then this strange brightness would
merge again with the dark. He heard a sound like the searing outcry
of a soul parted from its body but still torn by its involvement,
its bondage to earth and the flesh. This dark, this death, this
clarity, all gave the impression of being what they were not, as if
slipping from their true natures. The severed head of a rooster,
unable to find its own body, seemed to attach itself to whatever was
near and unnatural- ly herald the dawn. A date palm, a coconut tree,
a goat, a cow, a man: in that eerie half-light might not any of them
serve as cock's body, a crow cock's crow? Even if one were aware of
the cause of this slipping from role to role, how could one avoid
it? Perhaps in perceiving the world itself as just such a slip, just
such a mistake, one could.
A little before full daylight the milk woman knocked and shouted at
his door, but he didn't get up. He lay as if immersed in the world
of his dream, as if bemused with the thought that it might be an
extension of someone else's dream. The milk woman called so loud he
certainly should have heard, but he did not. It would be a mistake
to wait for him any longer, the milk woman thought, and went on her