Remembering Pudumaippithan

Print edition : April 21, 2006

In his birth centenary year, Tamil literature lovers all over the world celebrate the master of the short story.

MODERN Tamil literature emerged towards the end of the 19th century with the launch of the first novel in the language, Pratapa Mudaliyar Charitram by Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai, and made further strides in the early 20th century. Subramania Bharati, who took Tamil poetry to new heights at about the same time, contributed to the modern era in the genre of short story, which had made its appearance in English hardly two decades earlier. Other writers also came up with noteworthy contributions, among them were V.V.S. Iyer, A. Madaviah and Selvakesava Mudaliyar. The 1930s and 1940s saw the strengthening of these literary efforts and this, along with similar trends in the rest of India, marked the beginning of a period of renaissance in regional literature.

The most outstanding of the Tamil storywriters of the time was C. Virudhachalam (1906-1948), who enriched Tamil literature with his sharp and vibrant stories published in magazines such as Kalaimakal, Jothi, Sudantira Chanku, Oozhiyan and Thamizh Mani and the annual numbers of Dinamani, the daily, besides Manikkodi, a prestigious Chennai-based literary magazine, under the pen name Pudumaippithan. Manikkodi, founded in the early 1930s, served as the launch pad for a number of young Tamil writers who experimented in poetry and short story. Lovers of Tamil literature across the globe are celebrating Pudumaippithan's birth centenary this year by organising seminars, workshops and conferences.

In Tamil literature, Pudumaippithan is to short story what Subramania Bharati is to poetry - an inspiring pioneer who scaled the peak with creations that have stood the test of time. Both continue to have their readerships decades after their death. Endowed with an analytical mind and a creative skill of outstanding merit, Pudumaippithan, in a creatively active period of less than 15 years (1934-46), wrote nearly 100 short stories and an equal number of essays on a variety of subjects, besides 15 poems, a few plays and scores of book reviews.

A natural rebel against social injustice, the tyranny of the religious orthodoxy and irrational beliefs and value systems, Pudumaippithan highlighted in his short stories the plight of the socially and economically deprived. He lent voice to the voiceless, particularly women and Dalits.

As a period between two World Wars, the 1930s experienced an acute shortage of food and other essential commodities, a steep rise in prices and a feeling of insecurity arising out of the threat of war from countries with imperialist ambitions. The sufferings of the people and the absolute penury in which they lived provided the backdrop for the writer to expose social injustice and economic disparities.

A charge against Pudumaippithan was that he did not go beyond his moral anger and look for a solution or an alternative. Pudumaippithan's reply was that he never attempted to suggest an alternative because in real-life situations "we do not find a moral or ethical way out". He did not want to create any illusions among his readers. He believed only in creating awareness about issues and leaving the rest to the readers. His stories relate to several aspects of life and his characters range from daily wage-earners to middle-class government servants, commercial sex workers to destitute women, puranic celebrities to gods and goddesses, and even dogs and hares.

Sundara Ramaswami, an eminent writer, says in his introduction to Pudumaippithan Kathaigal (Kalachuvadu) that what attracts the reader first in Pudumaippithan's stories is his language. He uses the language as spoken in his native Tirunelveli district, breaking the tradition of writing in either Thanjavur Tamil or Chennai Tamil. One reason for this may be that most of his characters are Tirunelveli-based and the places involved in the story are also located in that region.

As for his language skill, Dr. V. Arasu, who heads the Department of Contemporary Tamil Literature in the University of Madras, says the reader cannot fail to notice the progressive development in the use of the language, from his first story, Aathankarai Pillaiyar, to the last one, Kayittaravu. His style reaches its peak in Thunbakkeni, which, Arasu says, is a classical work of cent per cent realism on the life of estate workers in Sri Lanka.

Born on April 25, 1906, into a middle-class family, Virudhachalam had his early education in places such as Gingee, Kallakkurichi and Tindivanam, where his father served as a tahsildar. After his father's retirement, the family returned to Tirunelveli in 1918, where he continued his education. He graduated in 1931, got married the next year to Kamala, and moved in a huff to Chennai following differences with his father. He wrote stories for Manikkodi and had a brief stint with the magazine Oozhiyan as a subeditor. Later (1935-1943), he moved to Dinamani, a nationalist Tamil daily, where T.S. Chockalingam was the Editor. It was during this period that he emerged as one of the tallest writers of Tamil fiction by contributing to several magazines, particularly Manikkodi, whose successive editors, V. Ramaswamy (Va. Raa.) and B.S. Ramiah, became his close friends. He left Dinamani in 1943 along with Chockalingam, and joined Dinasari, which Chockalingam launched a year later. Soon he left Dinasari to become a scriptwriter for films. He died of tuberculosis on May 5, 1948, and was survived by his wife and a two-year-old daughter, Dinakari.

Although Pudumaippithan is widely known more for his short stories than for his other writings, no less significant is his contribution in the realm of non-fiction prose. The major contributing factor for this was his stint as a journalist with newspapers such as Dinamani and Dinasari, besides literary and political magazines. His essays on subjects ranging from trends in regional art and literature, mostly published in his own name, Cho. Virudhachalam, his well-researched articles on national and international political developments, book reviews and letters to his wife and friends, match his short stories in sheer volume.

His insightful articles in the form of news analysis displayed not only his journalistic skills but also his scholarship in political ideologies and the socio-political trends. Together with his literary works, these non-fiction writings give a full picture of the multi-dimensional achievements of this giant among Tamil writers.

As a journalist, he was a keen observer of the political situation in different parts of the world during one of the most turbulent periods in history. The first half of the 20th century saw two world wars and the emergence of political ideologies such as Fascism in Mussolini's Italy and Nazism in Hitler's Germany, besides the 'Socialist reconstruction' in the Soviet Union.

A page of the story `Padapadappu' (Palpitation), written in Pudumaippithan's own hand, published in the book `Pudumaippithan Kathaigal'. It is about Chennai being in the grip of fear and palpitation amidst threats of possible bombing during the Second World War.-

Four of Pudumaippithan's political books are significant: Fascist Jatamuni on Mussolini, KapchipDarbar on Hitler co-authored by N. Ramarathnam, Stalinukku Therium (on Joseph Stalin) and Athikaram Yaarukku? (Power for Whom?). "When we read these works we get to know of Pudumaippithan's yet another dimension," says Sri Lankan Tamil academic and critic, M.A. Nuhman in his introductory article to Pudumaippithan Katturaigal, published by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam in 2002 as the second volume of the compiled works of Pudumaippithan. "What these books bring out is Pudumaippithan's political dimension," says Nuhman.

According to him, the writer had great concern for and knowledge of world affairs and took a political line that is opposed to capitalist, imperialist and fascist forces and lays stress on democracy and individual freedom, besides being `accommodative' of socialist and communist ideologies, though from a safe distance. "This political dimension we can see in no other literary person of Pudumaippithan's time," says Nuhman.

In Fascist Jatamuni, Pudumaippithan attempts to explain that fascism is "the ugly face of capitalism". The same view is expressed in the book on Hitler. Pudumaippithan recorded in detail that fascism from the very beginning was opposed to socialism and that Mussolini and Hitler either wiped out communists or imprisoned them. Many of his strong observations against fascism are relevant even today, more than six decades after their publication.

Athikaram Yaarukku? describes communism as "a political philosophy logically developed to fulfil the needs of all" and projects it as an alternative to capitalism, "which only leads to wage slavery even while ensuring the right to property". Staliniukku Therium presents an overview of the socialist reconstruction activities and shows in a favourable light the strengthening of the defence establishment by the Soviet Union.

Also important among his non-fiction writings are the scores of book reviews he wrote for Dinamani, Dinasari and magazines such as Manikkodi. Although his reviews were by and large balanced and well within the norms generally followed, his sharp comments on the works of a few of his contemporaries, such as Kalki R. Krishnamurti, became controversial.

Pudumaippithan rejected adaptations and favoured translations. "He dubs adaptations as mere theft," Nuhman says, and adds, "This, however, needs deeper study."

Nuhman holds the view that the reviewer had apparently been a bit too harsh on those he accused of such writings. Little would Pudumaippithan have imagined that his strong indictment of writers who he believed indulged in such writing would one day boomerang on him. Decades after his death, a section of writers, a few of them his contemporaries, shocked the Tamil literary world by accusing Pudumaippithan of adapting some stories of foreign origin.

Pudumaippithan's biographer, T.M.C. Ragunathan, "put the records straight" with a 500-page book, in which he contended that none of the stories dubbed "adapted" were part of the collections of stories published when the writer was alive.

After his death, some publishers brought out collections that included some early stories he caused to publish in certain magazines for which he worked, owing to professional compulsions. These, Ragunathan contended, could not be treated as adaptations. Ragunathan also said a few of Pudumaippithan's contemporaries could not digest his phenomenal popularity and wanted to belittle his achievements.

The noted critic R. Balachandran (Kavignar Bala) also sees no substance in the charge against Pudumaippithan. He says, "Many critics of Tamil had no academic understanding of reception aesthetics and spread scandalous notes on his so-called adaptation of about five stories. Their criticism shows a lack of understanding of the myth of originality and so deserves to be dismissed."

The controversy also brought to the fore the inadequacies and indifference of publishers in taking up such tasks and highlighted the need for classical editions of works by eminent writers such as Pudumaippithan. The collective works of the writer, which comprise short stories, novellas and essays, brought out a few years ago by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam with A.R. Venkatachalapathy as publishing editor, have served the purpose to a fairly large extent.

Yet another area in which Pudumaippithan has made a substantial contribution is poetry. A great admirer of Bharati, he welcomed experiments in free verse by poets such as Ku.Pa. Ra. (K.P. Rajagopalan) and Na. Pichamurthi in Manikkodi, but his own preference was poetry in its traditional form. In fact, he considered Bharatidasan, whose traditional poems were also published by Manikkodi, as "the most valuable asset left by Bharati to posterity".

For his part, Pudumaippithan wrote only 15 poems, but none of these in Manikkodi. In his view, a good poem was born when the poet expressed its objective with feeling. In other words, "poems are nothing but words powered by the spring of emotions in his inner mind."

The well-known poet `Sirpi' Balasubramaniam said that for Pudumaippithan poetry was an experience and rhythm its technique. Although he swore by the traditional form, he was not opposed to crossing the fence occasionally, when the situation warranted it. What is needed, according to Pudumaippithan, is a new insight rather than a new form. Critic C. Kanakasabapathi classified some of his poems as `rhythmic free verse' and rated them `good'.

What distinguishes Pudumaippithan from other short story writers of his time is the fact that he was the first to draw liberally from ancient Tamil literature and tradition, according to Arasu. V.V.S. Iyer, he says, only adopted the Sanskrit epic tradition for his first story. The others went back to history looking for characters and themes.

Another interesting fact about Pudumaippithan was that he had the knack of taking a critical look at conflicting philosophies, for instance spiritualism and materialism, or Gandhism and Marxism, in a detached way and managing to come out without being entrapped by any one of these. "This was one of his unique talents," says Arasu.

Even as he drew inspiration from the literary past, Pudumaippithan inspired and continues to influence Tamil writers. Many of them, notably Ragunathan, Sundara Ramaswamy and D. Jayakanthan, have acknowledged his influence. His works are sure to influence future generations of Tamil writers.

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