Readers Write In #258: Padhavikkaga and Sujatha’s fiction

Posted on September 3, 2020

8


(by G Waugh)

Spoilers Ahead..

Dhanraj, a 29-year old politician, is an independent candidate contesting the Assembly By-election at Ramarajapuram. He beats the sitting MLA Chinnappan who belongs to the ruling party through sheer hard-work and activism braving the odds of black money and big publicity. He is greeted by the Chief Minister Arumugam immediately on his victory and is given an appointment to meet and introduce himself to the State’s top politician. Meanwhile, Chinnappan’s boss, the number Two in the State, Aranga Ramanujam is planning to topple the government by drawing Arumugam’s supporters to his side.

Arumugam gets wind of Aranga’s plans and kidnaps his MLAs in a bus that proceeds to Nandi Hills in Karnataka to prevent them from appearing before the Governor. Aranga is incensed at Arumugam’s behavior and waits till they return. Once they come back, Arumugam foments riots and hartals within the city and imposes a curfew as a last-ditch attempt to prevent Aranga from meeting the Governor who has consented to invite the latter to form the government on instructions from Delhi. Dhanraj is appalled by the excesses of CM Arumugam and decides to temporarily side with Aranga to help him topple the government. Aranga too gets drawn to Dhanraj on account of his popularity among the masses and his knowledge on political affairs which he seeks to use to his advantage later after inducting him formally into his camp.

But there is a young, unknown cinema actress named Gowri who has a tape which has a recording of the night she spent with the perennial womanizer Aranga. She decides to use it to blackmail the incumbent Chief Minister for easy money at the right time. Aranga is invited by the Governor to form the government and within days after he assumes office, Gowri gets into touch with him. Chinnappan is called by the new CM Aranga to join him at Chennai and handle the Gowri issue delicately and secretly. But Chinnappan without getting the tape from Gowri kills her and flees the spot leaving the case to local police officials. To settle the issue, Chinnappan asks the CM, control of the entire police force by handing him the post of the State’s Home Minister.

Meanwhile, Dhanraj, the young MLA is entangled in an affair with a married woman Jamuna which his rival, the new Home Minister Chinnappan decides to make full use of, to stop his ascendancy. As the Aranga tape issue somehow enters into public domain, Aranga’s government unleashes a reign of terror to suppress public agitation and smother opposition forces now led by an ‘honest’ Dhanraj. Whether Dhanraj takes on the powerful State machinery to bring the criminals to justice, whether he solves the issues of the State by cleaning the administration or not forms the rest of the story.

***

This was Sujatha Rangarajan’s novel Padhavikkaga that was published in 1985. By touching the various aspects of Tamilnadu’s society in the pre-liberalization era such as the arrogance and self-centredness of the most powerful politicians of the State, the unscrupulousness of sensation-addicted journalists which often leads to terrible and far-reaching consequences, the complete absence of concern over public welfare that underpins Centre-State relations and the weakness of the State’s justice-dispensing mechanisms that are caught in a perpetual tussle with the powerful vested interests, Padhavikkaga paints a compelling portrait of an era and triggers important discussions with respect to politics, society and even male-female relationship dynamics.

If my appraisal of the novel sounds too serious and stark, I am the one to blame, for the novel adopts a more sober and an entertaining tone while observing the happenings of Tamilnadu’s politics. The novel that moves with multiple threads switches seamlessly between one another and never lingers on any one to the point of boring the reader while maximizing the tension quotient by intercutting at crucial points resembling slightly the style of Lokesh Kanagaraj-brand thrillers of today.

If there is one thing that I want to mention specifically about Padhavikkaga, it is the fact that no character in the novel is painted sympathetically by Sujatha and the story if anything, is one big, mad scramble between selfish people loaded with divergent and frivolous ambitions. Some of the important characters never undergo what you call a conventional character arc that leads them from say, criminality to reform, as a result of which they remain in the final pages emotionally at the very same state as they were at the beginning of the novel. This lack of character arc is not to be interpreted as a weakness on the part of the author. It is reflective of how ossified some people can become owing to frozen beliefs, ulterior motives and misunderstood ideals that make them completely immune and resistant to winds of change. A similar state of hopeless immutability is attributed to the affairs of the State as well and Sujatha does not, like what Shankar did with Mudhalvan, infuse any kind of ‘fantastic’ optimism into the story to offer hope to the politically conscious reader. The politics of the state is dictated by a set of self-serving politicians right from the beginning, who make a killing out of the power they wield through awarding of contracts ranging from bus routes to distilleries, allocation of seats to government colleges, embezzling of funds allocated for welfare schemes, etc. Whenever they find themselves in trouble, they make use of the law-and-order machinery to silence voices of opposition and get away with impunity derived from the power of the ballot. The public remain powerless due to lack of a viable alternative and whenever one arises in the form of what we see in Dhanraj, the system makes sure that it is suffocated and drowned in a timely manner before even it lifts a finger.

Sujatha’s portrait of pre-liberalization politics in the state also reflects the dynamics of the politician-businessman equation that existed before 1991. Right from our independence till India’s embrace of neoliberalism, the politician backed by popular will enjoyed an equal and sometimes greater authority in comparison to the big businessman in the management of public affairs, on account of the many natural resources that remained under the purview of the State. From 1991 onwards, the balance tilted strongly in favour of the businessman who was allowed to accumulate with abandon, making use of unhindered access to the country’s resources while the politician found it suitable to resign himself to the position of an accomplice or an agent in order to claim his share in the spoils.

***

I am sure many of my readers would have read Sujatha’s works and found him interesting, but for the uninitiated I have a few things to tell. If you have a properly cultivated habit of reading and you are stuck with a book for too long on account of its dullness which was nowhere to be found when you began it, it is better to pick a novel of Sujatha and finish it within a day. The advantages of doing so are manifold, for Sujatha’s prose is always succinct, the tone is always light and entertaining and finally the content is neither too mainstream nor fully offbeat. This gives you a satisfaction you usually derive from watching a Mani Ratnam movie or an Alfred Hitchcock thriller – the entertainment quotient is optimal that successfully stimulates your senses which you can use towards finish your boring book while you gain a feeling of gratification for having achieved a revival without engaging in something that is too cheap or mainstream.

Sujatha always wrote with an eye on the people he was writing for. Sujatha knew his reader more than the reader knew himself and made it a point to entertain him while improving the reader’s taste and sensibility without his own knowledge. Most of his works in fiction read like screenplays written for mainstream films as a result of which the cinema-obsessed average Tamil reader shall find no difficulty in adapting to his style.

When I look at directors from Hindi cinema coming up with nicely crafted works in the OTT domain, it is embarrassing to see a complete drought back home. With a wealth of Tamil literature rotting in our backyard due to neglect and ignorance, it is a pity we haven’t made use of the OTT platform to create interesting, binge-worthy content. And seeing Sujatha’s works rotting alongside, I don’t feel just embarrassed or sad, I feel shameful.