Monday, June 18, 2012

An Evening with Nanjil Nadan

Nanjil Nadan won the Sahitya Akademi award for "Do not adorn the flower that was adorned" ('Soodiya Poo Soodarka). He is currently touring USA at the invitation of some literary enthusiasts. I met him at a friend's home and had an entertaining evening. I've read some of his stories on his web site and had a liked him. Many times I face the question "why do you hate Tamil literature, its culture etc". I love literature. Period. How can I hate a language with one of the richest heritage in human civilization and one which I happen to speak and write too? The 2 hours I spent listening to Nanjil Nadan was sheer pleasure.

Nanjil, as I wrote in another context recently, is a Mathematician by training and studied Tamil literature as a passion. While at Mumbai the library operated by Mumbai Tamil Sangam was his refuge. He learnt Kamba Ramayanam for 3 years from another person (not a literary academician either). Nanjil's love and knowledge for the epic knows no bounds. Ask him any question out of ignorance or curiosity about Kamba Ramayanam and the answer will make it clear within a minute that you are in the presence of someone who has not just studied the epic but has imbibed it in his veins. The best part, at least in that evening, is no answer would mixed with the mindless asinine chauvinism common amongst Tamil enthusiasts. Never did I hear him say "only Kamban not even xyz", or "only in Tamil".

Nanjil explained with great admiration of how Kamban would use words. He picked a word that has 40 variants and said Kamban had used it all. Nanjil is collecting such thoughts for a lecture titled 'words' to be delivered. If he had lived in USA and if Kamban was a westerner such a lecture would be given in the auspices of the 'National Endowment of Humanities' as the prestigious 'Jefferson lecture' and a publisher would be bringing out a nice booklet. Ah the curse of being a Tamil.

There are thousands of translation of Homer's epics but when Princeton professor Robert Fagles released his translations they became a sensation and set a new bar. I asked Nanjil why we do not see such continued research and re-interpretation of Tamil classics. He said that that's not true and cited a few works which, unsurprisingly, remain obscure. I asked him what about something similar to 'definitive editions' that we see for classics here. He referred to a particular edition of Kamba Ramayanam as being excellent, only one copy is available in Annamalai University.

Nanjil expressed his displeasure at the pathetic level of interest in anything beyond movies and TV serials for the average Tamil citizen. It has been the grouse of many a literary person. Trichy is what in USA would be referred to as University town. I spent an entire afternoon roaming around Trichy for a good book store. A guest shocked the rest and Nanjil by saying "well you guys must write what interest the public". Najil, being a gentleman, just smiled. At the beginning I asked Nanjil if he was here in connection with the annual Tamil Sangam convention hosted by FeTNA. He did not ignore that question but glided over it with a smile.

I wrote an article for FeTNA 2008 in which I had lamented the lack of a good dictionary akin to 'Oxford English Dictionary' for a 3000 year old language. Nanjil referred to R.P.Sethupillai's dictionary of Tamil words, compiled at Annamalai university, in the 20's as the only remaining definitive work. I did not dare to ask him what is Tamil University doing.

Last year a speaker in FeTNA 2011 lamented the dismal state of research in Tamil. He chided fantasy theories like Tamil originating in Lemuria. How did such crass mediocrity, nay, stupidity happen. An incident narrated by Nanjil showcased it and strangely Jayakanthan had written about such an incident 40 years back.

In the 60's a Writer's Conference was conducted in Trichy and E.V.Ramasamy Naicker was the chief guest (don't even ask me what is his credential). EVR, in his true gadfly nature, made a mockery of Mahabharatham asking 'should we not tear apart an epic that celebrates a polyandrous woman (Draupadi)'. Jayakanthan in his reply objected to such an attitude. EVR's minions who had crowded the hall tried to shout down Jeyakanthan. EVR then said "well we hurt a lot of sentiments of others by our opinions he should be free to say his opinion".

 Nanjil was invited, along with other contemporary writers, to speak on "the book that most influenced" him. Nanjil spoke about Kamba Ramayanam. Annathurai, DMK's idea of literary person, had made a name for himself by lecturing what a pornographer Kamban is and DK/DMK have made Kamban their ideological football with half assed ideas of literature etc. Just like the 60's now in 2010's EVR's successor Veeramani was invited too. Now Veeramani's minions, actually women, raised a ruckus. Nanjil said he was livid at this bunch half baked idiots maligning an epic and was ready to stand up and even take blows. He said "I know I'd be beaten up and next day paper would say 'Nanjil roughed up' so what". Veeramani echoed EVR in silencing the minions. In his reply Veeramani devoted almost the entire time to rebut Nanjil. My friend asks me "why do you have to drag Mu.Ka, EVR, DK, DMK" into anything about Tamil Nadu. To their credit no discussion of anything about Tamil Nadu is impossible without mentioning those.

Talking about Tamil music Nanjil was happy to see how Sanjay Subramaniam incorporates Tamil songs in his performance. He said as much it is reprehensible when carnatic musicians relegate Tamil songs to the last in a performance and refer to it as 'tail pieces' ('thukkada') we should also recognize how Brahmins have nourished and protected our music. He also was aghast referring to an interview of T.M.Krishna who said "singing 'Krishna nee Begane' ('Krishna please come') is the same as singing 'coca cola nee begane'". Saying music is universal Nanjil recalled how tears welled up in his eyes listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

My only disappointment of the evening was Najil's reply to my question on whether he read any books about USA prior to his visit here. Just 2 days before my meeting I had read an interview by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust. Faust is visiting India more frequently to market Harvard and she is reading Katherine Boo, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie etc. Nanjil had read Pa.Raghavan's 'Dollar Dreams". My heart just sank. I did not expect him to say 'Alexis De Tocqueville' but saying Pa.Raghavan was just a low blow. In his visit to Boston he had expressed his appreciation for the politeness for American people "Americans are different from America the country which is a hegemony. I don't know enough to talk about the Wall Street power etc". This is a cop-out I've heard this a lot of times. American's elect their government. To see America only through the prism of foreign policy does gross injustice to the greatest country on earth. This deserves a separate blog.

People like Nanjil lack financial independence to undertake a study tour of USA to understand its vibrant intellectual nature and its deep structural greatness. Whether it is Nanjil or Jeyamohan they go around USA courtesy of some enthusiasts. A visit to MIT in an after noon, a stop at a grocery store (Nanjil went to Farmer's market), a train journey from New Jersey to NYC gives not even a glimpse of this country. He will have to stay and study the country, visit Kennedy Center, learn about Jefferson lecture, study about National Endowment of humanities, understand about the responsibilities of a Super Power by learning about how Herbert Hoover fed impoverished and vanquished Germany, understand how Ms Faust a civil war scholar conducts business at Harvard. At least he has gained a glimpse and is taking back nice memories of America. 

1 comment:

babumanohran paulwilliam said...

I appreciate Nanjil Nadan's real concern for Tamil Literature and Tamil people . He is a serious thinker , yes we need a comprehensive good Tamil Dictionary , akin to the famous Oxford English Dictionary. No doubt Nanjil Nadan is one of the greatest Tamil Writers .