Novel as debate

Print edition : November 02, 2012

With its wealth of ideas and insights, lapidary stylistic precision, studied mastery of the contemporary art of fiction, Sundara Ramaswamys J.J: Sila Kurippugal is a masterpiece of modern Indian fiction.

A person who knows of contemporary Italian writers is unaware of the present day Kannada writers. A Hindi writer with a doctoral thesis on recent trends in American Literature asks if there is New Poetry in Tamil. We speak of Kafka. Of Simone de Beauvoir. Of Borges. But we do not know of Kuttikrishna Marar. We do not know of Gopalakrishna Adiga. How's that?

-(J.J: Sila Kurippugal, 1981, Tr. A. R. Venkatachalapathy, Katha, Delhi, 2003)

THIS passage from J.J: Some Jottings, more an anti-novel than a novel in the conventional sense, invites us to place its author in the larger context of Indian literature. Sundara Ramaswamy, the distinguished Tamil writer, lived and wrote at a time when Indian writing was undergoing a complex process of transformation. It was not as simple as some critics try to make it out to be, say from the Progressive to the Modern, since many Indian writers of that period are modern in their narrative or stylistic strategies while being progressivein the broad sense of being socially concernedin their general view of life and society.

Line drawing of Sundara Ramaswamy by K.M. Athimoolam.-

If European Modernism sprang from the despair generated by the First World War, Indian Modernism emerged in the context of the violence unleashed by the partition of India; the urbanisation that followed industrialisationthough a halting oneand the consequent loss of rural life and the city-oriented demographic movements prompted by rural unemployment; the angst and alienation the villagers felt in the urban landscapes; the new hegemonic politics free from all ethics; the disappearance of the secure sense of tradition in the uprooted masses; the general loss of faith and the scepticism towards the ideas of development, nationalism and religion, and even collective ideologies that promised liberation but were fast losing their purity, charm and direction.

It first expressed itself as a rebellion against father figuresthe patricide as U.R. Ananthamurthy and D.R. Nagaraj qualify it (Preface to their anthology Vibhava)in specific literatures beginning with Tagore, who was a poet of faith in God, Nature and Man. (J.Js sarcastic question Has Sivakami Ammal fulfilled her vow? with its dig at Kalkis classic novel sums it all up.) Modernism in retrospect was a way of documenting the dehumanisation of society in India after it gained political independence with its attendant morbidity, cynicism and loss of identity. It was done in a variety of ways from the creation of myths and counter-myths to nostalgic retrievals of the lost past and the caricaturing of contemporary reality. It deployed several techniques and strategies, from invectives, mixing of time and space and the real and the surreal, word-plays and meta-fictional modes to the intellectualisation of the creative discourse as a vehicle of ideas and a medium of interrogation.

This is the general setting of Sundara Ramaswamys writing, as it is of the writings of O.V. Vijayan, Anand, P. Lankesh, Ananthamurthy, Buddhadev Basu, Nirmal Verma, Balkrishna Dev Vaid and several others. In Su.Ras poetry (he assumed the name Pasuvayyah in poetry) it appears as a revolt against the highly ornamented, lyrical and convoluted styles of his predecessors with their grand themes while in his fiction it appears as a creative tension between realism and meta-realist modes and in both it creates contexts of black humour and irony.

J.J: Sila Kurippugal (1981) is a paradigmatic text of modern Indian fiction in many ways and testifies to the authors intimate relationship with Keralas life and letters. The best proofs of this kinship are some of his own statements. He says in a note on his novels: It was around 1950 when I first thought of writing. Malayalam was one of the three languages which I half-knew at that time. I tried to read books in Malayalam. Between 1950 and 1965, I read Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Kesava Dev, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Karoor Neelakanta Pillai and others. C. J. Thomass language and M. Govindans philosophical quest fascinated me. I began to feel an intimacy with the Malayalam literary world. I slowly got to know about the relationship between their writers, their political involvement, the chasms between them and the political movements, their ideological conflicts. (My Novels, from Waves, ed. Lakshmi Holmstrom, 2001.)

He also says here how this also led to his disenchantment with Tamil literature, especially the kind featured by the commercial Tamil periodicals. I began to evolve a sharp critique of Tamil literature, Tamil culture and Tamil life (ibid). This intellectual context is of special importance to a real understanding of a novel of ideas, almost a meta-novel, like J.J: Some Jottings. The creation of a protagonist like Joseph James, an imagined Malayalam writer and thinker, would not have been possible without a profound grasp of the Malayalam literary scene, cultural and ideological debates and Keralas general intellectual climate of the 1940s and 1950s that was the period of J.Js creative engagements with literature and culture. Su.Ra himself has explained how he was writing another novel when, while introducing a debate in that novel on the Temple Entry Bill, the character of J.J. appeared in his imagination and he began to follow in J.Js tracks in a frenzy, abandoning the bigger novel. I believe that it was Joseph Jamess rage that pulled me along and made me write the entire novel (ibid, p. 258). The attempt in my writing is to make sense of the complexities of my life today. (Interview given to Kollippaavai, 1986, from Waves.)

The writer also believed in an open attitude towards different cultures and thought systems but would not permit any kind of hierarchy. He says: You should read about Western philosophies and new literary theories with close attention. Let them influence you too. For more than 150 years the winds of Western thought have blown upon us. We have been able to breathe afresh because of this. We have submitted ourselves to a fine critical scrutiny, learnt from our mistakes and moved forward. But we will never permit anyone to use Western modes of thought and knowledge in order to oppress or diminish us. (New Earth, New Shoots, Dinamani Deepavali Issue, 1997, from Waves.) All these assume significance in the context of J.J: Some Jottings as the author as well as J.J. ,who is partly his alter-ego and partly a compound of some Malayalam writers he has metC. J. Thomas, playwright, rebel, painter, and M. Govindan, editor, poet and thinker famous for his apparently halting conversations full of casual insights, being probably two of themreflect some of these attitudes. But whenever we try to make such identifications, J.J. behaves in a very different way, thus keeping us guessing who else he can be.

One of the temptations of the novel is precisely this: we tend to first recognise the charactersnot only J.J. but others toofrom our own literary history and environment, and then try to identify with some of the many aesthetic-ideological positions the novel presents through these characters, like the Progressive Mullaikkal Madhavan Nair (maybe with shades of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai in his portrayal), the academic M.K. Ayyappan (maybe with some elements of Ayyappa Paniker in his attitudes), the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) supporter and Tamil enthusiast Thamaraikkani, the pragmatist political activist Saramma (like a combination of Rosy Thomas, C.J. Thomass wife, and K.R. Gowri), the ascetic physician Satyananda, the beautiful aspiring writer using her charms to tempt critics into appreciating her ordinary work, Omanakutty, or the popular woman-writer Chittukkuruvi.

Conflicts & apprehensions

Remember, J.J. himself reconsiders his positions many times, very much like his creator who had begun as a communist and a Progressive writer and graduallyespecially after Khrushchevs revelations about the Stalin era and the uprisings against the Soviet Union in East Europemoved away towards the modernist avant-garde articulating itself through the little magazines in Tamil. This political moment coincided with the deepening divide between the popular literature published in mainstream magazines and the committed literature in Progressive journals on the one hand and the artistically more self-conscious and fresh new writing appearing in alternative journals on the other. J.J. expresses some of these conflicts and apprehensions though the characters live slightly before this actually came about. It is the multiple articulation of several opposing positions that makes J.J. interesting as a novel of ideas structured like biographical fiction, a Kunstleroman, as also of parody and satire that marks a rupture in the Tamil novel tradition. The novel is an insightful enquiry into the opposing ideas of the time, an incisive analysis of institutions and a psychological journey into characters typical of that historical phase.

Sundara Ramaswamy. The multiple articulation of several opposing positions makes `J.J: Some Jottings' interesting as a novel of ideas structured like biographical fiction.-PUTHUVAI ILAVENIL/ COURTESY: KALACHUVADU

J.J. the protagonist is in no sense stereotypical; he keeps on changing, evolving, critiquing not only the society around him but himself too. His life is narrated here with convincing authenticity, with dates of birth and major events, bibliography, footnotes, descriptions of works, descriptive references to his contemporaries and real-looking conversations and heated debates. We find similar strategies in the stories of Jorge Louis Borges (and more recently in Shehan Gunatilakes Chinaman), but there it is a parallel world altogether detached from the real world. The difference here is that the borders of reality and fiction get blurred in a semi-fictional discourse.

J.Js character is established through the pages of his diary, little anecdotes remembered by other characters, some strange and significant dreams he has as also the comments of the people who knew him, including the narrator, Balu, like J.J. was a person of honour. Akin to a veena maestro who would want to chop off the fingers that raise the discordant notes. Or on the impact of J.Js writing: (I) was scared that he would decimate the world I believed in. Scared that he would destroy me by destroying that world. Or If I ask how J.J. managed to write under such crisis, one would have to say that he wrote because of the crisis (referring to J.Js poverty and hardships and comparing them to those of Karl Marx, Bharati, Puthumaipithan and James Joyce). Or He was quite influenced by English philosophers, the realists, rationalists and iconoclasts. And he received telling blows on the napes of his dreams. Out of this emerged his adversarial positions. Or He had an abiding interest in poetry. Every day without fail his heart sought out a little poetry. He could easily discern, without tiring, poems that flowed out of real experience and the ersatz that were grounded like a fallen kite. Or Much as he read, direct experience dominated. Seeing, hearing and hands on experience gain predominance. The given is never taken for granted. Never is he content, happy that This is how it is. When criticised by the Progressive Mullaikkal as a rank individualist, J.Js reaction is existentialist: I am not talking of revolutionary governments. Nor of the question of beggars. My problem right now is not that. How am I to act? I should either perform a task with full conviction, or I should die. I can do neither. This is my predicament.

In a meeting J.J. declares: I detest my adversaries. But I am ashamed of those who claim to be my disciples. Or Though J.J. never emphasised logical positions he was tough, ruthless, in tossing away what did not ring true. Elsewhere the narrator says: He was a perfectionist. He desired an ecstasy, a quietude that follows a heavy music playing in a vast expanse, declining to its lowest pitch, and giving away, to last forever. We also know J.J. was an ardent lover and careful student of sports like cricket and football as also of good music; he had a way of integrating all his loves through comparisons and metaphors. He is a great lover of books too: All I need is a simple and happy ambience. A legless coir bed. A pillow. A brook to take a dip in. A library that belongs to the twentieth century. He also loves travels and meaningful friendships.

The novel is full of insights into human existence and the creative act from different points of view. Speaking of the inability of the writer, he says: It is the chasm between language and experience that can never be bridged. Language is the footprint of the Hound dog. By the time one looks for the pugmarks, the dog is long gone. Again on his gestural communication with his sister Ramani: We rarely spoke. A language beyond language had evolved between us. This was our real tongue while this dead language was to serve between others and us. Again in the same context: In fact a crisis is an ecstasy. But topsy-turvy. A shirt worn inside out. Replying to Thrissur Gopalan Nairs comments, he says he does not understand J.Js writing: There are two kinds of incomprehensible writing. The first evokes indifference, the other, interest. I believe J.J. belongs to the latter. Behind all art, there is intense conflict. The tussle between being and expectation. The tears that the heart sheds when the material world turns its back on the heart. Or When the mouth of Deaths cave becomes visible to the minds eye, writing is suffused with light (from J.Js Diary). Not to speak the right thing, but what I believe is rightthis is the foundation of my writing. It is not infradig for a writer not to have roundedness in his thinking about his own times. But he is never to be called a liar. If such an abuse sticks, he is no writer. Just a liar. Or I dont know if what you write is literature. But you sure wreck my peace of mind. If only appearances, and the changes in appearances count for literature, then literature itself may be redundant.

J.J. writes, almost prophetically, in his diary: Commercial ads forever mislead. Political ads too. And government ads. Literary ads. The chasm between image and reality is forever widening. Can a statue be forged without an alloy? As a student forced by the principal to win every game, he writes, In sport, defeat is not defeat. Nor is victory a victory. Sport in itself is a triumph. One should play, involved, with the heart fully in it. This is obviously not merely a comment on sports, but on art and life too. Man is dying every moment. Dying in fear of death. his senses lie shackled to the earth. He struggles like a housefly caught in honey. In this situation honey is no food, to fly is a matter of life and death. We gather all our strength to do so, but our legs are in strong chains. The human mind is a wrist watch. Language, a spade. When the public well is poisoned, people see it clear as daylight. It isnt as easy to identify the minds enemies as it is to the bodys. Literature survives, dependent on this human capacity to recognise truth. When the mind loses this power art will perish.

The novel has several instances of intense sarcasm and humour; irony here is more than a linguistic strategy. Here are just some casual samples: On the other hand just because some cheap jacks who try to titillate by rubbing their artificial genitals against us happen to write in Tamil, can they be said to belong to us? Is there anything like a Tamil Dysentery or Tamil Prostitution? Another: The more one looks at her the more she resembles a woman (Ikkanda Warrier on Subathramma Thankachi). When the narrator tells Mangala Krishnamurthy that he has not read Chittukkuruvis novels, she gives him a look as though a fish had climbed the stairs and landed on the first floor. Again on the same novelist, commenting on her Jaipur shoulder bag: Chittukkuruvi, if only you would gift me your shoulder bag, I promise without a second thought, to read three chapters of your serial novel.

The author laughs at the same writers hypocrisy when she, without ever having heard J.Js name, makes a fervent speech in the memorial meeting for him calling him the guru of all revolutionary writers, a sculptor of thought who could have won the Nobel if he had written in English instead of Malayalam! In our tongue there are Ibsens, but no plays. There are two Shelleys, three Keats and seven Walt Whitmans, but no poetry. The anecdote about J.J. and Omanakutty also is full of humour. They decide to travel together for a kind of honeymoon. In the first thirty hours they are like Dushyanthan and Shakuntala, but when Omanakutty forces J.J. to give his frank opinion about her poems, J.J. asks her to throw her notebook out of the windows, leading to an uproar and the end of the whole romance.

J.J: Sila Kurippugal is easily one of the masterpieces of modern Indian fiction while being also a watershed in Tamil fiction with its wealth of ideas and insights, its lapidary stylistic precision, its careful formal structure and its studied mastery of the contemporary art of fiction. It remains a major and unrepeatable masterpiece in Tamil.

Email: satchida@gmail.com

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