Tamil literature

Truly new

Print edition : January 23, 2015
Pudhumaipithan revolutionised the Tamil short story in form, content and language, making it truer to the lived realities of the times.

WHAT distinguishes Pudhumaipithan’s short stories, written during a short span of 14 years from 1933 to 1947, from the works of others? This might be a difficult question to answer. Not because one cannot find a suitable answer but because there are likely to be far too many answers, shaded according to each individual reader’s literary perspective.

An understanding of the term “realism” as used in fiction will be a good entry point to the discussion.

Each writer can weave a story differently. For example, there are fairy tales that depict spirits, gnomes, goblins and ghosts of various kinds. This might create an illusory world of horror and conflicts followed by bloodshed that might generate a ripple of psychological response in the readers. Some argue that such stories carry a moral, depicting the conflict between the Good and the Bad. Some stories might bring in Divinity, thereby giving the fable an allegorical significance. There are also the genres of horror and science fiction. The focus in all these stories is a shift away from representing reality towards pure imagination.

Authors such as Cervantes, Alexander Dumas, Walter Scott and Kalki indulged in a style popularly known as “romantic idealism” whereas the pragmatic reader might need stories that reflect “stark realism”. This provides a possible clue to the fundamental difference of perspective between romantics and the practitioners of imaginative realism. In narratives involving myths and legends, realism is not a priority because it is all about fanciful imagination. Pudhumaipithan experimented with a combination of both the schools: stark realism dealing with human behaviour and a trendy combination of realistic and literary imagination, as exemplified in the visit of Siva to earth in the story “Kadavulum Kandasami Pillaiyum”, or the stubbornness of Maruthayee against the instructions of the God of Death in “Kaalanum Kizhaviyum”, or in the unbelievably interesting ghost appearing and disappearing mysteriously in “Kaanchanai” or the irrefutable pathological evidence in the post-mortem performed by the Doctor in “Sevvai Dosham”. More than the mere choice of themes, it is the actual use of the natural dialect of the characters in this innovative style of writing short stories that delights the readers. The reader can find more such illustrations in the works of Pudhumaipithan. His characters are profoundly human in their words, thoughts and deeds (Muththaachi and Sankuthevan).

In European short stories, as practised by Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and others, plots are woven in an artistic and literary realistic style. Pudhumaipithan, a voracious reader of European literature, benefitted from the insights he gained into the European literary culture, resulting in him approximating stark realism in storytelling techniques. He adopted some of their techniques in his stories. This can be seen in “Athangarai Pillayar” (The Riverside Pillayar) and “Theruvilakku” (Street Lamp), where there is an intimacy of relationship between a street lamp and an old man or the clever twist given to the mythological story of Ramayana in “Saba Vimosanam” (Deliverance from Curse) or the stream of consciousness strategy in “Vinayaga Chathurthi” (The Vinayaka Festival), “Pattiyin Deepavali” (The Grandma’s Deepavali) and in “Sellammal”. By consciously applying economy of expression, in selecting the spoken forms of words that were in currency during his times (“Nigumbalai” and “Nirvigarpa Samadhi”) and using colloquial diction to create pithy images, he created a spontaneous style of realism. The literary taste of his readers was getting ready to face “Pudhiya Nandan” (“The New Nandan”).

The advent of realism

The readers of his times were getting attuned to such stories from Va. Ra. (V. Ramasamy), Ku. Pa. Ra. (K.P. Rajagopalan), Na. Pichamurthi and B.S. Ramiah through their publication of short-lived Tamil periodical, Manikkodi. In that literary context, Pudhumaipithan was a harbinger of a new era of readership-consciousness, just in the same way as Guy de Maupassant and Alexander Kuprin and Kafka, who were followed by D.H. Lawrence and Somerset Maugham in England and O. Henry and Ernest Hemmingway in the United States were.

His mindset as well as supreme self-confidence as an indefatigable writer of the new wave in Tamil fiction resulted in a powerful influence over the rest of the writers of his period. Certain conclusions can be drawn from a reassessment of his singular contribution to Tamil literature. Pudhumaipithan was well-known as a thinker among the new class of short story writers in Tamil who tried to “innovate” (“pudhumai”) vigorously using a plethora of novel themes as well as employing literary realism.

He revolted against social evils and the exploitation of the majority by the few who were clever enough to use their “birth” and “caste” to their advantage against majority whose toils and labour helped their masters to lead a comfortable existence (“Thunba Keni”, “Thani Oruvanukku” and “Sithi”.)

He was alive to the inequalities and conflicts of life and wished to bring about a quiet revolution without giving the impression of being a didactic social reformer as was the case with Mahatma Jyotirao Phule in Maharashtra or Mahatma Gandhi in Gujarat. He did this by adopting the use of wit, irony, humour and the peculiar dialect of the Tirunelveli Vellala Community, whom he boldly classified as “a vicious gang” (in “Nasakkaara Kumbal”).

He was a well-read scholar of classical Tamil literature and he proved himself a master craftsman in making use of it to parody the “funny matters of life” through innovative styles of mimicry and parody, as can be seen in “Pudhiya Kandapuranam” and “Andru Iravu” (That Night).

He was a literary humanist who had a sympathetic understanding of the use of the Tamil language (in this context, the different dialects of Tamil as spoken in a city such as Madras of his times as well as the different forms of Tamil dialect being used by those living in the deep south) by different classes of people without judging them besides highlighting the dialect of the people of Vellala (agricultural) community as it is used in their daily lives (“Sithi”). He consciously introduces us to a variety of creative styles by adopting the stream of consciousness technique in narration (“Vinayaga Chathurthi”) and by using a style of his own in which the narrator concentrates on the forward movement of the plot, gradually unravelling the fullness of his characters (“Sellammal”), who are all part and parcel of real life (“Sanku Thevanin Dharmam”, “Thirukkural Seidha Thirukoothu”, “Kalyani”, “Thunba Keni”, “Kadavulum Kandasami Pillaiyum” and others).

Reflections on life

In presenting these life-like characters Pudhumaipithan wished to demonstrate his understanding of the quaint but genuine semantic inter-relationship that operates between sentences as units of dialogue, and words that embed themselves in meaningful contexts of peculiar day-to-day social situations of a specific rural and semi-urban social structure. In his presentation of stories, we can detect his own personal reflections of life. Others have discovered within his stories “a melancholical soul” bleeding on the thorns of life (R.S. Desikan).

To sum up, Pudhumaipithan’s stories represent an innovative trend of the short story genre in Tamil besides containing a series of experiments with theme, form and structure. Like his own creation “Brammarakshas”, he defies mortality and seeks an eternal niche among immortal Tamil fiction writers.

In aesthetics, it is held that beauty lies in the beholder’s eyes; Similarly, the impact of Pudhumaipithan’s stories will vary from reader to reader according to his/her individual perception conditioned by acquired literary tastes. In order to appreciate Pudhumaipithan in all his variety and entirety, it will take some time and effort. It cannot be achieved instantly or through a rapid browsing of his stories. One needs time and space to conquer Pudhumaipithan.

It would be interesting to see how his writings fare in the light of modern criticism. Richard Gaskin (2013) defines “literary humanism” thus:

(i) “All works of literature constructively bear on the world by virtue of employing terms that refer to real entities”;

(ii) “Additionally, all works of literature constitutively bear on the world by virtue of making, or implying, true or false (principally general but also some times particular) statements about the world”;

(iii) “Some works of literature have cognitive value in the sense that of the true statements that these works make or imply, some can be known to be true and of these knowable statements some are worth knowing”;

(iv) “Having cognitive value in the sense of (i) to (iii) is essential to the aesthetic value of some works of literature.”

Samuel Johnson is quoted by Boswell, his biographer: “The value of every story depends on its being true. A story is a picture either of an individual or of human nature in general; if it be false, it is a picture of nothing.” But what does the label “humanism” connotate?

In the words of G. Thomas Transelle, “This approach concentrates on the humanity of verbal statements, seeing them as products of human agency in past moments and attempting to unlock the previous human thoughts embedded in them. The effort to understand some of the truths that other people have created for themselves ( however unreachable the goal) can be a valuable part of the experience of working one’s way towards self-understanding, and history can thus be helpfully involved in the individual search for order.”

So, too, was the cognitive position rightly earned by Pudhumaipithan among the Tamil writers before India’s Independence in 1947. His contribution to the genre of short stories earned him the rightful recognition as the “prince among short story writers”.

Vridhachalempillay Subramaniam is a teacher, trainer and researcher of language pedagogy. He, along with Prof R.E. Asher, translated into English Pudumaipithan Kathaigal , published by Kalachuvadu Publishers, Nagercoil. The English volume was published by the Sahitya Akademi in August 2014.


1. Gaskin, Richard, Language, Truth and Literature: A Defence of Literary Humanism, Oxford University Press, 2013, page 63.

2. Boswell, J., (2008) Penguin, London. Referred to by Richard Gaskin in Language, Truth and Literature: A Defence of Literary Humanism, page 23.

3. Lamarque and Olsen, Truth, Fiction, and Literature, (pages 265-266). Referred to by Richard Gaskin Language, Truth and Literature: A Defence of Literary Humanism, page 23.

4. A.R. Venkatachalapathy (Ed.) Pudumaippithan Kathaigal, Kalachuvadu, Nagercoil, 2003; translated into English as Pudumaipittan: The Complete Short Stories, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2014, translated in to English by R.E. Asher and V. Subramaniam.

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