“Have you ever slept
by the roadside? As a youngster I often spread a mat on my street and lay on my
back.” That’s hard to believe when you see S Ramakrishnan at work in his
compact flat, updating his website while his wife fondly checks his literary
awards for imaginary specks of dust.
But the 45-year-old writer from Virudhunagar is matter-of-fact about it. “I came to Chennai 25 years ago, and from the swankiest apartments to the most unimaginable living conditions, I’ve seen everything.
“I’ve slept under the Kodambakkam Bridge and watched the rain pouring outside. I’ve lain down on railway platforms as trains hooted their way through.” What was all this about, then, finding authenticity?
“It was a conscious decision to travel, to see life, to study my subjects. I always wanted to be a full-time writer. I’ve never had any other job. But I had to prepare, research the lives and stories I would create. Being a writer is an enormous social responsibility.”
The beginnings were tough, to say the least. “It took me four years to write my first novel.” But it found no takers. Perhaps it was too long. “No one would print large books. So I myself brought out the first couple of books. They were about 400 pages each. Once I sold 5,000-6,000 copies, a publisher bought it from me. But it was an uphill struggle.”
As for his reaction, “I didn’t feel a unique sense of accomplishment. My work is writing, and I reflected that this was an indication that I had my foot firmly in the door.”
He was fulfilling his destiny, no less.
What did his family think of it? “They praised some parts of it, and disputed my reasoning in others. It was about the Mahabharata and everyone has an opinion about it.”
But readers loved it. “Their reception was spectacular. The novel got a lot of attention and was widely reviewed. There were about 15 literary discussions. I got at least 500 letters from readers.”
It’s been a long time since that day, but now he’s an established novelist with a literary reputation for subverting societal norms. He also writes film scripts. But he still can’t make a living out of his novels.
How does he deal with it? Is an ennobling mission a good enough substitute for a living?
“I always saw myself as contending with life, never conquering it,” Ramakrishnan says. “And those days that I lay down on the ground with a book for a pillow, I didn’t think too far ahead. It made me believe I could deal with life. I got a sense of security in my insignificance, too. A tree may be uprooted by strong winds, but a blade of grass simply bends.”
These days, Ramakrishnan gets several calls a day from people who want him to speak at events organised by Tamil Sangams across the world.
“But even now, I don’t know what could happen next month. My income’s like a fountain!” He seems to be have reached a kind of nirvana, though.
For one thing, his family stuck by him. “I’ve been lucky. My maternal grandfather was an Education Officer in the British era, and always had a strong interest in people reading and writing. My paternal grandfather was a Periyaarist, into social reform. They inured my parents so they accepted my eccentric decisions,” he laughs.
He shrugs as he tries to explain why it’s art and nothing else for him as long as he can remember. “I could get a regular job teaching in college. That was on my radar. I even told my father before I set out on my travels that if I failed at my calling, I would look for a job.” Maybe that’s where the luck comes in. He didn’t have to.
“There’s a lot a writer can do. You’re taking people’s lives and experiences and culture, and processing it to give them something. A reader sees a writer as a guide. You influence them. Even if you leave aside the lofty ideals, I have a long list of things-to-do.”
“Once, a family came here from my village, and we all went to a movie. The man of the house asked, ‘How does this theatre not have separate sections for men and women, sir? This city has gone to the dogs!’ The writer’s duty is to break this kind of mindset.”
Ramakrishnan’s decision is a blend of the quixotic and egotistic, but he had family tradition to fall back upon. “In my family no one interferes in three things—what one studies, where one works, and whom one marries. I had a love marriage, and my wife was prepared for this uncertain life.”
They also accept that he can’t keep the home fires burning even though he works so hard.
“In the early days, she went to work while Isat down to write all day. Eventually, I felt guilty, and took on research projects and writing assignments to earn more. But I can’t live like a regular office worker with his EMI schemes. I have some great friends, and my family’s support. My brothers, sisters, wife’s brothers all help to run my household. Many work in the US, so a bit of money is no big deal. If I need to travel to research my novels, someone buys me the ticket. All because they believe what I do is important.”
At some level, though it must hurt, or at least raise questions. “I’ve been writing for two and a half decades, and my monthly earnings from writing would be less than a clerk’s salary. You can’t depend on writing for a living.
“But I think of books as something I give society,” he muses. “I don’t expect returns or profits. Writing doesn’t owe me; I owe the word.
I’ve been writing for two and a half decades, and my monthly earnings from writing would be less than a clerk’s salary. You can’t depend on writing for a living/
“And the respect I get from people who tell me they were inspired by something I wrote...well, clichéd as it may sound, that’s payment enough.” It has to be, as the royalties start coming in only a year after publication.
And that isn’t exactly princely.
S Abdul Hameed, proprietor of Uyirmmai Publications, himself a writer known by his pen name “Manushyaputhiran”, explains. “Forty per cent of the cover price goes to the retailer. The production cost is 30 per cent. So we split the rest, publishers and writers—15 per cent each. For a writer of Tamil fiction, the royalty is so minimal that he can’t really live off it.”
Writer-in-the-making R Abilash concurs heartily. “It’s like being in a bomb squad,” he laughs. By day he’s a 30-year-old lecturer in the English Department of Guru Nanak College, by night he writes Tamil fiction, poetry and analytical articles.
“I’ve been writing since 2005. And the first time I was paid was 2011, when I wrote seven articles for a Deepavali special edition brought out by the Times Group in Tamil. I got Rs. 3000, not much for an English columnist, but a huge deal for a Tamil writer.”
He has no resentments about it. “I was paid because Times can afford to. Often, the forums we get are small and middle magazines started with the editors’ own money. There’s hardly any profit. They have a circulation of 2000-3000, compared to the 3-4 lakh of a weekly like Ananda Vikatan. So they make just about enough money to keep running.
“Magazines like Ananda Vikatan and Kumudam have shifted from fiction to gossip, interviews, news titbits, colourful photographs. They don’t pay much either. Depending on how well known you are, you make between Rs 300 and Rs 1000 for a poem or short story. To get published, you have to write in a style that accommodates their demands, a compromise.
“The other option is literary magazines, which don’t have money to pay you. Once, a famous writer told me how he went to cash a cheque he was sent for the first time by a small weekly, and it bounced. But I wouldn’t blame them, really. Given the cost of paper and newsprint going up, how can they make money?”
One of the answers is, of course, multi-tasking. Ramakrishnan is one example. “My writing straddles several disciplines —fiction, non-fiction, travel. And I have a website to update. I’m also formulating an alternate system of education to reform the manner in which children are taught in schools.
“In my spare time, I conduct writing workshops, workshops for teachers, and I work with the disabled. But to have this luxury, I depend on other people to keep me from worrying about day-to-day problems.” For others, it simply means that you stay on the treadmill, hoping your exertions are enough to keep the head above water.
Manushyaputhiran best expresses the uncertainties of a writer. He agrees that more people read these days, but tastes, too, have changed. “Getting published is easier with new publishing houses coming in, so there’s a demand for titles and quality literature. But we do only 1,000 copies in the first edition. That hasn’t climbed in the last couple of decades.” Why not?
“It’s easy for pulp writers who write sensational stories. But the market for high literature hasn’t grown much. We only get reprint orders for people who are household names, usually because of their involvement in cinema and other mass media. Most of our income is from libraries, which place direct orders. When there are reprints, the cost falls, so we have a slightly larger margin.”
One category of literature has grown many-fold, so maybe that’s the future for writers. “The books that sell like hot cakes are self-help and functional literature—the type that explain how share markets work and so on—which satisfy an immediate need.”
The first priority of
a writer in an Indian language is to reach out. And this may tempt him to,
well, do a Jo from Little Women, and write the stories that
will be lapped up.
Manushyaputhiran says, “Mass magazines want titillating, superficial stories, a certain percentage of crime, of sex, of thrill. They’ve trained readers and writers for this. It was a ‘time-pass’ thing, stories with no cultural references and no deep thought. The main target audience was housewives. But with television serials, the demand for pulp fiction is going down.
“In fact, many of the writers have migrated to TV, like Indira Soundarajan. He writes for serials about ghosts and ghouls. Others, such as Rajesh Kumar and Rajendra Kumar, have simply disappeared. In the last 10 years or so, there’s been no new pulp fiction writer. Suba (the duo Suresh and Balakrishnan) and Pattukottai Prabhakar have moved into cinema.”
It’s important to keep one thing in perspective. “There’s a distinction between pulp writing and popular writing. Bharathiyaar, Kalki, and more recently, Sujatha and Jayakantan are mass writers, but of literary quality. The only one who has dabbled in every kind of media and written about subjects ranging from crime to science without damaging his style, I think, is Sujatha.”
He’s plainly nostalgic about those days. “You know, there was an entire genre of ghost stories in Tamil. But we don’t have good writers these days. Even pulp doesn’t have to be illogical. Crime and mystery writing is challenging. Make the implausible seem possible, as Agatha Christie did. Today’s pulp fiction is the kind you read on a train or bus, and throw out when you get out. That kind of thing can be easily replaced by serials. But real art stays. I’ve turned down several pulp writers because readers are tired of hackneyed storylines.”
Ramakrishnan feels one reason is that a lot of young writers isolate themselves from world literature. “I’m awed by the writers who’ve come and gone before me. I marvel at their body of work. But a lot of young writers I meet believe they don’t need to educate themselves as long as they’re inspired. I met a chap who asked me, ‘Why should I learn Shakespeare? How is he important to me’?
“And there was another who topped that with, ‘Has Shakespeare read me?’ I mean, how do you grow unless you read the masters? Do literary circles discuss who won the Nobel Prize, or do they rave about who won some government award in Tamil Nadu? As a writer, one needs to analyse what people all over the world write about, and whether they speak of the same things we do. Take Anna Karenina, for instance, a woman torn between a husband and a lover—how many affairs have been busted through Facebook? When you can’t make the connections, your writing is bound to skim the surface.”
Some changes, obviously, are welcome. Abilash recounts a recent conversation with a publisher.
“I called him to say I’ve finished a book, and was about to say, ‘Sir, please tell me what you think after you read it.’ Before I could, he said, ‘Sure, let’s put it out in December-January.’
“Earlier, you had to beg people to read your writing, and spend about Rs. 10,000 to bring out the books, but now, once people know you can write, they’re willing to publish your work.”
All three speak with relief of this development. In the Eighties, when he began writing, “Serious literature had no takers,” Manushyaputhiran says. “Sujatha advised me to start my own publishing company to focus on these books, and I did. But since 2000, a lot of new publishers have come in. There has been a spate of book fairs in Tamil Nadu, and a literate generation has created more demand for books. Now, a moderately good young writer can get published quite easily.”
There’s more variety out there, too, partly because of “historical need”, Abilash says tongue in cheek. “After 2000, feminism became something of a big deal. There was a place for writers like Salma, Kutti Revathi and others who consciously used a vocabulary that shocked readers, explored sexism in language and destroyed stereotypes. Earlier, women would moderate their language, their stories. Publishers looked for women who could break these shackles. In a matter of months, these feminist writers and poets became household names. You do need talent and potential, but a gap in the market can come in handy.”
Another case in point is Dalit literature. “Sometimes, you have ‘high-class Dalits’ writing about these issues,” he grins. “People with a Western education, from rich families, with connections, who may have got published anyway.More importantly, you have writing from the grassroots, bringing in a political angle, not too common in Tamil literature.”
But Manushyaputhiran feels publishing has a long way to go. “It’s a dream of mine to bring out children’s books, not just translations of Superman. But attractive colour panels and good quality paper require heavy investment, and huge sales to get returns. And parents whose children want Tamil comics won’t spend Rs. 100 on a children’s book.”
At some point, the
talk turns, inevitably, to technology and new media. Manushyaputhiran says several
of his finds have come through blogs and Internet articles. “I run an online
magazine, too, called Uyirosai, and make it a point to publish
young writers (who use the Internet) either in that, or in Uyirmmai magazine
“But the Internet also has a downside. There’s a very small market for serious literature, and while readers have gone up, the buyers haven’t. When so much is available online for free, why would they buy the books?”
Abilash notes another trend. “Tamil writers have been very quick to get online,” he says, “Most have their own websites, and the rest blog regularly. You see this a lot less among Hindi and Malayalam writers. All of Charu Nivedita’s articles are up on the Internet. And perhaps because of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, you see clicks from various countries for Tamil blogs. The reach has grown tremendously.”
Online book stores do decent business selling Tamil books. “This boom calls for a lot of innovation from the writer,” Ramakrishnan says. “I adapt my books to whatever technology comes in. I’ve got several books ready in eBook format, and from January, they should be available on iPhone through an app. Within a year, all my books will be available on Google Books. I’m redesigning my website, so people can place orders directly.”
Abilash feels this is not without problems. “Earlier, mainstream and literary writing were different. But over the past couple of years, literary novelists like S Ramakrishnan and J Mohan have begun to write for cinema. So people who look for entertainment and not erudition are familiar with them; they read them. But these people are not serious readers. They aspire to literature of this kind because it has clique value. They’re often not prepared for what they find.
“They make celebrities out of writers, and when they have access to these celebrities, they make demands. Now, an experienced writer with a level head knows what to accept and what to shrug off. But a more volatile writer may waver. When pulp readers turn to literature, he may want to cater to them. And his reader base may take him by surprise. Suddenly, you find 1,000 hits on your blog. You say something controversial, and the number hits 10,000.
“Sundarramaswamy, who died recently, once said it takes 40 years to build a reader base of 10,000. But when it happens overnight, how do you react?” he asks
But he agrees that technology has far more benefits than liabilities. “I met writer Ashokamitran a while back, and he was speaking about how he finds it hard to cross the road to post his stories. And it made me think about how simple the Internet has made things. You shoot off a soft copy through your mail in an instant. You can even type a story out on your mobile phone and send it across.”
He recognises the how far the web reaches. “The Internet has given us forums to discuss books, and access to a huge data bank. If someone commissions an article at 6 p.m. and asks me to send it in by 9 a.m., I can write a scholarly piece in the time. I can do research for my novels online. And when your work is up online, people hear of you faster.”
Abilash is clearly excited by e-publishing. “Amazon has brought in self-publishing in English. If that happens in Tamil, or if eBooks are popularised, publishers would save a lot on printing costs. And if we get affordable tablets that support Tamil, like Aakash, for example, buying capacity goes up, expenditure comes down, and writers will get decent royalties. The money that goes into production could be channelled into marketing. The risk of publishing a book becomes nonexistent. Of course, this is wishful thinking for now. But there have been several positive effects already.”
With all thebuzz, can
marketing activity be far behind? Ramakrishnan thinks they’ve got it
“People invite me to forums,” he says, “But they end up with a felicitation instead of a book reading. Why talk about me instead of my books? How does knowing what I did affect the audience? Doesn’t it make more sense for me to read something out, and have an interactive session? I’m pushing for interactive sessions with authors at the Chennai Book Fair, and I’m hoping they’ll bring that in.”
Abilash concurs. “There’s no culture of book readings in Tamil. They celebrate writers instead. I’ve often thought we should start book clubs, and hold launches where we use an overhead projector to display parts of the book, and get the writer to read out passages. And ideally, hold a question-and-answer session like they do at the launch of English books. That will also alert the writer to the sensibilities of his readers.”
Sadly, publishers can’t afford glitzy launches, where to walk away without buying a book is frowned upon. “Even debut novels are launched at five-star hotels,” Abilash says of Indian English Writing. Most Tamil launches happen in dingy, rented halls, or at the author’s house.
“A writer must exploit his platforms,” Ramakrishnan says, firmly, “You need to stop being shy. In India, and especially in Tamil Nadu, we have this inhibition that prevents us from speaking about ourselves. We want other people to praise us. Why do you think Taj Mahal is better known than Gangaikondacholapuram? Marketing, publicity. When I go to these award functions, and meet writers from other languages, they start speaking about their books. But Tamil writers hold forth on every subject under the sun, except their own work. So, when I went to receive the Tagore Award, given by the Sahitya Akademi in 2010, I had a short pamphlet made, with a short bio about myself, my books, and an extract translated into English. You need to be aggressive.”
With a renewed interest in translation from the Indian English publishing industry, have writers become better known, and been showcased to a larger audience?
“I’m not happy with the works being translated,” Manushyaputhiran says, “Yes, classics like Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan have come out. But translating pulp fiction doesn’t sit well with me. Today, you have some very good writers and poets, but no one translates them. They write about social issues, political, but people who can’t read Tamil have no access. And most Tamil pulp fiction—his makes me laugh—has been lifted from English pulp fiction. Why translate something that has been pinched from English back into English?”
Ramakrishnan feels translators face a Catch-22 situation. “The language is 2,000 years old, and there’s so much literature. If you translate contemporary literature, people will say you’re ignoring classics. If you focus on classics, modern literature has no place.”
He has a solution. “You need a guild where people specialising in translation work together. Now, the author has to pursue translators. In my case, my focus is on Tamil, and I’d rather be working on my next book than sitting down with a translator. That said, translation is very important. My favourite writers are Dostoevsky and Tolstoy–and I would never have read them if they hadn’t been translated into English.”
His book Desanthiri is being translated into Malayalam, Yaamam into Telugu and Hindi, and Urupasi and Thunaiyezhuththu into English.
“A French edition of Urupasi will be out next August,” he says. French? Well, that’s courtesy Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom are trilingual.
For Abilash, translation from Indian languages can never have the same market as Indian writing. “Our sensibility is different. Indian English writing employs irony and satirical humour. Tamil writers tend to be serious, sentimental and poetic. It sounds corny in English. Another important aspect is regional identity. Even if you have a Chennai-based character in an Indian English novel, he becomes an Indian character. It’s a conscious effort. The writer wouldn’t give it a Chennai flavour beyond a point. The characters won’t discuss local problems, only national issues. The identity of a Bihari labourer, or a Kannadiga or a Tamil, is integrated with the national identity.
A case in point is Manu Joseph’s Serious Men. The topography of his novel was Mumbai, but it was not so much a story of a Tamil Dalit in Mumbai, as of an Indian Dalit among rich, educated people.”
You also need explanations at every stage. It would be hard to translate “thanni theriththuvittaan”, literally “he sprinkled water (on someone)”. It means that the person has been disowned, through a ritual that is state-specific. To explain the cultural metaphor would be to rob it of its charm.
“Language is changing, though,” Abilash says, “We speak in a mix of languages, and maybe a new literature that incorporates all of those will come in.”
Many Tamil writers
such as Ramakrishnan, Charu Nivedita and J Mohan, and before them, Sujatha,
became household names after their entry into the film industry. Though they
had established themselves as writers far earlier, their readership went up
many-fold after famous tongues spouted their dialogues.
Ramakrishnan has worked on 11 films in the past 12 years. “Well, I didn’t really break in,” he says, smiling at a private joke, “You see, all my roommates in my struggle period, in those cramped quarters, are the top directors of today. We’d all meet, and say ‘You know, one day, we should do this’, and we’re doing that now.
“I don’t think of myself as someone in the cine industry. I’m a writer who dabbles in various genres. Early on, many of my friends asked me to write for their first films. But I’d say, ‘No, da, let me establish myself as a writer first.’
“When K Balachander’s son, a close friend, returned from America and started production house Minbimbangal, I thought, let’s give this a shot. Directors Jeeva, Lingusamy and Bala were close friends, and I’ve often worked with them. Director Vasanthabalan was a junior in college, and asked me to write for a film he was making on Virudhunagar. Rajnikanth read my books, and asked me to work on Baba because he said the message of the movie was a thing I’d said in my book. So, cinema just happened to me.” Does it make a difference to the bottom line?
“Cinema pays about four times as much as my other writing, but working in cinema is about 10 times as strenuous!” But does it involve a compromise in style? “
I don’t think you can compare the two. You write for cinema with certain stipulations; people get together, discuss your screenplay, script or dialogues, and make corrections. A novel comes from the heart. You work alone, and you write it because it occurs to you, not because there’s a gap in the market, or any specific reason to get the story out.”
It helps if you’re a name, Abilash says. “The senior writers, or people whom the director knows well and respects, have less cause for worry. And I think if a director is basing his movie on your novel, you need to give him a free hand. But it can be difficult if you’re working on a screenplay, and you’re a novice. You may not have the freedom to write your own story, and if the movie turns out bad, people associate you with it.”
Would he compromise? Abilash thinks for a moment and then laughs, “I really don’t know.”
But how about the writers who say they haven’t been paid, or that their scripts have been stolen? “Well, that simply means they don’t know how to handle the industry. First, I think it’s nonsense when unknown writers claim some story published in an obscure journal was stolen by a famous director. It’s a publicity stunt. I suppose it just may be the case, but it’s far more likely that the same idea struck two people. Or someone may have been inspired by a story, but in the making of it, the product changes completely. After reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, I wrote a story where someone listens to The Beatles, because the music haunted me. But does that mean I plagiarised? People who make those allegations are people who’re frustrated at their own inability.”
Manushyaputhiran doesn’t mince his words. “Tamil cinema specialises in plagiarism. If someone says, ‘Oh, this film was new, it was different’, my mind starts ticking immediately, and it doesn’t take me long to figure out which film or story it’s been stolen from. I wish they’d acknowledge that they were impressed or influenced by some film or story, and put in a credit note. No writer is safe.
“Several portions of Sujatha’s novels have been stolen. One particularly brilliant political novel, which speaks about various conspiracies and intrigues, called Padhavikkaaga (For Stature), has had entire chapters lifted for films.
“That’s because copyright laws are not strong here. And writers don’t have the means or connections to fight through the legal system. Writers of English fiction have agents and attorneys. Here, you have no representation, no money, and the directors have no original ideas. If they can’t find an Iranian or Japanese film to ape scene-by-scene, they copy from novels. There are only two types of filmmakers in Tamil cinema—people who steal artfully, and people who steal horrendously. A story discussion is basically a discussion on which story to copy.”
Is it possible that
writers wouldn’t have to turn to the film industry to bolster their bank
accounts if they had other, academic options?
Manushyaputhiran stresses that there is an urgent need to reform the education system.“Our system doesn’t introduce students to good contemporary literature. I can’t recall when the syllabus was last changed.Our policy, and the incompetence of teachers, has created a distance between students and language. There are times when I do guest lectures in colleges, one school—SRV Matriculation—in Tiruchy calls writers every month to conduct workshops. But there are very few institutions where the principal or department head takes the initiative.
“There’s so much more emphasis on general knowledge than art, literature and language. Why do you need to know the national bird, language and capital of every country, or who invented penicillin, when Google gives you whatever information you need in whatever language you want? The things that need to be inculcated are understanding, how to communicate, and how to use a language. Now, children are losing touch with language. How often does someone say ‘I’m not able to express what I feel’? That’s why writers are so popular; because they translate your thought into words, and you immediately relate.”
The content of textbooks is a sore point with Manushyaputhiran. “We’ve fought so much at the policy level. When the state brought in Samacheer Kalvi, I spoke to them and asked for modern writing as a section in literature. But the policymakers are scared to take a risk. To make children read Sangam literature in the language in which it was written is actually putting them off Tamil. If you need a dictionary to understand every word, how will you string it together? A language class shouldn’t feel like a gym workout!
“I think Thirukkural and Sangam era literature are important. But let children learn the gist, and seek out the original if they’re interested. The way these things are taught matter too. If you ask me, Ramayana and Mahabharata are contemporary texts. They address dilemmas and situations we face in life. But you shouldn’t tie them up with religion. Treat them as stories. It’s important to know our tradition, our history, or we’ll be rootless—but this should be communicated in a language that we speak, that we understand. When you foster a hatred for Tamil in kids, they don’t want to study it.”
He then laughs and says he himself dropped out of school in Class 5, before he could begin to hate Tamil. “I wrote all my exams as a private candidate, right up to MA. And then I did a second MA, for the college experience. Maybe that’s why everything I’ve done has to do with Tamil literature—my first poetry collection came out when I was 16, and since then, I’ve been a journalist, writer, and publisher.”
Abilash chose English Literature, rather than Tamil. “I badly wanted to study Tamil,” he says, “And my family was all right with it. But when we’d gone to visit the college and pick up admission forms, they said I should do English. Initially, I was miserable. But after my interaction with Tamil academicians and lecturers, I realised that they were about 100 years behind in terms of theory. So I did my M.Phil. in English, and tried to apply those theories to parallels in Tamil.”
Academia’s blinkered perspective is bewildering given the progressiveness of Tamil literary circles. “Senior writers in my hometown, Nagercoil, would hold discussions on modern literature and critical theory. I was familiar with terms like ‘structuralism’ and ‘post-modernism’ from those times, and only came across them again during my MA,” Abilash says.
Ramakrishnan fears that the Tamil heritage is in danger of extinction. “We don’t have a search engine for Tamil literature, or written accounts of what great writers discussed. No biographies are written.
“Speeches by random Britishers in India during Bharathiyaar’s time were recorded, but not any of the fiery ones he made. We don’t know what our writers looked like, what their handwriting was like, what they sounded like. No one has documented their cultural activity.
“We don’t even have a year index of all the books published in Tamil, leave alone an index of their content. No one analyses seminal works. We simply read them. When I go on tours of Europe, and see how little things their writers used have been preserved, and how the cultural calendar you pick up at cafés has details of programmes to commemorate them, it strikes me that we have nothingof the sort here.”
“I think of my
time as currency,” Ramakrishnan says, “How much can I do in these 24
hours? What can I give the reader? What does he or shewant, what does he or she
need? People say reading is on its way out because of mass media. I disagree. I
meet a lot of youngsters who read.
“Their focus has shifted. Let me explain. Now, we say people watch TV. But why do they do that? Everyone at home is busy with their own lives, and they need to hear echoes of their thoughts, and so they turn to television characters, and nod along. Give them those echoes in literature. People want to read about complications in relationships – not just between partners, but among friends, families. People want to read about moral dilemmas. People want to read about things related to their daily lives. Our lives are complicated, and we seek solutions in literature. You need to engage people. A writer can do so much!”
Abilash sees a need for political awareness. “All international writers are associated with some movement. Look at Marquez and Fidel Castro, American writers and feminism or racism. Even in India, writers from Karnataka played a role in the creation of the state, writers in Kerala are mostly allied with communism.
“But we Tamil writers tend to look within, and only within. Writing should be politically informed. The problem was, a few decades ago, such writing became politicised rather than political. So the DMK writers, and the Periyaarists took their agenda into cinema as well as academics. Many were professors before they entered cinema (lyricist Vairamuthu included). So people who wrote serious literature distanced themselves from politics. They would joke about how one must either be a journalist or a DMK man to bring politics into what was considered a higher plane. They didn’t get along with communists either. So, you often find that among writers from that period, politics is considered trivial. They feel a writer’s task is to focus on the mind, on spiritual doubts.”
Why is there a shift towards political and social issues now, in Tamil writing? “It’s just started,” Abilash says, “One is that a lot of Dalit writing has come in, and their crisis is not spiritual or psychological, but social and political. And the meaning of ‘politics’ has expanded—it’s not administrative politics or activism alone, but about interaction. How does one engage with a friend, a colleague, a partner, a workplace, society, country, the world? Journalism, politics and writing have become allied fields.”
Abilash feels a writer must look beyond the individual, or at least study the individual in the context of the world. And this is what he does in the novel he is working on, Kaalgal (Legs), about a polio-afflicted teenager, and the mutual guilt in her relationship with her parents, and her interactions with society.
Ramakrishnan agrees. “Writers observe life, they look at it with a keen perspective. Einstein once said Dostoevsky gave him more to think about than any scientist has. The reason I like Russian writers so much is that they tore the moral fabric of society and held up the pieces. They questioned, they enquired. Now, our culture is not something we adopted willingly; it was created and imposed on us. We like smoking cigarettes, and we pretend we don’t. We like checking women out, but pretend we don’t. Those aspects of our personality remain secret.”
With an amused smile, he says, “One sight I will never forget. Once, at the Palani bus stand at night, a family of five was waiting for a bus—a man, his wife, two teenage daughters and a small child. The wife slept on the floor, and the child cuddled up next to her. The girls couldn’t lie down and sleep. So, they leaned against each other and dozed off. Every time they closed their eyes, the father would wake them up. Why? Because a girl should not sleep in a public place. There were about 500 people there, activity all night. But, from 12.30 to 4 a.m., the father kept up this ritual. He’d nod off himself, wake up, see the girls snoozing, and yell.
“I thought to myself, ‘This Nazi believes himself to be a good father, protecting the reputation of his daughters’.
“There are so many cultural constructs like that—women can’t go to a tea shop and drink from a glass. They must sip coffee from a steel tumbler. A daughter who is tall is a burden, because no one will marry her.
“And it’s not women’s issues alone. One of my favourite stories by Jayakantan is about a family, where the father is 60, and the son is about to get married.
Themother finds out she is pregnant. When everyone’s cursing her for embarrassing the family, the son says, ‘How can we decide that our parents shouldn’t continue to do what they did to give birth to us?’
The story shocked people, because it’s perceived that someone’s sexual life gets over at 40. Writers, especially vernacular writers, should teach people how to realise, appreciate and value their independence.”