Readers Write In #282: Crash Course in Tamil Short Fiction 101

Posted on October 16, 2020


(by V Vijaysree)

Though I speak Tamil fluently,I tend to stumble over the printed word. I almost never read for fun in Tamil.Unsurprisingly, the only Tamil authors I know of are the ones who have written for the movies.

I had no idea how much I liked being read to in my first language till I heard a familiar voice read a short story by “Sujatha” Rangarajan, on a YouTube channel, during the lockdown. Sujatha who wrote screenplays for blockbusters,was a prolific Tamil writer.He wrote novels, short stories, non-fiction on science-related topics, even a manual on How to Write Movie Screenplays.

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 isa 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 the in 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, or the fact that she feels like an orphan simply because she is away from home – all of this felt so real. Thebudding physician later realizes she has the training to save lives, which is not a trivial skill.We leave her at the beginning of a lifelong romance,unmindful of young men who only know to worship physical beauty. She had found her purpose in life.

And so, I stumbled into an informal literature appreciation course. While we are familiar with the names of popular Tamil writers (like Sujatha or Balakumaran say) 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. Hearing stories by writers who had nothing to do with movies would be a bonus.

So, this was Tamil Short Stories 101. The vivacious “course instructor”begins by telling you a little bit about the author of the day. Her enjoyment in reading her favorite stories is obvious,but her laughter will not garble funny passages. Her voice doesn’t crack at a sad ending.In short, she never gets between you and the story. After spotlighting some non-obvious aspect of that piece of fiction, she would leave to return a week later with an eclectic pick.

Popular writers too have their own favorite authors growing up. I was pleased to discover one of Sujatha’s favorites, T. Janakiraman. Fans called him Thi Ja, which is what his Tamil initials shorten to. The author would have been a 100 years old this year. Most of his stories are set in Thanjavur, where my ancestors are from and, no, I had never even heard his name before. Thi. Ja’s acclaimed novel “Mogamul” was made into a movie after his death.

Thi. Ja’s writing takes us to the small towns along the Cauvery and back to a time when most Indians traveled mostly by train. A second-class train compartment is, in fact, the setting for his story “Silirpu.” A young domestic worker is on her way to distant Calcutta to care for the children of a wealthy judge. Most fellow travelers feel sympathy for this girl who is barely ten years old. When a little boy offers her an orange as a parting gift, his father is overjoyed. As they alight the train,the proud father holds the kind hearted boy close to his chest. Don’t we all long to make our parents this proud of us?

Most of this well-established author’s stories make a gentle push for a more humane humanity.

The beloved stage actor, and scriptwriter, Crazy Mohan was also a fan of Thi. Ja’s writing. In fact, his evergreen 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.The old plot was set in an eatery, and someone dies after, but maybe not from, eating tainted sambar. This tale of a disaster not averted has interesting insights into a man’s conscience.

Like any good instructor, Ms. Bhaskar inspiresme to go out of syllabus, and do some extra reading, or extra listening, as is the case here most of the time. (For supplementary listening, I’d recommend Bava Chelladurai’s narration of stories by the same authors Bharathy has picked. Or knock yourself out and discover a few other writers!) 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 writers in our midst, who deserve to be better known.

One of our Ms. Bhaskar’s favorite writers seems to be R. Chudamani.T he pioneering feminist author’s insights are so worldly and sharp, it is hard to believe she was recluse because of a medical condition. Her work has not been adapted for the screen.

The first Chudamani story I heard had all the melodrama of a black-and-white P-series Bhimsingh movie distilled into one piece of fiction. Two brothers, who have drifted apart as adults, because of a difference in income, social standing, and their insensitive wives, reunitein the face of a crisis.A satisfying weepie.

Her other stories were very different. In fact, the ending of one was so radical, I was not even sure I had heard right. It was a good 40 years since she had written those lines. It was 11 PM in Boston, but I just had to replay the ending. (I went to bed wondering if this story “He visits often” was Chudamani’s take on the Mrs. Robinson character from The Graduate.)

Last week, Ms. Bhaskar picked a story by a Sri Lankan Tamil author who now lives in Toronto, Canada. In his working career, A. Muttulingam’s World Bank assignments have taken him to many countries of Asia and Africa for long stints. In his writing you can catch a glimpse of his career and his interactions with people from other cultures.This makes him the opposite of Chudamani, but his work too has not been adapted for the screen yet.

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:  (An older KathaiNeram session with BB in which she introduces three writers. Jeymohan, M.V. Venkatram and Thi. Ja) (ParadesiVandhan, a Thi Ja story narrated by Bava Chelladurai)

Latest story by A. M. Muttulingam