Tamil Literature’s modern pioneers of short story
Remembering TMC Raghunathan, heir to Pudumaipithan
The Thirties, when the Freedom Movement was at its height there arose a new Tamil literary movement, commonly called, the “Manikodi” group of writers. This group, as we can see now, is heir to the nationalist poet, Subramanya Bharati’s soul stirring nationalist poetry. When Freedom came, there again so many literary movements and also high quality literary magazines. Among the quality literary magazines came one short-lived venture, the magazine “Shanti” founded by TMC Raghunathan, a close friend, biographer and heir to the greatest short story writer, the pioneering master of the short story genre. He left his imprint on the subsequent generations. TMC, as he was called, the late Raghunathan was a literary guru to me and later a much valued life-long friend. As I read through his biography and a collection of reminiscences, I am amazed at the fact that I had written my own most major poem in this literary journal and as I now find that most of the famous names, the living and the dead, have found this magazine as their starting ground. So, among the literary milestones in the history of modern Tamil literature, here was a pioneer whose impact is being felt even today whenever the question of quality literature crops up.
Of course, I didn’t meet him for long after I went to Santiniketan and later Oxford and also after my return to India, my life went on in a different path, I was involved many activities, including politics and it was again in his last years when he lived a retired life I started interacting with him over the telephone. He had set up a literary trust in his name and he was canvassing funds for the trust. His memory remains afresh now and I hope I would my best to further my literary mentor’s goals. Here are some of my own reminiscences and also my involvement with the literary activities when some of the giants were living and I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders, so to say, with the famous and immortals of modern Tamil literature!
My own perceptions of Tamil and the Indian literature as well as those of the current world literary trends had undergone radical changes. I now look upon literature as part of a culture, local ethnic culture, also the nationalist cultures. Now, even the world literature is subjected to so many pressures, ethnic, racial and nationalistic phobias. As for India, the colonial past heavily impacts our mental outlook. The whiteman still stands out as our role models, in literature, literary criticisms and in the very many areas of opinion-making. Only in recent years, even the Nobel Prize Committee has started looking beyond Europe and America. There are now recognition for the other older language literatures, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic languages are taken note of. Unfortunately, in India and in TN, in particular, there is a serious lack of any awareness of the happenings in the outside world. The Dravidian politics and the Communists-sponsored literary movements are, in my view, are totally misplaced and Tamil literature, as I can see, has no chance in the foreseeable future to compete, nationally or internationally with any chance of winning literary prizes or other recognitions. Even the latest politicisation of such issues like according to Tamil the classical language status, is misdirected. Politics or politicisation of language and literary issues is a self-defeating exercise. How to lift the Tamil society from its present fall, in politics and society? This is the question I had set before myself as a big challenge. Men of vision and courage and resources must come forward to get back the Tamil glory in our present day situations and pursuits. Anyway, my reminiscences and opinions are given here with the hope that others concerned with these issues might share their own thoughts for the wider good of the Tamil people.
After a very long time, one day (June 2005) in Coimbatore I found myself with some time at my disposal. I had no intention of seeing anybody, big or small! So, what better to do than visit a bookshop. As it happened this time I visited the local branch of the New Century Book House, the owners are the Communist Party of India .I had been a frequent visitor to this shop when it was in its small size and located in a busy Big Bazaar street. This was ,I think, in my early Sixties when I had come back from England and after I travelled through Soviet Russia. So, my mind was still fresh with Soviet Russian experience and also I had so many Communist friends in Coimbatore. So, I used to frequent the shop and buy books and chat with like-minded people. In those days the NCBH used to stock many Soviet Union publications. I once bought a picture book, really a photo album of Leo Tolstoy in this shop. It was a treasure piece and I kept it with me for many years and I used to often look into the pages. The great sage in so many different poses! Tolstoy loved to be photopgraphed and hence you saw him in so many intimate poses.
And when in my enthusiasm I ordered many books for my school library, I was to face enquiries from the education department why I bought ‘unauthorised ‘books! This time I didn’t buy any serious books there. Yet, old memories ran through my mind. I saw two or three books on persons who were my literary friends and also political names ,now almost forgotten! Who would remember the old Tamil Nadu Communist leaders, the late Jeevandandam and K.Baladhandayutham, who was briefly an MP for Coimbatore Parliamentary Constituency. So, this time I bought two books on my literary guru and lifetime friend, the late T.M.C.Raghunathan (TMC).
I am not so sure whether even the present day Tamil writers or readers know of TMC’s achievements! Also I am sure that outside Tamil Nadu TMC is a known name. I guess he is not. For readers outside Tamil Nadu at any rate I should say that TMC is a pioneering Tamil writer in different genres, short stories, poetry, novel, literary criticism and not the least he was a powerful orator and a committed Leftist, in fact a member of the CPI. His claim to be remembered by history would be his life-long association with his friend and mentor, Pudumaipithan, the pioneer in modern Tamil short stories. He is called in TN as the ‘king of short stories’. He had developed a highly individualistic writing style, full of originality in the way he used words and descriptions and the way his characters emerge and grips our attention. The Thirties saw the Tamil short story took its fully evolved form and style. There is still an unsettled furious debate over whether Pudumaipithan had adopted or inspired by Guy de Mauppasant, the great French short story writer. It was the time! The great French writers were very much read and their styles were experimented in Tamil. The fact remains that Pudumaipithan had not been excelled to this day!
His stories read even today as fresh as they were written on the very days some seventy years ago! They can be read without any dated feeling. They instantly stir up our emotions and aesthetical feelings and create our mental pictures that are exhilerating and make us feel energised. TMC was his close friend and almost TMC became his mentor’s alterego in literary style and temperament. Just now I got hold of the two books, one a biography of TMC (who passed away in 2001 (he was born in 1923). Another book is a follow-up of tributes to his memory. Both the books are edited by Ponneelan, a friend of mine and himself a Sahitya Academy award winning writer of novels. I came to know of Ponnelan, when I was briefly introduced to me one day in Coimbatore in another book shop when he served as CEO in my town. Though we have not known each other, I had spoken to him lately more than once. In these two books I had read many aspects of TMC I didn’t know before. Readers would be interested to know why I write on TMC in the first instance?
I had the rare privilege of enjoying his friendship and affection from the very start of my writing life. I can even say now at this distance of time that TMC “discovered” me! It was he who gave me so much in his then very short-lived high literary journal. This was in the year 1954/55. I had once visited him very early in his literary life, in his home in Tirunelveli town and enjoyed his hospitality. His dear wife attended me and now I read with much sadness how she passed away and just after a year TMC himself couldn’t bear her loss, he too went off. Unsung and unwept? Yes, I have to say so considering how little that is now remembered of his literary achievements and his impact on the subsequent writers. Tamil writers have lately developed peculiar mental distortions. Everyone beats his drums so to say. There is no introspection on the part of writers to trance the various influences on them.
TMC was my lifelong friend and I perhaps can say so many things that are not covered in these two books! Also, I find that how without anyone’s provocation I dedicated my recently published book of poems (some 300 pages) to the memory of none other than TMC! Only after this dedication that most of the Communist or other literary friends and associates of TMC had started to talk of TMC whenever there are occasions for us to meet. Thus, when my poems were released in Chennai some months ago I had one invitee who was none other than the then state CPI General Secretary, the much respected R.Nallakannu. He spoke so much about how I got one of my first major poems published in TMC’s literary magazine, “Shanti” in the year 1954. Nallakannu said: “The books has so many poems which criticises Communism and Communists and also there is a laudable reference to Lenin and much more than that there is here the writer’s literary guru, TMC who, knowing him so well, won’t give any appreciative approval easily. The fact TMC had discovered the writer in the year 1954 itself speaks much about the literary worth of the poems”
I was rather amused to find in the books there are so many instances where TMC was scathing in his attacks on his literary enemies, enemies of Pudumaipithan and he was known for his fearlessness when it came to express his literary judgements. So, I can claim that very early in my life I had the good fortune to win his approval and got my poem, two pages published in his very first few months of publication. Apart from the worth of my poetical competence, what surprises me is the fact that I find in this very issue which carries my poem, also carries the major writers who later went on to create literary history. Thus, I find that one of today’s much respected literary hero, Sundara Ramasamy, has his story also published in the same issue.
Now. I find in the book of reminiscences, there is a nearly 30 page interview with Sundara Ramasamy published and much of it traces the very same years when I was also undergoing the very same literary awakenings. Thus, I learn now that TMC published his much acclaimed biography of Pudumaipithan in 1951. Sundara Ramasamy goes into much detail how this biography changed him almost into a hero-worshipper! I bought this book in the very same year in Coimbatore in one book shop, named, Sakthi Karyalalam on the Variety Hall Road and this book is still in my liberary! This book also made a change in my literary tastes, or my literary tastes were shaped by this book. May be, I could recite passages from my memory! Such was its impact. Since that day onwards, I could say that I became a Pudumaipithan fan. In 1951 I was in the high school and only the next year I went to Chennai for joining the Pachayapp College. Where my literary pursuits acquired full-blooded growth! I had now forgotten those days of my life!
One of my Pachayapp College class mates (R.Neelamani), himself a writer of much originality and talents had written a novel in which I find references to his College days. In one passage there is a reference to me, my name is used and he says “there used to hang (in my room) a Pudumaipithan picture! “When I read these passages I was pleasantly surprised. So, I must have been an ardent follower of the then current literary fashions. It was at this time (1953-1955) I got so many of my writings published in the then leading magazines. TMC’s was a highbrow literary magazine and so it is much remembered and written about. I also published in one more writer of great reputation then, Vindan who edited his own magazine, Manithan (Man). I perhaps published my only short story in this magazine. I remember to have visited his house and office, he lived off my College off the Poonamalle High Road. It was during these two years I had met so many great Tamil writers, Thiru. Vi.Ka. a great Tamil scholar and public figure ,Kalki, the legendary novel writer and editor of Kalki, a devotee of Rajaji and among the other great writers I had met Thi.Ja.Ra.a pioneer short story writer and editor of one literary digest, Manjari.
He published my first few translations of foreign short stories and when my first book on “Life at Oxford” came out in 2001 (he published the condensed version! Manjari was a great piece of literary venture. I also came into contact with A.K.Chettiar, editor of Kumari Malar. Chettiar in later years became my mentor and his influence on my writing style is no less important. But above all it was TMC and Pudumaipithan who were the two lasting influences on my creative writing efforts. The book of reminiscences gives a six- page biographical note on TMC’s life and also lists his books. As I glanced through the list I find I had bought almost all his novels (4), all his short story collections (3), poetical collections (2 out of 4) and his books of literary criticisms (almost all). A reading of his life gives me for the first time how competent he was from early days and yet how his life centered round a very small world and that is one reason why his name is not as widely known as it should have been. I had met TMC more than once and when I met him last time he was working at the Soviet land office in Chennai. Even then, I had stopped writing in Tamil and I was already cut off from the mainstream Tamil literature and I found he was doing a job that in my eyes was not any literary job but now I learn from reading his life ,the job gave his family some measure of economic security. In his last years we used to speak over the phone over long times, he used to share some of his thoughts on his new findings into the socio-cultural background of some of the great Tamil poets like Ilangovadigal, the author of the Sangam classic, Silapathigaram, and the Thirukkural author’s caste and outlook (shaped according to his socio-cultural background). When he published his longish research on the author of Silapathigaram and also when he shared his (rather radical) thoughts on Thiruvalluvar, the academic world was shocked and surprised. Yet, there was this environment in Tamil Nadu that no university came forward to invite him and get him give an exposition of his radical views. Also, he limited himself to the CPI” party line” ,a highly corrosive Communist ideological corruption of intellectual freedoms. So, TMC suffered so many handicaps. One, he himself was “corrupted” by the party line and so he couldn’t give expression to his deeply researched and thought out views on a host of very historically valuable insights into the Tamil literary world and Tamil cultural outlook. Two, the rise of the Dravidian politics also handicapped him for he found himself submerged by the hold of so much corrupt practices in politics and literature. Where the politicians in power (often ,why mostly, uneducated or highly prejudiced minds) also claimed themselves to be literary geniuses!
So many decorative literary titles these leaders gave themselves had thoroughly confused and demoralised academic opinion. There was no chance for any serious literary or philosophical debates on any major issues of fundamental importance, be it politics, economics, sociological issues, academic freedoms, or literary works. The Dravidian parties competed in a peculiar, cynical way (there cant be any comparable cultural corruptions in any other Indian states) that every year there are Rs.one lakh literary prizes in the name of Thiruvalluvar or other Tamil names. The awards are often given to those who had praised the particular Chief Minister in power! So, the public as well as the scholars are so completely confused about the worth of literature, any literature! The DMK went one step further and instituted annual literary awards in the name of Mr.Karunanidhi’s one-time magazine and this award too carries Rs.one lakh award. So, too one or two more awards, instituted by newspapers aligned with the ruling party. The point is that no awards of this type had gone to serious writers whose works only can stand some scrutiny by independent judges. So, it is no surprise that all Indian prizes like gnanpeeth awards go to Kannada and other languages. Tamil, with so much noise about it antiquity and its modern manifestations is not rated as worthy of any serious consideration. So, when a year ago when I convened a literary meet in Chennai on the theme of “why Tamil doesn’t win gnanpith awards” I found there was no rational explanation for this neglect. Tamil people have so many deficiencies of charatcer. I put their lack of any serious introspection about their many failings of their charatcer is the most serious deficiency. Without any hesitation or sense of shame, the average educated Tamil person will praise any politicians in power. See, how even the Dravidian parties, both the DMK and the ADMK threw to winds all their tall talk changed their ties with the BJP!
It is the fear of power, money power and self-survival In Karnataka my literary friends say: “For you Tamils, you wont get a gnanpith award for the obvious reason your literature has no all India outlook, no universal values your writers care for. All Tamil writers do these days are about your narrow, inward looking, local politics..” So, after my initial meet, the next year a gnanpith award came to Tamil. This time, it was to Jayakanthan, he is an old friend only, many called or write to say the award was “because of your efforts!”. I don’t think it had anything to do with what I had done. But even then I wrote to friends and scholars to say that even the gnanpith award-giving didn’t mention for what literary qualities the author got the prize. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the award he went on to make some highly controversial and in my view ,unsubstantiated, views on Tamil and Sanskrit etc.My point here is that in Tamil Nadu, the literary debates by the Communists and also by the Dravidian movement had gone off track,if I can say so.The Communists didn’t help to free the minds of writers and poets. I find in a history of the literary movement promoted by the Communists in the name of one separate organisation (40 year history of the TN’s art and literature federation by Poneelan, 2003, NCBH, pages 340, price Rs.100) there is so much of deadwood,in the name of some Soviet Union type literary theories and ideologies! What relevance it has to do with the Tamil peoples’such a long past or the present cultural deterioration? The Dravidian movement, started from Periyar EVR to C.N.Annadurai to the present day, highly Commercial type media, TV and politicised literary activities, had thoroughly driven out from the mainstream literature of any international influences. So, where is the space to think of the larger world? The all India literature in which Tamil literature can find a place? Or, what chance there is to think of Tamil literature ever aspiring for any international recognition? A Nobel Prize for Tamil? No, no such lofty thoughts are permissible! Or permitted! There are so many comical events! The major universities in TM are conducting Ph.D programmes, more on the one Chief Minister’s “literatures”! Even there are rumours that a university had recommended one person for the Nobel Award!
So, I was pleased to read about my friend TMC in the three books here before me. Yes, his life was brave, committed to principles, he had a razor-sharp mind and intellect. But his background, the geography, his own economic constraints chained him to a narrow world of constricted ideology and mental outlook. If he had been positioned outside his narrow circles, if some patron or other had lifted him out of TN and placed him, say at some North Indian Universities, his literary genius would have flowered to the full and recognition could have come easily. He could have become another Rahul Sangrityayan or so many others who even without having a formal university degree had achieved so much in literature. Only in TN, he found himself, knowingly or unknowingly, in this trap. This is a cruel irony of his times. That is how I see TMC’s inherent talents and his actual achievements.
In the book of reminiscences two articles moved me deeply. One was by his daughter, Prof.Manjula. That pen-picture, so to say, gave me the true TMC as he was in actual life, in intimate family surroundings, his shared and suppressed affections for his family members and friends. The other piece was by Kavignar S.Gnanan, who was both a disciple and a relation (he married TMC’s wife’s sister). He brings out the recluse type person as well as a warm hearted person, when he wanted. I felt so sad that such a gifted writer had to live a rather dull routine in his last days in the remote Tirunelveli town.
I remember he once writing to me about one of my Tamil articles in my own newspaper. This was in response to my reviewing a latest book on Stalin’s atrocities. In fact, I had read so many books, book reviews and articles in the British press and elsewhere and had also been writing and commenting on the so many new books on the post-1989 Russia. But I found TMC was totally out of touch with what all happening in the Western world, in scholarship and book writing. I thought : he needn’t have taken so much effort to explain his position. In fact, some common friends told me that TMC was bound by the partyline! Here too I find in Sundara Ramasamy’s long interview (pages 27 to 55) so much space is devoted (or wasted) to the elaboration of the partyline and how they differed. In fact, I was amused by this wastage of time and talents. We Indians, (the Communists included) must think for ourselves. We have to study the history, history issues, by ourselves. Why, Indians always look for outsiders for their intellectual freedoms? In my lately-evolved world view, I strongly believe that Indians, though formally, political free, we are still pshychologically and even intellectually become free people. My deeply held belief is that our freedoms are constrained and conditioned by the sociological realities of power, hierarchy and historical hangovers. As I see, it is a long road we have to tread. Be it literature, or culture or philosophy, it will be a long time before we realise what I have said is the reasons why it will take time. For this we need, if I can conceptualise a path ahead, we Indians newa…….. new Enlightenment that will empower our current powerless minds. To think for ourselves.
May be one parting word. My poems collection is partially a search for this new Enlightentment. Readers, please judge for yourselves!