Franz Kafka believed we should read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” he wrote. If you have read the works of the Tamil writer Jeyamohan, you would nod in agreement. Reading Jeyamohan is (a) pain. His writing hits you where it hurts: your ego, esteem of many hues, pride (individual and collective), prejudices, existential convictions, understanding of art and literature, understanding of humans and the relationships we nurture, and more.
A great example here is Aram, an anthology of 12 stories. You should approach the stories in Aram carefully. Ideally, such a collection calls for a statutory warning, on its graphic description of human agonies. But if you are a regular reader of Jeyamohan, like this reviewer who reads him in Malayalam, you know the drill.
Stories of the True is the English translation of the Aram anthology. It is the first, full-length English translation of a book written by Jeyamohan, one of the most popular and prolific writers independent India has produced. Born in 1962, Jeyamohan writes in Tamil and Malayalam. Most of his writing happens to be in Tamil. But a fraction of his vast repertoire, which runs into more than a dozen novels and short story collections, biographies, literary criticism, and countless articles on culture, society, and art, also makes its way to Malayalam, which the writer calls his mother tongue.
Jeyamohan hails from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. A portmanteau border town, Nagercoil blends the best of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and, hence, Malayalam and Tamil—especially the literary and cultural traits of the two prominent southern States.
Jeyamohan’s translator, Priyamvada, is based in Chennai. This is her first translation project. It was in 2013 that Priyamvada read Aram in a “frenzy”. She says she was captivated by the writer’s understanding of human nature and felt that non-Tamil or Malayalam readers should know of the existence and importance of a writer of such calibre and versatility.
“Jeyamohan wasn’t really keen on a translation in English, but I felt my experience, the emotional journey, the therapeutic moments I encountered experiencing these stories, should be shared among the English-speaking readers,” Priyamvada told Frontline during a tête-à-tête at her flat in Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur neighbourhood.
Jeyamohan says all the 12 stories in Aram were written in nearly 40 days. In fact, he wrote 16 stories in one go but discarded four after suggestions from a friend and his wife Arunmozhi. The author admits he was in a “heightened state”, a “frenzy”. But the stories do not look hurried. On the contrary, they bear within themselves a volcanic calm that will slow-burn you in a way that you would notice the impact only when a surreal sense of suffocation envelops at the end.
The collection starts with the eponymous story of Aram-The Song of Righteousness and ends with the aptly-titled One World. ‘Aram’ is a Tamil word which loosely means dharma in Sanskrit. It can denote duty, virtue, ethics, truth, meaning, and more, but ‘truth’ may come closer. All the 12 stories in this book speak the truth, without concealment or conjecture. The ‘truth’ presented in the stories is not harsh, although the circumstances in which it is presented are raw and ruthless.
A pilgrimage of sorts
This is a pilgrimage of sorts. This reviewer has been reading Jeyamohan for over two decades now, in Malayalam. In Kerala, Jeyamohan courts controversy for his stern remarks on the state of literature there, in comparison with Tamil. But in Tamil, he is revered by literary buffs, although many of his remarks on sensitive subjects such as Hindutva in India’s policy, gender discrimination in literature, and so on have triggered heated debate.
Even this reviewer is on the fence when it comes to deciphering some of Jeyamohan’s stands, especially on Hindutva. But Jeyamohan has noted that he is a perennial critic of the system and he is not at fault when groups with vested interests cull out portions of his speeches and writings and curate them to suit their needs and spread such content on social media.
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A writer’s politics is a-politics, Jeyamohan told the Malayalam literary magazine Bhashaposhini a few years ago. He believes in being a constant critic of the system. This was one of the reasons he rejected the Padma Shri in 2016. You are not a writer if you are able to decide tonight what you are going to become next morning, says Jeyamohan. Like the writer, his works also anchor on unpredictability. All the stories in this collection have the shock value that is quintessentially Jeyamohan.
Readers of Jeyamohan might agree that many of his stories are known for their charming verbosity. But that is not a vice in the vernacular. In fact, the more the merrier. Take the Elephant Doctor ( Yaanai Doctor in Tamil and Aana Doctor in Malayalam), for instance. As one reads the long, winding Proustian prose, detailing the milieu and the man (Doctor K), one is drawn into a labyrinth of which one does not want to come out sooner or later.
It’s like an unending trekking experience. The higher you go, the riskier it gets, but that only adds to the thrill. In Elephant Doctor, the forest, the people, the doctor’s work, the up-close and in-your-face descriptions of the carcasses—everything is vividly detailed, offering an immersive experience and urging the reader to revisit them frequently. It will remind you of what Wittgenstein said about life: “We are asleep. Our life is a dream. But we wake up sometimes, just enough to know that we are dreaming.” We read Jeyamohan in those intervals.
In the Malayalam version of Elephant Doctor, Jeyamohan introduces a dream sequence. This is a gory scene. The narrator recounts a scene he encounters during the day, of an elephant’s carcass, rotten and cut open by the forest officials. The protagonist dreams of this scene and in Malayalam Jeyamohan describes it in all its nightmarish glory. But the English translation, from Tamil, does not feature these paragraphs and creates a neat montage of the scene.
In Malayalam, Jeyamohan writes, “... a giant pit of mud unravelled in my mind. Hell; trapped within it and wriggling are human worms. The ancestors…”. This is an eerily beautiful paragraph that was not part of the Tamil version and does not make its way to the English translation. This is a unique scenario. A writer creates one story in two languages and each version is distinct in its own way. This is not a mere exercise in translation or transliteration. This is creation of an intelligent kind, which very few like Jeyamohan can pull off in contemporary Indian literature.
For an English reader or a non-Tamil, non-Malayalam reader, there are many popular reasons to get attracted to reading Jeyamohan. For one, he has written the largest novel in the history of the country. Ven Murasu runs into over 26,000 pages and has 26 volumes. He is the most popular writer alive in Tamil. He has written screenplays for films starring Rajinikanth ( 2.0, directed by Shankar), Vijay ( Sarkar), Vikram ( Ponniyin Selvan, directed by Mani Ratnam, which is running in theatres now), and more. He has also penned arthouse films such as Ozhimuri in Malayalam.
But Jeyamohan deems his tinsel town assignments insignificant. “They help me survive and focus more on my storytelling,” he noted in an interview recently. A devout proponent of the Tamil language and its rich traditions, Jeyamohan considers himself a protege of the likes of Sundara Ramaswamy, a stalwart in modern Tamil literature, also from Nagercoil, and Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati, philosopher and author.
Metafiction and facts
Jeyamohan places himself in all his writing rather openly. That’s not a pleasant experience, after all. Most writers believe in the delayed release of their personalities through their writings. The less the better. But Jeyamohan has been writing about his personal life, directly in his autobiographical notes and indirectly through the ‘I’s in his fiction, quite forcefully for over three decades now. His writing blends facts with fiction and vice versa. Having read him over the years, I feel that Jeyamohan approaches his life stories like a standup comedian does his jokes.
Repetition means improv. Each rendition will be a little different from the previous one. The incidents or jokes will be the same, but different. In Jeyamohan’s mind, the travels he has taken, the people he has met, the alleys he walked into—all undergo a churn every time he reproduces them in text and voice and figments of fiction get added to them in a way that when the reader gets to experience these ‘stories’ they cease to become mere incidents and transform into what I like to call meta incidents. Jeymohan’s fiction is metafiction. So are his facts.
That is why his writing, especially when of an autobiographical nature, creatively confuses us. “Did this really happen?” won’t necessarily work with Jeyamohan’s life journal. The nonchalance with which he opens up to some of the most tragic incidents in his life will shock you. For instance, when he writes about his mother who devoured poetry, especially of Malayalam poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, who was known for his elegy, Ramanan, you are initially curious to know more, and when Jeyamohan ends the sketch with a blunt line that his mother killed herself one day and that her yearning for tragic poetry could have influenced her decision to commit suicide, you are pushed into a world where fact becomes metafact.
Again, when Jeyamohan profiles such lives, the philosophical detachment he depicts, however personal the stories are, can leave you numb. That said, his stories are not of despair. On the contrary, they are of “elevating positivity”, as translator Priyamvada puts it. That is why stories like the ones in Aram force you to revisit the characters over and again. However, understanding and differentiating Jeyamohan the novelist from, say, Jeyamohan the person is difficult.
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In 2004, reviewing V.S. Naipaul in Time magazine, Aravind Adiga wrote: “There are two V.S. Naipauls, and the wrong one has become famous.” On that cue, there are many Jeyamohans and as it turns out, the wrong ones are more famous, and, ironically, I still haven’t figured out the right Jeyamohan yet. Maybe that’s why reading Jeyamohan becomes an agonising pleasure. He is cerebral like Joyce and realistic in a Tolstoyan way. In his works, and this is common for almost all his works at least in Malayalam, Dostoyevsky meets Homer. A close reading of these works tells you that reincarnating through his characters, the writer appears to be a very fallible, vulnerable, and malleable human who is not at all immune to the ways of the world.
To date, Jeyamohan’s most popular work has been Vishnupuram, which is a fantastic journey through Indian philosophy and mythology. It enjoys cult status in Tamil society, and fans of the work of fiction run into thousands, who also power Jeyamohan’s extremely popular web site where he published the grand narrative of Ven Murasu, which he calls a modern retelling of the Mahabharata. Considering the length, breadth, and depth of his works, it can be easily said that, as the cliche goes, you may choose to agree or disagree with Jeyamohan, but you cannot ignore his presence in contemporary Asian literature.
Priyamvada’s translation, which she calls a labour of love, is terse and succinct. This is her first work. But her command over the medium is evident right at the outset. She has managed to maintain the dialect-influenced rhythm in the original in the translation as well. She pulls this impossible feat off through an interesting strategy: she sprinkles Tamil words, phrases, greetings and sayings all over the narrative, in the right doses so that they do not become jarring but function as gentle reminders of the universe the stories and characters belong to. It’s a reminder pinch. Dear English reader, you’d love it. But you may not easily digest the worlds you’re drawn into. They will shake you to the core, make you question your own raison d’etre and push you into an overwhelming sense of introspection that might be therapeutic as well as torturous.
Reading Jeyamohan is indeed a pain. He leaves us wounded.