Monday, August 18, 2008

Will Tamil Survive -- Part 1

Nothing in this world is complete enough not to require improvement. That is what made Bharathi to tell us to seek the riches of the world and bring it to our culture and language. Before we embark to seek the riches of the other cultures we need to define what we lack. As a Tamilian living in USA for 10 years I’ve immensely enjoyed many American traits that I think if encouraged taking root in our culture we would be richer. Much of what I enjoyed in the American intellectual life can also be called “Western civilization” broadly.

Respect is to be earned. Even parents have to earn it from their children. Children earn it too from their parents. While an instinctive affinity is there for what we are born into, mother land, mother tongue etc the affinity will be nourished into a lifelong bond only if the respect is earned. Respect cannot be demanded. We need to reflect on how we can instill in the forthcoming generations a respect for Tamil language and not treat it as just a “language spoken by parents”.

Tamil is probably the only language spoken by millions for thousands of years and yet does not have a definitive dictionary. I am aware that several dictionaries have been published every now and then but none that can be called definitive certainly none that is accessible to the lay public. Simply put we do not have the equivalent what Oxford Dictionary is to the English language. This is despite the fact that we have an entire university dedicated to just Tamil language. The day a common person can go to a book stall and get a standardized dictionary is when Tamil would really gain respectability as a mature language.

A more lamentable fact is there no school textbook to teach Tamil grammar to children akin to Wren and Martin for English. Nannool and Thandi Alangaram are not school textbooks. Tamil grammar is taught to school children along side extracts of Tamil literature, mostly as ignoreable addendum.

Does Tamil literature lack certain genres? How do we make Tamil literature “earn” the respect of a Tamilian who reads world literature? Can a Tamilian familiar with Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Henrik Ibsen, Bernard Shaw find parallels to enjoy in Tamil? I am not talking about an equivalent of “Voltaire” or a “Bernard Shaw” as a person or even about their particular works. I am talking about genres, “philosophy”, “drama”, “biography”, “essays” and “history”

We often talk of Iyal-Isai-Naatakam in Tamil. Have we questioned its validity? Dr Mu.Va in his “Thamizh Ilakkiya Varalaru” asserts that this phrase of “Iyal-Isai-Naatakam” came about recently and that is when the habit of referring to tamil as “muthamizh” also started. While Mu.Va gives a nod to the fact texts like Silappathikaram refer to drama, gives details on stage design, dramatic plots, he finally concedes that “Naataka ilakkiyam endru koorathakka nool ondrum indru namakku kidaikkavillai”. Drama as a precursor to cinema is different from drama being performed based on plays written for the stage. There are simply no parallels to Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Henrik Ibsen, Aeschylus, Sophocles and the like. It is not a shame, nothing to get angry over. What do we, then, need to worry about?.

Why is that there is no Tamil “philosopher”, why are there no “philosophic schools of thought” in Tamil. A lot of our literature is laced with philosophy and the religious literature is heavy on philosophy yes, but what about a book that propounds a philosophic theory and creates a logical framework to support it. Where is our Nietzsche?

It is a great tragedy that we still do not have a definitive biography of Bharathi, who lived in recent times and had contemporaries who lived into the 1950’s. Vairamuthu’s “Kavirajan Kathai” is not research based critical biography. We know next to nothing of Kamban, Villiputhurarar, Seethalai Saathanar and the numerous Sangam poets. We need to know the critical influences of Shelley and Walt Whitman on Bharathi. What was his frame of mind when he composed ‘nallathor veenai” , how did he view himself to write “enrdan paattu thirathaale intha vaiyathai baalithidal vendum”. A biography has to be critical too. Some would refute me and point to some exotic work available in a dusty library in some corner of Tamil Nadu. I can go any book store in America and pick up biographies of Shelley, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth and others.

Why is “historical” writing a non-existent genre? We spin stories of our past glory based on poems in Sangam literature but there is little objective history about our past. Even today we do not have a good history of how the political landscape has changed in the past 50 years. Take the 1960’s a very momentous time in American and Tamil Nadu history. There are so many books about JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights movement, Vietnam etc. There is no serious scholarship by non-political professional historians about the historic 60’s of Tamil Nadu. We should discount history written by political leaders, that is auto-biography not history.

Essays are a fine literary form that is all but non-existent in Tamil. This is crucial because an essay brings to the fore a focused mind that states a dilemma, cites arguments on both sides and resolves in favor of one within a couple of pages. Francis Bacon’s essays are the finest gems and are shining examples of what an essay should accomplish. The most famous satirical essay “meditations on a broomstick” by Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver Travels, is a shining example of a satirical essay.

Another very serious shortfall is children’s literature. So much is made of making children learn Tamil at least as second language and that no child going through any academic stream in Tamil Nadu should not be able to pass out without knowing Tamil, yet nobody has given a serious thought to as why there are no books published exclusively for children with child like plots and child like characters. Harry Potter took the children’s world by storm not because of marketing alone it’s because J.K. Rowling created a whole new world that tapped into the heart of every child and even adults. I remember A.Zha. Valliappa being called “children’s poet” but no child can get a collection of his poetry anthology today.

Is our course structure for Tamil literature in colleges the reason? How well rounded in World history and World literature are our Tamil M.A’s? Have we failed to inculcate a spirit of inquiry and critical appreciation in our students? We want to encourage a student to study completely in Tamil but is a student a complete individual if he is able pass exams and graduate based on translated textbooks just tailored to curriculum? A student, especially in literature, needs to know the world history and literary trends of wider world. A Tamil literature student who does not read Voltaire or Francis Bacon or Seneca in Tamil can never be a first rate intellectual capable of contributing in “original Tamil thinking”. It is imperative that world literature should be available in good translations thus widening the minds of a Tamil only speaking graduate. This is a very serious lacuna.

Tamil literature lives mainly in the small not too popular publications like “Kanayazhi”. This needs to change. In every culture and every country there is a difference between a serious intellectual and a layman. How big the gulf is , how different the shades are , how much are they separated by numbers define the gross intellectual level of that society. How do we narrow the gulf and help spread ideas better? How do we create and nourish a reading public?

Books, authors and ideas are the backbone of any language if it seeks to be vibrant. America is home to some of the biggest publishing houses like Random, Simon &Schuster, Signet, etc. The publishing industry takes its reputation very seriously. A publisher is not the same as a “printer”. A publisher seeks authors, seeks books and brings them to market place. These companies recruit as employees who are in essence good critics capable of spotting a good author, a good book etc. Worldwide some publishing houses have achieved such critical reputation that looking at the publisher one can, to some extent, guarantee the quality of the book. Oxford University Press and Penguin are examples like that. A point in case is the Harry potter series. An editor from "Scholastic" on a trip to UK read the book published in UK by Bloomsbury press, bought the rights for USA and the rest is history.

In the days of Saavi, A.S.A Sami (Kumudam editor) and Vikatan editors performed this function of seeking talent or giving a wider forum for serious literary stories to some extent. Jayakanthan, Sujatha, Lakshmi, Sivasankari, Balakumaran all owe to some extent to these editor-publishers. Jayakanthan wrote many of his novels for Vikatan. Today no serious writer casts even a look at these mainstream popular weeklies which have sunk further into cinema oriented selling points.

Given that so many books get published how the common man decides what to read is the next question. By and large this is by reading book reviews in news papers. New York Times book review section is one of the most widely read. It is prestigious because the critics are of the highest intellectual order. Even established authors wait nervously to read what Michiko Kakutani of New York Times says in her review for their books. What is important to note here is the tradition of “criticizing” openly and without mincing words. Criticism is meant to evaluate a work, set the standard and decide which meets it or not and finally judge if it’s a good book or not.

In a culture where a poet challenged a God over the quality of a poem it is sad that a critical appreciation tradition has totally died. The political culture of the past 50 years is largely responsible for this. Today politics and casteism are so mixed up in the literary world that any work is not judged on its merits but on the politics behind it. Even the reviewer is not immune, a criticism too is seen through a prism of politics and Tamil patriotism. One cannot criticize any literary work without angering self-declared custodians of language. An atmosphere of fear prevails today. Mark Van Doren, professor at Columbia University, New York, could write an acclaimed review of Shakespeare’s books and start the first page saying Shakespeare’s poetry is not great. Prof Doren was not condemned for criticizing the greatest author in English nor did British public get angry at an American professor for criticizing a British playwright. Imagine a North Indian or Kannadiga criticizing Silappathikaram.

Another very sad fact is lack of good editions, especially on the gems of Tamil literature. What is meant by an “edition”? How would I like to read Silappathikaram? I’d like to read an edition much like the Folger edition of Shakespeare plays. A good edition should first be edited by a reputed scholar with impeccable credentials and that author should have as his primary area of interest the study Silappathikaram, its allied issues like the society, comparative literature, historical setting and above all objectively analyze the flaws even if the author is a revered poet. The book should have a preface giving a sensitive portrayal of the epic’s roots, the settings, author’s biographical information, analyses of author’s ideological roots, delineation of characters and the editor’s own comments. Then of course there should be relevant notes for words in each passage side-by-side. I bought Silappathikaram, Purananooru, Agananooru etc, all with notes by one Puliyur Kesikan. Those editions did have a glossary for difficult words, a detailed synopsis for each passage like “Cliff’s notes” (or Konaar Urai) but fails to qualify as a serious edition that can rank alongside Folger’s edition of Shakespearean plays.

Publishing houses should be presented with the idea of recruiting Tamil literature students to serve as editors who search for books to be published. This would also address a very sore point that students of Tamil literature cannot get lucrative jobs. Every major publishing house worldwide tries to recruit students of literature, economics etc as editors and subject matter experts. How many Tamil publishers can boast of good literary editors in their board?

More than books and book publishing it is the scene of Tamil news paper and Tamil TV journalism that is most pathetic. Even today reading a Tamil paper is considered inferior not because it is written in Tamil but because of the poor journalism. Journalism courses in Tamil, not just translated in Tamil but tailored for Tamil reporting should be started in colleges. A co-operation between Industry and the university is necessary to come up with a course material and viable job opportunity. Many Tamil papers are owned by very rich publishers so it’s not money that is a problem. There is an assumption that Tamil news papers are meant for not so well educated and that is the reason.

Joseph Pulitzer, who established the Pulitzer prizes, was the first to call for university level courses in journalism giving the profession a much needed intellectual framework. Not everybody with a pen and knowing how to write can be called a journalist. It is this seriousness that has made news papers like New York Times and Washington Post as two of the most respected news papers. Each year these news papers consider it prestigious to have several journalists of their paper win Pulitzer prizes.

Having written, published, reviewed and read the next big encouragement for an author is a prize. Depending on the type of book written there are many prizes. The most prestigious prize in US is the Pulitzer prize and this needs to be studied closely. The “Pulitzers” as the prizes are called, were established in 1917 by Joseph Pulitzer to encourage excellence in journalism. Pulitzer prizes are given in many categories for books of various types, biography, fiction, non-fiction even drama and music. Here is a point to note that while Pulitzer prizes for books and journalism are very highly coveted and respected I’ve not seen their award for music generate much respect in that area. For music it’s always the Grammy’s that are considered prestigious.

If you had noticed I use the word “prestige” often in the preceding paragraphs. How is this “prestige” got? Pulitzers are considered prestigious because of the uncompromising way in which they are chosen by a board that is picked meticulously with an expert for each field. The meticulousness of choosing the selectors, the transparency of selection, impartiality and intellectual integrity, are all factors that make the prize worthy. Above all maintaining that standard over 90 years is what gives such awards a respect.

The Sahitya Akademi awards do carry some prestige and the Jnanapeeth is still prestigious. Both have maintained high credibility. Only 2 writers in Tamil have Jnanapeeth so far but 7 awards for Kannada writers, the highest for any particular language, I am not sure exactly if it’s just that Kannada has produced more literary persona. Each Kannada recipient is much respected and not even one can be faulted. Only Akilan and Jayakanthan have won in Tamil. Unfortunately books are not advertised properly as having won an Akademi award, nor do such books see a surge in popularity after having won an award like how a book with Pulitzer or Booker prize would see increased sales.

Finally, who do we do all this for? We need to cultivate readership. That is difficult in a country where even middle class families cannot afford buying books regularly. I do not see many families buying books for children especially because a child will not read a book twice and importantly a children’s book is meant only to be read once, enjoyed, assimilated a little and thrown off. The answer to this problem is “public libraries”. Many Tamil families in US happily take their children to local libraries. Local libraries are a glorious tradition of USA. How come we demand less from our own governments in Tamil Nadu? District libraries exist in each district, but they just exist. A government that spends Rs750 crores on free TV’s can easily afford to give better libraries to Tamilians.

Let me close by saying none of the ideas presented above are complete but just to address, what I think, as shortfalls in Tamil literary tradition. Hopefully they made you think about what to do to make Tamil literature a richer tradition.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful article. Even though we have very good books like Kalki's Ponniyin selvan or lot of books by M.S.Udayamoorthy, they are not properly reached people. An eye-opener article.

Anonymous said...

when u are so madly chauvinistic about thatlangauge,the problem of survival wont be a