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Vol. XXX No. No. 16, December 16-31, 2020

A gentle introduction to Tamil short fiction

by Vijaysree Venkatraman

T. Janakiraman.

Once upon a time, Indian grandmothers fed fussy children by telling them stories. “The prince was married, the slandered bride reinstated, and the wicked stepmother thrown into the lime kiln, just when the morsel in the sleepy hand was the very last one,” wrote linguist A.K. Ramanujan, who has documented this ritual of dinner-cum-bedtime stories in his essay “Telling Tales.”

As the world lies in the grasp of an unrelenting pandemic, even adults could perhaps use the solace of a well-told tale. I had no idea how much I wanted to be read to in my first language, Tamil, till I heard a familiar voice on YouTube narrate a short story by popular writer “Sujatha” Rangarajan. I stumbled upon this channel just before my bedtime, as it happened.

Bharathy Bhaskar, television personality, had picked a short story whose title translates to An Uncomplicated Romance. It was about two friends, residents of a medical college hostel. One of them is a confident, good-looking woman and the other is a good student, who has not yet developed a sense of self-worth.

Immediately, I was transported to the only ladies hostel then in the IIT Madras campus, my home during my college years. The incredulity of the less sought-after girl when the watchman announces that she has a visitor, her loneliness despite being surrounded by classmates, or the fact that she feels like an orphan simply because she is away from home – all of this felt so real.

At one point, the protagonist, a budding physician realizes she has the training to save lives, which is not a trivial skill. With some effort, she can excel in her field. We leave her at the beginning of a lifelong romance, unmindful of young men who only worship physical beauty. She had found her purpose in life.

I stumbled into an informal literature appreciation course during the lockdown weeks. While we are familiar with the names of popular Tamil writers who have written stories, screenplays, and dialogues for the movies, here was a chance to know what made the movie industry seek them out in the first place. Knowing the work of writers who had nothing to do with movies would be the bonus.

This was Tamil Short Stories 101. The vivacious “course instructor” begins by telling you a little bit about the author. Her enjoyment in sharing an old favorite piece of work is obvious, but her laughter will not obscure funny passages. Her voice doesn’t crack at a sad ending. In short, she never gets between you and the story. She spotlights some non-obvious aspect of the writing at the end of the session and leaves you thinking about the story till she shows up the next week with another eclectic pick.

Thanks to this class, I discovered T. Janakiraman. Fans called him Thi Ja, which is what his Tamil initials shorten to. The author, an English teacher and later an employee of All India Radio, Madras, would have been a 100 years old this year. His acclaimed novel Mogamul (Thorn of Desire) was made into a movie after his death.
Global air travel might take a while to get back to normal, but in the meanwhile, Thi. Ja’s writing takes us to small towns along the Cauvery and back to a time when most Indians traveled by train.

A second-class train compartment is, in fact, the setting for one of Thi. Ja’s most popular stories Silirpu (Goosebumps). A young domestic worker is on her way to Calcutta to care for the children of a wealthy judge. Her employers don’t seem to be generous, but most fellow travelers feel sympathy for this impoverished girl, barely ten years of age. Among them, a little boy offers her an orange as a parting gift. His father is overjoyed. As they alight the train, the father hugs his son tightly. Don’t we all long to make our parents this proud of us?
Thi. Ja often makes a gentle push for a more humane humanity. The writing can get verbose, but in essence, this is his message: Do not increase the misery of the world. The world needs decency, common sense, charity, and goodwill. This makes Thi. Ja’s creations seem ripe for revival.

The beloved stage actor, and scriptwriter, Crazy Mohan was a Thi. Ja fan. His now legendary sketch in the comedy classic Michael Madana Kamarajan, about the piece of dried fish that accidentally lands in a cauldron of wedding sambar has echoes of an old Thi. Ja story. That old plot was set in an eatery, and someone dies after, but maybe not from, eating tainted sambar. We don’t know what the cause of death was, nor does the protagonist, the mess owner. This tale of a disaster not averted is a tragicomedy that offers interesting insights into a man’s conscience.
Like any good instructor, Ms. Bhaskar has inspired me to go out of syllabus, and do some extra reading, or extra listening, as is the case here. In a few short months, I have become acquainted with the work of at least a dozen Tamil writers: the old-time greats, the household names, and contemporary writers in our midst, who deserve to be better known.

One of Ms. Bhaskar’s own favorites appears to be R. Chudamani. The pioneering feminist author’s writing is so worldly and sharp, it is hard to believe she was a recluse because of a medical condition. Her work has not been adapted for the screen, nor was she commissioned to write dialogues or scripts.

The first Chudamani story I heard had all the melodrama of a Tamil black-and-white movie from the 1960s distilled into one piece of fiction. Two brothers, who have drifted apart as adults, because of a difference in income-levels, social standing, and insensitive wives, reunite in the face of a crisis. A very satisfying weepie.
But Chudamani’s other stories were very different. In fact, the ending of one was so radical, I was not even sure I had heard right though it is a good 40 years since she had written those lines. It was 11 PM in Boston, but I just had to replay the ending.

These story sessions have me hooked. I cannot wait to see which writer she will present to us next. The star debater and motivational speaker must be waiting to get back on stage, fulminate in high-flown Tamil, and listen to the sweet sound of live applause. But in the meantime, Ms. Bhaskar has the quiet gratitude of listeners like me who cannot read Tamil books on their own.

Links:

https://youtu.be/OiSXCGnbt2U?t=17
(An older Kathai Neram session with BB in which she introduces the work of three writers: Jeymohan, M.V. Venkataram, and Thi. Ja)

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