His Contribution to Modern Tamil Literature
E. Sa. Visswanathan
International Tamil Conference Seminar
January 1968, Madras, Tamil Nadu
Viruththaacalam, popularly known by his pseudonym as
Puthumaippiththan, (1906-1948), was a journalist by profession and
was closely connected with such leading journals as ThinamaNi,
Thinacari and MaNikkoTi. Within a short period of his journalistic
career, from 1930 to 1946, he produced two hundred or more short
stories, a small novelette, three one-act plays, a book of poems and
about 50 translations of short stories written by Western and
Eastern writers. Also, a considerable number of articles on various
topics like literature, art, short stories, modern poetry, politics,
reviews and criticisms have been written by him. From his articles a
selection has been published under the title Puthumaippiththan
paper is concerned mainly with a detailed analysis of his stories.
His contribution to other fields such as poetry and essay has also
come under the review of critics, and critics are divided in their
opinion regarding their quality. A close friend of
Puthumaippiththan, Mr. Rakunhaathan, in his preface to
Puthumaippiththan Kavithaikalh labours rather painfully to extol and
to bring out the salient features of his poems and by that process
formulates his own theory of prosody and poetics.2
However, impartial critics would agree that Puthnmaippiththan tried
a new form of poetry quite alien to Tamil tradition and failed
miserably in his attempt. His poems have neither a similarity to
blank verse nor a resemblance to metrical composition in Tamil. But
these poems, no doubt, reveal the author's passion for novelty:
novelty in the approach and in the handling of the subject matter
Puthumaippiththan was a journalist for a considerable part of
his life one would naturally expect him to be an able translator.
Must of translations he had done during this period were items
for the Tamil dailies and as such it is now rather difficult
to assess their standard. Nevertheless, the short stories he
translated from English into Tamil, numbering about fifty in all, in
between the period of his journalistic career and the period of his
active literary production, provide the opportunity to estimate
His experience in Tamil journalism, no doubt, helped him a great
deal to master the mechanics of the language and therefore made it
easier for him to translate stories in an easy flowing style. This
is not enough to translate a story, because short story writers, if
they are really so, have mastered the art of implication so well
that they convey a great many things on paper without stating them
at all. To bring out this essential aspect and to convey the spirit
of the story while translating into Tamil, Puthumaippiththan
formulated a new staccato slickness of style, eliminating so much of
what had been considered essential literary paraphernalia. In
addition to this, his innate genius in writing short stories gave
his translations a marvellous lucidity and straightforwardness.
Therefore, one almost forgets while reading his translated short
story collections, for example, Ulakaththuc Citukathaikalh 3
that they are translations, and regards them as original works.
Tamil Short Story: Its Beginning and Development
genius of Puthumaippiththan is revealed in his own works: the short
stories. The short story as such, and in the modern sense, is an
imported literary form from Europe. The very word citukathai
(சிறுகதை) in Tamil is a literal translation of
the English term Short Story. However, an ardent lover of Tamil
would hasten to say that one could find the trace of this genre in
Classical Tamil poetry. There is some truth in this assumption
because " the short story is closer to poetry in its structural
flexibility than it is to other prose forms ".
The Tamil short
story has three stages in its development beginning with
C. J. Beschi's (1680-1742) Paramaarththa Kurukathai and
Celvakkeecavaraaya Mudaliar's (1864-1921) Apinhavakkatdtaikalh.
Though these stories do not possess very high literary merit, yet
the authors should be congratulated for introducing a new kind of
literature into Tamil.
The second stage begins with
V. S. Iyer
(1881-1925) and a host of writers whose stories are of varying
standard. But in all fairness to these writers of the second stage,
they could be regarded as the real pioneers in the craft of writing
short stories. V. V. S. Iyer, especially, tried in his stories " the
neatness of a miniature and completeness of a microcosm" but the
success he achieved was not of a very high standard. As
Puthumaippiththan rightly observes, V. V. S. Iyer was the father of
short story writing in Tamil and he was the first writer to give the
story its pronounced form.4
The third stage began
immediately after 1930, with Puthumaippiththan and a group of
brilliant and talented story writers. The contribution of such
gifted masters as Puthumaippiththan, Ku. Paa Rajakoopaalan,
P.S.Raamaiya Cithampara CuprumaNiyan to the field of the short
story, created for modern Tamil short story writers a classical
pantheon to look to.5 What these men wrote, and how they
wrote, and that they wrote short fiction, to a large degree
established the serious Tamil short story of our time.
Reaction to Puthumaippiththan's Short Stories
luminous group of short story writers, the one who achieved
pre-eminence and the one considered by many critics as the writer
who broke free from past Tamil tradition and stereotyped formalism
is Puthumaippiththan. In the beginning, his stories were neither
appreciated nor understood by many readers because of the newness of
However, like all writers of his time, he wrote of
ordinary people, their relationship with one another, their foibles,
their aspirations and avocations in life and of the humdrum world of
the average man. It is the kind of life with which most people,
despite differences in setting, are in daily contact, but which,
more often than not, they scorn to look at more closely because of
its trivial and commonplace character. With penetrating insight
Puthumaippiththan analyses in his short stories the petty struggles
of such a life, its grotesque self assertions and vanities, and the
pathetic antics of limited and frustrated people in their fight for
existence. In them, no doubt, he reveals the incongruities and
maladjustments of the ordinary man and points out the symptoms and
diagnoses the disease. But he neither moralises, nor preaches, nor
offers a solution.
Puthumaippiththan felt sincerely that it was not his concern to
reform society, but to portray as he had witnessed the miserable
drama of human life,
6 " with a certain melancholy heaviness behind which glowed a
constant kindliness of heart ". But what he implies by his vivid or
at times sketchy portrayal of the shame and the oppressiveness of
life, for example in " Kavanhthanum kaamanam ",7 and "
8 is beyond the grasp of ordinary readers, who therefore
rejected them as scribbles of a madman. But, now, with the passage
of time he is not only understood but also appreciated for the wide
range of subjects he dealt with in his stories, and the many
experiments he made in the texture of weaving a story.
In some stories
Puthumaippiththan chose to interpret with characteristic mockery the
life of his own Pillai community, their special traits in character,
their customs and manners and their reactions to various problems
that arise in a particular situation or time in life. In such
stories, the spoken dialect of the Pillai Community of
Thirunhelveeli was handled very efficiently to make the story more
realistic and natural.9
In some other stories the dialect of the city of' Madras comes out
in full colour which projects the characters in a story
superbly.10 In whatever dialect or style lie wrote, he
never lost the sarcasm and the wry wit which are so very common to
the people of Thirunhelveeli. For example the stories like "
Nhaacakaarak Kumpal ",11 " Paalvannam Pillillaai",12
and " Kotukkaappulhimaram "13 are full of sarcasm and
Puthumaippiththan and Western Writers
Unlike some of the short story writers in Tamil he was abreast
with the modern trends in stories. From Puthumaippiththan's
biography and translated stories one would infer that he received
the impact and influence of Maupassant, Anton Chekov, Nathaniel
Hawthorne and a group of eminent story writers of the continents of
Europe and America.
But after studying all his available stories carefully it is
rather difficult to say how far these writers have directly
influenced him in the art of writing a short story. For in his
stories we find the ease and clarity of Maupassant, we hear the soft
and deep sigh of the pure and genuinely human heart of Chekov, and
perceive the twin themes of Hemingway : pessimism and death.
Therefore. it is rather difficult to evaluate the influence of
Western writers on Puthumaippiththan, and my own observation is that
he assimilated the best aspects in each of the eminent writers of
the West. For example, the " stream of consciousness " technique so
effectively handled by James Joyce and William Faulkner in their
stories has been brought out superbly in Puthumaippiththan's "
Kayittaravu ".14 Here the most important point to bear in
mind is that when Puthumaippiththan was congratulated for so
admirably handling the technique of stream of consciousness he had
to remind his enthusiastic admirers that he had been completely
unaware of that technique when he wrote the story.15
Other techniques in short stories which are common and on which
comparisons are often made between Western writers and
Puthumaippiththan are the use of symbolism and satire. A composition
in prose such as a novel or short story holding up vice or folly to
ridicule or lampooning individuals was a common feature of both
Oriental and Occidental writers. Puthumaippiththan in one of the
prefaces to his own collection of short stories declared that in his
stories he had merely ridiculed the follies and foibles of his
friends and enemies.16 Both his literary adversaries and
friends liked the sarcastic undertone, scurrilous language and
scornful attitude of the stories he wrote simply for their artistic
quality and beauty in critical dissection of society.
Puthumaippiththan's Stories: An Analysis
Out of the seven
collections of short stories,17 totalling in all ninety
eight stories, in as many as forty stories Puthumaippiththan derides
the society in which lie lived, its justice, its beliefs and its
age-old customs. He mocks at the people of f his own community in
"Oppantham"18 he laughs at the interpretation of justice
in "Nhiyaayam " 19 and satirizes on intercaste
marriages 20, Harijan uplift
21 astrology 22 and what not.
Even his ardent admirers, though not subscribing to the attitude
he took towards life and society, nevertheless agree that in
satirical stories lie excels other writers in Tamil. " Kayittaravu
", which is considered to be one of' his best stories, is a good
example of the symbolic story in Tamil. Kayittaravu is a symbol
which suggests a meaning on a level other than the literal one. In
this story he speaks like a philosopher on birth and death, on body
and soul, on the eternity of time and the perception of it by the
He narrates with immaculate accuracy the birth and the inevitable
death of Paramacivam Pillai and ends the story with an axiom that
the whole concept of time has a meaning and value only when it is
perceived by the human soul. This story, particularly, betrays his
pessimistic attitude of life. " Makaamacaanam "23 "
Caamiyaarum Kuzhanhthaiyum Ceetaiyum "
24 and " Pirammaraatcas ",25 though written
with clarity, are beyond the grasp of common readers because of
their spiritually allegorical nature.
In " Njaanakkukai ",26 Puthumaippiththan emphasises
the all-pervading nature of Maya and the difficulty of releasing
oneself from it to attain salvation or the Supreme knowledge. The
story is related in a clear style but the underlying meaning
adroitly escapes from grasp due to the mystic thought content.
Puthumaippiththan's genius is brought to play in reinterpreting old
stories of the epics. "
Akalyai "27 and " Caapavimoocanam "28 the
two very well written stories in his collections relate the story of
Akalyai from Ramayana and by so doing Puthumaippiththan changes the
meaning of chastity.
In the former he emphasises that chastity is purity of mind but
not of body and in the later he shows how Akalyai loses her purity
and turns herself into a stone when the unfortunate drama of Indra
has once more been enacted on the stage of her mind.
"Caapavimoocanam " is the best example of psycho-analysis ever
attempted successfully by a short story writer in Tamil. The working
of the human mind, the interaction of the mind and heart, the impact
of human behaviour on accepted human values are very well brought
out through the old epic characters such as Akalyai, Gotthamar, and
The language in both the stories is the purest Putlmmaippiththan
ever summoned, and its gravely undulating rhythms successfully take
its prose to that precarious point which is almost poetry. The
story's most brilliant accomplishment in technique is its pacing,
its controlled building up and skilful holding back, done in the
secure knowledge that the climax will not be imperilled by its
In stories like "
KaTavulhum KanhthacaamippilhIluliyum ",29
Puthumaippiththan anthropomorphized God and made him undergo the
hardships of mundane life. God's tour with Kanhthamcaami Pillai from
Broadway-Esplanade junction to Triplcane is graphically
described through a marvellous symbolic contrast in which the
story's tragi-comic tone is most sharply realised.
Kanhthamcaami Pillai is caricature of a typical Tamil journal
publisher of' his time. His pragmatic attitude towards the problems
of life, his extraordinary equipoise in the presence of God and his
veiled exhibition of human dignity before the Supreme, no doubt,
make him a semi-god. But still, his portrayal is so human that we
are amazed at Puthumaippiththan's extraordinary skill in
characterization. What the author wants the story to drive home to
its readers is that one cannot live a life in this world with the
job he knows well. This particular story to some extent reflects the
author's life itself.
Puthumaippiththan's Stories: An Evaluatioin
The number of
Puthumaippiththan's short stories that can be considered completely
first-rate is probably not more than two dozen and of them almost
all are dissimilar to each other. This is because every story is an
experiment either in form, characterization, plot, theme or style.
No writer in Tamil has made such a wide range of experiments in the
inter-relationship of the elements of a story.
However, he unfortunately stood at the experimental stage itself
in most of the stories and never went beyond that either to perfect
or improve on any one type. This was perhaps due to
Puthumaippiththan's idiosyncratic nature or perhaps to his frequent
transitions from high spirits to depression, or may be his ambition
to try multifarious techniques and different topics and themes in
his stories. Nevertheless, the direct cause could be traced from his
biography which reveals to us that he had a very unsettled existence
from the moment he stepped into the field of journalism till his
death in 1948 and life was a constant struggle for him.
Never in his life was he affluent except, perhaps, in the last
two years before his death. I presume these factors contributed to
the constant change of his mental attitude and naturally this
impeded him in perfecting any one specific type of story. There was
also a negative attitude towards life, its meaning and philosophy;
and hence frustration, pessimism and death dominate his stories.
One glaring defect in Puthumaippiththan's stories is lack of
structural tidiness which one overlooks because of his forceful
style. By his stories he has shown to us that a story can exist not
only without plot,30 without characterization,3l
and without carefully created atmosphere,32 but without
any other rules by which fictional life is projected through
To overcome structural untidiness and waywardness
Puthumaippiththan put nothing but his own ability to imply, by the
choice, association, and order of words, whether a character was
feeling and speaking with anger, regret, desperation or tenderness:
quickly or slowly; ironically or bitterly. Where he thought he would
fail lie brought to play his mastery of the language which gave his
stories that enchanting beauty and charm. It is true that in writing
short stories Puthumaippiththan was unconventional not because he
wanted to be but because were no conventions for short stories
in Tamil, and that he introduced new conventions and theories which
are taken up by many in the succeeding generations of writers.
Puthumaippiththan's contribution to Modern Tamil literature is
specially in the field of short story writing, and in it he achieved
great success. Those who write the history of Modern Literature in
Tamil must devote an entire chapter to him.
1. Rakhunathan (ed.), Puthumaippiththan
Kavithaikalh, Star Publication, Madras-5, 1959.
2. Ibid., pp.
3. Puthumaippiththan (Trans.), Ulakaththuc
Citukathaikalh, Nhavaynkap Piracuraalayam, Madras-1, 3rd Edition
1956, pp. 31-40.
4. Puthumaippiththan KaTTUraikalh, Star
Publication, Madras-5, 1954, p. 29.
5. Ibid., p. 31.
6..Kaanjcanai (Collection of Short Stories),
Kalaimakal Kaariyaalayam, Madras-4, 1943, pp. vi-vii.
Puthumaippiththan Kathaikalh, Star Publication, Madras-5, 1940,
8. Ibid., pp. 205-208.
9.Antu Iravu (Collection of Short
Stories), Star Publication, Madras-S, 1954, pp. 69-101.
Puthumaippiththan Kathaikalh, pp. 214-17. Kaanjcanai, pp.
Puthiya Olhi (Collection of Short Stories), Star
Publication, Madras-5, 1953, pp. 22-3.
11. Antu Iravu, pp.
12.Puthiya Olhi, pp. 4-8.
13. Ibid., pp. 9-13.
14. Ibid., pp. 156-65.
Kaanjcanai, pp. iv-v.
16. Ibid., pp. vi-vii.
17. ( ) Puthumaippiththan Kathaikalh:
(2) Kaarajcanai: (3) Antu Iravu: (4) Puthiya Olhi: (5) Ciththi,
Star Publication, Madras-5, 1955; (6) Vipariitha Aacai, Mullai
VelhiyiiTU, Madras-1, 1952; (7) Avalhum .Avanum, Tamizh CuTar
Nhilayam, Madras-5, 1953.
18. Puthiya Olhi, pp. 46-51.
19. Kaarycanai, pp. 143-5.
20. Puthiya Olhi, pp. 14-20.
21. Ibid., pp. 29-35.
22. Antru Iravu, pp. 119-30.
23. Kaanjcanai pp. 48-55.
24. Puthiya Olhi, pp. 171-6.
25. Puthumaippiththan Kathaikalh, pp. 105-21.
26. Ibid.. pp. 137-44
27. Ibid pp. 173-8
28. Kaanjcanai pp. 121-42
29. Ibid., pp. 163-92.
30.Puthumaippiththan Kathaikalh, pp.
31.Ibid., pp. 145-7; 212-17.
32.Puthiya Olhi, pp. 59-64.
Rakhunaathan, Puthumaippiththan, Star
Publication, Madras-5, 1951.
Gene Baro, Modern American Short Stories, Faber and Faber,
Harry Shaw and Douglas Bement, Reading the Short Story,
Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1941.
Frederic Morgan, (Editor), The Modern Image, W. W. Norton &
Co., New York, 1965.
Anton Chekov, Anton Chekhov Early Stories, The Bodley Head,
Irwin Howe, Sherwood Anderson, William Sloane Associates,
Jessi Rehder, (ed.), The Story at Work: an Anthology, The
Odyssey Press, Inc., New York, 1963.
Wallace and Mary Stegner, (ed.), Great American Short
Stories, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1957.
Somerset Maugham, W., Points of View, Bantam Books, New York,