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Le vagabond et son ombre

G. Nagarajan

English Introduction

G. Nagarajan: life and literature

Kannan M.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Cavafy, 1949 (1989), The complete poems of Cavafy (translated by Rae Dalven), Harcourt Brace, Lond (...)

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is – like a corpse –buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eye, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.”
You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other –
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.
– Cavafy1

  • 2 Albert Camus, 1955 (1980), The Myth of Sisyphus, (translated from the French by Justin O’Brien), P (...)

“O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.”
Pindar, Pythian III2

“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”
Shelley, from Ode to the West Wind, 4th stanza.


1Madurai, February 17th, 1981. Evening. Two friends found G. Nagarajan (hereafter GN) in the watchman’s room at Victoria Tutorial College, lying in a pile of empty Charminar cigarette packs, and there was agony on his face. He could hardly sit, and he was coughing heavily. His friends told him they wanted to take him to the hospital the next day and, to their surprise, he agreed readily.

2February 18th. They admitted him to the Government Hospital with the help of a doctor friend; all the necessary tests were done and he was made to rest in a bed in the general ward of the hospital for further treatment. His general ravaged appearance and his test results (condition of his lungs, his liver and his stomach) made the medical staff wonder aloud to his two friends how this man had even managed to survive this long. The friends explained about GN’s lifestyle and habits. He was very weak, so they put him on drips. In the early afternoon when the friends were leaving, one of them told him to not smoke Ganja. GN replied that he had a packet of Ganja with him, and that he would use it without anyone noticing. His friend offered to fill an emptied cigarette stick with it and bring it back in the evening, so GN readily parted with it. In the evening, his friend returned with the Ganja and a pack of cigarettes saying he couldn’t manage to fit it into a cigarette. He gave them both to GN. A while later GN was speaking in a faint voice to his friends about the Arab-Israel conflict, and how lives are wasted in that kind of a war. Then, as if he were confessing something he said “It is cold, too, too cold. You’ll have to stuff it in the funeral pyre with me and burn it in those flames to get rid of this cold.” He wanted to use the rest room, but he was barely able to stand and walk. It was all he could do to sit on the toilet, and he was unable to stand the pain. He burst out crying, “Please God, take me away!” Then, some time later, he went on to say, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed.....” and closed his eyes. His friends thought he had fallen asleep, so they requested the other patients in the ward to keep an eye on him, left him for the day, and went home.

3February 19th. Morning. When one of the friends came to visit him with coffee, he found his bed empty. He asked around, and a member of the staff told him he could find the body in the mortuary. He also told him that his friend had been really impossible– he had kept his weed with him and tried to smoke it in the hospital toilet, and when it fell into the toilet, he took it out, dried it and tried to smoke it again. All this in a state where he could barely manage to even stand up without help! Later he found what remained of the Ganja and the pack of cigarettes along with GN’s clothing, which had been removed from the body after his death. The friend learned from the other patients that GN died some time between midnight and the early morning. He informed the family – GN’s wife, a son, and a daughter. His wife did not come to the hospital. GN’s relatives and a few others came to receive the body and cremated it with proper Hindu rituals.

4This is how G. Nagarajan (1929-1981), the most marginal of contemporary Tamil writers, a master of precision in his prose, a Brahmin and an atheist, a militant Marxist who broke with the Communist Party, a sensitive and brilliant teacher of English and Mathematics, an adulterer, a smoker of Ganja, an alcoholic, a vagabond and bohemian, a loving father of two children who instructed them to be bold and courageous at all times, died alone in a Government Hospital in Madurai, that temple-centered city in which he had roamed around and lived most of his life, the landscape in which most of his stories are set and narrated.

5G. Nagarajan was born on September 1, 1929, in Madurai, his parents’ ancestral home town. He was their seventh child. His father, Ganesa Ayyar, was a man of liberal leanings and by occupation a lawyer, with his law practice in Palani. GN’s mother passed away while delivering her ninth child; that was when GN was four years of age. Four of his siblings had died within months of being born, so GN’s family had just five children: himself, his two elder sisters, one elder brother, and one younger brother.

6After his mother’s death GN came to live with his maternal grandmother in Madurai, along with his brothers and sisters. Then he moved to nearby Thirumangalam, where he stayed with a maternal uncle through fourth grade. His mother’s family had a sufficient level of comfort to raise and care for these children. When GN finished his fourth-grade examinations, his father brought all the children to live with him in Palani. Since his father was well versed in Tamil, English, Mathematics, and so on, he did not send GN to school any longer, but taught him privately himself. Although GN spent very little time with his father, he acquired the reading habit from him at a very young age. His father would have GN lie down to sleep at night near him, and he would read to him. Ganesa Ayyar had no belief whatsoever in God, and no attachment to ritual. Moreover, he was someone who was not caught up much in family obligations. These characteristics of his father crept into GN as well when he was very young. He had a friendly, affectionate relationship with his father. When his father turned seventy and was deteriorating in his old age, GN brought him to Madurai and set him up in a separate house, hired someone to look after his needs, and took good care of him. Ganesa Ayyar passed away in November, 1961.

7It is perhaps from his father that GN acquired his fine appreciation of South Indian classical music, with a particular fondness for the singing style of Madurai Mani Iyer. He also showed a partiality toward Tamil film songs which closely followed the ragas of South Indian classical music. His liking for adventurous Hollywood movies, to which in later years he used to take his children, may also have come from his father. Eventually GN went to live again with his uncle in Thirumangalam where he completed eighth and ninth grades in P. K. Nadar High School. His father then called him back to Palani, where he completed his tenth and eleventh grade studies at Palani M. H. High School. He completed his Intermediate Studies with flying colors at Madura College in Madurai. In fact, he scored 100% in mathematics and received a gold medallion from Sir C. V. Raman. He went on to complete his bachelor’s degree in the same college, with first-class honors.

8Right after completing his degree, GN served for one year as a tutor at Karaikkudi College, then for a year in the Accountant General’s office in Chennai. He left then, and joined the faculty of the American College in Madurai as a lecturer. That was where he had his first connections with the communist movement, and with literature. He came to be committed to the cause of communism not through its theories but through literature, because of the humanism, compassion and the emotional vigor it exposed him to. His communist inspiration did not come from Russian or Chinese works as did that of his peers, but, rather, from the progressive American writings of the times. Even though he was reading the writings of Maxim Gorky and others, he was much more oriented toward American literature. More than likely it was at this point that he started reading Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, who proved to be lasting influences in his own writings. His familiarity with American literature allowed him to cultivate a fine way of speaking English, which is still recalled by people who had the chance to meet him even once in their lifetime. His intellectual abilities and his teaching style endeared him to his students, to his colleagues, and even to the administration. We know that college administrators were even thinking of sending him to the US. However, when GN began throwing himself wholeheartedly into political activity, a new college administration fired him. For the next few months, GN gave private tutoring lessons to students so that he could continue with his political party work. It is interesting to note that many budding communists of this period were recent college graduates who were gravitating toward teaching careers in schools and colleges. Many of them also gave lessons to the cadres in the course of their party work or to students in schools, colleges and private tutorial colleges, through which they made a living. These two occupations complemented each other and later influenced their writings as well.

  • 3 Tutorial colleges in India (T. Nadu) are privately-owned establishments that cater to the need for (...)
  • 4 N. Vanamamalai (1917 - 1980) reputed communist and folklorist.

9During the second half of 1952 he joined the faculty of the tutorial college3 that Professor N. Vanamamalai4 was running in Tirunelveli. That was the period during which people like K. Balathandayutham (1918-1973), P. Manickam, A. Nallasivam and Murukanandam were doing party work in the Tirunelveli area. T. M. C. Ragunathan (1923-2001) launched the literary journal Shanti, and GN came to be connected during this period with writers like Sundara Ramasami (1931-2005), Krishnan Nambi (1932-1976), D. Selvaraj and Nellai S. Velayudam who had connections with that journal. He worked diligently for the local party and became the Secretary of its Tirunelveli City Committee. When there was a severe famine in nearby Melapalaiyam and the city council seized the property of delinquent taxpayers, GN gathered throngs of people in protest, for which he was sent to prison. Besides this protest, he led many others.

10We can take it that it was during the next four years that all areas of his life and his personality were set in stone.

  • 5 Jacob, R. S., 2003. Vāttiyār Maṟupiṟavi Maraṇavāyilil. Palayamkottai: Jaya Publications. This fict (...)

11This was the period when GN’s youthful vitality showed in his urge to teach, and in his consciousness-raising party activities. This is where his desire to write took root. According to R. S. Jacob5, a teacher and a communist sympathizer, here is where GN wrote his first and only short novel, Kuṟatti Muṭukku, based on his real life experience. Jacob says that GN gave him the manuscript to read and asked for his views; later he met the real female protagonist of the story (a sex worker) in prison when he himself was in prison for alleged party-related activities. When Jacob informed GN about this, GN was shocked and arranged to get her out on bail. Jacob further says that GN told him he wanted to marry that sex worker, to which Jacob objected saying that it was not a viable option, nor suitable for a teacher like him. In the end GN told him that she had refused to marry him saying that it would only ruin his life. It seems quite clear that a certain life style of GN’s – including steady relationships with many sex workers, smoking and drinking – started forming in this period. This lifestyle, irrespective of his enthusiastic activist work for the party, was criticized by his comrades, leading to real differences with the party. Eventually, perhaps also feeling that his revolutionary instincts were getting stifled by the so-called party discipline, GN made the first move by calling a party assembly where he insisted on being relieved of his responsibilities, and he resigned. The assembly requested him to retract his resignation, but GN would not. A few months later he left N. Vanamamalai’s tutorial college as well. Thus ended GN’s formal association with the Communist Party, even though he kept in touch with his former comrades through the rest of his life. Reportedly he had an irreverent and sarcastic attitude towards the party till his end; his friends say he planned to write a book entitled Marxists and Their Wives (Mārkciyarkaḷum Maṉaivimārkaḷum).

12In September, 1956, GN left Tirunelveli and returned to Madurai, where he joined the faculty of a tutorial college that his old American College colleague and party comrade Sankara Narayanan had begun. Through the early 1970s he made his living through this tutorial college and other tutorial colleges (he even started his own tutorial college once). His skill in teaching, and his teaching methods, earned him “star status” in this field. His fame rose to such a peak that during the advertisements in movie houses, the tutorial college would screen a slide boasting, “G. Nagarajan teaches classes in our college!” But at the same time we can say here is where his life as a vagabond began in earnest. His teaching now provided him with a steady income, but his life became interspersed with the marginal figures of Madurai city – rickshaw pullers, sex workers, pimps, petty criminals – and with heavy eating, drinking and smoking.

13In 1959 some relatives and friends arranged for him to marry Anandhi. It was an inter-caste marriage, but not a love-match. In their fourth month of married life a stove exploded in the kitchen and sent Anandhi to the hospital, where she died. Apparently GN was also injured in this accident while trying to save her from the fire; friends assert that he photographed himself with those apparent injuries so as to deflect accusations that his behavior or attitude towards his wife might have been the real cause of this accident, but those photographs have been lost. In 1962 he married again, this time to Nagalakshmi, a school teacher in Madurai. This wedding was arranged by GN’s sister. They had two children, a daughter Anandhi and a son Kannan. It is also said that in the early sixties he joined the Indian Army or the Air Force for a very short time. We do not know his motivations behind this puzzling act: a communist joining the Indian military, that too in the context of the Indo – China war during that period, which made Indian communists thoroughly perplexed about the choices they were forced to make. The Indian Army was making emergency recruitments at that time; maybe GN thought of it as a way to hit out at his former party and comrades. In any case the Army or Air Force stint turned out to be a very short term affair. He came back within a short time to Madurai from Pune where he was being trained. Sources close to him during this period differ in the reasons they suggest for his quick return: some say GN was kidding himself thinking that he could really fit into the rigor of army discipline, that he was just unable to withstand the tough training he was forced into, and so he came back. Others say that when the Army authorities found out about his communist background, they just dismissed him; it is true of course that the background of any recruit to the Indian military would be vetted through the local police.

14From 1965 to 1970 GN’s life became one of constant wandering, with intermittent teaching when he felt a need to earn money. He would travel all over Tamil Nadu to meet his friends, spend time conversing and drinking with them, and acquaint himself with the sex workers in each place. This was a period in which GN really celebrated his life with total abandon. Even though he had a family and children, he hardly behaved as a family man with responsibilities. His wife, working as a teacher, found herself unable to cope with his behavior. She took the children, moved out, and started living separately. But his son and daughter fondly remember the little bits of time he lovingly spent with them, cherishing them. Sources say this was the period in which he started to be an alcoholic who was also addicted to Ganja. He could hardly live without them.

  • 6 During this time GN developed an interest in the thoughts of Gandhi, as we can see from the letter (...)

15By the end of the sixties, GN was barely able to hold on to any of his teaching jobs due to his addictions and his constant wandering. The last steady job he had was a clerical post at the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, which he got with the help of his friends in the early 1970s. He worked there for nearly two years6. In the end, the administration of the Gandhi Museum dismissed him because of his addictions and drunken behavior. Until the end of his life, the Gandhi Museum remained a place where his friends could find GN lying around or sleeping. Once he was even beaten up and chased out by the Gandhi Museum staff when they found him sleeping there; reportedly, after that beating GN remarked to his friends, “Gandhians are really well trained when it comes to beating people up!”

16We can say that from the 1960s to the beginnings of the 1970s GN’s life reached its peak, in terms of both his self-destruction and his writings. After that, it was a rapid journey downhill. After his dismissal from Gandhi Museum his friends and family admitted him to a Chennai clinic for de-addiction treatment. But he left the clinic without completing the course of treatment, unable to withstand the discipline imposed on him there.

  • 7 The short stories translated in this volume narrate encounters of these writers with GN, probably (...)

17Throughout the seventies, GN was literally found only in the streets of Madurai, drunk and lying around, sleeping, searching for friends and strangers to borrow money from for his drink. Or he was found travelling ticketless in trains (he charmed the ticket inspectors in the trains with his eloquent English) to visit friends and old comrades in different parts of Tamil Nadu. He would enter their homes or offices uninvited, make some small conversation, and then get them to part with a sum of money for his drinks. When one of his friends asked him to correspond through letters he reportedly replied, “No need for that – I meet everybody right where they are...”. His unpredictable, irreverent behavior and constant pestering for money made his friends terrified of his visits. He was rarely home during this period. He became a stranger to his wife and children: his daughter and son say that they too used to see him only on the streets. His son remarked that he stopped coming to the house after 19747.

18GN was brilliant in conversation, particularly in English. Even though he lost interest in reading during this period, he was still able to dazzle people with his ability to grasp things quickly with little effort, making them think that he was a voracious reader. Even in his homeless state, even while he was literally begging people for money, he kept his dignity intact in a strange way through his style of conversation, making friends and other people feel obliged to help him. He would talk to them about his previous and forthcoming writings, and even get them to help him land translation jobs (from Tamil to English and English to Tamil) which he never bothered to start or complete. Penniless as he was during this period, he never met his friends empty-handed, always being able to bring something to give them (it could be a guava, a banana, a sweet, or sometimes one of his own books for which he accepted money in return!). He was very affectionate towards his friends, family and children. But if he did not get his due for his drinks, his attitude quickly became unpredictable. When he got drunk he became unmanageable, particularly in restaurants where he had a strange way of picking quarrels over petty issues with waiters, quarrels which almost deteriorated into fistfights. Later he would genuinely apologize for his shameful behavior, but only to his friends, not to the waiters.

19In contrast with the image of GN emerging out of these reports and the impressions of his friends and contacts, his family remembers and reveres him, in a strange and resigned manner, as a loving, charming, and courageous man of values in his early days, and an ever absent but ever affectionate, unpredictable, mysterious, sick stranger in his later days. They also, inevitably, reflect over the fact that they would be in a much better position today if GN had lived the “normal” life that was expected of him by society, as a responsible husband and father.

20GN was of above average height by Tamil standards – about five feet, seven or eight inches tall. He was well built with an elongated face with chiseled facial features enhanced by a thick twisted moustache and short cropped hair, which made him look like a person just discharged from the army. We can see, from some old photos of his youthful days that he used to exercise regularly. Usually attired in a white dhoti and collarless long shirt, he presented himself as a man of curt and strict manners which would surely have inspired awe and fear among those who had the chance to have him as a teacher; maybe he consciously chose to present himself this way to his students! He also had the quirk of speaking in English in front of a Tamil audience; perhaps he felt better speaking English in public. He liked eating good food, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. And in his early days he was a man who could hold his liquor and intellectually present himself in any context.

21But by the end of 1970s, this same man was found roaming around the streets of Madurai dressed in dirty clothes, with only his bones holding up his frame, skin covered with scabies, lungs burnt out by smoke, coughing incessantly, stomach punctured by ulcers so he could eat only rice with curds or sweets, ravaged by pains all over his body, drunk all the time, probably afflicted by alcoholic polyneuropathy but mentally alert enough to scheme for his next dose; this was the state in which he was found by his friends on February 17th, 1981.

  • 8 Biographical notes on G. Nagarajan are partly based on bio-sketches written by C. Mohan, further s (...)

22The big question that remains unanswered as we come to the end of this biographical note8 is this: what caused this brilliant young man of the 1950s, poised in front of a vibrant career as a teacher and a writer, to go on a path of self destruction? Was it his failure as a communist? Was it his failure to gain a teaching position in an established institution? Was it his unfulfilled aspirations as a writer? Was it his inability to conform to the needs and expectations of a Tamil family? Or was it pure indulgence on his part as a moralist would say, that he was a victim of his vices? Or was it just as GN himself told one of his friends, that he simply wanted to live his life to its limits? His family and friends have not been able to provide a satisfactory answer. Maybe we can try to find an answer in his writings.


23If we take a bird's eye view of GN's literary offering, running from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, we would only see it as a small islet in the archipelago of contemporary Tamil literature. Further, in the Tamil literary milieu, his writings appeared only in small literary journals of limited circulation, rarely in popular magazines with large circulation. That is, his literary output seems quite slender in comparison with his contemporaries. GN's first short story Aṇuyukam appeared in 1957 in the communist weekly magazine Janasakthi. Starting with this debut, then, GN’s writings consist of thirty five short stories (not counting four small tales which he published as “minute tales” in 1961), one short novel, one full length novel, three poems, a few essays, and a few letters to the editors of small literary journals. We do not have any handwritten manuscripts of his writings with dates (two of his short stories published posthumously from manuscripts kept by a friend were also without dates), but we can nonetheless divide his creative writings into two distinct sets in terms of where they appeared: first, his writings from 1957 to 1967, which were published in small journals associated with the Communist Party – Janasakti, Sarasvathi, and Shanthi – and second, his works from 1968 to 1981, which were published in more general small literary journals – Kaṇṇatācaṉ, Ñāṉaratam, Cataṅkai, Kaṇaiyāḻi, Viḻikaḷ, and Vaikai.

24In his lifetime, GN was able to bring out only three book-length publications, and even those were self-published under the imprint Pittaṉ Paṭṭaṟai (“Madman’s Workshop”), a name that echoes the inspiration of the pioneering Tamil short story writer Putumai Pittan. Kuṟatti Muṭukku (a short novel, 1963), Kaṇṭatum Kēṭṭatum (a short story collection, 1971) and Nāḷai Maṟṟumoru Nāḷē (a novel, 1974), which had already been published in a serialized form in the small journal Ñāṉaratam in 1973, all came out in this way.

  • 9 For a reader who does not know Tamil the best entry point into GN's works is probably his incomple (...)
  • 10 Nagarajan, G., July 30, 1973. Galileo and the Brechtian dilemma. Indo-GDR Friendship Association, (...)
  • 11 Karnan, 2004. Icaikka Maṟanta Pāṭal. Madurai: Srikarthikeya Publishers, page 56.

25He wrote a few short stories in English, and he translated some of his Tamil stories and had them published in such popular English magazines as The Illustrated Weekly of India, Debonair, and the Weekly Supplement of the Indian Express newspaper; he also had aspirations of sending his English short stories to magazines like The New Yorker. He wrote one novel in English entitled With Fate Conspire9, which remained in manuscript form and was published only posthumously. He even wrote a book entitled Three Great Scientists focusing on Darwin, Galileo, and Marx, which he hoped might serve as a college-level textbook in English; this never made it into print. We also know that he wrote a play about Gandhi’s close friend and follower Jamnalal Bajaj (1884-1942) which never took published form, and that he wrote Tīraṉ Marx, a play about an agricultural day-laborer, the manuscript of which has been lost. He tried to write a biography of Gandhi that students would find accessible. He also wrote a few articles in English: general knowledge essays on psychology, medicine and other subjects. Research for this essay unearthed an article, Galileo and the Brechtian Dilemma, published in 197310, a small note in Tamil about the stories of his friend, the writer Karnan in Madurai (date unknown, published in Karnan's collection of short stories in 2004)11, and a letter to the editor entitled Relevance of Gandhi Today, published in the newspaper The Indian Express in 1974.


  • 12 Albert Camus, 1955 (1980), The Myth of Sisyphus, (translated from the French by Justin O’Brien), P (...)

“One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Albert Camus12

  • 13 Jeyakantan (1934-), a very popular writer of communist origins, considered to be a close friend an (...)

26The Tamil literary milieu of the 1950s, out of which the writings of GN emerged, was characterized by the following elements: on one side we see the large-scale Gandhian and Nehruvian idealism of the post-independence period, the fast emergence of a non-Brahmin, Dravidian nationalism, and the arrival of a popular culture through cinema and mass-circulation magazines catering to the tastes of a literate high-and middle-caste middle class; on the other side, we see a revolutionary ideology and practice taken up by a Communist Party dominated in its ranks by the same literate high-and middle-caste middle class on behalf of the working class, both urban and rural, being banned and persecuted by the state for its actions, and publishing small journals with limited and private circulation run by party members or sympathizers (at the same time there were also other small journals motivated by Gandhian, Nehruvian or Dravidian ideologies), promoting committed, progressive literature in the service of the working class. GN's debut in literature happened through these Communist Party associated journals. In fact, from 1957 through 1967 his writings appeared only in this type of journal, even though he was out of the party by the end of the 1950s. This demonstrates the continuous contact and relationship he had with his former comrades and friends, whom he had met through the party. Still, we can see that from the very beginning his writings never showed any signs of literature being in the service of party policies, either in form or in content, in contrast to some of his contemporaries – for example, T.K.C. Raghunathan and Sundara Ramasamy. His short novel Kuṟatti Muṭukku, written in the early 1950s but published as a book only in 1963, demonstrates this point particularly well. In Kuṟatti Muṭukku and in his early short stories we sense a calm, self-reflective, contemplative, critically observing narrative style emerging in GN's writings. This ambiance was obviously influenced by Putumai Pittan (1906-1948) as GN himself admitted both to his friends and in an essay. It was quite unlike the loud, proclaiming, critical narrative style which later become the trademark of communist, progressive writing, a style that was carried to its pinnacle of success in the arena of popular literature by GN’s contemporary and friend, Jeyakantan13. Further, particularly in Kuṟatti Muṭukku, we see GN's critical observer-narrator bringing in characters hitherto unknown in the world of Tamil literature in a matter-of-fact manner: in this novel it was the world of sex workers in the town of Tirunelveli, and the difficult relationship between a newspaper reporter and a reluctant sex worker. His style includes a balanced mix of formal written Tamil for the descriptive parts and the spoken Tamil of the Madurai region for conversations. His middleclass narrator, clearly betraying his own urban middle-class origins, is always present with critical comments, closely observing and describing situations and characters. The style reaches its perfection in GN’s later stories (1968 to 1981) and in the novel Nāḷai Maṟṟumoru Nāḷē (1974). Until the end of his life, GN’s stories never lost their ever-present narrator.

  • 14 For an Indological interpretation of GN's novel, see David Shulman’s introduction in G. Nagarajan, (...)
  • 15 Meidosems, 1992, translated by Elizabeth R. Jackson, Moving Parts Press, California.
  • 16 We hardly have any concrete evidence about the actual writing process of GN. One of his friends sa (...)
  • 17 GN would have been familiar with the translation of Stuart Gilbert, first published in Britain in (...)

27What really stands out and makes his stories unique in terms of contemporary Indian literature is the way in which GN stages these marginal figures of Tamil social life in a neutral light against their minutely detailed urban landscape – in this case Madurai, that temple-centered town with its newly developing suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s – while maintaining a critical, observing distance from them. He manages to do this without caricaturing them or consciously transforming them into martyrs or victims. Here in GN’s stories, for the first time in Indian literature, and extraordinarily in Tamil literature, we encounter a world of marginal hopeless human beings crawling like "ants on a Mobius strip", devoid of any of the typical traditional “Indian” elements of transcendence or salvation. Here we are in a Tamil world which is totally devoid of metaphysics, not particularly “Indian,”14 where there is only the sky above everyone, secular to the core, in which we find human beings immersed in their quotidian happiness and miseries, floating around like the Meidosems of Henri Michaux15, with their narrator observer swimming above them. In describing this world GN’s narrative style attains its maximum precision and economy in terms of the choice of words, sentence structure and characterization16. This makes him stand out among the Tamil writers of that period. In this narrative style we can clearly see the influence of Hemingway, perhaps even of Albert Camus, particularly the style of the novel The Outsider17, which seems to have been one of GN’s favorites.

28This is not to say that the works of GN are dry documentation from the point of view of a middle-class observer, but to say that his works capture the life of his characters and their conflicts along with their joie de vivre in a minimalist style and without any sentimentality. It is also true that the narrator’s constant social commentary can be a bit jarring at times and makes the writings look dated today. GN is the first Tamil writer to describe the sexual act in a realistic way, in its subtlety, without making it sensational or pornographic. The way he uses the Tamil verb muttu meaning to kiss, in all its conjugations, in a concrete way is quite remarkable and unprecedented, and after him we hardly ever see that verb in contemporary Tamil. GN's concise style portrays the carnal and violent world of his characters, who are forced to dwell in that world without any respite or escape; while we now know that he himself was a participant in real life along with them, in his stories he remains strictly an observer. Nor does GN’s world of fiction, with its precise, self-contained, closed economy offer his reader any dramatic release, either in oriental or in occidental terms. It brings to mind Albert Camus’ sentence, “... One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


  • 18 See Paṭikaḷ (published in Bangalore) issue number 9 (February, 1981) and Viḻikaḷ (published in Mad (...)
  • 19 This bio-sketch, reportedly written by the writer Sundara Ramasamy and overseen by S. Ramakrishnan (...)
  • 20 See bibliography.

29At the time of his death, GN’s writings were not very well known even among readers of small literary journals of limited circulation, much less among readers of popular magazines of large circulation. After his death, obituaries appeared in a few small journals18, and the avant-garde publisher Cre-A:, based in Chennai, reprinted his novel Nāḷai Maṟṟumoru Nāḷē with a controversial life sketch19. Then short stories were written about him by three other Tamil writers20, highlighting GN’s destructive lifestyle and his vices, sprinkled with a few emblematic, typical sentences about the marginal characters who inhabit his fiction. By the 1980s and 1990s, then, GN, the man and his life, became a specter haunting a new generation of Tamil writers and readers, at least in the realm of small literary journals. This specter, in the ensuing years, led this younger generation into curious blind alleys of literature and life. GN's life was glorified as a model in which life was pushed to its farthest extremes, wherein the sanctioned values and morals of accepted Tamil social life were questioned and nothing was sacred. The specter of GN possessed them and led them to fantasize about a world in which everything is permitted without responsibility, let them write intellectually, sensationally, extravagantly, even pornographically about sex, criminals and violence, while they themselves remained safely ensconced in their urban or rural middle class cocoons, in the name of postmodernism and other intellectual fads, and let them compare GN with Jean Genet without reading either of them. In sharp contrast, GN’s own, real addictions never led him to fantasize in his writings. While the specter of GN was having its field day among the young generation of writers and readers, his literature was lying around uncollected and unpublished until their eventual publication in 1997, and then later in 2007; even these publications were made possible not really by the true recognition of the worth of GN’s writings, but rather by a market demand that materialized with the rise of a new middle class and the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora at the end of the 1990s. Even today, we see readers gravitating towards GN, drawn only by this specter, getting caught up in its projections, and making only ready-to-use interpretations, speculations and proclamations about his literature.


  • 21 Kannan M. & Francois Gros, 2002, Tamil Dalit in search of a Literature, South Asia Research, Vol 2 (...)

30We are now nearing the end of this introductory essay, but we still have not answered the question asked at the end of the first section: what made GN choose this way of life? Further, we have now a new question as well: what role did his way of life play in his literature? There is no doubt that his life provided the base experiences for his writings, but apart from that we can sense that his literature, with its precise style and economy devoid of hope and metaphysics, stands completely apart from his life, with its wanderings, irresponsibility, extravagance and addictions. On one side, we have in his life almost a theatre of cruelty; on the other side, we have in his stories fine examples of minimalist literature from Tamil, strongly and strangely without “Indian” elements. With these two sides (or mirrors?) poised against each other, we are left only with unanswered questions due to a lack of documentation and the lack of a biographical tradition or a history of literature in the contemporary Tamil milieu. Or perhaps we could see the whole scenario in this perspective: In his life, GN turned against himself, betrayed himself; and in his literature of the margins, GN betrayed the society which produced him by deracinating it, by making it transparent in its hypocrisy and violence, and by denying its usual burrows of transcendence. Perhaps a concrete hope lies in the way in which GN’s literature, with its universality and rigor of form, strives to pass its baton to its characters, its true inheritors, the Dalits and Dalit literature (with the specter of GN still hovering around, seducing us, alive and kicking). Whether Tamil Dalit literature has been able to get hold of the baton or missed it, that’s another story.21



By G. Nagarajan

Kuṟatti Muṭukku, 1963, Pittaṉ Paṭṭaṟai, Madurai.

Kaṇṭatum Kēṭṭatum (Seen and heard), 1971, Pittaṉ Paṭṭaṟai, Madurai.

Nāḷai Maṟṟumoru Nāḷē (Tomorrow is one more day), 1974, Pittaṉ Paṭṭaṟai, Madurai.

Nāḷai Maṟṟumoru Nāḷē (Tomorrow is one more day), 1983, Cre-A:, Chennai.

Kuṟatti Muṭukku, 1994, Varsha, Madurai.

G. Nagarajan Paṭaippukaḷ (Collected Works), 1997, Kalaccuvatu, Nagercoil.

G. Nagarajan Ākkaṅkaḷ (Collected Works), 2007, Kalaccuvatu, Nagercoil.

On G. Nagarajan


Ashokamittiran, 1984, ‘Viral’ (The Finger) in Muṟaippeṇ, Narmadha, Chennai.

Dilip Kumar, 1985, ‘Aintu Rūpāyum Aḻukkuc Caṭṭaikkārarum’ (Five rupees and the man in the dirty shirt) in Mūṅkil Kuṟuttu, Cre-A:, Chennai.

Pirapanchan, 1993, ‘Oru Nāḷ’ (A day) in Nacukkam, Vanathi, Chennai.

R.S. Jacob, 2003, Vāttiyār Maṟupiṟavi Maraṇa Vāyilil, Jaya Publications, Palayamkottai, Tirunelveli.

Non Fiction:

Sundara Ramasamy, 2006, ‘G. Nagarajan Niṉaivōṭai’ (Memoir), Kalaccuvatu, Nagercoil (full of anecdotes caricaturing GN).

G. Nagarajan in Translation:

Abbie Ziffren with A. Julie, 2010, (Edited and revised by David Shulman and S. Ramakrishnan) Tomorrow is one more day, Penguin Books, New Delhi.


1 Cavafy, 1949 (1989), The complete poems of Cavafy (translated by Rae Dalven), Harcourt Brace, London.

2 Albert Camus, 1955 (1980), The Myth of Sisyphus, (translated from the French by Justin O’Brien), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

3 Tutorial colleges in India (T. Nadu) are privately-owned establishments that cater to the need for students who for some reason cannot attend regular school but want to sit for the secondary (Class 10) and higher secondary (earlier Pre-University course, now PLUS 2) exams; while this may have been the original reason, in due course these centres started to provide "extra coaching" to students, particularly in subjects like English (for which help at home was often not available) and tough subjects like Maths and could be seen as tuition centers as well. They seem to have had their heyday from the sixties to eighties and though many of them continue till today offering services in tune with current demands.

4 N. Vanamamalai (1917 - 1980) reputed communist and folklorist.

5 Jacob, R. S., 2003. Vāttiyār Maṟupiṟavi Maraṇavāyilil. Palayamkottai: Jaya Publications. This fictionalized memoir of R. S. Jacob devotes about 12 pages out of 190 pages to the encounters and conversations the author had with GN in the early 1950s.

6 During this time GN developed an interest in the thoughts of Gandhi, as we can see from the letter to the editor he wrote to the Indian Express (1974?) and also in a letter written to the writer Sundara Ramasamy (letter dated May 7, 1974, in G. Nagarajan ākkaṅkaḷ, 2007, pages 499-500).

7 The short stories translated in this volume narrate encounters of these writers with GN, probably in the 1970s. See bibliography.

8 Biographical notes on G. Nagarajan are partly based on bio-sketches written by C. Mohan, further substantiated and significantly broadened by new interviews conducted with GN’s friends and family. Heartfelt thanks are due to Mr. C. Mohan, Mr. Dharmarajan, Mr. Sivaramakrishnan, Mr. Karnan, Mr. Jimmy Roberts, Mr. Mu. Ramasamy, Mr. Asokamittiran, Mr. Dilip Kumar, Mr. Talavai Sundaram and finally, but most importantly, the members of GN’s family: his wife Ms. Nagalakshmi, daughter Ms. Anandhi, son Mr. Kannan and nephew Mr. R. Sankaran. Some interviews with G. Nagarajan were reportedly recorded by Mr. S Ramakrishnan of Cre–A: Publishers in Chennai; several attempts were made to consult the recordings of these interviews but with no fruitful results.

9 For a reader who does not know Tamil the best entry point into GN's works is probably his incomplete novel in English, With Fate Conspire, included in G. Nagarajan ākkaṅkaḷ, published in Nagercoil, 2007. Unfortunately, however, this novel might be quite disappointing for the reader as it does not reflect the style and economy of GN's prose in Tamil. This English novel takes up the same theme depicted by the first short novel by GN Kuṟatti Muṭukku but places it in a slightly different setting; the writing style in English indicates that this was written much later.

10 Nagarajan, G., July 30, 1973. Galileo and the Brechtian dilemma. Indo-GDR Friendship Association, Tamil Nadu State Conference Souvenir, Madurai, see Appendice.

11 Karnan, 2004. Icaikka Maṟanta Pāṭal. Madurai: Srikarthikeya Publishers, page 56.

12 Albert Camus, 1955 (1980), The Myth of Sisyphus, (translated from the French by Justin O’Brien), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex. page 111.

13 Jeyakantan (1934-), a very popular writer of communist origins, considered to be a close friend and drinking buddy of GN. Strangely he has not written a single word about GN.

14 For an Indological interpretation of GN's novel, see David Shulman’s introduction in G. Nagarajan, 2010, Tomorrow is one more day, translated by Abbie Ziffren with A. Julie, edited and revised by David Shulman and S. Ramakrishnan, Penguin, New Delhi.

15 Meidosems, 1992, translated by Elizabeth R. Jackson, Moving Parts Press, California.

16 We hardly have any concrete evidence about the actual writing process of GN. One of his friends says that in the early days of his writing career GN had a "pre paper discipline" ie he did not go through several drafts of correction on paper. We do know from his family that his wife used to copy his writings in the late 1960s and early seventies.

17 GN would have been familiar with the translation of Stuart Gilbert, first published in Britain in 1946 (The Outsider, 1974, Penguin books, Hammondsworth, Middlesex.) later reprinted many times in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly an American edition of the same book was published only in 1989 (The Stranger, translated by Matthew Ward, Vintage International, New York, 1989), in which the translator's note underlines the "American method" used by Camus in writing this novel in French, influenced by the style of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos and Cain. The direct Tamil translation from French was available only in 1980, just a year before GN died. The story that Dilip Kumar wrote about GN refers to GN’s familiarity with Camus, and to the fact that GN received a copy of the Tamil translation of L'Etranger (Anniyaṉ, 1980, translated by V. Sriram, Cre-A:, Chennai).

18 See Paṭikaḷ (published in Bangalore) issue number 9 (February, 1981) and Viḻikaḷ (published in Madurai), issue number 12 (not dated but probably some time after February, 1981).

19 This bio-sketch, reportedly written by the writer Sundara Ramasamy and overseen by S. Ramakrishnan of Cre-A:, critically portrays GN from a blindly orthodox, moralistic point of view, according to C. K. Tantavan in the small literary journal Mīṭci. See "G. Nagarajan and a publishing house named Cre-A:" in Mīṭci (published in Ooty) issue number 6 (January, 1984), page 16.

20 See bibliography.

21 Kannan M. & Francois Gros, 2002, Tamil Dalit in search of a Literature, South Asia Research, Vol 22, No. 1 Spring, pp 21 – 65.
David C. Buck & Kannan M., 2011, Introduction, Tamil Dalit Literature: My Own Experience, French Institute of Pondicherry, Pondicherry, pp vii – xxxviii.


Kannan M. is a researcher in the Contemporary Tamil Literature and Culture Program of the Department of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherty.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2013

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