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Vol. XXV No. 24, April 1-15, 2016

Sixty years a bilingual writer

by R.V. Rajan

Charukesi is the name of beautiful ragam in Carnatic music. It is also the pen name of Viswanathan Subramanian, the well-known, bilingual author, music/dance critic, translator and columnist.

This multi-dimensional writer who is in his 60th year of writing had his first article published in the then popular children‘s magazine Kannan in the issue dated April 15, 1955, when he was just 17 years old. The favourable response and the princely sum of Rs. 5/- he received for the one-page article, besides the encouragement he got from the editor, ‘Aarvi’, motivated him to continue writing articles and stories aimed at children. In his early years, he specialised in writing humour-based articles on a variety of topics, which were published by Kannan and Kalkandu. Charukesi fondly remembers the encouragement he received from the legendary Tamilvanan, editor of Kalkandu, that popular youth-centric weekly. Once, when Charukesi attended a meeting in Salem at which Tamilvanan was the speaker, he found that after the meeting Tamilvanan had to jump out of a rear window in the hall to escape the over-enthusiastic young persons who were trying to mob him!

charukesiViswanathan Subramanian (Charukesi).

A writer who was known for his humorous essays in Tamil, Charukesi had his first short story published in Kalki weekly in March 1960. Kalki’s editor K. Rajendran encouraged him to write on a variety of subjects, including medicine, literature, painting, politics, theatre, administration, industry, etc. Noting his penchant for humour, Rajendran also encouraged him to write political satire. While contributing to Kalki, he also write short stories for other leading Tamil journals.

To my question about why he chose ‘Charukesi‘ as his pen name, he explained, “Initially I was writing in my given name, but my good friend ‘Vadoolan’ said Viswanathan was a very common name and suggested the pen name. I was not even aware at the time that it was the name of a popular raga!” Charukesi never for a moment at the time thought that one day he would be asked to write music reviews! Though he had no formal training in music, he picked up the knowledge over the years. “I used to attend three or four concerts of Carnatic and Hindustani music every week. With the help of reference books, I slowly picked up the knowledge and began writing reviews.”

When did this Tamil writer switch to writing in English as well?

“During my stint with Pfizer in Ahmadabad between 1965 and ’70, I contributed a few articles to the Company’s house magazine Crucible and they were well received. That gave me the confidence to write in English. When I returned to Madras, I tried my hand at writing for the Sunday supplement of The Hindu. Two of my articles got published. Later, the editor of Weekend Express, S. Viswanathan, gave me an opportunity to review Tamil books in English. I was also encouraged to do interviews. Then K.S. Latha of the Economic Times offered me opportunities to write about the events and personalities every week. The Hindu’s Friday Review Editor, Geetha Venkatramanan, also asked me to write not only music reviews but also on other topics. Another editor who encouraged me was V. Ramnarayan of Sruti. So while I was continuing to write stories and essays in Tamil, I wrote in English as well.

Charukesi‘s reputation as an able translator of books started with an assignment to translate Sudha Murty’s three books from English to Tamil. This was followed by many other assignments: the diplomat R. Kannan’s voluminous book on C.N. Annadurai which he found challenging as original quotations in Tamil from 112 books had to be inserted in appropriate passages! Equally challenging was Sathyamurti’s Letters in two volumes. Many other English to Tamil translations followed. He has also translated eight books from Tamil to English, including Guru Bhakti; Guru & the Disciple and a few biographies. He won the ‘The Best Translator Award’ presented by Kalaimagal magazine and instituted by the Ka Sri Sri family, Ka Sri Sri himself being an outstanding translator.

Charukesi’s own titles that have been published, includes three collections of short stories for children – Kakitha Padagu, Natpu Valarga and Oru Kilai Paravaigal, two collections of humorous short stories, Thummalukku Kai Koduppom Irumalukku Kural Koduppom and Oru Nayamaana Kadhal, and a serious short story collection titled Nagai. This is being translated into English by C.G. Rishikesh and is being released at a function to be held on April 16th in Chennai. His recent book Mammootty Mudhal Manmohan Singh Varai of collection of articles from different Deepavali malar-s and other special issues was released in February in Malaysia by Kalaignan Pathippakam, Chennai. Among the books published by Vikatan Publications, his book on Kanchi Mahaswami, based on the actual experiences of devotees, is in its sixth edition. His travelogue Cheena Anubhavangal was for serialised in Kalki and then brought out as a book.

Among the unforgettable experiences he encountered in life as a writer, Charukesi recalls his visit to UP along with photographer Yoga to do features for Kalki on the elections in 1984. On the way to Delhi, when the train stopped at Bhopal station, Yoga felt a burning sensation in his eyes. They also found a lot of passengers getting into the train with bandaged eyes. It was then that he learnt first-hand about the Bhopal gas tragedy from the affected people and did a special story for Kalki.

Once, when he went to interview E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the well-known Marxist leader, he was told an anecdote about him to illustrate his sense of humour. EMS was known to stammer while speaking, When somebody asked EMS whether he always stammered, he quipped, “No, I only stammer whenever I speak.”

Charukesi also remembers the humility of Manmohan Singh, the newly appointed Finance Minister, in 1991, whom he had gone to interview for Kalki. Not only did the Minister profusely apologise for a missed appointment the previous day but also walked with him up to the door to see him off, the end of the interview.

Born into a big family, Charukesi was the second son in the family. After schooling in Salem, he got a D.Com from the Indian Merchants Chamber and in 1960 joined Pfizer Ltd, the multinational pharmaceutical company, in Chennai. He retired as the Officer-in-Charge of the Chennai Depot of the Company in 1998. All through his working career he wrote as a hobby. He became a full-time writer after his retirement. A prolific writer, he continues to pound away on his PC, both in English and Tamil, for at least 4 to 6 hours every day, churning out articles/stories. At present he contributes a weekly column to Dinamani, apart from writing for other publications. He writes more than a dozen articles/stories every month.

Charukesi, a septuagenarian (he is 78), looks a serious person, but his sense of humour in his writings is palpable. He also packs a lot of energy in his thin, lean frame. A prolific writer, he has written over 8000 articles and a couple of hundred short stories in the last six decades.
“Walking keeps me healthy,” says Charukesi.

Tamizh Puthaga Nanbargal (Tamil Book Reader’s Forum) is organising a function at Tag Centre in Chennai on April 16th to felicitate Charukesi on completing 60 years as a writer. Two of his recent books will be formally released at the function.

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