T. K. Doraiswamy (1921–2007), also known by his pen name Nakulan, was a bilingual writer from Tamil Nadu who carved out a unique space in Indian literature for his experimental literature and craft. A cursory look at his career reveals his versatile literary skills—he was a poet, novelist, translator, and short story writer. However, for Tamil readers beyond a certain spectrum of readership, he has been an elusive persona. Not anymore. Yellow Cat in Memory Lane, a 51-minute documentary recently released for the public, sheds light on the Tamil litterateur’s life.
Nakulan is fortunate among his contemporaries in Tamil literature for having a documentary made about him while still alive. According to T. Pandiaraju, the director of the documentary, “In our society, it’s the norm for individuals engaged in serious work, whether in literature or any other domain, to be overlooked during their lifetime. Both the government and the people play a role in this complicity.”
Pandiaraju approached the (then) 82-year-old writer at his residence in Kowdiar, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in 2003. Little did he anticipate that the documentary, released on YouTube in October 2023, would take 20 years to complete. The title, Yellow Cat in Memory Lane, resonates with Nakulan’s readers, merging the titles of his notable works, “Ninaivu Pathai” (“Memory Lane”) and “Antha manjal nira poonaikutty” (“That Yellow Kitten”), a short story.
The documentary unravels mostly through Nakulan’s conversations. The storytelling incorporates a “stream of consciousness” technique, as in Nakulan’s works, immersing readers in constant mind-commentary. Micro-emotions emerge and fade, character’s thought trains overshadow the main plot, giving rise to self-reflective subplots, and, at times, there is no distinct storyline.
A different writer
Nakulan’s literary journey began with publishing poems in the magazine Ezhuthu, later contributing to publications such as Kanaiyazhi, Kasada Thapara, Gnanaratham, Sadhangai, and Zha in the 1970s. Nakulan was part of a group of writers who dared to experiment, contributing to the emergence of the Pudhukkavidhai (“new poetry”) movement in Tamil.
Pandiaraju faced significant challenges while producing the documentary on Nakulan in 2003, which highlights the struggles of individual-led initiatives. Speaking to Frontline, he revealed the constraints: “We shot the documentary film using a camera passed down from TV news channels to wedding videographers. The tapes we used were half-used, containing marriage videos. Buying new tapes was beyond our budget.”
Over the course of 20 years, the conversion of tapes to digital posed a hurdle. Pandiaraju was concerned about both finances and the risk of damage or loss during the conversion process. “My fear was two-fold. One, money. Two, what if the person who works on it ends up damaging it or loses it? If the latter happens, what we have been treasuring for all these years would be lost. Hence, the entire process kept getting delayed until we found a person to entrust the material with.” Finally, they found a reliable person to entrust the material with, comprising approximately 14 hours of footage across 14 mini DV tapes.
Pandiaraju, with a background as an assistant cameraman and contributions to various films and TV projects, shared his admiration for Nakulan’s poems that sparked his interest in the writer. Describing Nakulan’s simple prose, he said, “Nakulan will write in simple prose Iruppatharkendru varugirom, illamal pogirom (We come here to be and we become nonbeings).” Recreating that, he noted, revealed the depth of difficulty.
The documentary captures Nakulan’s lively interactions, showcasing him enjoying his favourite brandy, Bejois, and engaging in banter with poet Vikramathithyan. Contrary to the adage “Never meet your heroes,” Pandiaraju found Nakulan jovial and affable throughout their time together. Pandiaraju took up the project, even more motivated when he found that Nakulan was experiencing memory loss due to age. Despite this, Nakulan demonstrates a remarkable awareness of his surroundings.
Born into an orthodox Brahmin family, Nakulan made bold life choices, eschewing religion and rituals. In the documentary, Pandiaraju highlights Nakulan’s unique life, especially his refusal to wear the holy thread and his commitment to a bachelor’s life.
Sense of closeness
The film’s editing deserves credit for creating a sense of closeness to the writer, with an interesting twist in the project’s development. Pandiaraju’s son, Ganesh Nandhakumar, became the film’s editor; at the age of 23, he is currently studying sound recording and design in FTII, Pune. Nandhakumar, reflecting on his unconventional journey into editing, said, “My father and two others shot the film when I was three years old. I learned editing through YouTube tutorials, discussion forums, and interacting with professionals. The Covid-19 lockdown allowed me to focus on the documentary. I catalogued topics, prepared metadata, and edited the film before joining FTII. We kept it monochrome due to tape damages over 20 years.”
The documentary features Nakulan in various settings, with Nandhakumar skilfully weaving non-linear visuals while maintaining linear audio. During the shoot, Nakulan wanted to watch the documentary as if it were a cinema. Pandiaraju arranged for a television, and Nakulan, upon viewing it, remarked, “This is not me. This is some mandan (fool), some asadu (simpleton).”
Even though many readers and fans of Nakulan complain that the writer was not celebrated enough by Tamil society, Pandiaraju recalled Nakulan advising poet Vikramathithyan, “You should be the one who promotes you. If you don’t, who will do it for you?” Nakulan, however, applied a different rule to his own life, avoiding the limelight.
Nakulan faced challenges even in publishing his works. Most of his novels, including Nonbeing, A Tamil Writer’s Journal, and a compilation of English poems, were self-published. Nakulan’s books, till date, have not been published by the big, popular banners in Tamil.
Yellow Cat in Memory Lane was screened at “Sorkalin Mugam” (The face of words) event in Devaneya Pavanar Chennai District Central Library in November 2023. Pandiaraju has finished shooting two other documentaries on Tamil writers C. Mohan and A. Marx.
Watch the documentary: