A writer in his world

Print edition : April 22, 2005

An outstanding oeuvre that reflected the travails of the downtrodden and challenged the belief systems of the middle class wins the Jnanpith Award for the Tamil writer Jayakanthan.



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. Eminent writers and academics who attended the board meeting included Vishnukant Shastri, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Ramakanta Rath, Gopichand Narang, C.T. Indira and Mahaswetha Devi. The award carries a citation plaque, a bronze statue of Vagdevi and Rs.5 lakhs in cash.

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. He made forays into the world of cinema, and one of his films, Unnaipol Oruvan, won a national award.

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 Ilakkiya Vaadhiyin 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.

In a rare gesture, the Kendra Sahitya Akademi made Jayakanthan a Fellow of the Akademi in 1996, waiving a policy that a sitting member of the General Council of Akademi shall not be elected a Fellow. C. Rajagopalachari, former Governor-General of India, in 1969 and T.P. Meenakshisundaranar, a former Vice-Chancellor of the Madurai Kamaraj University, in 1975 are the only others who have been honoured thus. His novel Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1972. In the 1980s, Jayakanthan received the Rajaraja Chozhan Award from the Tamil University in Thanjavur.

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. Many writers among party workers and sympathisers, such as S. Ramakrishnan (SRK), P. Jeevanandam, R.K. Kannan, Vindhan, Thamizh Oli and Ismath Basha, encouraged him to write and influenced his intellectual pursuits for many years to come. 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.

Referring to these early works of Jayakanthan, Ponneelan, a renowned novelist and the president of the Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkia Perumandram, said that Jayakanthan was the first Tamil writer to depict powerfully the miseries of the marginalised people living in the slums of Chennai. These stories, for the first time, spoke about their life and culture in their own language and shocked middle-class readers, who were until then unaware of or indifferent to their problems. Although Pudumaipithan had written a few stories on them, Jayakanthan's handling of the subject was more effective and created a bigger impact on the readers, Ponneelan said.

"Both Pudumaipithan and Jayakanthan adopted a humanistic approach, but Jayakanthan's humanism, which drew strength from the theoretical base that Marxism gave it, and his fine characterisation blended to make his stories more powerful," said Dr. V. Arasu, critic and Professor of Tamil Literature at the University of Madras. "His characters displayed a moral anger and that made all the difference. His characters raised questions among the readers," Arasu said.

Oru Pidi Soru, Treddle, 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. Knowing full well that he had to write for a different type of reader and address different types of issues, Jayakanthan appeared to have equipped himself with new tools and techniques. He had to adapt himself to a new language that these magazines had standardised over the years and adopt a different style of writing.

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, Gokila 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.

The stories revealed his skill to write on any subject powerfully, with aesthetic sense and responsibility. Oru Manithan, Oru Veedu, Oru Ulagam, a culturally rich novel that captures the many beauties of Tamil village life, is the author's favourite. K.S. Subramanian, a close friend of Jayakanthan, translated the novel into English.

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.

It was a tumultuous period when the developments in the communist movement culminated in a split in the Communist Party of India in 1964; the two parties had different perceptions about the Sino-Indian war; there was the consolidation of the rightist forces under Rajaji's leadership against the ruling Congress Party; and the Dravidian movement, which was then seen as sectarian and disruptive by the Left parties, was growing steadily and ultimately captured power in the State, ironically with the support of both Left and right parties. This situation would have been enough to confuse any creative writer with a political objective and Jayakanthan appears to have decided to keep politics away from his fiction.

According to Arasu, even when he wrote for the mainstream magazines he did not allow himself to be swallowed by their commercial greed. The fact remains that Jayakanthan remained a force to reckon with and produced many a memorable work even during that period. In Ponneelan's assessment, his writings reached a point of stagnation only after he began dabbling in spiritual and metaphysical issues. Even granting his slips and deviations, Ponnelan said, he richly deserved the highest honour of the country for his contribution to the genre of short story. What Bharati achieved in poetry, Jayakanthan attempted to achieve in short story and he succeeded in this to a large extent. Nobody else's achievement in this respect could match his, he said. "His [Jayakanthan's] writing retains a power and intellectual verve that excites any thinking individual of our days. Jayakanthan's success lies in his perception of the other," Baala, a well-known critic said.

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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