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Vol. XXXIV No. 4, June 1-15, 2024

I had the honour of translating Kalaignar

-- by Dr. P. Raja, Bi-lingual creative writer & translator, Pondicherry

Around six in the evening of August 07, 2018 the authorities of Kaveri Hospital, Chennai announced that Kalaignar Karunanidhi had passed away at the age of 94 years. To the people of Tamil Nadu, he was 20 years their Chief Minister, from 1969 to 2011, and that was for five terms at a stretch. It must be mentioned in passing that he never lost an election.

To the world of letters he was a great writer with nearly 300 published books, and God knowshow many remain ungathered between covers in his vast study-cum-library.

To the tinsel world, he was a dialogue-writer whose love for word-play and puns remain evergreen in our memory. His oratorical skills lured innumerable listeners and he was never a hostile public speaker.

The power of the poet in him was immense and irresistible.

His historical novels are really a class of their own.

His major contribution to Tamil literature lies in the restoration and renewal of the pristine glory of the Tamil language.

A grand fusion of E.V. Ramasamy Nayakar (Periyar), the man who started the Dravidian movement, C.N. Annadurai, the veteran writer and politician, and Mahakavi Subramania Bharati, Kalaignar is certainly a towering personality.

His death drove me down memory lane.

A decade or so ago, Bharati’s inimitable short stories beckoned me to translate them into English. I could not resist the temptation for their author remained in Pondicherry for a short period of ten years (1908-1918) and yet enriched Tamil literature with his creative effusions.

As a native of Pondicherry, I thought it was my duty to translate the poet who had brought glory to my land. I began to work, and my translations of Bharati’s short stories soon started appearing in English dailies and weeklies. Later Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi gathered all my translations of Bharati’s stories for their mammoth two volume edition of Bharati’s Selected Writings (2017).

Sometime in 2008, I received a letter from the Vice-Chancellor, Bharathiar University, Coimbatore, requesting me to join a small body of translators with a mission to bring out a selection of Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s works in English.

I readily agreed and a meeting followed with the translation team that comprised Dr. G. Thiruvasagam, Dr. P. Marudanayagam, Dr. R. Ganapathy, Dr. V. Murugan, Dr. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Dr. N. Ramani, Dr. S.Thillainayagam, Dr. K.S. Subramanian, Dr. V. Krishnan, Dr. T.G. Narayanasamy, Dr. M.D. Jayabalan and myself. I was assigned to translate all the short stories of Kalaignar.

I was doubly happy. First, because short stories continue to be my forte; and second, because I am an avid reader and lover of Kalaignar’s fiction.

P. Raja honoured by Kalaignar.

I read all his short stories with a lot of interest, though they were only 29 in number. I selected 25 that I thought were his best and completed the work within the stipulated time. In 2009, Macmillan India published my work As Is In The Orignal as the eighth of the twelve-volume series Kalaignar In English.

Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s short stories are invariably told with a purpose.

For him, like his mentor C.N. Annadurai, story-telling is serious business. He is one of those few writers who can express in flowery language issues of considerable importance, while entertaining us.

As a social critic, Kalaignar uses the short story form to depict the passions and foibles of Man as they surface in different circumstances. His targets are often the pretentious and pompous Men. As one who understands human psychology, Kalaignar makes some very observant comments achieving this in a sympathetic way. The reader also develops insights into several typical Indian situations, a process in which the author helps him/her unobtrusively and unprejudiciously.

Kalaignar’s short stories, mostly in satirical frames, comment on various aspects of life. He has stories with hard core realism, stories of psychological import, and satires in the garb of tales as well as man’s encounter with supra- or infra- human elements. He portrays admirably the beast in man as well as the man in man.

He makes us realise the thin line which separates one from the other and that alone is worthy of a full length study.

A Kalaignar story might contain humour, satire and irony all at once. Young and old are charmed by his style. His extensive knowledge of adult human nature and his ability to stimulate in his readers the age-old urge to enjoy a story are the major factors in his popularity as a writer.

He is doubtless a significant storyteller who, by giving an authentic portrayal of the Tamil (read Indian) scene, presents his characters in an entirely credible frame.

A poet at heart, Kalaignar combines modern ideas and techniques in his short stories. Transformation for the future of mankind is the motive behind Kalaignar’s creative writing. His was a crusade against the invasion of Tamilnadu’s intellectual climate by decadent values.

He has not only been a social critic of the first order, but also what is more important, he has stressed the intellectual and the psychic splendour inherent in man, through his creative writings.

There may be many social critics whose voices may be thunderous, but leaving any lasting impact is a different matter. I believe that Kalaignar achieves his purpose because he drives home this point through his literary art. Through his creative writing, he has brought about a new awareness about the sweetness and serenity that pervades life in general and the rural Indian life in particular.

Every situation in Kalaignar’s short stories is tinged with satire and a dash of humour. This is what makes his stories irresistibly effective.

The writer laughs at society, of course, but without the slightest sign of a sardonic smile on his face. He gives us an occasion to make out for ourselves the ways and means by which the society thrives on a pack of false values, and pinpoints how an innocent individual can be reduced to a scapegoat.

His characters are not just moulded out of the blue but types of exploiters we encounter in our day-to-day life.

Kalaignar’s short stories reveal his technical mastery of the storyteller’s art in bringing most adroitly all the threads together so that the plots are carried forward with speed, suspense and vividness along with the imaginative probing into the human soul.

Mere imagination is not so interesting and heart touching. Facts plus powerful imagination create fiction. If worked out in a lively and artistic form, it can become a mirror of the society concerned reflecting its clear picture, with inherent contradictions as well as promises. This forms the basis of the short stories of Karunanidhi.

No wonder I did my job to my utmost satisfaction. During the book release function held in Chennai, I was on cloud nine for Dr. Kalaignar Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, honoured me on the stage on May 31, 2010. The translation received rave reviews.

I profusely thanked Mahakavi Bharati’s soul for recommending my name to Kalaignar Karunanidhi. Is it not a great honour for a bi-lingual writer like me to be honoured by two towering personalities in Tamil Literature?

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