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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare

Contemporary Tamil

Tamil short stories: an introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1 Un barbare en Asie, Paris, NRF, 1933, p. 113ss; Henri Michaux, A Barbarian in Asia, English transl (...)

1The Tamils, as Henri Michaux saw them in 1933:1 so different from the Northern Hindus: stubborn heretic faces, they look at you with an expression that is of no consequence….. their language buttressed by double consonants, composed of words having six to fourteen syllables… everything soldered together… one word made out of three… words borne away at top speed: you touch the first syllable and you go galloping off… the Tamils, also possessed of an insatiable curiosity, of a sense of movement, even faster than the cinema, and of rhythm akin to the European, of a nice sense of the comic and the ridiculous, with their gods a bit devilish, with, certainly, their particular liking of the magic of words: the Tamils, must have a predilection for the short story.

2And, in actual fact, their magazines and libraries are have always been filled up with short stories, which are often down to earth; their fantasy, brimming with myths and spiritual verities, is not however avid for the fantastic; their imagination, immutably codified, both limits and enriches their familiar reality, only to render it more immediate, profound and sensitive. Their short stories are a minor and fraternal genre, indulgent towards their weaknesses and experimentation, in which are to be found side by side established talents and obscure beginners, as well as banality mongers and audacious iconoclasts. Above all, their stories reflect their soul, their daily life and their history and are the best possible first step of a journey to the heart of their life.

3To communicate with them it is, however, fundamental to remember that the great originality of Indian letters resides in their “allusive value” which makes an immense understatement of every text. In that culture whose literature opened out, first of all, from grammar and logic, the literary world is so constructed and steeped in conventions that innuendo and the most unobtrusive divergence is instantly perceived as heavy with meaning. Perfect happiness for the literary person, and for a good many modern readers, is to be lulled by the music of the words on the soft pillow of tradition. The slightest relief is enough to titillate them in their contented somnolence; a fleeting shadow or slight dissonance is quickly detected and savoured to the point where we, less sensitive, would appreciate the sarcasm of Borges with regard to the pointless precision and languid flow of psychological literature. Inured to nuances of vocabulary and genre, Tamil writing, in modernising itself, has for the most part spontaneously rediscovered its intimacy, accommodating itself to subtleties of landscape and moods rather than to provocative violence or unbridled hallucinations. Further, nostalgia for a classical heritage unique to India has very often dictated to it a slack prose whose evasive wisdom is to instruct and to please. Such omnipresent litotes and subtle artifices of suppressed indignation, representing, whether passively or ponderously, resignedly or derisively, the originality of these witnesses to their times, invite us to dilute those witnesses in the event before they have had a chance to contribute, even without conscious intent, to inflecting it. The Tamil short story is a mirror of history, at its best a faithful witness, without being essentially a committed literature.

4There is another reason for this. Too few Tamil authors elect to be professionals living by their writings; when they do, they often produce potboilers. In contrast to our idea of the writer with his second job, it is literature here which is the hobby, an amateur activity that is certainly something to be proud of but is, above all, free, in every sense of the word. Responding as it does to their most diverse aspirations, writing is the second career of middle class people, smallholders and employees of the service sector; writing is their escape and distraction, a compensation for their exile from their native village, a remedy for their frustrations and a release for their passions.

5The great majority of them do not belong to the elites, either of riches or of power, but rather identify with traditional Tamil society. When not Brahmin, it is rarely that they do not belong at least to dominant castes, those who own the land but don’t cultivate it, or who invest their money in business without working in it themselves, and who assume they are still cultured. Aside from a privileged few whose work is periodically published in large editions, or those who propagate a current of popular opinion or a militant ideology, for most of them writing is an independent, and for the most part subaltern, activity, and they make no claim to be masters of thought or even of writing.

6We have therefore searched elsewhere than amongst that overabundant majority for texts existing in their own right and not for the sake of a cause or of entertainment, which are able to sustain aesthetic interest whilst maintaining a conscious view of a way of life and of expression. Such texts often show the real talent of some writers, far beyond their documentary function as witnesses of their times. But, through authentic work, they naturally contribute to that particular subjective inscription of history with which the cultural patrimony of a literature is built. By this token, every short story that evokes a landscape, an episode or a character is to be deciphered as a stele marking the collective itinerary of the Tamil people. It is some of these landmarks amongst several thousands of texts that we attempt to present here.

7This selection does not, however, constitute a handbook, neither does it represent all the tendencies nor the most conventional choice. It is restrained amongst multitudinous versions decanted from a wider panorama and, going back to the eve of the Independence of India, it gives preference to texts rather than to the most often heard names of prize winners or bestsellers. The general introduction which accompanies it is intended to provide a context in which the texts can be read and offers a route and landmarks to readers eager for information.

8For the initiated, some unexpected absences, or presences, along with the grouping of pieces and the critique, may suggest a manifesto, and a vulnerable one; this is unavoidable when the reader is a non-conformist Tamil whose choice stands for a critical approach, based upon a particular idea of literature, rather than on panegyric or the unacknowledged fear of offending someone. As far as the French translator is concerned, he is obliged above all to be very modest before the amplitude of the task, which starts from the simple recognition of the absence of all real communication between contemporary Indian literature and the occidental literary world, the French one in particular.

  • 2 The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, London (...)
  • 3 The incident will be forgotten with the novel by Arundhati Roy, The god of small things, Booker Pr (...)
  • 4 Most probably a newspaper article, reprinted without date or reference in Makākavi Pārati kaṭṭurai (...)

9There are many reasons for this. The first is the widespread misapprehension that Indian literature in English is, after fifty years of independence, the sole Indian contribution to the world of literature. This common simplification, popularized by Salman Rushdie,2 stirred up violent, if hardly argued, protests amongst speakers of the sixteen, and more, languages of the subcontinent, inaccurately termed “vernacular”.3 Even before 1920, Subramaniya Bharati, looking at the invidious position of Tamil writers, went to the heart of the matter: “It is God who must extract the Tamil writers of today from their torments. In truth, there is no respect for poetry in Tamil lands. If stories in English translation are offered many people buy and read them; and many are the new novels adapted in the most servile fashion to the English style. The authors make some profit from these. There are, however, a small number of writers of Tamil whose works are genuinely inspired by an authentic literary quality. These no one publishes or, if they do, no one buys them. Those who are unable to recognise the originality of a work in a new genre have no means by which to appreciate the savour. The country is at a point where the way marked out by the “elites” who have studied English is the truth established for everyone else. These “sophists” are convinced that there is absolutely nothing new or remarkable to be discovered in Tamil writing. Thus gifted writers, more and more avid to exercise their talent, find themselves at an impasse and turn to other activities.”4 This sorry state of affairs continues, aggravated by the spectre of globalisation and by the choice of texts for translation and the mode of their distribution.

  • 5 This is not to decry the English language in India as an invaders’ tongue without regional roots. (...)

10From his original ghetto, the Tamil writer has but one choice: to be comfortable and adapt as the majority do, or to attempt to breach the walls. To those faced with an apathetic, or sympathetic but powerless, outside world, “write in Madras” has the ring of “die in Madrid”, that passionate cry of the passionaria and the desperados, a cry of distress that cannot cross frontiers which, at the extreme south of the Indian subcontinent, is stifled by international indifference and never reaches our ears, already sated with our readings of occidental parvenus. The problem of translation is not limited to the failings of translators whose English is limited and French lifeless. That is often, alas, the case, but it is also too often true, though forgotten, that in India the translation market, from the choice of texts for translation up to the lobbying for translators, is entirely in the hands of that bilingual “elite” Bharati was denouncing, and operates according to the norms of selection and criteria of taste of the locally prized international English production which imposes as an ideal on translators and their victims an Anglo-Indian literature, prolific more than it is original5 and, in addition to that, limited to the restrained usage of a milieu that is ‘cosmopolitan’ as opposed to ‘universal’, often urbanized, at a loose end and severed from its real roots which are rural and dialectal. How then could its choice be hoped to reflect an indigenous or popular expression, or a need to speak the truth?

  • 6 Ian Jack, responsible for “Indian” editorial selections at the Granta publishing house, recently t (...)

11Distribution, for its part, is subject to the mediatory law6 of a network with international ramifications capable of making its decisions count, and of fabricating a “literary event” and forcing it onto the best seller list. As merchandise for export, Indian letters are delivered over to these multi-nationals, for the use of consumers whose tastes and habits have been rudimentarily surveyed. Even at the university level this market has its agents offering foreigners various crafted products which quickly exceed the limited demand.

12To translate regional literature directly according to the choices of local consumers is, by contrast, to put oneself deliberately out of the super-market and onto the pavement opposite, where some products lack glossy packaging, and there are not even lively peddlers to attract passers by. In the same way, the “natural” products of improvised ecologies are offered at the gateways of towns by primitives in fancy dress: a Concours Lépine against standardised industry.

  • 7 Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1999. Translated into English, The World Republic of Letters, Harvard Un (...)

13We should like to be able to convince ourselves, before attempting to convince others, that the march of globalisation leaves but a single choice to the Indian writers of tomorrow: English, which in India as everywhere else has ceased to be a foreign language without becoming a second mother tongue. This is not the place to reopen the fundamental debate, recently enlarged in all its dimensions by the fine analysis by Pascale Casanova in La République mondiale des Lettres (The World Republic of Letters),7 nor to overwhelm Rushdie with the reflections of Jorge Luis Borges on exoticism, or with the genuine originality of Argentinian literature as compared with the Spanish. We shall be satisfied if we shall have been able to contribute towards informing the occidental public that for a century and a half under its indifferent eyes, every one of the languages of India has reinvented its prose and that in each one there are authors daily engaged in the creation of a style. The results are unequal but there must surely be a preference for the depths of the indigenous bazaar over the pavements of big cities where export rejects are sold.

I - The permanent axes

14From its beginnings, the history of the Tamil short story has been repetitive, like an expanding spiral whose chronological progression is on the same axes: well worn debates on modernity versus tradition, on the appropriateness of the literary language to the attitudes of mind of readers, and on the popular press versus avant-garde little periodicals. A brief historical review will clarify the hopes and expectations of today.

The radical ambiguity: the modern or the traditional?

15This ambiguity is at the heart of the earliest text chosen (1935), and is the contradiction that haunts the creator of the modern Tamil short story. The pseudonym, “Putumaippittaṉ” (“Fool for the new”), of C. Viruttācalam proclaims the will of his generation to look upon the world with new eyes. But his story takes us to the beginning of our era, at the period when a regional culture in a language other than Sanskrit was shining forth in India, that of the earliest Tamil literary flowering. The dialogue, between a Greek sailor, disciple of Pyrrhon and of Epicurus, and a sculptor, some sort of Tamil Phidias, takes for granted the parity of the Tamil land with ancient Greece, and the excellence and universality of Tamil culture. Here is the tradition in its regional eternity, nourished by history, archaeology and a dash of mythology. So the writer is not a path-finder except when he claims for himself, under the Parnassian allegory of a plastic masterpiece, an individual merit unique in literature, the aesthetic quest of an author seeking to conquer time. Then something new and thrilling comes into being: an artist, a prose writer of Madras, is conscious of taking from the hands of the Tamil classics the torch of genuine literature. In a significant parallel, his sculptor sacrifices to the same extreme thirst for formal perfection as L’homme de pourpre by Pierre Louÿs which appeared a generation earlier, in 1901. For the latter, even crime is redeemed in the eyes of the crowd by the beauty of the work, whilst the Tamil artist, frustrated to see – in a dream – the insensibility of generations of imbecile believers, is condemned to draw on his own strength to persist in his vocation and craftsmanship.

  • 8 In the ordinary meta-language of criticism authors are designated by their initials (bearing in mi (...)

16Another example of rift between the indigenous tradition and international culture, taken more lightly, is provided by K. N. Subramaniam (Ka. Nā. Cu. to the initiated8 1912-1988), Indian archetype of the cosmopolitan critic with his incisive and often illuminating judgements, who draws this caricature of himself and even more of his colleagues: I am a perfect local product of cultural alienation!

17“Introduced to the Upanishads by T. S. Eliot

18And to Tagore by the much younger Pound

19And to the Indian tradition by Max Mueller (of the Bhavan)

20And to Indian dance by Bowers

21And to Indian art by What’s-his-name

22And to the Tamil classics by Daniélou (was he the Pope?)

23Neither flesh nor fish or blood nor stone stake for totem;

24Vociferating others’ thoughts

  • 9 “The age demanded…” translated by Michael Edwards in Adam, International Review, No. 355-356, “Pas (...)

25Eloquent with others’ words.”9

26Is this really an accurate portrait of the privileged interpreter of Tamil culture amongst the Anglophone literary public, both in India and in the Anglo-Saxon world, during the twenty years the author spent in Delhi? At the same time, he was taking an active part in the best Tamil literary magazines such as Maṇikkoṭi, Sarasvati, and Eḻuttu, and he never ceased to produce novels, short stories and, Tamil poems under the pseudonym of Mayaṉ, the celestial architect. With him, a Brahmin of orthodox persuasion born near Tancavur, as with many of his colleagues, rebellious remarks and provocative occidental vocabulary had to do with maya, illusion, since affective values and fundamental references endure, inseparable from the Hindu tradition they all had in their blood. This meant Vedānta and Bhakti, the epics and the inspiring popular myths, even where the agnostic Ka. Nā. Cu. was concerned, whose pious and edifying story featuring Krishna we have chosen for its authentic charm and emblematic value.

27Briefly speaking, the work of Tamil writers must always be read in the perspective of their history. Under the weight of a cultural heritage and a two thousand year old Indian mystic consciousness, and under the double ideological and aesthetic solicitation of the occidental world, which fascinated them, as well as of a Tamil nationalist and linguistic revolution, manifested throughout the 20th century by the Dravidian Movement, which mobilised them: faced by such challenges and victims of such ruptures, were they in fact in any condition to create the Tamil short story?

At the beginning: “Once upon a time…”

28The short story issues naturally from the tale, an undatable and anonymous entertainment, receptive to the initiative of particular talents. Among its traditional components is a didactic dimension. The Tamil short story is linked to the eternal conventions of Hindu morality as to the nationalist awakening and, thus, to social and political engagements which, to inherited wisdom add, the modern educational concern with the shaping of tomorrow’s society.

  • 10 Now available in French in the collection Connaissance de l’Orient and in the Bibliothèque de la P (...)
  • 11 M. L’Abbé J.-A. Dubois, Le Pantcha-tantra ou Les cinq ruses, Fables du Brahme Vichnou-Sarma; Avent (...)
  • 12 In an anthology of Tamil short stories from Singapore, Na. Govindasamy & Elangovan, Singapore Tami (...)

29India is the homeland of the tale: Pañcatantra, Twenty-five Tales of a Vetala (vampire), The Ocean of Story.10 As fast as the printed word spread in the 19th century tales were published in Tamil, and from the very beginning sealed the complicity between folklore and narrative fiction. The abundant collections, speedily translated into English, of C. M. Natesa Sastri (1859-1906), who, inversely, made successful Tamil novels of the mystery stories of A. Conan Doyle, are first of all tales, little different from numerous collections rushing the oral folklore tradition into print. Before this, the well known missionary, Abbé Dubois, had collected and translated some southern versions of the Sanskrit Pañcatantra, and also a more specifically Tamil sotie-like satirical farce compiled a century earlier by the Italian Jesuit Beschi, which Francisque Sarcey enjoyed.11 Faced with these foreigners, Muttukkuṭṭi Ayyar published in 1895 a manuscript from 1775, Vacaṉa Campratāya Katai, a work of fiction in prose, meant to keep the court of the chieftain of Civakaṅkai awake during the night of Civarātri; it was presented as the seed, imperfectly separated from the world of tales, of both the Tamil novel and short story: the eternal but not very convincing quest for origins, is hounded by competition from other Indian languages, especially Bengali.12

  • 13 See especially Another Harmony, New Essays on the Folklore of India, collection co-edited with Stu (...)

30The short story has its roots firmly in the folkloric tradition, however, and many are the conjunctions with modern Tamil literature maintained by anthropology, which turns into a literary genre the moment it annexes or fixes folk literature. The latter is then anthropologised, so to speak, by social anthropologists, into a cognitive tool through translations and exegeses. A. K. Ramanujan (1929-1993) remains, as regards Tamil and Kannada, an explorer of subtlety and a brilliant and ambiguous academic illustration of this dangerous osmosis.13

  • 14 He offers one of the first ever lucid diagnoses of the break-up of the joint family and the evolut (...)

31The truth is that the Tamil short story only began really to spread from 1925, after an initial generation of short story writers, that is, the generation of A. Madhaviah (1872-1925), himself eclipsed despite his bold ideology,14 who made the short story the servant of social reform, and V. V. S. Aiyar (1881-1925), lawyer, literary critic and Gandhian revolutionary, who published in 1916, at Pondicherry, where he was living as a political refugee, what is often considered to be the first real collection of (five) Tamil short stories, Maṅkaiyarkkaraciyiṉ kātal maṟṟum piṟa kataikaḷ, (still in print), which is enriched with the Ossianic romance of three other narratives based on national myth or history. Fortified by the generation of de Maupassant, the French reader may be surprised to find the Tamil short story so timid at first. It came up against literary prejudice, already inveterately against prose intended only to entertain; it didn’t, according to the nationalists, have the noble task of mobilizing people which first devolved upon poetry and was then claimed for the novel. Thus Subramaniya Bharati (1882-1921), the great Tamil nationalist poet, author of a very few short stories written as tales, drew from memories of his childhood at the court of the Raja of Eṭṭaiyapuram, “The story of ciṉṉa Caṅkaraṉ” (Ciṉṉa Caṅkaraṉ katai), an hilarious satirical piece. It so happened that the manuscript disappeared and so did the poet’s servant at the same time, most probably granted by the police an unaccountable holiday in British India a few kilometres from Pondicherry. Bharati decided to rewrite the same tale as a serial, wrote four chapters that are models of style and vigour and gave it up; but he never dreamed of making it into a short story.

An ever evolving prose for an evolving world

  • 15 Extract from chapter 42: “Cutēṣa pāṣā apivirutti – tamiḻiṉ arumai” (Development of the domestic la (...)

32Vedanayagam Pillai, (1826-1889) an emblematic figure and the author of the first Tamil novel, The Story of Pratāpa Mutaliyār (Piratāpa Mutaliyār carittiram) (1876), also defended prose but insisted upon the primacy and anteriority of the novel over the short story. He recalled another fundamental truth which is that the first Tamil prose writers were, above all, imitators and propagandists: “We confess that it is a great lack that there is no prose fiction in Tamil such as there is in English, French and other languages. It is to fill in that gap that we advocate as a necessity the assiduous study of all foreign languages and Tamil. Only those who have mastered international languages and the domestic language will be able to write prose fiction of high quality. How could anyone else do so? It is certainly the case, is it not, that there are works of fiction in prose which contribute to the progress of the people, while poetry does not have that capacity?”15 This is a pertinent question: revolutionaries are natural conservatives, linguistically speaking, and the pioneers of nationalism or of autonomy were slow to switch from the language of the coloniser, a critical weapon to be used against him, into the language of their own compatriots in order to awaken them to new ideas.

33As a whole, in Tamil, the pre-modern period appeared to be less concerned with innovation than with maintaining a cultural heritage that is verbal and sometimes verbose. Here, only some specific original creations issuing from folklore are to be distinguished, or the mystical visions of a Tāyumāṉavar or a Rāmaliṅkar (Vaḷḷaḷār) (1823-1874), or the social lyricism of the musician and playwright Gopalakrishna Bharati, who died in 1896. It was only at the turn of the century that Tamil prose brilliantly asserted itself, as even the British who were disturbed by it, acknowledged. This can be seen in the pages of the monthly Vivēkacintāmaṇi, founded in 1892 at Madras, and the weekly Cutēcamittiraṉ, run by the founder of the Hindu, the first important English newspaper in Madras, G. Subramania Iyer (1855-1916), and in India edited by Subramaniya Bharati himself.

  • 16 The railway station, favoured venue for meetings and separations, is a scene of choice for the sho (...)

34At the same time, industry was moving in, along with urbanisation, and the railway.16 A new public, the bourgeoisie, came at the right moment to replace the princely patrons and traditional religious groups who were increasingly showing signs of decadence, license or bigotry, and of a gratuitous preciosity of language. It was the time of the first craftsmen of modern Tamil prose of whom the most revolutionary, Subrahmanya Bharati, made of the Tamil language a modern instrument of communication. The erudite U. Ve. Swaminatha Ayyar (1855-1942), due to his talent as a story teller and to the freshness and openness of his mind as witnessed by his memoirs and biographies, is akin to the best of the short story writers, whilst the pure chaste prose of Tiru V. Kalyanasundaram (1883-1953) who was first an ideologue, politician and essayist, offered another, and more deliberately social and reformist, model. The cultural pressure was augmented by the impact of both western and Bengali literature. The shock of modernity, an increasingly critical affirmation of the individual up against society, was in a way to open out into analysis of profundities which brought about the emergence of a sort of self-criticism and an awareness of the power of tradition. The more English, French, Russian, and Bengali in translation transformed their vision of the world, making it more individual and more intimist, the more Tamil writers sought to rediscover the values of their past: history and legend, popular beliefs and rural life, collective and emotional memory and an acute if sometimes disoriented sense of their roots.

35These mutants were often migrants at the same time, torn between the memory of their homeland (especially Tirunelveli and Tancavur) and the fuzzy urban streams into which their studies or careers plunged them. Whenever they had the courage to raise their voices, to experiment with new forms or to create a language for themselves, they had to fight against the monotonous schema imposed by journalism which very quickly began to threaten and to fascinate them. Now, opening lines had to catch the attention at once and suspense be maintained up to the final twist, within the framework of the life and thought of the average reader and within the time span of a commute from the suburbs. All this was taking place in the whirlwind of aspirations to independence, of Gandhian idealism shared by all, of radical rationalism, of cultural and linguistic fervour (the Dravidian Movement) and of militant communism: an entire anti-establishment grocery store in search of progress and change.

36Still, it was in the press that these writers found a place to express themselves, group together and acquire an identity of their own. The development of the short story coincided with that of the journals; both answered the needs of the educated middle classes, and the dialogue between the writing and its readers was instituted through a press that was already grown up well before Independence: Tiṉa maṇi, a Tamil daily, the role of which has remained capital in the establishment of a standard language of genuine worth has been coming out since 1934.

Popular magazines or small periodicals: Kalki against the Maṇikkoṭi group

  • 17 Founded in 1928, it became a weekly in 1933.
  • 18 After more than half a century, Āṉanta Vikaṭaṉ still has the second largest distribution of Tamil (...)

37This convenient schema illustrates the conflict that has been the most enduring since the 1930s: widely distributed popular literature against the elitist literature of little magazines. The mainstream press with its literary pretensions was engendered by the meeting between S. S. Vasan, the founder of the humorous magazine17 Āṉanta Vikaṭaṉ (The Happy Buffoon), and the multi-talented novelist, R. Krishnamurti, known as Kalki (1899-1954), the epitome of the literary man in the eyes of the neo-literati. He was gifted inherently for popularisation without trivialisation but gave in to laxity and facileness, to suspense and sentimentality. Vasan, who was also a magnate in the fledgling cinema, provided the archetype of consumer literature and had the genius to perceive what Kalki’s talent could bring to his magazine and to develop an editorial policy of high literary tone which mingled art, without too many nuances, with cultural populism; this brought to the masses music and dance, fine-arts, history and literature, as well as, awakening readers to their latent political strength, by making them aware of social reforms, economics and independence. Very soon, on Kalki’s initiative, a fee of fifty rupees and publication of the text in the magazine encouraged writers to send in a short story a week. This policy of literary prizes and of writing for the wider audience, still in force today, is partly responsible for the overabundance of the genre.18

  • 19 An all-rounder who also wrote for the theatre and cinema, responsible initially for Maṇikkoṭi and (...)

38In contrast, B. S. Ramaiya (1905-1983) and his friends ran Maṇikkoṭi, the prototype of the politically engaged and literarily exigent journals with no budget, that were to follow. A political weekly that very soon became bi-monthly, Maṇikkoṭi scarcely survived five years, from September 1933 to January 1938, but the group of writers involved in the venture formed the hard core of modern Tamil literature of quality: Putumaippittaṉ, Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan, Na. Pichamurti etc. The widest political vision was certainly that of V. Ramasvami Ayyangar, an editor known as Va. Rā.; he was well read and an outstanding translator of the Bengali, Bankim Chandra Chatterji and, above all, a progressive thinker and courageous reformer who was never held back by the orthodox prejudices of his circle. With him literature ceased to be an evasion and became direct action upon the actual society. His “enlightened pragmatism” was certainly the most positive contribution from the point of view of the younger writers. To satisfy the demands of the long procession of ephemeral little reviews, literature had to root itself in real life. It made little difference that Va. Rā. very soon left Maṇikkoṭi to found another magazine and that his successors were the “pure” literary men, B. S. Ramaiah (or Ramaiya)19 and Putumaippittaṉ. In devoting their journal, from then on, to the publication of Tamil short stories and, even more, to foreign ones in Tamil translation, they were not renouncing the commitments of the elite of their time nor, especially, of Kalki, but were rather deciding that their principal fight was to be for literature.

39We may quite easily understand this confused love-hate relationship, given that the nationalist ideals of Kalki and his idols on the one hand and the group coming out of Maṇikkoṭi on the other were the same. The latter brought together the best selection of good writers, but everyone recognised that Kalki was far from lacking in talent; he had, in any case, honourable descendants, Na. Parthasarathy, Akilan, Mu. Varadarajan (Mu. Va) etc. Debate was joined on the respective merits and roles of translation and adaptation; Putumaippittaṉ might attack plagiarists of English and the adaptations that were the craze at the period but he was himself largely inspired by foreign sources, especially de Maupassant, and knew very well that such openness to western literature was essential. Kalki succumbed to the most readily available option: to the masses, who had discovered the pleasures of reading and were awaiting their Alexandre Dumas or their Walter Scott, he brought strong if stereotyped characters and very romantic historical frescoes in which Victorian morality and a nationalistic thrill triumph. His historical novels bury history in melodrama but are of course irresistible as they mix love, adventure and crime with the resurrection of the glorious past of a people, whether in a few pages or in five volumes.

  • 20 This was also the year of the launching of Tiṉat tanti, today the most popular daily in the region (...)

40Cinema had taken over from books, and popular magazines consumed an enormous amount of this facile literature which was consistently condemned, for remaining popular, to identify with the commonplaces of that conservatism which does not dare to show its true face, and expressing and identifying itself without art, though not without talent. The most virulent critics of Kalki yesterday were, as those of Sujata today, forced to recognize that his writing was exact, agreeable and modern in tone and in an innovative language more original than the formulae of his plots. Finally, the situation became complicated, with the magazine Kalaimakaḷ entering, in 1932, into a competition for prestige with Ānanta Vikaṭaṉ, of wide circulation and at least equal pretension, while in 194220 Kalki founded his own magazine, Kalki.

41It would be an over simplification to exalt by contrast the aesthetical and ethical exigencies of the uncompromising Maṇikkoṭi group and its heritage. The review itself did not in any case survive and its legacy has been what is called “little reviews” with a long history of ephemeral or aborted attempts: one experimented, one borrowed and one innovated. The abundance of foreign references, new words, both borrowed and neologisms, employed by the critics as well as by the authors themselves, often discouraged the average reader who was shocked too by daring thoughts and by obscurities or incongruities of expression. The result was that a succès d’estime met with lukewarm response from the general public and had a restricted circulation.

  • 21 Published in Delhi, it occasionally features texts translated from Tamil; for example, Number 16 ( (...)

42Additionally, the development of official institutions after Independence created other, often burdensome, centres of influence. For instance, the two founts of quasi-official criticism are the Sahitya Akademi and the communist party of India. The journal of the former, Indian Literature,21 an effective English language promotional organ distributed throughout India, is at the service of a fairly desperate conformism. Then again before the communist party split in 1964 its sympathisers published a literary review: Sarasvati, which appeared between 1955 and 1962, with the legitimate hope of taking up the torch of Maṇikkoṭi; since the split, Cemmalar and Tāmarai, which have survived, have not succeeded in disengaging writing from ideology. Small journals must constantly win over their public against the attraction of the popular magazines, which are now fighting fiercely for their own survival against television.

43It is nevertheless due to the spirit of the movement of the thirties that, since the 1970s, dozens of ephemeral journals have continued to flourish, fading away and renewing themselves all the time, with a few short lived attempts to maintain an average circulation on a formula of compromise (Putiya Pārvai, or the more elitist Cupamaṅkaḷā and Kaṇaiyāḻi, both extinct). These periodicals are full of vehement discussion, utopias, and the false values of a closed milieu; the illuminating pragmatism of Va. Rā. had given way to political themes and scholarly disputes peppered with perfidious allusions.

44The little magazines are still the dream of young writers, and their daily bread too, even if the situation two generations on is quite different. Skimpy little journals with print runs of a few hundred today bristle with well known names from Bakhtin to Hélène Cixous, from Foucault to Eco, de Sade to Artaud, Derrida to Baudrillard, Lacan to Lyotard, and with a vocabulary drawn from post-modernism. Unexpected, rarely first-hand, references along with the operation of non-linearity to the marginal and the subaltern are the weapons used to deconstruct the language and the fiction created and imposed by the previous generation. This counter-culture, often growing up in the universities, has not been strong enough to create an original impetus but, at the same time, other signs of vitality, such as a strong Hindu revival and an, as violent, anti-brahminism, stimulate young writers whilst the awakening of the oppressed, the Dalits, begins to emerge in the form of documents, which are then turned into a kind of literature: that to say, a style which introduces popular speech into the narration, recalling an analogous evolution that took place in Maharashtra from the late 1960s to the 1970s.

45In contrast, the rival enterprise of the popular magazines still flourishes, where writers successful with the middle classes have long prospered, writers who, as they aged, deserted the little reviews and the convictions and battles of their youth for better sales. The new generation of writers know that they won’t be able to win back the currently discouraged public of their predecessors, unless they have enough imagination to express the present fundamental insecurities and passions in a language of their own. Their trajectory thus retraces to a great extent that of the pioneers of modern Tamil literature; it reflects their hopes and their anger with the same hopes and rage of those likewise caught between the glorious weight of the Indian past, the attractions of the western world and local political commitments.

II - Before Independence, the path-finders

Putumaippittaṉ (C. Viruttacalam, 1906-1948)

  • 22 Not without fixed prejudice nor caste consciousness; this is the case with the historian A. R. Ven (...)

46A tradition, nowadays contested,22 gives Subramaniya Bharati the title of father of modern prose that we should rather award to Putumaippittaṉ who, for the form and the maturity of the genre, was the real founder of the Tamil short story. Heavy with meaning, his heritage is burdensome. Many traits of his modernism, whilst new to Tamil, are in tune with our sensibility: economy of means and effects, a searching look at tradition, an accent that is both sarcastic and frustrated, a sort of mockery of authority that stops just short of insult and, especially, a fast lively tempo, the fever of one who walks barefoot on burning paving stones, dancing from one foot to another and forced to go on since there is nowhere to rest. He stands out as the first writer of prose to assume the status of author, as Kalki did, but he never sold out for money since he felt responsible for the literature of his country; in his writings, he never took the position of a painter somewhere off in the distance but was always a participant. He did not, in the progressive conformist milieu of Maṇikkoṭi, share his colleagues’ utopian visions. Coming from Tirunelveli he was never, in fact, really integrated into the Madras scene. At that effervescent period when the temptation to reduce literature to ideology and propaganda was great, he did not give in to the prevailing atmosphere; he had the courage as well to refuse a leading role in certain engagements and to question their relevance. He raised the problem too of different basic cultures in his own society at a time when people were idealistically, and perhaps too hastily, enthusiastic about inter-caste marriage and the salvation of the oppressed; when his compatriots were applauding the abolition of sati, the infamous funeral pyre of widows, his reply was that the condition in which they were closed away for the rest of their lives was still worse: a daily burning at the stake till death.

47The visionary perspective of Bharati, through a lyricism very much cut off from life, leaves the reader in the position of spectator, but Putumaippittaṉ disturbed the comfort of the reader and introduced the fundamental intuition of the time to nibble away at the establishment, thus making instability and insecurity the only values on which his responsibility as a free man was based. His own impassioned life, feverish with poverty, with consumption, and with the unfulfilled dreams of a writer whose hard working career led him as far as Pune, and swang him between journalism and the hope of better fortune in the cinema studios, incarnated the nakedness of the artist when patrons slip away and the profession has still to be envisaged. The recent posthumous publication of his correspondence, particularly with his wife, Kamala, adds a moving dimension to his memory, without it swamping the reader in a preoccupation with the sordid and miserable.

48As he fought poverty and then illness he compelled the attention of society by his vehemence. He was more taut and more denunciatory than Bharati, but he too was animated by confidence in himself and in his natural facility and in the future; and he was aware that his intransigence and rectitude would give a scale to criticism and not the reverse. A calm strength saved him from despair in his battle despite the temptation of bitterness and of a certain mysterious presence of the demonic which has contributed to there being too much talk of his “magical realism”. His anger was directed less against individuals as against the human condition that controls and subjugates them, as it does the reader.

49He was a free writer who played with every kind of theme, even with the most sacred myths, such as the Ramayana which he reconstructed according to his fantasy, or the story of Ahalya, petrified by the unjust curse of her husband; he amused himself with the figure of a god overtaken by his creation who, roughly confronted at Madras, shows himself incapable of taking on human life in its daily struggle. While Putumaippittaṉ was certainly positively progressive and materialist, he was not affiliated with any ideology: a free spirit, he was convinced that a preoccupation with literature was always essential for a writer. To life’s fundamental questions he had no other answer than the fury of a style of incomplete sentences which somewhat resembles the songs of the Tamil cittar, those ascetics and rebel visionaries of the pre-modern age.

Mauṉi (S. Mani 1907-1985)

  • 23 Piramil, the writer Dharmu Sivaramu, reports that when Va. Rā., in a thoroughly Gandhian enthusias (...)

50If Putumaippittaṉ started a push towards critical consciousness which afterwards became insipid and its pronouncements increasingly sentimental or conciliatory ending in populist seduction, Mauṉi remained isolated and cut off: a discreet writer whose pen name means “The Silent One”, known to a few serious readers and a subject of controversy for others. It is necessary to speak of his density which caused more superficial critics to accuse him of obscurity. He was thought to be too personal in his outlook and too unconditionally immersed in a Brahmin world,23 between a village in Tancavur district and the traditional Hindu town of Kumbakonam, and as far as the shadow of the temple of Chidambaram where he lived from 1943 managing the family flour mill. Some people put him on a pinnacle out of a smug admiration for his essentialism. His inner world, resolutely Hindu in its framework, is limited to the enclosure of a temple or a Brahmin quarter and at the same time it is universal and impalpable: the metaphysical despair of a being without cares and without roots who is both comfortable with the external appearances of the world and confronted by them; for his perception, like his style, changed everything into appearances which are concretely reflected in his short stories. These appearances were themselves filtered through the prism of a traditional philosophical system which transmute them into hallucinations which in return took the place of replies to his questions. Mauṉi searched intensely beneath appearances for human relationships that go beyond the body, but these are posed only in terms of metaphysical interrogations on the universe, the “I” and others. His space is that of a waking dream, intense but ungraspable and always on three levels: concrete space, the interior world and the cosmos. Appearance being uncertain, the individual questions himself about his identity in relation to the world and to others, in terms both of extremely hazy mirages and very powerful traditional images. In Mauṉi’s eyes, a tree has its branches like hands for embracing the sky and merging with it; its roots are never explicitly revealed but, anchored in traditional philosophy and in the complexity of individual psychology, they remain essential all the same. Mauṉi’s effort which, no matter what he said, was consciously literary, perhaps consisted in suggesting, and in conjuring through the play of his images, dazzling translations of his own problems. Here, the essential vision is the obscurity of the temple where, whilst the divine images glow, people are nothing but shadows, unknown, neutral, an impalpable reality in which is diluted an impossible love. The point to which this may proclaim the tragic oppression of the Hindu tradition has never been emphasised: almost suffocating in its grandiose framework, especially when, like Mauṉi, an artist is determined to exercise his creative activity only within its framework, and is constrained by the confined atmosphere never to let in the least breath of fresh air. Finally, music, which appeases all, occupied a considerable place in his work and in his life; each of his short stories should be listened to as to a fugue with inextricable recurrent themes, or as to the classical Carnatic music of South India in which the rāga is elaborated little by little by notes that seek themselves indefinitely before returning to their immutable place in the exposition of svaram.

Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan (1902-1944), Na. Pichamurti (1900-1977)

51Mauṉi had no direct hold over his successors while every writer was influenced, in his Marxist oriented progressive youth, by the critical consciousness and the questioning of Putumaippittaṉ, from M. T. Raghunathan to Jeyakantan, including Sundara Ramaswamy and G. Nagarajan. There was a counter current, however, from the very start. Two friends known to the tradition as the “twins of Kumbakonam” for their childhood friendship and the town of their birth, Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan (of Telugu ancestry) and Na. Pichamurthi spoke, in fact in an accent very different from, not to say opposite, to that of Putumaippittaṉ.

52In the work of Ku. Pa. Rajagopalan (1902-1944, known as Ku. Pa. Rā.), a romantic sensibility at grips with the contradictions in human relationships as exposed, along with humorous and nuanced perceptions, enriches each situation with an all enveloping sweetness. His view was close-up and his vision at the quotidian level, despite the onset of blindness, equally sharp at the moment of crisis. Where Putumaippittaṉ was letting fly a volley of arrows, Ku. Pa. Rā. was drawing in his claws; there is something feline in his subtle, velvety, yet powerful approach. In a typically Brahmin familial environment, transgressions are portrayed mildly. At a time when women had, so to speak, no sexual existence nor the possibility of expressing themselves, this short story writer offered the first description in Tamil of the female heart in all its aspiration and frustration in the face of righteous male attitudes, and that in a language all sweetness and nuance, without excess. Everything is indirect and suggested and keeps the reader in a state of critical awareness in which a word or gesture is enough to exteriorise feelings and reveal what is absurd or intolerable. It is for the reader to decide the fate of the characters, who have the tendency to shut themselves up in their obsessions. But this sober kind of writing disguised a great deal of strength and often shocks the reader with a subtle and effective non-conformism. His calm and masterful vision engenders precisely a feeling of incompletion which suggests more than is revealed of lack and frustration; the feline can be aggressive too. It is not by chance that his description of a poor, subjected farm worker too existentially attached to his field (Paṉṉaic Ceṅkaṉ, Ceṅkaṉ the Serf), passes in some quarters for the point of departure of a current of Dalit literature especially if Ti. Janakiraman, M. Venkatram, and later Balakumaran and Malan, are considered as belonging to his lineage.

53Na. Pichamurthi (1900-1977), known as a poet above all, practised short story writing as a sort of testing ground for the philosophical fantasies pouring forth in his poems which are some of the first examples of free verse in Tamil. The modern sensibility that underlies his metaphysical accents gave an author who was strictly formed by Hinduism (as a Vedantin and a follower of Congress, his nonconformity came to him from afar) a very contemporary tone of restrained experimentation, composed of economy and rigour, without either outbursts or sentimentality: a rare mixture of serenity and resignation with regard to the great questions of relationships in the human condition that leave the human being alone with his conscience and face to face with nature and the divine. Later, Carvakan (1929) and, to a much lesser degree, Krishnan Nampi (1932-1976) tried to continue with the same approach but not even the incontestable literary merits of the former really manage to touch us.

L. S. Ramamirtham (1916-2008)

54We are in a particular kind of ivory tower with Lā. Ca. Rā. A bank employee who saw forms beyond the imagination and the senses and in them, as in the obsessive image of the ant-hill, saw the complexity of the hyper-real world. The emotion is deep but its outburst strictly controlled; the world of Lā. Ca. Rā. is determined. It would even be dogmatic and reduced to stereotype if the imaginary dimension did not lend it life and if the style and the images were not there to give it fluidity. The style is polished; the rich, smooth language has the taste of thick cream for Indians, along with the firm bisque of Sanskritisms and the lumps of Tamilized English: the Brahmin idiolect used for the dialogues is almost exaggerated. It is the loaded language of an author who once wrote: if one pronounces the word “fire” the mouth should burst into flames. Precise limits are pushed in a world of ideas and ready made answers where modern problems are ignored and where tradition is not transgressed; the circle is everywhere, the circumference nowhere; we are enclosed within traditional structures; before our eyes the snake winds on the marble slabs and the hypnotised author remains strangely fascinated by the world he has created. There is genuine narcissistic pleasure in the contemplation of the beauty generated by these structures: a kōlam of words whose marks, suspended in the void, compel the attention, but the desperate effort to capture the beauty of the experience works very much to the detriment of depth, and we say this in the face of accepted opinion.

55For his contribution, though too often mistakenly presented as a discovery of psychological depth, is of a more aesthetic order, the result of twenty years of progress and development of the Tamil short story since Putumaippittaṉ. Certainly Freud, not to mention Joyce, was better known, and no one can deny the importance of the autobiographical details of La. Sa. Ra., nor the insistence on the spiritual traditions of his caste and of his household with its domestic customs. But his aesthetic partisanship was sarcastically denounced by another Brahmin, Sundara Ramaswamy who recalled that La. Sa. Ra. never went beyond the inner courtyard of the house where the women carried out their domestic work and lived their intimate pollution. He was a stylist in the service of the narrow, closed cultural world of Brahmins and their wives and in the minutiae of their daily lives, where there is a sudden flash of the abyss and its vertiginous attraction. La. Sa. Ra. concentrated upon narration and form so as to turn into art his ideal vision of the Hindu philosophical tradition and the unique, and slightly crazy, experiences which distract him without ever shaking his orthodoxy. It is his good luck and our misfortune that the literary itinerary of La. Sa. Ra. in the great Indian game of snakes and ladders escaped the fate of a Rimbaud or of an Antonin Artaud.

Ka. Na. Cu. (1912-1988), C. S. Cellappa (1912-1998)

  • 24 Notably with regard to the “new” criticism represented by Venkat Swaminathan who, in a sound retur (...)

56Ka. Nā. Cu., already introduced at the beginning of this presentation, and C. S. Cellappa share the same succès d’estime, and the same rather laborious image of a Le Corbusier of letters, more ideologists (that is to say, doctrinaire in the case of the latter, since the former was more eclectic than strict) than genuine creators, but whose mastery had a few pleasant surprises in store, despite the narrowness of their limitations.24 In the case of the first, we retain fewer of his short stories than of his poems. With this very professional writer we are in the presence of a dry, lucid intellectual, who documented his work without any real creativity or specific ideological baggage but was all the same capable, as in his poems, of leaving space in his writing for the reader to dream.

57In comparison, Cellappa, who played a no less important role as critic, editor and prime mover of literary journals, offers more variety of style and subject, but a variety that was in some way forced rather than naturally matured, too far separated from all emotion to be effective, and killed by a distancing regard nothing living could survive. Despite his passion for writing, he was, sad to say, unequal in his short stories, his poems and his essays. His longevity worked against him in his last, extremely autobiographical, novel, Cutantira tākam (Thirst for Freedom) (1997), a book of 1650 pages heavy with Gandhian Congress lectures, and surprisingly caste conscious. Putting forward a restricted idea of the fight for independence, he almost makes us doubt his qualities as a writer and a thinker. An experimenter and minute regionalist observer, originally close to the passions, the people and the animals of the rural world (he is at his best with the Kaḷḷars around Madurai in, or near to, the land of his birth), but too narrowly conscious of his craft to let the outside world call the tune. His texts are often dense and heavy, even in the dialogues which fail to answer to the modern dynamic with its ideas and interdicts he claimed to have taken on; there is an over deliberate effort at writing in which creation is not separated from the prejudices of the narrator standing above the fray. As an observer from a distance, capable of accurate reporting above all, he had the vocation to be a Tamil Albert Londres, but his tenaciousness in the service of literature in any case commands our respect.

From Janakiraman to Alakiricami

58Following on from Ku. Pa. Rā. in the same line of romantic sensibility, Janakiraman (1921-1982) continued to explore the same sensual dimension of relationships between men and women, reflected in the same indirect and lucid manner with light, sympathetic mockery and no obvious place given to sex itself. If Ku. Pa. Ra was the more subtle of the two, Janakiraman was the more calculating; Balakumaran would be more daring. Janakiraman’s seductiveness lies in the fluidity of time immemorial peacefully flowing to the eternal rhythm of the Kāviri river, in the comfort of the Brahmin houses of Tancavur, in a Carnatic music melody: a special moment of relaxed and sensual pleasure in a landscape opened out to an exoticism rooted in the human, itself comfortable and giving no temptation to identify it with anything real. His dialogues, in the idiolect of Tancavur, express small conflicts which gnaw at people between their routines and regular problems without harrowing them. He describes the precise changes and subtle emotions of human interaction. Interested in, rather than fascinated by, transgressions, he deals easily with adultery, strictly within the framework of the Brahmin family. He may at the extreme be perceived rather negatively as the specialist of infidelity amongst Brahmin women. It is unfortunately true that his stories are cradled within their own world without reference to fundamental questions; but this atypical attitude at the very heart of the tradition is seductive and favours multiple editions and screen adaptations; they came out as short stories and long novels which were first serialised. His stories enchanted traditional middle class readers as well as foreign admirers of an eternal and immutable India, aesthetically satisfying and complaisant to their voluntary blindness, apparently peaceful but frustrating, and impermeable to everything modern.

59In the next generation, T. M. C. Raghunatan (1923-2002), was also a critic, poet and novelist, ideologically marked by his unfailing adherence to communism and to a Marxist aesthetic which made him, along with Jeeva, one of the philosophical masters of Ponnilan (1940-) an author of a still younger generation. Raghunatan was the first biographer of Putumaippittaṉ, both well informed and sympathetic, and the author of the novel, Pañcum paciyum (Cotton and Hunger, 1953), a perfect paradigm of socialist realism. But we have chosen a short story, powerful as a unique fusion of literature and folklore.

60In the line of Putumaippittaṉ and a link in the chain which connects him to Jeyakantan, Vintaṉ (1916-1975) is the typical and paradoxical example of the so called popular writer who never actually succeeds in being so, despite his fidelity to the writings of Putumaippittaṉ and to the critical realism of his approach to life, despite the affinities between his style and that of Jeyakantan, and, lastly, despite his excellent selections from judicial chronicles (the biography and trial of M. K. Thiyagaraja Bhagavatar or the interview with the actor M. R. Radha who had made an attempt on the life of M. G. Ramachandran, future Chief Minister of the State of Tamil Nadu).

61In the line of Pichamurthi, in terms of content and that of Ku. Pa. Rā., who also wrote under the pen name Kariccāṉ (the name of a bird), in terms of style, his biographer, Narayanacami, a rather obscure but fine literary figure with a very liberal outlook, under the name of Kariccāṉ Kuñcu (the fledgling of the kariccā bird, 1919-1991), also depicted, with an irony which though more aggressive is more fluid than abrupt and born of a profound sadness, the social condition of a Brahmin family of Tancavur. More than for his short stories he may be remembered for a little known novel, Pacitta māṉiṭam (Hungry Human), concerning the conflict between a rich owner and those he exploits and in which the poverty stricken childhood of those recruited by the rich is an opportunity for the taboo subject of homosexuality to be broached.

  • 25 We owe to this friendship the collection of the correspondence of Alakiricami, ku. Aḻakiricāmi kaṭ (...)

62From the beginning, the landscape has been essential to Tamil literature, the classical texts of which never repudiate the paradigms. It is nevertheless important not to fall for the myth of the dialectal authors. We have already talked about the stereotyped exoticism in Janakiraman’s realism. As much must be said of the image Sundara Ramaswamy projects at the borders of Kerala and if, after the twins of Kumbakonam, we speak of the twins of Iṭaicēval, not far from Kovilpatti, on the black and meagre soil given over to cotton, we do so less to try to make a pair of two childhood friends born the same year in the same village than, by comparing them, to clarify what distinguishes them: Ki. Rajanarayanan (1923-) and Ku. Alakiricami (1923-1970).25 It is not in fact easy to identify the latter with a community or a region since it is in his ever-present humanity that we find the key to his work. He is not distant from his characters nor sarcastic about them and so appears naïve, in striking contrast to Janakiraman. This humanity is also a sort of precursor due to the constant effort to explore all the nooks and crannies of life and of the passions. Although violence is not excluded it is never animal. Humanity alone is his interest, seen through the lens of the classical culture of a learned man fascinated by the Tamil Ramayana of Kampar. This gives him a density which we find with Pumani but which is lacking with Ki. Rajanarayanan, who remains more of a story teller at the point where Alakiricami and Pūmaṇi acquire their true dimension as writers.

  • 26 The allusion is to Vīrammā, Josiane and Jean-Luc Racine, Une vie paria, Le rire des asservis, Pays (...)

63With K. Rajanaryanan (1923-), it is somewhat as if Vīrammā, the professional story teller of cēri26 had come to live in the town to lecture at the University of Pondicherry. He might not have been anything but an unknown village story-teller, but he worked at writing all his life and every day, appearing in communist reviews when he was young and then in literary journals which made an urban writer of him. Realizing that he could delight himself and his readers by narrating the extended stories of his childhood, he opened out in the exuberance of drawing his world of the imagination, or his mendacities, from the rural world and from the farthest reaches of folklore. He began with his own stories, with their socio-communist after-taste, and then threw himself into the crafts industry of the folk story, before recovering as an original writer by inventing his own folklore and going on to become a “visiting professor” at Pondicherry University.

64His public is enchanted by his undemanding exoticism that is both luxuriant and luxurious; it is facile too, since he is a city dweller who, cut off from his roots, is satisfied with stereotypes. Never dull, his work mostly has the flavour of chicken breast: it’s all in the seasoning. Oddly enough, this émigré of Telugu origin and language brought a sort of exoticism from his background into his Tamil dialect which is charming in its oral form. He was very conscious of himself writing and was confirmed in his metier. This meant that he took into account the, sometimes very constructed, impression of his stories in which the part taken by the oral suppresses the tension and the depth that might otherwise be generated by the narration or the situations. Made to experience an infinity of small joys, this man seems not to have known fear which is, however, a co-substantial element in popular beliefs, as Nanjil Nadan knows. Depriving thus the landscape of a part of its soul, what remained for him in folklore, but to give in to the comfort of being an ultimately commercial writer?

III - After Independence

Marshes and slopes

  • 27 For example, M. V. Venkatram (1920-2000). A Saurashtrian, born in Tancavur, he belonged to the gen (...)
  • 28 Examples of sagas: Nīla. Padmanabhan (Generations, Talaimuṟaikaḷ, 1968, Relationships, Uṟavukaḷ, 1 (...)

65Quite insensibly, some of the authors already mentioned rounded with us the cape of Independence,27 more or less reinforcing the impact of shocks from outside: Freud and Jung, Eliot and Joyce, Sartre and Becket, Brecht and Ionesco, along with everything that was pouring out of the USSR, China, Cuba, Africa etc. The social novel already existed but appeared as sagas stretched over several generations. And then, with the decade of the 60s to 70s, came texts that were actually engaged.28 If Tamil language and literature seemed to be benefiting from the spread of political conditions favourable to the success of parties that exalt culture with flowery and euphoric exuberance, the fault line between popular literature and more elitist texts kept on growing; media pressure was heavier; urban domination obscured the increasing emergence of rural voices; and popular culture became more and more consumer oriented and mass produced; the literary vocation of the short story was diluted.

  • 29 They were the two writers chosen to represent the Tamil short story in the pan-Indian anthology by (...)

66From this point, a prolific crowd of passive or placating observers would make their presence felt over several decades, under the indifferent and comfortable symbol of the mirror. The difference between them may be measured only in decibels as they glide effortlessly from register to register between three categories, all recently sprung from urbanisation: those who shout and scream about Dravidian or Marxist ideology, those whose talented but dry voices make them good professional story tellers, and those rendered voiceless by the print runs of popular publications, and incapable of indignation by commercial success; moreover, each of these categories tends towards the assimilation of the next one. The fluidity of the always somewhat artificial, possible, groups, points up the strength of the consensus behind differences of tone or register. This is where writers who were professional by virtue of their prolixity meet, for example: Ashokamitran and Cūṭāmaṇi, both born in 1931, and equally prolific and bi-lingual, often translating their own work;29 and those migrants from the rural world, S. Kandasamy, Vannadasan, Nāñcil Nāṭaṉ etc., pure urban products or genuine country people; and as in the past, the short story writers who are theorists or literary critics as well, Ka. Na. Subramanian beside Ashokamitran, and Raghunathan beside C. S. Cellappa, and so on; or, in a new development, those for whom political ideology takes the place of poetic art.

Ashokamitran and urban writing

67The absolute paradigm, more urban than not despite affinities with K. Rajanaryanan, may very well be Ashokamitran (1931-), novelist, and well known short story writer, and amongst those invited to the USA: his work has been translated into several languages and he was the honorary editor of the monthly literary review, Kaṇaiyāḻi, which was the best of its kind. His production is enormous and slides downhill through all the registers of facility, simplicity (including the construction since his narratives have no plots), humour and understatement. To describe him is to exhaust laudatory stereotypes in praise of a good professional writer who is published everywhere and is easy to read and to translate, along with having the idioms necessary to create a perfect mirror of urban life in which a reader can still recognise himself, and with some pleasure, for this author has a sense of humour, and of emotion, though not of tragedy; he is too flimsy to be the Hemingway of cricket or of historical moments in Hyderabad; protected from violent scenes by his smile, he has replaced punch with a pinch of humour; and we must not forget the immanent tenacious presence of Hindu values which, although never overtly affirmed are never really overlooked or lampooned either, even if this Brahmin is capable, as in the short story selected, of casting a clinical glance at the place left to the Brahmin in a brutal world where Brahminism is reduced to its social function and ritual is good only for material survival. He came from Secunderabad in the Andhra of the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad to work in the Madras film studios and he always retains something of the city that is jerky and mechanical. At first there is a freshness in letting the narrator disappear, carried away by the flow of life, but then the process turns into pure reporting and the literature is emptied of all substance. Ashokamitran’s characters are too light. They are outlines without depth we pass and soon forget, brushing against their dramas without sharing in them because the half-tones of the style allow the hasty reader to ignore their gravity. He is the irresponsible author par excellence and the most amateur amongst all those professional writers who fitted into the city of Madras where the associative life had allowed an amazingly large number of amateur theatre companies to flourish to occupy its Sundays.

68The realism of two painters of the urban life of the Madras middle classes, to which both were originally strangers, is much more discreet and a little derisive: Dilip Kumar, (1951-) a Gujarati who, with the same smiling and generous nonchalance, sees his compatriots established, that is, crammed together, in the middle of Chennai, and the literary fauna amongst whom he effortlessly evolves, and Gopi Krishnan (1945-2003), a Saurashtrian of more accentuated irony whose psychological introspection is sometimes held back at the threshold of the morbid only by humour; and this is also true, finally, of the prolific work of Pavannan, Vimaladhitta Mamallan, Subrabharati Maniyan etc.

69Indira Parthasarathi (1930-), who previously lived in Delhi, changes the urban scene for us without altering anything of the attitude of the distant observer; he is inclined to put into his short stories a rather dry creativity matched by his writing. Meanwhile, Ātavaṉ (K. S. Cuntaram, 1942-1988), born in the small town of Kalliṭaikkuṟuci, whose career also ran its course in Delhi, sees the urban framework with more distance. He cast a fresh eye on T. Nagar and the life around Tiruvaḷḷuvar Kōṭṭam, very new then in Madras, denounced moral hypocrisy by stripping the urban mentality bare, and created a clarity that was novel and fresh, connected perhaps to the youth of his adolescent characters or to the fact that they expose and reveal themselves in searching for, and confronting themselves, as sympathetic and vulnerable. With its particular introspective and critical attitude the work achieves a depth which is limited by a rather curtailed Freudian outlook. It remains established in an upper middle class world, but the accidental death of the author ended a career that might have become more original.

70Adavan also knew how to make his entrance upon the scene of a new universe, that of cafés and restaurants where literary discussions might go on forever. He revealed to his peers an element of inter-textuality in the text, thenceforth to be taken in a social, historical or literary context, and smelling of a certain snobbishness, with a cosmopolitan fragrance, no longer belonging to itself, nor to the writer nor to his native soil, and nor to his small circle. Each new generation of writers must be aware of the place of its elders and must, with the discovery of the vocation of writing, confront the fear of the critic and the anguish of writing in the midst of a society of business people little disposed to connive with art. This mutation needed to be emphasised, and Adavan did it, bringing into play all the artifices of the superficial bilingualism of a socialite.

71Pirapañcaṉ, born in Pondicherry in 1945, zooms in on another urban level, that of human relationships in a familiar setting, perfectly mastered by the writer in the construction of his short stories and in their rather complacently repetitive invocation of an atmosphere in which diet (vegetarian but with every kind of fish), music and interpersonal relationships are the constant themes. Contributing to little reviews, he has progressively become a popular writer with a Dravidian social conscience (locally the heritage of Bharati and Bharatidasan), and more and more militant, but at the same time very conscious of his training as a teacher of Tamil (vittuvāṉ). Less subtle and more lucid than Vannadasan, he belongs to the line of Janakiraman. His world is made up of the striving for social and cosmic harmony, expressed in terms of love and compassion. Emotion and character are more important to him than plot but he has a very sure sense of the construction of his stories and, when he turns to novel writing in the form of very ambitious historical epics, it becomes clear he is writing juxtaposed episodes, constructed like perfectly mastered short stories. Prapanjan wants to be an historical novelist but gives us, above all, solid sociological documents, at the threshold of creative literature.

In the deep South on the borders of Kerala

72It was only after Independence that the Indian Union redrew the borders of its states according to their linguistic configuration. Therefore in the extreme south of the peninsula (the districts of Kanyakumari and Nagercoil), Trivandrum meant the princely state of Travancore, with its politics and cultural presence. This accounts for some reactions of the Tamils on the border of today’s Kerala, and their conjunctions with the Malayalam language and culture. If novels, instead of short stories, were under scrutiny here, Nila. Padmanaban would merit the largest number of pages for the element of exoticism he draws from the Trivandrum locality.

73But in the field of short stories, the more subtle presence of Nakulan (1921-2007), diffused throughout this anthology, rather resembles an elusive go-between, in whom we perceive affinities with Kerala and its literature that are more intimate and subtle than those claimed by Sundara Ramaswamy of Nagercoil, or his disciple Jeyamokan, whose mother tongue is Malayalam.

74It is, finally, in the short stories of A. Madhavan (1934-), in both writing and the characters, that the fusion with Kerala comes through most clearly. An unschooled Tamil speaker, he was born in Travancore and is today in business in Trivandrum. Having started with contributions to little reviews, he peoples the border region with a series of characters quite close to those of S. Kandasamy: vagabonds and people of slender means who are unstable without being altogether marginalized, an urban proletariat still connected to its rural origins: all this is reflected in the roughness of a rather mixed idiom. He nevertheless details their distress in a very fluid style which has in it an element of sarcasm with a touch of the perverse, and he seems to take pleasure in rendering an already sordid reality more lurid. It is not surprising that Tamils see some Malayalee malice in his glaring preoccupation with the squalid.

75In Tamil lands still, but in the extreme south, marked by the presence of Travancore, close to Nagercoil and the last hills of the Deccan, Nanjil Nadan (G. Cuppiramaniyan, 1947-) revels in his rich territory with an extensive botanical vocabulary which, along with details of food, weighs down his interminable descriptions. He seasons the joy of writing with the nostalgia of an urban exile, transported to Bombay and then to Coimbatore by his occupation; he is far from Nāñcilnāṭu, the land of his birth from which he takes his pen name, and which is constantly brought to life in his novels as his childhood paradise, with its peasants and its young people torn from the land by the search for employment. This nostalgic salvage work causes him to lose sight of the formal aspect in favour of highly conscious descriptions, this raises him to a level above that of K. Rajanaryanan but means, at the same time, that a particular exoticism is the activating force of his short stories which, unlike his novels, need more than the author’s urban experience to bring them to life and to save them from the label of regionalism, except when he is carried away by his Saiva affinities.

Migrants, mutants and memory’s landscapes

  • 30 See Chantal Delamourd, “L’insolite dans le quotidien: aspect constitutif de la nouvelle de Vannada (...)

76Several writers, neighbours of Nanjil Nadan, combine the regional accent of their origins with the new experiences that the vicissitudes of life inflict upon them. Two popular writers of the nineteen seventies, Vannadasan (S. Kalyanacuntaram, 1946-; he writes poetry under the name of Kalyanji), and Vannanilavan (U. N. Ramaccantiran, 1948-), both migrants from Tirunelveli, are not treated as “twins” that life would separate, with the first turning to banking and the second to journalism, but they may nevertheless be looked at together for, at the beginning, there were numerous analogies between them and later the contrasts diminished. Vannadasan has preserved a density in his treatment of the details of his overgrown village, Tirunelveli, as it turns into a town, that is lacking in Ashokamitran. More intimate and romantic, he joined to platonic idealism in the line of Janakiraman, a sense of the marvellous up against the quotidian and a gift for detecting in the most trivial banalities a presumption of the unusual.30 As a result, his characters have a warmth and joie de vivre in their day to day despondency, which is communicated to the reader who is made aware, without too much sentimentality, of the sweet song of things. Each of his stories is a state of soul and an evocation of “melting”, in tenderness and sweetness. Love, longing and nostalgia are the trio of themes we find in most of his stories. He writes of platonic or unsatisfied love, of adolescent passions and the tremulous expectation of irresolute adults, leaving us with a not too bitter after-taste of frustration and of rather sweet nostalgia, especially for the land of his birth in the deep south. Over the years he has, however, become repetitive, due to reanimating his scenes, characters and themes in an urban world in transition and, despite conscious effort, has failed to take changes in the social scene into account.

77Vannanilavan, less intimate, hits harder and goes for the jugular. His inspiration is greater and he has a certain power; he draws from the river Tāmiraparaṇi that element of verdant richness which comes through the atmosphere, language and characters of his stories. But his situations are without hope and no one in them can rely upon anyone else. In contra-distinction to the world of Vannadasan, there is no issue here that is not fatal and murder is skirted in the narration as though it were an ordinary event in a process of expulsion, in which all horizons seem to be closed to the least glimmer of humanity. “Esther” an early work, forcefully portrays the oppressive vision of a village which expels every one of its occupants, who are pursued by the night which falls on them like a curse of nature no human will could conjure up. Lifted above the banal by this story, Vannanilavan did not go on to fulfil his promise. He too ended up losing, in the mechanical reduplication of scenes of village realism, the momentum of protest which had at first taken him beyond rural elegy. Thus the differences between these authors, which may be seen as having been fundamental, have been literally worn away to the extent that the references to bygone days and a vanished landscape are out of date. Like many regional writers, these two seem to have difficulties in connecting their backward looking visions with present times. Transposed to the contemporary urban world, their ethic is a failed mutation of their traditional values of compassion and affection which appear very clichéd; rather than a conception of the world, they share and offer an escape into a conventional realm of the imagination.

78N. Muthusamy (1936-) and S. Kandasamy (1940-) are not to be paired off either, though both left Tancavur, the region made fertile by the Kāviri river, to settle in Madras, where both became professional purveyors of culture, the former in the theatre and the latter in documentary films on cultural subjects. Muthusamy, more a man of the theatre than a short story writer, is not averse to depicting Madras where he lives but is happier when setting the scene in the Brahmin milieu of Puñcai in Tancavur district, his native village. This contemplative grazes space and time and chews the cud of sensations and emotions, bringing it back to new life and swallowing it again with satisfaction. The charm of his stories lies in that very panacea, made up of the perceptions, colours, odours, tastes and sounds, and in the density of his descriptions which are precise to the point of obsession. Riding roughshod over time and space in an abstract pasture, floating above the present, mixing time, place and discourse, the impression he gives is of a somewhat complacent and nostalgic quest for a past recovered rather than of a spontaneous, but made to measure, post-modern technique, such as would re-invent the very matrix of the unconscious; he gushes over his memories to a greater extent than he deconstructs them. With a faint echo of Mauṉi, his style of writing is perhaps more reminiscent of Ashokamitran’s distanced humour and savoir faire. His canvas is the village for preference, and only more rarely the town, but he brings from town to village a touch of panic and rush, as another element in the psychology, if not psychosis, of the village, an element not found in K. Rajanarayanan; he is gifted with a lively imagination too. This may be his whole secret: the abstract message and metaphysical element he adds to the sum of accumulated detail with which he has built the world of his short stories, which seems long gone to us today. In moving resolutely from the short story to the theatre, he chooses dialogue that allows for all the repetition he is so fond of. He would have his place nevertheless in a wider selection as much as, or more, than would S. Kandasamy.

79This writer is also a sort of rural Ashokamitran, whose transition from village to town is never completed; he seems to have something to say but, because he emphasises through authorial platitudes the idea that people lead their lives in a state of indifference, he has had difficulty, from collection to collection, in sustaining the expectations of his readers after the very interesting characters of his more straightforwardly rural beginnings. His urban world appears reduced to the condition of a worn out wrapping. A dryness that is lucid but neutral brings it down to zero growth, to a species of bonsai short story where any freshness is a rare accident. Despite the sustained abundance of his short stories, he reserves his most interesting plots for his novels.

80From the south-east, we turn to the north-west of Tamil Nadu to include, in default of R. Shanmugasundaram (1917-1977), the great Coimbatore novelist, a short story writer and novelist also from Coimbatore and faithful to his district, C. R. Ravindran (1944-), who excels in depicting the young individual, alienated from the village by his education, who is frustrated with urban life, caught between country and town and full of existential rage. He also depicts the typically orthodox characters of the village itself with skill, some realism, and an exact ear for the dialect and tone of the old people of his region. It is by this precision in the content as in the dense raw vocabulary, that his descriptions of rural or suburban reality sometimes rise above the average. He knows, too, how to elevate his protest to a level where the conflict between generations and cultures goes beyond pure regionalism. He writes a great deal, especially novels.

81Nimala Vishvanatan is predominantly a poet, but under the name Pātacāri he made himself known by a unique short story (Kāci-1987), which is, we may perhaps say, his sonnet of Arvers. Set in Coimbatore, the author’s home town and named for its hero, Kāsi, it is the story of a chronic candidate for suicide, the direct autobiography and confession of a young urban intellectual who is unable to integrate himself into any social system and who refuses to fight.

82Is this an indirect indictment of the micro-climate he portrays? The virtual absence of local literary journals may account for the small number of short story writers connected with Coimbatore, the prosperous centre of an ancient civilisation, as compared with the recognised literary richness of Tancavur or Tirunelveli, or that of the meagre soil of Kovilpatti, which is a relatively recent phenomenon apparently connected with industrialisation: cotton, printing and matches. Before pronouncing on regional polarities, which are still an important component in an already very decentralised culture whose expression has not yet freed itself from its dialectal dimension, we should emphasize something that must never be forgotten: that local cultures in Tamil Nadu are very fertile, extraordinarily multi-dimensional and of great social complexity.

Popular sirens: Jeyakantan, Sujata, and others

83Specialists will not be much surprised to see that this collection passes in silence over the contribution, important as it was in terms of circulation and influence, of the politician-writers who used literature for purposes of propaganda. We are thinking of Rajaji whose full name, C. Rajagopalachari (1878-1973), evokes the memory of a real statesman, a reformist and puritan and a subtle technician who distributed his short stories like vitamins and was skilled at handling melodrama and stereotypes. We think too of C. N. Annadurai (1909-1969), a pioneer of the Dravidian movement, and more of a charmer and a realist than Rajaji; he was more closely connected with daily life the mechanisms of which he demonstrated in order to put the average reader on guard against ideological illusion; and he was sometimes capable of sacrificing the moral and the happy ending to quality. The pedagogic posterity of these writers is prolix, from M. Varadarajan, (Mu. Va) an academic who was conscientious but sententious about the art of entertaining without ever ceasing to teach, to N. Parthasarathi (Na. Pa, 1932-1987) who more or less lived up to the ambitious symbol flourished by the title of the review tīpam [lamp] which he ran from 1965 till his death in 1987, and to the Chief minister of the state, Mu. Karunanidhi (1924-), who was more incisive and succinct but better at poetry and show business.

84Specialists will, on the other hand, less easily understand the absence from our selection of the two authors with the widest readership after Kalki, those two most seductive and most heeded sirens, Sujata and Jeyakantan, to whom we must certainly give their rightful place in the history of the Tamil short story.

85Literary history did too much honour to Jeyakantan (1934-) in handing to him, as of the 1950s, the torch of Putumaippittaṉ. This was only statistically justifiable: during the sixties he was the most popular author in terms of feeling and content. He was certainly no Gorki, and this accomplished technician of the flashback and the stream of consciousness often substituted, for the critical realism of his senior, a socialist realism that could not but date. His declarations, more headstrong than considered and out of proportion with his characters and his artistic capacity, are not always of the highest literary tone however infectious they may be. He excelled, however, in two kinds of short story. The first, in a style very similar to the language spoken by his heroes, describes the condition and mentality of characters on the margins of poverty and the edges of morality. The shock effect on the dominant rigid morality was at first considerable, before the descent into insipidity and cheap populism. The second type is the sonorous echo of the urban middle classes, who find Jeyakantan wherever their values and received ideas are confronted by situations that put those values in question: justice, sex, capital, religion, slums, oppressed or rebellious women, exploited children, conflicts between tradition and the new, between rich and poor, and Brahmins and others, and the fear of social change. Omnipresent on the surface of these real problems, he calms the fears of his readers and eases their frustrations without risking any radical criticism.

86The comfort of non-engagement with the alibi of social conscience, which explains everything and exposes everything, arises out of a robust simplicity, if not over-simplification, content with itself under the appearance of an intellectual adventure ripening into political thought. Neither this quest for easy pleasures and ready-made solutions nor his pompous populism prevented him from winning a naive and frustrated public or from going on from the communist influenced little magazines to the mainstream popular press. In fact, Jeyakantan follows the trend more than he exposes it: introduced to social realities by the Marxist intellectuals of the 1950s, he was then drawn to the Congress Party by Kamaraj, a Nadar and thus a non-Brahmin southerner, and then to the Dravidian Party by Annadurai and Karunanidhi, and finally to the leaders of the Hindu religious tradition. But Jeyakantan has one major merit: the thunderously expressed social criticism which, since him, and largely thanks to him, has become an inevitable domain of literature; and we cannot help sympathising to some extent with this unkempt and vociferous force of nature who was active in a range of occupations, including manual work, before starting to consider himself a man of letters and of thought: further, he remains the only author with the, far from negligible, ability to adapt his own stories for the screen.

87With Sujata (S. Rangarajan, 1935-2008), we are back in the social and intellectual hierarchy. He was an Ayyaṅkār who grew up in Sriraṅkam and is therefore of a traditional Vaishnavite family. He seldom fails to sprinkle his short stories with the most unexpected quotations from classical devotional poets. An upper middle class education made him familiar at a young age with the freedoms and vistas of the westernised urban world. An engineer who had been trained as a pilot, he worked in electronics, first at Delhi and then at Bangalore. His reading was very wide, from Dostoïevsky to James Hadley Chase, and his interests immense, from sci-fi to folklore; his scientific background was more than just superficial colouring, for he was able to popularise science and information technology, as it appears in American literature, in a daring and intelligently innovative Tamil. Among other initiatives, he introduced the viewpoints of popular American culture to Madras: those of Updike and Erica Jong rather than Kerouac, Burroughs or Ginsberg. Without ever losing contact with traditional literary milieus, whose attention he has kept, he opened popular expression to modernity, of language and of subject. From the time he began writing in Tamil he incorporated all that into his texts for the benefit of readers who were, first of all, of his own class, who spoke English but did not read it and who had not had direct experience, as he had had, with the scientific novelties that fascinated him. He offered them America with its modernity and technology just as K. Rajanarayanan brought the village right to their doors.

88He is a writer by virtue of his short stories, his novels being little more than serials. His clear, simple and racy style seduces the reader from the very first sentence, for he has an almost cynical feeling for compression, formula and dramatisation and is sure enough of himself when creating the unpredictable as when giving a readable and effortless portrayal of everyday life. As the narrator he is absent from the story; as a simple observer he is there only to enjoy it with his readers. We may be sorry that this very gifted writer, with his innate sense of style, so completely succumbed to such a facileness and his rather adventurous mind to such stereotypes. With the timidity typical of his circles he dreaded any confrontation with real problems. As soon as he comes up to one he goes into hiding, dodges and makes a quick getaway rather than pursuing and accelerating his approach, as if with the deliberate intention of remaining superficial. Surely this cannot spring from lack of the power to take the reader further. He was a smiling cynic, very distanced from what he wrote who played hide-and-seek with his readers; he made sport with, and winked at, plagiarism and if he bluffed so successfully it is also because he had the merit of being a master of several disciplines.

89These sirens have their unavowed admirers, who dream of exchanging the elitism of their language and their extra helping of soul for more readers. It took Sundara Ramaswamy (1931-2006) a long time to reconcile his own image with the ideal image of the writer, whose exigent portrait he drew in a fictionalized autobiography, and with the power he eventually had, to organise the fiefdom of letters around himself. He was from then on the patriarch; his quarterly review (now a monthly) Kālaccuvaṭu (the imprint of time) has ensured his image, cohesion and legacy, ever since Nagercoil where he sold cloth as Monsieur Jourdain once did. He was holding all the winning cards for a writing career. He tried his hand at every genre; he had style; and he progressed, after coming under the influence of Putumaippittaṉ, through the Marxist phase, with dialectal realism tinged with humour, and through the metaphysical quest in denser language. He wrote an experimental novel about a writer before making himself into an editor and publisher and running a literary journal.

90His spiritual tidings are the legacy of the philosopher J. Krishnamurthy, tinted with atheism and weighed down by readings in Marx, Russian novelists, English poets and Bengali and Malayali writers. His creative logic favours the imaginary without giving structure to his thought; it is glowing and motley like the huge polychrome earthenware votaries of the god Ayyaṉār in the Tamil countryside, and may be hollow like them too. A gifted observer, he knew the fortunate formulae which catch the eye and, with a sharp mind very conscious of itself and of the oddities of others, he showed over the course of a long career as a short story writer, the genuine talent evident already in his first poems. It may be that he too was affected by a hidden flaw of some kind that may be guessed at in him, such as the traces of that childhood illness at the centre of some of his stories. As a literary critic he was intuitive and incisive with muffled partialities.

91One of his disciples, Jeyamokan (1962-), seems to have developed a taste for the popular magazines; he began a brilliant career in a style that was a synthesis of Sundara Ramaswamy and Sujata, adequately taking on the conservatism that united them. As Sundara Ramaswamy does, he lets others believe in the existence of an inner light but the quest of his characters turns more on the art of construction or of suspense than on metaphysical effort or research. Wisdom is converted into narrative and a particular crafting of the discourse takes the place of depth. Briskly developing a career as novelist, short story writer, essayist, and even poet, Jeyamokan, at the end of 1997, solidly established himself with a 772 page novel, Vishnupuram, in the great Indian tradition which is ready to absorb whatever it lays eyes on, from the Veda to tribal cultures; to this he adds everything he knows of science and of occidental thought as may be assimilated by pseudo-orientalism. All this is perfectly written and well constructed, technically speaking, according to proven recipes of dramatic realism à la Hollywood, shot through with something that gives the necessary thrills, something extra-terrestrial and dusted over with metaphysical illusion. His success is guaranteed, amongst those who have no direct access to the real sources of this shallow alchemy.

92The literary destiny of Balakumaran (1946-) might serve as a warning to Jeyamokan. At the point of departure, affinities with Janakiraman are strong; the readers may be less misled than the critics for whom the literary register of Janakiraman is illusion-creating, just as the prudent verbal audacities of the first collections of short stories by Balakumaran formerly were. The modernity of the latter is in his vocabulary, in a conversational freshness, and in the tempo of the narration in which description is securely married to dialogue. It introduces a modern repertoire of urban gestures, hitherto unknown in Tamil prose: partners touch, weep and actually embrace; men sweat and slap each other on the back in a more occidental fashion. This language, very widely and intentionally borrowed from English, is more direct and daring and it has a sensual and sexual articulation which, through the 1980s, brought him a sizeable public amongst the urban middle classes, avid to discuss such things without restraint and to find their liberated image objectified. This literary sexual liberation attracted a wide female readership which lifted him out of the little magazines and towards a greatly increased circulation. To speak more seriously, Balakumaran introduces self reflective characters, conscious of themselves as social beings; he describes trade union tensions and confrontations between executives and workers; his first sociological novel concerns a strike in the TAFE factory where he himself worked as a clerk, like Muthusamy. But when, finally, he describes the sorrows of a young middle class man, he falls short of any Sartre inspired irony, as of L’enfance d’un chef – childhood of a leader. With age, tradition tends to regain its place and this author, with the potential to write thrillers, abandons the modernity of the subjects that launched him and with equal success, plunges his readers, into some kind of devout sanyasa, or mysticism, where he brings to life a popular Saivite Tamil version of Osho without any dip in sales. This mystical siren of serialised fiction cleared the way for Jeyamokan in a remarkable fashion.

93Of this large number of consensual voices, and those who ended by becoming part of it, none among them has made so much as a rip in the monotony of this soft background-music which so resembles the peaceful swell of the Bay of Bengal alongside us, which we cease to notice because it is omnipresent. We intend, by contrast, to lend an empathetic ear to some more discordant accents most often belonging to minorities.

In quest of dissonance

94The first category of writers who might be able to shatter the serenity of the Tamil sky with an element of discordance, but who are nevertheless threatened by a discouraging conformity, is the group of progressive writers. Belonging at the beginning to a school of thought with traces of Marxist influence, they are legion and alike. Their canvas is almost exclusively the village, or possibly the slums, even if the formation implies a sometimes marked urban intellectualism. They are not all committed writers but a kind of militancy may affect their literary activity. Roughly speaking, ideology, which is hardly traceable with Pūmaṇi or with Rajendra Colan at the start, is later fleetingly present in the young K. Rajanarayanan, is patent with Jeyaprakasam and thunders with S. Samuthiram and dozens of others.

95The small goatherds of Pūmaṇi (1947-) are hardly ideologues; they have a minimum of personality and express themselves through gestures, punctuating deliberately flat dialogue with quick tempered bursts of stone throwing. The real character the author knows so well how to portray is the arid land of Kovilpatti with its black soil: the region he comes from, dry as the writer’s language is. It is not so much the characters who rebel as the land, contorted from lack of water, that protests; it is the land, scarred by its black soil, with its crevasses and its dust, which proclaims its nakedness with an unprepossessing face: soil of cotton, millet and fallow land unredeemed by any irrigation or development programme, “vāṉam pārtta pūmi” (land that longs for the sky-rain), but longs in vain. The land is burning but the narrator remains cold and the reality skeletal. In comparison with this original exposition, free from nostalgia and romanticism, in which wounds are dissected with clinical precision that leaves nothing over but gaping wounds and scorching suffering, Ku. Alakiricami was an ocean of compassion. It would seem that Pumani has been struck by his own studied dryness. It looks as though the incisive originality of his early short stories, and of a first novel about a family of cobblers in a village on the black soil of Kovilpatti, has given way, bit by bit, to mechanical sequences of episodes, and as if the scalpel is blunt. Humanity is reduced to two dimensional shadows crushed beneath the heat of the sun. Pumani writes very little and is not likely to become a popular author. He himself is firmly opposed to any reduction of his work to Dalit populism.

96Jeyaprakasam (1941-), another native of Kovilpatti, is a realist of some quality, with a particular vision, though not without some awkwardness in the construction and the rhythm of his stories. The ideological flavour is so strong in the work of this militant communist that we can’t appreciate it without flinching. He has remained faithful to his political choices as have a number of his generation, now in its late sixties. As well as his short story collections, he publishes other stories under the pen name of Cūriyadīpaṉ.

97Rajendra Colan (1945-) who also writes plays and novels under a pseudonym, Ashva Ghosh, is no less politicised but his Marxist consciousness has never affected his stories. He concentrates on the village’s poorest classes or on workers in small towns; far from being satisfied with simplistic realism, he is concerned with giving his characters several dimensions as much as he is with the openings offered onto the complex possibilities of more human aspirations. This intensity of life, sometimes with an element in it of panic that leavens it and blows through the story as the dry hot land wind blows through his district of South Arcot, leaves room for hope that the imaginary will keep its place, as a thread of promising originality. But ideological sensibility is the strongest element and, in the long term, the political struggle which associates Marxism and Tamil nationalism has been to the fore, causing us to speak with some regret of the transformation of the writer into a Tamil communist party militant.

98Two brothers from Tirunelveli have had very contrasting literary destinies: Tamil Celvan (1954-) and Konanki, the first of whom gives the impression of having anticipated the influence of the Latin American novel. His work rarely, however, goes beyond ordinary realism and is in general that of a militant (Communist Party of India-Marxist) serving the cause of literacy with a long standing fidelity to his party. His first collection appeared in 1985 and his second in 1994; since then he has been writing mostly essays.

99His younger brother, Konanki (1958-) brought a breath of fresh air from the world of the village, before venturing, (misled by his Tamil admirers who saw in him the new avatar of literary post-modern progressiveness), on the path of a frenzied experimental modernism, spiced with confused mysticism where the reader loses his footing. Rooted in his village and starting with actual experience, he seems to have been led further and further off the track in pursuit of a modern, urban virtual reality, even a kind of cyber space where, due to the desire of the writer to create an effect at all costs, there is no longer a place for the reader. From the first of his five collections there emerges, however, writing whose flawed prose, with the clumsiness of its shifty constructions, deliberate confusion of time and recondite language purposely kept out of tune with his characters the better to magnify their rustic lives, contributes to a vision both ambiguous and attractive. Here, the intentionally roughened and passionate prose, gives back to Tamil poetry its rights over the landscape, creating a new vision and an original accent which is too rare not to be collected.

The voices of women

  • 31 For more information, read C. S. Lakshmi, The face behind the mask-Women in Tamil Literature, Vika (...)

100We have also enjoyed listening to the voices of women. They too have their publishing avenues and networks of influence, but their competition with the men has mostly been effective only at the level of the fertile mediocrity of popular writers (Lakshmi, Sivasankari, Vasanti) or of academic debates. R. Cūṭāmaṇi (1931-) is a Brahmin from a middle class family living in Chennai, fluent and well read and, above all, urbanised. Writing is a pastime for her and she identifies herself as a housewife. Since she began writing in 1954, her output, consisting of more than thirty works, has been that of an average professional writer. Out of the totality, Nākaliṅkamaram (the nagalinga tree) is a perfect symbol, the very image of her view of life, detached if not resigned, rather mechanically recorded and, at best, just the type of measured and soothing criticism with which authors damp down all their daring. We are obliged to be satisfied with that, and we are very happy to grasp something here that makes palpable the desperate void and the lack of any sense of being alive that pervades the middle class world. With this respectable literature as her only weapon, R. Cutamani is no more nor less effective in the popular press than the more learned and sophisticated constructions contributed exclusively to elitist magazines, of the sociologist C. S. Lakshmi31 who, under the name of Ambai (1944-), has produced work that flaunts a militant feminism. With her positive personality and sensibility, Ambai, exhibiting a typically intellectual bias, has so successfully put her talent to work in the service of her chosen doctrine that she has managed to trade her own Indian subjectivity for an artificial and exhibitionist one, characteristic of the cosmopolitanism common amongst her urban intellectual milieu. Her most recent texts, however, betray a traditionalist nostalgia which could be the reflection of an assumed frustration with literature, as if she had tardily reconciled herself with Janakiraman and Vannadasan and was forcing herself to write fine stories again. Without being Suzanne Lilar, or even Hélène Cixous, she is officially recognised as incarnating the Brahmin element in a feminist polyphonic music, where Pama-Bama (1958-), who is no Carson McCullers either, and Civakami (1955-), a high official of lowly origins, both of whom are novelists more than short story writers, play the Dalit score, dealing with the least privileged milieus with a more indigenous and rustic arsenal.

Christians and Muslims

101We also regret that of the two minority religious communities, or rather of the even smaller sects within those minority communities, none is represented here in this anthology. Even though Toppil Muhamed Miran (1944-) has published two short story collections, the first serious and engaged and the second more playful in which the story teller experiments light heartedly with literature for entertainment, he is at his best only in his novels. Without breaking faith with his community, a village of Muslim fishermen crushed by poverty and dogmatism in the extreme south of Tamil Nadu, open to Kerala by sea, the authentic image of which, in its complete degeneration, he presents with an integral sincerity, he is closer in his approach to that of Putumaippittaṉ than to the popular realist Muslim writers of Malayalam literature to whom Sundara Ramaswamy attempted to relegate him. The description is broadened thanks to an element of folklore and to the more general problematic that implies; Miran however sees his readership limited by his subject: on the one hand, he is saved by his language which is strongly identified with the microcosm he describes but, on the other, this markedly Arab and Malayalam idiom is a challenge to communication and translation. The lack of coherence of this under-privileged group does not give Miran’s active criticism a momentum generated from inside. It does, however, make an impact on a society dominated by Hinduism. His message is actually not so much alive and immediate but as it is a memoir of a childhood stripped bare.

102Eckbert Saccidanandan (born in 1950 at Madurai) has been teaching for nearly thirty years at a high school in Kanchipuram; he lives in the small, very strictly defined, world of a Christian Protestant religious minority, closed up within the confines of his faith in values which condemn the feudal system, maintained and encouraged by the religious hierarchy to which that faith demands obedience, whilst identifying himself with the oppressed of the same church which constrains them to resignation through faith. In this impasse, his account being that of a passive observer, it is irony that saves him and gives him a strong and original accent: the irony which lies in the subtle use of the Christian idiolect. Biblical vocabulary sets up a distance in relation to the raw narration, giving to what happens and is unacceptable that false reassurance and false serenity, drawn from sacred sources, which make the language the very instrument of irony, denunciatory but incapable of liberating. Whilst the plot of Vannanilavan’s Esther blows the situation wide open by a decision radically alien to Christian doctrine, we never leave the small world of Eckbert Saccidanandan, with its Christian values travestied by the coldest kind of hypocrisy and the most formidable righteousness. His inspiration remains confined to a microcosm of very limited interest; his stories are nearly all centred around that closed world, and we sense how fragile this rustling of humanity is, and how close, too, to the attitude of Ashokamitran that suggests that setting out to create the false impression that nothing is happening, or at least not anything too serious, means in the end that nothing does. It is to the credit of this writer that he has maintained, in the slenderness of his work, a remarkable consistency. Up against his more prolix colleagues he has never lowered his guard and none of his stories published up till now can be rejected as insignificant entertainment; none of the problems or emotional situations he presents leave the reader untouched.

103A common feature may be perceived throughout these dissonances. Nearly all of them come from the middle classes whose everyday lives are quite ordinary. These authors have all succeeded, at one time or another, in grasping a reality that came out of a common existence, one that is often more marginal than they are themselves, the value of which lies in the subject-matter of their description. But when the element of urgency or impatience which once flashed from their pens, lending substance to their indignation, has fatally vanished, their powers of imagination subside too and, with regret, we see them join the herd. This phenomenon, peculiar to the short story genre, may be characteristic of the dominant literary situation, where neither the quest for originality nor the sustained effort of a regular writing discipline is properly appreciated. This judgement may seem harsh but it would take only a few authors with the real writer’s temperament to ameliorate it.

The irreducibles

104Sampath (1941-1984), for example, the urban product of a Brahmin caste and of readings in western literature, who left only a short work and no collection of stories, applied himself passionately, with the technical resources of literature, to illustrating, by use of the basic elements of the urban world he lived in, the metaphysical problems that haunted him: the meaning of life and of human evolution, death, and the essential relationship between men and women. The great philosophies were of no help to this delicate psychologist, nor was religion; ethical thought to him was nothing more than the outline of a reflection, confined to the world of his own thought. Deprived of a dialogue with the American beat generation towards whom his nature inclined him, he forced the Tamil language to think in unexpected images with the aim of presenting a demonstration accessible to all. His attempts at readability did not, however, always lead him so far as to revise his texts before handing them over to the press. When he died prematurely of a cerebral haemorrhage, he left work that indicated an unfulfilled destiny, rich in promise and outlines: he was, unarguably, possessed of the true writer’s temperament.

  • 32 As is shown by the remarkable anthology, Kurukṣētram, he edited and published in 1968, and by his (...)

105Nakulan, (pseudonym of T. K. Doraiswamy, 1921-2007), already alluded to, single, and living in exile in Trivandrum, is another example of a quiet, contemplative author, prized by his admirers, well read, deeply original but miserly with his words; stuck on the margins, he nevertheless had an ear to the Tamil world;32 his psychology was clear but complicated and he was titillated by psychoanalysis, falling back on an “I”, often tied up in itself in contemplation of an inner void, the phantasmagoria of which are reflected in his poems which are better known than his novels, and in a few short novels and quasi-autobiographical essays. He was an existentialist mystic that Tamil criticism, unaware of Jaspers, has reduced to the minimalist attitude of a Becket.

106We need have no reservations about two other real writers who were also genuinely marginal.

  • 33 G. Nākarājaṉ Paṭaippukaḷ (Complete Works of G. Nagarajan), Nagercoil, 1997, with a biographical no (...)
  • 34 “Tamil Dalits in search of a literature”, South Asia Research 22, 1, 2002, p. 39, see the article (...)

107G. Nagarajan (1929-1981) was an atheist, a Marxist who had broken with the communist party, a popular academic (teacher of English, he has left an unpublished novel in that language), whom the literary milieu crassly regarded as a stereotyped bohemian, and drug taking alcoholic. He was born into the conservative right and intellectually trained by the struggle of the left, and he could easily have found a comfortable centralist position in his profession of teaching as so many of his colleagues did. By the end of his life he undoubtedly preferred wandering and the fringes of life. His low-life associations meant that he himself couldn’t be associated with, but he fascinated more fastidious authors with his personality which in their fiction took on the charm of forbidden fruit. He published only two short novels and a few stories, all of which should have been re-issued by Dalits, but a Brahmin, aware of the opportunity offered by such a reclamation in the name of literature was quicker.33 Nagarajan was, in fact, a visionary writer who brought into Tamil literature a whole world, one which is disapproved of by society because it is its inverse. It is annoyed at having this world lit up from below, but has, at the same time, to recognise its own roots and traditions in that light. The preface to his novel, Tomorrow is another day (Nāḷai maṟṟum oru nāḷē), reads “This is the life of an ordinary man. The base acts you would have committed had you dared, the daring you would have shown had you been so moved, the sicknesses you would have caught had you been so tempted, the infamy that would have marked you had you fallen: that is what his life is made of. It is not for you to know what tomorrow will be like for him. Because for him, as for most of us, tomorrow is nothing but another day!” We have said of him, elsewhere,34 that he was “listening for those liminal voices which speak, among themselves and dream among themselves, surviving on the edge of the abyss. He neither recounts nor judges; invisible, he lends them his language, the language of Madurai, and his direct, lucid and responsible style, conscious of bearing the world’s derision.” He was an authentic intellectual whose world had the transparence of his honesty; with the dry and nervous precision of his writing he brought to life a world no one approves of but whose reality is captivating. As each sentence ends, the crescendo of a dream is pitilessly hunted down by the next sentence and tracked to the very end of the narrative. There is no possible world beyond this for him and ethics end with the writing. The tension holds, however, and the screen of knowledge through which he observes his chaotic fauna is always on the verge of falling to pieces under the pressure of confrontation.

  • 35 This is the best way for us to evoke that conflict which is tearing all Tamils apart. There is no (...)

108Dharmu Sivaramu (1939-1997) (who wrote as Piramil, but played with his name numerologically throughout his life), pushed the margins to the point of living an eccentric life. He was a Tamil from Sri Lanka who emigrated to Madras mainly to try, without success as it turned out, to go on to Canada, France or the United States, and was nowhere to recover his roots; he refused to work for a living, preferring to undergo poverty and hunger. He was a poet first of all, whose sometimes brutal images are extreme and dazzling, a visionary who was without a doubt religious in some sense but whose metaphysical framework is not always evident. It remains firmly established in the complex tradition that constitutes his unwavering faith and confers on all his writings an ethical value and sense of a world beyond. He was violently opposed to the caste system and to Brahminism and inclined towards Buddhism, without repudiating the Hindu element in his culture, as is emphasised by the many Sanskrit terms in his vocabulary; he was attracted equally by the saints, sages and prophets of all religions. He refused to compromise throughout his life, coming out against all social dogma and putting his faith exclusively in the contemplative powers of saints and, naturally, of artists. The literary criticism that took up his last energies, joined a very sure aesthetic sense to an art of formula and a deadly polemical instinct against all the hypocrisies and false semblances of his milieu. This man, who claimed to be a writer, was quite naturally spurned by his colleagues, generally speaking, and his attempts to publish in popular magazines ran up against numerous obstacles. His work, which is dispersed amongst rare publications financed by himself or his friends, must be collected, however, for it shines as a part of the universal conscience lost in the complexities of social reality. His passionate vision dispenses with banal realism; it uncovers behind things the hallucinatory and miraculous states of mind dear to him, and accessible through his style and poetry. Because he moved about by instinct in a world of the spirit, he was able to maintain an uncommon energy and clarity through all the nightmares of his chaotic life. The text we have chosen, in conformity with that global vision, links the national crisis in Sri Lanka35 with an eternal dharma whose abstract code contains the solution which the world refuses even to glance at.

The present context

109We shall end this brief survey with a violently contrasting diptych, dedicated to two currents, unequal but significant to contemporary output. So that it not be lacking, our presentation must outline the impressive fresco, never on show to foreign critics, of the huge story-producing machine which operates in the Tamil market. This is the real connective tissue of this literature, yet all the authors we have chosen look down on it and make profession of under-valuing it; the urban elite is indifferent to it, and so is the intellectual world and the little avant-garde journals which like to stay speculating on the margins, and far away from currently popular production. If the space set aside for specifically literary stories seems limited, we see on the other hand the proliferation of mass literature which will be the first panel of our diptych and which some half a dozen writers here symbolise. All of them deserve their popularity in their own way which may perhaps count against them in the eyes of posterity. They are professionals in a sense, with something more than skill: they have real talent and fertile imaginations. Only a slight shortage of breath or the temptation to exploit the market’s facilities leads them to offer, as short novels, works that a little extra effort would have turned into more muscular and better decanted short stories. Without ceasing to write for the weeklies, these indefatigable authors each supply one or two novelettes, with dream inducing titles, that appear each month for the delectation of a faithful public.

110Three of these are clones of Sujata, the Sujata of the poor in three persons: Rajesh Kumar who supplies the series Crime Novel and Suspense Novel; Pattukkottai Prabhakar who single handedly fills Novel Leader, Novel Time and Uṅkaḷ Junior (Your younger brother) whilst under the female pseudonym Subha, two male authors are associated in publishing Super Novel. Devi Bala produces a string of family melodramas lacking in surprises for a modern Tamil version of Veillées des chaumières, with the explicit title of Kuṭumpa Novel, (family novels). Balakumaran, presented above, distils an identical religious and mystical product under two different titles: one more elevated, Navarasa Novel, ‘Novels of nine rasa’, or literary sentiments, and one, we may venture to say, more frank, Palcuvai Novels, ‘Novels with several flavours’; these parallel series are in fact suitable “for all tastes”. Indira Saundirarajan, another female pen name of a male writer, has found an outlet for his stories of the occult, in which astrology, popular religious folklore, amongst other ingredients for the credulous are featured. Like Devibala he has made a name for himself as a writer of serials for cable television’s impoverished local versions of Indiana Jones.

111The complete dimension of the phenomenon cannot be grasped without including the dual personality of “Stella Bruce” (1941-2008), once again a man using a woman’s name, who published short novels and serialised stories in Āṉanta Vikaṭaṉ, at the same time as pursuing a much more discreet and more elitist parallel career as a poet in the little reviews, such as Ḻa and Viruṭcam in which he used another name, very Indian and most glorious in the annals of literature, Kali-Das. We should in fact remember that if this “para literature” has not been studied as seriously as it deserves to be, it remains nonetheless the breeding ground from which Tamil language and literature may grow up to survive in the face of the omnipresent erosion of Tamil by English amongst the reading public.

  • 36 Kannan M. and F. Gros, “Les dalit tamouls en quête d’une littérature”, Bulletin de l’Ecole françai (...)

112Given this multitude of intoxicants, is the awakening of the oppressed classes, manifest everywhere in India under the name of Dalit Movement, an opportunity for contemporary literature to explore, with a new excitement, a source of inspiration which gives us the second panel of our diptych? This is a real question which is resolved differently according to the regional languages involved and we have dealt with it elsewhere,36 maintaining, so far, a tentative optimism regarding Tamil, up to now and the expectation of being pleasantly surprised. This expectation is widely shared, as it has become fashionable everywhere to celebrate the merits of Dalit works, which are too often stereotyped and predictable in tone and in the content of their narrative. These works are commonly seen as “Dalit”, an appellation that is decided according to extra-literary criteria, and is at the same time juggled with disarming directness by the actual Dalits as it suits them, and used with no more discernment by non-Dalits. In its persevering if slightly snobbish quest to crown Dalit texts, Kathā – a group of writers and intellectuals who offer all-India prizes each year for short stories which are then published in English translation – is a good illustration of the problems of criteria of choice: a “Dalit” story by a non-Dalit writer, or a non-or “not-so-Dalit” story by a writer from the Dalit community?

  • 37 An original publication in Dalit, no 2, July 1997. It is about a young girl whose father has the f (...)

113In 1995-96, Ūrākāli by Irattina Karikalan was chosen; this is the lament of a village cowherd whose daughter has been raped, and it has all the merits of an excellent social document, written moreover by a non-Dalit. A realistic subject, sure to be moving, has obviously been preferred here, to the detriment of literature. On the other hand, while the 1997-98 recommendation by Indira Parthasarathy of Varaivu (sketch) by T. Cutakar (Sudhakar) Ghatak, the pen name of a genuine Dalit, a young engineer of Neyvēli, at that time looking for work, seems entirely justified to us, the actual choice was less unanimous. It is, however, the work of a real writer, on a subject which is barely Dalit but which is treated with the sensitivity of a Vannadasan, with a literary imagination approaching that of Dharmu Sivaramu, and with a feeling for understatement resembling that of Mauṉi, in the presentation of a discreet scene between a couple prevented from being together.37

  • 38 Almost identical to the Kaḷḷar, described by the French anthropologist Louis Dumont in his thesis,(...)

114We, in our turn, have taken the risk of closing this collection with a rural story, very authentic in its tone and of a rigorously ethnographic precision, with highly coloured characters and a very particular ethic: a village community wants to celebrate a native son’s joining the police force but finds itself terrified simply by the sight of his uniform! The story takes us to the heart of the Tēvar caste38 which, listed in the census till recently amongst the “criminal tribes” of India, has today joined the side of the oppressors. This is the author’s caste and he has not forgotten that in his father’s family pride was taken in committing at least one murder a year; it is quite possible that recounting this has had a cathartic effect on him. The eponymous collection of 1996 in which the story was featured, was the first by Velaramamurthi (1953-). He joined the army at sixteen which implies a more objective vision of India than most Tamil writers have the opportunity to acquire, and now works in postal administration in Madurai. A communist sympathiser he has fought for literacy and for awareness in an association of progressive writers of whom he is typical; he belongs to a new generation with a new style, a lineage, as we have noticed, that has been widely represented already. He has published three collections, about forty stories altogether, and has written a dozen or so engaged plays. Apart from this writer, the Ramanathapuram district has only one other, Gandharvan (1945-2004). The sole literary influence Velaramamurthi claims is that of the people of his village themselves, though he seems critical and very distant in relation to his own milieu. We hope that the acuity of his realist verve will move him towards a deeper exploration of his roots, though not all his texts have the impact of the one we have chosen as [a sample of] his first fruits.

Short stories selected and translated for the French anthology

115Putumaippittaṉ, Ciṟpiyiṉ Narakam, L'enfer du sculpteur (1935)

116Mauṉi, Aḻiyāc cuṭar, La flamme inextinguible (1937)

117Mauṉi, Māṟutal, Métamorphose (1937)

118Ku. Pa. Rajakopalan, Āṟṟāmai, Les ravages de l’absence (1939)

119C. S. Cellappa, Kūṭu cālai, La grand-route (1945)

120T. M. C. Rakunatan, Āṉaittī, Voracité (1946)

121L. S. Ramamirutam, Puṟṟu, Termitière (c. 1950)

122T. Janakiraman, Tīrmāṉam, La décision (1957)

123Asokamittiran, Mañcal kayiṟu, Le cordon safran (1958)

124Cuntara Ramacami, Kītāri, La génisse (1959)

125N. Mutucami, Cempaṉār Kōyil pōvatu eppaṭi?, Cembaṉārkōyil (1967)

126G. Nakarajan, Appaṭi oru kālam, Appaṭi oru piṟavi, Quelle époque! Quel type! (1968)

127Ku. Alakiricami, Cuya rūpam, Plus vrai que nature (1970)

128Campat, Camiyār Jukkup pōkiṟār, Le sage se rend au Zoo (1971)

129Ki. Rajanarayanan, Cantōṣam, Jubilation (1972)

130Vannatacan, Taṉumai, Soledad (1974)

131S. Kantacami, Vāḷ, Scieur en long (1974)

132A. Matavan, Īṭu, L’indemnisation (1975)

133Vannanilavan, Estar, Esther (1976)

134Dilip Kumar, Tīrvu, La solution (1977)

135Atavan, Putumaippittaṉiṉ turōkam, La trahison de Putumaippittaṉ (1979)

136Cutamani, Nākaliṅka maram, L'arbre nâgalinga (1979)

137Pumani, Rīti, L'ordre des choses (1979)

138C. R. Ravintiran, Vaḻukku maram, Le mât de Cocagne (1979)

139Tamil Celvan, Kuralkaḷ, Des voix (1982)

140Prapanjan, Caṅkam, Il est des nôtres (1982)

141Rajentira Colan, Ūṉam, Impuissance (1984)

142Piramil tarmu civaramu, Laṅkā puri rājā, Lankapuri Râja (1985)

143Nanjil Natan, Uṭaippu, La brèche (1985)

144Nanjil Natan, Cuṭalai, Soudalai (1985)

145Eckbert Caccitanantan, Ēḻu eḻupatu taram, Soixante-dix fois sept fois (1986)

146Gopikrishnan, Kāṇi nilam vēṇṭum, Il faut un arpent de terre…(1986)

147Konanki, Pāḻ, Ruine (1987)

148Ampai, Veḷippāṭu, Epiphanies (1988)

149K. N. Subramaniam, Kaṇṇaṉ eṉ tōḻaṉ, Kannan mon copain (1988)

150Jeyamokan, Pōti, L'arbre de la connaissance (1990)

151Velaramamurti, Iruḷappa cāmiyum 21 kiṭaiyum, Les vingt-et-un chevreaux d'Irulappacami (1995)

Short stories actually appeared in the French anthology L’arbre nâgalinga

152Putumaippittaṉ, Ciṟpiyiṉ narakam, 1935

153Mauṉi, Aḻiyāc cuṭar, 1937

154C. S. Chellappa, Kūṭu cālai, 1945

155T. M. C. Raghunatan, Āṉaittī, 1946

156L. S. Ramamirtham, Puṟṟu, 1950

157T. Janakiraman, Tīrmāṉam, 1957

158Ashokamitran, Mañcal kayiṟu, 1958

159Sundara Ramaswamy, Kītāri, 1959

160G. Nagarajan, Appaṭi oru kālam! Appaṭi oru piṟavi! 1968

161K. Alakiriçami, Cuya rūpam, 1970

162Sampath, Camiyār Jukkup pōkiṟār, 1971

163Vannanilavan, Estar, 1976

164R. Chudamani, Nākaliṅka maram, 1979

165Pumani, Rīti, 1979

166Nanjil Nadan, Uṭaippu, 1979

167S. Tamilselvan, Kuralkaḷ, 1982

168Piramil Dharmu Sivaramu, Laṅkā puri rājā, 1985

169Konanki, Pāḻ, 1987

170K. N. Subramaniam, Kaṇṇaṉ eṉ tōḻaṉ, 1988

171Velaramamurtti, Iruḷappa cāmiyum 21 kiṭaiyum, 1995

172This is the original enlarged version of the French afterword to the book, L’arbre Nâgalinga, éditions de l’aube, 2002. The short story, a borrowed genre in which contemporary Tamil literature attained to world standard (according to Tamil critics), has become an endangered species in Tamil. Largely circulated popular magazines such as Kumutam, Āṉantavikaṭaṉ, Kuṅkumam etc. have stopped publishing short stories of any considerable altogether length. We could also say that the little magazine culture (circulation of ~500-1000) that was so vibrant in the 1970s and 80s has come to an end. The Tamil literary scenario is now dominated by “middle magazines” (monthlies, actually literary glossies/ tabloids) with a circulation of 1000 to 3000 copies. These are issued mainly by small publishing houses, which function like cultural NGOs, keeping their focus sharply on the state government's library orders and the Tamil diaspora market. They pay lip service to the genre of short stories by publishing, perhaps, one per issue, just as fillers. Their form and content hardly reflect the legacy of that earlier achieved "world standard". As anywhere else in the world, from the view point of publishers novels sell, short stories don’t-this is now true in the Tamil world too.


1 Un barbare en Asie, Paris, NRF, 1933, p. 113ss; Henri Michaux, A Barbarian in Asia, English translation by Sylvia Beach, New Directions, 1949, see pp. 85-94.

2 The Vintage Book of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, London, 1997. Introduction by Salman Rushdie.

3 The incident will be forgotten with the novel by Arundhati Roy, The god of small things, Booker Prize 1997, which amplified it. In chapter 12, the expiatory performance during a full night in a deserted temple, by katakaḷi dancers guilty of making of their art a product for foreign tourists, should be read as a parable: the actor “…turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.” Like the dancers with brilliant, but worn out costumes or jewellery, the author seeks, as they do, redemption in that Indian garb that takes the place of identity for them all and is the single existential connection with the story they incarnate: “This story is the safety net above which he swoops and dives like a brilliant clown in a bankrupt circus”.

4 Most probably a newspaper article, reprinted without date or reference in Makākavi Pārati kaṭṭuraikaḷ, Madras, 1981, pp. 203-204.

5 This is not to decry the English language in India as an invaders’ tongue without regional roots. In actual fact India is riddled with it but at privileged points: towns, convents, colleges, clubs, the courts of princes and of judges; growing like couch grass between the paving stones of towns before spreading along the network of national highways first and then along byroads, it is linked to the westernised urban culture of the upper, and to a lesser extent, middle classes. Its impact upon Indian culture is constantly re-evaluated, see William Walsh, Indian Literature in English, Longman, 1990; Rethinking English, Essays in Literature, Language, History, ed. by Svati Joshi, New Delhi, 1991; The Lie of the Land, English Literary Studies in India, ed. by R. S. Rajan, O.U.P. 1992, etc…

6 Ian Jack, responsible for “Indian” editorial selections at the Granta publishing house, recently told the press apropos Indian literature in the “other” languages of India, that is all the “vernaculars”, starting with Bengali: “if you were to picture the kind of people who live in them, I think you will have to go into their language (sic). But the problem for someone like me is that I am not reading them. I have no idea of their quality. It is confusing.” In other words, the image of India projected by Indian authors writing in English, the only language that is known and recognised, entirely excludes the great majority of the Indian people who provide the essential material of regional writings. Involuntary and frank as this is, it is a very serious reminder of the limits of literary globalisation.

7 Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1999. Translated into English, The World Republic of Letters, Harvard University Press, paperback, 2007.

8 In the ordinary meta-language of criticism authors are designated by their initials (bearing in mind that the Tamil script is syllabic): K. N. S. becomes Ka. Nā. Cu. and L. S. R. becomes Lā. Ca. Rā.

9 “The age demanded…” translated by Michael Edwards in Adam, International Review, No. 355-356, “Passages from India”, 1971, p. 136. An English version by the author himself had appeared in Sameeksha, December 1965.

10 Now available in French in the collection Connaissance de l’Orient and in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard ed.

11 M. L’Abbé J.-A. Dubois, Le Pantcha-tantra ou Les cinq ruses, Fables du Brahme Vichnou-Sarma; Aventures de Paramarta, et autres contes, all translated from the original for the first time, Paris J.-S. Merlin, 1826. Reprinted, with 13 etchings by Léonce Petit, Paris, A. Barraud, 1872. Separate edition of the Aventures de Paramarta, with a preface by F. Sarcey, ibid. 1877. Beschi’s Tamil text (1680-1747) had already been published in London, in 1822, The Adventures of the Gooroo Paramartan by Benjamin Babington with a translation and vocabulary, and in Pondicherry in 1845, with Latin translation.

12 In an anthology of Tamil short stories from Singapore, Na. Govindasamy & Elangovan, Singapore Tamil Sirukataikal, Madras, 1992, the text cited... pp. 39-41 is exhumed from the September 1888 issue of Ciṅkai Nēcaṉ, a serialized dialogue by the editor which was in no sense original fiction, Vinōta campāṣaṉai, (An Extraordinary Conversation). In this regard we should make it clear that the literature of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and South East Asia, has not been taken into account in this extremely limited selection. That literature has taken on another dimension today with Tamil immigrant communities in Europe, North America and Australia.

13 See especially Another Harmony, New Essays on the Folklore of India, collection co-edited with Stuart H. Blackburn, University of California, 1986, Folktales from India: a selection of oral tales from twenty-two languages, selected and edited by A. K. Ramanujan, New York, 1991. His short story “Annaya’s Anthropology”, translated from Kannada (in From Cauvery to Godavari, Modern Kannada Short stories, edited by Ramachandra Sharma, Penguin Books, 1992), throws interesting light on the indigenous perception of foreign anthropologists’ work and can be read together with the most striking example of the damaging treatment of the Tamil short story, when seen through the fantasies of anthropology, the work of Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi, Cool Fire: culture-specific themes in Tamil Short Stories, Göttingen, 1983.

14 He offers one of the first ever lucid diagnoses of the break-up of the joint family and the evolution of the male Brahmin mentality at the end of the 19th c.

15 Extract from chapter 42: “Cutēṣa pāṣā apivirutti – tamiḻiṉ arumai” (Development of the domestic language-greatness of Tamil) p. 323 of the 1939 edition.

16 The railway station, favoured venue for meetings and separations, is a scene of choice for the short story writers, starting with Bharati himself in “Railway sthānam” a Hindu-Muslim dialogue on the platform of Teṉkāci station.

17 Founded in 1928, it became a weekly in 1933.

18 After more than half a century, Āṉanta Vikaṭaṉ still has the second largest distribution of Tamil weeklies (more than 220,000) after the unequalled record of Kumutam (588.359 in 1983, the second largest in India after Manōramā, a Kerala weekly, but dropping to less than 400,000) closely followed by Junior Vikaṭaṉ (more than 200,000) before the bi-monthly, then weekly and now bi-weekly, Tamil version of India Today, a general interest magazine hesitating between serious and popular literature which published short stories in every issue (no longer) and has rarely exceeded sales of 150,000. It should be said that these figures, obtained from the Audit Bureau of Circulation during the 1990s are only of indicative and comparative value. The review Kaṇaiyāḻi had a circulation of 8000; Cupamaṅkaḷā reached 4000 before disappearing; Maṇikkoṭi reached 2000 and Eḻuttu, the review of C. S. Chellappa, had between 200 and 500 subscribers.

19 An all-rounder who also wrote for the theatre and cinema, responsible initially for Maṇikkoṭi and the discoverer of Mauṉi, he was consigned to the shadows by the most exalted circles. A rather facile writer, he had a strong grasp of the human drama in terms of social problems and gave a subtle psychological tint to various popular beliefs (cf. Natcattirak kuḻantaikaḷ).

20 This was also the year of the launching of Tiṉat tanti, today the most popular daily in the region. It has a circulation of 325,000 and is distributed from more than ten different editorial offices.

21 Published in Delhi, it occasionally features texts translated from Tamil; for example, Number 16 (May-June 1994) was devoted entirely to Tamil Writing Today and, naturally, the short story is presented with a careful measure of standard conservatism (Ashokamitran and N. S. Jagannathan) and well behaved nonconformity (Thopil Mohamed Miran and Raj Gowthaman), concerned above all with not upsetting anyone.

22 Not without fixed prejudice nor caste consciousness; this is the case with the historian A. R. Venkatachalapathy, for whom post-modernism seems to demand the re-assessment of the most sacred values. His inspiration served him better when he published texts by Putumaippittaṉ, which he collected from hard to find journals and magazines: the figure of the writer emerges from that effort as larger and more engaging.

23 Piramil, the writer Dharmu Sivaramu, reports that when Va. Rā., in a thoroughly Gandhian enthusiasm for the abolition of caste, invited him to renounce his Brahmin thread and hang it on a nail, Mauṉi replied “I will rather cut my cock and hang it there!”

24 Notably with regard to the “new” criticism represented by Venkat Swaminathan who, in a sound return to the best of Kalki, projected, a wider vision of other forms of expression in the journal Cupamaṅkaḷa, a literary monthly published between 1991 and 1995. Interviews with authors published in this journal are collected under the title Kalaiñar mutal Kalāpriyā varai, by Ilaiyabharathi, Madras, 1997.

25 We owe to this friendship the collection of the correspondence of Alakiricami, ku. Aḻakiricāmi kaṭitaṅkaḷ, Annam, Sivagangai, 1987, letters written to K. Rajanarayanan.

26 The allusion is to Vīrammā, Josiane and Jean-Luc Racine, Une vie paria, Le rire des asservis, Pays tamoul, Inde du Sud, Paris 1994, the testimony of a woman story-teller and singer in a “paria” village near Pondicherry.

27 For example, M. V. Venkatram (1920-2000). A Saurashtrian, born in Tancavur, he belonged to the generation of Maṇikkoṭi. Never forgotten and known particularly for his novels (Vēḷvittī, The Sacrificial Fire, 1966, describes the life of weavers, his community of origin, emigrated to Kumbakonam), he resurfaced in 1993 with Kātukaḷ (Ears), which won an award from the Sahitya Akademi. His writing went through a phase of obsessive religiosity devoted to Murukan, which still charms many readers.

28 Examples of sagas: Nīla. Padmanabhan (Generations, Talaimuṟaikaḷ, 1968, Relationships, Uṟavukaḷ, 1975, Paḷḷlikoṇṭapuram, 1982); K. Rajanarayanan (Kōpallakirāmam, 1976, about a family of migrants in Tamil Nadu at the time of the East India Company, a story continued in Kōppallapurattumakkaḷ, 1990), and Sundara Ramaswamy himself whose short novel, Story of a tamarind tree Oru puḷiyamarattiṉ katai, 1966, brings together in one place, under one tree and one title, three stories describing the evolution of a city and a countryside in the throes of urbanisation. As for committed texts, we may mention a few samples of talked about titles: T. Selvaraj, Flowers and Dry Leaves, Malarum carukum, 1966, the awakening to class consciousness of a family of untouchables over several generations; Indira Partasarathi, Stream of Blood, Kurutip puṉal, 1975, dealing with the impact on urban intellectuals of a violent confrontation between feudal landowners and agricultural workers; Isaac Arumairajan, Tears Kaṇṇīr, 1975, a socialisation of Christian feeling and ethics in the service of the poor; Cinnappa Bharati, Thirst, Tākam, 1975, about small pauperised peasantry in solidarity with agricultural workers; Ponnilan, The black soil, Karical, 1976, about small farmers and agricultural workers; and Rajam Krishnan, On the Bank, 1978, about fishermen against the local church…

29 They were the two writers chosen to represent the Tamil short story in the pan-Indian anthology by Aruna Sitesh, Glimpses, The Modern Indian Short Story, New Delhi, 1992. Ashokamitran’s popularity depends to an extent on a kind of cosmopolitanism, whereas Cutamani in a way represents the values of the woman of the house who writes tirelessly, and produces a great deal but without claiming to be a feminist writer.

30 See Chantal Delamourd, “L’insolite dans le quotidien: aspect constitutif de la nouvelle de Vannadasan”, in Genres littéraires en Inde, under the editorship of Nalini Balbir, Paris, 1994.

31 For more information, read C. S. Lakshmi, The face behind the mask-Women in Tamil Literature, Vikas, Delhi, 1984.

32 As is shown by the remarkable anthology, Kurukṣētram, he edited and published in 1968, and by his Diary of a Tamil writer, published in English.

33 G. Nākarājaṉ Paṭaippukaḷ (Complete Works of G. Nagarajan), Nagercoil, 1997, with a biographical note by the editor, Sundara Ramaswamy, who had written the preface to the only collection of his stories to have been published earlier, which is cited on the back cover of the reissue of the novel Tomorrow is another day (Nāḷai maṟṟum oru nāḷē), Madras 1983 (first edition, 1974).

34 “Tamil Dalits in search of a literature”, South Asia Research 22, 1, 2002, p. 39, see the article in this vol.

35 This is the best way for us to evoke that conflict which is tearing all Tamils apart. There is no irredentism where Dharmu Sivaramu is concerned and his Sri Lankan culture remains the largest and most ecumenical possible. After him, it has been necessary to learn how to distinguish between the communities of traditional Tamils in Sri Lanka: those of the tea plantations, those who are Muslim, those for whom English is the language of culture and, lastly, those who in exile express themselves in Tamil, in Europe, especially France, Canada, Australia etc. These categories in total have produced and are producing more and more literary works. We should mention novelists (K. Daniel, Talaiyacinkam) and poets (Vilvaratnam, Nuhman, Cheran, Karunakaran, Nilantan) but there have been no major short stories as of the time of writing, despite the several copious anthologies regularly published.

36 Kannan M. and F. Gros, “Les dalit tamouls en quête d’une littérature”, Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 83, Paris, 1996, pp. 127-153; see the article in this vol.

37 An original publication in Dalit, no 2, July 1997. It is about a young girl whose father has the five goats she has acquired and looked after very carefully for her wedding celebration stolen. Unable to stand the painful disappointment in her father, she leaves for the city where she becomes a model for a drawing class due to the help of a flower seller who regards her in a way as his fiancée but cannot marry her. The story ends with the first session of posing when she identifies with the painted canvas so as to blow away with it: this is how she attempts to escape the unhappiness of the present.

38 Almost identical to the Kaḷḷar, described by the French anthropologist Louis Dumont in his thesis, Une sous-caste de l’Inde du Sud, Organisation sociale et religion des Pramalai Kaḷḷar, Paris-La Haye, 1957, which, translated into English, has become a classic of Indian ethnography.

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