Tamil has a literary heritage and a rich poetic literature dating back to the Sangam era (1st century BCE). Tamil prose, however, is of recent origin and the novel was unheard of till the late 19th century. The first short story in Tamil, “Kulathangarai Arasamaram”, by the freedom fighter Va. Ve. Su. Iyer came out in the early 20th century; the first novel Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram was written in the late 19th century.

Since then there has been a giant leap in Tamil prose writing. In the late Thirties, many modern writers emerged, and their short stories and novels were at par with their contemporaries in the West. Pudumaipithan, Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, T. Janakiraman, B. S. Ramaiya, Chidambara Raghunathan, Jayakanthan, Mauni, La. Sa. Ramamirtham, Ashokamitran, and Alagirisami are among the people who have taken modern Tamil literature to great heights. None of them got recognition in terms of awards.

Of the two Jnanpith winners, Akilan’s works were never considered great literature though no one could question the merits of Jayakanthan.

In this context, the Sahitya Akademi award (2011) given to debutant novelist Su. Venkatesan for his novel Kavalkottam becomes significant. He is a member of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association and the Madurai district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—a full-time party worker.

Kavalkottam is a monumental novel spanning a 600-year history of Madurai: history, anthropology and fiction rolled into one. In 1,040 pages it tells the history of Madurai from the days of the Khilji general Malik Kafur’s invasion (circa 1311) and takes us through the history of the Vijayanagara empire, the rule of the Nayak kings, and of the British Raj.

There is a strong anthropological strand running along with the history, as it is also a narrative of the Piramalai Kallar community, about whom very little has been written.

The novel starts with the plunder of Madurai by Malik Kafur’s forces. It is graphically described, with horses roaming about the streets of Madurai with the bodies of the dead. The women are wailing as they are dragged away by the lustful soldiers. Karuppan, whose duty it is to guard the city, is badly wounded. His wife Sadachchi hands over a spear and says “Do your duty if you can, or be killed”, and leaves Madurai. Karuppan gets up and kills at least four soldiers before falling dead.

With the invasion of Malik Kafur, the Kallars lose their right to guard the city and move to Thathanur, a village on the city’s outskirts.

The next part describes the siege of Madurai fort by the forces of Vijayanagara led by the valiant Ganga and her husband Kampannan. The last of the seven sultans who ruled Madurai is defeated and the reign of the Nayak kings begins
The story moves on through the periods of Krishnadevaraya, Viswanatha Nayakar, Vijayaranga Nayakar, Rani Mangammal—the queen who refused to commit sati—and the benevolent king Thirumalai Nayakar.

The novel, however, really revolves around the life of the Piramalai Kallars although it speaks of the Nayak era and much else. Theirs is a life of suffering and courage. A community for whom work begins after sunset, they are a group of people who are in profession both guard and thief.

A Kallar youth is initiated into the “profession” after offering worship and sacrificing a goat to Karuppasamy near the Kallazhakar temple at the age of 15. They go in groups called kothu under a leader. They enter a house by making a hole in the wall and the first man in opens the doors for the rest. Their techniques are the result of practice and much skill.

The life, culture and customs of the community are described in detail through interesting episodes. Leaving any evidence of themselves after committing a burglary is considered a shame. They steal and share the booty, but steal only to make a living and not to amass wealth. None of them is rich. They are proud of their courage and will do anything to keep their honour.

On one memorable occasion, a Kallar enters the palace of Thirumalai Nayakar and gets away with his royal seal. The king announces a reward for anyone who helps to find the thief. The thief himself appears, admits the crime and claims the reward. Thirumalai Nayak admires his intelligence and skill and punishes him with a whipping, but offers him the responsibility of guarding the city. Thus the Piramalai Kallar regain their right to guard the city only to lose it to the British much later.

As the British tighten their grip on Madurai, the Kallars start losing their rights one by one. They decide to abolish the Palayakars—regional chieftains—and introduce the zamindari system.

The Madurai collector orders the demolition of the great fort of Madurai and engages the citizens, luring them with good wages. The fort, its demolition, and the apprehensions of the people are vividly described in the book. British officers spread the rumour that a Brahmin boy was sacrificed to appease the gods who guard the fort to allay the fears of the citizens that the demolition will incur the wrath of the gods.

By establishing police stations and prisons, the rights of the Kallars as guardians are taken away even as they resist fiercely. The upper castes and Brahmins fall in line and are rewarded with jobs in the police force. The rebellious Kallars become violent, killing many white soldiers, rob the bungalow of the collector and take away everything including his medals, ornaments and clothes.

There is love, hatred, valour, anger, and betrayal in this novel. The entry of Christian missionaries—their service, religious conversions, their role in promoting women’s education, the caste prejudices—all find a place in Su. Venkatesan’s phantasmagoric landscape of Madurai.

Women get a special place in Venkatesan’s world. A devadasi spends all her wealth to feed her village during a famine and penniless. Another woman agrees to live with the king only when he gives orders to divert a canal to her village. An old woman kills a white officer to avenge the deaths of her clan. All these women are worshipped as deities along with Sadachchi.

The Kallars are a study in paradox; they perform their duties as guards as devotedly as they practice their other profession, burglary. The language and style is informal but moving, the descriptions exact, almost like a painting, sometimes poetic.

Though the size of the book threatens initially, once you get going it is hard to put down. This unique work is not just a novel. It is a tale of a city and a people from 1310 onwards, the product of a decade of research and hard work. It is not just a work of art, it is an epic.

Su. Venkatesan comes from a family of small farmers from a village near Thiruparankundram in Madurai. His parents look after the jasmine gardens. Venkatesan is a full-time party worker and holds a degree in commerce. I met him in the office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Madurai.

I understand Kavalkottam is your debut. Were you always writing before that?
Since my school days I have been deeply interested in literature and Tamil language. In fact, I wrote my first poems while I was in the 12th standard and my first collection of poems was published when I was in the first year of college.

You are then first a poet and then a novelist. I can see it throughout your novel: your imagery, descriptions …
(Laughs) You’re right. My teacher was Ilankumaran, a well-known Tamil scholar. He encouraged me to participate in oratorical competitions and write poems. Since 1990, four collections of my poems have been published.

Why did you choose this subject for the novel?
There are two reasons. First, the history of the great city of Madurai fascinated me. The people of Keezhakuyilankudi — a small village near Madurai—traditionally had the right to guard this great city.

In 1892, these people collected an entry fee from the British superintendent of police. I came across this information accidentally from a document: a letter from the official himself. Just 100 years earlier, Kattabomman who refused to pay tax to the British rulers was hanged, but here is a document that proves that an ordinary people collected money from a British official. This shows local customs were so strongly in favour of the people.

There is no main character. It is Madurai and Madurai alone that is the centre point. All the others are incidental and contribute to the evolution of the novel. In this novel, Madurai is depicted from three different angles. First, from the viewpoint of the ruler—namely the Vijayanagara or Nayak kings. Second, through the ruled, that is, the people of Madurai; and thirdly from the point of view of the British officials. The central theme is Madurai and Madurai alone.

Secondly, during the course of my party work, I had to travel all over the villages and meet people, mostly belonging to the Piramalai Kallar community. I was drawn to this community, their traditions and customs. I should admit that this opened the gates for me.

And it made me think.

When I first saw the book, its size was discouraging. But after reading it, I’m filled with admiration. You cover 600 years of Madurai, 1310 to 1910. It took me 15 days to read the book with its numerous characters and incidents. I am unable to comprehend how much time it would have taken for you to write this.
It took almost ten years.

Who is the main character or hero of the novel? Is it Madurai, or the Piramalai Kallar community? 
There is no main character. It is Madurai and Madurai alone that is the centre point. All the others are incidental and contribute to the evolution of the novel. In this novel, Madurai is depicted from three different angles. First, from the viewpoint of the ruler—namely the Vijayanagara or Nayak kings. Second, through the ruled, that is, the people of Madurai; and thirdly from the point of view of the British officials. The central theme is Madurai and Madurai alone.

Shouldn’t a novel have a unified central theme around which characters and incidents are built? This is absent in the novel.
No, there need not be a central theme Take for instance the epic novel of Tolstoy, War and Peace. Do you find a unified central theme?

In such novels, it is time that is the central theme; no main character or main incident is needed. 

In Kavalkottam also, it is time—600 years—that is the hero. A reader who enters this period in the first chapter comes out after going through 600 years

Did you expect this novel to cross 1,040 pages? 
Not at all. If I had thought I would end up with such a massive book, I wouldn’t have even started it! After I began, there were several occasions when I wanted to quit. But every time I decided to stop, there was some inexplicable pain and urge to start again.

It dawned on me eventually that if I wanted to quit, the only way to quit was to finish the novel. It took ten years to complete. During those ten years, my feet would be on the earth, but my mind always dwelt elsewhere: on the history, on the people, on the incidents. There was so much to write about, it was like delivering a child. The incidents and the characters started taking me along.

How many libraries and archives did you visit?
There were three types of sources I relied on. One, books already published; two, documents available in the archives; three, information I got through word of mouth and documents I got from the people themselves.

Documents from the people?
Yes, the documents titled ‘Thirumalai Thinna Thevar’. Many have heard about this. But none has seen it. ‘Ezhuvampatti Yedu’ … is another treasure which has a wealth of information on the Kallar community. It could be described as the code of criminal law for the Piramalai Kallars. It details the punishments to be given for all types of crimes. This was followed till the end of the last century.

Even Louis Dummont, the French anthropologist who did extensive research on the Piramalai Kallars, has said in his book that he could not get this document in spite of his best efforts. He was told by the villagers that it was lost in a fire. He says the villagers were probably not willing to part with it.

But I was lucky to get it because I went to each house in several villages. I can say that there is not a single village I have not visited. Finally I got it after I established a rapport with the people. Their trust in me made them talk to me, help with information. My source is the people themselves which made this possible.

What about your research from libraries and archives?
One cannot get all the information and details just from one source. You may be aware that culling information from government and private archives is a very difficult job. My field work for my party in the villages helped much more. I walked long distances to reach the remotest villages. Sometimes I travelled by bus. Visiting a village does not just mean going there, taking tea in the tea shop, and returning.

I spent several days in each village. I searched for the village elders who could recollect the past and talk to me. The old women especially helped a lot. They have fantastic memoirs of what they saw and heard from their fathers, grandmothers and so on.

These people are so straight—you can trust their information’s authenticity. They will not lie … the same tale is repeated without change in the nearby villages also. Some of them were almost 100 years old; they themselves did not know or have the record of their birth.

I also got written documents from them. Thirumalai Nayak gave a Piramalai Kallar the authority to look after law and order in a village in 1665. It is recorded in the copper plates of the king, which are available in the government archives. I could access that.

The original document is still available with the descendants. Again, I could lay my hands on documents that provide details about how they took care of law and order in the villages from 1890 to 1920; they run to several hundred pages. I’m the first to bring out these documents in detail. They’ve now been scanned and are kept in the Pondicherry French Institute archives. This happened in the last five years after I discovered them.

I also collected several documents from the Christian missionaries. For example, when Blackburn—the collector of Madurai—ordered the demolition of the fort, people protested and complained to the higher British authorities. Blackburn was suspended but reinstated on appeal. I wondered how these people had gone to Chennai to submit a petition. In those days the people of Madurai would have just heard the name Chennaipattinam, now Chennai. For them it was a distant land existing in an alien area.

How did they travel there?
I didn’t know at first. So I didn’t write that portion of the book; for a long time I kept five pages blank until I got the information I wanted.

I got it by accident finally, while scanning a souvenir commemorating 150 years of the American Madura Missionary. They had reproduced an article that appeared in the 100th year souvenir, which again had reproduced what was published in its 75th year souvenir.

I went to several schools, libraries and visited almost all the houses in Pasumalai area in search of it. Finally I got it from one. It was the only copy available: a rare and very old document, brittle and yellow with age.

It is a letter from a father (priest) of the American Madura Missionary advising others not to use a palanquin to go to Chennai. A palanquin had to be carried by nine persons and considering the food expenses of nine, the cost is exorbitant. Instead, he suggested the use of bullock carts, saying the cost would be less than half. He even attached a voucher detailing the expenses of a palanquin journey— Rs.14 rupees and 50 paisa.

I have written just two lines about this in Kavalkottam, but it took months of research just to find this snippet. But such minute details go a long way to making this novel a work of authenticity. (Laughs) If I started writing about my search for documents, it would be as voluminous as the original novel.

Then the history of the Criminal Tribes Act which made the Piramalai Kallar a notified criminal tribe. You can write another 100 pages on the Tadhu years’ great famine which is said to have wiped out 40 villages, and the plague that followed, and there is the history of the construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam, and so on.

These documents throw light on the social set-up, customs, the relationship between the king and his people and so on. So I must thank my field work more than anything else. Had I got a job in an office, and sitting in the office tried to write, I would have ended with a mediocre book.

Yes, I could see your efforts on every page: in the characterisation, incidents, and so on. 
I must tell you that there is no systematised single history book on Madurai. There are books on the Pandya kings, later the Pandya dynasty, about the Nayaks, but there is no book on the city’s 2,500 year history as a whole. 
In this novel I have detailed only the last 600 years. I do think Kavalkottam has contributed to the study of the history of Madurai. I have no doubt about it and I’m happy about it.

How did you go about the history of Vijayanagara?
I relied on the folk tales of the Telugus and on the published works and books on its history, mostly. You will observe that of the 600 years, I have covered 550 years in the first 200 pages and the remaining years in 800 pages. The first 200 pages provide the base to understand the 800 pages.

You start the novel with the invasion by the Muslim forces. From there you jump to the arrival of the Vijayanagara forces which defeat them. What about the period and rule of these sultans?
Then the book would have been much more voluminous. My aim was to focus more on the people of Madurai. Even about the Nayaks, you would’ve noticed that I covered Viswanatha, Mangamma, and Thirumalai Nayakar in just a few lines. I was sorely tempted to write more but I controlled myself.

The historical details are true, the fiction is built up around real events detailed in the history. A historical novel has its limitations; it cannot cross the limits. At the same time it can fill the gaps in history. This is what Kavalkottam has done.

Before you started to write, did you have a definite idea or a plot? Did it change as you went on researching?
Yes, that is true. When I started I drew a sketch: a basic outline. I drew a sketch of an imaginary village, Thathanur; of a villager, Virumandi. I decided to follow the lives of his two sons—one goes to Madurai to become a guard, the other goes to Kambam. I wanted to write about the one who went to Kambam but as I went on I changed and decided to talk about the one who became the guard of Madurai, and through him the history of the guards and the thieves.

How much of the novel is history and how much fiction?
A good question. The historical details are true, the fiction is built up around real events detailed in the history. A historical novel has its limitations; it cannot cross the limits. At the same time it can fill the gaps in history. This is what Kavalkottam has done.

These gaps, the unknown parts or details, are filled through fiction. In that sense I should say a historical novel does contribute to history.

How can a thief be the guard also? Such a practice seems untenable at the outset.
It is the tradition of our community in a way, to appoint the thief—a clever thief—as the guard. Madurai-Kanchi, a Sangam era work, says in its 15-line description of the nights of Madurai, that the guards are expected to learn the treatise on theft and burglary, titled Karavadai Nool.

The Kallars in fact fought for their rights against the British, and lost many lives in the process according to your research. Can we call them freedom fighters? After all, in the Sepoy Mutiny, the soldiers were not fighting for independence, they were fighting for their rights. It was classified as the first freedom fight by the historians.
You’re right. It should have been described as part of the freedom struggle. But nobody talks about it that way, more’s the pity. When 20 people were shot dead fighting for their rights to guard the city, a right given to their community by Thirumalai Nayaka, it isn’t for an individual. Isn’t it sacrifice?

Instead they’re dubbed criminals and become a notified community. When Rajagopalachari was campaigning to become the premier of Madras Presidency in the late Thirties, he promised that the criminal tag would be removed and the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) repealed. Denotified communities are listed under the CTA, 1870. They are defined as tribes addicted to systematic commission of non bailable offences.They are required to register with the magistrate.

That Act was repealed only after independance in 1952; nothing was done till the Fifties. That is why people like Muthuramalingam Thevar left the party then.

You mentioned casteism in Madurai. Were the Kallars a part of it? Recently, you may be aware of incidents in Paapparapatti and Keeripatti where the dominant Piramalai Kallars were against the Dalits becoming panchayat presidents. 
No, such discriminations did not exist then. It is the relatively recent creation of politicians who play up caste for votes. But caste discrimination did exist as I have described, among the citizens of Madurai. Even conversion to Christianity did not help. My research is positive on that.

All the women from this backward community come out as independent and courageous. They are glorified in the novel. They are known for their courage and sacrifice and become the goddesses worshipped by the community.
I have written about the two communities, the Telugu-speaking Kollavaru and the Piramalai Kallars. Even today in their community, the women are dominant. ‘Avva’s’ decision is final in almost every family. If somebody from the community had written this book, they would have dealt with it more strongly.

There is an incident of white men shooting dead 19 people of the community. A woman, Mayakka, walks among the dying soldiers to offer water unmindful of the bullets. The infuriated British soldiers bayoneted her to death. It is a part of history.

You seem to imply that even the Mullaperiyar dam was constructed more to increase the revenue of the government than to help the farmers.
There is no doubt about it. All schemes drawn up by them in Madurai were drawn up with that view only. The benefits to the people were incidental. You must understand that even the Mullaperiyar dam’s construction was delayed by 50 years because they thought it was not a scheme that would yield benefits within a short period.

A part of your book has come out as a feature film. Are you happy with the way it was made?
It’s difficult to make films from novels like this. The director, Vasanthabalan, is an avid reader and deeply interested in contemporary literature. I am happy that he chose my book. He filmed it as he has interpreted and I’m happy.

Writing this novel would have been a mammoth task, almost full-time work.
Indeed yes, I wrote almost 100 pages a day.

Did you expect the Sahitya Akademi award?
No, it was a shock and surprise.

How did it happen? You were a writer, yes, but not that well-known as a

Yes, but in the three years after it was published, there were discussions, criticisms. In fact it became a much talked about work–so much so that six editions have come out so far. It must have caught the eyes of the authorities of Sahitya Akademi too.

In fact, I was campaigning that the novel Koverukazhuthaikal by Imayam or Aazhi Soozh Ulagam by de Cruz should be given the award. Of course, I am happy de Cruz got it this year for Korkai. Of late, works of great literary merit are being written by younger writers and I feel it should be recognised.

What next?
I am planning to write a novel on the philosophical traditions of the Tamils. I have started researching.

Noted writer Ramakrishnan has severely come down on the novel. He describes it as aayiram pakka abatham: a thousand-page absurdity.
Yes, I read it. He is one of my best friends. I welcome constructive criticism but this is without any basis.
But great writers like Jeyamohan, Melanmai Ponnusami, literary researchers like Manimaran, Suseela, poet Vennila, and many more have complimented the work. Of course, they have offered constructive criticism too. I welcome such analytical criticism. When a major work is published one must be prepared to face all sorts of reactions, it’s all in the game.