About Suchitra

Writes and translates fiction.

Is Tolstoy a humanitarian? – Jeyamohan [Translation]

Translation – தல்ஸ்தோய் மானுட நேயரா? – ஜெயமோகன்

Part – 1

Part 2: Tolstoy and Humanitarianism


There is a scene in War and Peace. Prince Andrew sees a soldier in full military uniform, seated on a horse. His gold-plated decorations glimmer in the sunlight. Andrew is spellbound. Man – what a noble creature! he muses. This scene also features in Tolstoy’s autobiographical sketches. When he witnesses a soldier on horseback make a glorious jump over a stream, he weeps thinking how great and noble the form of man is.

Many Indian critics refer to this scene. In a speech from 1940, the Malayalam critic Puthezhathu Raman Menon refers to this scene. The Kannada master Shivaram Karanth refers to this. Most recently, Kalpetta Narayanan recounted this scene, although with some amusement.

The perspective of the critics who repeatedly refer to this one scene out of the many thousands of scenes from that a great feast of a novel is important. Those critics lived, are living, in deeply humanistic times. They believed humanism to be the highest value of man. There was no doubt that Tolstoy was a very great writer. So, they might have concluded, that must have been Tolstoy’s vision too.

But is that all War and Peace is saying? A great army drifts along. It comes to a stop at the mouth of a narrow bridge. There, man pushes against man, the orderly lines break and the soldiers spill sideways. To one side is a great lake. It has frozen over, and stretches on like some great playfield. Dolokhov, always rash with a bit of the delinquent in him, jumps on the ice and runs. “Friends, this way!” he hoots. Unthinkingly a great mob follows him. The ice will break, shouts Andrew. But no one listens. Men drown in droves as the ice cracks and gives way under them.

We find that this repeats over and over in history. Fools and criminals sway huge crowds easily. They push them to annihilation. So what is it that Tolstoy really thinks of man, of humanity? In War and Peace, there is a scene where large groups of soldiers are bathing in a lake to cool off. Naked, dripping, fleshy bodies, reddened from the heat. “Cannon fodder,” says Andrew to himself. He feels like throwing up. Tolstoy was the creator of this phrase that was later much used during the two world wars. But why did no critic of that age mention this scene?

This is because, India always thought of Tolstoy in connection with Gandhi. Tolstoy came to India via Gandhi. Gandhi wrote long letters to Tolstoy. His experimental commune in South Africa was called the Tolstoy Farm. Gandhi was enamoured by his pamphlet, “What is to be done?” The book has since been translated into all the Indian languages. Perhaps that was the first work of Tolstoy to be translated into Tamil.

Tolstoy’s later ‘moral’ fables were translated extensively into Tamil. They also became popular as oral tales, told and retold endlessly. They are simple human stories. They found their way into the school syllabi. The Gandhians translated others works of Tolstoy into Tamil. Ka.Santanam translated Anna Karenina. T.S.Chokkalingam translated War and Peace.

But astonishingly, the Marxists of that era did not feel any kinship with Tolstoy. None of them attempted to translate Tolstoy. Tho.Mu.Si.Raghunathan, S.Ramakrishnan and others translated the key writers like Maxim Gorky, Alexei Tolstoy, Sholokhov and others of the Stalinist era, but not Tolstoy. Out of them only Maxim Gorky was widely read in Tamil.

Tolstoy’s works which became popular in Europe, like The Death of Ivan Ilych, or The Kreutzer Sonata, were never translated into Tamil. His early novel, ‘The Cossaks’, or his later novel, ‘Resurrection’, was also not translated into Tamil. Russia reissued the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevesky, Kuprin etc. only after the end of the Stalinist era. They were published by Raguda and Progress Publishers.

It was only in the second wave that a handsome book called ‘Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas’ was published in Tamil. The Death of Ivan Ilych and The Kreutzer Sonata were featured in this book. It was around the same time that Dostoevesky’s novellas and Turgenev’s short stories were translated.

What was Tolstoy’s influence on the Tamil intellectual landscape? The Gandhians introduced Tolstoy in India as a Russian sage. His fables were popular in India. But when Gandhians like Ka Santhanam and T.S.Chokkalingam translated their great novels, there was hardly readership. Only a few hundred readers of hardcore literature read them. The readers were mostly writers with a Marxist bent, like Jayakanthan and Ponneelan. 

Tolstoy does not seem to have left a deep impression on the modernist writers of the following generation. Essays, sketches, memoirs or speeches from the 1960s till almost the end of the 1980s hardly mention scenes or characters from Tolstoy’s novels, or his short stories. 

It was only in my generation, through the efforts of myself and colleagues like S.Ramakrishnan, Konangi and Devibharati, that Tolstoy came back into the discourse. In the eighties, I wrote extensively about Tolstoy and Dostoesvky, comparing the two writers, and the particular moral problems they chose to engage with. They were my yardstick for literature. I argued that they developed the fundamentals of the literary novel, it was an opinion that came under fire then. Some post-modern writers thought that Tolstoy had become obsolete, but others felt that fresh readings of both Tolstoy and Dostoeveskey were possible.

Why was Tolstoy read so little in Tamil for most of the 20th century? An understanding of our literary history might provide some insight. Modern Tamil literature was synonymous with modernism. The 20th century masters of Tamil literature, including Pudhumaipithan, Mouni, Asokamitran and Sundara Ramasamy were all torchbearers of the modernist aesthetic. Tolstoy was a classical realist. The modernist writers had aesthetic differences with Tolstoy.

Secondly, the modernists were not particularly interested in Tolstoy’s preoccupations with religion, spirituality and philanthropism. Modernists saw life as a worldly, material affair, blind, without ethics, largely bereft of spiritual considerations. They spoke of the alienation of the individual in such an unrooted world. In War and Peace, Tolstoy was concerned with the great sweeping march of history. The modernists were largely ahistorical. Only the individual man, his surroundings and his inner workings were of importance to them.

Tolstoy took up thousands of pages to talk about the flow of history. The modernists wrote about everyday, contemporary life and the individual’s place in it in tight, two-hundred-page long prose. They believed that such compact writing constituted literature, and anything longer was often in danger of losing focus. They believed that a literary work should be focussed, and should have the compact structure necessary to retain the focus. 

Sundara Ramasamy had not read War and Peace in its entirety. He thought that the novel lacked focus. I argued with him that a tight focus was not necessary for a novel, that it was mostly a negative trait in a novel. I argued that it was the dialectical agon between multiple points of view that creates the texture of great novels, and later enlarged upon these ideas in my book ‘The theory of the novel’. There is little evidence that the literary critics that era, like Venkat Saminathan and Ka.Naa.Subramanyam, were extensively familiar with Tolstoy. Only Si.Su.Chellappa had imbibed the influence of Tolstoy, it can be seen in his novel Suthanthira Thaagam. 

In general, novel writers of the modernist era ignored the grand novels written by other writers (Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya, Shivaram Karanth’s Marali Mannige, Tarasankar Bandhopadhyayay’s Arogya Niketan etc.) in favour of shorter works with focus, like Bhibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyayay’s Pather Panchali or Per Langerkvist’s Barabbas.

But had the novelists read Tolstoy’s works like The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Illych, The Two Hussars etc., they might have found that these works are exemplary candidates for the modernist aesthetic, achieving with far more brevity and focus what the modernists were attempting in their own fiction of that era. I consider these novellas to be the beginning of the modernist wave all over the world, and in some ways, their peak achievements too. No Tamil modernist writer has mentioned these works. It was only after the modernist wave in Tamil literature had passed that both Tolstoy and Dostoevesky began to be read closely.

However in Tamil Nadu, neither the progressive Marxist, liberal writers nor the postmodern writers wrote extensively about Tolstoy. For the Marxists, he was a pioneer figure, a forerunner to Gorky, who was always represented as their central and exemplary literary figure. The post-modernists were as a rule more interested in Dostoevesky than they were in Tolstoy.

Thus, Tolstoy was introduced into Tamil by the Gandhians. He was seen as someone who represented the ideals of the Enlightenment era. He was seen by the modernists who were primarily concerned with the existential crisis of man as an old-timer, writing about the problems and preoccupations of a different era. The liberal writers simply considered him as a pioneer of liberal, politically minded writing. However, none of these camps really engaged with his writing deeply.

Whatever place he holds in Tamil today was accorded after the modernist era. But even the writers of this later period saw Tolstoy in two lights. The first was as a prophet of the Enlightenment values, the first priest of the Church of Reason, a great humanist. But they also took the view that Tolstoy, by his subtle and detailed depiction of life and psychological inquiry, often transcended that mantle. Thus to read him closely and identify these points of transcendence would accord the reader a glimpse into how fiction is able to independently construct historical and moral narratives.


In summary, we see how any intellectual front in Tamil Nadu that engages with Tolstoy places him under the banner of ‘humanitarian idealist’. They considered Tolstoy as someone who engaged with questions such as: What can be done to make life better for man on earth? What is the humanitarian ideal? Is there a humanitarian utopia? What are the historical and social barriers that stand in the way of realising such an ideal state? This is how Tolstoy is viewed almost anywhere in the world. A half-page piece about Tolstoy in a weekly seldom fails to be accompanied by the byline “The Great Humanitarian”.

But is that really true? Can he be labelled thus? The problem with any such label is that it reduces a complex personality to just the label. A politician can perhaps be labelled in this way, if we need to understand his politics and ideology. Labels on a philosopher end up simplifying his thought, stultifying its dynamics by flattening the nuances of his arguments. But labels on a creative writer are death to the life in his work. Placing an ideological label on a work of art strips it of its emotionality, its internal paradoxes. It is the greatest act of violence that can be inflicted on an artist. Those who bear hatred for the artist, those who oppose him, engage in such tactics. But those who worship the artist do the same thing.

Tolstoy belonged to the era when humanism was at its peak in Europe. He was one of its architects himself, that cannot be denied. His essays clearly reveal the humanist in him. He sought to integrate the old values of Christianity into the new humanistic framework. Some his protagonists are profoundly humanistic. However, I feel that it would not be right to say that humanism is at the centre of Tolstoy’s fictional universe. Humanism is not the overarching vision that rises out of his novels.

The roots of humanism lie in Greek thought. Christianity was centred on humanity. Its mission was the salvation of all human beings. The architects of the Reformation integrated the humanistic ideals of the Greeks with the human-centric approach of Christianity, and founded the basis of modern humanistic thought. The French Revolution took the idea to the masses. The Hegelians made a philosophy out of it. The Marxists dreamed up a new world that would be born out of its ideals.

What were the historical and cultural forces that shaped Tolstoy’s thought? Historically, the French revolution had a great impact on the 19th century. There were hardly any European writers or thinkers of that age who were not influenced by the French revolution. Tracing its influence on Tolstoy and his contemporaries will offer much clarity. 

Protestantism evolved in opposition to the political-cultural-spiritual hegemony of the Roman Catholic church. The humanistic ideals which were born out of this conflict resulted in the development of modern principles of democracy. The French revolution was a political manifestation of the same ideas. The Enlightenment era French humanists like Voltaire and Rousseau shaped these ideas during this period.

The French Revolution placed humanism front and centre in the intellectual discourse of that period. Tolstoy was born thirty-six after the French Revolution. During that time, the French Revolution had turned around and birthed a Napoleon. His expansionist plans had brought him all the way to the doorsteps of Moscow, and he had been routed and turned back. Tolstoy spent his earliest years in a Russia haunted by the memories of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The greatest of his fictional works was about this epoch. The French Revolution was defeated in the political arena. Perhaps, that was why it lingered on as a great dream in the sphere of ideas.

The Russia of Tolstoy considered France to be its model state. The elites of Russia all spoke French. The Russians eagerly studied the latest in French thought and French philosophy. In his youth, Tolstoy was tutored by French and German teachers who had upon them the lasting influence of the French Revolution. It is useful to place all of Tolstoy’s ideas in the post-Revolutionary intellectual landscape, and compare him to other literary figures from this era.

Tolstoy was also influenced by the great philosophical debates of the 18th and 19th centuries. These debates evolved out of the debates between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, and took a similar form. There are many branches to these debates, but broadly speaking, it was a debate between historicism and essentialism. Friedrich Hegel is the best known representative of the historicist schools. Arthur Schopenhauer stands at the head of the essentialist position. Their predecessor Immanuel Kant contributed equally to both doctrines.This debate somehow pulled in any and every thinker of that era. All the creative writers of that age were influenced by this debate. Tolstoy was born in this philosophical ground. He wrote his great novels while this debate was still raging.

The Catholic religion was God-centred. It considered God as solely responsible for all life on earth. The Church, the pope, the king and the landlord were all God’s representatives on earth. But the Protestant religion was concerned with both the individual human and God. It accorded a central position to the welfare of man in God’s universe. It held the position that God decreed man’s welfare, that anything that was against the welfare of man could not be from God. 

Protestant Christianity foregrounded man. Therefore, intellectually, it had to rise to the challenge of understanding man completely. There was the need to define man beyond the archaic understanding provided by religion. Man had to be defined in relation to life, history and nature. Ethics and morality and justice could no more simply be taken as god-willed decrees, but had to be reshaped and reinvented according to the needs of modern man. They had to evolve with the emerging ideas about man and his place in history.  These movements led to the emergence of Enlightenment-era humanism.

During this period, man’s identity and his relationship to history was defined broadly on two lines. One philosophical camp placed the identity of man outside religion, and claimed that his identity was shaped by the forces of history. The other philosophical camp held that man’s identity depended on his essential nature. This was the basis of the great philosophical debate of the 19th century. Hegel believed that man, his nature and his behaviour are shaped by the clash and resolve of historical forces. Schopenhauer held that man’s nature and behaviour are the result of his own inner nature. For Hegel, the dialectics of material forces shaped history; the ground of the conflict was man. For Schopenhauer, history was simply the field on which the fundamental elements of human nature manifested themselves. 

Both these ideas influenced the writers of that age. Some writers were influenced more by one idea, some by the other; in any case, this gives the reader one more tool to attempt to understand the writer a bit better. The writers who bore upon them the influence of Hegel’s historicism approached man as a part of history. Even when they probed his psyche using their fictional tools, they still placed it at the epicentre of the clash of historical forces. Their thought often was guided by objectivity and facts.

Our progressive writers are all influenced by this mode of thinking. Their perspective is shaped by a strong sense of rationalism. When trying to understand history, they take nothing into account except for the dialectics of material forces. They reject interiority, emotionality and spiritual quests as mere idealism. 

Those belonging to Schopenhauer’s camp, on the other hand, were more interested in the essential nature of man. All over the world, their eye turned towards the essential forces within man that shaped his behaviour, and consequentially, history. Their mode of thinking is shaped by intuition. The will to live, the will to power, the uneasy relationship between nature and man – all these ideas were intuitive. His ideas could not stand long in the more objective realms of sociology and politics. Being intuitive, they could not be studied empirically.

But these ideas were a constant source of influence on generations of European artists and writers. We can trace the influence of Schopenhauer on Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, all the way to Kazantsakis. Even Tamil writers have not been free of the (albeit indirect) influence of Schopenhauer – it is revealed in the work of writers like Sundara Ramasamy. 

Where does Tolstoy lie in this binary? Critics and writers very often tend to place him on the Hegelian side. This is what the Gandhians and progressive writers in Tamil do as well. It is on this basis that he is identified as a humanist, a humanitarian. It is only after defining Tolstoy as a humanitarian is anything more ever said about him.

The writers who call Tolstoy a humanitarian do so, usually, on the basis of his books like “What should I do” and his later day fables. They definitely have a humanitarian slant, particularly stories like “After the Ball”. Secondly, the novel “War and Peace” is often tritely assumed to be a novel about war and its spoils, and a call for peace. There is often the facile assumption, based on its title, that the novel talks about how man’s identity and existence are defined and circumscribed by various historical forces. And if one reads War and Peace with such an assumption, it is very easy to reach that conclusion.

But is it really fair to Tolstoy to limit him in this way? Would it be fair to read his novels on the basis of such a limited assumption about his ideology?


Tolstoy was accepted by the Soviet state only in the post-Stalinist era, after the 1950s. To be more precise, he was accepted only after the idea of a Russian nationalist identity emerged, after Russia had distanced itself from its Marxist ideological identity and its place at the head of global communism. This nationalistic era considered Tolstoy one of the architects of the modern Russian nation, a national treasure. What stood in the way of his acceptance until then? At the core, Tolstoy was not a writer who accepted Hegel’s historicism based on dialectical materialism. On the other hand, his beliefs accorded more with Schopenhauer’s ideas about human nature and ethics. Marxism considers such an outlook individualistic; classical Marxists usually reject such ideas. 

Much has been written about the relationship between Tolstoy and Schopenhauer. Tolstoy translated Schopenhauer in order to understand his ideas better. He went to his estate in the country and stayed there for many months while he worked on the translation. He did not think the translation was very good, it was never published. Nevertheless, during this period, he was occupied very deeply with Schopenhauer’s ideas. 

However, when we read Tolstoy’s diaries, a different pictures emerges. Tolstoy, at first, is captivated by Schopenhauer. But slowly, he seems to distance himself from Schopenhauer. He formulates some ideas of his own. They cannot be said to be strong, well-formed ideas; they are half-doubts, apprehensions, hesitations. It is these hesitations that he explores in his great novels. He further moved away from Schopenhauer to write moralistic novels like Resurrection.

Many critics have explored the philosophical and literary influence of Schopenhauer on Tolstoy’s fiction, on his great novels as well as his later day fables. But I would not call it an influence in the sense of unquestioning acceptance of the philosopher’s ideas. These ideas disturbed Tolstoy, made him restless. They made him doubt and question his pre-existing notions.  They generated only more doubts and confusions and questions. This led to a clash of ideas in his heart, and that allowed him to move forward. This is the only way in which a philosopher can exert influence on a writer. Today we find that a great many pages that Tolstoy has written about Schopenhauer are in effect, doubting and rejecting his ideas. The influence of Schopenhauer on Tolstoy, in particular his view of history as revealed in novels like War and Peace, can only be understood by a reader reading the text itself closely and independently.


A bird’s eye view of the matter shows that there were five major ideas of Schopenhauer that primarily influenced Tolstoy. 

  1. Will
  2. Eternal Justice
  3. Individualism
  4. Pursuit of Fulfilment
  5. Political Anarchism

I avoid Schopenhauer’s philosophical language deliberately. I believe that literary criticism should not be steeped too much in philosophical jargon. Its primary mode of reasoning is aesthetic, and the too much precise philosophical chopping goes against the grain of aesthetic involvement. We will see how these five ideas evolve in the course of Tolstoy’s novels, and stand as rallying points around which the novel organises.

Does Tolstoy accept that material forces shape literature? Like any other thinker of that age, Tolstoy does accept it. There is certainly a Hegelian strain of thought in War and Peace. The various material forces that exerted their influence on European history in the post-Napoleonic age are all delineated very clearly in War and Peace. The power circle of the aristocracy constitutes one material force. The aspirations and growing power of the peasants represents another material force. The army is shaped by both these forces. Their dialectics shapes the march of Russian history. The Orthodox Church is the third material force. Tolstoy does paint a Hegelian picture of history in War and Peace.


But War and Peace also continuously depicts the force of Will on the individual and on history. Schopenhauer defines Will as a blind driving force that is present in everything, a desire for existence, a determination to self-preserve. Schopenhauer hold that it is Will, a combination of desire and determination, that drives history. If history was a tadpole, then its tail is its essential Will. Its tail and hands and legs are all the Will that propel its motion. War and Peace depicts over and over how the Will that drives the course of history is revealed in every individual as his personal desire and his personal sense of duty and determination. All the characters in War and Peace have their own Will. That is the source of all their restless strifes, troubles and tribulations. It is because they are pushed by their individual Wills that they try to attract each other, push each other away. But their individual Will is but a drop of the collective human Will of that period in history.

The dynamics of War and Peace is apparent if we see that each character as a manifestation of different facets of the Will. Andrew is the Will of idealism. Nikolai Rostov exemplifies a rather pedestrian, lowly form of the Will. A great image of the Will to power is painted in Napoleon. Petya Rostov is the adolescent version of an idealistic Will. Boris is a minor character who uses his Will to attain worldly victories. Kutuzov reveals a prosaicness that stands in opposition to Will. There are minor characters like Anatole, whose Will is revealed as lust and Dolokov, in whom the Will manifests as roguishness. But all the different wills of the individuals transform into one massive Will that cartwheels unstoppably down the great novelistic landscape of War and Peace.

Will binds man to the earth, to life. It is the pasam that Saiva Siddhanta speaks of, the tightening noose around one’s neck. It is ego. There is no room for questions about the meaning of life there. Its aim is only to attain whatever the Will wants, then and there. In Pierre Bezukhov, is Will is usurped by his quest for meaning. That makes him restless. In other words, his Will is his quest for truth and realization. It is not exterior to him, nor is it Will that is imposed on others. The Will in his case is turned inward, it drives him forward on the path of his quest.

Andrew, driven by his Will, catches a glimpse of it as if from above in the battlefield, as Napoleon passes by. He is stunned by what he sees. The will that he has known so far as his own is only a tiny vector of directionality in great, flood-like vector field. It is like watching the mad dance of some magnificent beast from above. After this experience, he undergoes a change. He becomes a witness of history. Individual human beings vanish from his visual field. He is able to see both the Czar Nikolai as well as an ordinary foot-soldier as but two tiny drops of the rolling ocean of history, two wills driving the Will of history.

This perspective allows him to stay detached from all the events rushing around him. He abandons his grand dreams and ambitions. He becomes a witness of the caravan of life, silent, no longer aroused or excited by anything life has to offer. And thus he dies. He has no sense of loss or regret when he dies. Neither does he consider himself a victor. In that sense, Andrew did attain to a certain kind of realization.

Wherever Tolstoy talks about the army in War and Peace, the reader may consider it to be a commentary on history.  The intrinsic essence of the army and the intrinsic essence of history are one and the same – it is the summation of all human Will. A war is nothing but the tussle between the Wills of two armies. Its victory or defeat is determined by the Will of history itself.

When describing Napolean’s invasion of Russia, Tolstoy writes the following in narrative voice. “Driven by some great force that they could scarcely fathom, a great mob rushed north-east. It killed many thousands, conquered many nations, and still kept going, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The force driving it started to slacken. Like an arrow that had lost steam, its trajectory curved, gravity took over. Another great mob that was scattering aimlessly under the force of this attack now regathered, gained strength and hit back. The invading force now scattered, broke and turned around” – this was the grand sum of the impression Tolstoy had about that great event that shook Europe to its depths –  Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow.

This view is in no way ‘human centric’. Neither is it ‘humanistic’ in character. No reader can take stand on any page of War and Peace and declaim, Oh! what a noble piece of work is man. On the contrary, War and Peace depicts man as being troubled ceaselessly by forces beyond his control, that he can scarcely understand. Not just man, but all of humanity. This is the understanding of history that War and Peace offers the reader. Marxists certainly hesitate in the face of such an idea.

Sitting here, a century and a half after Tolstoy, and looking back, a rather startling truth becomes apparent. Everything that Tolstoy said about Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow could equally well be said about the Russian Revolution. The forces of history can be dissected and analyzed. But it was only the Will of history that revealed itself as individual wills. The Russian Revolution was nothing more than a historical event that created dreams, then repressions, then destruction. It was a small bubble on the surface of human history. Nothing more.

Humanism views history very differently. Humanists believe that with each historical event, man resolves a dialectic and ‘ascends’ on a path towards an ideal future. That perspective is not part of War and Peace. The Hegelian view would try to find advantages in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, despite the great havoc it wrecked. Tolstoy does not attempt to do so. On the contrary, he is interested in the psychological drivers of the war. He is curious about the origin of the Will, the dangerous instrument that turns upon the man who wields it and destroys him, the dangerous instrument that man is unwilling or unable to abandon.

And then there are a few instances in War and Peace that run contrary to all our assumptions and expectations. They can be very instructive. The French army decides to turn back from Russia, but they are caught in a famine. Pierre observes two soldiers dismember a dead horse and gorge on its flesh. The ugly grins, the vulgar expressions on their faces, all disgust him thoroughly. There are many such instances in War and Peace depicting the rather easy fall of man into absolute horror and chaos. Humanity doesn’t seem quite so noble then. The horrifying looting and preying that takes place in Moscow evacuated ahead of the entry of Napolean’s army is a case in point. 

One of the fundamental tenets of humanism is that man is a great being. The Malayalam writer Uroop titled one of his books ’Sundaranmaarum Sundarimaarum’ – beautiful men, beautiful women. It is an idealistic title, lofty and dreamy and ethereal in its conception. Human beings are always, in any circumstance, says the novel, beautiful beings. Many great novels of the past century abound with such instances. But there are hardly any such moments extolling the nobility of humanity in Tolstoy. There are hundreds of characters and plots in War and Peace, but I could not recollect even a single such instance from this novel.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of the baseness of human beings, the depths human beings can sink. Napoleon, who believes that he is single handedly shaping the course of history. The little captains of little units, who sit around in candlelight all night long talking big talk about how they will win the war for the army. Andrew’s wife Lisa, in the throes of labour, scarcely recognising her husband who returns after miraculously escaping death. Natasha, ready to throw everything away for a few moments of pleasure. The tumult after the battles when each soldier thinks only of his own life, when each man pushes and shoves another to get ahead and live a bit longer. That is indeed a very pessimistic view of humanity.

In Anna Karenina the morally conscientious Levin decides to give away his lands to the peasants. But the peasants do not believe that somebody would give his lands away for free. They are suspicious; Tolstoy draws a fine picture of their doubts and suspicions. The peasants bargain that they should get a sum to accept the freely given lands. The peasants had witnessed nothing but cruelty and baseness on the part of their masters all those years. So soaked were they in such depravity, that they could scarcely believe that someone would act decently out of his own free will; there had to be strings attached. They did not believe Levin. They had no hesitation in exploiting and destroying each other, so they could not bring themselves to believe in any extreme display of benevolence.

Till then end, Tolstoy was preoccupied with the darkness in man. He did not have a very good opinion of man, if we go by his novels. There are prisoners sentenced to Siberia in Resurrection who take pleasure in the sufferings of other prisoners and grin when they see them shiver in the cold. Maslova, sexually exploited and abandoned, gives herself up quite easily to a new, corrupt life as a prostitute and rejoices in her victorious, morally dubious exploits. Tolstoy repeatedly depicts the vigor with which the human soul decays and corrupts itself into a rancid rotting mess.

In summary, the picture we get from a close reading of War and Peace and the other great novels of Tolstoy is that, far from depicting an ennobling image of man, Tolstoy did not even depict man with compassion and belief. Whenever Tolstoy depicted humanity – men in a group – he only painted a picture of a blind mob, an organised human form of an invisible driving force. All his great characters are doubters, loners, suspicious of crowds. In that sense, Pierre, Levin, Nekhlyudov are all cast from the same mould. They are driven by love for humanity. But they are not ready to believe in human beings. 

Common Ethics

One of the major ideas that Tolstoy pursued in all his fictional works, starting from War and Peace, was that of the possibility of formulating a common framework of ethics – perhaps an eternal law – for all of humanity. If there could be a code of ethics for man, that man could devise for himself, that is in no way dependent on the decrees of any religion or god, what would that look like? Would would be the nature of a morality based on such a code of ethics? Tolstoy was very interested in these questions. Europe in the Enlightenment era was starting to re-examine the nature of moral responsibility, these questions were but an extension. Both Pierre and Andrew in War and Peace are troubled by these questions in different ways.

War is endlessly justified by conceptualising it as the clash between two nations or two races or two cultures, and taking a stand on one side or the other. However from the standpoint of humanity, war is nothing but collective suicide. This is the understanding that we reach from reading War and Peace. Battles and strategies and killing and maiming are justified on the field with many many words of reason and logic. But ethics, rights and morality exist simply between a man and his own conscience. Each man formulates them for himself so as to be able to live with some degree of harmony with himself and his fellow man. This is the understanding that Pierre arrives at. 

Ten years later, when he wrote Anna Karenina, Tolstoy sharpened the same inquiry about universal ethics and morality through two of his characters, Anna and Levin. Both of them are characters who are haunted by moral dilemmas in two different spheres of life. Anna’s moral crisis is interior, domestic. Her tale centres on sexual morality. Anna’s suffering emerges from clashes between trust and betrayal, duty and desire, individual will and social mores. Levin seeks to find an objective moral code. Is it ethical to assert the authority one is born with, to exploit others, because that is what one’s ancestors did? What is the right moral action in the face of such exploitation? These were Levin’s questions. 

An even sharper moral questioning can be observed in Resurrection. Nekhlyudov takes responsibility for his past sins. He tries to atone for his sins by his actions. In that journey, he comes to realise that he, too, is fully responsible for all the sins in his society. This evolved view of moral responsibility is the essence of the novel Resurrection. 

These questions took Tolstoy to the quest for eternal justice. That was how he came to see Christ in a new light. He came to see Christ, not as the symbol of god’s law, but as the symbol of man’s own innate sense of right and good. He went on to develop a code of ethics based on life itself. He attempted to find the roots of such an ethical code in the Bible. This new dawning took the form of simple fables. These stories were full of moral goodness. They spoke for the weak, for the oppressed. They were tales that preached the equality of all men, the rights of all men. It is on the basis of these tales that Tolstoy is called a humanist, a humanitarian. 

But it is in the human spirit that Tolstoy found these values. Man’s spirit rejoices in idealism. It finds contentment by self-sacrifice. It finds peace when it seeks goodness. It was on the basis of these entirely human, spiritual experiences that Tolstoy attempted to form his code of ethics. He did not formulate it on the basis of dialectical materialism, riding on the back of historical tussles. Neither did he found it on the basis of social mores or ideas of social justice. Even as he put forward his code of ethics, he was well aware that man’s darkness (his dark triad qualities, his psychopathy) stood against its values. His later stories like Father Sergius depict the strength and pull of human impulses. One of his final works, a play called ’The power of darkness’ is, as the name suggests, about the inner dark forces inside human beings that stand in the way of man doing the right thing. So while Tolstoy argued that the notions of right and good can be founded in the human spirit, he does not necessarily believe that the human spirit itself is essentially all good or always humane or eternally reliable.

For example, the Communist government of later-day Russia was a dictatorship of the masses. It was constructed on the basis of the idea that the individual worker is inherently good, humane, ethical. There was nothing in the system that checked the power of the worker. It was argued that s Communist government will never err because it is not in its enlightened nature to err. Tolstoy would never have allowed for such a system of power that relied wholly on the idea that people are inherently good.  


Tolstoy believed in man’s sense of self. This was an idea that he had inherited from Schopenhauer. Man’s sense of being is grounded in his individuality. When he feels alive, it is ‘as himself’ that he feels that sense of life. Every man attempts to construct for himself his sphere of action, his joy and his sorrows. Every man has a quest, however little or big, for his own fulfilment. Be it ever so slight, man tries to find points of difference in him that distinguish him from other men around him, that make him uniquely ‘himself’. His sense of being is tied up to this feeling. In truth, man’s inner and outer lives are often dictated by the demands of creating this sense of individuality.

Among Tolstoy’s characters, Pierre, Andrew, Levin and Nekhlyudov attempt to find their place in the world, in the universe. They want to understand where they stand in the wider society, among other human beings, as well as within themselves, by asking themselves who they are, and examining the meaning their existence has for themselves. They subject themselves to all the suffering and strife that such a quest brings. On the other hand, smaller characters try to identify their place in their everyday life, and are content with a smaller identity boundary and a simpler definition of their self. These inquiries fundamentally serve to point out that there is an important force operating from within man, always trying to establish its place, always driving him forward in that push. It is the force within man that identifies itself as ‘I’ – the ego. Humanitarianism always fails to recognise this.

When a begger extends his bowl, he clearly identifies as a beggar. It is as a beggar that he receives the coin that we place in the bowl. But if he identifies as a rebel on the inside, then his heart does not accept the coin we place in his bowl. Even while walking away with the offered coin, his heart may ridicule the giver, or look upon him with disgust. Tolstoy’s fiction abounds with such instances where man continuously negotiates within himself in his quest for self definition.

Tolstoy’s characters are constantly discoursing among themselves. They listen to what others say. But the conversation continues in their heads. They make fresh observations from their memories. Tolstoy’s stories do not concentrate much on characters who do not attend outside, who do not have an inner monologue. For example, Anatole or Dolokohov are mostly depicted as other characters see them. Tolstoy’s writing is constructed as a continuous sequence of show and tell – an event is shown, subsequently, the impression the event makes on a character is told. Through this, Tolstoy shows how man continuously engages with the world, by evaluating it, and his place in it. Man defines himself with respect to his surroundings, and his surroundings with respect to himself.

Pursuit of fulfilment

One of the main plot points of War and Peace is Pierre’s quest for spiritual fulfilment. Tolstoy believes that every man has the right to seek self-fulfilment beyond his obligations towards his family and society. At first glance this seems no different from one of the cornerstones of rational, enlightened thought, the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness. But what Tolstoy depicts is man’s ineffable sense of insatiety, his desire for a feeling of contentment, for peace. This feeling of peace is different from happiness, for if man finds peace in sorrow, it is sorrow that he would pursue.

In War and Peace, Pierre finds fulfilment at the height of sorrow and suffering. In the beginning, all a man seeks is the satisfaction of his ordinary desires. Great wealth can buy any pleasure for a price, and Pierre attains that when his father dies. Pierre too, is seduced by the pleasures of wealth in the beginning. But when he realises that they can be obtained quite easily, he grows bored of them, and wants something that can grant him lasting peace. He cycles through many ideologies, many religious beliefs. Tolstoy shows how each of these are but a step in his journey. At first the common religion, there he is one face among the masses. Then slowly he starts seeking answers for his own particular questions. He joins various cults. He feels self-satisfied because the admission into such cults are limited; he is one of the special ones to be inducted. But in time, he grows tired of such pretensions. His search grows deeper, seeking the real meaning of life.

Pierre goes to the warfront solely to witness the war. He wants to get rid his boredom, have his brush with heroism. He goes to the warfront because it is in war that man’s lust for life and his abilities are expressed most potently. There, he is caught in its turmoil, he suffers terribly. At the height of his suffering, he finally finds the peace that he had been searching for. In hard work, great hunger, little food and good sleep, there is a sweetness far greater than anything he had ever known. “In the end, food enough to quench hunger and sleep – that is all,” says Thayumanavar. Pierre’s experience seems to be along the same lines.

Schopenhauer was interested in quietism. A variation on the Christian faith, the proponents of quietism emphasised still contemplation as a way to salvation. Schopenhauer believed that many of its practises would help in human liberation, including asceticism, solitude and endurance of suffering. These practices will liberate man from the three fundamental torments, of will, conflict and fear. Tolstoy intensifies the lesson Pierre learns in his later works. Nekhlyudov is liberated from his upper crust lifestyle, and in the harsh landscape of Siberia, amidst much suffering, finds peace.

There are two characters with the same qualities in Tolstoy’s fiction who represent this vision. Platon Karataev appears in War and Peace as a simple farmer with no desire for any material possessions, and therefore free to walk through in life without anything to weigh him down. He is free to be a simple man. His dog accompanies him through all the battlefields of Russia. It considers its owner its friend. It does not know the war beyond its everyday deprivations. It has no sorrow of any sort. We can consider it Platon Karataev’s soul. This state of ultimate freedom is presented as the ultimate vision of War and Peace.

In “Resurrection” Vladimir Simonson is a character who uses his suffering to improve himself. He spurns the taking of life, even for food. He becomes a vegetarian, rejects even leather. He renounces all the pleasures of the world, accepting for himself only its love. In the end, Maslova marries him. We can closely compare Platon and Simonson. Tolstoy took the values in the character of Russia’s traditional peasant as he had observed some twenty years before, and transformed them into a kind of philosophical stance. Both Platon Karataev and Simonson were representatives of this philosophical stance.

Quietism is against humanism. The very basis of humanism is the old idea of human victory. It says, it is in man’s nature to establish victory over the world and nature. Thus according to the humanistic tenet, man is simply not a part of nature or the world, he is at the centre of it. Consequentially, he stands in opposition to nature. Tolstoy, however, draws a line from the old Gnostic hermits to the naturalists of the 19th century. The only victory that man can truly lay claim to is victory over himself and his desires, he says. It is victory over his desire to rule, to exploit.

One can contemplate whether Lenin would have accepted these views of Tolstoy. Would he consider Platon Karataev or Simonson as ideal characters? These characters stand in stark opposition to his ideal worker who “craves to make the whole world his own by dint of his work”. In a conversation with Maxim Gorky, he appreciates Levin and Nekhlyudov for their acute desire to be free of the trappings of their class – landowning, or upper class urban. It’s an expression of the “Russian sense of justice,” he says. However, he would never have accepted Platon Karataev or Simonson as those who attained the peace and contentment that Levin or Nekhlyudov yearned for. The men that Soviet Russian hunted and destroyed in later years were all Platon Karataevs and Simonsons.

Political Anarchism

From the end of the 18th century, many thinkers all over the world proposed anarchy as a political ideology. Many of these thinkers, including Gandhi, were influenced, to greater or lesser degree, by Tolstoy. Tolstoy inherited the idea from Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer proposed a government that interferes very very minimally in the lives of individuals. Tolstoy restates the same idea. He proposed a system where individuals live in small groups with self-governance. He established his communes with this aim in mind. To live as a commune, it is important to consume less and possess little. The conflicts that arise from consumption and possession should not be allowed to manifest.

This view, too, goes against humanism. It opposes ownership of anything in the world. It also opposes the formation of a global society. The basis of humanism is that the life of a man can expand wide, encompassing the entire earth. Political anarchy opposes humanity’s tendency to spread and expand. Man loses by expanding himself, it claims. If he must find peace and contentment, then he should limit himself. This view is completely oppositional to the consumerist culture of our age. Man of our age is able to defeat diseases, poverty and natural disasters through advances in science and technology and forge ahead, establishing his might and power everywhere. Tolstoy’s views stand in opposition to such a worldview.

Tolstoy’s works show that he cannot be called a humanist or a humanitarian, if we go by how those words are defined today. He did not presume to understand man merely on the basis of his place in historical time. The will of an individual man is but a small drop of the great Will that shapes history. The will resides naturally in him. Man defines his own place. Tolstoy did not have any excessive love or respect for human beings. He never shied from depicting the darkness of man, his meanness, in all its depth. Although he believed that it is the right of man to obtain justice and rights and happiness and peace, he did not believe that man should win over nature and the world and build them out of its ruins.


Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables came out in 1862, seven years before War and Peace. Since it was serialised for a period of over seven years with many breaks and pauses in between, it would not be wrong to say that both the novels were contemporaneous. Both these classics made their way all over the world and inspired a generation of writers. They are still great living works. Les Miserables was published in many world languages over a short span of fifty years. The fountainhead of modern Malayalam literature was ‘Pavangkal’, a translation of Les Miserables by Nalapat Narayana Menon. In Tamil, a shortened form of the book was published by Kaviyogi Suddhananda Bharati.

In all possible ways, Les Miserables was a humanist-humanitarian work. All the humanist works of the world bear the stamp of Les Miserables. In Tamil, Jeyakanthan’s Unnaipol Oruvan, Yarukkaga Azhudhan etc. all ring with the echoes of Les Miserables. The structure of Les Miserables is simply a chain of the greatest expressions of human goodness.

In a way, it is a kind of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Jean Valjean, freshly out of jail, is caught stealing the silver candlesticks from an abbot. The abbot forgives him, and that touches his soul. He can be a thief only in a world of possessions. He is left gaping in a world without possessions. His journey starts from then on. He finds his identity as a worker, a rebel and a father. Eventually he finds peace.

Jean Valjean has no philosophical confusions. His journey is simple. He is not concerned with reaching anywhere; he simply gives up, he renounces. So he has no losses. Only spiritual victories. The novel has many instances when Jean Valjean seems to express the nature of the King Sibi who was willing to hack away at his own flesh to feed a starving bird. The point when he renounces his life of wealth and fame for Fantine is one such peak. His return to Paris for the salvation of Fantine’s daughter Cosette is another such peak. Les Miserables travels from peak to peak.

Jean Valjean is haunted by two opposing forces. One is his own human darkness, that turns him towards selfishness. But that is very weak. He is able to overcome its pull very easily. It is enough for him to be able to turn himself towards a sorrow in the outside world, and give himself up to it entirely. Inner darkness, says Victor Hugo, is something that can be won over easily by philanthropic work and kindness. That is a Christian notion. The  Marxists were also guided by a similar belief. Jean Valjean goes towards sorrows repeatedly just to overcome his inner darkness and go towards light. He purifies himself repeatedly through sacrifices and burns bright in its glow.

The second force that haunts him is the cruel policeman called Javert who pursues him relentlessly. In the novel, Javert takes the same place accorded to Lucifer the devil. Clever, relentless, unforgiving, treading his own paths. Jean Valjean’s salvation takes the form of his final, total victory over Javert. In the great epics of Europe like Faust, the devil usually is the ruler of the underworld. He is the face of darkness that opposes the light of god. In this novel, the face of Satan is the face of the government, the courts. This is important. The government is thus represented as a tool of social order, a crippling oppression that stands in the way of man’s spiritual freedom.

Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables when he was seeking political refuge in Belgium. The French intelligence was hunting him down. The government vehemently opposed some of his political views. Thus Jean Valjean can be understood as a greater version of Victor Hugo himself. He reflects all the doubts and fears and emotionalities and findings of Hugo. Javert was the face of the governmental power that pursued Hugo. He simply put together all the dark forces that he had to conquer and gave it the face of the French government.

Victor Hugo paints Jean Valjean as a man of great physical strength. This is a very important symbol. It is as far as it can get from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Jean Valjean lifts great weights. Many times, it is this great physical strength that reveals him to his pursuers. Victor Hugo seems to say that such great physical strength and labour is the foremost power of the working class. He shows that it is no lesser than spiritual strength. In a way, the journey of Jean Valjean is diametrically opposite to the journey of the religious seeker in monasteries, who starves and withers in pursuit of his salvation.

Jean Valjean’s life can be called ‘many lives in one life’. Throughout the novel, he faces crisis after crisis, and escapes from each one by taking on a new identity and new life. He gets into a crisis sometimes just by virtue of his own goodness. He gives himself up completely in each of these endeavours. As a result he experiences great suffering, and in order to escape that, finds himself elsewhere, and is ‘reborn’. Sometimes the ‘rebirth’ is literal, when he is believed to be dead and he resurfaces elsewhere. This is the same Christian idea of Resurrection. He births himself repeatedly, and thus finds his way to his truth.

When Les Miserables was published, it was not received well. The critique on it took three forms. First it was deemed vulgar for showing the realities of urban street life. Next, its celebration of rebellion was deemed destructive. Aesthetically, it was criticized for being too sentimental. The French literature of the day had upper class tastes, with gentle, refined, modest expressions. The critics felt that Victor Hugo was trying to evoke false tears with cheap sentimentality.

However, Les Miserables was popular with its readers from the very beginning, and its popularity has never waned since. It became the guide book of all the democracies and people’s movements in nations all over the world. With the birth of democracy, there was the need for the construction of the image of the “revolutionary leader of the masses” in the nineteenth century. All those characters can be traced back to Jean Valjean. When I researched the life of the Marxist leader M.N.Govindan Nair for my novel Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural, I was surprised to find that he had tried to live the life of Jean Valjean (he inspired the character of KK Menon in the novel). Even in the image of the typical MGR hero, throwing out his hand to help the labourer struggling with his load, there is Jean Valjean.

Thus, if we look for an exemplar humanitarian work, it is Les Miserables. Whether humanitarianism as an ideology has a philosophical ground to stand on, whether as a view it can provide complete picture of life, those are different questions. But it is humanitarianism, more than anything else, that has done some of the greatest work in erasing human suffering. It laid the way for justice, for rights, for freedom. It brought democracy all over the world. It liberated many thousands of human beings from tyranny and oppression. It created benevolent governments. The world we see today is more humane, with lesser suffering, compared to any other age in human history. Enlightenment era humanitarian values are responsible for that. One of the books that took this idea all over the world was Les Miserables. Hence it is a great document of humanity.

Many parts of Les Miserables are not worth reading today. Some parts directly get into a discussion of the political and philosophical questions of that age. Some of the adventure portions of the book are banal by today’s standards. But Les Miserables is still like a great seed that, though buried deep underground, has given rise to a great ever growing tree. “Wherever idealism sprouts, you will find my book knocking there,” Victor Hugo is reported to have said this about Les Miserables. That is true.

War and Peace was published in Malayalam after Les Miserables had already been published and read widely. The literary critic and expert on epics, Kuttikrishnan Marar, questioned why War and Peace did not possess the epic poetic beauty of Les Miserables. “What did I not see that this grove appears to me like a desert? What did they see that this desert appears to them a grove?” he asked. It was the realism of War and Peace that disappointed him. That sort of realism is fundamentally opposed to idealism. Realism questions everything. It seeks truth in a practical, everyday sense, examines everything for its intrinsic value. Under such a lens, the higher idealism of humanitarianism will collapse. This is the reason why in Tolstoy’s works, including War and Peace, this kind of idealism is absent. 

Another piece of literary criticism can be written comparing these two novels in depth. Since the basic idealism of humanitarian is the predominant theme, we see how all the characters including Jean Valjean are defined, exemplar characters, without inner conflicts. They make their way through many problems in life, their position evolves. But they do not possess internal contradictions. They don’t have doubts or confusions, they don’t knock about inside their heads groping for their way out. Jean Valjean and Javert are two characters who are strictly oppositional to each other. But both of them are at two different poles. On the other hand, all of Tolstoy’s characters have many internal contradictions. They are always arguing with themselves in their own heads.

For example, a character like Eponine. The character has many transitions. She goes from riches to rags, is rescued by Jean Valjean and falls in love. But whatever changes her character undergoes, it never loses its essential self that recognises kindness and thrives in it. What role would a character that remains unmoved by man’s essential goodness have in the grand space of a novel like Les Miserables? If one truly has no conception of the greatness of sacrifice what would Jean Valjean have to say to such a person? Les Miserables, for that matter?

This comparison is made in order to show how far and removed Tolstoy’s world is from the moving humanitarianism of Les Miserables. By virtue of his realism, Tolstoy is removed from humanitarianism. It is astounding to think that this journey took him to two extremes. In the Tolstoy we see in his last days, on one hand, we observe one Tolstoy who wrote novellas like The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. On the other hand, there is the other Tolstoy, who wrote moral fables and children’s stories. 

The first Tolstoy was the dawn of modernism. That Tolstoy wrote those stories as from a direct sense of profound dissatisfaction with humanity. He showed how ego and desire imprisons man in its shackles, and isolates him from the world. Man’s ego makes him ambitious, ruthless and competitive; his desire can make him manipulative and exploitative. As a result, he finds himself lonely and empty. These stories point to the vision of man necessarily being doomed to failure. These stories are excellent expressions of existentialism, which would evolve as a philosophy in the next fifty years.

The second Tolstoy was one that Tolstoy fashioned for himself. The first Tolstoy was where he found himself at the end of his journey. The second Tolstoy was the height he wanted to rise up to. Tolstoy dreamed of becoming a Christian mystic. Like a mystic, he created moral fables and spiritual allegories. In the course of such pursuits, he came to his dramatic end. 


It is a very simplistic view to consider Tolstoy a humanist or a humanitarian, and read his fiction with this preconceived notion. By reading his fictional works with this preconception, we stand to lose a nuanced understanding of the contradictions within his characters, and the quests that drove their development. We will also miss his subtle portrayals of human darkness. Tolstoy tried to derive man’s identity and his ethics from his inner nature. In this regard, he was philosophically influenced by Schopenhauer. Although he was interested in the question of man’s place in history, he did not see man as just a part of history and nothing more. Rather, he saw man as a vehicle for the great Will that shapes the course of history.

Humanitarianism is like a great surging river. It is like a sharp arrow. Its goal is not to understand man, but to reshape him. Humanitarian aesthetics are emotional, its nature is to challenge the reader. Tolstoy’s realism and his philosophical outlook that always sought to get to the heart of the human essence is like a broad wide shallow lake. Its goal is to understand man, inside and outside. It achieves this aesthetically by  slow, patient, elaborate, balanced storytelling. Its emotions are balanced by reason. It does not challenge the reader, but invites him to discuss. A challenge is timeless, it is like an edict of god, eternal. A discussion allows room for growth and progress. 

Is Tolstoy a humanitarian? – Jeyamohan [Translation]

Translation – தல்ஸ்தோய் மானுட நேயரா? – ஜெயமோகன்

Part 1: Humanism


Why do we read literature? Early in life, we may read because reading creates an imaginative fantasy,  an escape from life as we know it. Then, we may read to satisfy our idealistic aspirations. At some point, readers read because they want to understand their own lives. Fiction allows them to see their own lives as if in a mirror. The reader then develops a voracious appetite for experiencing all the facets of life, and reads work after work, trying to catch a glimpse of all the little nuances, inside and outside, that make up the human experience. A reader may then become someone who is interested in only exploring novel forms of expression. However, reading literature merely with a taste for novelties of form  is like wandering around a desert. Only the reader who is able to make his way back and see literature as a reflection of the whole of life itself, as a statement on the entirety of life, and is thus able to gain insight into life as his lives and sees it, can truly appreciate literature in its best possible sense. That is the mark of a truly fine reader.

Thus, a good reader reads in order to understand life both in its subtleties and in its entirity . He seeks works that can show him life in all its multifaceted glory, but also show him, with a burst of insight,, a sense of what life essentially, really, is, what it all means. The reader may fan out and read  a variety of books in the beginning. All kinds of imaginative literature, experiences, travelogues, biographies. Fiction in all possible formal modes. But at one  point, his focus narrows. He realizes that he wants  a vision of the essence of life, like the vision of the plains and rivers and cities from a mountain peak. There is very little place on a peak for a man to stand. But he can see everything from there.

It is in the fourth stage of development as a reader that many readers come to encounter Tolstoy, when they seek to understand all the subtle aspects of life. Tolstoy is a master at this. He shows aspects of the human personality and relationships that the reader may have never encountered in their lives. Especially, if they are a young reader used to looking at life and relationships through  a sentimental, romantic lens, Tolstoy’s unsparing realism may leave them gasping for breath. Every incident he depicts is plainly factual and uncompromising, without even a little bit of compensatory softening that Dostoevesky or Chekhov may afford us. He delivers blow after relentless blow to shatter our illusions. At one point, the reader understands that this is, after all, the nature of life. Then he is able to view his own life the same way. He is able to stay slightly detatched from everything, watch the carnival of life pass by with a compassionate smile on his face. From there, the reader can travel onward to understand Tolstoy’s insight into life as a whole, an outlook that Tolstoy obtained   from his unsparing realistic view of life.

I remember the shock I received when I read War and Peace for the first time in 1987, when I came to the part where Natasha decides to throw everything  precious to run away with with Anatole. I felt like I had been betrayed by the whole world, by god. I flung the book acroos the room. . It took me ten days before I could pick it up again. But later, when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Lolita, the depictions did not shock me. I felt like I had already lived through these experiences earlier. That is what Tolstoy does to you. 

One can read through the library, stack after stack. But when one comes back to Tolstoy, there is always something new to be discovered. That is the hallmark of great literature. Today, I am able to find moments of tender romanticism in Tolstoy. For example, in the way he shows how the plain Marya Nikolevna starts to appear beautiful in the eyes of Nikolai Rostov, with the gentle touch of a sparrow feather floating through the air. This is very different from the urgent romanticism  of youth,  of physical beauty.  

Readers of Tolstoy seldom reread him, but his novels are always in their thoughts. Many critics mention this curious aspect of his fiction. This is because, Tolstoy has the ability to rise up from the pages of the book and become a part of our life. We feel that  his novels are episodes from our own lives. Every time we think of the novels, we relive them. Happenings from our own life echo with incidents from Tolstoy, keeping his novels as immediate as our own life. I would say that no author before and since has succeeded in making his fiction a part of the reader’s life.

As I write this essay, I feel that I should write it only on the basis of my recollections of Tolstoy’s works. I last read him in 1998, for the second time. I have not touched his books since then, and not a day has passed when I don’t recollect them. I want to see what has stuck with me.

But it is also true that he has evolved with me. In these twenty years, he has mellowed in me, aged with me. Today when I write about Tolstoy, I find that all of his celebrated aspects – the uncompromising realism, the various sides of life he portrayed, his depiction of historical time, his moral ideas – have all receded to the background.

Today, I am preoccupied with the question of Tolstoy’s philosophy of life – , more precisely, his personal spirituality. It is on that basis that I wish to understand him.


There are many practical difficulties in endeavouring to understand a creative writer’s philosophical and spiritual foundations . Most commonly, the individuals who engage in such exercises propose a general philosophy or ideology in the form of a few ideas associated with it, and claim that the writer’s works are a faithful representation of those ideas. Usually, such ideas tend to be older than the works themselves. In the past, the proposed influence was usually religious in nature. After the twentieth century, it was some form of Marxism or Western liberal ideology.

This happens all the time in academia. Academicians do their best to slot a creative writer into an ideological mould. Politicians use this approach as a rhetorical tool. But the truth is, beyond providing a way to ‘grasp’ a work the way you would grasp a saucepan by its handle, it is not very useful. It is certainly not useful if we want to understand the full scope of a creative writer’s vision. It will only end up in a limited, false understanding of the author. No writer can be slotted into any ideological system in a simplistic way. It will be the death of the writer if we attempt it.

For example, Maxim Gorky can be read as a ‘Marxist writer’ but that does not improve our reading of Gorky. On the contrary, he is reduced to a simple, one-dimensional caricature. DH Laurence is often read as a liberal thinker who spoke in favour of liberal sexual mores. But that is also a simplification. We will lose DH Laurence by reducing his work to a single ideological framework. A reader who is satisfied with such a reductionist reading of DH Laurence will never appreciate his ultimate philosophical view – a view that centred the salvation of the individual in the individual alone. 

But it is also true that individual ideas can only be understood in the context of a few mainstream ideas that form the zeitgeist of that era. Our 3000 year intellectual history is largely made up of a few such great ideas, that flow like rivers through time. Millions of streams and tributaries emerge and pour into the mother river, but it is the mother river that has left an impression, a riverbed in time. The tributaries rise from each other, they contradict and cancel out each other, and they can be seen as a part of history. It is not possible to understand a literary work without having a basic understanding and appreciation of this intellectual history. Nobody can be a philosophical or spiritual island unto themselves.

For example, it is impossible to read (the great 12th century Tamil epic poet) Kamban forgetting the context of the Bhakti movement, that took root in the south of India and fanned out all over the subcontinent. It is impossible to understand the Bhakti movement without contextualising it in the human-centred religious movements that arose in all the world religions from the 10th century onwards.

But it would be foolish to make any kind of a final statement that Kamban was simply a fruit of the Bhakti movement. Kamban did come out of the Bhakti movement, but there were also elements of the previous heroic age in his work. Thus, it would do justice to a creative writer only if we adopted the following strategy: first placing him in the intellectual tide of his times, but immediately dissemble that image to point out where he differs from and contradicts those ideas. Only a synthesis borne out of these contradictions will be an honest attempt to understand the artist in all his roundedness. Critical theorists on the other hand, are mostly preoccupied with ‘catching hold’ of the writer with brute force. 

Aesthetic criticism is a mode of examining a piece of art like a butterfly – the reader must lightly touch its wings with their fingers, but let go almost immediately. The powdery wingcolours should absolutely not be disturbed. No statement can be said with absolute finality about a creative work. Any such interpretation should be contravened immediately. Even synthesis of various statements is not truly possible, for the work itself is greater than any synthetic interpretation. My attempt to understand a creative writer’s philosophical and spiritual outlook is not to slot him into a particular shelf for once and all. It is only to better understand the writer, and to be able to further enter his world and go towards him. 

I wish to understand Tolstoy philosophically, spiritually, in my own view. However, the difficulty with trying to obtain a fresh perspective on a writer like Tolstoy is that many many pages have already been written about him. To understand him, for ourselves, on one’s own terms and for one’s own needs, is a very challenging task. In the one and a half centuries since he wrote his great novels, Tolstoy has been interpreted in the light of all possible political, aesthetic and spiritual lines of thinking. My mentor Sundara Ramasamy used to say that one could write a social and cultural history of Europe just from the mountain of Shakespeare criticism available from the past four hundred or so years. This also applies to Tolstoy.

“So much has been written. What is left to write?” asked asked a good friend of mine when I told him I was writing this essay. Perhaps. But there is always something new to be investigated, particularly if one changes the perspective of inquiry. I quoted (the Malayalam writer and literary critic) M.Govindan, whose litmus question when faced with any new idea was – “Alright, so what does it mean for my little town of Ponnani?” What does Tolstoy mean to me today, in Nagarcoil, in these times? In what shape and form has he survived in me in all these years?


There are various ways of classifying the changes in human thought down the ages. They can be classified based on historical epochs, or on the basis of shared ideas and features. I think that very very broadly it is possible to group them into t five epochs.

  1. Triumph of Man

This idea is characteristic of the Heroic Age. It recognises the heroic aspect in man, and extolls his lordship over nature and victory over evil. Man, in such a framework, is shown as being able to surpass himself and the will of the gods. This idea had the greatest sway in pre-historic and early historical times, for man was in constant struggle with nature and fellow man then. Man’s enduring survival, in fact, depended on this idea. This idea became embedded in the philosophies and spiritual doctrines of the time.

  1. Common Ethics

As Man moved from the tribal, hunter-gatherer stage to the civilized, agricultural stage, there was a need to move from family – and clan-based ethics to a common ethics that would apply to people regardless of their birth clan or occupational status. In fact, if it is at all possible to make a reductive statement about the Mahabharata, it is that it was a great endeavour to formulate a common ethics from the various clan-based ethics previously prevalent in the Gangetic plain.  Clan-based ethics were commonly practiced, a common frame of ethics were an ideal dream. In any society, it takes some force and a lot of work to go from the practical to the ideal.

  1. Liberation of the Soul

Many streams of human thought have been independently, and repeatedly, invigorated by the central idea of the liberation of the soul. This goes by various names. Mukti, nirvana, veeduperu, all these names refer to the same idea. They refer to liberation or freedom either directly or indirectly. All the world religions refer to some form of liberation. In a lower level, it may be characterised as heaven. But even heaven something to be attained after a release from this world. it is a wholesome world, without strife or suffering.

Liberation, release or freedom, is liberation from everything here. All of the world’s sufferings. Everything that binds man as if in a prison. As long as man is in the world, his association with everything around him drags him down, makes him miserable. Liberation is a release from all that, a state of wholeness. Different religions have different conceptions of what it means to be liberated. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the story of a journey to liberation. Jeevakan’s journey in Jeevaka Chintamani is the story of another kind of journey to liberation. Despite the differences, the common vision is astounding. 

The idea of triumph of man that was popular in the first phase of history thus becomes symbolic in the context of liberation. We see this idea in all the great epics of this age. The journey of the hero becomes the quest for knowledge. Homer and Virgil speak of the perilous journeys undertaken by man – Ulysses, or Aeneus – in the quest of some goal. But these are also journeys with a symbolic philosophical meaning. It is the journey from Varthamana, a tirthankara, to Mahavira, the great hero, ever non-violent.

  1. Naturalism

The idea that the world operates on naturalistic principles, and there are no forces or god outside nature itself, has been a significant stream of thought in the West from the 16th century onwards. The basic form of the idea is, that man is just a simple elemental part of nature, and that everything man seeks to know is in nature itself.

This idea became popular through the works of the British Romantic poets, in particular Wordsworth. Its philosophical instantiation can be found in Emerson’s transcendentalism. This idea held great sway over modern thought. Very few modern writers exist without direct or indirect influence of Thoreau.

Naturalism is commonly understood as a part of the Romantic Movement today, but it gained new form in the rise of modern ecological studies. Man is defined simply as an element of nature. This idea stands in opposition to humanistic idea, where man is envisioned as having special status within nature.

  1. Humanism

Briefly, humanism can be defined as a view that holds that man is the centre of the universe. It is a very natural way of thought for man. From that dawn of man, he could not help but think otherwise. Any school thought in human history willy nilly has man at its focus. The early idea of Triumph of Man arises from such a view. Humanism can perhaps be called a stage of philosophical refinement of the same idea. This idea is also called by other names, such as love for man, humanitarianism etc.

Humanism can only be defined loosely, this has been the case throughout human history. There are many differing points of view about the best way to define humanism. Since the 17th century, many facets of humanism emerged in Europe. Ideas like moral responsibility, free will and reason characterised humanism in this period. All of these ideas led to the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe.

    5.1 Moral responsibility

Humanism envisioned man as an entity with a personality of its own, with his own particular thoughts and choices. Thus it argued that man is morally responsible for all the happenings in the world around him. If in a society an individual is deemed untouchable, then the whole of that society has to take responsibility for that. An individual cannot say that he he was not aware of it, or that he does not share responsibility in it. By virtue of his sense of reason, his ability to think and ability to exercise his will, he also inherits the responsibility to use those powers well. It is only when a man takes moral responsibility for his surroundings that he becomes a political entity. Only then does he live up to the true spirit of ethics. Social ethics depends on the individual acts of such men.

The truth is, this idea is the gateway to modern democracy as we know it today. In the beginning, it evolved as a response to the Catholic church, the endless power wielded by the hegemony of church and state. Then it grew to become a powerful idea in its own right. Today, when I see the arguments from the orthodoxy defending the Manu Smriti, I am convinced deeply that we as a society have still not fully internalised the notion of moral responsibility that forms the basis of a civil democracy. Any orthodoxy that does not share the spirit of basic moral ethics is simply morally wrong. No orthodoxy that persists in viewing a section of humanity as ‘lesser beings’ will lead one into any kind of spiritual elevation. 

    5.2 Doctrine of Free Will

The doctrine of free will states that man has the right to choose what is right and good for himself. There is nothing that is determined or fated, for example by a god in heaven. Man has the ability and right to change his world by exercising his choice. This is the idea of free will. The influence of this idea on Europeon thought is staggering. The idea of modern democracy rests on the idea of free choice. The various democratic constitutions that emerged in nation after nation in the 20th century all record their faith in the rights and ability of man to make a free democratic choice. 

The basic right to vote for all is enshrined in the Indian constitution. When this statement was incorporated into that text, it was this very idea that the makers of the constitution examined. Does a tribal man, or a woman from the slums, who has no education, no cultural training, no contact with the outside world, have the qualification to decide who will rule the whole country? Can we give them the right? The response was, such rights are not ‘given’ or ‘bestowed’. That is because, they said, the right to choose is not dependent on any external trapping like education  or culture or knowledge of the world.

No, the right to choose is a fundamental right and a fundamental ability of man. He has free will. By virtue of his inherent sense of reason and intuition, every man has the right and duty to make a free choice. It is a moral imperative.

    5.3 Doctrine of Reason

The doctrine of reason follows and shadows the ideas of moral responsibility and free will. Man should make his choices rationally. Not on the basis of faith, or the dictates of tradition, or on the basis of empty emotions. Even if it is based on intuition, man should be able to reason it out to himself. There is a fine line of difference between reason and rationality (‘meyyarivu’ and ‘pagutharivu’ in Tamil1). Reason includes intuition and poetic insight. Rationality only accepts external logic.

1 Translator’s note: This distinction is relevant to the Tamil intelligentia. Pagutharivu is often associated with the rational minded justice movements of the early 20th century championed by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramasamy and others. This ideology is noted for its non-recognition of poetic and spiritual intuition as a valid means of knowledge. Meyyarivu is often associated with the Kural (5th century CE). 

ஐயுணர்வு எய்தியக் கண்ணும் பயமின்றே 

மெய்யுணர்வு இல்லா தவர்க்கு.  (குறள் 354)

“All five senses, though present, are useless

For he who lacks intuitive reasoning” (Kural 354) 


I can’t help but think when I see the course of events in India today that these fundamental ideas that shaped the course of modern western civilisation were introduced very very superficially in India. Some of the voices that rise in defence of honour killings in India make me wonder whether ideas like the right to choice or reason have even been introduced in India. There are educated upper caste males in Tamil Nadu who advocate for child marriage in their discussions online. Such ideas are unfortunately gaining traction today.

The truth is, when such modern ideas entered India, they came in through the educated elites and became part of our constitution, while completely bypassing the general public. Even today, these ideas are pushed into public discourse from above, through laws, through the courts, through journalism, through literature. The idea of free political choice in India exists only because the right is enshrined in the constitution and pushed by the law. If this push is challenged or opposed in any form, then I fear it might send India back to a dark, pre-humanistic past very very soon.


The introduction and entrenchment of humanistic thought may be regarded as the forement event in the last 150 years of Indian history. It created a very deep impact on India’s collective mind. It was the basis for the great socio-religious reform and political movements of India, and paved way for the emergence of the nation as a modern democratic republic. Today, India is one of the liberal societies of the world thanks to the influence of humanistic thought.

There are two branches of humanistic thought influential today. One is western liberalism, other other is marxism. Although they have many significant differences, they share common ground in their beliefs – man’s central place in nature, the equality of all men and man’s basic rights. Western liberalism is founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Liberty includes freedom of worship, speech and faith.

All the dominant waves of thought washed up on the shores of various lands all over the world roughly around the same time. “Triumph of Man” was never a popular or central thought in India, as our literary works reveal. Perhaps we could have found them in ancient heroic ballads of the past. We find its traces in folk songs and stories. The folk songs of Mayandichaami, Sudalaimaadan and the Vadakkan songs of Kerala are all stories of the heroic triumph of man. The Ramayana, to some extent, can be claimed as a story of heroic triumph.

But it was the quest for common ethics in India that created our epics. Many of the kavya literature in India share that spirit, all the way down till the Kamba Ramayana. Parallel to this was the quest for liberation and transcendence. The goal of the later Vedantic schools including Advaita was liberation. The Bhakti tradition that evolved subsequent to this era was also motivated by the goal of liberation, although it had elements of human equality in it.

Around the time when India came under British rule, the dominant wave of thought that held sway over India was still Bhakti. Great exponents of traditional Indian music including Thyagaraja, Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramadas belonged to this period, the 17th century. They were the last offshoots of the Bhakti era. After this point, the influence of the modern schooling system pioneered by the British in India took over. We started moving towards modern European thought.

At the end of the 18th century, naturalism and humanism reached India from Europe. But naturalism was not very popular in India, and did not exercise a large influence, except on some litterateurs. It found common ground with some ideas related to asceticism already prevalent here. 

But humanism came to India with the force of a thunderbolt. The Hindu Renaissance movement could be described as an attempt to interpret traditional Indian ideas in the light of the new ethics proposed by European humanistic thought.

A great movement originated from this synthesis. It included the contribution of pioneers like Rajaram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, Narayana Guru, Aurobindo, Vallalar etc. The Hindu Renaissance movement gave birth to reform movements throughout India. Reformers including Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali, Iyothee Thaas Panditar, M C Raja, E V Ramasamy, Mahatma Phule, Gandhi and Ambedkar all emerged under the influence of humanism. For a hundred years, the course of Indian literature was charted on the waters of humanism.

When humanism came to India, it was first translated as manithabhimanam, love for humanity. The word was translated into all Indian languages and came into widespread use starting from the 1880s. It was Tamil, it was later translated as maanuda neyam, concern for human welfare, or humanitarianism. These words associated humanism with a philanthropic outlook. Humanitarianism became the basic requirement of a modern thinker. 

Observe the phrases that captured the public imagination in the past century. “Whatever be the religion, it is good if man becomes good” [Narayana Guru], “I wilted for every wilted sprig” [Vallalar] etc. The word ‘human’ became synonymous with ‘humanitarian’. The greatness of humanity was discovered even in Kamban – “Man triumphed!” All the thinkers of the preceding age, like Thirumoolar, were found to have ideas that were profoundly humanistic in character.

Today, there is an attempt to find humanistic expressions in all the important thinkers in our history. Humanism has become the greatest ideal of our age, the idea that has wielded the maximal influence. That is natural. Democracy is the political expression of humanitarianism. 

Even when naturalism, that is fundamentally antithetical to humanism, became popular, it was understood in terms of humanism. That is, man, who is considered part of nature, should take pains to conserve nature – not because man is not more important than nature, but because because man’s future depends on nature remaining conserved. Thus modern ecology, which stems from naturalism, is also interpreted under a humanistic framework. Man is given the “responsibility” of taking care of nature. David Attenborough keeps repeating how man is but a part of nature, and in order to realise that, man should let go of his perception as a special, privileged creature that has ownership over nature – but there is no room for such thought today. Religious individuals, from any religious background – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – cannot digest the naturalistic idea of Man being “a vain insect” – he is after all the seat of the soul, an image formed in God’s own mould.

Thus the idea of naturalism – where man’s special status as the centre of the universe simply does not exist – never formally became a part of modern Indian thinking. Even naturalism was interpreted in terms of what it meant for man, his welfare. Privileging “human welfare” is just another way of stating “human superiority”.

Humanism and human welfare have captured the imaginations of all writers in the past century. Once can even claim with some liberty that modern writers have written nothing except for humanism; indeed, it is the philosophical ground on which any modern literary work is written. One of the goals of literary criticism written over the past hundred years  was to find humanistic ideals in literary works – either liberal or marxist ideas, or instances where the story reveals a love of man, human rights and humanitarianism.

Humanistic discourse in Tamil literature usually operated under one of two modes. The first was a general love of mankind, maanuda neyam or humanitarianism. The greatness of man, his rights of man and his equal status to all men were its tenets. Many of the forereunner writers in Tamil, including Pudhumaiputhan, Ku.Pa Rajagopalan, Thi.Janakiraman, Na.Pichamurthi, Ku. Azhagirisami and Sundara Ramasamy, had such ideals which find expression in their works. Their acclaimed stories, including Mahamasanam, Raja Vandhirukkirar, Silirppu, Prasadham are fine examples.

The other mode is Marxist. It is called murpokku – forward thinking, progressive – in Tamil. Marxist aesthetics and humanism are related to each other. Human centrism is the philosophical basis of Marxism, and Marxist art extols the greatness of man.  “Man! What a great word!” exclaimed Maxim Gorky. In Tamil Nadu, Marxism was always synonymous with humanitarianism. “Love for man is progressive” wrote Tho.Mu.Si.Ragunathan, a pioneer of the movement in Tamil Nadu.

Thus humanism was inseparable from humanitarianism, love of man and philanthropy. Humanism holds that (1) Man has a central position in the universe (2) He is the focus of all human efforts and activity, and everything in the world belongs to him (3) He has moral responsibility for his surroundings. Humanitarianism and philanthropism are its idealistic expressions. However, the two are synonymous in everyday practice.


As I organise my thoughts in this manner, I feel it may be necessary to add a caveat. Many people have written extensively about these ideas already. Generally, they are discussed as a part of philosophy and the history of ideas. Philosophers have their own academic language, and generally approach these ideas much more sharply, whether they are placing them in history, or analysing their relationships to each other. That level of detail is not necessary for a reader of literature, nor should they attempt to bring those debates in their entirety into a discussion on literary aesthetics. It is not only unnecessary, it may also lead to wrong ways of thinking.

That is because the precise, detailed approach is the way of philosophy. Philosophical discussions consist of internal arguments, sharp, thin, focussed, one contradicting the other and itself being contradicted by the next, leading to a vast scape of arguments and counterarguments. Only a serious student of philosophy with a keen logical mind can follow it all. 

Literature does not, cannot take those endless, subtle, internal contradictions and branches into consideration. It sees that massive wall of ideas, but relates to it intuitively, emotionally. The endless internal debates of philosophy are not of much use when it comes to understanding literature.

Thus, in order to place literature in context of a broader intellectual framework, the progress of human thought needs to be understood. But literary criticism can engage with these ideas only to a certain extent. How is literature influenced by intellectual history? the critic asks. And then he engages with intellectual history only so far as it helps him answer this question. Literary criticism thus puts aside technical philosophical language and razor sharp distinctions, and handles these ideas in the context of, and with the motivation to, understanding literature.

அரூ போட்டி, யுவன் விமர்சனங்கள்

அரூ அறிவியல் புனைவு சிறுகதை போட்டி முடிவுகள்

எழுத்தாளர் யுவன் சந்திரசேகரின் பதிவு

ஃபேஸ்புக்கில் சில எதிர்வினைகள்

என் எதிர்வினை

நண்பர்களே, நான் பொதுவாக ஃபேஸ்புக்கில் இயங்குவதில்லை. ஆனால் இந்தப்பதிவில் ஒரு கமெண்ட் இடவேண்டுமென்று தோன்றியது. நண்பர் ராதாகிருஷ்ணனின் பதிவு சற்றே அளித்த நெருடல் – கோபிக்காதீர்கள், உங்களை தனியாகச் சொல்லவேண்டும் என்று இல்லை 🙂 ஆனால் இது ஒரு மனநிலையாகவே இங்கே தங்கிவிடக்கூடாது என்ற ஆதங்கம் எனக்கு நிறைய இருக்கிறது, அதனால்தான். எழுத்தாளராக சாதித்த, நடுவராக நின்றவருடைய கருத்துக்களை ‘பொறாமை’ என்று ஒரு வார்த்தையில் நாம் ஓரம்தள்ளிவிடுவது, விளையாட்டாக சொன்னாலும் கூட, சரியென்று எனக்குத் தோன்றவில்லை. அவர் விமர்சனத்திலிருந்து கிளைக்கொண்டு எழும் சாத்தியங்களை நமக்கு நாமே மட்டுப்படுத்திக்கொள்ள அது வழிவகுத்துவிடக் கூடாதே?

எனக்கும் யுவனின் கட்டுரையை நேற்று படித்ததிலிருந்து உள்ளே ஒரு துருதுருப்பும் முரண்டும் இருந்துகொண்டே இருந்தது – பாதி ஈகோ தான். அவர் கூர்மையாகவே விமர்சனங்களை சொல்லியிருக்கிறார். யுவன் அறிதாகவே இன்று எழுந்துவரும் எழுத்தைப்பற்றிய கருத்தைச்சொல்கிறார் என்று நினைக்கிறேன் – இன்றைய சூழலில் நமக்கு இத்தகைய வாசிப்பு கிடைப்பதே அரியதொரு நிகழ்வல்லவா? அதில் சொல்லப்பட்டுள்ள சில விஷயங்கள் அறிபுனையைத்தாண்டி செல்லுபடியாகும் விமர்சனக்கருத்துகள் – உதாரணம், மொழிபற்றாக்குறை பற்றிச் சொன்னது. இலக்கியக்காரன் grammarian அல்ல என்றெல்லாம் சொல்லலாம் தான், ஆனால் படைப்பூக்கத்துக்காக ஒரு கொள்கையை உடைக்க, முதலில் அந்தக்கொள்கையை ஐயம் திரிபட அறிந்திருப்பது அவசியம் என்பதே என் எண்ணம். இதை நாம் பரிசீலிக்க இடம் நிறைய உள்ளதென்றே நினைக்கிறேன்.

ஜெவின் எழுத்தின் தாக்கம் இருப்பதைப்பற்றி சொன்ன கருத்தும் கூர்மையாக முன்வைக்கப்பட்டது தான். அறிபுனையைத் தாண்டி வெளிவரும் எழுத்துக்கும் இந்த விமர்சனம் செல்லுபடியாகும் என்றே நினைக்கிறேன். இதில் எனக்குச் சொல்ல ஒன்றிரண்டு சமாசாரங்கள் இருக்கின்றன – என் எழுத்திலும் ஜெ. மொழியின் தாக்கம் உள்ளதென்ற வகையில். கண்டிப்பாக நண்பர்கள் சொல்வதுபோல முன்னோடிகளின் தாக்கம் இல்லாமல் வருகிறவர்கள் எழுதமாட்டார்கள், அதில் வெட்கப்பட ஒன்றுமில்லை. அதிலும் வெண்முரசின் வீச்சு திகழும் இந்நாட்களில். ஒவ்வொரு எழுத்தாளரும் தன்னுடைய முன்னோடிகளிலிருந்து கிளைபிரித்துத் தனக்கான மொழியொன்றை தன் தேவைகளுக்கேற்ப உருவாக்கத்தான் வேண்டும், அதுதான் அறைகூவல்.

இது புதுமொழியைக் கண்டடைவதற்காக மட்டுமல்ல. புது சிந்தனாபாணியை கண்டடைவதற்க்காகவும் தான். மொழி என்பதே சிந்தனை தானே? ஒருவர் ஜெவின் மொழியில் எழுதுகிறார் என்றால் அந்த மொழி உள்ளே ஓடும்போது அவர் ஜெ போலவே சிந்திக்கிறார் என்று தானே அர்த்தம்? – புனைவுப்பாதையும் ஒரு சிந்தனைதான். ஒருவருக்கு சிந்தனைமுறை மாறுபட மொழியும் இயல்பாக மாறுபடும்தானே?  வேறு மொழிகளில் வாசித்து, மொழியாக்கங்களைச்செய்து, நாம் அடைவதும் influence தான் – இன்னொரு வகை தாக்கம். நாம் யாரும் சிந்தனைப்பாணியில் முற்றிலும் தனித்துவர்கள் அல்ல, மிக்சிங் தான் டிஃப்பரெண்ட் 🙂 அந்த மாற்றம் ஆழத்தில் சிரிதாக இருக்கலாம், ஆனால் மொழியில், வெளிப்பாட்டில், அழகியல் தேர்வுகளில் குறிப்பிடத்தக்கத் தனித்துவத்தை அளிக்கும் என்று நினைக்கிறேன். ஆக அதுதான் சவால்.  இந்த வளர்ச்சி ஆக்கப்பூர்வமாகவே இருக்கும், ஆகவே இதில் விசனப்பட ஏதுமில்லை என்று என்னிடம் சொல்லிக்கொள்வேன்..

அரூ இதழில் இரண்டு வருடங்கள் முன்னால் வெளியான என்னுடைய கதையில் வெண்முரசின் சாயல் நிறைய இருந்தது. ஆனால் அது ஏன் என்று இன்று தெளிவாகப் புரிகிறது. அதில் நான் முயற்சித்தது ஒரு மாதிரியான செவ்வியல்பாணி கதைசொல்லல்முறை. அந்தக்கதையே ஒரு புராண மறு ஆக்கம் தான். ஆனால் அதற்கான மொழியை நான் உருவாக்கவில்லை. நேரடியாகவே சூழலிலிருந்து அந்த மொழியை பயன்படுத்திக்கொண்டேன். அதில் அறிவியலை ஒரு கவித்துவக்கருவியாக மட்டும் கையாண்டேன். அறிவியல் புனைவென்ற வகையில் அது புதுமையான உத்திதான்.

அதன் பிறகு நான் எழுதிப்பார்த்த அறிவியல் புனைகதைகளெல்லாமே அறிவியலை கவித்துவ உருவகமாக பயன்படுத்தும் கதைகளாக அமைந்துள்ளன. அறிவியல் ஊகங்களை முன்வைத்து வளர்த்தெடுப்பதில் ஏனோ இதுவரை என் ஆர்வம் செல்லவில்லை. இந்த முறை வெளிவந்த கதையிலும் அறிவியல் உருவகமாகவே வருகிறது. வேண்டுமென்றே எளிமையான மொழியில் எழுதிப்பார்த்தேன் [ஆனால் திருநெல்வேலி வட்டார வழக்கை ஒளியாண்டுப்பயணம் இடம்பெரும் கதையில் பயன்படுத்தியதை யுவன் விமர்சிக்கிறார். நல்லா கேளுங்க சார்.]

இன்று வெளிவரும் பல கதைகள் வெண்முரசு மொழியை கையாள ஒரு காரணமென்று நினைப்பது, நாம் அறிவியல்புனைகதையை தத்துவார்த்தமான கேள்விகளை எழுப்பிக்கொள்ள ஓர் ஊடகமாக பயன்படுத்திக்கொள்கிறோம் என்பதால் தான் என்று நினைக்கிறேன். அது ஆரோக்கியமானதும் கூட என்பது என் எண்ணம் – அறிவியல் கருக்களுக்கு இயல்பாகவே அந்த சாத்தியம் உள்ளது. கவித்துவமான விரிவுகொள்ளவும் சாத்தியம் உள்ளது. ஆனால் இதை நாம் ஒரு லிமிடேஷனாக வைத்துக்கொள்ளவும் வேண்டியதில்லை. யுவனின் விமர்சனம் ஒருவகையில் நம்மை கூட்டாக இந்த மனோநிலையிலிருந்து [அறிவியல் கதை = தத்துவ விசாரம், கவித்துவம்] வெளிக்கொண்டுவரலாம் அல்லவா?

நேற்று சற்று சீண்டப்பட்டாலும், இன்று காலை எழுந்ததும் ஷெர்லொக் ஹோம்ஸ் பாணியில் ஒரு துப்பறியும் கதையில் அறிபுனையை ஊடுருவச்செய்து எழுதிபார்த்தால் என்ன என்று தோன்றியது. தமிழ்நாடே பாழ்வெளிப் பாலைவனமாக வரண்டுவிடும் எதிர்காலத்தில் ஓர் அரிய மருந்துக்காக கௌபாய்ச் சண்டை நடந்தால்? இந்தவகை genre mixing ஏற்படும்போது மொழி கொள்ளும் சாத்தியங்கள் விரிய ஆரம்பிக்கின்றன. கலைச்சொல் உருவாக்கம் பற்றியும் யுவன் சொல்லியிருந்தார். ஹாரி பாட்டர் கதைகளை இன்று வரை வாசிக்கிறேன், அதில் என்னை எப்போதுமே பரவசப்படுத்தும் ஒன்று ஆசிரியர் இயல்பாக லத்தினிலிருந்து உருவாக்கும் புதியபுதிய சொற்கள். அப்படி தமிழிலும் உருவாக்க முடியுமா என்று சிந்தனை ஓடுகிறது. தமிழே செவ்வியல் மொழி, இதில் தெலுங்கு, உருது, சம்ஸ்கிருதம் போன்ற மொழிகளைக்கலந்தால் பற்பல சாத்தியங்கள் வெளிப்படுகின்றனவே? அறிவியல் புனைகதைகளில் ஒரு சிறப்பம்சமே பலநேரங்களில் அவை உருவாக்கும் பிரத்யேக பேச்சுமொழிகள் – தமிழில் நான் இன்னும் அந்த சாத்தியங்களை அதிகம் கையாளாமல் போய்விட்டோமோ என்று தான் இன்று காலையிலிருந்து உண்மையாகவே தோன்றிக்கொண்டிருக்கிறது. ஆக இவை எல்லாமே அதிஅற்புதமான மொழிவிளையாட்டுச் சாத்தியங்களை அளிக்கக்கூடுவதுதானே? தமிழ் இலக்கிய மொழியின் வெளியையை மாற்றியமைக்கக்கூடுவது என்று கூட தோன்றுகிறது. அது தமிழுக்கு நல்லதுதானே? இவையெல்லாம் செய்ய எனக்குத் திறன் உள்ளதா என்று தெரியவில்லை, ஆனால் நண்பர்கள் தூண்டுபெற்றாலும் அற்புதம் என்று இதை எழுதினேன். ஒரு நல்ல விமர்சனம் சில சமயம் இப்படிப் பல பூதங்களை கிளப்பிவிடுகிறது… தமிழ் மொழியின் அத்தனை dialect, register-களில் ஒரு மாஸ்டரான யுவனை இதை வேறு யார் சொல்ல முடியும்? ஆகவே பயங்கரக் கடுப்பாக இருந்தாலும் நன்றி யுவன்.

இறுதி யாத்திரை [சிறுகதை]

சங்கரலிங்கம் தன்னைக் கண்ணாடியில் பார்த்தார். வலதுபுறக் கன்னம் மேலே எழுந்திருந்தது. நாக்கு மெல்ல நகர்ந்து மேலுதட்டுக்கடியில் ஊறி மறுபக்கமாகக் கீழிறங்க நரைத்த முடி முகத்தில் கொத்துக்கொத்தாக எழுந்தெழுந்து அடங்கியது.

பெருமூச்சுடன் நாற்காலியில் பின்னால் சாய்ந்துகொண்டு கைகாட்டினார். “ஆரம்பிக்கலாம்”

[மேலும் வாசிக்க]

நன்றி – அரூ இணைய இதழ்

பூர்ணகும்பம் [சிறுகதை]

அவ்வாறுதான் நான் கும்பத்தின் மூன்று விதிகளைக் கற்றுக்கொண்டேன்.

  1. கும்பத்தைப்போலவே, ரோபாட்டுகள் நீர் ஒழுகிச் செல்வதுபோல் சீராக நகர வேண்டும். தேவையான இடத்துக்கு விரைவாகச் சென்று செயலைத் திறம்பட நிறைவேற்ற வேண்டும்.
  2. கும்பத்தைப்போலவே, ரோபாட்டுகள் உரசலில்லாது பொருந்த வேண்டும். ஒரு ‘பாட்டை இன்னொரு செயலுக்கு மாற்றி வடிவமைத்தாலும் அந்த ‘பாட் அங்கே உடனே தன்னைப் பொருத்திக்கொள்ளும்படியாக நெகிழ்வாக வடிவமைக்கப்படவேண்டும்.
  3. கும்பத்தைப்போலவே, ரோபாட்டுகள் மொத்த அமைப்பையும் தாங்கி நிற்கும் வல்லமை கொண்டிருக்க வேண்டும். ஒரு நிறுவனத்திலோ வீட்டிலோ பொது இடத்திலோ, ஒரு ரோபாட் என்பது தனியன் அல்ல. அங்கே செயல்படும் அத்தனை ரோபாட்களின் ஒரு பகுதி. அவை கூட்டாகவே செயலாற்றுகின்றன. ஆகவே ஒவ்வொரு ரோபாட்டும் அந்த மொத்த அமைப்பையும் தாங்கி நிற்கும்படி வடிவமைக்கப்படவேண்டும்.


நன்றி – அரூ இதழ்

படைப்பில் ஒருமை – ரவீந்திரநாத் தாகூர் [மொழியாக்கம்] – 2

படைப்பில் ஒருமை [1] – அறிமுகம்


படைப்பின் இலட்சியம்

[குறிப்பு – இந்தக் கட்டுரையில் உள்ள ஆங்கிலக் கவிதை மேற்கோள்களை அப்படியே அளித்திருக்கிறேன். கவிதையின் கூறுகளை விளக்க ஆசிரியர் அவற்றை பயன்படுத்துகிறார், ஆகவே அவற்றின் வடிவத்தோடு அப்படியே வாசிக்கும் அனுபவமே சரியாக இருக்கும். வங்காள, சம்ஸ்கிருத வரிகள் கட்டுரையின் மையக்கருத்துகளை கவித்துவமான எழுச்சியோடு வெளிபடுத்தும் விதமாக மேற்கோள்காட்டப்பட்டுள்ளன. அவற்றை தமிழில் மொழியாக்கம் செய்திருக்கிறேன். —மொழிபெயர்ப்பாளர்]

பண்டைய சம்ஸ்கிருத நூலொன்றில் ஒரு செய்யுள் உள்ளது. ஒரு சித்திரத்தின் பிரத்யேகமான கூறுகள் என்னென்ன என்று விவரிக்கும் விதமாக அது அமைந்துள்ளது. அக்கூறுகளில் முதலாவதாக அது கருதுவது : வ்ருப பேத:ரூபங்களின் தனித்துவத்தன்மை. ஒரு சித்திரத்தில் பல ரூபங்கள் இருக்கலாம். ஒவ்வொரு ரூபமும் இன்னொன்றிலிருந்து வேறுபட்டது. ஒவ்வொரு ரூபத்துக்கும் அதன் எல்லைகள் உள்ளது. ஆனால் அவ்வெல்லைகள் திண்மையானவையாக திட்டவட்டமானவையாக இருக்குமென்றால் அந்தச்சித்திரம் ரூபங்களின் திரளாகவே நிற்கும். திரளின் பயங்கரமான தனிமையே அதனில் வெளிப்படும். மாறாக, ஒரு சித்திரத்தில் உள்ள பல ரூபங்கள், அவற்றின் தனித்தன்மைகளை மீறி, அவற்றுக்கு முரணாகவே, அவற்றை இணைக்கும் ஒருமையின் ஒரு கூரை தாங்கியிருக்கவேண்டும். அப்படி நிகழவில்லையென்றால் படைப்பு நிகழவில்லை என்று பொருள்.

சித்திரத்தின் முதற்கூரான ரூபங்களின் தனித்துவத்தன்மை என்பதை அடுத்து அந்தச் செய்யுள் இரண்டாவது கூராக அளவீடுகளை சொல்கிறது. இதை பிரமாணானி என்ற சொல்லால் குறிப்பிடுகிறது. அளவீடுகள் என்னும்போதே அது பரஸ்பர உறவுகளை குறிக்கின்றன. ஒரு வடிவம் இன்னொரு வடிவத்துக்கு தேவைகான இடம் கொடுத்தே அந்த பரஸ்பரம் உருவாகிறது. உடலிலிருந்து துண்டிக்கப்பட்ட கால் கார்ட்டூன்படத்தைப்போல எவ்வளவு பூதாகரமாக வேண்டுமென்றாலும் இருக்கலாம். ஆனால் உடலுடன் சேர்ந்திருக்கையில் அது உடலில் உயிரெனக் கூடும் ஒருமையுடன் இணைதிருக்கத்தான் வேண்டும். அது தன்னை அளவோடு நிறுத்திக்கொள்ளத்தான் வேண்டும். அப்படி அல்லாமல், உடற்கூறுகளை மீறி எம்பி அது தன்னுடைய சகாவை விட பலமடங்கு நீட்டம் கொள்ளும் என்றால், அது பார்வையாளன் கண்ணுக்கு எப்படித்தென்படுமென்றும், அந்த உடலுக்கே எத்தனைப்பெரிய தர்மசங்கடமாக முடியுமென்றும் நம்மால் ஊகிக்கக்கூடியதே. அளவீடுக் கொள்கையை மீறி, “நான் சுதந்திரமானவன்” என்று சித்திரத்தில் ஒரு அங்கம் மட்டும் முழங்குமேயானால் அது செய்வது கலகமேயாகும். அப்படி கலக்கத்தில் இறங்கினால் அது படத்தின் மற்ற அங்கங்களால் கருணையில்லாமல் அடித்து நொறுக்கப்படும். அல்லது முழுமையுடன் இணையாமல் என்றென்றைகும் தனித்தே நின்றுவிடும். இதில் ஒன்றே அதன் விதியாக அமையும். 

பிரமாணானி என்ற சம்ஸ்கிருதச் சொல் அழகியல் நூலில் அளவீடுகளைக் குறிக்கிறது. தத்துவ நூலில் ஒரு அறிவை அடையும் வழியை, அந்த அறிவுக்கான சான்றுகள் என்னென்னெ என்பதை குறிக்கிறது (பிரமாணம் – சான்று). அறிவுக்குறிய சான்றுகள் எல்லாமே அறிவுடன் சம்பந்தம் உடையவை. ஒவ்வொரு சான்றும், அதிலிருந்து அந்த ஒட்டுமொத்த அறிவு எவ்வாறு அடையப்படுகிறது என்று ஐயம் திரிபட நிரூபித்தாகவேண்டும். ஒரு நாட்டில் உள்ளவர்கள் எப்படி அடையாள அட்டயைக் கொண்டு அவர்கள் அந்த நாட்டின் குடிமக்கள் தான் என்று சந்தேகத்திற்கிடமில்லாமல் நிரூபிக்கிறார்களோ, அதேபோல் ஒவ்வொரு சான்றும் அந்த அறிவின் முழுமையை சுட்டும் விதமாக சந்தேகத்திற்கிடமில்லாமல் அமையவேண்டும். அந்த முழுமையை தனித்தொருவராக நின்று தங்களில் எவரும் உடைக்கவில்லை என்று நிரூபிக்கவேண்டும். தத்துவத்தில் உள்ள தர்க்கச்சான்றுகளின் தர்க்கரீதியான உறவும், கலையில் உள்ள அளவீடுகளின் அழகியல்ரீதியான உறவும், ஒரு புள்ளியில் இணக்கம் கொள்கின்றன. உண்மையென்பது தனித்தனி தகவல்களில் இல்லை. அந்தத் தகவல்களின் இணைவில், இசைவில் இருக்கிறது. இதில் ஓர் பிரபஞ்ச உண்மை பொதிந்திருக்கிறது. இதையே கவிஞன் “அழகு தான் உண்மை, உண்மையே அழகு” என்கிறான். 

அளவீடுகளே பரஸ்பர சமநிலையை உருவாக்குகிறது. படைப்புடைய லட்சியங்களின் கட்டமைப்பை இதுவே அமைக்கிறது. மனிதர்கள் கூட்டமாகக் கூடினால் அது வெறும் திரள். ஆனால் ராணுவப்படையில் ஒவ்வொரு மனிதனும் தன்னுடைய அளவீடின் வட்டத்துக்குள் நின்று செயல்படுகிறான். காலத்தில், வெளியில், நிற்கவேண்டிய இடத்தில் நின்று, நகரவேண்டியபடி நகர்ந்து, செய்ய வேண்டிய செயலை செய்கிறான். ஒரு வீரனும் மற்றொரு வீரனும் பரஸ்பர பந்தத்துடன் அவரவருக்கான இடத்திலும் செயல்வட்டத்திலுமே நின்றபடி செயலாற்றுவார்கள். இதுவே அவர்களை ராணுவத்துடன் ஒன்றியவர்களாக ஆக்குகிறது. ஆனால் அது மட்டும் அல்ல. படை என்பதே அதன் தலைவரின் மனத்திலுள்ள படை என்ற கருத்தின் புற வடிவம். அந்த கருத்தே படையை இயக்கும் ஒற்றை விசையாக உள்ளது. இப்படி, ஒரு படைப்பை இயக்கவும் ஒரு விசை தேவையாகிறது. அந்த விசையின் இயல்புக்கு ஏற்ப, அது கலைப்படைப்பா, அல்லது வெறும் கட்டுமானமா என்று வகுக்கலாம். கூட்டுப்பங்கு நிறுவனத்தின் அமைப்பையும்  நிர்வாக கொள்கைகளையும் உள்ளூர ஒரு விசை கூடி தீர்மானிக்கிறது. ஆனால் அந்த ஒற்றை விசையின் வெளிப்பாடு மட்டுமே அதன் இருப்பின் நோக்கம் அல்ல. அதைத்தண்டிய யதார்த்தமான காரணத்தை நிறைவேற்றவே அது அமைக்கப்படுகிறது. மாறாக, ஒரு கலைப்படைப்பின் தரிசனமென்பது தன்னளவிலேயே நிறைவும் முழுமையும் கொண்டதாகும். 

நம்முடைய இருப்பை, ஆளுமையை, ‘நான்’ என்று நாம் உணர்கிறோம். அது நம்மில் கூடியுள்ள ஒருமையின் உணர்வு. அந்த உணர்வு நாம் மகிழ்ச்சி, அல்லது சோகம், அல்லது பிற ஆழமான உணர்ச்சிகளால் ஆட்கொள்ளப்படும்போது மேலும் வலுவாகிறது. அது வானத்தைப்போல. நீலநிறமாக இருப்பதால் தான் கண்ணுக்குத்தெரிகிறது. நாட்பொழுதில் நிறங்கள் மாற மாற வெவ்வேறு விதமாக தோற்றமளிக்கிறது. கலைப்படைப்பிலும் ஒரு இலட்சிய உணர்சின் விசை அதன் ஒருமைபபட்டுக்கு அவசியமாகிறது. ஏனென்றால் கலைப்படைப்பின் ஒருமைப்பாடு ஒரு படிகத்தின் ஒருமைப்பாடு போல மந்தமானதும், ஈடுபாடில்லாததும் அல்ல. உணர்ச்சிகரமான, ஆற்றல்மிக்க வெளிப்பாட்டையுடையது. இந்தக்கவிதையை பாருங்கள்:

Oh, fly not Pleasure, pleasant-hearted Pleasure,

Fold me thy wings, I prithee, yet and stay.

For my heart no measure

Knows, nor other treasure

To buy a garland for my love to-day.

And thou too, Sorrow, tender-hearted Sorrow,

Thou grey-eyed mourner, fly not yet away.

For I fain would borrow

Thy sad weeds to-morrow,

To make a mourning for love’s yesterday.

இந்த மேற்கோளிலுள்ள வார்த்தைகள் சந்தத்தை வெளிப்படுத்த மட்டும் இவ்வாறாக கோர்க்கப்பட்டிருந்தால் அது நம்மை எவ்விதத்திலும் ஈடுபடுத்தாது. என்னதான் கச்சிதமாக அளவீடுகளோடு சந்தமும் தாளமும் கூடியிருந்தாலும் அது வெறும் கட்டமைப்பாகவே நிற்கும். ஆனால் அதே வார்த்தைகள் உள்ளுரையும் ஓர் இருப்புக்கு வெளிப்புற உடலாக அமையும்போது அது தனக்கென்று ஓர் ஆளுமையை அடைகிறது. அந்த தாளம் வழியாகவே அதில் உள்ளுறையும் அந்த இருப்பு பிரவாகிக்கிறது. வார்த்தைகளில் ஊடுருவுகிறது. அவற்றின் ஏற்ற இறக்கங்களில் துடித்துத்துடித்து உயிர்கொள்கிறது. மாறாக, இக்கவிதையில்லுள்ளே உறையும் உணர்வை வெறும் கருத்தாக, சந்தவிசேஷமில்லாத வாக்கியத்தில் கூறினோமானால், அது வெறுமனே ஒரு செய்தியை வெளிப்படுத்தும். உயிரற்றதாக, பிணம்போல் இருக்கும். அதனை பாடுவதில் எந்தப்பயனும் இருக்காது. அந்த உணர்வுப்பூர்வமான இருப்பு சரியான சந்ததாளவடிவத்தில் அமைகையில் மட்டுமே, ஒருகணமும் நில்லா நீங்கா இவ்வுலகின் நித்தியப்பெருவிழாவில் இடம்பெருவதற்கான உயிர்ப்பு அதனில் அமைகிறது.

இந்த வேடிக்கைப்பாட்டை பாருங்கள்:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

இதில் சந்தமுள்ளது. உயிர்ப்பலையின் சாயல் உள்ளது. ஆனால் நம்முடைய இதயத்துடிப்பின் சந்தத்தோடு இந்த வரிகள் இழைவதில்லை, இவ்வரிகளில் ஒருமையை உருவாக்கும் உயிர்ப்பு இல்லை. இவ்வரிகள் கைப்பிடிகள் வைத்தப் பை போல வசதியாக உள்ளன. மனித உடலைப்போல் தவிர்க்கமுடியாததாக, வேறெப்படியும் படைக்கப்பட்டிருக்கமுடியாதென்ற உணர்வை உருவாக்கவில்லை.

நம்முடைய சொந்த கலைப்படைப்புகளில் உறைந்திருக்கும் இந்த உண்மை நமக்கு படைப்பின் அகத்தில் பொதிந்துள்ள மர்மத்திற்குள் ஒரு சின்ன வெளிச்சத்தை காட்டுகிறது. இவ்வுலகின் முடிவில்லா சந்தங்கள் வெறும் கட்டமைப்புகளல்ல. இவை நம்முடைய இதய நரம்புகளை சுண்டி இழுதக்கின்றன. இசைக்கின்றன.

ஆகவேதான் நாம் இந்த பிரபஞ்சத்தையும் ஒரு படைப்பென்று உணரலாகிறோம். அதன் மையத்தில் உயிர்ப்பான ஒன்று இருக்கிறதென்றும், அது தன்னை எண்ணிலடங்கா இசைக்கருவிகளில் வாசிக்கப்படும் முதல்முடிவில்லாத பிரபஞ்ச கானமாக வெளிப்படுத்திக்கொள்கிறதென்றும் நாம் உணர்கிறோம். ஒரு நொடிக்கூட அதன் தாளம் தப்புவதில்லை. வானத்துக்கு வானம் தோரணம் கட்டி விரியும் இம்மாபெரும் உலகக்கவிதையானது வெறும் பருப்பொருட்களின் பண்டவஸ்துக்களின் நிதர்சனங்களின் பட்டியலல்ல. நாம் ஆனந்தத்தை உணரும்போதெல்லாம் அப்பாடலின் நேரடியான தரிசனத்தை அறிகிறொம். நம்முடைய ஆனந்தமே இப்பிரபஞ்ச பேரிருப்பின் ரகசியங்களுக்குத் திறவுகோல். ஒரு பேராளுமை இப்பிரபஞ்சத்தின் எண்ணிலடங்கா ஆளுமைகளின் மேல் தன்னுடைய ஓயாத வெளிப்பாட்டின் வழியே கோலோச்சுகிறான். வக்கீல் வாய்தாக்காரனைப்பார்த்து பாடுவதில்லை, ஆனால் புதுமணவாளன் தன் மனைவி கேட்கவேண்டுமென்று பாடுகிறான். நம்முடைய ஆன்மா அப்பாடல் கேட்டு நெகிழ்ந்து கரையும் போது, அது நம்மிடம் கட்டணமேதும் எதிர்பார்ப்பதில்லை என நாம் அறிகிறோம். காதலின் சமர்ப்பணத்தையே அம்மணவாளனின் குரலில் கேட்கிறோம். மறுக்கமுடியாத ஓர் அழைப்பும்.

சித்திரக்கலை, இன்னும் பிறக்கலைகளில் சில வடிவங்கள் அலங்காரத்துக்கென்றே படைக்கப்படுகின்றனவே, அவற்றுக்கு வெளிப்படுத்த உயிர்ப்பான உள்ளுறையும் இலட்சியம் ஏதும் இல்லையே என்ற கேள்வியை நாம் எழுப்பலாம். ஆனால் அது அப்படி அல்ல. அலங்காரக்கலையில் படைப்பாளியின் உணர்ச்சிகரமான வெளிப்பாடு உள்ளது. “இதன் படைப்பில் நான் மகிழ்கிறேன், இது நன்று,” என்ற உணர்வு.  ஆனந்தத்தின் மொழிபுகள் அனைத்துமே அழகுதான். ஆனால் இங்கே ஒன்று சொல்லியாகவேண்டும். உண்மையான மகிழ்வு என்பது வெறும் கேளிக்கை அல்ல. அழகு வெறும் வடிவலட்சணம் அல்ல. தன்னிலையிலிருந்து பிரிந்து எழுந்து உயர்கையில் உருவாகும் உணர்வே மகிழ்வு. அது ஆனந்தம். உள்ளம் பிணைப்புகளில்லாமல் ஆகையில் உருவாகும் உணர்வது. அழகென்பது இங்கு உறையும் உண்மையான சாரமான ஒன்றின் ஆழமான வெளிப்பாடு. அந்த சாரத்தின் வெளிப்பாடு மட்டுமே நம்முடைய மனங்களை நிறைவடையச்செய்கிறது. வேறு வசீகரங்களேதும் அதனிடத்தில் இருப்பதில்லை. தேவையும் இல்லை. வெகுசில தூயப் பரசவசக் கணங்களில் நாம் உலகத்தைப்பற்றிய இந்த உண்மையை நேரடியாக பிரத்யட்சமாக அறியலாகிறோம். நாம் இந்த உலகை வெறும் இருப்பாக மட்டுமல்லாமல், அதன் வடிவங்கள், ஒலிகள், நிறங்கள், வரிகளினால் அழகூட்டப்பட்டிருப்பதை அறிகிறோம். “என் படைப்பில் நான் மகிழ்கிறேன்” என்று நின்று பெருமையுடன் அறிவிக்கும் ஒன்று  அவற்றின் வழியாக வெளிப்படுவதை நம் உள்ளங்கள் அறிந்துகொண்டே இருக்கிறது.

இதனால் தான் அந்த சம்ஸ்கிருதப் பாடல் ஒரு சித்திரக் கலைப்படைப்பின் இன்றியமையாத பாகங்களாக (1) ரூபங்களின் தனித்துவத்தன்மை, (2) சரியான அளவீடுகள், அவற்றின் ஒருமை என்பதுடன், (3) ஃபாவ: – அதன் உணர்ச்சிப்பூர்வமான மையம் என்று மூன்றாவதாக குறிப்பிடுகிறது.

உணர்ச்சிகரமான வெளிப்பாடு மட்டும் கலையாகாது – அது எத்தனை உண்மையான உணர்வாக இருந்தாலும் சரிசரி இந்தப்பாடல் அதன் ஆசிரியரால் “இரக்கமற்ற காதலியிடம் ஒரு விண்ணப்பம்” என்று தலைப்பிடப்பட்டுள்ளது:

And wilt thou leave me thus?

Say nay, say nay, for shame!

To save thee from the blame

Of all my grief and grame.

And wilt thou leave me thus?

Say nay! say nay!

கவிஞரின் விண்ணப்பத்தில் இருக்கும் தீவிரத்தையோ அதை வெளிப்படுத்துவதற்கான தேவையையோ நான் சந்தேகப்பட்டால் அவர் கோபித்துக்கொள்ளமாட்டார் என்று நினைக்கிறேன். அவர் அந்த பாடலின் வடிவத்துக்கு மட்டுமே பொறுப்பு கொண்டவர். அதன் உணர்வுகளுக்கல்ல. உணர்வுகள் அந்த பாடலை உருவாக்கி வடிப்பதில் வெறுமனே கச்சாப்பொருள் மட்டுமே. பயன்படுத்தப்படும் எரிபொருளுக்கு ஏற்ப நெருப்பு வெவ்வேறு வண்ணங்கள் கொள்கிறது. ஆனால் நாம் எரிபொருளை கவனிப்பதில்லை. அதை பற்றி விவாதிப்பதில்லை. நெருப்பையே கவனித்து விவாதிக்கிறோம். எப்படி ஒரு ரோஜாப்பூ அதன் சாரத்தைத்த்தண்டிய வடிவம் கொண்ட ஒன்றோ, அப்படி ஒரு பாடலென்பது அதில் வெளிப்படுத்தப்பட்ட உணர்வைத்தண்டி முற்றிலும் பெரிதான, வேறான ஒன்று. இனி முந்தைய பாடலைக் காட்டிலும் ஆழமான, உண்மையான உணர்வு வெளிப்பாடு அமைந்திருக்கும் மற்றொரு பாடலை பார்ப்போம்:

The sun,

Closing his benediction,

Sinks, and the darkening air

Thrills with the sense of the triumphing night,—

Night with her train of stars

And her great gift of sleep.

So be my passing!

My task accomplished and the long day done,

My wages taken, and in my heart

Some late lark singing,

Let me be gathered to the quiet West,

The sundown splendid and serene,


இந்தக் கவிதையில் வெளிப்பட்டுவரும் உணர்வுகளும் எண்ணங்களும் ஒரு உளவியலாளரின் பார்வைக்குறியவை. ஆனால் கவிதையென்னும்போது அதன் உணர்வுளும் எண்ணங்களும் அப்படியே அதன் கவித்தவத்தில் கரைந்துவிடுகிறது. உயிர்ப்புள்ள தாவரத்தில் கார்பன் உள்ளதென்ற ஞானம் அதை கரியாக்க எண்ணுபவனுக்கே முக்கியம். தாவரங்களின் மீது காதல் கொண்டவனுக்கு அது ஒரு பொருட்டே அல்ல.  

இதனால்தான் நிலத்தின் மேல் ஏதாவது புதியவகை கொள்கையின் உணர்வு, புயலாகக் கிளம்பும்போது அங்கே கலையில் ஒரு பின்னடைவு ஏற்பட்டுவிடுகிறது. அந்தக் கொள்கையுணர்வின் ஒற்றைபப்டையான தீவிரம், படைப்பின் அமர்த்தியான இணக்கத்தின் எல்லைகளை உடைத்து முந்தியடித்துக்கொண்டு தலை நீட்டுகிறது.  தரை மிதித்து புயல் எழுப்பித் தன்னை நாயகனாக நிறுத்திக்கொள்கிறது. அதன் எடையும் அழுத்தமும் படைப்பில் கைகூட வேண்டுய ஒருமையை அதன் பீடத்திலிருந்து அசைத்து பெயர்த்துவிடுகிறது.  இதே காரணத்தால் தான் தேவாலய பக்தி பாடல்களில் உண்மையான கவித்துவத்தன்மை இருப்பதில்லை. தேசபக்தி பாடல்களிலும் இதே குறையை காண முடிகிறது. திடீர் மழையில் பொங்கி எழும் மலைநீர் பெருக்குகள் இவை. தங்களுடைய பாதையிலுள்ளதை அடித்துச்செல்லும் வேகமே இவற்றின் குறிக்கோள், நீரின் ஒழுக்கு அல்ல. இக்கொள்கைகளின் உணர்ச்சிவேகம் வலிமையும் தன்னகங்காரமும் பொருந்தியவை. தங்களுடைய வீரியத்தை வெளிபடுத்த ஒரு அரங்கை அமைத்துக்கொடுக்கும் ஊடகம் மட்டுமே கவிதை என்ற பார்வையுண்டு இவற்றுக்கு. இப்படி எந்த கொள்கைக்காகவும் கவிதை ஒருநாளும் தன்னுடைய ஆன்மாவை பேரம்பேசி விற்றுவிடக்கூடாது. என்னதான் பொதுநலம், சமூகப்பயன் என்ற பெயர்களெல்லாம் சூடிக்கொண்டு வந்தாலும், அந்த சபலத்துக்கு கவிதை இடம் கொடுக்கவே கூடாது. கலைஞனுக்கும் கலைக்கும் இடையே காதலின் தூய ஊடகமான பழுதற்ற பற்றின்மை இருத்தல் வேண்டும். அந்தக்காதலை தூய்மையாக, முழுமையாக வெளிப்படுத்துவது மட்டுமே அந்தக்காதலில் ஈடுபடுவதன் குறிக்கோளாக இருக்க வேண்டும். தன் காதலை வேறெதன் சேவையிலும் பயனாக்கும் அற்ப எண்ணத்தை கலைஞன் அரவே ஒழித்துக்கட்ட வேண்டும். 

அன்றாட வாழ்க்கையில் நம்முடைய ஆளுமை சுயநலத்தின் சிறிய வட்டத்திற்குள் வலம் வருகிறது. ஆகவே அந்த சிறிய இடைவெளிக்குள் நம்முடைய உணர்ச்சிகள், நம் வாழ்க்கையின் நிகழ்வுகள் நமக்கு பூதாகரமான முக்கியத்துவம் பெற்று நிற்கின்றன. அவை தங்களை ஓங்கி ஓங்கி முன்வைத்துக்கொண்டே இருக்கின்றன. அந்த ஓங்கியக் குரலுக்கு முன்னால் அந்த உணர்வுகளும் நிகழ்வுகளும் முழுமையுடன் கொள்ளும் ஒருங்கிணைவு நம் கண்களுக்குத் தென்படுவதில்லை. ஆனால் கலையில் நம்முடைய ஆளுமை நித்தியத்தின் பற்றில்லா சுதந்திர வெளியில் சென்று நின்றுகொள்கிறது. அங்கே தன்னுடைய உண்மையான அளவை அது அறிந்துகொள்கிறது. நம்முடைய வீடு பற்றி எரியும்போது தீயின் தன்மையை நம்மால் புரிந்துகொள்ளமுடியாது. ஆனால் நட்சத்திரங்களில் உள்ள நெருப்பு அலகிலா பேரிருப்பின் உள்ளத்திலுள்ள நெருப்பே தான். அங்கே, அது படைப்பின் லிபியானத் தீ.

(பிரிட்டிஷ் கவிஞர்) மாத்யூ ஆர்னல்ட் நைட்டிங்கேல் பறவையை நோக்கிப்பாடும் பாடலின் வரிகள் இவை:

Hark! ah, the nightingale—

The tawny-throated!

Hark, from that moonlit cedar what a burst!

What triumph! hark!—what pain!

வலி நம்முடைய அன்றாடத்தின் எல்லைகளில் சென்று முட்டும் போது அது நம்முடைய நெஞ்சில் உதைத்து நம்மை பின்னால் தள்ளுகிறது. இது பெரும் வேதனையை உருவாக்கிறது. வாழ்க்கையின் குறுகிய வட்டத்தோடு அதன் தீவிரம் முரண்படுகிறது. அன்றாடத்தில் வலியென்பது ஒவ்வாத அபசுவரமாக ஆகிறது. ஆனால் பெரும் தியாகத்தின் வலியில் காலாதீதத்தின் பற்றில்லாமை உள்ளது. அங்கே பெருவலி தன்னுடைய பூரண கம்பீரத்துடன் வெளிப்படுகிறது. ஆதியந்தமில்லா இப்பெருவாழ்வின் விரிவில் அதற்கான இயல்பான இடம் அமைந்துவிடுகிறது. முகில் திரண்டு கருண்ட வானில் வெட்டும் மின்னல் அங்கே இணக்கத்துடன் வெளிப்படுகிறது. சோதனைச்சாலைக்கம்பியில் நிகழும் மின்னலுக்கு அந்த கம்பீரமும் இணக்கமும் இருப்பதில்லை. அந்த பெருவிரிவில் வைத்துப்பார்க்கையில் பெருவலிகளனைத்துமே பெருங்காதலுடன் பொருந்தி இசைவு கொள்கின்றன. எல்லா வலிகளுமே அன்பைக் காயப்படுத்துபவை. ஆகவே பெருவலியில் அன்பின் பரிபூரண இருப்பும் பரிபூரண அழகும் என்றென்றைக்குமாக வெளிப்படுகிறது. மாறாக, ஒரு வணிக ஒப்பந்தம் கசந்து போகும்போது ஏற்படும் வலியில் கம்பீரம் ஏதும் இல்லை. ஒன்றை ஒன்று கவ்விக் கடித்து உண்டு தீர்ப்பதிலேயே அது முடிகிறது. 

கவிஞன் பாடுகிறான்:

How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!

Eternal Passion!

Eternal Pain!

முதல்முடிவிலா காலாதீதப் பெருவெளியில் பொதிந்துள்ள பெருவலியைப்பற்றி வேதக்கவிஞர்கள் பாடுகிறார்கள். ஆம், “எல்லா படைப்பும் ஆனந்தத்திலிருந்து உதிப்பவை” என்று கூறிய அதே வேதக்கவிஞர்கள்.

ஸ தபஸ் தபத்வா சர்வம் அஸ்ரஜாத யாதிதம் கிஞ்ச

தன்னுடைய பெருவலியின் தாபத்திலிருந்து படைப்போன் இவ்வனைத்தையும் படைக்கிறான்.

படைப்பின் மையமான இத்தவம் ஒரே நேரம் பேரானந்தமும் பெருவலியும் தூண்டக்கூடியதாகும். இதைப்பற்றி வங்கநிலத்து நாடோடி மெய்ஞானிகள் பாடும் பாடல் ஒன்று:

ஆனந்தத்தின் இருளில் அமிழ்கின்றன என் கண்கள்

காரிருளின் பரவசத்தில் கமலமலரென இதழ்மூடுகிறது, என் இதயம்

அந்தப்படல் பேசும் ஆனந்தமானது நீலக்கடலைப்போல் ஆழமானது, நீலவானப்போல் முடிவில்லாதது. இரவின் கம்பீரமும் தீராப் பேரழகும் கொண்டது அது. அதன் முடிவில்லா இருள், பிரகாசமாக ஒளிரும் பற்பல உலகங்களை தனக்குள் பேரமைதியின் மகாத்மியத்தோடு அணைத்துக்கொண்டிருக்கிறது. எல்லா பெருவலிகளும் ரணவேதனைகளும் ஒன்றாகும் ஆனந்தப்பெருவெளி அது. 

தன்னுடைய படைப்பின் ஊற்றைப்பற்றி மத்தியக்கால இந்தியாவின் கவிஞன் ஒருவன் ஒரு ‘கேள்வி-பதில்’ கவிதை வழியாக சொல்கிறான் இப்படி:

பறவையே, நீ இரவெல்லாம் உன் கூட்டில் அடைந்திருந்தாயே, அப்போது உன் பாடல்கள் எங்கே இருந்தன?

உன்னுடைய மகிழ்ச்சியெல்லாம் அங்கே தானே இருந்தது?

நீ ஏன் உன் மனதை வானத்திடம் பரிகொடுத்துவிட்டாய், முதல்முடிவில்லாத வானத்திடம் பரிகொடுத்துவிட்டாய்?

பறவை சொல்கிறது:

எல்லைகளுக்குள்ளே ஓய்வாயிருந்தபோது மகிழ்ச்சியை அடைந்தேன்

ஆதியந்தமில்லாமைக்குள் பறந்தபோது என் பாடல்களைக் கண்டுகொண்டேன்!

ஒரு கருத்தை அதன் அன்றாடத்திலிருந்து விடுவித்து அதை பெருவிரிவின் சுதந்திர வெளியில் உயர்த்திப் பறக்கவிடுவதே கவிதை செய்யக்கூடியது. மெக்பெத்தின் அதிகார ஆசை, ஒத்தெல்லோவின் பொறாமை, இவை நீதிமன்றத்தின் முன்னால் கொண்டுவரப்பட்டால் பரபரப்பான செய்திகளாக நின்றுவிடும். ஆனால் ஷேக்ஸ்பியரின் நாடகங்களில் அவ்வுணர்வுகள் தீப்பற்றி எரியும் நட்சத்திரக்கோவைகளுக்கிடையே எழுகின்றன. ஊர்வலமாக புறப்பாடு செல்கின்றன. அங்கே படைப்பு காலம்கடந்த விழைவுகளுடன், காலம்கடந்த வலிகளுடன் அதிர்ந்துகொண்டிருக்கிறது.


படைப்பில் ஒருமை – ரவீந்திரனாத் தாகூர் [மொழியாக்கம்] – 1

குருதேவர் ரவீந்திரநாத் தாகூர்



“நான் இங்கே இருக்கிறேன்” என்பது மிக எளிமையான அறிதல். அதை அறிய எனக்கு எந்த விஷேஷப் பிரயத்தனமும் செய்தாகவேண்டிய அவசியம் இல்லை. ஆனால் ‘நான்’ என்ற இந்த ‘என்னை’ உருவாக்கும் எண்ணிற்கடங்காத பௌதீக, வேதியிய, உயிரிய, உளவியக் கூறுகளை நான் பகுப்பாய்வு செய்ய முற்பட்டால், அந்தத் தேடல் எல்லையில்லாத ஒன்றாக ஆகிவிடும். நான் என்பது எனக்குள் நான் உணரும், வார்த்தைகளால் விவரிக்கமுடியாத ஒரு மர்மநிலை. அலகிலாததன் எளிமை அதில் உள்ளது. விரிந்து விரிந்து உடைந்து உடைந்து செல்லும், என்னை உருவாக்கி வைத்திருக்கும், இந்தப் பெருக்குகளை, ஒற்றைப்புள்ளியாக்கி நிறுத்துகிறது. 

என்னில் உள்ள இந்த ஒன்று – ஏகம் – பலவாகிப் பிளந்து பிரிந்து நிற்கும் இந்தப் பிரபஞ்சத்தை அறிகிறது. ஆனால் அது பிரபஞ்சத்தில் உள்ள ஒவ்வொரு பொருளில் உள்ள ஒருமையை, ஏகத்தைத்தான் அறிகிறது. அது இந்த அறையை அறிகிறதென்றால், இந்த அறை அதற்கு ஏகமான, ஒருமையான ஓர் இருப்பு. அறை என்பது பலபொருட்களால் அமைக்கப்பட்டதென்றாலும், அப்பொருட்கள் ஒன்றுடன் ஒன்று முரண்படுகிறதென்றாலும், அறை என்பது ஒற்றை அறிதல் தான். என்னில் உள்ள ஏகம் ஒரு மரத்தை அறிகிறதென்றால், அது அறிவது ஒருமையைத்தான் – மரமாக வெளிப்படும் ஒருமை. 

எனக்குள் இருக்கும் ஒருமை, ஏகம், படைப்பூக்கமானது. படைப்பதென்பது அதற்கு ஒரு பொழுதுபோக்கு. லீலை. அதன்வழியே அது ஒருமையென்ற லட்சியத்துக்கு விதவிதமாக வடிவம் கொடுத்து விளையாடுகிறது. சித்திரங்களிலும் கவிதைகளிலும் இசையிலும் அது ஆனந்தத்தைக் கண்டடைகிறது. உள்ளுறையும் ஒருமைக்கு பூரணமான, பிரிதொன்றில்லாத வடிவத்தை கண்டடைவதன் வழியாக அது அந்த ஆனந்தத்தை அடைகிறது.

என்னில் உள்ள இந்த ஏகம், அதன் தற்புரிதலுக்காக அறிவில் ஒருமையை நாடுகிறது. அதன் குதூகலத்திற்காக ஒருமையின் சித்திரவடிவங்களை படைத்து விளையாடுகிறது. மட்டுமல்லாமல், அதன் நிறைவுக்காக பிரேமையின் ஐக்கியத்தை வேண்டுகிறது. அது தன்னை இன்னொருவரில் தேடுகிறது. இது ஓர் உண்மை. இதை நிரூபணமாக்கும் பேருண்மைகளின் ஊடகங்கள் நம்மிடத்தில் இல்லாதிருப்பின், இப்படிச்சொல்வது சற்று அபத்தமாகக் கூடப் படலாம். பிரேமத்தில் நாம் கண்டடையும் ஆனந்தம் பரமமானது, ஏனென்றால் அதுதான் பரமசத்தியமும் கூட. ஆகவேதான் உபனிடதங்களில் “அத்வைதம் அனந்தம்” என்று கூறப்பட்டுள்ளது. ஒருமை அலகில்லாதது. அவை “அத்வைதம் ஆனந்தம்” என்றும் கூறுகின்றன. ஒருமை ஆனந்தமானது, பிரேமைமயமானது.

அலகிலாத அந்த ஒன்றிற்கு பழுதில்லாத வடிவம் கொடுக்க, எண்ணிலாத இந்த பலவற்றில் இணைவையும் இசைவையும் உருவாக்குவதும், அலகிலாத பிரேமையென்ற ஆனந்தவெளியை, தன்னிருப்பைத் தியாகம் செய்து ஏய்துவதும் தான் தனிமனிதனாக, சமூகமாக, நாம் இலட்சியமென்று எடுத்துக்கொண்டு செய்யக்கூடியது.

Vanangaan [Translation]

A translation of B.Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story Vanangaan (2015). The Tamil story can be read here.

My name is Vanangaan. It means ‘he who does not bow’, a stubborn stiffneck. Yes, that’s really my name. If you want my full name, it’s K.Vanangaan Nadar. No, it’s not my clan-god’s name or anything like that. No one in my family has had this name before me. No one in my caste or kin has such a name. I haven’t met another man with this name. Why, I have never met a single person who has even heard of this name.

It was my father who gave me this name. From the day he gave me this name till the day he died, for twenty-seven years, he kept talking about my name. After getting my engineering degree, my first job was in Bhilai, far to the north. To their ears, our names are all the same. However, the Tamils and Malayalees there used to ask me about my name.

It has been four years since I have come back to Tamil Nadu after retirement. I have a house in the suburbs of Nellai where I live with my wife and daughter. My daughter and son-in-law are disgruntled to hear me use my full name everywhere. Why don’t you just call yourself ‘K.V.Nadar’, they ask. That’s how they refer to me. I don’t, I prefer to use my full name everywhere. If someone looks up in surprise and asks me about it, then I proceed to tell them its story.   

My father’s name was Karuthaan. It means ‘darkie’. Did he also have a surname? Nadar? Well, don’t ask me that. You have no idea about the caste order of those days. There were many kinds of Nadars. Those with lands to their name and pride in their hoary clans would call themselves Nadars. They had homes with courtyards and outhouses and orchads; fields and haystacks and cowsheds. They paid tribute to kings.

For the rest, it was an extravagance to even have a name of your own. My father was born dark, he became Karuthaan. His brother had a large lip, so he was Sundan. His sister was a little more light-skinned than the rest, so she became Vellakutty. It was just like how you would name dogs. I’m not talking about the caste landowners’ dogs, they had fine names. I’m talking about the streetdogs.

My grandfather’s name was Ezhaan. Seventh. He could have been the seventh child. His mother had had nine children, two survived – that’s right, just like dogs. I have seen grandfather’s sister Kunji when I was young. A dark, crooked old crone, but she had a tough body. Though withered and shrunk and shriveled and humped, she lived till eighty. Till she died, she worked in the fields – bearing loads of manure on her head, fetching water for the vegetables, planting banana trees. She was hauling a whole cluster of bananas to the local market, when, with an ache in her chest, she stopped to rest outside a palm sugar shop. She lay down, closed her eyes, and with an expression on her face as if she was enjoying an agreeable breeze of wind, she died.

My grandfather worked as a yearly-wage labourer in the house of a land-owning, upper-caste Karai Nair in town. Their people owned lands and groves all over town. They had two managers, also from the Nair caste, called Kariyastha Nairs, who took care of all the property. For harvesting cocounuts and braiding baskets from coconut fronts, they had fellows from the Kaippalli caste. To pound the grain, women from the Achari caste. Pulayars took care of the rice fields. For all the other menial jobs, there were Nadars. Each caste of workers had its own leader, an overseer. This man was the soverign king of his little kingdom with power to slaughter and bury at will, no questions asked. The rest were consigned to live as the lowest of the low, under the very land his feet stepped on.

In that order of things, everybody was below somebody else. One of the markers of your place in the structure was splittle. Your saliva. If the overseer spat on the wage slave, the wage slave could not wipe it off as long as the overseer was still there. If the manager spat out a long, red stream of chewed-up betel nut juice on the overseer in a fit of anger, then the overseer would have to stand there take it with a meek smile. But the manager waited with a spittoon ready for his master, the Nair, and whenever a member of the Nair’s family puckered up his betel-chewing mouth in readiness to spit, he had to bring it forward under the man’s face. And if someone from the king’s clan visited, the Karai Nair himself had to carry the spittoon and deferentially follow at the heels of the guest.

There were no daily-wage labourers in those days. The wages were grain, given twice a year during the harvest. You brought the grain home, dried it, and stored it in pots. If you occasionally husked and boiled a little to make some hot gruel, it might last you for two or three months. It took a lot of mental fortitude to make that grain last till the famine month of Aadi. On all other days, you had to make do with the gruel that was doled out of the huge cauldrons at the landlord’s house, along with cassava mash and sour greens. That was only for lunch. At dusk, after the day’s work, you could make a detour into the forest and forage for something that you could cook and eat. That was dinner. Mostly root vegetables. Sometimes greens. If you were lucky, you got a rabbit, or a mongoose, or a bandicoot.

It was a life where you were unaware of the existence of any part of your body except for your stomach. Like an evil spirit seething with unquenched rage, your stomach kept simmering all over. I have heard my grandmother say that hunger is like when the roof’s on fire. Whatever comes to your hand, you fling onto it and try to put it out, there’s no need to wait and examine whether it is worth losing or not. For hunger is the greatest torment that there is.

My grandfather started going to work the day he started walking. He has no memory of a day when he did not work. Backbreaking work that was peppered with thrashings and an unending volley of abuse was followed by an abject weariness at the end of the day that made him drop off to sleep right where he stood. He woke up before dawn the following day to kicks and thrashes to do it all over again. This was all the life he knew. The only knowledge he had about society was how deep he had to bow before different classes of people. His picture of society was simply a hierarchy of deference.

One day, during work, my grandfather hid in the bushes to eat his mid-morning meal. It was the month of the harvest, my grandmother had made him some rice gruel the previous day. She fermented the leftovers overnight and brought it along with her in a little pot. My grandfather loved the sour, fermented day-old cooked rice. While he was hurriedly gobbling it up, the grandson of the Karai Nair happened to go that way to the Sastha temple along with the manager. He was fifteen. He spotted my grandfather eating in the bushes.

When my grandfather saw him, he got up and brought his hands close to his chest and bending over like a manacle, sat down on his haunches and kept his eyes cast down. The little pot with the  gruel was next to him. What passed through the boy’s mind, I don’t know, but with his foot, he kicked some mud into the pot. “Eat!” he said. When my grandfather hesitated a little, the overseer brought down his switch on his back and started hitting him repeatedly.

Like a man possessed, my grandfather lifted the pot to his lips and in a single gulp, downed everything in the pot. Then, retching and heaving, he sunk back on his haunches and arched his body into the ground. The boy kicked mud on my grandfather again, and left the place sniggering. The manager and the overseer joined him in his mirth.

At a distance, my father, Appa, was carrying loads of rice seedlings. To his eyes, my grandfather’s bent, shrunken body looked like a pile of dung. He could smell the stench, he thought. He could see the foul odour and the worms rise from it. At that time, he was filled with an unbearable hatred his father. His heart longed for the man’s death, right then, right there. His tears spilling over into the sludge of rice fields, he turned and walked away.

That night, he spoke to his mother in the presence of his father. “I’m going,” he said. “Ask your son where,” replied my grandfather. “No more place for me here. My food lies elsewhere,” said my father. “That’s right, as if you have food set aside for you waiting somewhere. It’s your good fortune that you get some gruel here. If you don’t want to starve and die in the street, just do your work and be,” replied my grandfather, not looking at him.

“So when every passing dog kicks up mud into my gruel, should I drink it?” Appa burst out. “You sinner, you dare to speak about our master?” cried out my grandfather. “Our lord, our master who feeds us?” and in rage, he picked up the first thing lying around, a broomstick, and started hitting my father over and over. “You are not my son! No, you are a thankless dog… you are not my son at all!” he shouted breathlessly.

The coarse sticks from the broom poking him all over, his body burning, my father stormed out of the hut and sat in the pit dug for planting the little coconut tree. When it was well and truly dark, my grandmother came outside. “Let it go, child… you know his nature. You come in, I will give you some steamed tubers…” she put her arm around him and led him back into the house. They ate the steamed tubers to quench their hunger and slept. But at midnight, Appa woke up and left the house.

However, they caught him easily. When he entered the main road in Nattalam, the man lying on a haystack keeping guard caught sight of him. At the same time, his dog also saw him. It bounded out barking and caught hold of him. The guard came behind the dog and tying him up with the cloth around his waist, dragged him back to his master’s house.

The next morning, the first thing the landlord saw was my father lying outside, bruised and mudstreaked. My father’s overseer was summoned, he got twenty strokes with a switch. They dragged my grandfather there and buried him waist deep in the manure pit. He brought this hands together imploringly. “Master, golden master… he is naive, he does not know what he’s doing. Take heart, please take heart, don’t kill him…” he wailed.

The landlord had the habit of petting his elephant, the tusker Kochaiyappan, every morning. The animal was brought to his front yard in the morning and stayed there restrained through the day, it would be taken back only in the evening. In those days, it was considered auspicious to have a tusker standing in front of your house, its big ears gently fanning back and forth. The servant Nanan Nair brought out a big platter with jaggery and coconut for the elephant. An idea struck the landlord.

“Bring him,” he said. They bound my father’s hands and legs and brought him to the landlord. In accordance with his instructions, they hammered down a stake deep in the space between the four legs of the elephant, and tied my father to that post. My father screamed and flailed in panic. Once he was under the elephant, it was as if his breath had stopped; his sheer terror was visible only by the gentle tremor on the surface of his body. In some time, there was shit and piss coming out of him.

The landlord sat there laughing for a while and then got up. “Let him be there till dusk. Let Kochaiyappan decide whether he should be killed or not,” he said, and left. Appa slowly came back to his senses. In some time, his fear disappeared. Till the end of his days Appa used to marvel at this memory – how his mind became so clear, how he could succinctly remember every little thing that happened that day.

Each leg of the elephant was like the base of a red cotton tree that grows in the jungle, full of cracks and folds; massive and rounded like a felled trunk that had been planted there. It had toenails like the white undersides of cut rootlets. As time passed the toenails started looking like the teeth of a massive demon. They seemed to be sneering at my father. Over his head, the underbelly of the elephant loomed like the stone roof of a low cave. Its penis was like an enormous plough.

Twice, the elephant brushed my father with its trunk; my father thought it was a blow and jumped in terror. After that, the elephant left him alone. With three legs firmly planted on the ground, the animal lifted and shifted his fourth foot on the ground; you could see the underside of the foot then. It was like a huge bundle of clothes. My father noticed that it was shifting its weight often, now on this leg, now on that, and thumping the ground with his big foot. When it tore apart a sugarcane stalk, the animal landed on its foot sending soil flying into the air, Appa yelped, “Ayyo!” Then he observed how the animal was placing the stalk against its foot very carefully. Huge balls of dung landed on the ground behind him with a thump, with the scent of warm, moist vegetation rising off them. Urine the colour of moss poured down on the piles of dung like a mountain stream. Appa’s body had the rank stink of elephant piss.

In the evening when the elephant was taken away, Appa kept lying there. They dragged him away and secured him to a coconut tree with some rope. They brought out my grandfather who was neck deep in the manure pit, and gave him a blow, “Get out of here.” The hot manure pit had burned his skin. His shrunk skin peeling off his body like on a cooked stork, he beat his fists on his chest and cried aloud, “Spare my son, golden master! My keeper, my god… my lord, spare my son, I beg you!” Wailing thus, and getting many more blows in return, he left the place.

All through the night, my father loosed the bonds on his hands bit by bit with his teeth. Then with a sharp stone, he cut the rest of the bonds. He escaped into the darkness of the midnight. This time, he avoided all the roads and thoroughfares. He sneaked his way through the plantations and bushes and fields.

While he ran, his heart with filled with revulsion towards his father. He kept spitting in disgust all the way. The next day, he wondered what fate was in store for his father. “Motherfucker, let him die,” he told himself. It was only sixteen years later when, one day, we were all eating day-old rice together that Appa realized that, even in the throes of prolonged hunger, his father had never touched old rice since that fateful day. He had dissolved into tears then. As Appa used to say “If a man is born wretched, even his revenge can’t be wrecked upon anything except his own body and stomach and soul.”

Appa went from Nattalam to Karungkal and from there to Thingalsandhai. From there, to Nagarcoil. He was eight years old then. He had no truck with books and learning, he couldn’t read or write. He knew nothing about the world outside Nattalam where he had lived till then. Not even second-hand knowledge. In those days, you could reach those towns only by dusty country roads where only carts could travel. There were fields on both sides, occasionally interrupted by small towns. Most of the area was rocky jungle land. Since there were plenty of jackals and wolves in the area, people rarely ventured out at night.

However there is something such as a blissful ignorance. It has a strength beyond what one might imagine. This is one of the lessons that I have learned in all my years of existence. When a man is utterly guileless, God has to to slacken some of his merciless laws for him. He doesn’t have an option. It was on the back of that strength that my father managed to go so far.

When I mentioned this one day, Appa laughed. “Go on now, you senseless fellow. My whole body reeked of elephant. Do you think wild creatures would come near you if you smell like an elephant? How else do you think I managed to escape from the landlord’s yard? Twelve dogs they had on guard, twelve. They took one sniff at the elephant odour coming off my body and promptly scarpered away, their tails tucked between their legs.” My father was like that till the end; his rationality always trumped everything else.

The next evening, Appa reached Nagarcoil. He would have walked thirty-five kilometres. He was used to hunger; his dark, slender frame was used to all kinds of deprivations. When there was a forest fire, Appa used to say, there were always some branches that wouldn’t burn, but lie on the forest floor, burnt and blackened with soot. They used such sticks in their fields. They were diamond-bodied, it was said. No matter what you did, they would neither bend nor break. Appa was like that.

Appa has no memory of what he thought of Nagarcoil. Like an animal, he walked through the streets of the city looking for something to eat. His body was covered with mud and slush. He had covered his loins with a sheath from the betelnut tree tied around his waist. However you should have seen my father. It is rare to see a man more handsome than he. He looked a bit like Denzel Washington. He had kind, gentle eyes. Back then, his eyes would have been even more beautiful. They would have been like rounded stones lying at the botton of a jungle stream – dark, cool, lusturous.

There was an idli stall run by a man called Ganesan near Parvathipuram. Appa scraped the leftovers from the used banana-leaf plates heaped outside his shop, ate it and went to sleep right there. Ganesan was a good businessman who could drive a hard bargain. He knew it as soon as he saw Appa that this boy could work like a bull. He summoned the boy into the shop and gave him a wide-mouthed vessel full of day-old rice and leftovers. Once his stomach had come to it senses, Appa could stand straight. He told Ganesan his name. However, despite repeated questioning, he refused to state the name of his town or any other details. Ganesan realized that he would never be able to get a word more out of this fellow.

Appa worked there for four years. Every morning, he would wake up early and walk a furlong to a stream from where he would fetch pot after pot of water to fill a big wooden trough. Then there was work in the idli stall, till it closed at ten in the morning. After that, he would bring the dishes to the trough and clean them thoroughly with sand and ash. A second round of fetching water. In the evening, after the shop closed business for the day, he washed all the dishes again. It was midnight by the time he finished. He was the last one out every night, locking up the stall behind him.

Tired to the bone, he dropped off to sleep the minute he stretched himself out on the raised narrow porch at the back. However he was up when he heard the first chimes of the church bells in the morning. Ganesan used to often recall the one time when it was raining heavily, and how Appa slept through the downpour like a log though he was soaked to the bone. Appa never got sick. He only ate leftovers – he thoroughly scraped the bottoms of the dishes before washing them and made a meal out of it. No one ever called him aside to give him food.

However, Appa had escaped the violence and abuse of his former days. With regular food, his stomach filled out and his limbs became strong as iron. “A strapping figure, just like the demi-god Maadan, eh? You pube?” Chellappan of the betel-leaf stall used to say affectionately. However Appa now faced new insults. He was never allowed to touch freshly cooked food. Once, when the banana leaf covering a heap of cooked rice flew away, Appa took up another leaf and went towards the food. Ganesan flew out at him. “Hey! No! Don’t touch it! Get out! Out, now!” he hollered.

From that day onwards, he started seeing his new limitations. Except for the narrow sliver of a porch at the back, he was not allowed to sit down anywhere, in front of anybody. Nobody ever gave anything directly to his hand. It would be placed down, he had to pick it up. When he walked on the street, there were always a few people who hollered at him from a distance, “Get out of the way!”

However Appa was happy. He was growing strong, in body and in mind. He had learned to read on his own, and started reading every last piece of paper that passed through his fingers. He learned to do arithmetic. He had even learned to read English letters and started reading a few words here and there. When he was thirteen, he found a new job in Ambrose’s tea stall opposite the court in Nagarcoil. There, he worked as a server. Sometimes, he even cooked the food.

When he was fifteen, a school teacher who had made his acquaintance as a customer at the tea stall saw him reading a page from a tattered English newspaper. “Thambi, till which class did you study in school?” he enquired. “I have never gone to school,” said Appa. “Never?” he asked. “No.” He looked at Appa for a while keenly and asked, “Then how did you read English? Did you work for some white man?” “No, I learnt to read it on my own.”

He could not believe his ears. However, he had no other choice but to believe what he had seen. He said, “Karuththan, how old are you?” Appa was twenty then. “I think you can sit for the first form exams. I will give you the books. You just have to study for four or five months.” Appa read the books he gave him and in a month’s time, he knew them by heart. Till the end, I was astounded by his mental acumen. When he was eighty-two, eight months before he died, he sought out the new pastor at the church here and started learning Latin from him. The pastor still says that if he had only lived a couple of years more, he would have become a great Latin scholar.

Appa wrote the first form exam – that would correspond to our sixth grade – in the Scott Christian College and passed it in the first attempt. He kept working at the same tea stall and studied for the ESSLC exam, also passing that successfully. That is, our eighth grade level. After that, he had paid the fees to appear for the Matriculation exam. Since he was diligent with his duties at work, Ambrose the tea-stall owner had faith in him.

It was in 1921 that Appa met the man whose memory he kept on his lips, every day, every hour, in wonder, in awe, till the last day of his life. On the twelfth of July at eleven in the morning. It was a blazing hot day. A man, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, dressed in a black coat and a white pleated dhoti, a white bow tie fastened around his neck in the manner of lawyers, entered the stall and sat on the bench. “Get me a cup of hot tea, son,” he said.

In those days, only Nadars used to visit that shop. There were very few lawyers among Nadars back then. Even the few Nadar lawyers were from Bungalow Street, they were London Mission Christians. They walked and talked like Anglo-Indians. They treated the other Nadars worse than the upper caste fellows did. But you could make out from one look that this man was from the south, from Vilavancode. His counteance, his gestures, were all typically provincial. He had undone the buttons of his coat for the heat and lifted his collar high above his neck. He had rolled up the sleeves of his coat till his elbow.

Appa said, “On that day, I did not know who he was. However at first glance, my heart figured him out. Even today the sight of him that day fills my eyes – the way he came in and sat and jiggled his legs and blew on his hot tea and he drank it… if you had seen the way he held himself, you’d have thought was a rural Nadar alright. With his shirt off you would think that he’d scale up ten toddy-palms in the blink of an eye… the Bungalow Street lawyers would have laughed in his face if they had seen the way he was swirling his tea and blowing on it.”

When he was paying for the tea and making enquiries about Abraham’s office, he noticed the book in Appa’s hands. “What is that book?” he asked in the lilting manner typical of Vilavancode folks. “Matric… I have paid the fees for the exam,” he said. “Oh,” he had replied, and getting the directions he needed, left the place. This man’s name was A. Nesamony. He was from a town called Palliyadi near Thuckalay, hailing from the Peruvattar family that owned a little land and some orchads. His father’s name was Appavu Peruvattar. He had completed a BA degree at the Maharaja College in Thiruvananthapuram and a BL degree at the Law College there, and was a bar-at-law at the Nagarcoil court.

Yes, the selfsame man. The man now known as Marshal Nesamony and held in reverence by the Nadars of Kanyakumari as their leader even today. In his time, he was the face of the Congress Party in Travancore; he was the party, the party was him. He won the elections and became the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Travancore. He was instrumental in the forming of the modern day Kanyakumari district and its unification with the post-independence state of Tamil Nadu, he founded the Travancore Congress to facilitate this. At one point, he was the leader of the Tamil Nadu Congress Party. Till the end, he was a Member of the Indian Parliament.

There was a major scuffle the very first day Nesamony went to court. With his legal briefs in hand, he entered the court.There were seven or eight chairs and four three legged stools laid out there. Though the stools were ostensibly meant for the juniors, it always happened that the Nadars ended up perching on the stools. Nesamony went directly to a chair and sat down. The public proscecuter M.Sivasankaran Pillai saw him sitting on the chair; it brought a scowl to his face. He left the place. No one sat near Nesamony. When he realized that he had been sitting there all by himself for half an hour, he realized something was wrong.

The bench clerk Paramasivam bent down discreetly and told him what the source of the problem. The Nadars may sit on the stools. That was how it was. Blood rushing to his head, Nesamony got up and started shouting. “Sons of bitches! If the damned, if the downtrodden don’t have a place here, then what justice is it going to serve?” he hollered, and grabbing the stool, took it out and threw it in the middle of the yard in front of the court. Room after room he went, seizing all the stools, one after another, and flinging them out in the yard.

When Appa was in the tea stall, a clerk from the court came running. “That Palliyadi fellow is making trouble there… he’s off his head.” Some more people came running. There’s going to be murder, they prophesied. “Ah, the son of Palliyadi Peruvattar… he doesn’t know to behave himself. Young blood!” said an old man. In some time Nesamony arrived there, drenched in sweat, short of breath, his clothes askew. “Tea!” he ordered. When Appa gave him the tea, he downed it in one gulp, and flinging a coin on the table, left the place.

In some time, twenty or so goons from Vellamadam came to the tea stall, looking for Nesamony. They pulled out Appa and enquired about him, threatening him with dire consequences. They went high and low, all over Nagarcoil, looking for him. The court was adjourned that day. The whole town talked of this incident. “These Vellamadam fellows, hacking and murdering people is child’s play for them,” they said. It had been far too long since the town saw a good murder, they said.

The next day, Nesamony arrived in a Thiruvananthapuram Pioneer bus from Palliyadi, along with fifty men armed with sticks and sickles. He entered the court with his legal briefs in hand, surrounded by these men. The men stayed in the yard outside the court. Slowly, the place started filling up. At one point, the upper caste Vellala and Nair lawyers had to flee the place surreptiously though the back entrance.

For the next few days, the court was not in operation. The town was panicky. People in the tea stalls and houses could not stop talking about this. The church got involved. The Bishop came forward to talk to the judges, there was talk of submitting an appeal to the resident British officer. This proposal was threatening to the upper caste lawyers. Many of those who had come forward with bravado in the beginning backed out. Even though a few junior lawyers without a case kept protesting, the seniors backed out.

When the court was in session again, there were new chairs that had been bought and laid out for everybody. Nesamony and his friends gathered as a big group outside the tea stall and drank tea. Appa made tea that day. A hundred and seventy eight teas.

Then, Appa saw Nesamony burgeon in front of his own eyes and become an important figure. He slowly stopped coming to drink tea; It became necessary to take tea to his office. When there was no one else in the stall to deliver the tea, Appa himself went there. There were always groups of people gathered outside of Nesamony’s office. You took the tea and walked past the women squatting on the floor, wailing and crying, and the people from the village arguing furiously, and then you would catch sight of Nesamony, shirtless, his white shirt and bow tie hanging on the nail behind him, his legs propped up on a chair in front of him, laughing and talking loudly. It was typical of Vilavancode folks to talk as loud as humanly possible all the time.

There were always some people in there. “Tea for everybody!” he would say. In a day, it would come to two or three hundred teas. At one point, they just hired a boy to make tea for the visitors. Wheever Appa crossed that office, he would hear Nesamony’s laugh and that loud, Malayalam-inflected voice. He would always wonder if the man ever went to court and pleaded cases. However, he was known as the most brilliant lawyer in all of Travancore. They believed that the case would be won if he only so much as came and stood in court.

Nesamony joined the Travancore Congress Party. At first he contested in the city council elections and was elected its President. After that, it became increasingly rare to find him in his legal office. That was when Appa passed the Matric exam. The schoolteacher Chellappan who was his friend told him one day that the British Government was seeking applications for government jobs in Tirunelveli. He encouraged Appa to apply. Appa had not thought about that till then. He was thirty-three years old. He had no intention of getting married either. His only interest was to go to the town’s Mission Library every day without fail and read.

“You’ll certainly get the job… there are very few candidates who have passed the Matric exam and know as much as you do…” said the teacher. Without much hope, Appa submitted an application.

He received an order to appear for an interview at Tirunelveli. The man who interviewed him was an Iyengar, a Brahmin from Madurai. He asked all the questions in English. Appa answered him in English too. “Did you study at the Mission School?” he asked. “No, I have never been to school,” he said. Iyengar nodded, his face showed his displeasure.

Appa returned thinking that he would not get the job. But in a month, he received a letter stating he had the job. Iyengar had given him the second place. He went to Madurai directly and started his new job. After the eight-month training period, he was transferred to the Survey Department in Tenkasi. All towns were the same to Appa, he knew nothing about Tenkasi. From Madurai, he promptly took the train to Tenkasi and started his new position. 

The day he joined work, he realized that he was not welcome there. The Survey Department’s main office was in Tenkasi. After he had signed in there, he was told to go to Ilanji. Not a single person in the office gave him a smile. “These days anyone can get a job by sucking some white man’s cock,” Irulandichervai, the man who stamped the seal on his order, grumbled loudly. Many people smiled at their desks without turning.

It was only when Appa went to Ilanji in a horse-cart that he realized why he had been assigned there. The whole of that province was, indirecty and directly, under the control of the jamin, a feudatory state, at Injikkudi. There was no law or order there apart from the jamindar’s – feudal landlord’s – orders. The lands could belong to anyone, it could have been earned by anyone, be registered in anyone’s name. If the jamin’s men wanted, they could take it. They could change any registration to their name. It was the practice there that any officer who came to that town had to be the jamin’s slave, there was no other option.

The office was locked. It was an old, low-roofed tiled structure standing by the dirtroad, behind a stone wall. There were all kinds of wild bushes growing wantonly around it. Something like a footpath snaked through the wilderness. Ilanji is a rainy place; all kinds of creepers climbed up the walls of the building and covered the roof completely. He made enquiries there and had the thalaiyari Sankara Thevar – a man appointed by the government as his dogsbody – open the door for him. The building had not been opened for seven or eight months; the whole place reeked of bat droppings. Appa swept the place and cleaned it himself.

Sankara Thevar gave him the complete picture on the first day itself. Appa went with him to call on the jamindar. The bungalow of the jamin stood in huge garden, on the bank of a stream, in the midst of tall coconut trees. At the entrance, near the gate, was the jamin’s office. The clerk and the others used to be there. The jamindar used to come there in the morning once, sign all the necessary papers, and leave for the day.

On either side of the long path leading away from the office, there were metalworked cages housing animals from the jamindar’s personal zoo. He had a few bears, some pythons and a leopard in them. Apart from these, there were other creatures as well – civets, porcupines, jackals, wolves, black monkeys. The office was always filled with the stench of their spit and urine.

The jamindar of Injikkudi was a keen hunter. He had employed a few Pathani Muslims for the express purpose of taming the horses he would ride on his hunts. He also had on hand some tribal men who laid out the traps for the animals. He had the habit of throwing his enemies into the cages with the bears and pythons and leaving them in there through the night. Sankara Thevar said that many such people had died horribly, torn limb to limb by the bear. A small boy had died of fright upon coming face to face with the python in his cage.

When Appa and the Thevar came to the gate, the accountant, a Pillai, came out and addressed Appa. “Hey, you are a Nadan, no? Look at you, coming in like that… stand out there. Don’t climb on the porch. Take off your slippers and put them in the corner over there.” Appa stood outside the office. At eight o’clock everyone in the office was served a glass of pathaneer. Everybody else got their palm drink drink in a earthen cup; only Appa was served in the folded scoop of a broad palm leaf. They told him to dispose of the leaf outside the building after he was done with his drink.

He had to wait there till ten o’clock. After standing for an hour, Appa sunk down to sit on his haunches. At ten o’clock, a davali-peon came in and announced the arrival of the jamindar Periyakaruppa Thevar. The jamindar had had this man dressed in the same livery worn by the davalis in the government’s court. In some time, just like in a court, a liveried footman marched in ‘left-right’ with a silver staff. He shouted unintelligible sounds that made no sense, but had the ring of English to it. Behind him came two men bearing band instruments, the bugle player blowing recklessly into the mouthpiece.

Finally the jamindar Periyakaruppa Thevar emerged, followed by a few attenders. He wore the uniform of a British lieutenant that he had got tailored for himself. There was a pistol in the holder on his waist, white gloves on his hands, and hunting boots on his feet; he came in shifting his portly frame with great difficulty. When he entered, everybody in the room got up and raised cries of praise enthusiastically. He had his right hand raised at shoulder level like Hitler’s soldiers. This performance seemed to be an everyday routine there.

When the jamindar climbed on the steps leading up to the office, he laid his eyes on Appa. Appa was wearing a white shirt buttoned up to the neck and a black coat over it; a pleated dhoti covered his lower body. He had placed his turban on his head like a hat. That was the uniform of all the government officers of those days. “This is a new one. He’s from Travancore. A Nadar,” said the accountant Pillai.

Without warning, the jamindar, started hitting Appa over and over with the cane in his hand. He was bubbling with rage. “Khabardar! Beware…you fool…” he thundered. He ordered the thalaiyariSankara Thevar to shackle up Appa and lash him which a whip. Pillai intervened and tried to pacify the jamindar. He explained that Appa was a government official and it would not be possible to restrain him or lash him. It was only when the subdued jamindar, huffing and heaving, let loose a long string of expletives, that the reason for his rage became apparent. He did not like seeing a Nadar stand in front of him dressed like that.

When he went in, Pillai admonished him and made him take off his turban and shirt. The jamindar would not hesistate to take off your head, he said. His ears burning with fear and humiliation, Appa complied and removed his turban and shirt. He crossed his arms over his bare chest. Red welts streaked across his body where the cane had caught him. When the jamindar came out again, he looked at Appa with malevolence. “Know your place and act accordingly, and you might leave with your head on your shoulders. Understood?” he said, and spat on Appa.

Appa turned and walked away silently, the jamindar’s spit trailing down his body. The spit burned his through body like acid. When he came back to his office, he sunk into a chair, and broke down crying. Sankara Thevar watched with a mild sneer on his face. That whole day and through the night, Appa sat just like that in his chair. Vague, shapeless thoughts flitted in and out of his mind. However, by the next morning, his mind had hardened like stone.

Appa stayed in the office building itself. There was a pond and a toilet in the office premises. He dug himself a woodfire stove at the back. He got his own utensils, rice and lentils, and made his own meals. The peon Kandasamy came in every day to assist him. Sankara Thevar came in when he pleased. Most of his work was at the jamin.

In a month, Appa had read all the files. The Iyer who had worked there before him had toed the jamindar’s line and hung on for eight months, after that he had pleaded for a transfer and vacated the place. Since then, no one had looked at the records. Appa started taking stock of everything carefully and compared the documents with their originals. Subsequently, he wrote a long letter to the jamindar. He pointed out the corrupt records, and instructed the jamindar to register the actual accounts and documents with immediate effect.

In a few days, the thalaiyari came and informed Appa that the jamin’s clerk wanted to see Appa in his office. Appa refused. In two days, he was told that the jamindar himself wished to meet him. Appa refused again. He could imagine how this would have upset the regular course of events at the jamin’s office.

The next day, Sankara Thevar came in with another Thevan who carried a spear in his hand. “Look, it would be good for you if you came with us right now. Wouldn’t look very nice if we have to drag you back kicking and screaming, eh?” he said. Appa responded with barely suppressed rage. “Take me if you can. We’ll know whether the British government – you know, the one the sun never sets on? – has the power to take care of its servants or not.”

The thalaiyari’s face turned ashen. He had never thought about him that way. The black man standing in front of him was a representative of the white man’s great empire! Cannons, helmets, rifles, horses, documents with official seals… he did not say a word more. He stood there for a while twirling his mustache and left. While leaving, he turned his head once to look at Appa.

The very next day, Appa signed the order dismissing Sankara Thevar from his duties. In the afternoon, when Thevar sallied into the office with stick in hand and twirling his mustache, his body giving off the faint reek of liquor, the peon Kandasamy gave him an official-looking brown document. “What is this?” he asked in panic; he could not read. “You’ve been dismissed by the Nadar,” said Kandasamy. Sankara Thevar was petrified and stunned. He had no idea that such a thing was even possible. He came up to Appa and shoved the document in his face. “What on earth is this?” “It’s a government order. It’s not meant to be manhandled like that,” said Appa. Thevar’s hand froze in mid-air. His face turned white. “You don’t need to come in anymore. You can attend to your duties at the jamin full time,” said Appa.

Sankara Thevar opened his mouth to say something, but closed it like a fish almost immediately and walked out in a daze. The next day he came back along with his wife Vandimalaichi and begged and pleaded with Appa. “Sami, master, lord, this wretched man drinks everything he earns. I make do with what little I can palm off and fill our stomachs a little with gruel. Show mercy, don’t hit us where it would hurt us the most!” Vandimalaichi pleaded with a child on her hips. The child watched the scene avidly. An older child, completely naked, stood next to her clutching her waist, digging his nose and staring at them. Thevar hid behind a pillar and watched the proceedings out of the corner of his eye.

“Alright, I’ll make an exception for you. I’m not the sort to fling mud into anyone’s food,” said Appa. To Thevar, “But look. You should come in here every day. You can leave only when I tell you to. You should do what I say. You’re responsible for everything that happens in this office. Got it? “Alright,” he said. “From now, you should always call me ‘sir’. This is a government order. It says so in this document.” “Alright, saar,” said Thevar. Unexpectedly, he made a smart salute.

The next day, the clerk at the jamin summoned Thevar and asked him why he had not produced Appa before them the previous day. Thevar was firm. “Look here, I am a government servant. My government is one that controls even the sun above. You can do whatever you want outside. In my office, saar is my boss. I am his servant. If saar orders me to, I will certainly chop off ten heads in a flash and pile them up in front of him. You shouldn’t mistake me then.”

“Will you chop off my head if he orders you to?” asked the accountant Pillai. “Then? The government tells me to do anything and everything saar orders me to do. You’re just a weakling Pillai. If saar orders it, I would even behead the jamin.” said Thevar. The accountant’s eyes almost jumped out of its sockets. This is an empire that has cast a spell to hold the sun in place, you know? See this notice?” and showed him the dismissal order Appa had given him the previous day. Pillai did not dare to touch it. When Thevar went back to the office, he recounted this tale to Appa.

For a month, this state of affairs continued. When the third notice was dispatched, the accountant came with the notice in hand to meet Appa. “What?” demanded Thevar of Pillai who was trying to sidle into the office unnoticed. “Saar is working, don’t you see? Let him call you, you can go then. Stay here,” he said. The accountant’s face turned pale. Then when he came in, he could not speak. Appa explained the problems with the accounts. “It’s always like this here. The government knows,” he responded weakly.

“Alright. Then I will write to the government,” said Appa. “No one writes to the government from here…” said the accountant. “Then? I need to do my job,” Appa replied. The accountant did not know what to say. “Periyakaruppa Thevar is a favourite of the British collector. He only has to say a word, and the white master will come running here. Did you know that our jamindar Thevar is the collector’s hunting partner?” threatened Pillai. Appa said, “I don’t bother with such things. I will write to them. Let the collector do what he thinks is right. Please let the Thevar know that I am doing my job.”

The accountant Pillai wondered whether Appa was off his rocker. Why did he wish to die foolishly? He knew how many people the jamin had killed and buried noiselessly. “Nadar, you look a bit like my son… let me tell you something. Don’t do this, okay? Apply for leave and get out of here. Get a transfer, go someplace else that’s more suited for you, get married to a good Nadar girl and be happy with your children. This is a town of murderers, they’ll hack you limb to limb and bury your body without a trace. Killing a man is child’s play for our Thevar.”

Appa replied decidedly, “Look, I’ve climbed out of a manure pit to get here. I’ve seen things that are far worse than death. I’m not going to be afraid of anything ever again. Your accounts and calculations may mean many things to you. You can play games with it, meet any ends with it. Me, I’ve just started climbing and got a foothold. This is my foothold now. It belongs to me and the seven generations that will come after me. When I go up, they climb with me. If I let go now, all eight generations fall down, see? So go tell the Thevar that Nadar is ready to die. Go!”

The accountant sat there for a moment, dazed and shocked and then left. Sankara Thevar cautioned Appa. “Saar, please don’t go out. They may be hiding in the shadows waiting to hack at you,” he said. Appa stayed inside. The next morning, the jamindar cantered in on his horse and alighted in front of Appa’s office. The huntsmen who accompanied him stood outside. He was dressed in hunting clothes like an Englishman. Appa did not get up. He did not welcome him in. The jamindar leapt up the steps leading up to the office with a long rifle in his hand. He stood outside Appa’s office and aimed the muzzle at Appa’s face. His hand was on the trigger.

For a moment then, Appa stared at death in the face. Then he said, “Shoot if you want to. It’s a lucky English officer who dies in service in his English office.” The jamindar lowered his gun. “Shoot! If you are such a pussy plucker, if you really think you have the license to kill and loot at will, shoot me and leave. But if I die, it won’t end so simply. You’re stirring up a hornet’s nest! We’ll come for you in droves. Wave after wave, our generations will keep coming for you. Let’s see how many people you can shoot,” said Appa. When he spoke those words, he felt like an audience of thousands was in that room, hanging on to his every word.

The jamindar had not excepted this show of nerve from Appa. He couldn’t think straight after that. His hands trembled. He lowered his gun in hesitation. Appa seized the opportunity.”You think you can shoot me and escape. I am the officer who is supposed to levy the taxes here. It’s not like you think, a collector cannot close this case at his will and pleasure. The white man will find you and hang you. If they decide to hang you, then they would have to give away your lands to someone else, and your cousins will line up to give evidence against you. How would you like that?” he said.

The jamindar slowly regained his poise: his face became still, his eyes narrowed into cunning slits. “You are a cunning fox… but we have had these smarts for ten generations and we’ve played all kinds of games with it. Let’s see. You are an officer in these premises only, yes? Try and step out. An elephant will stomp you to death. A Thevan who is passing you on the street will hack you. What can you do? Let’s see…” he said and left the building, stomping on the steps. He clambered on to his horse and cantered away, the horse’s hooves splashing mud and sludge in its wake.

Appa did not stir out of the office at all. Sankara Thevar had informed him that there were people hiding everywhere, waiting to kill him if he went out. The peon Kandasamy went on leave. But Sankara Thevar stayed behind in the office, armed with his spear. He ate what Appa cooked. At night, he kept guard on the porch, covering himself with a sack cloth; he did not so much as wink. During the day, he slept on the porch. But even the sound of a garden lizard was enough to rouse him to alertness; he sat up with his spear, ready to attack.

For twenty-seven days, this state continued. Appa never set foot outside of the office premises. Thevar went to the post-office, spear in hand, and brought in the letters, he also took back the outgoing mail. He bought all the groceries for Appa. Since he had the ‘government order’ as evidence in his pocket, he walked about with his head held high, unafraid of anyone.

Appa waited for days. Death waiting in front of him, hiding just out of his sight. It was then that, one night, Appa had a dream. That Nesamony came to his tea shop to drink a cup of tea. “Then, how are you, son?” he asked in a loud voice, lifting his coat collar high above his neck. Appa woke up with a start. Immediately, he wrote a long letter to Nesamony detailing the events that had transpired.

Appa thought that Nesamony might take the letter to the collector at Nellai, and maybe he could expect to get help from the police. However on the fifth day, a big group of about a hundred people came from Tenkasi to Ilanji, armed with sickles and spears. Leading the group, was an elephant. Loud cheers – “Victory to the Congress Party! Victory to Mahatma Gandhi! Victory to Pandit Nehru! Victory to Subash Chandra Bose! Jai!”

Appa was in the office in the afternoon when he heard the shouts and hoots and came out to see what was going on. Thevar stood at the gate with a sickle. “Please go in, sir. No man will cross this threshold when I am still alive,” he said. The first thing Appa saw was the tusker elephant that had mushroomed there like a boulder, blocking the gate. He did not understand what was going on. It was only after that that he saw Nesamony.

“Thevar, this is my Nesamony, the lawyer,” Appa said. “Who?” asked Thevar. “My leader!” said Appa and rushed out. Nesamony caught him in an embrace, heart to heart.”You’re born to a father, son, you showed them! You stood up to them! Son, we should always stand up, up in their face, anywhere. Let’s show them… let’s see who raises a finger againt you when you go out. Get up on the elephant,” he said.

Appa protested, “Ayyo!” “Son, I am ordering you to get up there now. Up!” He signaled to the mahout and the elephant bent down its front foot like a step. Appa climbed on its leg and holding on to its ear, threw his other leg around its neck and sat on its head. It was like sitting on a huge rock.

When the mahout signaled, the elephant rose. Appa went up high. All through his living days, over and over, Appa fervently kept describing that single motion – how many times, and in how many words! That movement up above would have been three feet tops. However it happened for an eon in Appa’s mind.

He kept moving up. Higher, higher, higher. The ground slipped under his feet and went lower and lower. The office, its tiled, sloped roof, went low. The branches of the trees went low. The streets, the men, all descended far below him. The sky with its light came low to receive him. He was surrounded by light. The light of the skies. Light that fills the clouds, light that makes the clouds brim over.

When the elephant started moving, Appa felt like he had turned into an elephant himself. “You know what an elephant is only when you climb on it. An elephant is power, understand? You feel like you can invade a fortress with a tiny pin… you should feel the way an elephant walks. That’s what you call a gait. Such majesty!” Appa could never find the words to describe that experience entirely. Appa walked on the sky, swaying, his gait gentle and majestic.

The group with Appa on the elephant at its head went through all the streets of Ilanji, shouting slogans.  When the people at the jamin realized what was going out, the gates of the jamin were closed. “Break it open!” ordered Nesamony. When the elephant lifted a leg and gave the gate an almighty push, the gate opened and promptly swung off its hinges. The elephant walked right to the entrance of the jamin bungalow. When the animals in the zoo smelled an elephant in the premises, they became restless. The bears and leopard walked around in circles. The jungle cats slunked in the corners of their cages and hissed in fear.

Appa was far above the rooftops of the jamin bungalow. He kicked at its tiled roof with his foot. The crowd cheered and hollered. For half an hour they stood there and chanted slogans. Victory to Mahatma Gandhi! To Pandit Nehru! To Subash Chandra Bose, to Kamaraj, to Nesamony! Then they went back to Appa’s office on the elephant.

Appa got off the elephant in front of his office. He felt like there were still some remnants of the elephant’s movements left over on his body. He felt a pleasurable ache in both his thighs. When he kept his legs apart and walked, he felt like he was floating on thin air. “Do you know? On that that my gait changed. After that, my gait always had that elephantine sway in it!” Appa used to say. After dropping Appa off at the office, Nesamony and his group took leave. “No one will lay so much as a finger on you from now on. Be strong!” said Nesamony, before he left.

Yes, after that Appa worked in Ilanji for seven years. He lodged complaints about the jamindar’s financial irregularities. The lands were measured again and partitioned to the right people. At one point, the jamindar’s cousins started working in Appa’s favour and helped him in many ways. When Appa walked on the street, the people who crossed him on the street moved aside and greeted him courteously. They always gave him a wide berth, almost wide enough to fit an elephant.

“In their eyes, I was still travelling around on the elephant,” said Appa. “Because there was always an elephant in my heart. There was an elephant in my gait, see.” The elephant became a part of his name. He always called himself Aanai Karuththaan Nadar, Karuththan Nadar the elephant, even in his letters to me. “A man on an elephant can never bend in front of another. He will not be accommodative and play nice and let people walk over him. Understood?”

Appa got married when he was working in Ilanji. I was born. When I was about to be named, the name struck him suddenly. “Vanangaan”. A stubborn stiffneck. One who does not bow his neck in submission anywhere. Amma asked, “What’s that? It’s a weird name.” “No, that’s going to be his name. Vanangaan Nadar,” said Appa. My father gave me an inviolable order at birth.

When I was seven months old, my father took me to Palliyadi to visit Nesamony. Nesamony was reading the newspaper in his living room. He entered Appaavu Peruvattar’s big house and stood in the front hall, facing its famous son. When he asked Appa to sit down, Appa dragged forward a chair, sat down and placed me in the man’s arms. “What’s his name?” asked Nesamony. Appa told him. His face broke into a smile.

The creation of taste (or) Why I translate – an Indian writer’s translation manifesto

There was a recent back and forth between Tamil writer Ambai and translator N.Kalyan Raman in Scroll. Ambai had written about her perception of certain inadequacies in literary translation from an Indian language like Tamil into English. Her protests were a writer’s, and despite some generalizations that I couldn’t entirely get behind, I could sympathize with her writer’s need to be well-represented, her apprehensions about certain perceptions of a hierarchy between English and Tamil – consequently, the translator and the writer – and the demands of the market.

N.Kalyan Raman’s response, from a translator’s perspective, was to clarify the practices in contemporary translation. That is, translation is not finding an exact equivalence of the source text in the other language – it is not in the ‘service’ of the source text – but rather, it an act of creating a negotiated text that does justice to the source text while creating a literary piece in the target language. This is important, for we have so few literary translators around us, and hardly any discussions of their craft, either in print or in literary festivals or otherwise. This ties to what I perceive as a general lack of critical discourse in the larger English-driven Indian literature space.

As both a writer, writing in Tamil, and a translator working between Tamil and English, and thus perhaps as someone who understands both sides of this debate, I have a few things to say on this matter.

Samvada, samanvaya

My understanding of translation is more in line with Kalyan Raman’s perspective than Ambai’s, perhaps because I am a practicing translator. No, translation is certainly not in the ‘service’ of the source text. Nor are the writer and translator in competition.Translator, traitor is a well-worn phrase, but I think it is an idea that comes out of a culture that sees literature, and everything else, as the product of agon. On the other hand I feel that translation is moulded, quite intuitively, by samvada and samanyava, harmony and integration.

The sensitive, skilled literary translator is no traitor, either to the writer or the reader. Sensitivity is its own kind of skill in this enterprise, as the skill in translation is necessarily expanding one’s sensitivity to rhythms of language, meaning and expression in both languages – really, in the languageless zone that underlies both.

Translation is quite simply an act of bringing in harmony and balance. It is an act of tact and grace. The harmony really exists within the translator, for it exists in the languageless zone. Everything else is simply its expression, an expression negotiated with the writer and reader through the text. The translator embraces both the speaker-writer and the listener-reader within themselves and then proceeds to create a nuanced, lengthy dialogue with them both. Often, within the translator, they are both the same person, the translator themselves, now acting as one, now as the other. It is this self-talking, this internal monologue posturing as dialogue, that the reader reads as the translated text.

Where precisely is the harmony achieved? In language, in expression, in meaning.

The facility of reading should be unimpeded in the other language – if possible, creating the same kinds of rhythms and waves and swings in the mind as the original did. This is harmony of language.

The translator should never interpret the text, or try to minimize the interpretive influence, they should adopt the veils and masks of the writer in keeping the erotics of the text, its bhavana, intact. This is harmony of expression.

The translated text should evoke the same kinds of emotions and resonances in the reader, in the same order, to the same extent, with the same overall striking effect as the source. This is harmony of meaning.

Reader, writer, translator

The success of the translated text perhaps lies in how much the reader identifies with the reader within the translator. Or how much the translator is able to persuade the reader of this identification. The writer, when she writes, simply does not think of any reader – she just writes, moulding instinct into form. But the translator always carries the reader within herself too. It is inescapable.

What I can report from experience as a translator is, the most one can do is simply accept the internal reader for who she is and write for her – not obsess too much about the reader ‘out there’. It is simply an instinct, much like the writer’s instinct for form. It is the knowledge, the intuitive certainty within oneself, that “I am an ideal reader, and if it satisfies me, it will satisfy them too”.

The writer, of course, is a very important person in this negotiation – but arguably, not as important as the text, or the reader is. The presence of the writer in the room as the translator works is onerous and intrusive. I cannot imagine encountering the writer in flesh and blood as I translate – it is frankly horrifying to imagine the writer sitting on the translator’s shoulders like a vethalam whispering instructions into her ear as she works.

The writer, too, cannot evaluate a translation wholly impartially, even if they are a reader in the other language. This is understandable. It is a part of the creative process. The writer may perhaps provide feedback on words grossly mistranslated, but any intent or meaning from the text is best left to the judgment of the translator, if there is trust.

And no good translator, no translator who understands translation as an act of harmonizing, will allow overt influence of the writer on the aesthetics of the translated text – it is really too much of a disharmonizing influence. Almost like an intrusive parent trying to clean your room. And my sense is most writers understand this, for there is an equally subtle creative process at play here. It is this trust – between writer and translator, that one will dip and draw out of the great languageless zone just as instinctively as the other did, that matters.

The writer can trust in the text, and the competence of the translator to read them as them. If there is no trust, certainly it is better to withdraw permission. Perhaps an even better thing would be to only entrust translation into those hands and eyes that one implicitly, instinctively trusts.

So this is what I have to say about the act of translation itself, and the relationship and trust that is necessary between writer and translation.


Next, on questions of a hierarchy in translation, and the role of the market.

I feel that right at the outset, there is an important distinction to be made. In talking of the ‘market’, the translator is made out to be something of a stooge of the capitalist structure. This is egregious, there is even something insulting about it. This places the translator in the service of the publishing industry, and implies that what is translated is what is in demand in the market.

Perhaps this happens, but I believe strongly that the translator should categorically not be a linguistic mechanic for hire, but a literary initiator (I am translating the Tamil phrase இலக்கிய முன்னெடுப்பாளர்). We may be living through the freest markets of them all, but the translator, as a literary initiator – must still allow himself to be free of even that. For the translator is the crucible of language. In him the language of the poets breaks down, rebuilds, morphs, extends.

The translator as literary initiator

The translator as a literary initiator is a very important role. I predict that this will become particularly important in the coming century in India – or it should, if we feel it is important to transmit some semblance of culture. For we are fast becoming a country where most people are not proficient even in reading, writing and speaking one language, let alone two. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the young people are comfortable with neither Tamil nor English but with Tanglish – a patois that is neither Tamil nor English, composed of a stilted, repetitive vocabulary that is adequate for their communicative needs. Even machine translation allows for easy exchange of predictable lines of text, but they fail in the face of linguistic expressions like poetry which exist at the bleeding edge of language and represent crucial advances of the human mind.

Language is meaning, ideas are often absorbed first as language itself. Translation is the expanding of ideaspace in that language. Cultural transmission needs vocabulary for new ideas, and that will need a linguistic proficiency that can create flexibly back and forth in the space between languages, perhaps even creating new meanings that transcends both. So even as the common man might move towards a small, compact language with a standardized script, the literary initiator in India will be an individual who has proficiency in multiple Indian and foreign languages, particularly classic languages, who can think in multiple languages, who will stand at the crossroads of ideas like the Buddhist stupas of old used to.

This was always the case. In modern India, Tagore, Bharati and Pudhumaipithan come to mind immediately. Even as standardized prose evolved in the journals and newspapers, these literary masters pushed the boundaries of language and introduced new linguistic and expressive ideas. They read widely and translated even as they wrote – absorbing, reproducing, rewriting. They were writers, poets, but their role as literary initiators owed much to their constant experiments in translation.

The translator as curator

The ideal translator is also a curator. He is a person who collects and transmits ideas through language that he, personally, finds important in time, exciting enough to express and expand on. Thus the translator’s work as a literary initiator lies in the creation of taste, the setting-up of standards.

A literary initiator should only be guided by his own taste, his own standards, irrespective of what the market demands. If the translator envisions of themselves as not simply a language-mechanic, but a literary and cultural initiator, then the demands of the market will cease to become meaningful to them in any way. If the popular press will not publish them, they then seek out small presses, niche presses, or better yet, simply do it online where there is more than enough real estate to go around.

Then, the translator as literary initiator initiates and guides discussion on the literatures he reads and translates, and also the literatures he reads and does not choose to translate. The translator is the lynchpin of the human literary ecosystem, borrowing, lending, expanding, language and meanings, continuously expanding our cultural boundaries.

There is a difference between how a writer translates and how a professional translator translates. A writer or poet often translates from other languages into the language they write to train their mind on the rhythms of the other language expressed in theirs, to discover new ways of expression and style. These, too, are acts of literary initiation, often finding fruition in the original work of those writers and poets. But translators who don’t write originally can also function as readers, appreciators, guides and critics, and help the general reader see what they are translating and why, which writers may or may not want to spend time articulating.

Now that we have a picture of what a translator as literary initiator and curator might look like, we come back to Ambai’s concerns, about hierarchies in translation today, and demands of the market.


Hierarchies in translation

Is there a hierarchy in translation? Is publication in English considered a prestige in and of itself?

Yes, there is certainly a prestige associated with publication of vernacular work in English. There are far more readers in English, and then there is the fame that is accorded to writing that appears in English that cannot be compared to the fame of the vernacular writer, except maybe in languages with a thriving literary culture like Malayalam and Bengali. There are networks available to the writer who is recognized by the English speaking academy that a vernacular writer cannot access. An English-language text is likely to be noticed by international readers, and all writers like to be read, especially be people as different from them as possible. There is also the prestige associated with being internationally known.

But most of the perception of prestige, I feel, is because of a paucity of true literary culture in the vernacular. If a writer has enough readers in the language she writes in, enough engagement, discourse and criticism, then that provides the writer with a great dose of health and courage. She would not care so much about translation into English as a language of special status. It might be just as well for the writer for the work to be translated into other Indian languages, for they might find shared-heart readers in greater numbers well within the country.

And then we have this strange state of affairs where a writer with international fame is suddenly discovered in his own country, hoisted on shoulders and hailed – as if international fame inherently is any arbiter of quality. This is because, quite frankly, we don’t have enough readers and translators and critics in our own country to talk fiercely and passionately about what they feel is ‘good’. Ambai’s concerns have some merit to them in this regard – what is translated and ‘taken over’ to the west, is oftentimes what the west wants to see, or what we want the west to see. There is a reason why Mathorubaagan is read in the west, and Aazhi Soozh Ulagu is not. This is not to take anything away from Perumal Murugan, but simply to stress that a robust literary culture will place both works in front of a wide audience of readers, and talk back and forth about the merits of each work, giving the western readers something to think about, allowing them to listen, to expand their literary horizons and values. Indeed, the work of any true literary culture is to mould the taste of its readers, expand their horizons, no matter what the colour of their skin is. They shouldn’t be telling us what is good in our libraries. We should be telling them, and then inviting them to discuss. When there will be enough such voices, the recognition from an international audience will take its proper place, as the acceptance of yet another section of readership, with its own preoccupations and mental slants.

Building such a true literary culture rests on the back of readers. But translators have a role too. A culture with many, good, translators will be a culture where literature exists in all the spaces within and between languages. There will be so many works translated back and forth, so many presses and online portals publishing them, that there would be no fear of niche publishing houses and interest groups deciding “what will be translated”. That will not be a decision left to them, if that is what writers like Ambai fear – that will be a decision made by the translators themselves.

This is particularly true in the international stage. Novels from India, by Indians, about India, tend to be rather similar, and as a matter of personal taste, bland. A robust literary culture within the country will certainly change our dealings with literatures of other nations. There is so much talk on ‘opening up the canon’ – which is fair – but then they place Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy in the Indian canon when we have Ilango and Kalidasa and Vyasan and Kamban. Who else will question this, but a translator, who can simply ‘speak’ Ilango to those readers? Surely we have our sahridayas there.

I don’t agree that there is a hierarchy between the Tamil writer and English translator with the translator on top, as Ambai claims. It’s almost surreal and laughable. In France, or Germany, a person can make a living as a professional literary translator. A translator in India is not paid much, nor recognized, even within the literary community. No one knows names of literary translators in India – who was Premchand’s best translator? Bibhutibhushan’s? Bhyrappa’s? It’s even worse for translators into Tamil from English, or between Indian languages. I am yet to read a piece, an essay, written by any Indian English writer about the translators who translated into English from various Indian languages. AK Ramanujan is the only oft-repeated, famous name. So where is the question of this hierarchy.

As far as I am aware, translators today pull no rank on writers as Ambai claims. For we have very good writers in Tamil and I think most of the translators working today are aware, respectful and admiring of their talent. Translation is immersion, deep reading, prayer. I could never translate an author I didn’t like. And it seems rather silly to have a superiority complex because I type my words in English – particularly, when as a writer still exploring and learning the narrative craft, there is always something I learn from every author I translate.

Indian English – the elephant in the room

Indian literature is not just Indian-writing-in-English literature. But the lay, English-educated reader cannot escape this perception. The elephant in the room, is of course, the privilege this society-world holds over the vernacular writers because of their networks and contacts, their clout in the west because they speak its language, and the almost complete absence of critical discourse within this space in India. This state of affairs may not be because of active malice, or haughtiness on the part of the English writers in India – most individuals are quite nice people. But ignorance or malice or lethargy, this state of affairs needs to change. This is a separate concern in and of itself that I won’t go into in too much detail now, except to make the point that translators translating into English oftentimes become part of this culture, and they have the tools and responsibility to change it, expand its horizons. This is already happening with a new crop of talented translators coming up, but there is more to be done.

A manifesto for literary translation in India

All these preoccupations will cease to matter when we will have a real, honest, robust, multilingual literary and intellectual culture in India. And that is what a young team of Indian translators with a mission and manifesto of this sort will be able to accomplish.

What will the aims of such a manifesto be?

1. The young Indian translator shall be well read in two or more languages, preferably Indian languages, with strong likes and dislikes, a keen ear for language, and with interest in writing as an art and a craft. A familiarity with other arts – music, cinema, visual arts – is always helpful.

2. They will translate fast, and translate much.

3. They will translate well, guided by their own personal sense of what ‘sounds’ right.

4. All their activities will be guided by personal taste alone.

5. Publishing the translations as books or with a leading publishing house will not be their goal. It will be published in some form first, even on a blog. There will be constant interactions about the publish text between readers even then. Publication in book form can come later, if necessary. But it should be no hindrance to dissemination of the work anywhere in the world.

6. Translators shall peer review and edit each others’ work, ideally with a sensitive understanding of their aesthetics.

7. Translators shall facilitate an atmosphere for discourse – about works they themselves picked up for translation, about works they did not choose to translate, and about their process of translation itself.

8. Translators shall open up conversations with readers and potential readers as much as they can. A robust literary culture, indeed, an intellectual culture rests on the back of readers.

Unless we bring up a generation of culturally sensitive readers, who read with their eyes and hearts open, and talk about what they like and what they don’t freely and frankly, we will lose our edge. India will become a country of imitators, unoriginal, stilted, affected, with fake, rehashed opinions and ideas that we repeats endlessly for peer points. Indians will not know how to think. Anyone, anytime, can shape our opinions to their will – and the truth is, we are already probably deep in this crisis, as we so often see with social media. Nationalist rhetoric has already blinded a large number of us. And this is such a great pity, because India was always a country of thinkers, debaters, rhetoricians, critics. Our intellectual heritage lies forgotten in our vaults like diamonds growing cobwebs.

So it is truly, massively important that we raise a generation of readers and thinkers – not just mathematically minded puzzle solvers, but logicians, rhetoricians, connoisseurs, artists, critics. It is important because ideas about egalitarianism and secular harmony come from the intellectual culture. It comes out of facing and thinking about ideas we are not comfortable with, not just withdrawing to our own little bubbles. That is tehzeeb, that largehearted spirit of giving and friendship and space. That can happen only with the exchange of ideas. And that begins with translation.

The Riverbed of Butterflies [Translation]

A translation of B.Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story ‘Padugai’. The story can be read in Tamil here.

Singi used to say that the riverbed of butterflies could be found on the slopes of Pandrimalai, beyond the Pechipparai dam and the lake. On lonely nights, I can still hear his low-pitched voice and his tone-deaf singing, interrupted by spits and ‘hrumph’s and liquor-reeking belches. His body was like leather; he credited its robust fitness even at the age of eighty to liquor. Those were nights when the only discernable sound was the rustling of palm leaves when they caressed one another. The shadows of leaves swayed on the moonlight streaming down on the threshing floor. On such nights, Singi would tuck his legs underneath his body and sit in that curious way that any mention of his name immediately brought to my mind. Rocking back and forth, he would start tapping a three-fingered beat on the hourglass-shaped udukku’s lizard-hide membrane, and begin to sing our town’s tales from seventy years ago. His voice kept going even after Venus rose in the eastern sky in the wee hours of the morning, a single silver spangle between the heads of the palm trees. We would rest our backs on beds fashioned out of hay and listen to him, barely awake, flitting in and out of dreams, wandering around in strange trances with Singi’s voice trailing in the background. When we came back to our senses with a start, his voice would still be emerging from the darkness, a solid truth anchoring us in the real world. There would be a glimmer in his eyes. Just before dawn, his head would loll and his voice would break, but never has he actually finished a story. He would simply slump on the ground where he sat. He showed signs of life again only when the sun was high in the sky. Till then, he lay there, surrounded by flecks of spit. Muthamma would come in with a broom in her hand and raise her voice. “What a fine sight! The young masters from good caste getting together with this Paraiyan fellow and lying here like this, heads and feet everywhere! Master, young master…” she would wake us up. “Why do they have to come here, I ask? They could catch a cold, or something worse, and whose loss would that be? No more, I say, not my circus any more. Singi, Singi…look at the way this Parai fellow sleeps! Singi…” she would holler. Singi would lie there, spread-eagled on the bare floor. Next to him lay the udukku, echoing and evoking the sounds it made through the night in our heads. In the light of day, the memories of the night would be very far, almost a dream. During the daytime, Singi would not look like someone who had anything to do with the events of the night. His dark, emancipated body, dew-laden and dusty, would shudder softly with every breath. Rain or shine, it did not matter to him; he was like the sturdy palm tree that stood at the corner of the threshing floor.

Singi used to say that he was born when they were surveying the land to build the Pechipparai dam – all his stories began with his own birth. Slowly, there would emerge a beat in the story, a length in his lyric, and it would turn into a song. The udukku would join in spontaneously. One of the tales that he never tired of telling was the history of Semban Durai.

In those days, if you travelled past Kulasekharam, it was dark enough to mask an elephant even at the height of the noonday sun. And beyond that, like Mooli Alangari’s tears, it rained thirty days a month. It was a forest where jackals feasted on the leftovers of tigers. You couldn’t see the ground for the lush undergrowth. You couldn’t see the sky for the close leafcover. And snaking through, like the dirty white thread worn across the body of an old Brahmin priest, was a one-horse track. It wound its way past Pechi’s bosom, past the Perunchani hill, past the wilderness of Nedumangkadu, and landed at the feet of the deity Ananta Padmanabhan, in Thiruvananthapuram. That was Pechi’s empire. Save for the nails of wild creatures and the feet of the Kani tribes, nothing, not even the scent of the townspeople, could set foot in there. Pechi was the daughter of Brahma; she was the queen of the hills. She was headstrong and no one could subdue her; it was Semban Durai who finally brought her under his thumb. At first, he lured the Kani people by giving them gifts of palm-sugar and weed. He roamed the forests at his will and pleasure, fearing neither the draughty winds nor death itself. Under his heavy tread, the green of the forest withered brown and wasted away. When the forest animals took sight of him, they tucked their tails between their legs, lowered their snouts and scattered in panic. The birds in the sky beat their wings madly, flailing in agony.  If he raised a finger and made a gesture, “Stop!”, even a tiger would stiffen its tail, squirm its body, lower its face and stop in its tracks. Semban Durai was not a man. He was a black demon, a bhootham, who had formerly stood guard at Indrani’s palace in the kingdom of Indran, king of the gods. As a punishment for his misdeeds, he was cursed to take the form of a man. Bound by the power of word and sound, he descended to earth. The kumpiniyan – Company fellow – controlled the bhootham with more mantras. He made the bhootham lift unliftable loads, perform unspeakable deeds. With boons, with gifts; with mandates, with decrees; came Semban Durai, to subdue Pechi; came Semban Durai; to lord over Valli – so went Singi’s song.

Even when we were children, the Valli river had dwindled to a blue ribbon. In the rainy season, very rarely, you could see it spanning both banks, soil-scented and swirling along. “You should have seen her then! The way she lay, the way she walked… ‘twas Semban Durai who tamed her and put her in place! He got the better of that cunning aruvani’s arrogance!” He pointed to the entrance of the Sivan temple and said that the floodwaters would rise all the way up there in those days. “What do you think you have seen, young master? Do you know how many women that daughter of a widow-whore has herself widowed? The bitch would rush out, sweeping everything in her wake – uprooting banana trees full of fruit clusters and coconut trees with flower-laden heads. See the way the troublemaking moodhi lies now, like a wounded rat-snake, but don’t believe her. She is full of poison. If Semban Durai had not arrived in time, this daughter of a blind whore would have swallowed alive the whole of these parts.” When Singi opened his mouth, Valli was always subjected to a volley of abuse. One rainy season, she had flung her hair open like a banshee and roared down here, and Singi’s father and mother and house and garden had all been washed away to the shores of Thengaipattnam. As Singi used to say, “She’s a blind mooli, a harbinger of misfortune,a blight on the clans.”

It was an evening when the skies were like wet glass. We had gone to see the big dam at Pechipparai. The fierce Valli was left unfettered there; she lay there like a good girl, coyly swirling blue, confined to the bounds of her cement walls. A little water trickled down the sluice like a tear. The bran-coloured mud on the banks carried impressions of a thousand footprints. Radhakrishnan pointed to a distant hill and said, that’s where you can find Singi’s riverbed of butterflies. The hill that he was pointing to looked like it was made of blue smoke. Just above that, a cloud, softly lit, seemed to have frozen in place like a smooth sculpture of crystal.

There was an artificial garden on this side of the dam. A croton plant, gloriously red, looked like a child from the city who had lost her way and wandered into the forest. The few massive trees planted there had gone to sleep. There was the sound of swirling water, the ruckus of homecoming birds. At the western edge, under a teak tree, lay Semban Durai’s grave. For no apparent reason, they had painted his grave in a blinding shade of yellow. They could have painted it green, Durai’s favourite colour. Or even red. “Look here, little master, you will not believe me. We will never see such a man again, yes? Has the little master ever seen a man who was ruddy white, a semban? Ruddy hair, ruddy eyes, ruddy nose…from head to toe, that man was ruddy white. Don’t know what he ate, but if he opened his mouth in a grin, it looked just like a tiger’s. There was no need for him to say a word; it was enough for him to just look; and just like that, you would wet your pants. He was a bhootham, yes he was. A ruddy white bhootham!”

Semban Durai, the Ruddy-White Master who had conquered Pechi, now lay under a tree reeking of bird droppings, in a lush green thicket, all alone. It was not possible to read the name on the grave. The people who managed the site had recklessly whitewashed over it many times. If only he was able to walk, he would not even be in the area, I said. How did he bear to stay under the shade of croton plants? Why him, even Pechi would have run away from that place, said Radhakrishnan, pointing me to the small form in the place of worship dedicated to her. On a large square-shaped stone platform, there stood a gnarled, knobbled, mighty, old tree.  It was teeming with large, thick leaves. Its branches were low on all four sides and hung over them like a tent. Inside, it was half-dark. The ground was damp and slippery with rotting leaves. The bronze face of the goddess was nailed on to the tree. Under it, there was a dark sacrificial stone. The flowers from a week ago lay scattered there. There were flecks of vermilion smeared everywhere.

I felt like I could hear Singi’s voice in the air.

“’Twas Pechi’s blood

That rained down the hills

’Twas Pechi’s hair

That Semban Durai plucked away…”

The Kani folks leading the way, hunting hounds at his heels, and riding a red steed, Semban Durai went to see Valli, his prospective bride, whom he would conquer and tame. On seeing the virgin girl who rushed past him, curling and swirling, he laughed in amusement. “You like to run? Run on. Let’s see how long you run,” he said. “Semban Durai is not going to turn his back on this place without putting you in your place.” Valli, frightened by his threats, ran to Pechi and poured her heart out. An enraged Pechi confronted Semban Durai in the forest. Elephants hanging down her lobes, a python girdling her breasts; her feet on the hills and her head in the clouds, baring fearsome teeth and poisonous fangs; eyes spitting fire and a thunder-like laugh, she manifested before him, in all her glory. All living creatures stopped in their tracks: a sparrow in flight froze in the sky, a falling cascade hung halfway down the hill. The forests shivered; the skies echoed her thunderous voice. Pechi bared her lightning-teeth and demanded, “Have you come to shear my hair, son? Have you come to restrain my daughter, son?”   

Durai did not flinch. “Pechi, if you are a demon, I am a fiend. Do you think your little games will scare me? Get out of my way and stand aside, you moodhi!” he said. Pechi realized then that he was not an ordinary man, there was some mischief afoot. She made herself as small as she could, and took the form of a petite kurathi, ahill tribe-woman, decked in pearls and sandal paste; and with honey-sweet words and froth-like laughter, she stood coyly before him. She summoned up all her coquetries and smiled at him with meaning. She summoned up a hundred enchantments and argued with conviction. Pechi had the authority ordained by the creator Brahma himself. She had given her daughter, Valli, a boon. To restrain Valli is to restrain Pechi herself. The curse of Brahma would destroy the whole world. Pechi, the queen of the hills, is the goddess who protects the lands. She bestows on them medicines to cure their maladies; offers them fragrances to keep their fasts. She protects them. The wild creatures and the Kani people are her children. No stranger should walk around after having betrayed Pechi. It’s not right to harm her children; Pechi will not stand by and watch it. The anger of a mother will destroy whole clans. End civilizations. Don’t test me, run while you can, she said. Durai would not yield. “Do your best to stop me. I came to marry Valli, subdue here pride, restrain her. I will leave only when she is restrained. Do what you can!” he said.

Pechi was trembling with fury. Banging her fists on her chest, screaming with rage, she turned herself into a hurricane and whirled into the forest, dancing like a dervish in a paroxysm of frenzy. Her dance of fury sent deer flying into the air; the mighty jungle trees shuddered like reeds. She whistled down the mountains and entered the town, sacking it clean. Roofs and eaves took to the skies like kites. Cows and goats were flung into the air and died when they crashed to the ground. On the fourth day, there was a downpour of demoniac rain. Floodwaters barraged the town, melding homes with their gardens, fusing fields with their borders. On the fifth day, came Valli. Her hair flying in the wind like palm fronds, howling, beating her breasts, her red saree cascading like waves, she entered the town. She grabbed everything from the stacks of hay to the pots in the kitchen. At the dawn of the tenth day, the whole town was filled with red mud as if it had been swept clean and smeared with cowdung. No one knew where they had come from, but wherever you turned, there were birds. Crows and eagles and storks and sparrows flapped their wings over the muddy tracts. They quarreled and scraped raucously. All through the night, they sat on the roofs and cried, “Pechiyammo, Pechiyammo! Pechi, my mother! Pechi, my mother!” The townspeople were filled with fear. Was it Brahman’s fury? Indra’s curse? They shuddered. What god had they displeased? They appealed to the goddesses at Malaikkavil and Mudippurai and promised them tributes if they relieved their agony. To quench the fire in their bellies, they foraged for lily tubers and mudfish in the slush.

Pechi would not be appeased. There was no melting her heart of stone. Wearing a leaf-skirt, with a coir-box at her waist, with flaming eyes and bellowing breaths, she walked through the town. “Spare my children, Pechi!” wailed the goddess at Mudippurai, falling at her feet. Pechi grabbed her hair and flung her aside. The sword-and-trident wielding goddess from Malaikkavil came to battle with her; Pechi simply kicked her away. I will not spare you even if Brahma himself orders me to, she cackled. Grabbing a handful of poisonous seeds, she flung them all over the town. Where the poison landed, like a patch of forest land struck by lightning, the place blackened and wasted away. The stench of burning corpses followed at her footsteps. The goddesses at Malaikkavil and Mudippurai stayed in their temples and shed tears of sorrow. There was no one who could restrain Pechi. Indeed, the only one who saw her go about town was the shaman-priest Muthan. “Pechi has descended; now she will not rest till she levels this town,” he announced, running from street to street. Semban Durai had touched Pechi and defiled her; that was the reason for her anger, and that was why their town would be destroyed, he said. He said that to pacify Pechi and cool her down, it was necessary to sacrifice a billy goat and offer her worship on the banks of the Valli. “But where will we go for a goat now, O priest?” pleaded the townspeople. Muthan peered at them through his bloodshot eyes, “It’s enough that you dare to make such excuses to Muthan. Don’t take them to Pechi’s ears. She is a devil,” he warned. Everybody cursed Durai. They expected the priest Muthan who had accused Durai to perform some black magic against him. That’s not as easy as you think, said Muthan. He told them that he had perceived with his magic that Durai was not a man, but a bhootham. However, the townspeople, faint with hunger, would not agree to an expensive sacrificial ritual.

Singi would narrate emotionally: it was right at that moment that Durai rode in. Mounted on his red horse, with a hat, boots and a fine coat on, and a double-barreled gun in one hand; with the chendai drummer announcing him, the town’s dogs surrounding him, with a couple of Kani men for guard, he entered town. Upon seeing the fine entry of this stranger, the women and children ran and hid away in their houses. When the chendai drummer announced that all the townspeople should gather around, only a few brave men came forward. The drummer said that they needed wage labour to work in the Pechipparai hills. The workers would be given two annas a day and their stomach’s full of cooked seeraga samba rice, three times a day. The townspeople hesitated. No way he was going to give them so much food and money, he’s just pulling our leg, they said. Immediately, Durai increased the wage to three annas. The head of the Pulayans clarified the amount a few times and made sure that he was hearing right. Then, “The people from our caste will come, master,” he said, falling at the chendai drummer’s feet. The golden words of three annas and three full meals a day spread like wildfire from town to town. Some elderly Paraiyans were astonished. Is this really happening in Pechi’s empire, they wondered. This signals the end of times; the town will be destroyed, cautioned the upper-caste Nairs. The youngsters spat on the ground, “Tell Pechi to go fuck herself.”  There were waves of hungry masses ready to leave. The priest Muthan went into a trance and pronounced oracles at street corners. “Do you want to see all of Pechi’s power? Should she reveal her whole self to you? Is it not enough, what we have just seen?” he leaped around in frenzy. Till the first lot left the town, there was confusion all around. “Rather than stay here and stink, it’s better to go there and die. Durai has promised to provide our gruel. As if Pechi allows us to stay here, that moodhi,” said Kandan Pulayan, and left with a group. And from the next day, the whole town started migrating to the hills. Hordes of people and their cattle herds travelled up the Valli river, foraging, eating, shitting, hooting and shrieking, stopping their journey only by night. The sound of their hooves echoed through the muddy towns they passed by. The riverine waterhens, displaced and restless, entered the town and raised their voices plaintively, foreshadowing bad omens. There was panic and deathly silence all through the town. When Muthan saw even the most faithful of the townspeople leave, he couldn’t bear it any longer and jumped in front of them, blocking their way. A teenager called Gnanamani threw him into the river. Later, he kept saying that he thought the man was capable of swimming and surfacing.  However, the priest Muthan was never seen again. A strange excitement had taken root somewhere in their midst and spread through the horde, overtaking them. A group went around, singing merrily at the top of their voices. They danced madly to drumbeats. When the skies turned pink, when they had lit fires beneath the trees to cook their dinners, men and women danced in circles. All eighteen clans forgot all notions of kinship and coupled with each other. Bawdy songs floated through the silent night, piercing the ears of the townspeople who lay in bed, unable to sleep.

Singi said that in the riverbed of butterflies, there are no trees. It is a marshy slope, never completely dry. There, the sun has just light, no heat. The land there becomes moist when touched by the wind. It’s lush, full of green. “You cannot see a green like that anywhere else, young master! When the sun rises up high in the sky, what a scent it kicks up! The fragrance of the green turns your head. And what flowers! The shrubs are full of flowers…sometimes you can’t see the leaves for the petals…red and yellow and blue…what shall I say? Is there any colour that you can’t find there? Is there any flower that you can’t find there? That is Pechi’s womb! And who is she? She is our mother!” he used to say. His eyes would widen. He would stumble over his words. The udukku would be rattling hard. Suddenly, he would lower his head, take a deep breath and start singing.

Semban Durai first planned to imprison Valli at the northern bend of the Koratti hill. It is a place where Valli bashfully bends and gives way as she passes downhill. Ants started to feast on Pechi’s body. They bored through her right breast, and her left breast gorged up. In pain, Pechi turned over and rubbed herself to relieve her agony – just a rub – and the ants and their homes were flattened to dust. Valli, freed of her restraint, cackled and leaped downhill. Where there had been a mountain, there was a pass now. Durai did not lose heart. When he had rice in hand, were ants going to be scarce to find? He tried building again, a short distance away. Pechi’s army of elephants came teeming in the sky above thir heads. With their ivory tusks flashing silver, they attacked. Water rained down, bridging land and sky. Valli ran with all the energy of the charging elephants. Like a mighty snake, she wound her body around the various malais, slithering and twitching around the hills. Iluppamalai crumbled down. Kadambamalai had deep cracks in it. Ten days later, when the sky brightened, the footprints had been washed away and the forests were pristine once again. Clusters of green leaves cried, Pechi! Pechi! Valli lay like a satiated python with its stomach bulged full, curled and languid on the hills.

Durai could also not take it any longer. He fell at Pechi’s feet. “Forgive me Pechi,” he cried, weeping. In the middle of the thickest, darkest jungle, he built a flame pit and subjected himself to a regimen of rigorous, torturous penances. He sacrificed goats and billies. Along with all his brothers – ghosts and goblins and devils and demons- he offered sacrifices to Pechi. Pechi would not yield. He pleaded, he wept.  When nothing else worked, he drew the sword at his waist and pressed the blade to his neck. He bellowed, “Here, take the head of a bhootham. I say this with Brahma himself as witness. Here, take my head and be satisfied.” Whe he raised the sword, Pechi relented. She took form in the sacrificial fire and danced frenziedly. She came as the wind and cackled with glee, causing all eight directions to shake and tremble. “My offering, give me my offering!” she demanded. “I want a human sacrifice, and I want it now!” she bayed, dancing in fury. “How many men? Just say how many,” said Durai. “A thousand and one,” said Pechi. “That’s all? I’ll give it,” said Durai, unperturbedly. “Where? Where?” demanded Pechi, hopping around impatiently. “On the slopes of Panrimalai, there are a thousand houses. Take them, Pechi. Not a thousand, you moodhi. Five thousand. Take it and be satisfied,” said Durai. She cackled; the forest quaked and trembled. “Promise me, promise me that you will be grateful for the blood you drink!” Durai urged. Pechi danced in fury. She whipped her hair out and slapped it on the ground, in solemn promise.

The next day, even before dawn, Pechi had had her fill. A thousand huts had settled in her belly. For ten days after that, she continued her frenzied dance, and spent all her fury. On the tenth day, as she had promised, she came in front of Durai. Durai sequestered her spirit in an iron nail, and nailed it to the broad trunk of a Vengai tree. He ordained a yearly sacrifice and a monthly worship on the full-moon day every month for the goddess Pechi. He made her an offering of turmeric and a sacrifice of a mature black goat and started his work. Valli’s dark days had begun. After Pechi had been subdued, there was no one for her. Semban Durai grabbed her long hair and curled it around his fist, and finally tamed her arrogance.

Bathed in soft sunlight, the riverbed of butterflies on the slopes of Pandrimalai brought back the memories of Singi like an old, familiar ache. There were lush thickets of green as far as the eye could see. Flowers, masses of colours that filled the eyes made it yearn for something. A slight breeze was enough to set up curves on the carpet of flowers. Butterflies everywhere, like flowers in flight. They were unbelievably huge. “Never catch those blasted butterflies, young master,” Singi would say. “Each one of them is the eye of a dead man. Twitching, twitching, they eternally twitch and wander around here, poor souls.” Eyes, flying here, flying there, their eyelashes fluttering urgently. Their gazes everywhere, all around. I caught hold of Radhakrishnan’s hand. “Let’s go,” I said. The butterflies from the riverbed had taken over the slopes and the valley as well. They withered into the water and swirled with it. They fell into the drinking water and twitched in agony. They sat on the large implements that had bored holes through Pechi’s body, on the rails that sucked her lifeblood and took it to far-off cities, and they trembled. Like bits of coloured paper, they were all over the mud. They were stuck to the dark, wet roofs. Their bodies kept hitting the glass fronts of the buses; they kept slumping down. From within the dewy green of the forest, the butterflies kept coming with no end in sight.