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Deep rivers

 | 
Kannan M.
, 
Jennifer Clare

Contemporary Tamil

Tomorrow is another day: reading G. Nagarajan

Texte intégral

«Cet être raille, braille, gouaille, bataille»
“That one scoffs, bawls, jeers, battles”
Victor Hugo

1«… Pitiés immondes/… tendresses profondes…» “…vile pity/… deep tenderness…”

2These rhyming words from Les poètes de sept ans (The Poets of Seven Years) by Arthur Rimbaud evoke with all the power of their ambiguity the registers preferred by G. Nagarajan (1929-1981), and the emotions he elicits from his readers as an artist possessed of both the irony of a mastered talent and empathy with the unfortunate.

  • 1 The merchant of Venice, I, 2, 50; quoted by G. Nagarajan in a “letter” to the review Ñā­aratam, pu (...)

God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man1

3G. Nagarajan retains this aphorism from the defence of her French suitor Shakespeare puts in Portia’s mouth, and keeps it in his mind when he casts his eye upon the Tamil lower depths. This Brahmin, to the scandalised dismay of the right thinking, had neither God nor caste (one obviously guaranteeing the other); this renegade communist, to the horror of revolutionaries and social workers, mocks socalled human justice and, worse still, the empty verbalism of committed reformists; this ‘progressive writer’, to the discomfort of his doctrinaire colleagues, travesties their humanitarian utopias and their economic dialectic with equal ferocity.

4The quasi-consensual representation the Tamil literary world has made of this marginal figure weighs heavily on his biography whereas he cannot be reduced to the received ideas of the urban middle class which makes up the Tamil readership and those who sell it its ready made thoughts. Caricatured as a hustler, like his hero Kantan, he disturbs and upsets.

5Some semi-learned critics have recently attempted to identify G. Nagarajan with the image they have of Jean Genêt, which is as absurd as it is damaging to both writers. We shall do better to remember the fauna described a generation earlier by Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexander Platz (published in 1929, the year G. Nagarajan was born) with its anti-hero protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, rather than Céline (to whom Pierre Mac Orlan, however, refers in presenting Döblin). Fringe characters do have their un-transposable ethnic anchorage all the same, and real writers have their secret and untranslatable gardens.

6Well known contemporary Tamil authors who knew G. Nagarajan well maintain a restrained silence (Jeyakantan), feed his legend with a discretion amounting to perfidy (Ashokamitran), or moralise at the bourgeois level of Tamil literary criticism, like Sundara Ramasami, his preface writer, and the editor and publisher of his complete works posthumously, in an, originally, unsigned note and in a brief essay. Younger writers, however, have constructed a myth out of the spectre of G. Nagarajan who haunts and fascinates them by providing them with the opportunity to project their unsatisfied fantasies through him. Amongst these the most frenzied is Konanki; the most honest, Dilip Kumar, bears witness; Prabanjan is somewhere between these two.

7Rare biographical elements, collected with some difficulty, are in the image of the work and of the style, once they have been rescued from their sanctimonious wrappings. His childhood was ordinary enough. He was born 1st September 1929 at Madurai. The seventh child in the family, he lost his mother at the age of four and was brought up partly by his maternal uncle and partly by his lawyer father, Ganesa Iyer, who certainly left his mark on him. This man was of an iconoclastic bent and transmitted his taste for reading and for nonconformity to his son, and perhaps as well the fascination with police enquiries and the ironic echo of judicial debates to which he gave an important place in the weave of G. Nagarajan’s work.

8At sixteen, G. Nagarajan was a brilliant student who received a gold medal for mathematics from the hands of a familiar figure in Tamil Nadu, the Nobel prize winner C. V. Raman. His father died in 1961 and G. Nagarajan seems to have cared for him to the end with solicitude and discretion. So much for the myth of the bad son!

9His start in life was more or less in line with his education: as soon as he had been awarded his degree, he embarked upon a year as a tutor in a private college in Karaikkuti; there followed a year in the office of the Public Accountant at Madras after which he held a post as lecturer at the American College of Madurai. A gifted teacher, he was appreciated to the extent that a visit to the United States was considered for him but he chose that very moment to become an active militant in the Communist Party of India. He had to leave the American College to recuperate at the Tutorial College of Tirunelveli. From 1952 onwards, he was a militant deep in this communist bastion in the company of other well known Marxist intellectuals, such as the anthropologist and folklorist, Vanamamalai, or the author and essayist T. M. C. Raghunadan. He broke with the Communist Party after four years, however, for reasons which are not clear but were final, and returned to Madurai. He taught in a number of tutorial colleges and his reputation as a teacher was such that any establishment employing him would design their publicity around his name in advertisements shown in the town cinemas: an unprecedented phenomenon!

10He married in 1959. The marriage was both inter-caste and arranged. His wife was accidentally killed in a kerosene stove explosion four months after the wedding. It was inevitably said that G. Nagarajan had somehow caused the accident.

11He married a second time a year after his father died, that is, in 1962; his widow is still alive as are their two children, a son settled in Madras and a daughter in Hyderabad. His writing career began in 1957, and was short enough: in Tamil there are just over thirty stories published in literary reviews, of which only fourteen appeared as a collection during his lifetime; in English there are some published stories; otherwise there was a novel, With Fate Conspire, and studies on Darwin, Galileo and Marx, as a collection entitled, Three Great Scientists: all this is still unpublished as well as texts which have vanished, including a play about a tenant farmer and the outline for a life of Gandhi for students.

12There is a clinical precision to his works of fiction which is neither realist nor populist. The talent of this writer, who rebelled against all theorisation, consisted in his ability to illumine, with the rawest of lights and from various, but always merciless angles, the society in which he sets action pruned of all metaphysic as of all preoccupation with the sordid.

13Interested as much, or more, in the manipulators as in their victims, and fascinated by human perfidy and scheming, he discovered the mechanism from below. The two narratives are by way of being a series of brief sketches or dialogues which precisely evoke the style of Döblin. Some chapters read like brief short stories: bargaining at the street corner, conversation in the restaurant, animated scenes, lifelike pictures of bleeding wounds abandoned without commentary, echoes of idiotic or sordid political truisms, soliloquies and dialogues which could have been moving if the author had taken the trouble or the time to move us.

  • 2 L’arbre nâgalinga, nouvelles d’Inde du Sud, selected, and translated from the Tamil by François Gr (...)

14On the contrary, he is satisfied with evoking, through the dry and nervous precision of his writing, a universe which society refuses to see but at the same time is fascinated by because it is its incontestable inverse. No more than he becomes bogged down in realism does G. Nagarajan linger in melodrama or dream. In a presentation of one of his stories we wrote “At the end of each sentence, the fermata of the dream is ruthlessly hunted down by the next one and tracked to the very end of the story. There is no possible world beyond and ethics are closed up within the writing alone”2 His writing vocation is for him a sort of idealism of despair.

15Affinities are evident between G. Nagarajan and the style of some American novelists of the best classical tradition. He might have been one such himself, or one of their characters, had he not been somewhat circumscribed by his time: post-independence India with its guilt, greed and lack of commitment. No idealism can alter his disillusioned vision of that world, and in his pages is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of the daily scandals and controversies of his time. It may be yesterday’s world, but not yesterday’s news, because the miracle of his style, this capacity to flash a character or a dramatic situation out of a few lines or retorts, keeps his dense narrative alert and for ever contemporary.

16From the start of the 1960s, having broken with the Communist Party, his anti-communism soon became virulent and he evinced a lively interest in the ideas of Gandhi and of Aurobindo. But no one was sufficiently concerned to understand what secret suffering could have engendered such disillusioned clarity in his permanent confrontation with an humanity lacking in glory. Because of the manner in which he lived the last years of his life no one was ready to risk claiming his ideological heritage nor his literary patronage. To survive, he worked at various métiers, teaching, writing short scientific manuals for other people, and even working in the Gandhi museum at Madurai. He lived off his friends to some extent and travelled a lot, usually without a ticket but able to impress the conductors with his English so that they would close their eyes or even offer to pay for his trip. He didn’t write letters preferring to visit his correspondents. A good son, he was a good father too and never abandoned his family (though this has been said of him with hypocritical indignation), but he was absent chronically and did run away a lot. He would disappear for indeterminate periods. he stayed out all night, he drank and he smoked but, far from being a slave to his habits, he was the detached and perspicacious spectator who never ceased to enrich his work and his observations; the aesthete in him he never renounced declared he could tell a woman’s caste by her smell. This reminds us of another admirable aesthete writer, Pierre Louÿs, and of his erotic erudition which would have appreciated that detail, and of G. Nagarajan’s own manuscripts, irretrievably dispersed.

17In his agony at Madurai General Hospital, on the night of 19th February 1981, G. Nagarajan is reported to have uttered these words, “I am cold, it is very cold. Only by slinking into the fire of the funeral pyre can I escape from this cold.”

18This article was written as the preface to the French translation of the two novels by G. Nagarajan which however remains unpublished.

Bibliographie

Bibliography

Works

Kuṟattimuṭukku, Madurai 1963; reprinted in 1991 in Kālam No 3-4 and 5, a privately circulated review of the Tamil diaspora published in Toronto, Canada; another printing in 1994 at Madurai with a deplorable preface.

Kaṇṭatum kēṭṭatum (Seen and heard), Madurai, 1971 (his only collection of short stories with a preface by Sundara Ramaswamy, (reissued in an edition of published works mentioned below).

Nāḷai maṟṟum oru nāḷē (Tomorrow is just another day) Madurai, 1974; 2ème ed. Madras, 1983, with a biographical note by Sundara Ramswamy, not signed but reissued in a later work.

G. Nagarajan paṭaippukaḷ (The published works of G. Nagarajan, edited by C. Mohan, that is to say, in fact, by Sundara Ramaswamy), Edition Kālaccuvaṭu, Nagercoil, 1997.

Witnesses and evocations

These are to be found in the following short stories.

Ashokamitran ‘Viral’ (The finger) in Muṟaippeṇ, Madras, 1984.

Dilip Kumar ‘Aintu rūpāyum aḻukku caṭṭaikkārarum (Five rupees and the man in the dirty shirt) in Mūṅkil kuruttu (Bamboo shoot), Madras, 1985.

Konanki ‘Mañcal ūṟṟu’ (Yellow source) in Pommaikaḷ uṭaipaṭum nakaram (The town of where dolls break), Sivagangai, 1992.

Prabanjan Oru nāḷ (A day) in Nacukkam (The crushing), Madras, 1993.

Notes

1 The merchant of Venice, I, 2, 50; quoted by G. Nagarajan in a “letter” to the review Ñā­aratam, published May 1973.

2 L’arbre nâgalinga, nouvelles d’Inde du Sud, selected, and translated from the Tamil by François Gros and Kannan M., Preface/Foreward and postface by François Gros, éditions de l’aube, 2002, p. 265. A story by G. Nagarajan “Quelle époque! Quel type! (What a time! What a type!)” is translated on pages 129-137 of that anthology. See the articles on Tamil short stories and Tamil dalit literature in this vol.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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