A writer in his world

Print edition : February 06, 2015

D. Jayakanthan. He is only the second Tamil writer to win the Jnanpith Award. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

A GIANT among post-Independence Tamil writers, D. Jayakanthan has joined the select band of pan-Indian literary celebrities with the Jnanpith Award coming his way. He is the second Tamil writer to receive this most prestigious of literary awards in the country, the first being P.V. Akilandam (Akilan), who got it in 1975.

Announcing the award for 2002 in New Delhi on March 20 after a meeting of the Jnanpith selection board, board chairman L.M. Singhvi said Jayakanthan had not only enriched the high literary tradition of Tamil, but also made an outstanding contribution to the shaping of Indian literature. Jayakanthan’s works, he observed, unveiled the depths of human emotions and equations.

A prolific writer with an extraordinary creative skill, Jayakanthan has written intelligent and beautifully crafted stories, profoundly human and compulsively readable. He touched several issues that others ignored or feared to raise and provoked intellectual discussions through well-chiselled characters.

In an exceptionally successful literary career spanning half a century, Jayakanthan has authored 15 novels, 30 novelettes, 15 anthologies comprising over 200 short stories and about 20 collections of essays. His writings essentially centred on the travails of the downtrodden sections and the challenges that the expanding urban middle class confronted in the early years of Independence when the country was just pushed into development mode. Two of his novels, Oru Manithan, Oru Veedu, Oru Ulagam (A Man, a Home and a World), considered his masterpiece, and Jaya Jaya Sankara, besides Oru Ilakkiyavaadhiyin Arasiyal Anubavangal (A Literary Man’s Political Experiences), a collection of autobiographical essays, have been rendered into English. Many of his short stories have been translated into other Indian and foreign languages.

Jayakanthan was born in 1934 at Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu in a middle-class family. A school dropout, he began writing stories before he turned 20. With many of his close relatives being political activists, Jayakanthan naturally became interested in politics at a tender age. As a schoolboy, he sang the patriotic songs of the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati before small gatherings. He was inspired particularly by the workers of the Congress and the Communist Party of India (CPI). Thinking that his studies were a hindrance to his political activities, he quit school and went to Chennai. After doing odd jobs in petty shops, he came under the protective care of the functionaries of the CPI, thanks to a letter from his uncle, who was a trade union leader and party activist. He joined the CPI’s printing press as a proof reader, stayed with fellow party workers in the “commune” at the headquarters and soon became a party member.

The communists at the party centre in Chennai, Jayakanthan later used to say, helped him get educated in the “university of life”. “I wholeheartedly loved the communists. When I felt that I was one among them, I realised that they became related to me more than even my family members. I met there many who had dedicated everything, their labour, wealth and fame to the movement that fought for a new era,” he recalled in one of his books. He greatly benefited from the debates and discussions to which he was exposed during his “commune” life. He was impressed by the erudition, deep understanding of problems, honesty and integrity of the many party intellectuals who stayed with him.

It was during this period that he read literary works by authors ranging from Bharati to Pudumaipithan, an eminent short story writer belonging to the Manikkodi literary group whose members are often considered the pioneers of modern Tamil fiction. Understandably, Jayakanthan’s early stories that appeared in the party newspaper Janasakthi and small magazines such as Sarasvathi, Thamarai, Santhi, Manithan, Sakthi and Samaran depicted the pathetic conditions of the people living in the many slums around the party office. The plight of their women and children were highlighted in his stories.

His Oru Pidi Soru, Treadle, Thaampathyam, Devan Varuvaara? Yaarukkaga Azhudhan? and Sumaithaangi are among the short stories and novelettes rated the best.

After establishing himself as a notable writer of the common man, Jayakanthan entered another phase of his life. Impressed by his popularity among a section of readers, mainstream magazines such as Ananda Vikatan, Kumudam and Dinamani Kadir started publishing his stories. This widened his horizon and helped him reach greater heights. He took up larger issues and dealt with them in greater detail and in a more sophisticated way, taking advantage of the form of long stories serialised by these magazines.

The transition from the language of the slum to the “Brahminical” language was smooth. In fact, this marked his entry into a new cultural world. And ultimately he scored remarkable success. Breaking all barriers, his stories took humanism to new planes. They dealt with middle-class life in general and raised questions about many of the beliefs, attitudes and actions of this section of society. Marital relations and gender issues were discussed in detail. They brought out the contradictions between middle-class beliefs and the reality, between old values and present practices. The belief systems of the middle-class were challenged and many of them were demolished. Adum Naarkaaligal Aadugindrana, Kokila Enna Seithu Vittal? Agnippiravesam, Rishimoolam, Vizhthugal, Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal, Paarisukku Po and Gangai Enge Pogiral? are some of the noteworthy novels Jayakanthan wrote in this phase.

Jayakanthan’s new phase and writings were, however, viewed with surprise and suspicion. Although the stories, written with remarkable ease, were well received by a larger audience, many of his admirers of the earlier era saw in it a drift towards an elite clientele. His exit from the CPI and later association with the Congress strengthened their suspicion. Opinions differed among his critics. The fact that even in the latter period he took on the orthodoxy and exposed them was cited by many to show that he had not given up his progressive outlook. However, there is no denying that he vacillated. But that was mainly because of the confused political situation that prevailed in the country in the 1950s and 1960s.

That Jayakanthan has not run out of steam is borne out by the fact that he still influences writers of the new generation. An excellent orator, he is much sought after for addressing literary conferences.

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