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Literature on the subaltern world

By September 11, 2019January 14th, 2024No Comments

Source : The Hindu

The book launch of the English translation of Poomani’s socially-relevant Vekkai was marked by some intriguing observations by the author

P Manickavasagam, popularly known as Poomani, is considered to be among the greatest living writers in Tamil.

Poomani has published seven novels and more than 50 short stories. His first novel is Piragu and his second, Vekkai, published in 1982, was translated into English by N Kalyan Raman in May 2019 and titled Heat (Juggernaut Books). Both Vekkai and Piragu are set in a subaltern rural Tamil landscape.

Poomani was in conversation with N Kalyan Raman, translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry, and journalist Anjana Shekar in Bengaluru’s British Council Library recently. The event was organised by Toto Funds the Arts, and the evening saw excerpts from Vekkai read out by theatre personalities Anitha Santhanam and Vivek Vijayakumaran.

Vekkai is about a 15-year-old boy, Chidambaram, who kills a local landowner. He admits his crime to his family, and eventually leaves his village along with his father and goes into hiding.

Looking back

Kalyan Raman, when introducing Poomani to the audienceat the event, said, “He was born in 1947, near Kovalpatti, Tamil Nadu, to a family of small farmers. Very early in his life, he aspired to become a storyteller. He also came under the influence of Marxist ideology. Early in his life he wrote stories for magazines run by Left parties. In his stories he focussed entirely on subaltern life, the community he grew up with… Very few of his works have been translated, and they ought to be. One of Poomani’s achievements is to find a viable, literary language for subaltern stories.”

Speaking aboutAngyadi, a novel based on colonial archives, Kalyan Raman added: “It gives you a slice of social history that is not available anywhere else. He covers almost every caste, but in Poomani’s fiction they are portrayed as dealing with a human condition rather than dealing with an identity, which was inescapable in the pre-modern era…

Caste is an idea so it can never be rigid and it oppresses people so it will always be fought against, depending on the material conditions, situations and the distribution of secular power.

There is a secular power structure, which is outside the caste system, and sometimes caste weaponises this secular structure. This happened during the Colonial era and after Independence.”

In general, in Indian and Tamil literature, the subaltern world hasn’t been written much about, observed Kalyan Raman.

It is this gap that Poomani tries to fulfil. As to the question of whether Marxist ideology has influenced his writing, Poomani said: “The right or left wing ideologies don’t matter for writers. Their writing should remain out of the political fray. Having said that, a writer should read about Marxism as it gives a tangible perspective on society.”

On his writing style, Poomani said: “I use simple language as I write about ordinary people. There is a gap between literary language and colloquial language, spoken by the common people, and so I think that needs to be filled.”

Anjana asked how Poomani sketched the character of Chidambaram. “Except for the murder,” Poomani said to laughs, “I have done everything Chidambaram did, and lived among loving animals like he did. But when a child murders someone, how do adults react? This is what I explore in the story.”

Speaking about his penchant for historical fiction, Poomani said: “There is an incomplete representation of history in Tamil literature. So I wanted to write the real history, so I researched intensely, without subserving any ends.”

Kalyan Raman observed that both Vekkai and Piragu address issues of democracy, justice and politics. “When you write about the subalterns you cannot really write whether the incident you describe is favourable to them or adverse — that is something the reader needs to decide. So you have to maintain a neutral perspective,” Poomani concluded. “As far as religion, caste, and politics are concerned it is not as if they have started playing havoc only recently, it has been so as long as we can remember. It is the writer’s duty to describe them as they happen.”

There is a gap between literary language and colloquial language, spoken by the common people, so I think that needs to be filled

P Manickavasagam (Poomani)

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