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Deep rivers

Kannan M.
Jennifer Clare

Contemporary Tamil

Decomposition: reading a modern Tamil short story1

Texte intégral

  • 1 Pōti (Bodhi), in the short story collection: Jeyamokan, Ticaikaḷi­ naṭuvē, Annam, Sivagangai, 1992.

1The strength of this story by Jeyamokan lies in it having for its theme a reality which is still powerful and current, in a form which is particularly symbolic of the Tamil landscape: a big Saiva monastery, whose fictive designation is quasi-transparent. The description of the physical and carnal decomposition of one of these bastions of orthodoxy is sufficiently striking to convey to the reader the protagonist’s disgusted reaction. The skill of the construction and of the unexpected rounding off of the narrative contribute to the perfection of the story, provided we don’t notice the author’s hand behind a colourless and superficial protagonist. For, in actual fact, the hero doesn’t exist; he is also a narrative device in this philosophical tale for our times in which the image of the Tree of Enlightenment, borrowed from Buddhism and with a play of meaning in its title, (pōti; in Tamil it means simultaneously the act of instruction, wisdom itself, and the fig tree of the pagodas, the tree of Buddha), is reduced to the hallucinatory vision of a hydrabanian tree whose tangled roots rather evoke mental confusion and rejection than welcome and spiritual light.

2Ultimately this story is a provocative document dealing with the metaphysics of those liberal neo-conservatives who guard the values of an elementary and popular spirituality, but only as an empty shell; it offers a decadent and agnostic view of the orthodox cultural and religious tradition which rebounds negatively on the sincerity of the protagonist’s search.

3The Tiruvatikai monastery and the drama evoked here do not stand only as fiction, or rather it is romantic fiction which recreates a form of lived history to which reconstructed history does not offer all the keys. The fiction sets the scene near Panrutti, on the north bank of the river Keṭilam where a Cōḻa temple still attests to the Saiva implantation which is evident in several hymns consecrated by the Tēvāram to this place since the 7th c. It is traditionally one of the eight virasthala of Siva’s heroic exploits accomplished during his destruction by fire of Tripura, the stronghold of the demons. Siva is worshiped there as heroic and warrior-like and his consort is called Tripurasundarī.

4The Saivite connotation is thus very much emphasized from the first paragraph on, even if the monastery where the story takes place can’t be found today. But the extrapolation from other better known, and sometimes subsisting, centres is facile. As a centre concerned with the spread and thorough study of a religious culture, in this case Saivism in addition to the entire intellectual heritage of Sanskrit and, particularly, Tamil culture, the maṭam is a bastion of religious faith and a conservatory of traditional science, as attested to by the extent of its manuscript collections and sometimes even of its publications.

5We are thus in an historically plausible context, reinforced by allusions which combine an appearance of erudition, such as the place given to the tradition of scholastic commentary, with the facility of familiar references: the civañāṉapōtam is known as the most commented on and the most frequently quoted text of all the basic texts of the doctrine; the treatises on elephants are ideal for showing to visitors to the Tancavur Saraswati Mahal library. We note, even so, that the mention of Tirumantiram is not gratuitous as this text passes for the earliest Tamil compendium, presenting in that language a veritable encyclopaedia of the doctrine otherwise presented in Sanskrit in the Saivite āgama; we should understand here that the cult of the Tamil language and of classical poetry is part of the fascination exercised over the young hero by that learned head of the maṭam, last keeper of all the knowledge contained in the manuscript library he shares with dust and termites. To him Vivekananda symbolises a sort of modern pan-Indian Hindu religiosity gone global, and so that the narrator, in mentioning, him naturally draws the wrath of the abbot, an orthodox integrator, who sees Vivekananda only as a pretender perverted by worldliness and by a necessarily venal and superficial modernism.

6The cultural details, accessible to the Hindu public at large coupled with the literary talent evident in the precise description of the gangrene eating away at the abbot, his whole heritage, now left to the rats and termites and to future ignorant and grossly materialistic generations, contribute to create an atmosphere believable enough to compensate for lack of depth. The rotting of the body, the decrepitude of the building and the destruction of the manuscripts is a canvas for the human turpitude which adds its layer of misery to that poignant evocation of the putrefaction of a decomposing world. The author has erected a literary monument which the reader will remember.

  • 1 The best way to follow the sometimes fantastic events of this affair is to read a daily such as Th (...)

7Furthermore, all this is employed in the service of a plot with which the Tamil reader, too, will feel a certain complicity. We naturally think, first of all, of the dark rumours which are passed round on whatever can be deduced as happening within those walls where the profane are not always welcome. This might remind us of the great anti-clerical novels of Paul Féval, or Léo Taxil, which were once such a comfort to the laity of our republican bourgeoisie. As chance would have it, at the moment the (French) text went to press, the most well known of the heads of monasteries both in Tamil Nadu and in all India, the pontiff of Kāmakōṭi Pīṭham, Kanchipuram, was arrested and made the subject of a police enquiry into the murder of an administrator of the Varadarajaswami temple, in the very enclosure of the temple. The list of suspects included his coadjutor and designated successor, his brother, and the administrator of the monastery. The scandal of course took on national dimensions, even though no judgement was passed, and the presumption of innocence is claimed by all devotees divided between politics and religious faith.1

8Thus the story, dated 1990, and deriving a sort of burning immediacy from these news items from the end of 2004, was not only very widely exploited by the local press but taken over at the national political level; taken into account were the partisan strategies and the pan-Indian role this pontiff had recently been attempting to play, notably by launching a mass movement that saw itself as social as much as religious, and going into politics; he later offered to act as mediator in the controversy between Hindus and Muslims over the site of Ayodhya. This too met with failure, aggravated by various local scandals. Briefly speaking, the type of engagement with the century that the story suggests is temptation: not an easy path for a spiritual master.

9We would be mistaken though to take this journalistic coincidence as a quest for bad taste sensationalism. For, if today the affair is widely discussed in local news and in gossip, this should not cause us to forget that the internal quarrels of the maṭam is a recurring theme in Saiva literature, as for Vaishnavas, both sects readily polemic. Moreover, these disputes often reach paroxysm. Popular perception tends to confabulation, not without analogy with a more or less universal anti-clerical reaction. The tensions between master and disciple, like the rivalries between the reigning pontiff and those who covet the power that goes with the succession, are very realistic however. Another parallel is in fact worth putting on record. This is the biography of Civañāṉa Muṉivar, a learned Saiva thinker who died in 1785, published in 1999 in the Sahitya Akademi’s series, Makers of Indian Literature. In this study we read:

  • 2 T. N. Ramachandran, Civañāṉa Muṉivar, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 1999, p. 34. The term ātīṉam (Tam (...)

The heads of matams are holy men no doubt. Yet they are unpredictably vagarious. Perhaps this stance is adopted to put the disciples to test. We desist from casting comments on their ways. However, hard facts call for revelation. The head of an Ātīṉam passes from paroxysms of rage to paroxysms of tenderness. Our Yogi should have his periods of angst and agony as well as elation and ecstasy. In any event, the life of a Tampirāṉ is not a bed of roses.2

10Recognised as an authority in today’s Saiva intellectual world, the author is a lawyer who weighs his words. Without any such intention, he gives to the story presented here the whole background to the multiple repercussions which amplify it, and it offers more than theme for reflection to its readers, from the most general to the most apparently anecdotal, so it seems. The whole life of Sivañāṉa Yogi had to be invoked in counterpoint, but we shall confine ourself to the anecdote, already rich in lessons. The nourishment is not only spiritual in fact, and T. N. Ramachandran walks right into the kitchen for the edification of the reader:

We feel sad to observe that the eradication of “mutt-bandicoots” is impossible of achievement and mischievous elements stick to holy places like barnacles and lampreys adhering to rocks and ship-bottoms. A stray verse of our Yogi’s truly sizes up the sorry state of affairs that prevailed in the cuisine of the Ātīṉam:

  • 3 Work quoted p. 38 & p. 41 n. 13.

The servitors began to eat; their eyes roved
Hither and thither without casting looks on the victuals
O God, behold our sin, our plight and our wretchedness.3

11The cooking was not such a minor detail in the life of monasteries since it is the evidence of the nonagenarian cook of this Yogi that confirms his story, and since it is the Yogi himself who conveys to another cook his gastronomic preferences in a quatrain which happens to be the basic evidence for his presence at Suchindram, near the borders of Keraḷa, the land of pepper, at a moment in his life:

  • 4 Work quoted p. 36 “Tuvaiyal is spiced vegetable paste. Pacchadi is grated vegetable salted and soa (...)

Make some tuvaiyal and a dish of pacchadi
I’ll appreciate fried chips of any kind; greens-
Cooked and ground and treated with asafetida
Is not unwelcome; forget not to add well-ground,
Fresh and sweet smelling pepper to the curry.4

12In his short story, Jeyamokan has not neglected the culinary culture of the maṭam. In fact, the toing and froing he has been able to maintain in the short space of a story between the trivial and the presentiment of the sublime, leaves a strong impression, close to discomfort: the complex relationship between the candour and confusion of an adolescent, torn between respecting and rejecting tradition, and the fascinating figure, excessive and touching, of a monstrous abbot who out of suffering and the fear of losing rank, and the fear of death too perhaps, but certainly because of the evidence of the vanity of his effort to transmit his heritage to those of his maṭam whose heritage it is, is led to renounce the ideas of his own tradition and to have the last remaining manuscripts burned on his pyre. A generator in place of manuscripts; plastic utensils kept with the ritual copper vases; neon tube lights illuminating the ceilings or the ancient door frames and their fine sculptures, monumental bolts and hinges; and varnish replacing polish; briefly speaking, life goes on, but in horror and bad taste, and without soul. The return to the world resolves nothing for the hero: a page is turned but the next one is left blank.

13It is therefore evident that Jeyamokan succeeds better in literature than in metaphysics and, it must be said, in the short story than in the novel. It is a constant in contemporary Tamil literature that it is at its best when short.

14Jeyamokan himself would probably not appreciate this judgement. Born in 1962, in the extreme south of Tamil Nadu and thus on the edge of Kerala, he has settled in Nagarcoil where the Tamil and Malayalam languages co-exist; Malayalam, his mother tongue, breaks through the Tamil of his personal dialect in which he nowadays writes most of his work. Prolific and purposely provoking, he is very well known today and appreciated for his fluid, lucid and very readable style in the manner of Keraḷa’s popular writers. He has tried out all genres, poetry and the novel, short stories, science fiction, children’s books and translation. Though he is still employed by the telecommunications Dept., he is virtually a professional writer who also writes in Malayalam. He proclaims his concern with formal perfection but unfortunately his metaphysics have nothing of the clarity of his prose and he has a propensity to place himself at the centre of fashionable controversies. In the past he was a member of the RSS, the Hindu fundamentalist organization, and he clings tightly to a vision of life marked by Hindu spirituality proposed as universal wisdom; though we don’t always know, any more than does the hero of his story, if this consists of religious sentimentality, Voltarian deism or intellectual atheism.

15His novels add to the confusion. He acts in immensity and no longer knows how to be brief. Vishnupuram (1997) depicts the grandeur and decadence of a mythical temple-town in 800 pages of pseudo philosophical and spiritual debates; the novel that came next, Piṉ toṭarum niḻaliṉ kural, 1999, (The voice of the shadow that follows you) describes in more than 700 pages the failure of communism in Russia and in Keraḷa, through interminable discussions in which all the most contradictory ideological directories file past, from Tolstoy to Stalin, from Dostoievsky to Osip Mandelstam; the latest, Ēḻām ulakam, 2004, (The seventh world) plunges us into the quarters of the physically and mentally handicapped, bought and sold as merchandise to feed the business of begging in temples.

16It will be better to keep the memory of The Tree of Knowledge than the echo of this narcissistic and over ambitious career which strives in vain, with the help of a rootless, heteroclite grab-bag, to renew a largely inherited psychological realism, though without any reference to 19th c. European culture.

17Jeyamokan (1962-) a markedly Hindu writer who, in addition to his prolific and varied output, posts a daily blog on the internet airing his views and visions: Jeyamohan. in. This story first appeared in a Marxist magazine called Nikaḻ in 1990 and was included in the first collection of the author’s short stories: Ticaikaḷiṉ Naṭuvē (1992). The above note accompanied the French translation of the short story published in Anamorphoses, Hommage à Jacques Dumarçay, Paris, Indes Savantes, 2006.


1 The best way to follow the sometimes fantastic events of this affair is to read a daily such as The Hindu, which is usually well shaded and, for a synthesis, the magazine Frontline beginning with the articles appearing in volume 21, no 20, 3rd December 2004.

2 T. N. Ramachandran, Civañāṉa Muṉivar, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 1999, p. 34. The term ātīṉam (Tam. Ātīṉam: Sk. Ādhīna) is synonymous with maṭam, and tampirāṉ designates the pontiff resident at the principal seat.

3 Work quoted p. 38 & p. 41 n. 13.

4 Work quoted p. 36 “Tuvaiyal is spiced vegetable paste. Pacchadi is grated vegetable salted and soaked in curds” Ibid., p. 41, n. 8.s

Notes de fin

1 Pōti (Bodhi), in the short story collection: Jeyamokan, Ticaikaḷi­ naṭuvē, Annam, Sivagangai, 1992.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2009

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