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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare

Contemporary Tamil

J. J. and Balu: reading a modern Tamil novel1

Texte intégral

  • 1 Cuntara Ramacami, Jē. Jē.: cila kuṟippukaḷ, Cre-A, Madras, 1981.
  • 1 See the articles on Tēvāram and Periya purāṇam in this vol.

1Presenting the Tevāram to an occidental public1 I was struck by the fact that only a small minority of the sixty-three Nāyanmārs were canonised for their writings and that the authors themselves were celebrated as much for their acts as for their works. This type of “Bhakta” engagement is in tune with the Saiva ideal and with the literary tradition in its entirety, whose authors are either quasi anonymous or famous for their feats and their commitments which eclipse their works or lend them glamour. It is not then extraordinary that an important literary message is expressed today in the form of the biography of the writer, who may even be imaginary.

2To draw the profile of J. J. (Joseph James, 1921-1960) Sundara Ramasamy (1931-2005) wrote the most discussed novel to appear in the Tamil literary and ideological milieu for five years. The new edition responds to the growing curiosity of readers about a work that, they have been warned, demands of them an effort of reflection which cuts straight through habits encouraged by an enormous amount of light literature.

3A double disorientation awaits the reader. The first is the literary fiction which transposes to Kerala the narrative and picturesque elements, and ascribes to Malayalam literature, or to the political atmosphere of Kerala, the circumstances and illustrations of a Tamil problematic. The second, which is an original ideological contribution in Tamil, is the attempt to graft onto a contemporary Indian context themes and preoccupations whose occidental origin and expression are undeniable, to the point where some of the content may seem hackneyed, in French translation for example; they require, however, all Sundara Ramasamy’s strength of conviction to impress Tamil readers. This unusual step is all the more interesting because the result is not a literary manifesto but a rather successful work of fiction. Like the Saiva heroes of the Periya purāṇam, J. J. the hero and Balu, the narrator, are some kind of Bhakta in the service of Indian letters, either Malayalam or Tamil, but Tamil in the final analysis, who fight for the triumph of their faith. This novel, sometimes vainly denounced for its western translations or plagiarisms, belongs, on the contrary, to the best of modern Indian literary tradition, that which considers that their cultural heritage is also committed to change the present in order to build the future.

  • 2 Or so it appeared when this introduction was written. More recently, by contrast, studies have bee (...)

4One of the latest neologisms coined by the South India Studies Society is, “the textualization of identity”, the search for the cultural identities of the South through the varied collection of written testimony (inscriptions, manuscripts, pamphlets etc.), surprisingly to the exclusion of the literature of fiction itself.2 Whether this singular paradox is due to anthropological naivety or intransigence I cannot say. By its very nature, the theme is obviously central to all literature, and it is necessarily the axis on which turns the presentation of J. J., a kind of biography, imaginary to be sure but dealing with very real details and problems, which conveys the paradigmatic reality of the hero to the reader and, according to the intent of the author, a reflection on the identity of the Tamil writer and, even more, a reflection on the man himself. In putting forward that reading, I refer, for the benefit of anthropologists as well, to Jean Paulhan’s final aphorism, “Who would know himself, let him open a book”.

5Another novel about the position of the writer, the western reader will say, unaware that it is, in a sense, the first ever in Tamil, and ignoring, from a more technical perspective, the fact that it is also a significant testimony to be included in the line of the autobiography of Swaminatha Aiyar or of his account of the life of his guru Mahavidwan T. P. Minatchi Sundaram Pillai. Such references may be unexpected here but they will serve as a reminder that we are dealing with very serious and real matters: the best of Tamil literary culture championed in militant terms. The historical and social context has evolved and the literary problems likewise, but it is still the savour and the glory of Tamil literature that is to be defended and illustrated and it is in this that the work concerns, and has importance for, us.

6To tell the western reader that this book deals with the condition of literature and the engagement of the writer and claim thus to sum J. J. up, is rather to betray it. But these words must be said, if only to exorcise the Sartre of the series of Situations (specially the long essay on “What is literature?” written in 1947) at a time when Tamil literary critics and translators are popularising him. Brilliant writer and perceptive reader though he was, Sartre never crossed the threshold of the essential and purely literary problem, that of the essence of language in the sense in which it was meant by Jean Paulhan, whose sparse but crucial work provides a fundamental counter balance to the Sartrian “engaged” approach to literary criticism; to neglect this is to risk being engulfed in a rather hollow philosophism, which the most existential critics of J. J., have not always avoided, and in too exclusively ideological approaches to literature.

7Heaven knows, the Tamil literary tradition in its entirety, and the Indian tradition in general, are much closer to Paulhan than to Sartre! Faced, however, with the very anecdotal and personal criticisms of J. J., we cannot but remember the Indian classical pattern of the quasi anonymity of the author, effaced by the work and its rhetoric, and that the foundation of a modern poetic art in India calls for a consideration of the novel as a genre more than of an individual novel as a life story, and that literary writing imposes an order peculiar to it which is not to be debated in terms of anecdote.

8In consequence of which, we simply notice that, as J. J. does not conform to the relatively escapist habitual norm of the contemporary Tamil novel, its publication is not likely to be properly understood. When we enter into that special language, in terms of Jean Paulhan, and not of Sartre – and that language of the Tamil novel turned upside down by Sundara Ramasami – we can no longer impose the intrusion of another language, without running the risk of quaintness, and incomprehension: an incomprehension stemming, not from the failure of an effort to understand but from an a priori rejection and an incapacity to hear on the part of the interlocutor. The message is not received and the whole thing falls into nothingness, quite simply, and that deafness, in terms of the sociology of literature is normal, just as the desire to raise the tone so as to be heard more clearly achieves nothing but absurdity. This is why I am not attempting to plead on behalf of a difficult book, but rather to analyse the range of a work considered to be important and to which more and more readers must be able to have easy access.

9This is worth doing, first, because, it shows by contrast, through the reflections it imposes, as compared with other novels or responses that reassure, and this will be our last allusion here to the disquieting lucidity of Jean Paulhan-that our studies usually overlook a paradoxical yet essential function of literature which is to permit the absence of thought.

  • 3 Ci. Cu. Cellappa. (ed.) Putuk kuralkaḷ, Chennai, 1962, 1994, reprint.

10In stark contrast, the literary activity of Sundara Ramasami is striking for the reflection and the determination of the writer at all stages of his career. His deliberate intention of becoming a Tamil writer laid on him from an early age the responsibility of the literary re-conquest by his mother tongue of English, Sanskrit and Malayalam which constituted his first experiences of language and literature. The avatārs of family life put him in contact with Kerala rather than with Madras, and this incontestable Tamil patriot only became truly Tamilian in 1956 when a part of Travancore was integrated into the state of Tamil Nadu: a natural distance and the wish therefore, in the face of Tamil literature, to be integrated. Each decision, as the first, is heavy with significance, in an experience in which the man is engaged with the will to write, and to write a work which will last a long time: Sundara Ramasami takes his time when he has made up his mind about something. Thinking of Balu’s first expedition when, ailing, he is parachuted into a meeting of Kerala writers, we remember that in the collection-manifesto edited by C. S. Chellappa, Putuk kuralkaḷ3 (New Voices) a poem by Sundara Ramasami, The nails of your hands (Uṉ kai nakam), seems one of the most provocative. There is nothing surprising either in the long silence after 1963 nor in the explosive breaking of that silence by Challenge (cavāl), a poem appearing in Ahq (Aḵ), in November 1972. Neither is it surprising if the political Marxist engagement was succeeded by a much more reserved critical phase in which, however, the impact of Marxist thought remains unalterable. There is, finally, nothing surprising in the current of deep sympathy Sundara Ramasami felt with J. Krishnamurthi, less for the thought than for the style: the art of communicating an authentic experience in all its freshness and a sense of poetic writing in a prose charged with moral and metaphysical reflection.

  • 4 He published a third one towards the end of his life in December 1998. Long chronicle of nearly 65 (...)

11Living for his literature but not by it, this poet, essayist, translator (especially of Lorca, and, from Malayalam, of Takazhi Sivasankaran Pillai) and short story writer wrote only two novels,4 with more than fifteen years between them. The first, The story of a tamarind tree (Oru puḷiya maratti­ katai), published in 1966, with the first four or five chapters appearing in serial from 1959 in the review Saraswati, is nothing less than a Tamil regionalist novel masterpiece. It is a fascinating chronicle in which the sense of time and of rhythm of the society, evolving from the most traditional village to the small modern town, is mixed with an arresting sense of the biological rhythms of the environment and of the psychological urges of men implied in a complex network of social tensions. It is amazing, though fortunate, that anthropological research has not swarmed all over this delicious social science thesis in the freshness of the dialect of Nanjilnadu (Kanyakumari dt.): or anyway not yet.

12This compendium of the traditional culture from a corner of the most southerly district of Tamil Nadu has the qualities of a classic. The author is less a protagonist than a witness, like the chorus of tragedy. The types and the ideologies are all accepted and recognised without difficulty: the splendours of the maharaja, the ambitions of shop boys who, as in Balzac, end up at the head of a great store, the intrigues of political life, the peculation by municipal employees, the faking of bids, the underside of elections and journalism, communal rivalries, the patronage of the rich and the resignation of the poor, and the duplicity of the salaried. The marvellous is present and earthy realism too, and the extraordinary figure of the narrator through whom Sundara Ramasami is pleased to pay homage to the oral tradition which is hot and dense in his prose, and sprinkled with the roughness of local speech.

13It may be that the charm of the narration obscures some details which would reveal the future author of J. J., particularly the attention to the truth and authenticity of the sympathetic characters; as well, the style of the prose engenders the clear and meticulous observation, attentive to all the vertiginous and ineluctable signs of change from village to town, from the spells of the jungle to the glittering trinkets of the city.

14When Sundara Ramasami published his second novel in 1982 he was best known as an essayist and short story writer even though his Story of a Tamarind tree was already a classic. A repetition was most likely expected, or one of those brilliant essays which had contributed so much to this stylist’s reputation as a lucid intellectual. But J. J., was not in the same vein as the first novel and was too dense and complex to satisfy, most importantly, lovers of facile lucidity. It was a new challenge.

15In an interview the author was explicit: perhaps not a great novel but certainly an important one. It cannot be said too often, and in despite of its title, that it is first of all a novel, one which creates characters and traces the picture of a milieu with such veracity and creative power that the local critic was trapped and attempted, with simplistic obstinacy, to identify the hero and his associates, to the amused amazement of the foreign reader who sees nothing in that quest but a way to elude the real debate. When we have come to know something of Sundara Ramasami we are aware that nothing escapes his eye and that each detail has its living reality, including the earrings worn by Suri Porri, [the owner of a kind of small coffee-shop and a neighbour of the author’s] who, without them, looks like Albert Camus. We know too that if Balu, the narrator, is indebted to Sundara Ramasami’s personal experience of illness, difficulty and the warmth of human relationships and shyness, of the obstacles to breaking into literature when young, shy, unknown etc., Balu is not Sundara Ramasami any more than J. J. the hero, is a sort of fantasy projection of what Sundara Ramasami might have wanted to be, or a model of someone he must have known.

16The appearance of a hero who is a Christian writer from Kerala in a Tamil ideological panorama is no less misleading, even for a reader such as K. Zvelebil, though, as far as can be seen (and the reception of the book is one more piece of evidence), it was just impossible to question the Tamil literary milieu from inside without writing an improbable kind of pamphlet, just what Sundara Ramasami wanted to avoid. It did meet with rejection and it is characteristic that some were tempted to cloud the Tamil interrogation, born of the Tamil environment, of the Tamil intelligentsia, in seeing in J. J., simultaneously, something that has more piquancy, the translation of a French novel – and I am in a good position to know that such a one does not exist - or the translation of the biography of a writer from Kerala. As regards that last point, the trouble comes from the fact that the wife of M. P. Paul wrote a book about her husband while their daughter Rosy Thomas was writing another on C. J. Thomas, their son-in-law and, to the confusion of the critics, J. J., owes certain features to these two approaches to the intimate life of a writer but, we add, along with many other details of other meetings the author had.

17Balu and J. J. are certainly imaginary characters, the novel’s two principal protagonists, and not the irreconcilable halves of Sundara Ramasami’s split personality. J. J. like Balu, has the same view of Sundara Ramasami of whatever was positive in the Malayali literary milieu which he knew well and whose vitality, effervescence, modernity and access to foreign writing he appreciated without being under any illusions about the failings and the pettiness. J. J. is an actor in that milieu not a symbol of it. He is contested there too, and it has not been sufficiently understood that, even if his work is presented as essential, it is not entirely achieved. Balu, who is a spectator progressing from the fascinations of his youth to an increasingly distanced evaluation of his model, has set out clearly that he will not, under any circumstance, become a Tamil re-make of J. J. who, he can see, has not yet resolved everything, nor claimed to have cleared everything up and whose limitations the internationally renowned critic M. K. Ayyappan, modelled on Ayyappa Panikkar, cruelly defines in the novel as those of a tormented soul rather than a real creator, and whom “Professor Menon” calls a perfectionist.

18It is interesting all the same to notice to what an extent J. J. is neither a hero nor an anti-hero; this is disorienting given the very simplistic Manicheism of the popular literature. A hero featured with a percentage of defeats left to the appreciation of the reader: this is what bothers that reader, too much habituated to whatever offers a model of perfection. This is yet another reason for the Tamil reader to consign J. J., to foreign literature, forgetting that Sundara Ramasami had only to look around him to find Tamil writers who were brilliant and original but marginalised, victims of artificial paradises, of drugs or of alcohol. I have no intention of naming them here, easy as it would be to do so. We do not forget that there is no moral judgement on this point by either Balu or Menon, nor that in the entire work, which has verve and even, in the reflections of Professor Menon, whose very delectable remarks on the modalities of the insult within the literary milieu have a shining immediacy in the view of sociologists; there is no aggression; the polemic remains ideological and, on J. J.,’s part, it is a work of social consciousness, a lampooning of negation, failure and ridicule. Sundara Ramasami has something Voltarian about him: we shall return to this.

19It is finally the very composition of the work which helps to give more consistency to the characters and more weight to the novel. I suggest, for a possible French translation, the title Waiting for J. J. not only as an analogy with the play by Samuel Becket, but also because what we have here is a case of Box and Cox between J. J. and Balu with an impossible convergence, failure to meet and inability to communicate despite the obvious complicity of their natures. The multiplicity of evidence about J. J. gathered by Balu after J. J.’s death, the reconstruction of J. J.’s personality by way of extracts from his journal: this is a game alternating between the exorcism and incantation, as any book in which the author puts a lot of himself, and of what he rejects and what he dreams of. Sundara Ramasami, like Balu, triumphed over childhood illness, both his own and those of the Communist Party but, unlike J. J. he also triumphed over the negative temptations of bohemianism or the absurd, those abysses in which so many of his writer friends and so many talented poets, sank. Using a model in which Balu realises that he must detach himself from him at the moment when he might have been able to begin to love him, Sundara Ramasami has given us a novel about an education that is bound to make us think of Rousseau, Goethe or Flaubert. It would be nothing short of deplorable if all his followers, that is, his readers, showed themselves to be resistant, since that education paves the way for the advent of the new man and for tomorrow’s enhanced humanism in a Tamil land more open to the world and, above all, to the rest of India.

20It is at just this point, where the work becomes most significant for the language in which it is written that the translator finds himself at the limits of his art. In its totality, the novel is fast moving; the descriptions are of a fine tempo with a zest of mischief. Sundara Ramasami regards the world with his big canny lizard eyes, brimming with the light of mischief, intelligence and sympathy, but that judge and listen in some way. There is something of Candide in Balu when he disembarks at that conference of writers in Kerala where he is confronted successively by an affected secretary, a snobbish interpreter, a Russian Stalinist writer and, finally by the establishment of this literary milieu which is both anglicised and phoney. All French writers ought also to consider the admirable narrating of the announcement of the death of Camus for their own ethnocentricity is implicitly stripped bare by the confrontation with the caricature of the ethnocentricity of their Indian counterparts. Here Balu’s verve is very much that of Sundara Ramasami, whether in conversation or correspondence. We might point also at the pages where several distinguished Indians discovered at one and the same time that painting exists and that it might be, not only modern, but possibly even Indian.

21There are pages of superb lyricism and of marvellous sensuality where Sundara Ramasami describes the prancing horses in front of the Trivandrum palace or the activity around the sawmill of Pakkar in slightly unreal scenery. The poet gives himself away there as when he conveys, in a few lines, the heart rending beauty of a small station or fills pages with the delirium of Sampath. The same transcendental vision of the basil is found in this novel and in a poem of Sundara Ramasami Vision of the backyard (piṉ tiṇṇaik kāṭci), and if this nature poet poses certain puzzles for the translator it is not pages like this that are the problem: sunrise is universal.

22But the occidental reader is less comfortable during the episode in which Balu submits himself to the nature cure of a rather unusual disciple of the Gita. Such a reader must learn to accept that some episodes are treated as parables, such as that of the leper or of the cow at whom someone spits betel, or when the characters drift off into sentimental monologues in which the emptiness of their thought waters down the writing. There are sounds of veena and cello that might like to see reduced and, finally, he will hardly be able to put up with the didactic tone of some of the ideological passages.

23Sundara Ramasami writes wonderfully about children and about their strained relationships with the adult world. We recall the episode of the little Brahmin girl who has been sufficiently immodest as to go outside with the Christian gardener, a cruel, fiercely humorous passage, or of the daughter of J. J. beaten by her mother, a passage that is cruel but without humour, and especially of the delicious memory of the infant Balu playing with dolls with his sister. Why, we wonder, do these pages, so tremendously fresh as they are, have to be weighted down with a long explanation in the text which duplicates the work of art by a commentary that appears to be unnecessary? Why doesn’t Sundara Ramasami have the same confidence he has in his poetry in the allusive value of things? Or perhaps, he didn’t believe he had to overtax his reader. We have already said that J. J., according to its composition alone, is a novel of an education but we must now add that it is its ideological didacticism that weighs it down.

24We have mentioned the Voltarian side of the style of Sundara Ramasami: verve, mischief and lucidity to the point of spite. The sensibility that tempers that verve with a Krishnamurthian dimension is in sharp contrast with the Voltarian quickness of mind. The complexity is further enriched by the ideological tension between Marx and Krishnamurthi, making up a singular ménage, specifically Indian enough to mislead the foreign reader, who would reject Krishnamurthi on principle, believe himself blasé about Marx due to semi-voluntary blindness and lose Voltaire’s lightness in translation. The Tamil reader may understand some of the western reader’s difficulties because of the effort he himself must make fully to grasp some of the cultural features of Kerala which are essential to the cultural context of J. J., but not entirely familiar, except to the inhabitants of Travancore and to Malayalam readers. In fact J. J., needs to be translated into Malayalam most of all since it is in that language that some of the anecdote and various cultural and traditional details would be best understood, to say nothing of the topography.

25On the other hand, the western reader might take the trouble to remember what the European Marxist militant writers of the 1950s were capable of doing, those very same writers, who were then his masters. He will then be in a better position to assess the things that were said of Mullaikal, the popular Marxist writer, or of Albert the trade unionist with the middle class outlook who could be called Maurice in French. The absurdity of the game of identification was obvious to me when I read these pages of J. J., thinking of Louis Aragon and Maurice Thorez, and of the insupportable tone of some of old issues of Europe, the communist literary monthly magazine. It is not to be forgotten that very soon after the publication of J. J., Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mukhāmukham appeared on the cinema screens of Kerala. This same Adoor Gopalakrishnan told me in February 1985, that the film, attacked by old communist comrades as betrayal was neither a political nor a theme film but a human drama of much more general interest.

26It is interesting from the point of view of the confrontation of cultures to see to what extent some of J. J.,’s discussions, especially on the role of the writer and on ideological lessons derived from Marx, are at once very similar to fairly recent western debates and utterly commonplace in the eyes of young Europeans living after the nouveau roman, now definitively buried under the best works of Robbe Grillet, Michel Butor or Marguerite Duras, and tardily crowned when Claude Simon won the Nobel prize. The potential French readership of J. J., possibly irritated by an ideological recollection too recent to have the authentic retro feel to it, would perhaps too easily catch an echo of the philosophical infancy of our nouveaux philosophes rather than the Indian accent which however makes the flavour of the Tamil original: not a Marxism both elementary and financially profitable for second and third rate writers, (the very ones who felt themselves attacked by J. J.), but a real attempt at synthesis and modernity, a modernity that accepts its failures and mistakes, that being not its least disconcerting feature.

27It is understood that this reflection is paired with the legitimate concern of popular communication, the Krishnamurthian temptation of Sundara Ramasami in a way, where the rigor of the demonstration compromises with the quasi-Franciscan feeling of the sweet song of things and of the testimony of the heart. Then too, it is the very success Krishanmurthi has with certain categories of reader that makes him unbearable to others. This is why that Krishnamurthian dimension must be given its true value in the work of Sundara Ramasami: it depends only upon a quality of style and on the exigency of the authenticity of experience.

28Is this perhaps the last word on Sundara Ramasami: a Tamil Voltarian caught between Marx and Krishanmurthi? It cannot be, for it is nothing but a formula, whilst Sundara Ramasami and his book is a demand for authenticity, on himself and on his readers. If we had to chose one phrase as an epigraph it would be “Amicus Plato, magis amica veritas”. Sundara Ramasami, does not quote this formula himself but when he catches Balu out in a flagrant lie, it is precisely Socrates and Gandhi he evokes, and then, very simply, J. J. himself. What does it matter, he says too, if a writer doesn’t have the answer to every question, providing his approach is honest and he is not a liar. Judged according to his own criteria of attachment to truth and of thirst for authenticity, Sundara Ramasami has left us, in J. J., the rich and truthful testimony of his most essential experience, up to his inevitable sentimental outbreak. The best homage we may render him is to judge him according to what he said and to find that he may be genuine.

29This article was written and translated into Tamil, at the request of the original publisher, as a postface to the second edition (1986) of the novel Jē. Jē.: Cila Kuṟippukaḷ, a sensational intellectual attack on the hypocrisy of the Tamil literary world which had met with a controversial reception when it first appeared (1981). For obvious reasons there was no reaction to the article which was found to have disappeared when the novel changed publishers. For the poems quoted in this article, please see Pacuvayyā (Sundara Ramasami), Naṭunici nāykaḷ, Cre-A, Chennai, 1975, 1980. In 1985, the French translation of the novel by F. Gros failed to attract French publishers. The English translation: J. J.: Some Jottings, translated by A. R. Venkatachalapathy, Katha New Delhi, appeared only in 2003.


1 See the articles on Tēvāram and Periya purāṇam in this vol.

2 Or so it appeared when this introduction was written. More recently, by contrast, studies have been flourishing on the part played by print, literature and writers in the making of modern and contemporary Indian history. Now, (auto)-biographies of nationalists, freedom fighters, social workers, or Dalits multiply; they inspire fiction or compromise with it. Hence the new theme: Telling Lives in India, Biography, Autobiography and Life History, a book edited by David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn, or the essays collected by Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia, India’s Literary History, Essays on the Nineteenth Century, both published in 2004 by Permanent Black. The bibliography on the subject is continuously enriched with new creative writings or essays.

3 Ci. Cu. Cellappa. (ed.) Putuk kuralkaḷ, Chennai, 1962, 1994, reprint.

4 He published a third one towards the end of his life in December 1998. Long chronicle of nearly 650 pages it has the odd title of Kuḻantaikaḷ peṇkaḷ āṇkaḷ (Children, women, men).

Notes de fin

1 Cuntara Ramacami, Jē. Jē.: cila kuṟippukaḷ, Cre-A, Madras, 1981.

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