Knit India Through Literature, Volume 1: The South by Sivasankari; Eastwest Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd., Chennai, 1998; pages viii+414; price Rs. 750.
THAT in a large, multi-lingual country like India, differences of opinion over language-related issues crop up every now and then and people's love for their language sometimes assumes chauvinistic overtones is not quite surprising. What is remarkable is that although such differences have at times taken distressing dimensions, the unity underlying the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity that is India has always asserted itself and emerged unscathed.
Many factors have contributed to strengthening this chord of unity among the people over the centuries, and literature has certainly been one of them. For instance, from time immemorial, epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the puranas have acted as an effective unifying force. Their religious overtones apart, these epics and puranas contain hundreds of stories which have proved interesting to readers or listeners at public gatherings thanks to their didactic and aesthetic elements. Cutting across boundaries, they could permeate all linguistic groups and get assimilated in different languages. It is, therefore, only natural that those concerned about the country's unity and integrity look up to literature to fight disruptive forces and strengthen the bonds of unity.
Tamil writer and social activist Sivasankari has embarked upon a venture of "knitting India" through knowledge not only of each other's literary heritage but also of each other's contemporary problems. The venture has as its basis two factors - the commonality of the problems in different regions and writers' ability to help solve them by creating an awareness about them among the people.
As Khushwant Singh points out in his comprehensive foreword to the first volume of this cross-country literary journey: "Through her compilation, readers will realise how much we share in common with our scriptures, classics of our many languages and above all, how concerned writers and poets of today are, faced with the problems that beset our country: poverty, ignorance, caste, class and gender discrimination, challenges of modernity, resurgence of religious fundamentalism, bigotry, superstition, intolerance of other people's beliefs, disrespect for the law, erosion of Gandhian values and proneness to violence."
As the author of over 40 novels, 30 collections of short stories and novellas, 12 travelogues and two biographies, most of which have been best-sellers, Sivasankari is one such concerned writer. She has a strong conviction that creative writers - novelists, short story writers, poets and playwrights - can and do influence the thinking process of a society in a significant and constructive way.
Explaining the features of her "Knit India Through Literature" project, Sivasankari says in her preface: "This project's goal has been to learn more about the culture, history and literature of the people of each State and introduce them to their fellow Indians through the works of a few writers selected from each of these languages." The project, on which she has been working for five years, will take a few more years to be completed. Her plan is to publish her analysis in four volumes.
In the first volume, Sivasankari covers the four South Indian languages - Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. The pattern she follows is as follows - a short travelogue covering the particular region, interviews with select writers in the language, samples of their writing and an elaborate survey, particularly of modern literature in the language, at the end of each section (reproduced from Modern Indian Literature, Volume One: Surveys and Poems, published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi). The surveys have been made by Ayyappa Paniker (Malayalam), K. Narasimha Murthy (Kannada), C.R. Sharma (Telugu) and Neela Padmanabhan (Tamil). The Tamil section also has a brief report by Maalan that records developments over the last two decades.
The writers who have been chosen, admittedly based on their "prominence" (most of them are award-winners), broadly represent the various literary trends in their respective languages, although different views about the choices made are possible.
The Malayalam section has M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Kamala Das, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, Sugathakumari, Sethu and Balachandran Chullikad. Representing Kannada literature are Prof. U.R. Anantha Murthy, Dr. Sivarama Karanth, S.L. Bhyrappa, Devanoor Mahadeva and Chaduranga, all creative writers, besides critic Seshagiri Rao. Telugu is represented by Dr. C. Narayana Reddy, Vasireddi Seetha Devi, Arudra, Revuri Bharadwaja, Malati Chendur and Seshendra Sharma. Six writers represent Tamil: Abdul Rahman, Indira Parthasarathy, D. Jayakanthan, Rajam Krishnan, Su. Samut-hiram and Prapanchan. Besides, Tamil Nadu's Minister for Tamil Development, Culture and Hindu Religious Endowments, M. Tha-mizhkudimagan, a Ta-mil scholar in his own right, is featured.
Although at one level the compilation contains stories and poems and writings of select authors, it is not just another anthology. There is an attempt made to get to know the minds of these writers which have a bearing on their writings. The interviews with writers give insights into not only the literary trends of the region concerned but also into their understanding of and approach to complex contemporary issues. Read with their writings, the interviews lend a certain fullness to the understanding of the literature of different regions.
Most of these writers belonging to different linguistic groups have strikingly similar views on a number of socio-economic problems. Their concern for people's suffering and their eagerness to help find early solutions to problems, set them apart. Their works can act as "bridges" between peoples. All these writers appear to be committed not only to the unity of the country, but also to the unity of humankind through humanistic writings. The purpose of literature, observes Tamil writer Jayakanthan, "should be to create a oneness among human beings and allow them to live in unity amidst their various differences."
The 19th century writers from the four southern States - Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh - have been greatly influenced by modern education initiated by the colonial regime and their consequent exposure to English literature. They have fought superstitious beliefs, obnoxious religious practices such as sati and child marriage and the oppressive social establishment. Later, the countrywide struggle against British rule and the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi's leadership had an impact on writers in these regions as they did elsewhere in the country.
In post-Independence India, the communal riots that followed Partition and problems such as illiteracy, disease, unemployment, exploitation and economic inequality have dominated the writers' thinking and are reflected in their writings. The struggles of the working people and the oppressed sections have also had their echo in the writings of a significant, though not large, section of writers with progressive ideas under the influence of Marxism.
Environmental issues, the spread of diseases such as cancer and AIDS, the Dalit resurgence against age-old oppression, communal conflagrations, the growing consumer culture and the threat posed by satellite television and cinema to moral values have been among the concerns of writers in recent years.
Writers from these regions, as those elsewhere in the country, have been quick to react to tragedies irrespective of the place of occurrence -- from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to the Naokhali killings (1947), from the Venmani outrage (1968) in Tamil Nadu to the Bhopal gas tragedy (1985).
If the Telengana struggle in Andhra in the late 1940s inspired Telugu poet Somasunder to write his famous poem Vajrayudham (1949) and Dasarathi (Dasarathi Krishnamacharya) to write his equally well-known poem Agnidhara (1949), the martyrdom of the agricultural workers in the 1941 Kayyur (Kerala) uprising motivated a writer in neighbouring Karnataka, Niranjana (Kulkunda Shiva Rao), to write his memorable novel Chirasmarane (1955).
Even as this transformation in terms of content from early romanticism to later-day socialistic realism has been taking place, at another level, stylistic experiments are being made by interested writers in tune with literary developments in other languages, particularly English. However, most of the writers who figure in the compilation, though they do not lack an aesthetic sense, appear to be more concerned about content than form.
A list of works by the writers who have been interviewed, including any translations in English and/or other Indian languages, would have enhanced the value of this volume. So would an index have added to its usefulness.
ONE distressing aspect is the rather insignificant presence of women writers from the four regions. Among the 27 writers in this volume, only five are women. Surprisingly, there is no woman here from Kannada literature. A good number of the women writers themselves complain of gender bias in a male-dominated society. The spirited battles that women writers are waging appear to be tinged with an element of sorrow.
Kamala Das says: "Kerala is not a place where you (women) can do social service. They are predisposed to hating me because I am a woman." She adds: "My children trapped me into it (politics and environmental issues). They convinced me that if anyone could talk about environment it was me. It worked, but the local people and the party people did not like it, purely because I am a woman."
According to Rajam Krishnan, "As far as I am concerned, I (as a member of the advisory board) have been recommending the names of deserving women writers (to the Sahitya Akademi). But with male domination prevailing, my opinions do not seem to have an impact."
Sugatakumari has a different view. "We women are afraid of society. We are all immersed in our family problems, and in ourselves. We don't have the time, and we don't dare to write. We are cowards. Young women don't want to be different from others. They want security."
Malati Chendur regrets that feminist writings do not reach those people for whom they are written. "Most of these (feminist) writers focus on the problems of the rural women but it is unfortunate that these writings are not read by these women and so they do not create an awareness in them to try and seek a solution to their troubles." She adds, "Writing can only help to create an awareness amongst the literate populace....You have to get down to the grassroots. You must live amidst the affected people and try to inspire them to think . Only then can you achieve real solutions." Sugathakumari's interest in writing about environmental issues took her further; she organised small environmental groups to work among the masses.
Sivasankari herself is a fine example of social activism as an extension of writing. Most of her writings in the 1960s and 1970s were about the problems of upper middle class families. Understandably, she was more popular among middle class readers. Wider recognition came her way only when she became a social activist after her novel Avan, which deals with drug addiction was published. Her active involvement in the de-addiction movement and similar activities has reinforced her commitment to certain issues.
Sivasankari mentions in her preface that she has put her fiction writing on hold to take up this "Knit India Through Literature" project. It may well be a sacrifice worth making. As Khushwant Singh says: "Sivasankari's venture to knit India through knowledge of literary heritage is bound to have a more lasting impact." Perhaps more lasting than her fiction writing.
Sivasankari is aware of the fact that national integration cannot be fostered merely by writing these four volumes. But, if her efforts in this direction are followed up by massive institutional attempts to get authentic translations of significant writings in each Indian language - not only into English but also into every other Indian language, her purpose would have been served.