Rediscovering a Tamil modernist writer

The Asian Age.  | M R Venkatesh

India, All India

One already gets the scent of the day to unfold as one hops into a State transport bus to Kovilpatti, about 60 km from Tirunelveli.

It is this almost this incredible congruence of human life, thought, history and geography that one saw as singularly manifest in this 70-plus veteran Tamil writer, P. Manickavasagam, widely known as Poomani, Sahitya Academy winner (2014) for his epic-like master piece, ‘Angnaadi’.

KOVILPATTI: 7 am. The morning sun over Tirunelveli skies is already blazing at the peak of another Tamil Nadu summer. The ‘Heat’ is already on. Tirunelveli, the good old district headquarters town down South has over the years found its administrative command area cut by a third. Yet its charms of having been a hot spot of the Indian national freedom movement days manifest.

One already gets the scent of the day to unfold as one hops into a State transport bus to Kovilpatti, about 60 km from Tirunelveli. It’s an hour’s drive. Out of this old provincial town, leaving behind a huge modern cement factory at Tazhayauthu and couple of defunct spinning mills, the four-lane NH to Kovilpatti, which is now in neighbouring Thoothukudi district, seems the only flat plate carpeted amid vast stretches of aridity.

Even the highway patrol man is having a brief siesta. Apparently, nothing much to watch out in the lull after a recent high-decibel election campaign. Look for any landmark, and you won’t, on your left, miss the ‘Tamizhachi Restaurant’, more so after reading the morning Tamil papers here with their screaming headlines:  “Tremors in Lok Sabha as Tamil Nadu MPs’ pay tributes to Mother Tamil while taking oath”.

The bus zips past Gangaikondan, but except for a few factory structures seen from afar, no signs of any meaningful industrial activity on this stretch. In the distant horizon are the Kayathar wind mills. Barring the odd pump-set driven irrigated plots that grow vegetables, millets, and a solitary reaper preparing the black soil (Karisal Mann as the earth in this region is fondly referred to) for a modest sowing and tiny clusters of palm trees, it is virtually barren land on both sides. Except shrubs, an assortment of stunted trees that suddenly pop up from a distance, no distinct vegetation to speak of in the midst of hectares and hectares of dry land. Ideal tract though for setting up self-financing colleges, but even that is quite minimal.

An old signboard ‘Pandian Grama Bank’ telescopes one into a socialist past of egalitarian promise, easy and equitable loan to poor farmers; but even that is now only a page from the past. One hears it was recently merged with a larger regional rural bank, with its headquarters in far-away Salem. With such institutional ills, what happens to the land and its people here?

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It is this almost this incredible congruence of human life, thought, history and geography that one saw as singularly manifest in this 70-plus veteran Tamil writer, P. Manickavasagam, widely known as Poomani, Sahitya Academy winner (2014) for his epic-like master piece, ‘Angnaadi’. For it has been this very ‘Karisal Mann’ his literary works are probing, questioning and insightfully unfolding for over six decades now.

Kovilpatti town itself, which Poomani has made his home since 1982, only 11-km from his native village of Andipatti in Thoothukudi district, is like a little oasis with at least three spinning mills, the match units in the small and cottage sector, its famous groundnut candies a homemade delicacy here and a vibrant tertiary sector with lots of private hospitals and mobile brands. “It is a small area where little money in trade  is more amid these dry lands all around it,” sighs Poomani, pointing to its deep contradictions.

Documenting social change, people’s attitudes in the wake of changes, the fluid, long chain of caste, religion and politics, the plight of women and children, exploitation of wage-labour and bonded labour, run through his body of works.  “I write about all these, but above all an underlying empathy, fellow-feeling, simple human relationships of love and bondage and above all humanism, shatters all caste and religious distinctions,” said Poomani in an interview with this newspaper.

What is making waves in literary circles now though is something that could explicate him as one of the finest Tamil modernist writers of our times. Almost 37 years after he wrote one of his early Tamil novels, ‘Vekkai’, this work is now about to see the light of day in its English ‘avatar’, titled ‘Heat’ (published by Juggernaut and translated by Chennai-based N Kalyan Raman).

‘Vekkai’ or ‘Heat’ is the story of a sensitive little boy who overtakes his father in avenging his brother’s murder at the hands of a big landlord in their village, a murder for a piece of land that did take place, says its author. The emotional trauma and pain the boy then goes through as father and son then go into hiding before they resolve their dilemma of whether to surrender to the police or not, forms the rest of the story.

They wander through forests, hills and grave yards as virtual fugitives when the reflective dialogue between father and son is on. But “for me it was a flash-back, remembering what I saw and experienced in my own childhood days, through the eyes and memories of this boy Chidambaram in the novel,” explains Poomani.  

Chidambaram did not mean to kill the rich farmer at all when he struck with the sickle aiming only cut off his right arm, but the man collapsed and dies. “Kolai Seithathu Chidambaram, Kaatil Alainthathu Poomani (the person who committed the murder was the boy Chidambaram, but the one who roamed about the forests and hills is me (Poomani),” says the writer, dwelling on a new, imaginative literary technique he has handled in this novel ‘Vekkai’. “I re-visited my own childhood through the boy’s eyes,” he adds. With Poomani’s literary peers, it was a instant hit even then.

“People assume that young children have rosy days, but not many writers focused on how children go through traumas even at an early age,” elaborated Poomani. The narrative is simple, gripping and profound, reflecting the Tamil dialect of this area, but nobody was willing to publish it though then for a boy taking to violence in that fashion was denounced.

“The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s’ and its fallout in Tamil Nadu with groups like LTTE going about was at a peak then that people refused to publish my novel as it was espousing violence to fight social ills,” confides Poomani. “So my friend Dr M Rajendran of the Tamil literary journal ‘Kanaiyaazhi’, and me self-published the novel first,” he adds. This 1982 novel is the first work of Poomani translated into English now, but for it to take so many years, “speaks of the state of translation in our country,” he chuckles. The Sahitya Academy should give a thought to this, he feels.

Translation has its problems, he admits. The ‘Dhwani’ or the emotive mood in a particular speech-act or situation in Tamil, like this boy Chidambaram’s emotions, cannot exactly be shown in an English version, for language experts see the matching of texts, or fidelity to the original text more in a technical sense, he says. But the effort is still praiseworthy as translations into other languages truly universalizes literature, he opines. “One should become Chidambaram to translate Chidambaram,” he smilingly adds.

For Poomani how did this literary journey begin? At least six novels so far, two others in the pipeline (these days due to age-related issues he does not write but dictates his work to a helper), three collection of short stories (53 in all) and a celebrated film script in Tamil. Born into a small agriculturists family in Andipatti in 1947, India’s Independence year, Poomani lost his father when he was just three years. From then, his mother was his world.

The early sights and sounds of his school days in Vadakoor, and his B.Sc. Physics from Senthilkumar Nadar College in Virdhunagar, shaped his literary sensibilities. Whether it was short stories, novels or poems, Poomani was first deeply influenced by the publications in the Tamil journal ‘Kalki’. Writers like Akilan, writings from the Dravidian Movement including Annadurai and Kalaignar Karunanidhi, were all grist to his mill. ‘Mandram’, a magazine run by Naavalar Nedunchezhiyan those days was a must-read, as much as Prof K Anbazhagan’s brother, Thirumal Maran, who was his Tamil teacher in college, and literary critics like Thi.Su. Natarajan and C Kanakasababathi were all sources of inspiration in Tamil literature.

They were a mixed cosmopolitan group who not only spoke about classical Sangam Tamil literature, but also modern poetry. “This impelled me to dwell into modern literary writers like Ezra Pound, T S Eliot,” says Poomani. His first taste of success came at 19 when Na. Parthasarathy, published his Tamil modern poetry in the journal ‘Deepam’ during 1966-67, he recalls. Another noted Tamil writer Si.Su. Chellappa published two more of his modern verse in ‘Ezhuthu’.

Joining the State Cooperative Department, Poomani then moved over to Chennai, before he actually came to Kovilpatti, when an enduring and warm friendship with the well known Tamil writer Ki. Rajanarayanan flowered. By then Poomani also started writing short stories, many of which were published in the literary journal ‘Thamarai’, run by the CPI.

Though government service impeded his literary output, Poomani says there was always this yearning to write a “good novel” in Tamil, particularly to write about the suffering masses. He was also influenced by a Malayalam writer at that evolutionary stage, to bring the commoner, women and their travails into the centre-stage of good literary writing. There was also this urge to write about ‘marginalised groups’ like cobblers for instance, which in fact was his first novel, titled ‘Piragu (And Then)’ published in 1979. It is a cobbler-centric story, yet capturing a vaster canvas of what happened to various sections of people in the first 30 years after Independence, spanning three new generations, so to say.

This then set off a new trend in Tamil literature, affirms Poomani with modesty. Another novel of his, ‘Neivedhyam’,  won critical acclaim, for documenting the best and worst days of an ‘Agraharam (traditional Brahmin settlement)’ near his village. If Poomani’s ‘Vaikaal’ was about the gurgling, twisting schoolboys’ tales, another well known novel, ‘Varappugal’, was about how rural school teachers have a life of their own.

Meanwhile, NFDC had sanctioned him a grant for a film script, which came out as a poignant story about child labour in match industries. It was titled ‘Karuvelam Pookal’ (a flower that blooms in the morning and withers in the evening, just as children in match units come back blackened in the evening). The film won a state award, though the movie moghals in Chennai tried to suppress it, he confides. “It was then I saw the other faces of the film world and decided to sever ties with film-making,” he added in an anguished tone.

For Poomani, an even more stronger and mature phase of literary production emerged after his retirement from Government service in December 2004-January 2005, as Deputy Registrar of Cooperative Society. “I really felt free to write only then,” he admits. Slowly, he visualized an art work on an epic scale, combining history, sociology and the affirmation of humanism, which he swears he could see at every stage of his life.

The scale and scope of this literary work, which eventually won him the Sahitya Academy award for his ‘Angnaadi’,  covers about 200 years of several communities/castes in this part of Tamil Nadu. With the June 1899 ‘Sivakasi Riots’ against the Nadars by other communities who mistakenly thought the Nadars had made “lot of money”, in the background, Poomani weaves an ethnographic panorama, chronicling the changes that happened to several communities including those on the margins during this period.

Poomani says he extensively researched for this work in the Government archives in Chennai, National libraries in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and other places, collected some 2,000 pages of archival material on about 150 villages in and around his native village and brought out this massive 1066-page book. “I took seven years to write it, it is a blend of history, oral and folk traditions and I consider it my masterpiece yet,” says Poomani.

Fortunately for this writer, the Indian Arts Foundation in Bengaluru gave him a grant to research and write on this project. It is a new sort of literary genre, at the intersection of history and literature, winning instant acclaim. Caste, religion and politics in a conjunction have been deadly catalysts during this period of South Indian history, and “it brings out several stories that others have not told,” says Poomani.  

‘Kommai’, which Poomani published in 2018, takes a critical view of how women were suppressed in an epic like the Mahabharata, which traditionalists may not like but a story, nonetheless, needs to be told. He is also working on another ambitious book on the ‘tragedy in Tamil saint-poet Aandal’s life’. This will be a historical novel.

The art of writing a good novel, if at all, is “being able to achieve subtlety;  it is very difficult to achieve and I think ‘Vekkai’ (Heat) achieves it,” Poomani signed off with candour and insight. For if a writer can communicate the spirit of empathy and humanism, which opens up possibilities for a better world, the writer’s work is done. Then, the critics move in.

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