The wholeness of a water drop

D. Jayakanthan (1934-2015) captivated the Tamil reading public with an outpouring of literary works that explored the societal options available for a historical individual to flourish and bloom into fullness and achieve freedom.

Published : Apr 29, 2015 12:30 IST

D. Jayakantan. His true literary merit lies in the fact that he knew what he was creating.

D. Jayakantan. His true literary merit lies in the fact that he knew what he was creating.

IN the introduction to the second edition of his much-celebrated novel Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam Jayakanthan wrote: “Do we have to think that only the ocean and the river enjoy wholeness? No, every water drop is complete in itself. Not only the countries and continents constitute the world, but every man is a world unto himself.” For Jayakanthan, the historical individual is the water drop in the ocean of humanity. In a literary career that spanned more than half a century, Jayakanthan captivated the Tamil reading public with an outpouring of literary works that explored the societal options available for a historical individual to flourish and bloom into fullness and achieve freedom.

In the 1960s, when the post-Independence era of a nation tasted the fragrance of its adolescence through the rise of regional sub-nationalist movements, Jayakanthan was exploring the struggles of individual subjects grappling with the advent of what can be now termed as modernity in India. In his early short stories and in the thoughtful introductions he wrote for them, there are numerous references to the changes that were affecting the nation. Poverty and destitution, technological advancements, hypocritical practices of traditions, changing lifestyles and attitudes, status of women, media exploitation of human emotions, villages and cities, modernity’s bearing on human relationships, and the need for spiritual quests are some of the recurrent themes in his introductions to the short stories. These introductory essays were as famous and controversial as the short stories themselves were, and they reveal that Jayakanthan was a conscious practitioner of his art even when he broke into the public sphere as the new enfant terrible of Tamil literature.

Provocative choices

Jayakanthan’s characters—the water drops in the sea of humanity—are simultaneously the historical subjects of a young nation and the inheritors of an ancient civilisation and they come from all walks of life. In one of his introductory essays, Jayakanthan wrote that modern India cannot be found in the Taj Mahal and the glorious temples alone and we need to strain ourselves to see the nation’s work in the city slums, orphanages, ruins, street corners and the dark corners of villages.

His short story Kazhuththil vizhuntha maalai begins like this: “This also happened in Sankarapuram! Numerous events have happened in Sankarapuram! Whatever happened in our nation’s history, one could discern them from the ruins of Sankarapuram.” While the reference to the nation’s history is openly described in this short story, Jayakanthan weaves the referential details in his other narratives so craftily that they remain subtle and hidden in the names of the characters, places, conversations, descriptions and incidents.

Yuga Santhi is another civilisational tale of an older widow voicing her support for a young widow’s elopement. Indeed, the eons flow through the characters and unfold in Jayakanthan’s narratives. His short stories, which hypnotised the Tamil reading public for more than a decade, were exceptional in their presentation of a wide range of marginal and middle-class characters caught in existential situations. Slum dwellers, boys working in teashops, prostitutes, marijuana-smoking wanderers, mendicants, Brahmin priests, middle-aged couples, trade unionists, widows, and people in complicated relationships populate Jayakanthan’s stories. By presenting provocative choices for his characters, Jayakanthan was inviting and engaging the readers to reflect on a variety of life situations.

Incredible range of characters

The true literary merit of Jayakanthan lies in the fact that he knew what he was creating. K.S. Subramanian’s interview with Jayakanthan, published in Indian Literature when Jayakanthan won the Jnanpith award, India’s highest award for literature, in 2004, stands testimony to the fact that Jayakanthan was a conscious practitioner of literature. In the interview, Subramanian asks: “ ….the incredible range of your characters. They are drawn from whole spectrum of social and economic strata. Two: your mastery over the dialects and the jargons of different castes and communities of Tamil Nadu. Sankara Sarma’s Brahmin dialect, raw grassroots Chennai slum slang of Chellamuthu, Telugu-laced Tamil in Pudhiya Seruppu Kadikkum and the Anglo-Indian lisping of Henry in Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam . How have you been able to portray such a range of characters and the shades of so many dialects? ”

Jayakanthan replies: “Well I would perhaps refer to four aspects in this context: experience, sensitivity, empathy, and integrity. These are not isolated and independent categories. Each impacts upon and enriches the other. Integrity is being true to oneself that embraces the first three factors. Experience has a deep meaning. From as far back as I could remember, I have revelled in every aspect of life, savoured and stored every little aspect of experience…. What I have seen, heard and enjoyed. When you are immersed in something, you cannot speak about it. When you so speak it would only be an aspect of that and not the experience itself. Only when you withdraw from it, you can realise and feel the fullness of an experience. There is another aspect of experience. Often people tend to define experience as direct physical experience. This is a narrow definition of when you apply it to a creative writer. It is here that sensitivity and empathy come into play. A true creator’s antennas are very sensitive. They can capture subtle emotional vibrations occurring in fellow human beings. How it occurs I cannot say. I know it occurs. It occurs to me for reasons I cannot explain. Such sensitivity logically leads to empathy. The writer should be able to feel with their hearts and weep when they are hurt. The interplay I just now mentioned does not take place in a vacuum. It occurs in a social environment. It operates through the personality of the writer. The writer also does not function in a void. He is a product of his circumstance. He is shaped by his experiences. By gradual evolution, he develops a vision, a swadharma. If his swadharma is violated his creations will be fake, and he will lose authenticity. ”

Jayakanthan’s experience was shaped by his early exposure to the lives of the poor and to Marxist philosophy. Jayakanthan was born in 1934 into a family of farmers in Manjakuppam, a suburb of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu. As a 10-year-old boy, he ran away from home to Madras [Chennai], did odd jobs, and lived among workers affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI). As a teenager, he sang Subramanya Bharathi’s songs with great fervour at party meetings. Later in his life, Jayakanthan recalled his early life as a graduation in the “university of life”. Encouraged by Communist leaders such as P. Jeevanandham, Baladandayutham and S. Ramakrishnan, Jayakanthan began to write in the party newspaper Janasakthi in 1953. Soon, other magazines such as Sarasvathi, Thamarai, Santhi, Manithan, Sakthi and Samaran published his works. In the 1960s, he began publishing short stories in the mainstream magazines, Ananda Vikatan, Dinamani Kathir , and Kumudham .

Master storyteller

Ganapathi Sastri, a Brahmin tormented by the thought of chanting the Vedas without knowing their meaning, a prostitute who loves her husband, and a leprosy patient relaying the message of hope were the kind of characters Jayakanthan portrayed in his short stories when he captured the imagination of the reading public and reigned supreme as the master storyteller.

In his conversation with Subramanian, Jayakanthan assures him that there are no dark or bad characters in his works. He says: “To look at the objective world in black and white is simplistic and flawed. It is a flat view. Life and reality are much too complex. You cannot capture them in convenient capsules of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. A sensitive writer would refuse to fall into this trap. He would have the sensibility to recognise the motivations behind a character’s actions. And also the perceptiveness to trace the unfolding of these actions into the realm of exciting possibilities.”

Although Jayakanthan acknowledged that his ability to portray even the most downtrodden person with dignity came from the Communist philosophy, he refused to subscribe to the dictum of socialist realist writing (or progressive writing as it is known) to present characters as expressions and embodiments of class. In yet another introductory essay to his short story collection Maalai Mayakkam , Jayakanthan took on those who criticised him for his failures as a progressive writer. He wrote that the concern a man has for another man, and an ability to be moved to make sacrifices at the sight of another person’s misery are the true basis of a society and it is immaterial whether a “progressive” is a believer or non-believer in God, and whether he participates directly in leftist politics or not.

Jayakanthan’s opportunity to present a character’s actions in the unfolding realm of new possibilities came with the huge controversy erupting with the publication of his short story Agnipravesam in Ananda Vikatan in 1968. On a rainy day, a rich young man picks up a hapless college girl in his car, seduces her and drops her in her street. On realising her daughter’s plight, the girl’s mother pours a bucketful of water on her head saying that she has been purified by this act as if she had taken the test by fire. The mother asks her daughter to forget the incident and get on with life. The story challenged the dominant cultural norms of woman’s chastity, and many culturally acceptable closures to the story were suggested. In response to the suggestions, Jayakanthan wrote the same story with a different ending and expanded it into a novel, Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal, which explored the destiny of the girl, now named Ganga. In the novel, unlike in the short story, the mother does not purify the girl but condemns her for yielding to seduction. Ganga leads the life of a single, office-going woman, constantly being touched and harassed in the bus, daunted by an elderly uncle, and haunted by the memory of the fateful rainy evening. Ganga and her mother happen to read Agnipravesam where the fictional mother dealt with the situation differently. Ganga’s reflection over the short story unconsciously prompts her to search for her seducer and to seek a meeting with him after a gap of 12 years. When Ganga meets her seducer Prabhu, she finds him to be leading an empty life. An unusual friendship develops between Ganga and Prabhu. The novel ends with Ganga becoming an alcoholic like Prabhu. Again, in Jayakanthan’s world of fiction, nobody is entirely bad and nobody is entirely good. Ganga in Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal emerges as a woman with motherly love and compassion, but she ruins herself in the process. The novel won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1972. In 1978, 10 years after the publication of Agnipravesam , Jayakanthan wrote a sequel to Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal .

In Gangai Enge Pogiral , the elderly Ganga becomes a refuge for the older Prabhu, and they decide to go to Varanasi. On the banks the Ganga, they stay in a mutt. Ganga leaves the sleeping Prabhu at the break of dawn and drowns herself in the river. Before flowing with the river, Ganga reflects for a while: “How is the water from the pot less holy than the flowing river?” Ganga finding inner peace after a turbulent life is the culmination of Jayakanthan’s oeuvre.

Jayakanthan’s narratives often move through conversations and thrive on the strength of the plots and minimal descriptions. Philosophical titles, crafty but minimal details, and unusual compassion for his characters are the hallmarks of his literary works.

In retrospect, it appears that his literary vision dictated his politics. In the tumultuous 1960s, when the Communist Party of India (CPI) split into two, Jayakanthan quit the party and later joined the Tamil Desiya Katchi founded by E.V.K. Sampath before joining the Indian National Congress.

The changing times of India that Jayakanthan often reflected in his literary works found its resonances with the Nehruvian socialism espoused both by the Congress and by the undivided CPI. As the true inheritor of Bharathi’s poetics and nationalistic politics grounded in Tamil literary heritage, Jayakanthan thought it was his life’s mission to carry Bharathi’s mantle forward. As a nationalist, Jayakanthan fiercely opposed the subnationalism of the Dravidian parties.

Jayakanthan’s oratory was powerful but its style was completely different from the flowery rhetoric of Dravidian leaders. Often described as the roar of the lion, Jayakanthan’s speeches exhibited his supreme skills in logical persuasion and his insightful scholarship in Tirukkural , Siddhar Padalgal, and the poetry of Thayumanavar and Vallalar. His speeches were laced with quotes in English, mostly from Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. A discerning reader of his literary works may notice that Jayakanthan’s prose carried the unique rhetorical flourishes of his speeches. Jayakanthan has chronicled his experiences in politics in his non-fiction work Oru Ilakkiyavaathiyin Arasiyal Anubhavangal (1974).

A different worldview

There is a remarkable difference in Jayakanthan’s worldview in his novel Jaya Jaya Sankara, in which he explored the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Its strains could be seen in his later works such as Engenggu Kaninum (1979) and Kaat ru Veliyinile (1984). In the later works of Jayakanthan, we do not also encounter remarkable outsiders like Henry of Oru Manithan Oru Veedu Oru Ulagam and Sarangan of Parisukku Po .

In the late 1980s, Jayakanthan declared that he would not write any more and slowly started withdrawing from public life. By that time, he had written 40 novels, about 200 short stories, two autobiographies and numerous essays. He made two films, and four of his novels were adapted for films. Jayakanthan received India’s third highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, in 2009 and the Russian government’s Order of Friendship award in 2011.

In a 2008 documentary made on his life (directed by Ravi Subramanian and produced by Ilaiyaraja), Jayakanthan poignantly says that like an actor he adorned different garbs in life, played the roles and delivered his dialogues. The aesthetic distance Jayakanthan maintained in his life and his works would be the greatest legacy he leaves behind.

M.D. Muthukumaraswamy is Director, National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment