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‘I am D. Jayakanthan, Tamil Nadu’s Greatest Writer’

Maverick. Arrogant. A class five dropout. An iconoclastic writer who hit out at Brahminical orthodoxy with stories that celebrated life — be it in dirt, squalor or a prostitute’s bed. The 2005 Jnanpith awardee uttered these words 45 years ago, writes Vaasanthi

One by one they went up to the stage and introduced themselves in a language that was prosaic and a demeanour that was timid, as if they were unsure of their status in the literary arena. It was quite in tune with the sedate atmosphere of the then conservative literary world of Tamil Nadu. Then the young man appeared, unimpressively short, sporting a dishevelled mane of black hair and with a cigarette in his hand. He blew the smoke carelessly as he passed the aisle where a few women writers sat, and before they could regain their composure leapt on to the stage and announced his name — “D. Jayakanthan, Tamil Nadu’s greatest writer.”

That was 45 years ago when Jayakanthan, now 71 and endorsed by the Jnanpith award as a writer — “who has not only enriched the high literary traditions of Tamil language, but has also made an outstanding contribution to the shaping of Indian literature” — had just begun to catch the attention of the Tamil public. Soon he was to overpower the literary scene of Tamil Nadu literally like a storm with short stories that revealed a deep and sensitive understanding of the downtrodden. For the first time here was a writer who did not just
portray their misery but found in the lives of rickshaw pullers, prostitutes, rowdies, pickpockets and cigarette-butt scavengers, a flaming passion, a liveliness, and truth. The compassion that entwined their characters and attitudes was so moving in his narration that the result was an elevating experience for the reader. He wrote about the slumdweller in earthy prose with firsthand knowledge of one who had lived among them in his early years of struggle when he worked as a compositor in a printing press. Suddenly it was a celebration of life, be it in dirt, squalor or a prostitute’s bed.

To the Tamil audience which was hitherto fed with stories depicting middle-class conservative lives and their woes, their aspirations and disappointments wrapped in retrograde, conventional ideas, Jayakanthan’s stories came as a breath of fresh air and as a revelation. The ‘Jayakanthan Era’ had begun. He became the craze of a generation. The young fell in love with him, devoured every word he wrote and the old admired him for his sense of human values, while despising his arrogance. He cared for no other writer; did not read any other. He was quite convinced that there was none to equal him. His creative output: over 40 novels, nearly 200 short stories and 15 collection of essays.

Justifiable pride indeed, for a man who dropped out of school after the fifth grade. Born in 1934 in a family of agriculturists in Cuddalore, in the South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu, he was a problem child. Unable to bear the harsh treatment meted out to him, Jayakanthan ran away from home at the age of 12 to Villuppuram. There he grew up under the care of his uncle from whom he imbibed the Communist ideology and was also introduced to the works of the great Tamil poet Subramanya Bharati. Bharati has been Jayakanthan’s biggest inspiration to this day. There is no speech of his that is not interspersed with quotes from Bharati’s poetry. The passion with which the writer recites the quotes never fails to moisten the eyes of the listeners.

Young Jayakanthan then moved to Chennai to fend for himself. He spent most of his time in the office of the CPI magazine Janasakthi. He worked in the party’s printing press and spent his evenings selling the magazine in street corners. During this period he became acquainted with some great leaders of the CPI, like Jeevanantham. But soon, because of the political developments that restricted the activities of the CPI, Jayakanthan had to move south to Thanjavur, where he worked in a shoe-making shop for a while. Soon he came back to Chennai and rejoined the CPI office.

It was a formative period during which Jayakanthan read a lot and observed the political scenario with greater maturity. It was a time when the CPI was eclipsed by the emergence of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Kazhagam of EV Ramaswamy Naicker. While Jayakanthan has always been critical of the Dravidian parties whom he termed ‘fascists’ even at the peak of their glory, he left the CPI due to “some differences with the leadership over the party line on certain issues.” Later, he became an admirer of Kamaraj Nadar and joined the Congress.

In the early 60s, Jayakanthan wrote the story Agniparitchai. A Brahmin mother finds out her daughter has been raped. Initially petrified, she tells the girl to forget about it and gives her an oil bath, a symbolic gesture of purification. To say this in conservative Tamil Nadu in those days was revolutionary. He became an icon
Jayakanthan started writing from around 1953 in Tamil magazines such as Saraswathi, Thamarai, Grama Uzhiyan and Ananda Vikatan. He became a household name when Ananda Vikatan, a widely read popular family magazine, opened its doors for him. From then there was no looking back for the writer. His short stories became a regular feature of the magazine, each one of them winning the “best story of the week stamp” for which the author was paid Rs 100, quite a big sum in the late 50s and early 60s. Therefore, it was not an exaggeration when he said that he “was the first Tamil writer to earn a living by writing.”

For me, then in college, Jayakanthan became an icon, a source of inspiration. I devoured every story that he wrote many of which expressed a view far ahead of the times. His stories like Agniparitchai, Yugasandhi and Karpunilai gave a big jolt to the Brahmin middle-class in particular and the Tamil community in general when read during the early 60s — they sounded revolutionary but persuasively convincing in their arguments. Agniparitchai is the story of a Brahmin mother who is initially shocked and petrified when she learns that her teenage daughter has been raped but gradually collects herself, tells her daughter to forget about it as a bad dream and not to open her mouth about it. The story ends with the mother giving the traumatised young girl an oil bath, a symbolic gesture of purification. The idea sounds dated and retrograde today, because the mother is not outraged at the violation but meekly reconciles to the fact and wants to hide the insult as a bad dream. But in Tamil Nadu, where notions of a woman’s chastity are clearly demarcated, even to say what the story said was revolutionary. Based on the story Jayakanthan later wrote a novel Sila Nerangkalil Sila Manithargal that won him the Sahitya Akademi award. It was also made into a movie. There is no doubt that in all that he wrote for two decades and a little more when he was at his best, Jayakanthan dealt with the little riddles and mysteries of life, which do not remain abstractions but translate into palpable experiences. His vision is that of a compassionate liberal humanist. It is a consciousness full of love, one that is aware of all the trivialities of life, but finds reason for celebration.

Today, Jayakanthan is a bundle of contradictions. Had he been awarded the Jnanpith 20 years ago there would have been a unanimous applause from his readers. The vision that once sparkled like that of a seer looks blurred and speaks of a spiritualism that is not convincing in the present .His books Jaya Jaya Shankara and his recent Hara Hara Shankara endorse a faith that does not have many takers. Yet, he says he continues to be a Marxist. “Karl Marx himself was a spiritualist in a Hindu sense. Spiritualism, like Marxism, is nothing but humanism of the highest order,” he says.

Jayakanthan, of course is the least ruffled by all the criticism that the award has sparked off in Tamil Nadu. “I am not the end,” he said in an interview to a newsmagazine. “Just as we all evolved from Bharati, many will evolve from me. Every generation can look for a renaissance, with confidence.” Meaning, he was the harbinger of a renaissance in the 60s.

True, indeed.

The writer is former editor
India Today, Tamil edition

Oct 15 , 2005

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