Literature

The place to be

Print edition : September 05, 2014

Narana Duraikannan. He used the city and its localities objectively to tell his stories. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Devan, pseudonym for R. Mahadevan. He could not have set his fiction anywhere else other than in Madras. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Kalki, pseudonym for R. Krishnamurthy. Two of his well-known stories are set in Madras. Photo: The Hindu Archives

C.S. Lakshmi, better known as Ambai, edited a volume on the city. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

D. Jayakanthan, who made the most of the sights and sounds of Madras. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

A still from "Sila Neyrangalil Sila Manithargal", a film made from Jayakanthan's novel of the same name.

How do writers see Madras? Variously, but for Tamil writers, this is the place to be.


“Shed your scruples and go to the city” was a frequently quoted saying until a few years ago. Not a particularly wise one. Quite likely, even in the past nobody took it seriously. People have always been pouring into Madras for a variety of reasons. One could have scruples and still live in the city. Writers try to be close to the avenues of publication. For those who write in Tamil, Madras is the place.

Ten years ago, the Tamil writer Ambai, pseudonym for C.S. Lakshmi, edited a volume titled The Unhurried Place. There is nothing derogatory about the title. Ambai’s own introductory essay is an excellent piece on most of the salient aspects of Madras. But the book does have a piece which could not be bettered in damning the place. The damnation is by another contributor, in the form of a reference to a book by Doosi Rajagopala Bhoopathy, who for all this discussion could be a fictitious person. One special point to mention is that the senior writer Ka Naa Subramanyam is said to have read a pirated version of the parent book Mathimosa Vilakkam. That speaks of the effectiveness of the book—he read the book but still came to live in Madras. Mathimosa Vilakkam can be roughly put in English as a treatise in trickery. Tricksters and cheats of both sexes dominate the book.

But tricksters and conmen and women are not the sole prerogative of a city. It may not be proper to judge a whole city by a few or more instances of unsavoury nature. But the essayist prefers to be closer to a number of other Tamil writers who referred to the city in a negative light. Pudumaipittan likened it to a huge graveyard in a story of his, a story quoted often but avoided by well-wishers of the writer who want him shown as an artist, not a judgemental arbiter. But it is certain he did not have many favourable things to say about the city. His Kadavalum Kandasaamiyum is an ambitious work where the protagonist has an extended visit from God. The whole band of Manikkodi writers who professed they were bound by the ideals of Subrahmanya Bharati have at one time or another painted the city in not so favourable colours. Life was harsh for Bharati, but he never growled as did a substantial number of writers.

There is a Guru Dutt Hindi movie titled C.I.D., which has a whole song not flattering to Bombay. And it was picturised with Johnny Walker, a comedian of great talent. Both the song and the film were a great success, and for a while it became mandatory for cities to be referred to as anything but good. That phase is over, and few in film or writing now blame the city for the ills people may experience.

Even when the city (meaning Madras) was the butt of negative references, an editor and novelist by the name of Narana Duraikannan utilised the city and its localities objectively to tell his story. In his novel Tharangini, he refers to Mylapore as a place for missionaries. I have myself seen street-corner preachers in Purasawalkam and Mylapore, and it is highly doubtful they could make listeners change their faith by the way they delivered their talk. The preachers were usually a team of two. One rendered a line or a short passage in English and the other person gave his own version of those lines in Tamil. I have myself used this street-corner preaching in my novella The Two. The heroine listens to a few lines of the bilingual preaching and in her sorrow interprets the lines in the culture she is born in. Narana Duraikannan was an editor of the journal Ananda Bhodhini, and its press seems to have been responsible for the latter editions of Mathimosa Vilakkam.

An enterprising young man brought out a book in about 1935 and called it Kudumba Vinodha Kathaigal. The authorship was not mentioned but one can conjecture now that the fat book was written by the publisher and bookseller himself—S.S. Vasan. While the stories were moralistic in tone, the background was invariably the city of Madras. Madras was a trap and also a benefactor. You tackle the traps and you are sure to be rewarded with the better things of life.

No account of Madras as a fictional scene of action will be complete without the mention of three evergreen writers: Kalki (pseudonym for R. Krishnamurthy), Devan (pseudonym for R. Mahadevan) and Jayakanthan. Many critics and readers who are disdainful of Kalki and Devan do injustice to the ethos of the just-emerging secular Tamil readership of the 20th century. Kalki did not write historical novels alone. His body of writing is very large and varied though he was not blessed with a long life. There is no need to be apologetic about his historical novels either. What he wrote was as good as the works of Alexandre Dumas, his European counterpart. There is an avenue in the name of Dumas in Paris and Puducherry. Also statues. People still visit the once island-prison Chateu d’If, where Dumas’ hero Edmond Dantes spends 14 years as a prisoner. The late lamented Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu C.N. Annadurai had remarked to his colleague M. Karunanidhi that Kancheepuram and its environs, including Mamallapuram, looked new after he read Kalki. This was admitted by Karunanidhi to a nearly thousand-strong gathering when he released the English translation of the first part of Kalki’s opus Ponniyin Selvan.

Mention must be made of two Kalki stories, Thookku Thandanai and Dhanakotiyin Manoratham, in the context of Madras in his stories. Thookku Thandanai, or Death Sentence, pictures a judge in an extremely disturbed state of mind. He had sentenced a young idealist to death and it is the night before the execution. What else but death for charges of treason, waging war against the British Empire, rioting and arson? The judge knows that the young man is an influential freedom fighter and that the police case was a ruse to eliminate him. More than anything, the judge had to set aside the evidence of a saintly person who affirmed in court that the young man was indeed with him several miles away from the scene of arson and rioting. All that is in vain, and in a few hours, the young man will be executed. The judge fervently prays that by a miracle the young man is allowed to escape from prison. Suddenly, the young man does appear before the judge! The judge is delighted beyond measure. The young man is free of any rancour. He says: “I know you to be a good person but I felt sorry for you when you dismissed the evidence of a holy man.” The young man goes away. The judge feels extremely relieved. But he is puzzled when he sees the morning papers. The young man could not be executed because he had died of natural causes at night, just a little while before he paid a visit to the judge! It is like a situation in the Latin American writer Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Parmo, written 20 years after Kalki wrote his story.

Dhanakotiyin Manoratham is an excellent account of the interests and concerns of the land-holding class of Tamil Nadu and of how much time and wealth were lost in the pursuit of civil disputes. The final scene is in the city of Madras, and the protagonist is all but dead by misunderstanding the court’s final order. It is also a story of love and sacrifice, reality and illusion.

Devan just could not have set his fiction anywhere other than in the city of Madras. His extremely enjoyable parody in his detective Sambu stories could not have taken place anywhere but in Madras. One of his important works, Justice Jagannathan, is a taut courtroom drama. The nature of a host of characters unfolds in the way in which the cross-examination is conducted. It is complex yet accessible to all readers, and the novel could not have been possible if it were not located in Madras. Devan took after Dickens and, in a language unknown to his ideal, did not fail him. Justice Jagannathan is available in English also.

The one Tamil writer who made the most of the sights and smells, the nooks and corners, the highs and the lows, the joys and sorrows of Madras is Jayakanthan. Of all the writers talked about in this piece, he had the least advantages but still soared to be the great chronicler of Madras and its citizens. His celebrated novel Sila Neyrangalil Sila Manithargal could not have been set in any place other than Madras though the bare synopsis would be of a wealthy man seducing a young, naive girl in a chance encounter. There is the haunting story of a Madras rickshaw-puller who takes upon himself the care of an ailing man, once a matinee idol. When he dies, the rickshaw-puller is determined to observe the last rites with dignity and not leave them to charity.

The poet Vaidheeswaran made the most of the city in dozens of his poems. The most striking of his Madras poems is the one likening the stripping of posters from walls to snakes shedding their skin. For most poets (as in the case of many prose writers), it was only the negative side that seemed recordable for the future. C. Mani, a contemporary of Vaidheeswaran, burdened by T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, also looked at the bleaker side of the city. That famous long poem was titled A City.

A city is known by a number of things, especially the buildings which house the offices of hundreds of government departments. A poem of 1967 reads:

Mosikeera—forgive my sounding too familiar.

I am too full of joy.

I may not have read any of your precious Sangam poems,

But my admiration for you is immense.

Aren’t you the first man in the service of government

To take a nap at the place of work?

The poem is by Gnanakoothan, now in his seventies. The poem created a sensation, and Tamil poetry has never been the same since. All those who mocked the new poets suddenly realised the enormous impact of the new form. In no time there were hundreds of poems like Mosikeera.

Ashokamitran, novelist, short-story writer and translator, is one of the most celebrated authors in post-Independence Tamil literature.

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