Friday, July 19, 2013

Sundara Ramaswamy: No Longer At Ease

My essay on Sundara Ramaswamy appeared in Mint last week. All through the time I was reading Waves and Children, Women, Men, I made copious notes and wanted to include so much more than I was able to - even though it was rather a generous word count.

I wanted to quote entire passages from the the novel: Lacham play-acting an entire meal as head cook, conversations between people, observations made in passing. I wanted to talk about how Children, Women, Men is really historical fiction in the best way - in the detailing of a world that no longer exists but is so readily recognisable for someone of a particular age. Or the little nugget that SuRaa was derailed in the middle of writing the novel by a character who appears in it, who demands all his time so that he later becomes the protagonist of JJ: Some Jottings (Children, Women, Men was completed much later).

But alas, none of that was possible and I've done the best I could when I wanted to say much more than I could.


**

Sukanya said that Sridaran often mentioned the word ‘modern’. What an attractive word! Dreams and visions swirled around it. ‘However hard we try and think, our brains won’t catch the sense of it exactly, Ramani. We must go and live in London to understand what it means,’ said Sukanya.
       Children, Women, Men. Ch. 73.

Sundara Ramaswamy died in 2005, leaving behind him a body of work that included three novels, several short stories, some poems (written under the pen name ‘Pasuvayya’) and translations into Tamil of the work of Malayalam writer Takazhi Sivasankara Pillai. He also published and edited the Tamil literary journal Kalachuvadu that has carried the works of new and established writers over the years.

Su Raa, as he is popularly known, was greatly influenced by the work of the writer Pudumaipittan (whose collected works the Kalachuvadu Trusts edited and published in 2000). His early stories, such as ‘Heifer’ and ‘Sita Brand Soap Nut Powder’ had the kind of direct language and sharp observations about people and society that Pudumaipittan and other progressive writers of the early 20th century thought necessary, in order to resuscitate Tamil literature from its excessive formality.

In time, Su Raa, as he was popularly known, distanced himself from the writers of the left and began to publish in some of the many little magazines that had sprung up in Tamil Nadu. The two books under review here give the reader a flavour of the range of Su Raa’s work: Waves is a selection of his stories and Children, Women, Men is his last published novel (1998).

Su Raa stories were written in two distinct phases: pre-1966 and after 1973. In her Introduction, Lakshmi Holmström, who has translated some of these stories, mentions this gap of six years in Su Raa’s story writing, but does not say why he wrote no stories in these years, what other writing those years were occupied with and why his stories are so remarkably different in the years after ’73.

In the absence of biographical context, it is up to the reader to plunge into the stories and experience them without the filter of literary exposition. This is not at all a bad thing: the difference in style and content between stories such as ‘Heifer’, ‘Sita Brand Soapnut Powder’ and ‘Prasadam’ on the one hand and ‘Essences’, ‘The Hollow’ and ‘Waves’ on the other, are self-evident. The earlier stories are sharply delineated studies of character and social situations, written with a characteristic humour and fondness for the people they represent. The later stories, on the other hand, are more surreal, allusive and dream-like. They often end abruptly and far away from they seemed to be headed. These stories are narratives of states of mind that one comprehends instantly and entirely but has to later reach to understand.

In Children, Women, Men, several characters experience a sense of unease and a loss of identity in the rapidly changing social milieu of pre-Independence Kottayam. SRS, the patriarch of the main family in the novel, refuses to attend the death anniversary – the ‘thivasam’ – of his father, seeing it as meaningless ritual. Other characters rebel in their own particular ways: Chellappa urges the widowed Anandam to come away with him; Sridaran wants to marry Valli, without regard to caste or generational taboos; Savitri is corrosively honest in her periods of ‘mental illness’; Balu, SRS’s son, is unable to rebel and develops a kind of fear that is best described by the German word angst.

Valli looks at her face in a cracked mirror and at once the sense of divided self that everyone experiences in their own ways is made literal. Such a dislocation is not just symbolic but also linguistic. Virudan Sankunni the postman says, ‘Once you learnt English, you never understood other people’s misfortunes.’ Balu, hiding in the store room, later watches Valli and Ramani return from their convent school and thinks, ‘They were laughing English laughter.’

None of these characters need to live in London to experience what modernity brings in its wake: as in post-WWI Europe, so in Travancore State in 1937-39.


The narrator of the short story ‘Crows’ wants desperately to belong to the world of crows:

Whenever I told the older crows, ‘I am a poet as well,’ they looked at me with a little smile. It seemed to me that they said, ‘That is really not very important to us.’ It struck me as perfectly fair that as long as I took no notice of the poetry of their world, they were at liberty to ignore the poetry of mine.

Bridging the language barrier often seems as arduous a task as understanding another species without the benefit of a common language or mode of thought. Su Raa was trilingual: in addition to English, he read and spoke Malayalam with ease and learnt to read and write Tamil when he was young (though, as a Tamil Brahmin he always spoke it). In his second novel, JJ: Some Jottings (Crea-A, 1981. Trans. A.R.Venkatachalapathy, Katha, 2004), Su Raa uses the life of a fictional writer, JJ, to write a post-modern satire of Tamil and Malayalam literary movements and debates. A character in JJ says,We speak of Kafka. Of Simone de Beauvoir. Of Borges. But we do not know of Kuttikrishna Marar. We do not know of Gopalakrishna Adiga. How's that?

It is a familiar complaint and not an unjustified one – it is true that a generation that is most comfortable speaking English, though it has not completely lost its ability to speak or write another Indian language, tends to be more familiar with writers from the west rather than writers of other Indian languages. Books such as Waves and Children, Women, Men help in tilting the scale towards a literature that ought to be more familiar than it is. Perhaps the riches these translations promise can even be an inducement to readers to begin reading in languages other than English.

3 comments:

batulm said...

Great. An introduction to an author I did not know. Another book to order. Move away from all the Bengali translations I have been reading recently. Move to another part of the country. On another note, how have you been?

Space Bar said...

Have been thinking of you and Sur. Will call soon. <3

Archana said...

I am reading Su Ra's Kuzhandaigal, Pengal , Aangal now, and I think you have captured the essence of this book so well. Have you read Pudumaipithan? :)