Va.Ra (Va.Ramasamay Iyengar)
The inventor of modern Tamil prose style
Va.Ra (a biography) by Chitty (pages 336)
An Ordinary Man, life of Chitty by Narasiah (pages 224)
My interest in Tamil literature lately has been triggered off by a series of unexpected developments. Just not long ago I received ,unexpectedly, a long, some 15 page review of my poetry book by Chitty, the 96- year old older generation writer. He was contemporary of many of the giants of literary world in the mid-Thirties. These writers were centered around a short-lived little but driven by high-brow literary magazine, called, ”Manikodi”. This magazine discovered modern Tamil story and all the big names, Pudumaipithan, B.R.Ramiah and others were discovered by this magazine. The discoverer is the subject of the biography here. Chitty himself was an original member of this group and the editor was popularly know name, Va.Ra, (Va.Ramasamy Iyengar. Va Ra became a rebel and he shunned the Tamil Brahmin orthodoxy and it was he who invented the modern renaissance Tamil prose as we all know today.
Va.Ra (1889-1951) is even now considered a phenomenon. There was none like him before or after. He came in early contact with Sri Aurobindo and Mahakavi Bharati in Pondicherry and it was here he learnt Bengali, translated the Bankin Chandra’s Bengali novel into Tamil. All his adult life was devoted to the uncertain world of literary pursuits. With very little money this band of highly talented writers took to creative writing as a sacrifice for a big cause. In this their contributions vindicated their beliefs.
I read both the books at one sitting. Chitty, in this group ,stands apart. He is basically a humourist. He started writing only in English, he is a graduate, and only at the instance of Va.Ra. took to writing Tamil. He is a humourist writer and I am surprised I could read his collection of essays even now! Such is its translucent and a picture portrait style of writing Tamil on all topics under the sky!
Once I got his letter again, this time this was written in his own hand, imagine the 96-year old’s pen! It shakes and stumbles and yet he holds on for pages. I was awestruck and really started wondering how the 96-year old can really hold a pen!
Now, the contents of the books are so absorbing and I cant do justice here. Enough if I say the two books are a sort of an encyclopaedia of modern Tamil, here are all the names, venerable for lovers of genuine literature.
Here are some of my thoughts after reading the two books. Modern Tamil prose was first employed by G.Subramanya Iyer who founded both The Hindu and Swadesamitran. Iyer employed poet Bharati who also invented Tamil prose to write on all affairs, as it is demanded by a daily newspaper. Then ,came Pudumaipithan who was also employed by a daily and as such he too turned out voluminous prose. Though Bharati and Pudumaipithan made their names as poet and short story writer respectively. Va.Ra. emerges as the unsurpassed write of majestic Tamil prose and he takes on all the bigwigs of his time. Thus we see Rajaji is attacked here! The great Kalki is also mercilessly teared off. His life ran through a period when nationalism arose in the country, Congress party under Gandhi took to streets, Tamil Nadu witnessed the birth of nationalism, independent press ventures and Rajaji made his name. Va.Ra. takes many avatars. Congress propagandist, social reformer, literary experimenter and newspapers and magazines editor.
Some places in the book would bring tears when I read about how much he was neglected for a normal life. He lived truly like a yogi or a sanyasi, no assured job, no income and no settled life.
The one great achievement of Va Ra. is his defence of Bharati as a maha kavi. This book contains the full text of the big fight between Kalki and Va.Ra.
I thought : how much time these people wasted. They didn’t realise that a poet becomes maha kavi or otherwise only by time! There are any number of poets in Kerala for instance where they are called maha kavi. Not so in other languages. Also the Tamil society polarised for long into Brahmin and non-Brahmin had not went on to evolve into a broad-based catholicity of mind. As we see in Bengal and Kerala where literary activities are broad based and even today none could play havoc. As they have done in Tamil Nadu today! The Tamil Brahmins took to government jobs and the non-Brahmins took to caste politics. As a result there is no permeation of higher culture, higher literature outside the narrow circles. Unlike in Bengali and Malayalam.
So, after the Thirties, till Independence came there was not much a serious literature. In the post-Independent India too we didn’t see any serious literary pursuits. Today, the scene is vitiated by Dravidian politics and the general deterioration of literary tastes.
The Tamils have become a highly paranoid people lately. There are mis-directed extremists of all types! The politically powerful to the subalterns talk of safeguarding Tamil language and race! Against all self-declared claims there are no solid achievements, in my opinion, in high class literature, be it poetry or prose writings. Most poets are academic persons and what write is academic poetry. Others writes much versification. In novel, we have no great experiments. Film and politics contribute to confuse literary values! The academic world is sinking in total darkness. No leadership, no leader to show the way. No freedom whatever. Everyone seems to live in fear of authority! So, police men and women are writers, film lyric Not enough free space to give free play to creative imaginations. Commercial cinema lyricists poets, film dialogue writers scholars!
Chitty at 96 amazed me. I really feel he could have been another R.K.Narayanan had he continued in English. Much more I am impressed by his literary criticism, his literary judgements. He had read all the great writers in English and his references to Tolstoy, Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare are all really amazing. Yes, I also hold similar views about Shaw and Shakespeare. Tolstoy was a very serious writer and ,he wont appreciate any humorous writing or writing for some effects! Also I am really elevated by the fact we have in Tamil Nadu today who had the guts and qualifications to judge such Nobel Prize winners like V.S.Naipal. Yes, Naipal is not a deserving case, says Chitty. Perhaps he is right. He was in correspondence with P.G.Wodehouse whom he hero-worshipped (whose post card he preserves), was friend of Upton Sinclair. He before the world discovered identified Luigi Pirandello, the Italian winner before he actually won the Prize! After a month he published about him in The Sunday Chronicle, the Italian won the Prize! He was friend of Anna, MGR and many more politicians.
I had met Chitty only once sometime in 1972 or so when Mrs. Lakshmi Krishnamurthy, a colleague at the Legislative Council invited to her house for a literary meet. Where Chitty was present. Now, after this new- found acquaintance, I hope he would live to contribute to discover new talents and foster old world values in our literary establishment. I wish him many more years of a happy life.