Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jayalalitha Jayaram: A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma. A Life of Tragedies, Hubris, Victories and Downfall.

The conviction of Jayalalitha Jayaram, a sitting Chief Minister, for amassing wealth beyond known sources of income and her subsequent unseating as Chief Minister, is without parallel in Indian political history. The conviction has sent the state into a spiral of constitutional crisis and stirred the political scene just when Jayalalitha seemed to reach the peak of her political career bagging almost all the seats in the just concluded parliamentary elections when Tamil Nadu, contrary to the most of the country, did not vote for BJP.

Jayalalitha had never known peace in her life ever since her idyllic school life was rocked by her mother demanding that she start acting in films lest the family, until then rich, comes to the streets. A nubile teenage girl was thrust into the ugly chauvinist world of films. Her first movie was rated 'Adults only' because she had appeared in sleeveless blouses and drenched under a waterfall, for a song, thus too steamy for the staid and conservative 60s. She, as the story goes, could not watch her own debut movie in theaters because she was not an adult. Also, her character in the movie is that of a young widow, a very inauspicious role for a debut film. One can only imagine the turmoil of a teenager, who scored a state rank in her Matriculate exam, in being subjected to such lecherousness.

In due course the reigning demigods of Tamil filmdom, MGR and Sivaji, had Jayalalitha as heroine in many of their movies. Her pairing with MGR was a hugely successful one with a chemistry that set tongues wagging and was so to later be the reason for a more bitter phase of her life, politics. In those days male chauvinism reigned supreme in the sets of a Tamil movie. Whenever MGR entered the film set all actors, especially the actresses, had to stand up. That was the least bothersome of what the actresses had to endure.

When her movie career started to wane she was in love with an already married fellow actor Shoban Babu. A very famous interview by her in those days had her viewing Babu from the balcony of the her leafy Poes garden bungalow through a binocular. She had, with uncharacteristic candor for those days, told the interviewer that she and Babu were 'going steady'. The photo and quote would be used repeatedly by her political opposition in later years to ridicule her. Yet again her life was not to be decided by her. MGR, who felt his own popularity was waning, decided to rope in his favorite heroine to be his party's propaganda secretary. Jayalalitha came out of a sort of retirement to dance in the World Tamil Conference convened by MGR. In later years her political enemies, all male, would chucklingly ridicule her that she was a 'danseuse'.

Jayalalitha became an extra-constitutional authority as the party's propaganda secretary. Though women politicians have existed in Tamil Nadu, including MGR's own cabinet, none had the charisma, the proximity to MGR and therefore the power as Jayalalitha did. When she addressed meetings no other party functionary, especially a male, would be seated next to her. It was said that camera men from new organizations were instructed on where they could photograph her from lest any unintended  unflattering pose be captured. When Khushbu resigned from DMK a popular photo that did the rounds on Facebook was one of her bending, with folded hands, in front of Karunanidhi in an unedifying angle. Perils of being a woman politician are many.

Again, Jayalalitha's world was rocked when her mentor and protector MGR fell ill suddenly in 1984, barely a few years since her debut into the political world. MGR's old acolytes, none of whom had any inkling of respect or regard for Jayalalitha, became a circle of coterie and she was left out in the cold. MGR returned from Brooklyn USA, a battered man. His oath of office ceremony was held in-camera. Those were Jayalalitha's years of political wilderness. On Dec 24th 1987 MGR passed away in his sleep.

MGR's body was kept in state at Rajaji hall for public display. Jayalalitha planted herself firmly at the head of MGR's corpse in full glare of TV relays. It was rumored that relatives of MGR's wife and others, annoyed at Jaya hugging the limelight and sending a not too subtle message on who will carry on the leadership, tried to dislodge her from the spot by pinching her. Later Jayalalitha committed a snafu by getting onto the gun carriage that was carrying MGR's corpse for the funeral rites. She pushed down headlong, again, in the full glare of TV live relay.

MGR's party was split with one section headed by his wife and yesteryear actress Janaki with the other headed by his protege, and some would say his romantic interest, Jayalalitha. Male political leaders of Janaki's faction freely indulged in innuendoes and insinuations against Jayalalitha that crossed all borders of decency. One Janaki supporters went to the extent of saying "when we see Janaki we feel like folding our hands in respect but not so for Jayalalitha" (the real quote was rumored to be even more objectionable). In the following election Karunanidhi, who had been frozen out of power for over a decade thanks to MGR's legendary charisma, returned to power. Though MGR's fractured party was defeated it was Jayalalitha who emerged victorious with far more seats than Janaki's faction thus eliciting the mantle of MGR to lead his party.

Jayalalitha entered another period of wilderness. During those years she endured withering sexism from her male opponents. Ridiculing her habit of appearing on the balcony of her home and waving to her supporters Kalimuthu coined the phrase "balcony damsel". He'd later grovel before her to become speaker of the assembly. It was during this time that she suffered a serious accident.

When Karunanidhi rose to present the annual budget Jayalalitha objected that a 'criminal should not read out the budget'. In 1979 when Indira Gandhi visited Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi's DMK had staged a black flag demonstration which had turned violent and Indira Gandhi was injured. Asked about Mrs Gandhi's bloody injuries Karunanidhi obscenely retorted that a woman could bleed for other reasons. A case of attempt to murder had been registered against Karunanidhi and was still not closed when he was elected CM in 1988. Enraged by Jayalalitha's charge Karunanidhi reportedly told her to "go speak to Shoban Babu". Now an angered Jayalalitha reportedly charged her  party men to snatch the budget copies from Karunanidhi's hands. At this point bedlam ensued. Jayalaitha exited the assembly disheveled and shaken. She later addressed reporters in the same state setting the rumor mills afire. It was rumored that a senior member of Karunanidhi's party had attempted to disrobe and humiliate her.

Dravidian party members, many of whom, including Karunanidhi, were bigamous were notorious for being disrespectful towards women. Their patron saint C.N. Annathurai, when asked about his dalliance with an actress, gave a repartee "neither is she a chaste woman, nor am I a saint who renounced all". Asked about rumors regarding a woman claiming him to be her husband Karunanidhi gave the famous reply, referring to his second wife Rajathi as "mother of my daughter Kanimozhi". DMK party speaker Vetrokondan and others like him were known to indulge in not just double entendre but plain ribaldry concerning a childless MGR and spinster Jayalalitha in their speeches (see a sample of Vetrikondan speech here It was a culture that both principal parties indulged in freely. ADMK party speakers then repaid in kindness with the predictable fodder of Karunanidhi's marriages. Such was the culture spawned by Dravidian party politics. Later in Jayalalitha's years a stable of speakers that included cine-actor S.S. Chandran and others kept up the tradition.

Prodded by Jayalalitha the Tamil Nadu government was dismissed using Article 356 by the pusillanimous and toady Chandrasekhar government at the center. Jaya administered to Karunanidhi in 1991 the medicine he had given to MGR in 1980. The subsequent election saw an earthquake when Rajiv Gandhi was murdered in a sleepy town in the outskirts of Chennai. Shocked by an assassination in their soil the Tamil voter punished the DMK, a party seen as hand in glove and sympathetic to the murderous separatist organization LTTE that had carried out the cold blooded assassination.

I remember Prannoy Roy's election day special vividly. The announcement flashed "DMK decimated. Karunanidhi trailing". Karunanidhi had never lost an election personally ever. He had contested from the Harbor constituency. Speaking at Kalimuthu's election rally, who was contesting from Kadaladi, Karunanidhi punned on their respective constituencies "கடலாடி வா. துரைமுகத்தில் காத்திருக்கிறேன்". Kalimuthu lost and Karunanidhi limped to victory with a lead of just under 1000 votes. For the next 5 years, as Jayalalitha had done earlier after being assaulted, Karunanidhi never stepped into the Tamil Nadu assembly.

Unlike MGR and Karunanidhi Jayalalitha lacked any political grooming and was catapulted by turn of events into ruling 40 million people. Her first reign 1991-96 was absolute disaster marked by tyranny and corruption. Taj Coromandel was ransacked just because T.N. Seshan, the former election commissioner and one who had said something critical of her, had stayed there. ADMK women's wing staged strip teases in court complexes to intimidate Subramanian Swamy who had launched a legal crusade against Jayalalitha after his associate was subject to a acid attack. Irked by her penchant to travel with a cavalcade of 1000 cars her own supporters Cho Ramasamy quipped "அவர் ஐயங்கார் இல்லை ஆயிரம் கார்". Celebrating an auspicious occasion Jayalalitha and her confidant Sasikala bathed in the holy waters of a Kumbakonam temple when nearly 200 devotees died in a stampede due to security arrangements. Consumer advocate K.M. Vijayan who was en-route to the airport to go to Delhi for arguing against Tamil Nadu's oppressive 69% quota system of reservation was attacked and maimed for life. DK's Veeramani later celebrated Jayalalitha as the protector of social justice.

Subramanian Swamy sought the governor's permission to prosecute her for buying government land, in violation of rules, on behalf of a company that she was a partner of. The governor refused to oblige. Later Jayalalitha would malign the governor, on the floor of the assembly, as having tried to sexually assault her.

The Tamil Nadu assembly became an ugly spectacle of ministers prostrating at her feet and singing her praises without fail whenever they got up to speak. In a shocking episode the newly elected speaker, Sedapatti Muthiah, prostrated at Jayalalitha's feet right inside the assembly. In another shocking episode, during a function, Jayalalitha sat on the speaker's chair while her confidante Sasikala, not even an elected member of the body, sat on the deputy speaker's chair.

The nadir of Jayalalitha's first tenure was the ostentatious Rs 100 crore marriage that she conducted for an 'adopted son', a relative of Sasikala. The bride was veteran thespian and yesteryear film colleague Sivaji Ganesan's grand daughter. Jayalalitha and Sasikala appeared bedecked in jewelry from head to toe. Photos of their grandeur was splashed in TV channels and news papers including international press. The marriage spectacle angered many who lived in grinding poverty. That too seeing Sasikala who had no constitutionally guaranteed political power in such corruption funded finery angered many. Sasikala and her family had gained notoriety, for land grabbing, as the 'Mannargudi Mafia'. A disenchanted electorate delivered a stinging verdict including a humiliating defeat of her own candidacy at Bargur. An unknown candidate from DMK was the giant killer.

Flush with victory and euphoria the DMK foisted several cases on her in addition to the ones that Swamy had launched. When Jayalalitha was arrested in a case her party men went on a rampage. In Dharmapuri a bus carrying school girls was way laid and torched resulting in the death of 4 students.

Jayalalitha bounced back in the 1998 parliamentary elections when she aligned with the BJP. India's prime minsters who often owe their power to the cow belt of North India were prone to ignore South India. Jayalalitha changed that in 1999 when she withdrew her party's support to Vajpayee. Standing in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan grounds she declared, in Hindi, that she was no longer supporting the government. No valid reason was given. Jayalalitha had arrived on the national scene, albeit, in an uncomplimentary manner. Vajpayee lost the trust vote by one vote, thanks to Mayavati who switched her votes at the last minute.

In a case of rank political opportunism, as is his tradition, Karunanidhi immediately aligned with BJP, a party he had ridiculed for stoking religious tensions and being inimical to minority communities, his vote bank.

Karunanidhi who sought to pass on the mantle to his son M.K. Stalin presided over a decent administration that time. However, in the run up to the 2001 elections he failed to stitch together a decent alliance and Jayalalitha romped to power. She sought to return the favor of foisting cases by filing a case against Karunanidhi for supposedly taking bribes in constructing the many 'flyovers' that marked his attempt to stem the unmanageable traffic of Chennai. The arrest episode and the drama enacted by Karunanidhi, not apparent in the first few days but only later as more evidence appeared, was a bad start to her second term.

Battling legal cases Jayalalitha unleashed a despicable tactic of silencing her critics or terrorizing those she considered inimical, including a member of the judiciary and her own erstwhile adopted son, by foisting 'ganja' cases wherein contraband was planted by the police and later claimed to be found on the accused.

Jayalalitha shocked the Hindu community and her fellow Brahmins when the much revered pontiff of Kanchi mutt Jayendra Saraswati was arrested, on Diwali day no less, on murder charges. A critic of Kanchi mutt was murdered right in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. Jayalalitha's government alleged that the murder was carried out on the orders of the pontiff who was irked by the critic. Her ardent supporter Cho Ramasamy reasoned that Jayalalitha would not have dared to do such an almost sacrilegious thing without adequate proof. But when the junior pontiff too was arrested on the day the senior was released on bail it became plain that there was more to this than just the desire to get justice for a slain man.

A welcome relief was the hunting and killing of forest brigand Veerappan, the largest manhunt in history, by a team headed by IPS officer Vijayakumar. The operation was everything that a previous operation headed by Devaram in her first tenure was not. That she is tough on law and order unlike her opponent Karunanidhi, who had buckled to a ransom event by Veerappan earlier, was established again.

The highlight of Jayalalitha's second term was the constitutional crisis she precipitated. As she was yet to clear herself of the TANSI land deal conviction she could not contest in the 2001 elections. She nevertheless filed petitions for candidacy in 4 constituencies and was reject in all 4 because the limit for filing was 2 constituencies. She blamed the DMK government and garnered some sympathy, unfairly, on that count. An irritated Karunanidhi retorted unedifyingly "நானா கொழுப்பெடுத்துப்போய் இரண்டு இடத்தில் மனு சமர்ப்பிக்கச்சொன்னேன்". Unexpectedly Jayalalitha's ADMK swept to power. Using the loop holes of the constitution she ascended the chief ministership since anybody can be elected by the largest seat holding party to be their leader provided they contest an MLA election within 6 months to become an MLA. Jayalalitha's issue was that she had been prohibited from contesting in the first place not that she did not contest. A case was duly filed in the Supreme Court which declared her move unconstitutional and unseated her as chief minister. A placeholder, O.Panneerselvam, was selected to keep the seat warm while she tried to clear herself of the TANSI land deal conviction.

Jayalalitha took the TANSI land deal conviction to the Supreme Court. In a verdict that stunned the nation and the judiciary the Supreme Court judge while accepting that she acted illegally released her saying that she can answer to her conscience. The judgment remains the butt of many jokes even today. Promptly Jayalalitha took the reins back.

Despite all the shenanigans that she did, her opposition DMK was still struggling to gain back the voters trust. The 2006 election saw the advent of shameless promotion of supposedly welfare schemes like free color TVs for all by the DMK. It'd be fair to say that without that kind of a salacious promise the DMK may very well have lost the 2006 election. Even though the ADMK lost the DMK won just barely and lost half the seats in its bastion Chennai.

Karunanidhi's tenure in 2006-2011 was marked by rampant corruption, of an unprecedented scale, land grabbing, also of unprecedented scale, sycophancy that made Jayalalitha look modest, tyranny, especially of the lucrative and much attention gathering filmdom and above all a crippling electricity shortage that plagued the state with multi-hour power cuts. The DMK was trounced in the 2011 elections paving the way for a third term for Jayalalitha.

Jayalalitha started off her third term, as usual, with a string of rash decisions that mostly were designed to undo, irrespective of merits, everything her predecessor did. That the two parties have been alternating shows the lack of choice for Tamil Nadu voter.

Maturing as a savvy politician Jayalalitha, in her third term, outsmarted Karunanidhi on every issue that he had once used, with great effect, as a political wedge to differentiate himself to gullible voters. Whether it is supporting the convicts in Rajiv Gandhi's murder or getting water from Karnataka or the Mullaperiyar dam issue Jayalalitha played her cards well.

 In the recently concluded 2013 parliamentary elections ditching all other alliance partners she undertook a whirlwind tour of the state as the sole indefatigable campaigner of her party. Her helicopter hopping, ministers waiting with bowed heads at the helipad and her speeches were fodder for internet humor. But she had the last laugh. Jayalalitha romped home with 37 MPs. A feat that not even the legendary charisma of MGR could achieve. DMK was stunningly routed. Even as Modi mania swept all of India Jayalalitha denied him the satisfaction of a complete victory. Jayalalitha the politician had arrived with a bang.

 Every once in 5 years the voter simply throws out, often by a huge margin, the incumbent and gifts power to the then opposition party with sickening regularity for the past 23 years since 1991. The DMK, trounced in 2011 and the parliamentary elections of 2013, is still reeling from factionalism and a string of defeats. It was widely expected that Jayalalitha's ADMK could be re-elected in 2016 thus beginning the end of DMK. Now, all bets are off.

Jayalalitha lacked the natural political instincts of MGR and the savviness of Karunanidhi. A politician by accident and compulsion she was just maturing into a better leader when this conviction derailed her. Her titular and whimsical manner of government is legendary. Yet, many who meet her in person have often felt that she is an intelligent and pragmatic person one could do business with. Just as the person thinks they had been misinformed Jayalalitha will prove that they were gullible. Never having had a normal relationship with males she came to see her male opponents as nothing short of mortal enemies. She rarely, if at all it happened, showed grace toward anybody. Without people she could call friends or family all she had around her opportunists and opponents.

It is also true that Jayalalitha never got her due even when she deserved it simply because she happened to be a woman and a former actress catapulted to a position of power in a state that fawns over actors. Karunanidhi, an astute and savvy political operator, has always been held in awe, thanks to flashy rhetoric, by the literate as an ideologue, though in reality he has neither the intelligence to craft an idea nor the sincerity to adhere to an idea.

Let us also not forget that everything that Jayalalitha can be blamed for was actually seeded by Karunanidhi. Justice Sarkaria who headed his eponymous commission,  formed to probe the scandalous Veeranam scheme of Karunanidhi, wrote that Karunanidhi had perpetrated  bribery with 'scientific' methods. The finger of suspicion points to Azhagiri on the Tha. Krishnan murder. That case was ignominiously closed during Karunanidhi's tenure when witnesses became hostile. A case relating to burning a newspaper office resulting in the death of two employees, instigated by Azhagiri, was also let to die. In a corruption case relating to Stalin one of the witnesses, a friend, conveniently committed suicide along with his entire family including a toddler. DMK general secretary and Karunanidhi's perpetual sidekick Anbazhagan today croaks that his suit to transfer Jayalalitha's case out of Tamil Nadu was not out of political vendetta and that he was just following his party's resolution in that regard.

Every politician of Tamil Nadu is an opportunist scumbag. PMK founder and sudden millionaire Ramadoss once declared that if he ever aligned with Jayalalitha it will be as disgusting as having slept with his own mother. And then he aligned with Jayalalitha. Out of a sense of decency I will not ask any further questions of Ramadoss. When the BJP government moved the POTA bill with sweeping provisions to arrest people suspected of even voicing support for a banned organization Vaiko, who supports LTTE, a banned organization, voted for it. Promptly Jayalalitha used the bill to arrest him. Later for the sake of a few seats Vaiko aligned, fruitlessly, with Jayalalitha for the 2006 elections. G.K. Moopanar who broke away from Congress to form TMC solely because Congress high command in Delhi decided to align with Jayalalitha in 1996, much against the wishes of many congressmen, later went back to align with her. Thirumavalavan aligned with Jayalalitha and ridiculed Karunanidhi before switching parties in the next election. Subramanian Swamy, the cause of all her misery today, after filing all lawsuits went and aligned with Jayalalitha only to get elected to the parliament with her support. R.M.Veerappan and Kalimuthu, who had heaped scorn on Jayalalitha, later meekly sought her blessing. S.D. Somasundaram, a senior menmber of MGR's cabinet, who had quit the cabinet protesting the undue attention given to Jayalalitha, later gained notoriety for hanging onto her van's side and dangling. Several of Jayalalitha's former ministers who faced lawsuits for corruption under the DMK regime are now in the DMK camp. So much for the new found clamor for probity in public life.

I am all for prosecuting and punishing corruption in public life. If Jayalalitha had been convicted in 1997 I may have had lesser sympathy for her. Its not that she redeemed herself completely its just that I see others who have committed murders, instigated murders, even a rumored rape of a TV anchor, been corrupt on a grander scale have all escaped punishment and are acting with smug righteousness when all they should be doing is sticking their head several feet into the sand and dreading their own day of retribution.

Karunanidhi is trying not to be seen as gloating at his beet-noire's moment of downfall only because he is well aware that his daughter, from his second wife, is facing jail herself. It may very well come to pass that his first wife too may end up in jail. The Neera Radia tapes established how ministries were bartered and sold for a song to placate giant egos of his two wives who wanted their respective children to be cabinet ministers.

This month saw the conviction and sentencing of Virginia's popular ex-Governor and his wife for bribery, involving an amount of approximately Rs 1 crore. The governor was once thought to be a possible presidential candidate. Now he is facing many years in jail. Illinois governor was hauled out of his bed and handcuffed in a case where he was about to commit a crime. A sitting congressman, scion of a civil rights leader, and his wife are languishing in jail for misusing campaign funds. In each of those cases though the punishments are fully warranted I felt sorry that they had to face jail. Failures and downfalls, however well deserved, always bring about a sense of sadness because of what the punished have to face.

Jayalalitha fully deserves this punishment and even more. Think of K.M. Vijayan and Chandralekha, both are impaired for their remaining lives. The inability to say "she deserved it, lets move on" stems from memories of the arc of her life. If only her mom had not dragged into movies, if only Shoban Babu had not left, if only MGR had not dragged her to politics, if only she had realized what damage Sasikala was wrecking, if only she had had a wee bit of normal life and the ifs accumulate. A life filled with tragedy, disappointments, treachery, betrayals and sexism has now neared a cataclysmic climax. She may very well outsmart and bounce back and that would be a tragedy too for then justice would have died.

From a rank holding teenager in a premium convent, brought up in the lap of luxury, today Jayalalitha lives behind bars eating a ball of ragi rice. What a fall. In the movie 'Nixon' Henry Kissinger would muse to a colleague, when Nixon resigns, "can you imagine what he could have been if only he had been loved". The same is true of Jayalalitha Jayaram.

The climax scene of Jayalalitha's first movie 'Vennira Aadai' concludes with her donning the garb of a widow, a white saree. She would say that as a child she hated white color but is now destined to wear only that color because she was married and now widowed though her marriage last just two hours. Today, at the Central jail in Bangalore where she is lodged she dons a white saree.

After all that has happened and after all that we know of her life Jayalalitha Jayaram will remain a puzzle. We do not yet know what makes her tick, we may never know who the real Jayalalitha is. She is, with apologies to Churchill, a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mandolin Srinivas: How to Appreciate a Life?

The Guinness record for the largest funeral belongs to Tamil Nadu's C.N. Annathurai. An estimated 15 million, according to Guinness, attended the funeral. Annathurai died barely two years after a historic upset election that saw the first non-Congress government come to power in Tamil Nadu. A state enthralled by his charismatic persona thronged by the thousands to mourn him. Amongst the many, many eulogies and obituaries one eulogy stood out. Addressing a 'gathering' of mourners at a function held to commemorate the departed leader Jeyakanthan, then a fire brand writer and staunch opponent of everything Annathurai espoused, breathed fire and brimstone ripping into the legacy of a man just dead and mourned by thousands. In a culture where anything critical about a dead person, especially public person, is frowned upon what Jeyakanthan did remains unparalleled for intellectual integrity and sheer courage to speak truth, at least the truth as he saw it. The speech itself is shining prose of how a person sets the stage for what he knows will shock the decency of many.

Jeyakanthan differentiates the 'gathering' in front of him from the 'mob' that milled at Annathurai's funeral procession. Then he explains the necessity to speak truths given that the person who died was not a private person but a public person who had left his imprint on a people's mind. Bristling at the moniker of 'learned person' applied to Annathurai by his fawning admirers Jeyakanthan said "only a fool would call him learned and only a greater fool would call him 'greatly learned'". In 2014 it is difficult to imagine the gumption it took a man to say that on a stage in 1969. Yet, the same Jeyakanthan had a different scale when it was his beloved Communist leader Jeeva. In his memoirs he records how he felt hearing that Jeeva passed away. "Some other day I shall think of his faults and shortcomings today I am only reminded of his raucous laughter typical of a Nagercoil native".

Indians do not just subscribe to 'speak nothing but good of the departed' ('de mortuis nil nisi bonum') but extend it to beatification of the dead for having simply died. When yesteryear Tamil playback singing legend T.M. Sounderarajan died many bemoaned 'the passing away of music'. It had been many decades since T.M.S, as he was popularly called, sang in movies after a much younger S.P.B overtook him and enchanted Tamil movie goers for decades until, in due course, other singers overtook SPB. Lost in the din of commemorating TMS was any criticism of how he sang or the person he was. The vexing question is "cannot criticism await another day?"

Oscar winning screen writer Aaron Sorkin in his eulogy for fellow awardee Seymour Hoffman bluntly noted that Hoffman "did not die of an overdose of heroin- he died from heroin". The recent tragic suicide of much loved actor Robin Williams brought out a whole discussion of depression as a clinical subject. Criticism is a very negative sounding word I should replace it with better sounding 'wholesome appreciation' when used in the context of obituaries.

Tamil writer Jeyamohan had reviewed T.J.S. George's biography of M.S. Subbulakshmi drawing attention to the fact that MS was born to a woman who was 'betrothed to the Gods' (a custom that reeked of prostitution in not too ancient Tamil Nadu Hindu temples), fell in love with a fellow singer and actor and later became a mistress to a married man. Jeyamohan received more than his usual share of brickbats for stating facts. MS's eventful life intertwined with the caste and gender politics of her profession, the era she lived in and the orthodox Brahminism that she wrapped herself with, if she had lived a counterpart life in America, an American newspaper would have celebrated as an "American story of success" but in India all that was muted and meant to be hushed into perpetual silence with the admonition "is all that relevant? We need not know any of that. We only need to celebrate her music and her achievements".

What meaning does 'celebrate achievements' have if we ignore a person's life story? The personal trials and tribulations accentuate, not diminish, one's achievements. Not knowing about Beethoven's deafness or Mozart's poverty or the indigent circumstances of Bharathi or the homosexuality of Da Vinci or the ambiguous sexuality of Walt Whitman or that Andrea Bocelli is congenitally blind will detract how we appreciate their works. Gandhi's Brahmacharya experiments are an essential part of his story as is Nehru's many loves. A senior writer justified the grotesque experiments of Gandhi as those belonging to a 'man of his times'. Bunkum. Another writer justified it as being in the tradition of India's spiritual heritage. More bunkum. Only when we face it for what it was, a man's obsession with curbing a natural impulse, would we see more of its ramifications in his other acts.

The Economist magazine notes in its obituary for Yehudi Menuhin that Tony Palmer, who made a film biography of Menuhin, was an admirer of Menuhin's recording of a concerto by Elgar because "the 16 year old could get inside that troubled music simply because his own suffering had been immense". Einstein, as was his wont, heard a performance of Menuhin and remarked "now I know there is a God in heaven". If Bohr had been near him he'd have repeated the old admonition of not to bring God into everything.Alas, Srinivas is ill-served by the absence of a Tony Palmer and an obituary like that of The Economist's.

Is an obituary the place to talk of a person's warts? Yes. And, yes. Emphatically, yes. For a public person, especially political and religious leaders, the myth making starts at death. Lenin, Gandhi, Annathurai and even Pope John Paul II went through such a myth making. In the case of Lenin and Annthurai it was done by their putative successors for political reasons. Such myth making is less for artists and creators.

Mandolin Srinivas burst into the music scene, that too into the staid and famously fossilized Carnatic music establishment, as a prodigy wielding a western instrument that was little known to many. Srinivas, tragically, passed away at a young age of 45 last week. Obituaries and eulogies have been pouring in ever since.

Mandolin Srinivas - Courtesy Wikipedia
Most obituaries recited, in wikipedia fashion, his early rise to stardom as prodigy (many obituaries had the phrase 'child prodigy'. 'Prodigy' is a word used to denote precocious achievement by a child. It is seldom applied to grown men and hence saying 'child prodigy' is an inelegant use of the word prodigy), a list of awards he won and select quotes from music fraternity, duly expressing shock at his sudden death. A few obituaries noted towards the end that he had gone through a tortuous divorce proceeding wherein his wife had dragged him all the way to the Supreme Court. Granting divorce  to Srinivas the court noted he was treated 'cruelly' by his wife for having dragged the case, but the court nevertheless granted custody of his son to his wife. The man, who became a star as a toddler and lived unto 45, sadly, remains unknown beneath the superficial details.

Partly we have to blame the eastern habit of reticence. Wordsworth's sister made meticulous notes of how and when Wordsworth wrote his poems whereas Tamils, as I often say, know next to nothing of Bharathi's moods when he wrote his poems. The one Indian who stands as a glorious exception is Jawaharlal Nehru but then in reality he remained a westerner. Indians also lack a sense of history. This could be due to Indian intellectual heritage.

Many of my friends, some namesake and some really friends, were angry with me for suggesting that Indians don't know how to write obituaries.

Of all the obituaries published when Khushwant Singh died the best was by New York Times which sketched out his varied life and his many contributions much better than any Indian newspaper had done. I had then lamented in Facebook that a Tamil writer and another blogger had presented Khushwant Singh as nothing more than a lecherous dirty Sardar.

Explaining why genius happens is the most elusive and frustrating exercise in writing about a person like Ramanujan or Mandolin Srinivas. Many including singer T.M. Krishna referred to Srinivas's prodigy as 'god's gift'. A typically Indian attitude that assigns providence as cause for anything that cannot be satisfactorily explained and for making it sound better even when explanations exist for an outlier phenomenon like Srinivas. Krishna and other Facebook posters are in good company with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who wrote that the genius of Mozart can only be explained as accumulated intelligence over several births.

Yehudi Menuhin played at Carnegie Hall when he was 11. Menuhin then had a stellar career as violinist, conductor, author and TV presenter of a documentary on music. New York Times obituary of Menuhin is a pleasure to read and gives a glimpse of the man who lived life at many levels. The obituary mentions how a biographer traced some of Menuhin's problems as 'psychological' effect of growing under over protective parents, 'particularly his mother'. Criticisms of Menuhin's technique, his politics, how his politics affected his art are all unflinchingly presented as part of a tapestry of a varied life. The obituary, written in 1999, in an age when Wikipedia did not exist, gives a flavor of the man beyond just the headlines and convenient cliches. Oh and one more thing, no mention of his talent being God's gift.

My objection to the cliche 'God's gift' is not out of any atheistic impulse. Far from it I feel it detracts what the artist achieved with conscious effort. Mozart, as Malcolm Gladwell point out in his book 'Outlier', spent hundreds of hours practicing. To write Figaro Mozart insisted on having Beaumarchais as the librettist. Beethoven was well tutored by Haydn and he read widely like a scholar. Srinivas, had his father as guru. In all probability Srinivas's father was not unlike Mozart's much criticized father.

A much circulated eulogy on Facebook said that Srinivas, the evening that he performed what the poster best remembers, was a conduit for a mystical force that used the artist to express itself as a raga. Nothing could be a greater insult to an artist. The Facebook poster is in good company with Jeyamohan who often says that he rarely knows what he writes and that when all is completely typed out the material appears anew to him as much as it does to the reader. Understanding and explaining the process of creativity is not the preserve of even the creator. Years of learning and practice go into what a creator or an audience thinks of as serendipitous apogee of creation. Again, no western reviewer would call a Menuhin performance or a Lang Lang performance as 'serendipitous'. As Kipling ably put it, 'the west is west and the east is east, never the twain shall meet'.

T.M. Krishna, thinking that he was paying the highest encomium, wrote in his eulogy "more than the wonder boy Shrinivas, it is the seeker of music who emerged that we are indebted to. Seeker, not of the intellectual kind, but one who wanted his instrument to say all that needed to be said. He sought Carnatic form and sound, all non-literal ideas that can only be sensed".

That insult, by T.M.Krishna, ensured that I could not read his eulogy beyond that sentence. If creativity is accidental and unintellectual where is the credit for a genius like Srinivas? In fact why give Srinivas any credit at all? As an Ayn Rand reader I cannot help puke that an artistic high point and creative process is 'unintellectual'. As Ayn Rand would argue the instrument, a contraption of metal, has no mind of its own to express anything save what the artist chooses, by a volitional act governed by the mind. The word 'instrument' means it has no free will. A mandolin in my hands will produce only noise. 'Non-literal ideas that can only be sensed'. What does that mean? The word 'idea' means a mental construct and senses are but channels to the mind which then performs the necessary act of interpreting the sensory input. Sentences like that are conjured to give a sheen of mysticism but in reality are not only non-sensical but patently idiotic. To be fair to Krishna, his oped was the only one that probably even briefly spoke of some valid criticism about Srinivas's techniques.

My objections to such obituaries and eulogies is seen as caviling. I only feel that a life like that of Srinivas's deserves better than such mediocre as tributes.

Srinivas's death due to a failed liver transplant became a much talked about controversy. Many, including me, surmised it must have been due to alcoholism, a much prevalent and dreadful habit amongst his fellow musicians. Several obituaries later made it a point to include that Srinivas's did not have any unhealthy habit. One obituary alluded to Srinivas being saddened by the demise of Sai Baba in 2011. His long drawn out divorce proceeding concluded in 2012.

A friend and another person took great exception to my Facebook post that alluded, with a caveat that it was based on hearsay, to alcoholism. First, Srinivas is a public person and a tragic sudden death is inevitable to raise questions. That is, to be blunt, the price of fame. Almost to a person many conceded that they too thought so. We should also note that the current objections also, equally, rest on hearsay. Unlike US post-mortem reports, of deaths of public persona, as in the case of Michael Jackson or Seymour Hoffman or Robin Williams,  are not made public. Many would ask indignantly "Why is that required? Who cares?" As I said before a life should be celebrated warts and all, not selectively. Seymour Hoffman's death brought attention to heroin overdose as cause of death and has been a factor in now police being required to carry anti-dotes. Robin Williams's death due to depression re-ignited a national discussion on depression. One Tamil doctor now, in a puzzling recommendation, wants all to include an MRI for liver as part of annual checkup to detect liver infections that Srinivas supposedly ignored until his fatal end.

I wonder how many obituaries of violin virtuoso Kunnakudi Vaithyanathan mentioned his obnoxious habit of performing while inebriated? Ray Charles's drug addiction, Johnny Cash's alcoholism, James Brown's tumultuous personal life are all relevant in understanding complex lives.

One should not, however, make the mistake of assuming that Indians turn a blind eye to failures and cherish only memories of a person that are edifying. Rumors concerning sex lives are constant grist for rumor mills. While biographies, especially of political leaders, tend to glide over peccadilloes of the netas the rumors continue to live. When M.J. Akbar wrote of Nehru's peccadilloes with Edwina and Padmaja Naidu in his biography the salacious portions were duly excerpted as published as samples in magazines. A malicious rumor till this day about Nehru is that he died of syphilis. Annathurai, asked about his dalliance with an actress, famously said 'neither is she a chaste woman and nor am I a saint who renounced all'. It is a remark that lives in the grape vine but winked upon in biographies.

Deferring to a tradition of praising the departed, that too one who had been a prodigy, many eulogies lamented an irreparable loss. While Srinivas earned his place as a virtuoso and for making mandolin accepted as a mainstream instrument in Carnatic performance I don't think a proper appreciation of his place has taken place. Mandolin still remains an instrument of the minority and it will forever be associated as a novelty brought about by Srinivas. Thanks to having lived in the modern age of recording Srinivas's recordings may still be ought by aficionados but what is his place beyond that in a field crowded by titans who, blessed by longevity, probably have had a chance to make really lasting history. On that score posterity will be truth teller.

The arguments that went back and forth on what an obituary should be, the place and time for a wholesome view of a person etc have left me feeling, once more, how removed I've become, by choice, from my native land. I've no regrets on that score. For the record, I do wish that Srinivas had lived longer, at least for the sake of his legions of admirers.


1. NYT's obituary for Yehudi Menuhin
2. NYT's obituary for Leonard Bernstein
3. NYT's obituary for James Brown
4. Economist magazine's obituary for Yehudi Menuhin
5. C.N. Annathurai funeral record
6. Jeyakanthan's speech at a function to commemorate Annathurai
7. The Hindu obituary for Srinivas
8. Hindustan Times obituary
9. T.M. Krishna's eulogy
10. Mandolin Srinivas

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Perspectives on Writing History, Historians and (of course) Tamil Historians.

Tamil columnist and writer P.A. Krishnan recently solicited his Facebook friends to help research on the 'sacks of Sri Rangam'. 'Sri Rangam', of course, refers to the Vishnu temple at Sri Rangam. One of the references, another person cited, was one Sakkottai Krishnaswami Aiyangar's 'South India and her Muhammadan invaders'. The reference and the topic occasioned a lively exchange on writing history and paucity of Tamil historians of academic stature. Krishnaswami, along with K.A. Neelakanta Shastri, is of a bygone era, however flawed, of academic excellence. That a researcher in 2014 has to harken back unto a book written in 1921 shows the merit of the book and, sadly, the lack of progress in adding new material ever since. I've nothing against the merits of the book per se but the preface shed a new perspective in light of Jeyamohan's recent admonition that Tamil Nadu has a surfeit of historians who are better classified as ethnic or tribal historians who mostly focus on those chapters of history which either concerns their own clan and especially those that they consider would benefit from either revisionism or re-telling.

What an author chooses to write is his/her own prerogative as long as truth shines through. Nevertheless, fealty to truth on selective pages of history is still selective truth telling. Aiyangar had dedicated the book to the Maharaja of Mysore "who devoted his life to the cause of hinduism and made it possible for the south Indian Hindus to be the Hindus they are to-day". Aiyangar quotes Lord Morley's dictum, 'we have no business to seek more from the past than the very past itself', and hopes that he has 'kept out all bias one way or another'. I'll refuse to take umbrage at sentences that characterize the Hoysala king's effort to repel Muhammad's invasion as 'patriotic effort' or calling the war a 'great national war of the Hindus'. Western historians of that era were more blatantly racist. That said, it is indeed interesting to note and ask if Aiyangar would've received the same patronage from the Maharaja of Mysore if he had chosen to write about untouchability or child marriage or Sati?

What kind of historians do I like? What kind of writing impresses me?

A historian earns respect, first, with painstaking research of primary material. A re-telling based on other books, while still valuable for a very lay reader, cannot be called history. Nothing impresses me more than those who comb through material, especially of an ancient kind, to bring to us a long dead era in all its vividness and thoroughness without partiality.

Two women changed the course of writing history in fiction and non-fiction. Marguerite Yourcenar's research into Roman emperor Hadrian is legendary. She practically reconstructed his library. Yourcenar's powers of fiction matched her ability to research and re-create an era that was little known or little studied. For over 50 years her 'Memoirs of Hadrian', though a fiction, remained the standard book to learn about Hadrian. Historian Anthony Everett quibbled that the book was over-rated when he wrote his history of Hadrian which was dry and did not unearth much that was unknown to Yourcenar. Barbara Tuchman set a new bar for popular history writing with her ground breaking analyses of the hubris of countries that rushed into World War I in her masterly written 'Gun's of August'. Neither woman had a degree in history.

Two time Pulitzer winner Bernard Bailyn recently documented a dark chapter of US history in his very meticulously researched 'Barbarous years'. Bailyn undertook painstaking research of logs kept in slave ships and pored over documents that existed centuries ago to recreate a tumultuous era.

Lyndon Johnson, born in a home that had no toilets, presided over what can be called the apogee of liberalism as President. Sweeping civil rights legislations, a horrendous war spiraling out of control, the remaking of American polity with dreamy liberalism where the themes of a very contentious presidency that was born in a moment of great tragedy in modern American history. Biographer Robert Caro is painstakingly marching through the Johnson years with a planned 5 volume biography. Caro's research was prodigious including scouring through every scrap of evidence to find out if LBJ had indeed stolen his first senate election victory with ballet stuffing. The verdict is 'guilty'.

Soviet Russia and Stalin have always interested Western historians. I'd highly recommend David Remnick's 'Lenin's tomb' and Simon Sebag Montefiore's 'Stalin'. Remnick traces the events surrounding the fall of Soviet Union. The Russian state was so silly in its functioning that Gorbachev canvassed support for his reform agenda by threatening to cut off access to grocery stores meant for politburo members. A grocery store access was such a privilege that members fell in line. Vive la Marx. Montefiore pored over the recently opened Russian archives to give a detailed view of the grisly Stalinist regime.

The above is a very limited genre of history telling. If I were to include other histories, say of science, the list is even longer. I'd like to mention two books of 'science history'. Rebecca Skloot's investigative and researched book on Hela cells, 'The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks' and Siddhartha Mukherjee's gripping tale of cancer in 'Emperor of Maladies'. Both are great personal favorites of mine. A lighter read would be Jon Gertner's book on AT&T Bell Labs, 'The idea factory'.

Though I remain an opponent of affirmative action and reservation policies (both are different) I remain an ardent advocate of diversity in the classroom and faculty. Affirmative action is a highly flawed albeit with limited effect in ensuring diversity. Why is diversity important?

Perry Miller is a legendary historian who, possibly, got the only posthumously awarded Pulitzer that too for a book he was yet to complete. Miller's students and their students in turn have gone on to win Pulitzers. Miller, an authority on New England history, his student and later Pulitzer awardee David Brion Davis recalls, 'never mentioned the moral horror of slavery in his course on America religion'. British historian Roy Jemkins's critically acclaimed biography of Churchill fails to mention how callously Churchill dealt with the Bengal famine that killed tens of thousands. Imagine, when those texts are taught, if a black or Indian student were to be in the class what the reactions would be, let alone if the teacher was one?

For centuries it was rumored that Thomas Jefferson had fathered  a child through his slave Sally Hemings. It took a black historian, Annette Gordon Reed, to write "The Hemingses of Monticello". The book won the Pulitzer amongst many others for its impeccable scholarship.

While it is one thing for Reed, a black historian, to write such a book it is another for a man like David Brion Davis, a white, to write much acclaimed history books on slavery running into 3 volumes. Historians who step outside their ethnicity and write of a different people always amaze me. On that score I'd say that I cannot think of an Indian historian who would have written, as William Dalrymple did, "The last Mughal". Dalrymple went researched records kept in dusty museums and ill preserved libraries in several countries. He pieced together the last days of Bahadur Shah based on records he got from a Rangoon prison.

Another kind of writing history that always interests me are those which are thematic in scope. Tracing events and reconstructing the past is interesting but a higher level is to weave such data to present a thematic tapestry.

Samuel Huntington and his student Francis Fukuyama raised an academic furore with their contentiously told books, 'The clash of civilizations' and 'The end of history'. Fukuyama's second volume about the rise of liberal democracy as a form of government is to be released shortly. In this category we need to add books like Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of scientific revolutions'. One can argue about these books, even disagree but one cannot ignore them. These are the books that help explain the 'why' of events. In that category we should include Francis Spufford's entertainingly written 'Red Plenty' which explains what the Soviet economic system set out to achieve and why it miserably failed. Erudite Marxists would be eager to include the un-apolegtically Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Marxism and what passes for Marxism are deeply repugnant to my sense of decency. I am yet to see a Marxist who, though building an edifice on reason and rationality, would face truth and accept what was wrong. P.A. Krishnan, an erudite Marxist, celebrated Lenin's birthday with a column 'Another Lenin is needed'. David Remnick, Russian speaking left wing editor of New Yorker, wrote in his profile of Lenin, for Time magazine's centenary edition, that 'Stalin was a lamb compared to Lenin'.

All that said of Marxism I'd add that a Marxist interpretation of history is not to be readily rubbished. Indian school students learn of Moplah riots of 1921 as one in which Muslims butchered Hindus by the hundreds and converted many others at the point of a knife or gun. A Marxist historian presented a different angle. All the Muslims were penniless laborers toiling in the lands owned, exclusively, by upper caste Hindus. The riot was less about conversion and religion than about rebelling against landowners. It was, the author argued, an agrarian rebellion that took the contours of a religious violence. The role of economics in the partition is also a very valid interpretation.

A historian should pursue truth wherever it may lead. Nobody popularly associates the word 'radicalism' with the American revolution. One tends to think of the French and Soviet revolution as 'radical'. Historian Gordon Wood argues otherwise in 'The radicalism of the American revolution'. Newt Gingrich, a rising star in conservative GOP politics when the book was published in 1993, happily touted the book as evidence of America's innate conservatism. Asked about Gingrich's publicity in an interview Gordon Wood chuckled. Wood, like many US university professors, is probably not a conservative and even if he is one he is most certainly not a conservative of the Gingrich type. Wood had argued in his book that the American revolution upended social relationships and with its evolving focus on commerce as the unifying glue of a disparate society the revolution paved the way for a republic by papering over differences and appealing to an universal instinct in all men, making money.

'Revisionism' is a much reviled word in writing history. Yet, occasionally, there comes a revisionist history which 'revises' our understanding of the past with compelling new evidence or at least invites us to consider an alternative understanding based on newly uncovered uncertainties. The Declaration of Independence is, as historian Pauline Maier put it, America's most sacred 'scripture'. Every schoolchild learns "we hold these to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.-That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among men'. Professor Danielle Allen argues that the period, '.', after 'pursuit of happiness', was nothing but a printer's devil and does not form part of the document. Conservatives have argued for decades, using this scripture, that America was created to protect the individual and that Government is a corollary. Allen insists that by removing the 'period' "the logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights. You lose that connection when the period gets added'. A tectonic shift in understanding a sacred document. Allen, as I expected, is African-American and naturally is excited about according primacy to the place of Government in a nation.

Another instance of 'healthy' revisionism is a recent book on Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann the Nazi was kidnapped by Israel from Argentina and prosecuted in Israel for his part in orchestrating Holocaust. Marxist writer Hannah Arendt sat through the trial and wrote her immensely controversial book 'Banality of evil' where she suggested that Eichmann was not a man of intelligence and only acted upon orders as a 'banal' executioner of orders. It is a divisive theory till today. Nearly 50 years since Arendt's book Bettina Stangneth finally resolves the issue in 'Eichmann before Jersusalem'. Stangneth listened to hours of audio transcriptions of the trial and other audio documents, traced Eichmann's day in Argentina to reconstruct a man who was not 'banal' but a well read man with a keen mind. Stangnet had 'shattered' Arendt's theory.

All the above are examples I love. I also have criteria for authors I avoid.

I avoid, for instance, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson who churns out a book every year. When a historian argues that the dominance of the West is well nigh over and presents as evidence a picture of Obama bowing to a Saudi King I tend to recoil from the partisan attitude though I've great disdain for Obama myself. Anti-Obama books are a cottage industry as anti-Bush and anti-Hillary books used to be. I don't touch any of them with a ten foot pole. I've refrained from buying British conservative historian Paul Johnson's 'Modern Times' because he charges, based on the Chauri Chura incident, that Gandhi undertook his satyagraha protests with no concern for loss of life. Silly.

I prefer to buy books by authors who have devoted their lives to the subject and are engaged with the topic in all its dimensions and complexities. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky fail that litmus test. Both of their books, wildly popular amongst knee jerk anti-Americans and shallow Marxists, are shot through with defects.

With all of the above the backdrop let me now circle back to the issue at hand.

Kizhvenmani is a small sleepy hamlet in an even sleepier Thanjavur in Southern India. On 25th December 1968 42 Dalit landless laborers were burned alive by upper caste Hindus (Thevars, I believe. Thevars, incidentally are listed as 'backward caste' thus garnering rich dividends of reservation policies). 23 of the dead where children. Till today there is no solid Pulitzer quality history book that would trace the events and its aftermath. Echoes of that massacre are still very much there. Two weeks ago a Dalit man's arm was severed for the sin of wearing a watch. It is common practice to prohibit Dalits, including children, from wearing slippers or riding a cycle when they go past colonies of upper caste members. It should be noted that K.A. Nilakanta Shastri would live for another 7 years after the massacre. Assuming he was in good health at the time of the event I'd not be surprised if the event, nevertheless, did not catch his attention.

"Children from lower caste walking with their slippers in the hand in the village Poovalamparuthi near Pollachi"
It took a black historian like Manning Marable, a supporter of affirmative action, to give a more detailed and unvarnished look at a complex person like Malcolm X. Marable was irritated with the embellished version that Alex Haley presented. It is easy to ask where is the Dalit Manning Marable or Annette Reed but one should go to what were the conditions that enabled an Aiyengar and a Shastri to become history teachers but prevented somebody like Theodor Bhaskaran.

Writer and columnist Theodor Bhaskaran wanted to become an archeologist but could not be one because one of the pre-requisites was knowledge of Sanskrit. Brahmins learn Sanskrit as almost a second language and have historically denied others a chance to learn it. Before one argues that knowledge of Sanskrit would be an asset to an aspiring archeologist and that there was nothing sinister in that requirement let us remember that that requirement existed for medical college admissions too. And, to be fair to Bhaskaran and others like him ignorance of Sanskrit is not a big impediment to an archeologist looking to analyze Tamil heritage and Tamil inscriptions. Incidentally, I am sure Aiyangar probably did not know how to analyze ancient Tamil inscriptions prior to becoming a historian and archeologist.

Stephen Greenblatt romped through history tracing the art of preserving books, book banning, monasteries etc in an attempt to retrace how Lucretius's poem was transmitted across the ages and how it became, in his opinion, the corner stone of Western civilization. I asked a visiting Tamil writer why such historical analyses does not take place in Tamil. He, not being familiar with English books or such writing, could not grasp what I asked and instead went on to his pet topic of how Kamban uses 100 words to denote 'quiver'. Before readers pelt me with replies citing Tamil titles please try reading Greenblatt's 'The swerve: How the world became modern'. The book won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Every time I read the Sangam era poetry a yearning grips my heart. Whether it is Milton's England or Homer's Greece we've wonderful books in English that would give a portrait of the society, the culture and many other aspects of that time. The poems of friendship between Kapilar and Pari, and Kapilar's poems of desolation as he tries to get Pari's daughter's married after his death in battle, are fertile grounds to do a Greenblatt. Alas I've no hope of it happening. A number of books could be written on many themes on just the war anthology of 400 poems. Poems that extol friendship between kings and poets, poems that praise learning, a poem of universal brotherhood and much more are taught in trite fashion or with oodles of chauvinistic jingoism. Any attempt to do otherwise would require patient and painstaking research in many a hamlet that dots the landscape of Tamil Nadu. Forget about the Sangam era we don't have a good history of a recent poet like Bharathi.

P.A.Krishnan himself wrote a much discussed column on the controversy of impalement of 8000 Jains at the instigation of Saivaite savant Sambandar. The lore regarding the impalement arose from a Tamil epic. Krishnan, based on several sources (mostly western), had argued that that was a fabricated event and had no basis in history. Of course, since nothing could be said with certainty he left himself some nuanced wiggle room lest any new evidence crops up to corroborate the event. Nothing wrong with any of that. But, the article had a tad eagerness to 'set the account straight' on behalf of Hinduism. Even the proposed research on the 'sacks of Srirangam' he had averred was to correct some misconceptions including those propagated by fellow Marxists. A controversial book, in this context, is Romila Thapar's book on sacking of the Somnath temple. I am all for telling history however uncomfortable it may be but a broader canvas would've done justice to such a topic. Hindutva brigade repeatedly pulls up the 'Abrahamic religions', as they call it, for 'conversions' and take pride that such proselytization was unheard of in Hinduism whereas that is exactly what Sambandar attempted. Also, the article focused like a laser on the event of the impalement alone without the larger context of how Jainism was uprooted from a land where it had thrived for centuries.

Ethnic histories, as Jeyamohan lamented, are what abound in Tamil Nadu today. Su. Venkatesan's supposedly well researched fiction 'Kaavalkottam', based on his caste members raised a few controversies. The book was based on a caste that was labeled, in the british era, 'thieves'. Thugee or thuggery or thievery was a prevalent custom of a group of people in those days for many complex socio-economic reasons. Nanjil Nadan, while praising the book, demurred 'the book seems to justify thievery. As one who hails from an agrarian heritage I find that a little hard to accept since I've seen first hand the difficulties of a farmer being robbed of his seeds'. Venkatesan, armed with a creative license, has an escape hatch.

Even the much acclaimed historians like Aiyangar and Shastri only specialized in plain history of reconstructing events mostly. They were hand maidens of then prevailing notions of history that they learned from British imperialist historians. In the 1930s Will Durant had started writing history in an integral manner in his magisterial 'Story of civilization'. Durant did not consider history as just recounting page after page of kings and battles. If one stacked Durant's 'Our oriental heritage', the second volume of his 'Story of civilization' and Nilakanta Shastri's 'History of South India' the latter would pale into insignificance.

 A thousand histories await to be written and yet I don't have much hope that that would happen.


1. David Brion Davis on Perry Miller's teaching
2. New York Times Book Review of David Brion Davis's 'The Problem of Slavery'
3. Annette Gordon Reed
4. Moplah Rebellion
5. Keezhvenmani Massacre
6. NYT article on latest book on Eichmann
7. NYT article on Danielle Allen's analysis of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence

Monday, September 1, 2014

Jeyamohan and Women Writers - 2 : Sexist S.Ra, Jagir Raja's Jinnah, Shaji on music and Insulting Ambai

Jeyamohan gained widespread fame (or notoriety) when a Tamil weekly published excerpts of his parodies of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, two revered actors of Tamil filmdom. I immensely enjoyed the parodies though I remain a fan of Sivaji Ganesan whom I consider an untutored genius. Thanks to his prestige Jeyamohan drummed up support from many authors, almost all incidentally male, to send a protest letter claiming that Vikatan, in the interest of free speech, should stop inciting violence against Jeyamohan. The protest letter, signed by all and sundry male high priests of literature with a fair share of unknowns, was facetious in claiming that the article incited violence. Yet, today, it is the same Jeyamohan who mocks the ill thought out protest letter by female authors.

Deriding, en masse, all Tamil women writers, as not having written anything of worth on par with him or any of the other male writers, Jeyamohan kicked off a furore. He showed less finesse than Larry Summers who, as President of Harvard university, wondered about the lack of women in science and mathematics fields. Summers, for not showing sensitivity and nuance in a blunt observation, lost his presidentship of Harvard. Stating facts is no big deal. Any kindergartner can do that. To situate facts in a wider context needs a finer mind and Jeyamohan showed absolute recklessness in his charge.

Not too long ago women from even educated upper class households remained not just uneducated but actively prohibited by a stern patriarchal society from any attempt to indulge in finer arts. In the oppressively feudal society that India was, even unto the middle of the last century, it was left to women of disrepute to sing and dance. Devaki Nilayamgode, born into a high caste Keralite family, recounts the stratification of society and deep running male chauvinism of the Namboodiri families in her memoir 'Antharjanam'. Nilayamgode had to depend on her brothers to smuggle books to read. 

The novel is itself a new form for Indian literature that made its advent, in a prevalent manner, only in the latter half of the recently ended last century. If one took the early attempts at writing a novel it would look puerile and less than juvenile. Those early writers were, unsurprisingly, male. It took decades for male writers to learn how to write a novel. Harriet Beecher Stowe famously started a war with her 'Uncle Tom's cabin' published in 1852. Margaret Mitchell took America by storm in 1936 with her 'Gone with the wind'. Tamil novel writing did not come of age until 1950s dominated, naturally, by men. How many a Nilayamgode, without brothers to smuggle books, would have died trying to become a Margaret Mitchell? 

Jeyamohan conducts a literary retreat every year for his readers. Women attendance is very sparse at best. The issue of accommodation apart, it is not easy for even motivated women readers to attend such a meeting. Jeyamohan, writing to P.A.Krishnan in an exchange of emails, said of his wife "she has written literary criticisms. Two articles appeared in Thinnai. She even wrote her impressions of a novel by Su.Ra. Now she is pressured with too much work at office. Coming home she has to take of cooking and other chores. Little time to read or write". The liberty with which men pursue their intellectual interests is not available to the Tamil women whether it is Jeyamohan's home or mine or anybody else's. Many readers concurred with Jeyamohan on his observation regarding women writing but little dialogue happened about how to encourage women or a nuanced discussion of why it is so. If England can establish a prize to encourage women writers I see no reason as to why Jeyamohan, with his considerable influence, not think of ways to change what he calls a lamentable mediocrity. 

Until the recent liberalization of Indian economy most parents goaded their children into becoming either doctors or engineers. If boys lacked a freedom in choosing their future girls had absolutely no choice. Economic differences, as always, accentuates the iniquities. While it is not uncommon to see girls of affluent families attend premium colleges in cities and graduating in literature studies, that too only in English, girls taking up Tamil literature, especially in smaller towns, do so as a last resort for lack of academic qualification to enter any better course. 

Shobha De wrote sheer pornography and yet she is feted as a socialite whereas Kutty Revathi writing an anthology of poems titled 'Breasts' invites scorn and ridicule including snide remarks about her physique. The difference was that Shobha De wrote in English and Revathy wrote in Tamil.

It is time to measure some of the male authors with the Jeyamohan standard.

The word charlatan was invented to describe the likes of S.Ramakrishnan. Addressing an exclusive audience of girls S.Ramakrishnan suggested that the first step to becoming a historian is as simple as standing in a kitchen and wondering about the many spices that abound in an Indian kitchen. Would S.Ra advise a male audience to step into a kitchen as the first step to becoming a historian? And that is exactly where the problem lies in India. In a country where Romila Thapar still lives girls are told that sitting and wondering about spices in a kitchen is the way to become a historian. A kitchen can only give questions but the answers lie outside the kitchen. But then expecting S.Ra to know that is foolhardiness.

S. Ramakrishnan made a fool of himself speaking about his impressions of America after a visit to US in 2012. Ramakrishnan's series on Indian history in a popular weekly smacked of jingoism and could not by any stretch called history writing. Once he had published a Tamil version of a Hans Christian Andersen. Impressed by the story I checked out the original. The Tamil version diverged from the original past the halfway mark. I wrote to S.Ra pointing out the difference and, with respect, asked how such an error creeped in. He replied that the fault lay in the translation. No big deal. But he not only did not publish a correction but later repeated the same mistaken translation at a function that was attended by Rajinikanth. These egotistic writers never like to correct themselves. I cannot remember the number of times S.Ra was held to the standards that Jeyamohan eagerly applies to women.

Since Jeyamohan often speaks of Jagir Raja out of curiosity I checked in on him. Jagir Raja, who reads very little or nothing in English, had blogged what he had learned of Jinnah from a Tamil book. The blog was plain nonsense. Raja waxed eloquent on the secular credentials of Jinnah without even once mentioning Direct Action day. He showed appalling ignorance of the complex personality of Jinnah. With that kind of an understanding Raja had written a fiction based on Jinnah.

A reader wrote to Nanjil Nadan asking about the portrayal of a Christian doctor as a religious bigot in a movie that he wrote the dialogues for. Nanjil reiterated that he was portraying historical truth. Ironically the doctor, in true history, was anything but a bigot. Daniel, the original doctor in history, was a humanist who toiled for the sake of the indentured laborers in tea estates. Tom Clancy had more fealty to realistic depiction than Nanjil ever had. In the west it is an abomination to recycle talking points, especially, in a speech delivered as recipient of an award. Nanjil's acceptance speech after receiving the Iyal award in Canada was basically a rehash of his favorite talking points. I am yet to see any Tamil writer capable of delivering a lecture that can match a Charles Eliot Norton lecture or the highly prestigious Jefferson lectures.

Most Tamil writers lack a coherent world view and an appalling ignorance of history or politics beyond the shores of India. Jeyakanthan who earned respect for his opposition to Dravidian style lumpen politics later meandered and offered silly ideas like making Priyanka Gandhi the head of Congress. Bent by age, poverty and pressed by the need to get a job for his son Jeyakanthan, to the shock and disgust of many, groveled before Karunanidhi, the man he had railed against for decades, for providing a golden era of governance. That, at a time when even DMK sympathizers had conceded that it was the most corrupt governance of all the times that Karunanidhi had governed. Jeyakanthan never understood or learned of the grotesqueness of the communist regimes which he continued to portray favorably in his novels, including one he wrote in the early 80s.

Jeyamohan pulls no punches when it comes to criticisms. It takes a certain gumption and stringent ideas of literary value to call Kalki a historian for children. He spares none, man or woman. One could easily call him an equal opportunity offender. However, he does have his biases and favorites. Jeyamohan, as critic, is not without a fair share of faults.

Most often my friends chide me for carping about Tamil writers. Invariably I am told "you should remember that unlike western authors these people have meager means and their books, even the best, sell at meager numbers compared to the west".  Tolstoy's research for writing 'War and Peace' is legendary. Gore Vidal's books can be considered history textbooks.Who in Tamil, male or female, can write a book that can be placed beside Marguerite Yourcenar's 'Hadrian'? Who in Tamil can even do a fraction of the prodigious research that Yourcenar did on Hadrian in the library at Yale university. And to my friends my answer is "Yourcenar was not rich to undertake such a research". It's not just Yourcenar even Tom Clancy and Ken Follett do research for their fictions at a level that almost no Tamil author can easily match. I almost forgot Hilary Mantel.

Ask any Tamil reader for a book with music as theme and he/she would parrot Janakiraman's 'Moga Mull'. Janakaraman's fiction is eons behind Thomas Mann's 'Faust'. Mann wrote the book after lot of discussions with musicologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno. Of course, in a country where there is no Adorno there can be no Mann either.

Tamil Nadu's Theodor Adorno is Shaji, another friend of Jeyamohan. Only in a state like Tamil Nadu can somebody like Shaji prance around as music critic. The same goes for Subbudu too. Shaji recently wrote a blog that claimed Michael Jackson is proof that music is not 'learned' but 'felt'. Jackson was patiently trained by his talented father, a fact that Shaji himself points out in his blog. Malcolm Gladwell had better understanding of Mozart's genius than Shaji understood Jackson's talent. The only time Jeyamohan would chide Shaji is when the latter runs down his new found guru Ilayaraja.

If one looks at non-fiction books the writers in Tamil cut a pathetic figure. Thomas Kuhn, Allan Bloom and Samuel Huntington took America by storm with their books on Science, Sociology and foreign policy. Today Thomas Piketty is sweeping across the publishing world like a Tsunami. Nobody can speak of distributive justice without mentioning John Rawls or Robert Nozick.Sujatha till he breathed his last could not write a single chapter on quantum physics with the clarity of John Gribbin.  If one has to understand the rise of Al Qaeda one has to read Lawrence Wright's 'Looming Tower'. A Tamil author who prances around as an authority on foreign policy freely excerpted the 9/11 commission report to write on 9/11. His other columns on foreign affairs, written amidst his work for inane and dumb TV serials, shows the aboriginal state of tamil writing, irrespective of gender, with regard to non-fiction. To be fair, Jeyamohan has always pointed out that Sujatha is no science fiction writer but one who uses the veneer of science to dress up pulp fiction detective stories. Tamil still does not have a credible science fiction writer let alone anyone that can stand up to Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. With great curiosity I bought a collection of essays by Pudumai Pithan. The essays were, to put it charitably, pedestrian. Who will be Tamil's Francis Bacon or Jonathan Swift? Let's not go that far. Just check out Mario Vargas Llosa's collection of essays.

It is common to find western authors well informed on history and more importantly cultivate a vision of history. Nanjil, S.Ra, Jeyakanthan and many others have little or no idea of history let alone a sweeping vision of history. Jeyamohan, however flawed, to be fair, at least tries to have a vision. Sundara Ramasamy and P.A. Krishnan are stunning when it comes to their adulation of Stalin. Krishnan, a very erudite person, in an email exchange with Jeyamohan mentioning the latter's 'பின் தொடரும் நிழலின் குரல்', demurs that Stalin is unfairly called a monster. In his 'சுந்தர காண்டம்' Jeyakanthan has a character from Soviet Russia through whom he would pay encomiums to USSR such as that there are no orphans in USSR since the state takes care of them. Stalin created orphanages for the children, many were toddlers, of those parents who were condemned as families to either die or go to gulags. I doubt if Jeyakanthan had ever read anything of the vast anti-communist literature. I shall return to 'பின் தொடரும் நிழலின் குரல்' and the Stalin topic in a separate blog.

I've enjoyed many of Jeyamohan's blogs where he patiently deconstructs icons like Sujatha, EVR and others. He is a patient educator on the need to refrain from whitewashing truth to preserve a deified image of a persona. There are times when he steps out of his boundaries to write brilliant articles like the one he wrote on Abraham Pandithar's contribution to carnatic music or the history of literary squabbles in Tamil literature or on grammar Nazis and many others. In a state where the memory of Gandhi has been made to be a distasteful one it is Jeyamohan who has written some of the finest articles on Gandhi. And then there are other sides to Jeyamohan as critic and opinion maker.

Mark Van Doren's book on Shakespeare's poetry opens with the lines that Shakespeare was not a good poet. Bernard Shaw famously wrote a preface titled "better than Shakespeare?" for his play 'Antony and Cleopatra'. Asking if Bharathi was a great poet is not sacrilege. When Jeyamohan waxes eloquent on movie lyricist Kannadasan I wince. Though Jeyakanthan was friends with Kannadasan he refused to call the latter a poet saying that a movie lyricist is different from a poet. Awarding the 'Kannadasan prize' to Jeyamohan the organizers gleefully reprinted on the invitation his words that 'after Bharathi Kannadasan was a great poet'. To speak of Bharathi and Kannadasan in the same breath is puerile.

In another blog Jeyamohan cites Nataraja Guru as throwing out S.Radhakrishnan's 'Bhagavad Gita' simply because Radhakrishnan in his preface had stated that the Gita is a Hindu religious text. The umbrage was that he failed to call it a book of Indian philosophy. I wonder how come Kannadasan escapes justifiable castigation for the sexist and nonsensical drivel that
அர்த்தமுள்ள இந்து மதம்" was? Kannadasan's attempt at a long verse poem on Christ was a juvenile attempt by a movie lyricist trying to be a poet.

Bharathi re-invented a language, had dreams, dreams only a poetic soul could have, far beyond his time and age. To speak of a lyricist in relation to such a poet is a travesty. Incidentally, Jeyamohan's blogs on Indian philosophy, while being erudite by current Tamil writing standards, are not of the academic quality that Radhakrishnan showed in his magisterial two volume 'Indian Philosophy'. Unlike Will Durant, who could write dispassionately and even mockingly of the leading lights of western philosophy, Jeyamohan does not critique a philosophy. It is fair to ask who will be, again, irrespective of gender, Tamil's Karl Popper or Will Durant?

Nobody who had read Nehru's 'Discovery of India' or his many writings would doubt, even for a minute, how much he cherished India's hoary civilization and heritage. Yet, only Jeyamohan could dream of saying that a benami landholding zamindar like G.K. Moopanar is better than Nehru who spent 9 years of his life in British jail and spent every minute of his life trying to make India better for the poorest of the poor citizen.

The worst of Jeyamohan as critic is often reserved for western authors that he disagrees with. Will Durant and Richard Dawkins were labeled, maliciously, as racists. Celebrated Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie was maligned as not even having Nigerian roots. Ayn Rand would be derogatorily referred to as 'run-away from USSR'. Chinua Achebe was insinuated as selling stereotypical Africa to the Western reader. To judge a writer is Jeyamohan's liberty but it is not his liberty to impute motives and worse still to misinform about a writer's heritage.

As many times as he does a signal service with his unsparing criticisms Jeyamohan equally despairs a reader when he steps into areas of which he knows little.

Whether it is holocaust or the history of Israel or allopathy or Kashmir Jeyamohan will gleefully step into the topic with little hesitation of his relative ignorance. When Tamil writers, not just Jeyamohan, step out of their comfort zone of Tamil literature more often than not they make a spectacle of themselves. Once when I derided Jeyamohan's attempt to explain Indian heritage and nationalism he wrote to me that he delivered that speech well aware of his limitations on political science as a discipline. It may be true. Unfortunately his readers do not share his ideas on his limitations. Many readers waxed enthusiastically that he was Socrates reborn.

As an individual Jeyamohan is perfectly free to hold opinions on any topic he wishes and he is well within his rights to even share it with friends over a cup of tea. When he ascends a stage and seeks to address an audience with the aura of an intellectual and an opinion maker I wish he held himself to higher standards. Recently at MCC he meandered on role of literature in a society and gave an address that makes even a moderately informed reader wince at the brazenness of not having checked out facts or for parading contentious theories with little basis in facts. And, thats not the first time. Sadly, it may not be the last either.

The perils of feeling obliged to post at least a couple of blogs everyday all through the year is that contradictions abound easily. For someone who made a big deal of a list I was amused to find an old blog of Jeyamohan where he patiently tells a reader, who had asked if in a listing of great writers Jeyakanthan would figure and weren't La.Sa.Ra, Sura and Asokamithran better, "don't look at literature list a competitive sport". He adds that 'literature is a discourse where many voices echo on a vast plain'.

Having ridiculed Ayn Rand's idea of 'destiny makers' Jeyamohan then spent many blogs arguing exactly that. With his heart brimming with paternal pride he recently wrote that his teenage daughter brushed aside Maxim Gorky's 'Mother' as 'simplistic story telling'. Such 'arrogance' (தெனாவெட்டு), he said, is the hallmark of an intellectual. Its easy to imagine his indignation if an unknown reader had said the same. He would've easily waxed eloquent about how Gorky midwifed a revolution. He'd have sternly lectured on placing a literature in the social milieu against which it should be judged and more such external parameters. Above all he'd have chided the arrogance. Echoing his guru Nitya Jeyamohan too scolds the commoner "go till your fields, go write a software code that is all you are capable of. Leave remaking the world to intellectuals". What was left unsaid was "intellectuals like us". This is the same Jeyamohan who is surprised that his mentor Sundara Ramasamy fantasized being a Stalin in order to reshape society. Expressing surprise at how Ayn Rand's 'Fountainhead' is studied by technocrats in their college days Jeyamohan was aghast that the graduates had no respect for the common Indian farmer who, in Jeyamohan's opinion, was a repository of a long intellectual tradition and possibly knew more about the soil by experience unlike the textbook graduates. Incidentally I don't see any reason why writing a piece of computer code is any less than writing poetry. Maxwell's equations are no less artistic than Beethoven's 9th symphony or Picasso's painting. I'd urge Jeyamohan to read nobel laureate S.Chandrasekhar's 'Truth and Beauty'.

I'd still say that Jeyamohan is not a quintessential sexist or chauvinist. He is, as we say in America, an equal opportunity offender. He chides all and sundry presenting himself as a stern voice of reason who is dispassionate in criticism. There are many times he does just justice to that and many other times when he falls far short of it.

Whether in doing a Freudian analysis of Kamala Das's erotica or even in carping about the quality of writing by women or being peeved that women writers get a pass for quality for merely being women Jeyamohan is well within his rights. The joint protest letter by women writers was childishly written. Ambai had, in the mean time, written an oped in Tamil edition of The Hindu about instances of chauvinism and sheer sexism by male Tamil writers. The newspaper in its eagerness to stir the hornet's nest had published Jeyamohan's photograph though Ambai had not written anything of him at all. Let me reiterate here that in my Facebook postings until this had been supportive of Jeyamohan's liberty and in fact even disagreeing with the protest letter and the imputation of incidents to him thanks to an ill placed photo.

The breaking point for me was when he published a letter that alleged women writers get published by trading 'favors' and that Ambai, a much respected writer, writes and speaks horribly. The innuendo was plain. The letter (could not find it now) alleged that women writers traded sexual favors. In his reply Jeyamohan ignored that part and eagerly agreed that Ambai had never spoken coherently whenever he had the chance to hear her. This was in direct contradiction to his own blog a few days back extolling Ambai's contributions to Tamil writing. I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Ambai and can say that whatever one might think of her fiction she is no fool. In an unseemly gesture Jeyamohan published several letters that supported him, almost all were by males. Once he even gave a link to another blog only because the blogger uncharitably trashed Ambai.

Whether it is Shaji alleging on Facebook that women get published because publishers, most of whom are male, condescend out of their natural kindness towards women or that reader alleging 'favors' it is unsurprising that nobody asks how male authors get published. Recently a guy published a book based entirely out of his Facebook posts that were mere toilet humor kind. Grape vine had it that he was actually self-publishing. Another guy liberally rips an anti-communist book and presents it as his research without due disclaimers. By the way, why is it that no woman writer is asked to write screen play or dialogues for movies? I am sure it needs no genius to churn out dialogues like S.Ramakrishnan did for the Rajini starrer 'Baba'. In a few decades I can state with certainty that the dialogues of Vadivelu, written by comedy track writers, will be more quoted and used in public discourse than the forgettable lines cranked out by Sahitya Akademi winners. A recent blog of Jeyamohan had made it appear that what is oft repeated in public discourse by having seeped into public consciousness is literature.

Manushyaputhiran had recently ridiculed Salma being invited abroad for film festivals since Salma is not a professional film maker. Of course the implication was that she got those opportunities owing to her gender. Tamil writer Ka.Na.Su, who, as Jeyamohan points out in a blog, never watches movies, was on the jury for National awards when the controversial movie 'அக்ரஹாரத்தில் கழுதை' was awarded a prize. Jeyamohan alleges that Ka.Na.Su probably never watched the movie but not only voted for it he made another juror vote for it based only on reading the screenplay. It is probably true. The point though is that Salma's gender becomes a question but Ka.Na.Su's gender is no issue. 

Shaji's allegation is patently sexist especially in the light of the shenanigans by established authors themselves to get their books published. Inviting cine stars is now de-rigeur for book releases. Fawning over director Gowtham Menon Charu once referred to one of Gowtham Menon's movie as a good one. That movie was blatantly ripped off from 'Derailed'. Of all such functions the most frown worthy was Jeyamohan's own function on behalf of his Vishnupuram foundation to award poet Devadevan with Vishnupuram award. In the pretext of seeking greater attention to Devadevan film musician Ilayaraja was invited to confer the award. Needless to say that the function became about Ilayaraja to the extent that Jeyamohan himself wrote that Devadevan, amused by the spectacle, was wondering if the function was for somebody else.

Amidst all that hullabaloo Nanjil Nadan, while welcoming Ilayaraja, prostrated in at Raja's feet hailing him as goddess Saraswathi. Jeyamohan records with pride that Raja embraced Nanjil, after Nanjil had gotten up, saying "you too are one". As Mark Antony says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar 'and then you and I fell my dear countrymen'. Recently Jeyamohan followed suit and prostrated at Raja's feet seeking the his blessing for the upcoming publication of his first book in a long planned series on Mahabharatha. All of this is cringeworthy. My skin crawls with disgust. Raja, a talented musician no doubt, has earned his place in the pantheon of Tamil film musicians but nothing beyond. This is a man whose only talent is to churn out commercial music and to put his foot in the mouth whenever he goes on stage. Whenever Jeyamohan writes of Nitya Chaitanya Yathi as his guru I can understand and respect that. When the same Jeyamohan calls Raja his new found guru I puke. Now, Charu with some indignation asked how come no film maker or film technician ever fall at the feet of any writer. The only Tamil writer who went to movies and did not get sullied remains Jeyakanthan.

A feminist reading of Jeyakanthan's much lauded 'சில நேரங்களில் சில மனிதர்கள்' will be disappointing in that the protagonist has it as her raison-de-etre in life to search for the lout who had sexually abused her and establish a relationship with him since, as her uncle often reminds her, she can 'only be a concubine, never a wife'. On the other hand the freedom loving protagonist in 'ஒரு நடிகை நாடகம் பார்க்கிறாள்' is no intellectual or does not even know that she loves liberty outside of a narcissistic mode that is blatantly simpleton like. Jeyamohan's  much discussed '.பின் தொடரும் நிழலின் குரல்' also falls into the category of what Sudhir Kakar aptly described as the Indian way of looking at women, the mother-whore dichotomy. A woman, Manu states, should be a prostitute in bed (sayanesu vesya). Of course thats after being a mother all day long. Two prominent women characters in that novel exhibit the mother-whore dichotomy. Jeyamohan either sanitizes and idolizes woman by placing her on a pedestal or presents her like a wanton wench. In either of the states the woman is devoid of independent intellectual achievements or intellectual abilities. Is it any wonder that women writers tend to focus on women's issues and women as protagonists since the men seem to do only a half assed job of portraying women. Only women writers could create a Scarlet O'hara or a Dagny Taggart.

A disappointing side to this mess was that no male writer stepped up to condemn the shrill rhetoric and blatant insult dished out to a much respected woman writer. Nanjl Nadan, who's list was the agent provocateur, published a scathing rebuttal written, not by him but by another person, on his blog site. The whole episode was illustrative of how sexism is alive and kicking in Tamil Nadu. My earlier blog had pointed out how the West is assiduously trying to stem centuries old sexism in literature. The question is will Tamil Nadu learn?

In conclusion I'd say that Jeyamohan could have been more charitable towards his women colleagues,  showed better understanding of historical processes in the evolution of literature, showed a nuance in voicing his criticism. The chorus of ridicule by male writers only showed what a feudal patriarchal society Tamil Nadu still is. It was disgusting to see one after another pile on the women writers with little regard to what their own fellow male writers were doing.

In case anyone thinks I'd stop reading Jeyamohan please be rest assured I'd read him everyday. As one who loves Israel I still listen to Wagner. As one who hated communism I never felt I need to shun Jeyakanthan.


1. Jeyamohan on Nanjil Nadan's list
2. Jeyamohan's rebuttal to women writers's protest letter (with link to the protest letter)
3.Ambai's column in 'Tamil Hindu' about sexism by Tamil writersபெண்-வெறுப்பு-என்றொரு-நீண்ட-படலம்/article6136159.ece
4. Jeyamohan's rebuttal to Ambai
5. Jeyamohan's rebuttal to an article in Dinamalar on the controversy
6. Jeyamohan on women writers he admires
7. Jeyamohan's link to a blog ridiculing Ambai
8. Jeyamohan's blog listing his blogs on Kamala Das
9. Jeyamohan's rebuttal to Hindu
10. On Ambai's contribution
11. On Jeyakanthan and lists
12. On Nehru and Indian science (சுதந்திரத்துக்குப்பின்னர் இந்தியமறுமலர்ச்சிக்கால மனநிலைகள் தேங்கின. ஐரோப்பிய வழிபாட்டாளரும், அடிப்படையில் இந்தியமரபுமேல் மதிப்பில்லாதவருமான நேருவின் யுகம் ஆரம்பமாகியது.....நேருமேல் எனக்கு எப்போதும் மதிப்பு உண்டு. ஆனாலும் அவரை நல்லெண்ணம் கொண்ட அசடர் என்றே என் மனம் மதிப்பிடுகிறது. சமகாலச் சிந்தனையோட்டங்களில் அடித்துச்செல்லப்படும் எளிமையான மனம் கொண்டவர் அவர்.).
13.On Nehru, Moopanar and Smriti Irani
14. Shaji's blog on Michael Jackson
15. Shaji's FB post dated June 21st on why male publishers publish women authors:
16. Keeranur Jagir Raja on Jinnah
17. Jeyamohan and P.A. Krishnan email exchange where Jeyamohan talks about his wife and Krishnan talks of Stalin
18. Rebuttal to Jeyamohan published by Nanjil Nadanஎதையும்ஆராயாமல்/
19. Authors in support of Jeyamohan protesting to Vikatan, alleging incitement of violence,
20. Vikatan's article on Jeyamohan's parody of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR (subscription only content)
21. Jeyamohan on Sujatha as science fiction writer
22. Devadevan Vishnupuram function
23. A reader's letter to Jeyamohan fawning over Raja and how he'd wail and prostrate at Raja's feet
24. Jeyamohan on his daughter's opinion of Maxim Gorky "17 வயதான என் மகள் மக்ஸீம் கார்க்கியை இலகுவான எழுத்தாளர் என்று நிராகரிக்கிறாள். அந்த தெனாவெட்டுதான் அறிவுத்திறனின் இலக்கணம்.....‘போ போய் வயல் உழு. தறி ஓட்டு. கம்ப்யூட்டர் தட்டு. உனக்கு இது இல்லை. இதற்கானவர்கள் வேறு பலர் உள்ளனர். அவர்கள் இவ்வுலகை அமைப்பார்கள்’ என்பதுதான் பதில்".
25. Ka.Na.Su on film jury "இதற்கு தேசியவிருது கிடைத்தது ஒரு வேடிக்கை. க.நா.சு அப்போது நடுவர் குழுவில் இருந்தார். அவர் சினிமாவே பார்ப்பதில்லை. மொத்தமே பத்து படம் பார்த்திருந்தால் ஆச்சரியம். இந்தப்படத்தையும் அவர் பார்க்கவில்லை. ஆனால் இதன் திரைக்கதையை அவர் வாசித்திருந்தார். அது அவருக்குப் பிடித்திருந்தது. ஆகவே அவர் படத்துக்கு வாக்களித்தார். இன்னொருவரையும் வாக்களிக்க வைத்தார்.".