Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thunai Yezhuthu - Vignettes of life by a literary wayfarer.

I always wanted to write book reviews but never imagined I'd start with a Tamil book. I've had my share of Tamil literature as part of school work and later readings of Mu.Vaa, T.Janakiraman, Sujatha and the biggest draw was Jeyakanthan. My reading habit is heavily stilted towards non-fiction so even in English I am not a big follower of literary trends or fiction reader. Since I complain once too often about lack of good writing in Tamil as reason for being alienated from Tamil my cousin lent me a book by S.Ramakrishnan."Thunai Yezhuthu" (a bad transliteration of a wonderful tamil word) actually denotes an accompanying letter that extends a consonant. SR wrote a series of anecdotes laced with reflections in Ananda Vikatan. Reading the anecdotes the cliche "Life is stranger than fiction" rings very true. The collection of anecdotes is very interesting because SR, with a keen literary sense, meets various people and has made a narrative out of many a commonplace occurence. Some observations made in the passing are very cutting. In places where he tries to state the obvious the literary merit suffers. I guess he was conscious about writing for a public not very literary minded.

Apart from the anecdote on Puthumaipithan everything else is about ordinary people their struggles and disappointments. Some anecdotes, by virtue of the sadness involved become very gripping. The story about a girl who borrows from her neighbors on behalf of her father, promising to repay, portrays a vivid picture of a strata of society that lives by middle class codes but could ill afford that. They are in purgatory neither too poor to bother about niceties nor rich enough to keep up. When the home owner suspects the famil had comitted suicide the father remarks "I've no money to buy poison". When they vacate the home SR goes inside and sees that the girl had made meticulous notes of who lent how much money on the walls.

A simple trader in Tanjore (!!!) had spent almost 50% of his income on books. Each book is marked with date, a slip with notes. His son is angry that his father squandered money and wants to sell of the books. SR felt it would be an injustice to buy those books. Later he sees them strewn on the street with a used book vendor.

Having read SR's book "Uba Paandavan" based on Mahabharatha a simple cook at a local eatery sends him a letter asking if SR knew about "Krishna's cook". Intrigued, SR pays him a visit. This is SR's strength, he reaches out to ordinary people. No he does not reach out to all and sundry just to those who interest him. SR goes and spends an evening with the cook, as he is about to leave the cook changes his dress and SR sees a lengthy scar on his body. The cook nonchalantly says "my employer felt I did not add enough salt in the sambar and poured the boiling sambar on me". SR mentions it as just recollection of a diologue but it is a telling comment on socio-economic exploitation that is common in India. Another hotel owner refuses to charge for children, "how much can they eat, let them eat free".

One man writes an angry letter in response to Ubapaandavam and SR feels he should visit that guy. The angry letter writer turns out to be a cycle shop owner taken aback by SR visit. SR and his angry writer spend the day together at the end of which the guy confesses that his father used to beat him up as a boy for reading books and he developed an aversion to books.

A very little known drama troupe lives around Tanjore. They put up plays on Narasimha avatar. Each character is uniquely portrayed with 2 players. The artist who played the demon king "Hiranyan" was famous. Out of two players who played Hiranyan, SR took fancy for one. He narrates how his family was not doing well etc. His wife and daughter come to watch the play and it affects Hiranyan. On the last day the climax takes place, seeing her dad being torn asunder falls sick. Hiranyan later narrates this to SR. SR visits the hospital, government hospital. He sees this actor, who held in thrall a village with his voice and performance, is worried about his daughter and in a very humble manner, with folded hands, asks the doctor "will my daughter be ok". The doctor ignores him and passes by without replying.

SR takes a train ride one day and the compartment is beseiged by buzzing girls thrilled with their win in a hockey game. Suddenly SR sees that their coach is a girl he knew. That girl wanted to excel in hockey in her school days. Her father hates her ambition and breaks her hockey stick. The girl eventually walks out of the home. SR avoids seeing her lest she feels humiliated.

An interesting anecdote is about a pair of lovers. The lovers used to meet in SR's room. They would talk for hours and while talking exchange notes. This went on for a while. One fine day they broke up. The girl gives SR a bag full of corresondence asking him to hand it over to her lover. The guy does it vice versa. Eventually they both get married to different spouses. The bags remain with SR.

A family squabble brings an ornate home to destruction. The home is very ornate and decorous with expensive woodwork. The owner has a strange habit of collecting the keys of the home. The family goes for a out of court settlement and the home is torn down. The owner tracks down SR and requests SR to come and see his dying father. The father wants SR to take a key from his collection. SR has the key till today.

The preponderance of violence in daily life agonises SR. A distraught wife with her son comes to her husband's work place to plead with her husband's manager to give her a portion of her husband's salary. The husband had left the family destitute. The irritated man, feels humiliated and slaps the woman in front of the entire office. Nobody intervenes on her behalf. SR wonders if we as parents sow the seeds for such violence when seemingly innocent violence like killing insects is committed in front of children.

The most poignant story with philosophical overtones is about a Gujarati woman with children. One night a destitute woman with children tagging behind begs for food. Her life and family were torn asunder in the Gujarat earthquake. AT SR's home the woman and children appear to curiously look at a child Krishna picture. Apparently her home in Gujarat had a similar picture, probably a torrent of memory presses on her. An inquisitive SR finds out the details and gifts her the picture. He wonders about the love the woman has for Krishna after living through hell and with her life in shambles.

What can one make of the author and society at large from this collection of essays. SR, as per his blog and an autobiographical essay, was born in a family of deep literary roots. He is a student of English literature, very widely read too. His anecdotes portray a vivid sense of the travails in what passes for 'ordinary' day to day life. His interest in people is evident and his literary sense provides a sensitivity that enriches his perspective. The real author remains elusive though. We understand his concerns and agonies but we know little of his own philosophical predilections. Coming from a deeply political family that considers modern Dravidian politics as the harbinger of equality he shows no analysis of any political ideologies. Probably he considers, somewhat rightfully, that many of these problems cross patry ideologies. On another branch of his family is a devotional streak and we know very little of the author's own religious ideas. Given that these are all autobiographical essays that’s a little disappointing. Though very erudite and a voracious reader himself he does not names drop willy nilly unlike his other compatriots Charu Nivedita or Jeyamohan. I was surprised to read that he had to struggle to get a copy of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' every book store in US carries a cheap edition of it. This shows how difficult it is to be a well read man in India. As I write this review it also occurs to me that he does not talk much of his college days, professors, mentors, intellectual godfathers.

On a side note it is a curious fact that a student of English literature should become a Tamil literary author. I surmise that the richness of his writings owes a lot to his English literature coursework and his knowledge of English itself opened many a literary door. A student of Dostoyevsky, Borges, Foucoult, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann etc certainly has a wider vision of the world than an English illiterate Tamil medium only student on Tamil literature would. For SR his English knowledge brings the world to his doorstep, no civilisation is beyond reach, be it Greek Tragedy or Franch drama or Russian stories or Latin American novels everything fertilises his world and takes his own understanding of Tamil literature to levels beyond a normal academic student of Tamil literature.

This is a book to be read and re-read. The best way to read it would be story by story with pauses in between. Do not race through them for this is not a Dan Brown puzzle to be solved in the climactic few pages. These are lives. Do not look for any capsule of wisdom or any overarching philosophy that can circumscribe all the stories. There is no single philosophy in the world that can answer adequately all the myriad problems thrown up. Also it would do well to remember that SR wrote this is in a Tamil weekly as nuggets buried in news about film stars, gossips and other pedestrian stuff. He remembers that and we would do well to remember too.

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