Interviewed by K.S. Dileepan
Photographs by Sundar Ram Krishnan
Interview Questions – Suneel Krishnan, Dileepan and Peru Vishnukumar
Biography – Suchitra R
Translated from the Tamil by – Nakul Vāc
Jeyamohan(b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagarcoil, India. One of India’s finest authors writing today, he has travelled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram(1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, mythmaking, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. Most recently, he completed his magnum opus Venmurasu, a novel series based on the Indian epic Mahabharatha. With 26 novels, each with its unique aesthetic, narrative form and vision, the novel series weaves mythical, subaltern and parallel tales into the epic imagining India’s polyphonic historical and cultural traditions in novel ways for the modern reader.
Jeyamohan is also one of the pre-eminently notable figures of Tamil literature. His demonic output sometimes makes us wonder if he had made some sort of a Faustian pact with his literary Muse. He is unavoidable in the Tamil milieu because of his undeniable achievements in several spheres that constitute it. He persistently advocates literary activity in the context of a literary movement. His contributions to that rare genre of Tamil writing, the travelogue, is nothing short of monumental. He is by a long shot the most controversial Tamil writer as well. At the same time, he is also the writer arguably with the largest and certainly the most dedicated reader base. Our long-held dream of conducting an extensive interview on Jeyamohan’s literary endeavors became a reality when Ram Krishnan and K.S. Dileepan met Jeyamohan at Sat Darshan’s Yoga & Meditation center at Kottathara, an idyllic town next to Anaikatti. After a morning hike in the mountains amidst friends from the Vishnupuram Literary Circle and a tranquil ambience, K.S. Dileepan conversed with him in the auditorium.
You have dedicated yourself completely to literature and are pursuing writing almost as a form of Yoga, a sort of writer’s Dharma if you will. It seems as if you had started early down this path. When did you first realize that this was your chosen path? Can you talk a bit about this journey?
This is a very big question! Irrespective of the person, the meaning of the journey one undertakes keeps changing as you go along. Writing came to me naturally at a very early age. As early as eight grade my pieces were published in magazines. Back then writing was just a game to me. But amidst all that felicity there were also moments when I realized that I was different from others, a cut above the rest. Usually writers have glaring weaknesses in other areas, sports or studies for instance. They have very few friends and are by and large lonely. One could argue that they write in order to overcome their loneliness and to prove to themselves their own worth. Sundara Ramasawamy used to say that. But I am an exception to this as well. When I grew up, I had a lot of friends; I was known for my escapades and indulged in a whole slew of things. My friends from those days continue to be my friends to date. Despite these seemingly extroverted indulgences I continued to write; Because it came to me easily. It also helped me gain brownie points with my friends and earned their respect. All through school that was the primary impetus for my writing. I had a desire to stand out, for our teacher to single me out from the rest of my classmates and consider me his equal.
College brought a new set of friends. At that stage of my life literature was no more than a means to earn the money required to share Parottas and Beef with my friends. Back then I wrote a ton of stories in (the popular magazines) Kumudam and Vikatan, not only under my name but also under the names of my mother, sister and friends. There were times when even 5-10 stories got published in the same week. They fetched enough money for my friends and I to eat out and go to the movies. We even watched movies like Oru Thalai Ragam over and over again. Those were the times.
After that, my best friend’s suicide shattered me completely. In addition to depressing me in a huge way it also led me to several fundamental questions. The questions I raise in all of my works, even today, can be traced back to those times. Then, the suicides of my mum and dad. I began to write less and less and felt myself being pulled in myriad directions. When I managed to get back to literature its meaning had changed for me. I began to realize that literature was an act of discovery. The idea that I should write for nothing else but for the sake of self-discovery took root in me.
Sundara Ramaswamy echoed the same to me: “What helps you discover and what you discover, stick with these in your writing”. “Even if no one reads, keep imagining that someone waiting somewhere to read you and continue to write” he advised me. That was the Su. Ra school, a literary tradition that extends all the way back to (Tamil modernist fiction pioneer and master short story writer) Puthumaipithan.
A few years later I went to see Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati and requested him to train me to be a yogi. “You don’t have the mental make-up to be a yogi. Being imaginative is a big obstacle. Like froth Imagination tends to proliferate and expand ceaselessly. If you want to traverse the path of yoga, you need to set aside all creative urges and completely destroy your imaginative self; before even attempting to take a single step down that road. On the other hand, if you leverage your imagination as a tool, then it could become the means for you to achieve your path to liberation, he advised. That meeting revealed myself to me, that I could be someone who could remain steadfast in that path he had advocated and that it was a path in accordance with the Hindu spiritual tradition. After that all doubts ceased and since then I have never wavered in my journey.
There was an interview in Kumudam around that time in which they asked me about my writing. “What meditation was to the Buddha writing is to me”, was what I had responded. I think the interview was published in their special issue whose cover had those very words “Meditation for the Buddha, writing for me”. When I reflect on those words, they feel right to me. No fake humility of the “I write what I know and it’s no big deal. What the stone quarrier does, what the cobbler does, my writing is akin to that and nothing more” sort. If someone truly feels like this, then he is not a writer and he definitely shouldn’t write. If he is merely faking it then he is just a fake writer. When a writer finishes his work, he might be awash with a sense of pride and arrogance. Intellectual hubris, or vidhya garvam as the ancients called it. It is the sense of accomplishment of a writer who feels he has mastered words and through them has discovered what he sought. He who masters words to master oneself is a writer. In my opinion a writer needs this self confidence that would allow him to confront the Buddha even without feeling inferior. As I said before writing is to me what meditation is to the Buddha and where the Buddha arrived through his meditation, I can arrive at that same place, if needed, through my art.
It took you a few years to finish Vishnupuram. It was written during a time of predicament and turmoil. It is a great dream work, an opus whose finished state involved several revisions in which large sections were deleted and rewritten all over again. The challenge of a work like Venmurasu is entirely different. A novel of such an extraordinary length couldn’t have been written without the discipline of writing a chapter a day. But that has its own drawbacks in the sense that you don’t have the opportunity to revise and make it better, so to speak. How did you adapt to this challenge posed by Venmurasu?
When I was writing Vishnupuram I was groping for a form, one that would be uniquely mine. A form that was flexible enough to leap over the chasms that yawn between puranic stories and modern fiction, between modernism and myth. Since there was no such form extant in Tamil literature, I had to persistently write and through that very process discover that form that I sought. Also, those were still what I now consider as my formative years as a writer. Even an essay required several attempts and revisions before I could complete it to my satisfaction. On a recent overseas trip, I had the opportunity to see one of Leonardo da Vinci’s works at an art museum. It was a painting of a man and a lion in a cave. Da Vinci never finished that painting, the story goes that he had an altercation with the person posing for the picture and just upped and left, leaving the painting half-finished. One thing was clear from the painting, Da Vinci hadn’t done an outline sketch first and then applied color to it, he just painted it directly, beginning at one corner and gradually painting the rest in. How is that even possible? we might ask, astonished. This is the nature of masters. I am a master in my chosen field. I am one of the literary greats of this century. But lesser artists shouldn’t attempt such a thing. Needless to say, they would fail at it.
When I was writing Vishnupuram I didn’t have full control of my métier. It’s not like that now. I now have full control. Moreover, my thinking on such matters has also evolved. Take any artform, it would be foolish to attempt to gain complete mastery over all of its formal elements. A gestalt of the formal elements pertaining to an artform is nothing more an aggregate of a particular time period’s general understanding of the same. Twenty years from now, even those works that are considered formally perfect today will seem to be formally incoherent and dated. Take Oru Puliyamarathin Kathai or J.J Sila Kurippugal, they were both well-polished novels. Revised and rewritten for twenty times at least. But if you were to objectively look at them now you can’t help feeling that there are several parts in them that can be eliminated. But there is no point in attempting this.
Fiction is about how the world operates and hence has its feet firmly planted in this world. Of course, there are these fine ethereal moments when the airplane of fiction takes off from the runway of this world. In fact, one could argue the writer’s duty is to pilot that plane and control it in a way so that it can take off at the right moment. Be it Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural or Vishnupuram, how many times I took off, how many times I achieved the all-encompassing bird’s-eye view, how many times have I managed to achieve a sort of poetic unity, only these are the yardsticks for judging them. Because only these are relevant for all time. What is truly significant for literature. Formal perfection and the like are challenges for second-tier writers. Not the challenge for someone who rules over words and practices his craft as if it were a yoga. Those who write small, confine themselves to the quotidian, just giving a static snapshot of life without daring to raise the essential questions will continue to trundle along their respective grooves. They will continue forever in their endless labor of chiseling language. The challenge for language has always been its inability to reflect man’s inscape in its entirety.
Anyone who consciously attempts endlessly to coax his language to mimic his inscape is committing a monumental act of stupidity. Let’s say you use a word to indicate an emotion, for instance Joy. You might use delight, jubilation or happiness or any of the thousand odd words that might approximate it. And the key word is approximate, for you will never be able to capture all the connotations of that emotion through any single word. Hence, the instinctual nature of art. Those trained in martial arts are familiar with this idea, that the unpremeditated blow is the most effective. They would even begrudge that epithet blow to a premeditated one. What instinctually happens, what happens despite yourself, the author’s challenge is to progress the text up to that rarefied point and allow it to take flight. One who attempts this by laying one careful brick over another is not a Writer (with a capital W). There is limitation to his art. I don’t care too much for him.
I have always desired a multiplicity of new critical interpretations in the evaluation of Venmurasu as a literary artifact. New in the sense that they should go beyond the traditional modernist, post-modernist frames. One of your earlier essays posits a new category called “Mythical Realism”. Could you elucidate on that?
For the past one hundred and fifty years there has been a practice of approaching Tradition that has resulted in a preponderance of views and approaches. So, it is important to know the time period associated with a particular viewpoint. The first realists approached tradition as a fait accompli, a done deed and saw themselves as harbingers ushering in a new phase. We have a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky establishing themselves as the architects of a new literary period. They didn’t reject tradition per se, but just dissociated themselves from it and moved forward. The modernists on the other hand began to treat Tradition almost like an enemy. They knew nothing about it and hence it was convenient for them to treat it so. Sundara Ramaswamy and Ashokamitran are classic examples. I have eagerly sought these two writers out and can claim to have some knowledge about them as well. Both of them knew very little about tradition but one can’t think either of them as someone who has completely severed himself from it. In their private lives they had beautiful roots in tradition, especially religion. Ashokamitran was a Hanuman devotee and a Srividya (tantric) aspirant. But you can’t a find a trace of this in his works. In his creative endeavors he was able to completely ignore tradition and move forward. In stories like “Innum sila naatkal” (A few more days) he even chooses to show tradition in a reactionary light. So does a story like “Prayaanam” (Journey) which does the same to the guru-shishya tradition. It was the standard posturing of all of modernism.
Postmodernism puts forward a view that is completely different from its predecessors from the earlier two periods. This is a time of pervasive globalization where differentiating characteristics are vanishing rapidly. But there has also been an increased awareness of the risks such a homogenization entails. Today there is also a growing awareness of the environment and the dangers to it. Today if we think about a tree, we also bring along with it a concern that it should not be destroyed. But during our school days we were taught about “How are forest resources used” “What do we get from rivers” etc. This was a modernist ethos.
But today what is emphasized is not what the river gives to us but what we give back to the river. This the post-modernist ethos. We have arrived at a point where we can think about sustaining the world without wasting its natural resources. Postmodernism is about that, shedding light on and evolving every miniscule bit of our world.
The postmodernist period has also made yet another discovery. The notion of intellectuality is fairly recent. What we refer to as the unconscious has thousands of years behind it. The Bhimbetka rock paintings are older to me by almost twenty thousand years. But a straight line runs from its dream vision to mine. This straight line is what is important in literature. Not what I learnt in hundreds of years or what I wrote. If I have to extend that straight line emanating from that dream, I have to overstep the logical bounds of my conscious mind. That is the reason why I am reconstructing fictions. The littérateurs of the previous generation or their disciples, they do not have the requisite philosophical or spiritual training required to understand the sheer breadth of a work like Venmurasu. This is quite natural as well. They can only do so much. They can only achieve the small local highs engendered by the day to day trivia of the city they traffic in. Or they can make it a bit more imaginative and achieve a sort of sugar candy poeticity. They believed that literature was just that and nothing more. But I aspire to bring out my three thousand old literary tradition in my work. The symbolism of my thirty thousand year old mythic tradition as well.
This work belongs to the next period of our literary evolution. Therefore, it will wend its way naturally, without the need for any extraneous training, directly to the people living contemporaneously in these times. I would like to point out that older people, the middle-aged, people untutored in the ways of literature, all of them read this work by the thousands. Even the upcoming generation comprised of youngsters who are under twenty-five have taken to it. They don’t encounter any obstacles in it that would prevent them from doing so. At an awards function organized by the Vishnupuram Literary Circle, you will see predominantly an under thirty crowd dotted here and there by a few older pockets.
At the risk of sounding too brash let me also point out that Venmurasu fans are typically those who began reading fiction only after I started writing it. Those who had formed their reading habits prior to that will find it hard to even enter this work. They will attempt to read it through the lens of what they already know or and attempt it to fit it within the frames they might have acquired from those habits. It is for them I had coined that category you asked about. It makes them hesitant and nervous because they are unable to fathom it. How could a book simultaneously have the traits of a comic book, straightforward philosophical argument, offer extensive life portraits while at the same time be studded with bursts of emotions, poetic imagery and re-creations of mythic artifacts. They are not trained to read such a book. That is why in keeping with the terms they know like realism, magical- realism, naturalism and the like I offered the term “mythic realism”; not with the intention of categorizing but merely to guide and making it easier for them.
A common criticism leveled against you is that your fiction and non-fiction are diametrically opposed. Take for instance Kotravai, the mythical continent of Kumari in a sense also embodies the notion of a separate country for the Tamils. But your essays stoutly reject any such separatist notions. You have talked about the anxiety ridden hesitant days prior to embarking the novel Neelam and the exhilarating dream moment when you visualized the whole novel as a Japanese comic-strip. Do you feel that your fiction is the outcome of such moments that outmaster you? Rather than framing them as moments beyond the artist’s control, would you prefer reframing them as art using the medium of the fiction writer to express itself?
Any piece of fiction is in some sense only a waking dream. A writer should extrude language into a dream. He should attempt to exert only a minimal conscious control over that dream. I completely reject the notion of fully conscious writing. This doesn’t mean that I don’t operate consciously. I do. But my conscious efforts build the runway. They don’t build my skies. The sky is always beyond me and will come within reach only in those moments of artistic self-discovery. Therefore, there is indeed a big difference between my fiction and intellect. I use my intellect to get into the doors, then I drift on the wings of a dream that is called fiction, only much later do I reclaim the powers of my intellect to reconstitute what happened in that dream I was let loose on. I have never attempted to write what I thought. I once told Sundara Ramaswamy “Sir, you write what you know, but I was born to write what I don’t know.” One needs to understand this aspect of me in order to understand my fiction. I identify myself solely by those moments in which I go beyond myself.
There are those who don’t read my fiction and yet attempt to converse with me solely on the basis of having read my essays. They are only a small fraction of my coterie. They converse exclusively with my conscious dimension. But my unconscious is the fountainhead of all my fiction. In it I can veto, reject or go beyond myself. Dreams are under the control of no one. The Jeyamohan who stands here in this very moment is a continuation of thousands of years and generations that includes my father, my grandfather and their forefathers. I am also the continuation of Nitya Chaitanya Yati, Nataraja Guru, Narayana Guru and thousands of Spiritual forefathers. I am the end result of the confabulation of these two series. All of this is in my unconscious and is naturally revealed in my fiction. But what I have learnt, thought about and argued with my friends, these wend their way into my essays. As I mentioned before thought is merely the runway and we all know the airplane spends only a miniscule portion of its journey on the runway. How foolish it would be for someone to try to understand the airplane fully by observing it solely on the runway. Likewise, the attempt to understand the fiction writer or his fiction solely based on his non-fiction.
Dostoevsky was your one of your first ideals. Later, almost even to the extent of identifying him as the only writer before whom your authorial ego bows down, you had embraced Tolstoy as your principal master. What was the reason for this evolution? How did this move influence your writing?
Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are important writers for me. Dostoevsky’s intensity, his boundlessness was significant for me. In addition, he has something special that I caught on to only much later. This is connected somewhat with Wagner’s operas which I discovered through my son. Seeing them, their imaginative breadth, the emotional upheavals and their intensity, convinced me that they were the apogee of European culture. Frankly, I think even Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are a step lower than Wagner in Europe’s cultural hierarchy. Dostoevsky has that intensity that could match Wagner’s. He had assimilated fully the power of the dramatic soliloquy and emotional expressivity developed by the Western dramatic tradition and was able to leverage them extensively in his works.
Tolstoy was averse to the operatic art form. The rootedness of his realistic genius couldn’t tolerate the apparent lack of bounds in opera. Tolstoy could never write a novel comprised of big dramatic moments. This was the single reason for his inability to handle the moments in which the unconscious reveals itself, directly as effectively as Dostoevsky. There are dramatic moments in Tolstoy where the unconscious is adumbrated instinctively but there are none in which the unconscious speaks forth directly. Perhaps the critics of that period preferred this as well. Which is why they rated Tolstoy a tad higher. There are dramatic soliloquies in my books. “Will any character speak like this” I get asked sometimes. “Go… just go and read books that you can comprehend. Don’t bother coming here” is the appropriate response to such a question. The question is not if a character could speak like that. What is it that speaks? What is this moment? What is being said. These are the questions and I write solely for that reader who asks them and not for those seeking mere realism. This was why Dostoevsky was the writer for me.
But later I discovered something. Dostoevsky makes sense of a world by capturing its essence at its intensely climactic moments and he observes man the same way as well. He doesn’t care about man in his quotidian aspect. In order to observe man who attains rarefied heights of spirituality in his most dramatic moments as he goes about his daily day to day business, one needs to read Tolstoy. Secondly, Dostoevsky is unable to observe man in his historic aspect. He always observes him in the context of his inscape. But this man with his inscape is still a man with an enormous historical background. To recreate that historical context believably and to explore man’s place in it is also beyond Dostoevsky’s capabilities. Tolstoy does that. When one realizes that man’s everyday moments are on par with his most dramatic ones, that his place in history as important as the depth of his unconscious, one rates Tolstoy a rung higher than Dostoevsky.
There is an expectation that the writer should discover the question that is quintessential to him and then sharpen himself as he journeys forth in his quest to answer it. Of late he is also expected to have a depth worthy of a scholar on a wide range of things. I think you are one of the main reasons for this change. Why should the writer be a know it all?
I don’t think it is necessary for all writers to be scholarly. it doesn’t make big difference to a writer who doesn’t write much, say twenty-five stories at most, if he is a scholar or not. There is absolutely no reason for a poet to be scholarly. The instinctive expression of his heightened moments is in itself sufficient. But a composer of epics or a novelist needs to very knowledgeable. It will be impossible for him to create the right historical context without this knowledge. He would be unable to fit a particular character or a life within its broader societal and historical context and paint a complete picture. The historical and societal contexts of his books demand that he read widely and deeply, travel extensively, experience deeply and have direct interaction with as many scholars in as many disciplines. There is no precedence for this in our milieu. The intellectual zeitgeist of the west operates as a whole, novelists have always operated as a part of this whole. If the writer has no inkling about the landscape, say of Tamil Nadu, its sculptural history, social structures or caste hierarchies then what he writes will necessarily be second rate. All he can do utmost is to present a few moments from daily life. Over the course of my literary career I feel that I have gotten more and more averse to this kind of work. There are several reasons for this. I feel that the sheer pervasiveness and preponderance of media in our times have made this sort of “snapshot” art redundant and hence, dated. What is the writer’s point of view in such works? Completeness of authorial vision is what determines the mettle of a particular work. To achieve this one needs to be scholarly. There is nothing new in all of this. It has been two thousand years since our Indian Epic tradition claimed, “He who is not a wise scholar or a rishi can never be a poet”. Others might write poems, but they should not claim the title of Poet. Same goes for the title of a Writer as well.
Timelessness or “for all time” if you will, is an important trait in determining the worth of a literary work, so the critics claim. I think you subscribe to this view as well. It can be argued that one of the impelling forces of all art is the urge of the artist to transcend the confines of his mortality, to become immortal, so to speak. In this post-truth age which demands instant response via social media what is the value of such aspirations?
Academia has coined a lot of jargon like post-truth and such to aid their research; but these in no way define or control the author’s inscape. His words are solely determined by his runway. Any self-respecting writer will aspire to some semblance of immortality. But this is not to be confused with some sort of Ozymandian arrogance that says, “Look at me”. If it were that, then it would be meaningless rot. Let me be gone, let my name be erased but let my works stand, he who can truly utter this, only he is the genuine writer. So why then for all time you might ask: the truth I discover, is it valid only for my time or is it valid for all time, that is the question that drives the Writer. To create something like that, to discover something like that, is the reason why we write. No response can be tawdrier than that of the writer who replies, “Immortality be damned, I am just writing for the here and now”. Such a writer is a hack. What he claims might sound practical, but I will always ask him to go the other way and not butt his head in important literary discussions. Don’t get on the highway, the alley way is the right spot for you to indulge in your beggarly endeavors, I say. The highway takes you always on a search for universal truths.
As to the possibility of being idealistic in what you write, the very question is tautological, for writing in itself is an idealistic act. Even a cursory look at the world would reveal to us people who strive to earn, indulge in easy entertainments and attempt to happy. For a man to eschew all this so that he can sit and write is in itself an idealism of sorts. Why would he indulge in such a labour if he weren’t idealistic? He might as well mint money by selling dried fish. To circumscribe oneself in a much smaller world and write requires idealism. To attempt to transmute one’s experience and inscape completely in search for truth necessarily makes the writer idealistic.
“What is the point of this idealism” was your other question. The point is that the value of all of this does not accrue only to me at this point in time. It needs to be valuable to me throughout my life. It needs to be true for others as well. If a writer is going after the momentary and transient, why bother publishing it and demand the reader to waste his hard-earned money buying it. As a reader I have an expectation that what I buy will lead me to a truth that is relevant for me. When it also becomes a truth to the reader next door then it becomes a sort of general truth. One must always aspire to make these general truths universal and eternal.
Typically, such discussions involve two kinds of people. There are those tawdry personalities who read some irrelevant stuff and regurgitate it here. The second kind of folks have this silly notion of gaining notoriety by going against the grain of common wisdom. In a sense all of these are the yakking of second-rate writers. The extent to which the utterings of the second rate are used as yardsticks to measure the first-rate is a measure of the level of disgrace to which a particular epoch has sunk. America and Europe don’t have this problem. It is purely the result of fourth raters reading fourth rate American and European writers appropriate to their intellectual grasp and vomiting them all over our literary discourse. The essence of good writing always involves surges and searches in our inscapes. A milieu that doesn’t understand this basic truth is one fostered by professors with desiccated hearts and shrunken brains. I think viewpoints put forth by them are of no significance.
In my view, I firmly believe that “Purappadu” (Setting Forth) is an important milestone in your literary life. In fact, even to the extent that one can categorize your oeuvre as Pre-Purappadu and Post-Purappadu. Although “Aram” was direction changing I think in some sense Purappadu was a more important catalyst for Venmurasu. Did Purappadu raise important questions pertaining to your life goals and artistic journey? During that period what instigated you to embark on your life-long dream to write a novel based on the Mahabharata?
All writers tend to visualize the last stages of their career. They also tend to write mostly autobiographical stuff during those last stages. If you take Ashokamitran, the period when the Lancer Barracks stories begin to make their appearance. The period when the writer returns to the roots of his younger self and also the one where he takes stock of his life in its entirety. Purappadu was the translated Tamil title of Nitya Chaitanya Yati’s first autobiographical book “Irangi Pokku”. He finished that in five phases. So, what does Setting Forth really mean, setting forth from where? From your home, from what was pre-ordained for you. From the identities bestowed on me by my mother and father. From my hometown. A setting forth to elsewhere. This journey started then. That book set out to discover the origins of that journey. It was not the setting forth of an individual, more like a heart or a soul had set forth. In a sense it has brought me here, till Venmurasu.
Enroute to Venmurasu I wrote several works. I did already have the dream of a work that was expansive enough to assimilate all those other works. But this work was one of the reasons for what solidified it. I knew I was getting old and this was my last chance. I couldn’t postpone it anymore. I had the fear that it was now or never. Today I am able to see one thing very clearly. If another Tamil writer had written Purappadu alone and nothing else, he would still be considered as one of the great Tamil writers cherished for all time, solely based on that book. But it is a very small part of my oeuvre. The dream that assimilated all my works including that one, was the one that propelled me towards Venmurasu.
Your contributions as a travel writer are as important as the ones you have made as a fiction writer or a critic. The Jain Trail, your trips to the Himalayas and Australia have come out as books. Essays on journeying to the caves or monsoon trips can be read at your website. How has travel enriched your fiction?
I started travelling when I was nineteen and have been travelling for almost 40 years. I don’t recall a single year during which I had undertaken less than five trips. I have travelled extensively all those years. At one point, travelling was my life. After that I had the good fortune of forming new friendships. Planned trips became a reality. Even today, I travel. I am doing this interview in the middle of a journey. What do these journeys give us? One could say they gives us landscapes and scenes from different locales. I don’t write observing those. But when I write, based on my need, nuanced variations of stones, earth, grass, birds and light constantly stream, as if emanating from a magic lantern, on my inner eye. So, at no point do I have to resort to a cliché. Even in a large work like Venmurasu that runs to twenty-five thousand pages you would be hard pressed to find repetitive descriptions of landscape or locales. Only very rarely would you encounter a metaphoric refrain. Expansive descriptions of landscape demand extensive travel.
And another thing, the world without constantly keeps reconstituting the world within. So, setting forth from the same house on the same road to the same office day after day results in a rigid thought process and worldview. Try travelling in the immediate aftermath of a difficult moment, you would experience first-hand how your mental outlook morphs instantaneously. Travel changes everything that surrounds us and thereby changes our inscapes as well. Man, to a large extent is determined by context, the milieu in which he finds himself in. So, in order to keep the determining influences fluid, he needs to keep switching contexts by changing his locales. This is why, world all over, writers are peripatetic. And this is not something new either. Kalidasa and Vyasa for instance, had travelled extensively all over India.
Artists in general have always been travelers. Even during times when travel was primarily by foot there were artists who travelled India in its entirety several times. The need to reconstitute by immersing oneself in a different environ is one of the primary reasons for this. And one last thing…and this is related to imagination. A lighted house visible from the window of a train travelling at 90 kph is enough for me to live and perish as part of that household. I then move on to the next house… That split-second life is the grand dream. Thousands of such lives assimilated in thousands of such split seconds are what constitutes a writer’s life. Only someone who knows how to live a life like that is capable of making literature. Hence my emphasis on the necessity for writers to travel. Rarely you find one who doesn’t. Of course, there are always the odd exceptions and some of them have written good books as well. If you take world literature, in general, the greatest writers have almost always been great travelers as well.
I get the sense that you are a bit more critical of the Modernist school than others. How accurate is this? I also feel that as a post-modernist you seem to be more accepting of classical and to some extent even realistic and naturalistic works. But Kafka, Hemingway down to our own Sundara Ramaswamy and Nakulan, you seem to have rejected the modernist tradition as something not suited for you. What’s the reason for this?
First off, writing is always expansive or needs to be. To expand more and more and attempt to gather the world within yourself. It is this “increasing” mode that gives the writer his appetite for history. The modernist phase was the outcome of certain historic situations. Situations that were the result of world wars, democratic insurgency against famines mismanaged by colonial powers and the like. The intellectual reaction towards these situations, philosophical or literary, lasted almost for half a century. Beyond this, this movement has no grand historical tradition behind it. If you happened to be born in that half century, you might, like the proverbial frog, think a world of it. But it is nothing more than a sort of lazy reductionism that attempts to draw the world into its restrictive confines and attempting to understand it solipsistically. All of its discoveries are tinged with a sort of speciousness that only a handful of its proponents have managed to avoid.
I do like a few of them though. Hermann Hesse for instance, he was a modernist and I have mentioned him several times in my writings. I have continued to write about Luigi Pirandello and Nikos Kazantzakis. They begin at their respective locales and times and expand outward. But writers like Kafka or Camus, repeatedly reflect the attitudes appropriate to their times and diminish themselves to the confines of its tiresome fatigue. That sort of diminishment is not my cup of tea. My writing style has always been expansive. Hence, modernist writing, its attitudes and the diminishment of imagination it has cultivated needs to be called out.
One should also mention the relative dearth of opportunities in it, for the imagination to soar. Again and again, it continues to be evaluated based on ideas like externality and validity. In a way, I am wearied by those kinds of evaluations as well. A few days ago, I was reading an interview by Ursula le Guin in which she highlighted the tiresomeness of the “dysfunctional urban middle-class people” that she tended to avoid in her fiction. I literally went “yes” and concurred whole heartedly. Because it is tiresome to me as well. That kind of thing is intrinsically boring. Not sure why we would write about it over and over again. It is essential we break open that diminishing world. and fly out. Venmurasu for instance describes over hundred different kinds of cities. A city perched solely on treetops, another one with just caves in it, these could be mere fancy. But the life that opens up through such fancies, that life is the heartbeat of literature. Slapping four more crossbars on a reality that already feels like an iron-clad prison is definitely not literature. Plus, there is no actual need for such diminishments. Modernism does nothing more than use literature as a tool to create an artificial reality. Modernist writers tend to get dated and are of the period to which they belong. The best among them made contributions that might have been of some use to it.
Translations seem to have brought a lot of non-Tamil literature into the Tamil world. But the same cannot be said of the traffic the other way around. We are yet to gain national and international readership. What is the reason for this? How can this be rectified?
We have to acknowledge the bitter fact that there has not been a constructive dialog between the various Indian languages. There are several reasons for this. First, none of the Indian languages gives a damn about the others. There was a time when the entire nation’s eyes were on Bengali literature. Bengali literature spread throughout India naturally without any special effort. But today, the entire country is transfixed by Europe. The effort expended in bringing a run of the mill writer from Europe to the Indian public is not enthusiastically accorded our own masters, say in Kannada or Bengali literature. The works that have reached Tamil have come to us only through organizations like the National Book Trust or Sahitya Akademi and not because of some overwhelming groundswell. Atin Bandyopadhyay’s “In search of the Neelkanth Bird” was translated in Tamil as early as the seventies, but let alone a detailed essay, it wasn’t even mentioned in passing in Tamil literary circles until I took it upon myself and wrote about it in 1989.
Same goes for Sowri’s translation of Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire (Aag Ka Darya, translated as Agni Nathi) which had to wait twenty years for its first review, also written by me. If Bengali and Tamil works have gained some currency with Tamil Readers, I can take credit for that. When I once asked a notable Tamil critic about them, he said that he hadn’t even heard of them. Not to mention the fact that he also wrote an essay claiming T. Janakiraman’s Mogamul as the greatest Indian novel ever written. I asked him if he had read Arokiya Niketan, Search for the Neelkant or the River of Fire and he replied “No!”. How could he then make that grandiose claim about Mogamul? Someone who hadn’t ventured beyond Tamil literature conveniently imagines a lack of good literature beyond it. This was the situation until the eighties. Think about it, did any Tamil critic write anything worthwhile on a non-Tamil master during that period? The answer is a resounding no. In my generation, I was the first one to start writing about Indian literature. My dogged persistence in talking about them moved the needle a bit on several non-Tamil works. Agni Nathi which was translated in the seventies sold for a mere 6 Rupees that I managed to get at a discount for three. They were re-issued only after the advent of my essays.
If you survey the situation in other languages, it is fairly obvious, the Kannadigas for instance pay no attention to Tamil literature. You can translate all you want but the question of who will read looms large. For sure, there are Tamil works that are being translated to English. Those, as far as I know, are being lapped up by a group more interested in the latest “social issue” rather than literature. This group keeps discovering authors who it idolizes as some sort of a revolutionary being vandalized by all the uncivilized louts in Tamilnadu. They have constructed a narrative, of civilized littérateurs living in hiding in Tamilnadu. Beyond that, we only have the works of Ashokamitran that have been translated into English. But a majority of the littérateurs from other states hardly know him. So, translations are not the only thing that will solve this issue. They need to cross over as a part of a literary wave. Even now, one can sense the gradual diminishing of our interest in Bengali literature. Last year Amar Mithra’s Drubhaputra (Son of Drubha) was translated into Tamil as Drubhan Magan. Important works like these continue to be written. But no one writes about them in Tamil. Once again, I have to do the honors for Drubhan Magan as well. The other critics are not up to the task. Same goes for the other languages as well. No one will bother to write about them.
For these works to gain attention, there needs to be a national conversation on Indian writers and Indian writing. Translations to and from Tamil alone won’t do the trick. Awards not being bestowed on the right books is yet another factor complicating this issue even further. These hardly garner any attention, and rightly so. Malayalis hardly give a fig to anything being done outside of Malayalam. Sundara Ramaswamy managed to gain some attention because of the fact that someone of the stature of Aathur Ravi Verma translated him. Three of Ashokamitran’s novels have been translated into Malayalam. But there is no evidence, that any Malayalam writer has even read them, let alone write about them. It is difficult to generate that kind of enthusiasm. Same goes here. Lamenting about us reading their books and them not reciprocating is just a self-pitying myth. Reality is different.
You have constantly emphasized the need for the modern writer to familiarize himself with the classics and philosophy. Why do you consider these important?
I am not saying that the modern writer “must” have sufficient training in philosophy or the classics. All I am saying is that, without a sufficient familiarity with one’s tradition it would not be possible for him to write a great work. Novel is the artistic avatar of philosophy. Without a reasonable grounding in philosophy it is hard to be a good novelist. And the reason for it is this; those without the requisite philosophical training fall into an absurd error when they attempt to philosophize life. They tend to package it and hawk it. Without even realizing that something has been around for over two thousand years, they go ahead in their blissful ignorance to present it with the arrogance of having discovered anew. This is why this awareness of philosophic tradition is important. Not for the sake of merely flashing it in a novel, but to build on what has been thought of before and to arrive at something new.
Looks like Venmurasu is heading towards completion. Any future plans after that? Can we expect Askokavanam, your much aniticipated novel based on the history of Travancore?
Not sure what will happen after Venmurasu. I might take a break. Travel perhaps. I still think that I would get around to writing Asokavanam. Incomplete, handwritten first-drafts are either with me or with Tamizhini Vasantha kumar. If I can get hold of it, I might go ahead and finish it. But for now, no concrete plans. It depends on what happens to me after Venmurasu? What remains of me. Will I have any more ideas left to be explored in writing. It is contingent on all of this. As I said, no plans yet.
You have always been opposed to the notion of the political Hindu. You prefer to emphasize the cultural Hindu instead. What is the difference between those two notions?
The Hindu cultural tradition that I keep talking about is a stupendous intellectual exercise that has been going on in this place continuously for over four thousand years. If a fool were to claim that it deserves to be die out or that it is merely the basis for oppression or that it lacks wisdom or knowledge, then with that single rash utterance this fool is rejecting thousands of intellectuals, sages, poets, artists and philosophers. Any self -respecting reader, coming from any other cultural context, capable of reading a two-hundred-page book, would he have the chutzpah to reject such a gargantuan intellectual tradition? The answer is obviously No! But in India this is possible. Because it’s a nation littered with foolish intellectuals and intellectual fools. This wise tradition has persisted for four-thousand years. It brings along with it the trash and diamonds belonging to several time periods. During each subsequent period it has tried to renew and reconstitute itself. It is one of the surviving remnants of all the ancient world cultures, civilizations and pristine intellectual traditions. If you consider Shintoism, Taoism, Egyptian religion, African native religions as being essential to the human race, then this philosophical tradition is something that is more important than all of them. This tradition needs to be kept alive here forever. Like a river it needs to self-purify and continue to surge forward. Whatever is beneficial to it, whatever is able to converse with it, it should assimilate and discard the obsolete as detritus and move on.
The persistence of obsolete remnants from its prior versions is unavoidable in any intellectual tradition that lasts more than a hundred years. This is because they continue to be useful for some sections of it. But it needs to find a way to go beyond them. This is my dream. I come from that tradition and consider myself a part of that auspicious group of servant scholars that have served it generation after generation. Before me stands Nitya Chaitanya Yati, Nataraja Guru, Narayana Guru… I can keep going on, into the far reaches of the past and claim brotherhood with Adi Sankara even. I will never underestimate this tradition in any way. I think it is one of mankind’s choicest treasures. It is an important treasure even to the atheist or any of the fervent deniers of the Divine. This is why I keep advocating it.
But I don’t follow it with blind devotion. I have never been one with a religious persuasion. I have also gone through phases where I was tempted to reject it. I come from this tradition, have learnt from it and at times gone beyond it as well. Hence the advocacy, nothing more to say beyond that. I began my life and have accumulated its wisdom on the haloed grounds of this tradition. If I have anything to say to the world, I would need to say it from here. Just as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky put forth their truths from the vantage point of Christianity, I will utter mine from an Advaitic one. But when it becomes a mere appendage of simplistic day to day politics then the opposition to that simplistic politics also gets construed as an opposition to this as well.
Understand the real quest for spiritual wisdom that is the core of the Hindu tradition. Let your criticisms against it be based on your understanding. That tradition is flexible enough to accommodate all sorts of criticisms. So, my advice to you would be to learn as much as you can before you begin criticizing.
You have continued to put forth your criticisms of Tamil journalism. Do you feel that the essays in these journals lack the objectivity and the societal focus that you expect of them? If so, what do you think is the reason for this?
I am not sure it’s that easy to lump all of them under the generic rubric of Tamil journalists. There are indeed journalists that are capable of writing good essays that have earned my respect. But they need to be clear about their respective roles. They need to realize that the mere existence of a magazine that exists solely for the purpose of publishing their essays doesn’t given them the right to consider themselves as scholars. Although they aspire to be recognized as a scholarly voice, they are under no pressure to be scholars themselves. Today there are two kinds of journalists. There are those fools that are content to regurgitate the received wisdom that they have collated. The other type is of the kind that attempts to educate Kudaivayil Balasubramanian, a reputed archaeolgist on the intricacies of the Tanjore Big Temple. The Malayalis have a saying, don’t rub oil forgetting all about the head. This fits the second kind perfectly. “Know your limits” and stay within those bounds is what I would advise them. Instead of that don’t go about bandying opinions on literature, pronounce on archeology or proffer political recommendations.
Today journalism is an extinct discipline in Tamil Nadu. Not one journalist garners a modicum of attention in Tamil Nadu today. They themselves might go on ego-trips imagining some sort of overwhelming respect for their ideas. It is nothing more than a dead horse. No point flogging it. Today print magazines contribute zilch to literature or constructive thought. Their existence or non-existence doesn’t make a difference anymore.
There are several precise descriptions of the forest in your novel Kaadu. Only your intimate knowledge of nature could have made this possible. But the so called “Green Writers” accuse a majority of writers for being clueless about nature. Do you agree with the notion that a writer of fiction must also have a basic understanding of nature and ecology?
There are a lot of differences between ecology making an appearance in literature and what the ecologists write about. A lot of words have been expended on this topic. I think there quite a few writers now who write a lot of ecological fiction. How do their books differ from a novel like Kaadu? This difference is important because it is still the focal point of continuing arguments. if you compare the novels, the eco-writer’s book would most likely have more detailed information, more accurate descriptions than the other one. But what is the reader supposed to with this? Nature is comprehended as chunks of factual details by the eco-writer. But these chunks are already readily available on the web. There is no point in transferring them as is into a work of fiction. It will seem like and is an unwanted burden.
A writer imbibes these facts directly from his natural surroundings. What matters is what happens to those facts inside of him, how they are transformed. I have not bothered writing about so many factual details pertaining to my village. I keep writing over and over again about elephants. But not a thing about so many other animals. This is because the elephant has made a deeper impression on me and has morphed into a poetic image. My inner world is what becomes the external world when I write.
From the earliest Sangam period we have been writing the without as the stand-in for our withins. The topos of my works are an expression of my inner world. The facts required for such an authorial expression need to be already within me. A majority of today’s youth who tend to live in big cities do not have any connection with nature. But they don’t have meaningful relationships with their hometowns or relatives either. I know all the stories connected with multiple generations of the 300-400 families that lived in my village. That is a treasure chest that never seems to get exhausted how much ever I write.
The chap living in an apartment complex today hardly knows anyone beyond his immediate family. He doesn’t know about the world he lives in either. The movements of that world have never overwhelmed his inscape and hence not transmuted into images. This paucity is reflected in his writing as well. But this too is just a barrier that he needs to cross. A good writer discovers his true identity only when he crosses these sorts of barriers. This crossing over is what gives him a unique personality and an individuality.
Our literary forefathers handled sexuality with great subtlety. They tended to focus on the expanding ripples of fine emotions engendered by sexuality. But today there is an accusation that we are obsessed with overt descriptions of the sexual acts rather than the emotions behind them. Do you agree with this assessment?
Sexuality has always been a constant theme in literature. A cursory look at the Songs of Solomon or the Mahabharata or Sangam literature is enough to confirm this. Needless to say, it will continue to be so. The reason for this is quite simple, sexuality is also a connection between one human being and another. A very intimate connection and unavoidable too. Hence the enormous complexity of the relations between the sexes. Literature talks about this relation and not the actual sexual act. In any case how long can one describe the physics of that act? How much experimentation can you do with it? If you go to a porn site, you can hardly watch that stuff for more than seven or eight minutes. If you manage to watch it for an hour then you better get yourself admitted in a hospital. It is a resource with extremely dire limitations. But in literature we have been able to talk about it for ages. This is because we talk about all the complications, in relationships, in egos, in attainment, the pain of pursuit and all the myriad moments that go into the making of that relationship. And we talk all this under the guise of sexuality. Such a writer who talks sexuality in order to talk about human relationship will never get dated, he will never cease to be of interest.
If someone just writes the mechanics of the sexual act, then he is merely a titillator and not a writer. The great writer focuses on the mechanics of the heart and the ego. You can never extricate ego from sexuality. Like petrol and oxygen they mingle and combust. So how is ego intermixed with sexuality? How does existentialism come into sexuality? Think about it…why does the word death always come at the heels of love in so many poems that talk about love. A man proposes to a woman and in the same breath assures her that he will never part from her till the day he dies? Why does death sneak into this romantic situation? Because romance is as transient as death is concrete. They juxtapose one with the other to evaluate the meaning of love in the face of death. They would like to assure themselves that their love will transcend it. “Flowers once displayed doth fall that very day / Let our love be younger than ourselves forever” they love to tell themselves. Sexuality has always been viewed and handled in literature as a symbol for several things that are much larger than it. Masters certainly have handled it that way.
When the writer does this, I mean when he uses sexuality to talk about relationships or death, and prevailing morality becomes a barrier, then he has no choice but to go beyond it. But to transgress the barrier of morality just for the sake of transgressing has no place in literature. It has been hundred years since such transgressions were dared and those intervening years have revolutionized our sexual mores. In all of human history, we have not had such dramatic changes in our modes of communication and travel, our democratic values and politics. The writers who found themselves at the beginning of this transition embraced the transgressions and one can almost sense the glee with which they explored sexuality. They also had a philosophical challenge that they needed to overcome. How to transition from the sexuality of feudalism into the sexuality of democracy was the challenge for their times. But they did successfully overcome it and indeed have exhausted the possibilities for such transgressions. I have only one question for the writer aspiring to transgress today on matters sexual, can you go one step beyond what Henry Miller has already achieved? If the answer to that question is yes, then by all means write. If the answer is no, then why are you wasting my time by telling me about who shagged whom and how. I now have porn sites for that kind of stuff. Why would I bother reading about this?
In Tamil, sex gets written mostly for two reasons. First, a lot of youngsters have taken to writing and it seems to me that they can get their highs only by writing about sex. Superficial readers tend to prefer writings laced with sexual innuendo. They are unable to think beyond that. If a reader is not interested in reading history, philosophy or complexities in human relationships then all that’s left for him to read is sex. Any run of the mill pulp fiction writer can write this. They will all end up being the same. What’s the big difference? Honestly, how inferior are these pulp writers form the lieterary purveyors of sexual transgression? What omissions of the former did the latter manage to include? I have no issues with folks gobbling this kind of writing for a short period of time, say two years. But if you persist in the third year as well, I have no choice but recommend pills for your ailment.
There is a fundamental dissonance at play in the Tamil milieu that is related to the way language is handled in the public discourse. On the one hand we weaponize language and approach it hyperbolically in dramatic overdrive mode. At the same time, we treat it with indifference or distrust it. So how do we reclaim our rich and resourceful language and communicate our cultural assessments through it amidst all these contrarieties?
The politics of language comes to us from Europe. All European nationalities emerged on the basis of language. So, when this concept of modern nationalism is imported to other countries it gets ported over as linguistic nationalism. In India we already had in place a cultural nationalism. Asetu-Himachal is term that has been with us since the Rig Vedic times. “North of the mountains eternally frozen in the north and south of the River Kumari running fiercely in the south” the Purananooru declaims. So, this nationalism needs to be nurtured nationally at the cultural level. But linguistic nationalism intervened, and it is not unique to Tamil Nadu. At the time of Independence, so many linguistic demands were tolerated. Punjab is indeed a result of linguistic nationalism. so is Akand Gujarat. EMS Namboodripad’s book is titled “Kerala: the motherland of Malayalis” and it espouses a Malayali nationalism for Kerala. Thus, one can almost say that this linguistic nationalism has always been an offshoot of our cultural nationalism for quite some time. So, language becomes a tool for generating a sense of common identification that is essential to sustain this fervor for linguistic nationalism. Beyond this they are not concerned about language.
The past fifty years, there has been no language that has been neglected more than Tamil. This is akin to extolling your mother daily as a God but telling her that you can send her only 30 rupees each month via money order. We won’t buy her a new saree but will light incense sticks in front of her photograph. Mere lip service and nothing more. Same goes for Tamil. Beyond that lip service, they won’t do a thing, not even exhort their kids to learn Tamil. Today, the number of people who can read and write Tamil fluently is very low. Tamil is not the medium of instruction. It is just a subject, one among many. And how well you do in that subject is quite irrelevant. I have written a children’s book “Pani Manithan“, can you guess, what percentage of our kids can read it fluently? Never mind, it’s a miniscule number. Only a tenth-grade student is able to peruse it without processing each letter of each word separately. Devotedly scream Tamil, Tamil on one side because you need to establish a nationalistic identity through it but at the same time utterly neglecting to encourage basic Tamil skills or preserve our immense cultural heritage or develop a coherent framework to view Tamil language both as a language and a cultural praxis, on the other. If you were to ask me the ubiquitous “What to do?” then I can only reply “Perhaps learn Tamil!” Learn in Tamil, learn Tamil literature. That is exactly what my friends and I have been doing for the past thirty years. And what we have been doing, has Tamil at heart, I wouldn’t call it anything dramatic, like taking care of it and the like but more of providing an opportunity to learn Tamil. On behalf of the Vishnupuram Literary circle we recently concluded a big lit-fest. I would say that was nothing more than a way to teach Tamil and relish talking about it amongst ourselves.
The post-globalization generation is already writing today. How should someone aspiring to write in this age of monstrous technological growth mold his writing?
There is not set grammar for this. One should never ask a senior writer how to mold your work. If I were a senior writer, I certainly would never give directions for that. You could mold it any which way depending on your nature, capabilities and the possibilities that open up for you. That it can never have a rigid grammar, is one of literature’s strengths, its beauty as well.
Is it right to approach a writer’s work through the lens of his political affiliations? For instance, there is a group which is antithetical to your political beliefs but claims to accept you solely in your capacity as a fiction writer. Obviously, there are other groups that reject you completely…
If someone can fully reject my politics but embrace me as a fiction writer then he certainly is a reader who deserves my respect. Irrespective of their ideologies such readers do exist. Reading naturally without ideological baggage, this reader participates in my dreams. In them he realizes his. He doesn’t have to agree with all my ideas. He doesn’t even have to give them second thought. Moreover, one can argue that a seasoned reader would approach a book exactly like this. My teacher Kovai Gnani, has adopted this approach right from the beginning. There is something wrong in every single word of yours and yet you are a great fiction writer, he keeps saying to me. To this day he has remained steadfast in this stance. Once, immediately after my expounding of an idea he remarked ” What a surprise, you managing to come up with an idea that is spot on”. On the contrary, a person who rejects my entire oeuvre based on my ideology is nothing more than a politician. In fact, it would have been a surprise only if he had not rejected. Even if he had not rejected outright and stepped into my works, he wouldn’t have understood anything. For he would have only tried to unearth politics there as well.
Only readers collectively have the strength to take a writer to the next stage of his evolution. In that sense Vishnupuram Readers Circle is an important force in the Tamil milieu. Are there instances where your readers went beyond you?
All the writers who attend the Vishnupuram Readers circle events agree that it is here that they have encountered so many readers gathered under one roof; That this event opened their eyes to the existence of a such a vast readership for Tamil literature. Recently I was talking with the poet Perundevi, she too confessed the same. “That my poems have so many readers who read them in such varied ways. That they are able to highlight such minute details in them was a new experience for me. This confirmed my suspicion that this was indeed an important literary event” she said. Writer Janice Pariat wrote to me recently and for the third time told me that she had discovered her best readers here. Ditto with writer Jahnavi Barua as well who found her deep reading readers in our auditorium.
Truly, readers do exist. But it is difficult to gather them under the same roof. Especially the good ones. They congregate around writers. If those writers who attend Vishnupuram fest are worthwhile ones, then they leave the fest with the contented feeling of having gained an affinity circle of good readers. But this cuts both ways. Writers with inferiority complexes whose works have not made an impression on any reader; they truly leave the fest crestfallen. If this gathering were 100 people strong it would have been considerate, but a 400-person crowd would be merciless and would shun these kinds of writers. Poor guy, he would have had a self-image of being a great writer and it would be a rude awakening for him when he realizes that not a single reader approached him. Seeing the important writers being mobbed he realizes his insignificance and despairs. I sympathize with that despair but there’s nothing one can do. A large gathering of sophisticated readers is intrinsically ruthless.
The response from such a gathering is very important to us, because it reveals the reach of our works to us, what the reader gets and what he ignores. You write a work and someplace within it that airplane of a work gets out of hand, takes off from the runway and soars. But this moment is private and no one else knows of it yet. After the publication of the book, the astute reader hones in on that exact place in the book and points it out to the author. Recently the Malaysian writer Naveen told about a recent experience about one such place in one of his books, that he had rightly identified as a lift-off moment. The book hadn’t gained popularity yet, so he was surprised when three other readers shared with him about their experience of that very same take-off moment in the book. More than a surprise, he told me, it was a frisson, the tingling sensation at the top of the spine that made him shiver. This is what is important, knowing that the other side gets it.
Of course, I don’t write for the other side, to cater to the reader’s needs. But the feeling that he is capable of walking alongside me is comforting. He definitely can’t control me but by conversing with me he becomes a significant other who validates me. Knowing that there are such others in the Vishnupuram circle is gratifying. This is a gratification every significant writer who chooses to attend this fest also enjoys.
But at the same time, it is important we come to terms with the fact that the same reader can also brutally reject any work. The author might outwardly save face by berating the ones who reject, calling them names etc. but in his heart of hearts he knows that this an elite crowd comprised of the five hundred best readers of Tamilnadu. If this elite crowd rejects him then he has no choice but reevaluate himself and put in the efforts for a future reassessment.
Whenever I read your novel Kotravai, its lush language and the way it’s put together is what comes to the forefront first. But going beyond that linguistic frisson, one can’t help asking, when re-creating epics or myths shouldn’t one also attempt to change their original narratives? Is it ok to keep the original frame but inject our own fictions into its main characters?
My view is that, the core narrative that holds it all together shouldn’t be changed. Because if you were to do that it is no longer a re-creation. It is a completely different work. In fact, we attempt this recreation in the first place because of our attraction to the core narrative. The narrative that is driven by the core question “What if Kannagi were to burn down Madurai?”. I don’t have the right to change that central question and rewrite it as ” What if she didn’t burn Madurai but married Pandian instead?”. it will no longer be a meaningful fictive re-creation. But if you really read Kotravai expansively you can easily spot hundreds of places in that book where the original story has been opened out revealing opportunities for new readings.
Kotravai subsumed within itself all the prevalent myths of that time. In the process of subsuming them it created brand new ones that are much different from the ones you will encounter in Silappathikaram. There are over two hundred brand new stories in it that generate for the reader, in a completely believable way, shades of the original’s core narrative. To give a few examples off the top my head, the story of the merchant who discovers through it that famous line from Puranaanooru ” Every town my hometown, every man a kinsman” comes to mind first. Then there is that story of the old woman who waits in the choultry after her husband takes the saffron and become a Buddhist mendicant. All these stories are newly minted myths. The re-creation also sublimates all the myths that wend their way into it, giving them additional meanings. The meanings are naturally from the 21st century. I did not rewrite Silapathikaram but recreated the entire Kotravai narrative for the 21st century
Kannagi walking across five landscapes is not a scene in Silappathikaram. The life portraits within those five landscapes are not to be found in Silappathikaram or Sangam literature. The hundreds of side stories related to them are also not there in the original. Therefore, only if you are able to weave so much of the present into the original narrative, infuse it with the essence of contemporary thought to such an extent, only if you are up to the challenge of making it contemporaneous, then, only then you should re-create. Writing it in a different style is not a re-creation. It merely a re-telling or as they say, a rendering.
Presently, the wonders and absurdities that pepper our everyday lives are completely different from those encountered by mankind for the past hundred years. We experience certain things as if they were imbued with unbelievable mysteries. But then why should short stories continue to reflect the quotidian? Nothing wrong in it, but why should we be so obsessed with the grind of everyday life so as to avoid all experimentation? All that feels a bit dated now…?
When we started writing in Tamil we came with a context. We were writing about mysteries and wonders. Our tradition eschews portraits of the everyday. I was talking earlier about Kotravai. The everyday portraits in it had to be, by necessity, a figment of my imagination because the Silapathikaram doesn’t have them. Same goes to the rest of our Tamil classics. When Modernism showed up, suddenly describing everyday life was seen as a revolutionary step forward. So, the “make it new” dictum, “say whatever Kamban didn’t” kind of bars could easily be cleared by merely writing the quotidian. This is why for a period of fifty years aesthetic renderings of day to day Tamil life enriched the face of Tamil literature and made it immensely beautiful. But as you rightly asked, gradually over a period extending over the past twenty-five years these have begun to stale so much that they now feel tiresome.
Pepping up everyday life with small dollops of satire and sentiment, doing this over and over again feels as tedious as stacking rice bags. To use Puthumaipithan’s analogy, our life has become akin to that of clothes lice. The only way out is to open the doors of imagination in all four directions. Beginning a story with “The character walked by” has already gotten the reader tired. Why can’t he fly? he almost feels like asking. Therefore, taking into account the mysteries of today, the multiple possibilities that branch out from so many of its moments, and encountering its life, tradition and history in the present, the challenge of today’s writer is to create new openings from all of that. He can do it through sci-fi or fantasy, even via tales of adventure or ghost stories. Instead if he decides to hitch his fictive horse to that old “urban middle class” bandwagon, then the only recourse for the disgruntled reader is that damning “Oh, No!”.
About the Translator
Nambikrishnan writes and translates in English under the pen name Nakul Vāc. His English translations have appeared in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature journal, the on-line translation websites Madhuram, Modern Literature, and the on-line webzines Padhaakai and Tamizhini. He translates both fiction and poetry and hopes his translations will “convey in a language that is not one’s own a spirit that is one’s own.” Nambikrishnan’s first collection of Tamil Essays Pandiaattam was published in 2020.