The Predicate

Tuesday, 22.08.06

The Buried Past of Gunter Grass

There are some stories that leave you just shaking your head in disbelief. Like plot twists late in the movie that change everything completely. None of them are probably as shattering as the admission by the famous German novelist Gunter Grass that he was a member of Waffen SS, the elite Nazi force.

Gunter Grass is the most famous novelist from Germany, the nobel prize winning author of Tin Drum. He was a hard left-wing advocate for years. He was the heart and soul of German conscience. His writings forced people to reconcile with their past, to acknowledge the crimes committed by the Nazis. For such a man to admit now that he had served in the Waffen SS, is just nothing short of earth shattering.

The New York Times puts it this way:

In novels, plays, essays and newspaper interviews, Günter Grass has often told Germans what they did not want to hear: about their history, about their politics, even about themselves. For many on the left, since the 1960’s he has come to represent the conscience of a country with much to lament.

After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, he explained his obsession with Germany’s past. “There were extenuating circumstances,” he told the Swedish Academy, “mountains of rubble and cadavers, fruit of the womb of German history. The more I shoveled, the more it grew. It simply could not be ignored.”


The reaction in Germany to this admission has been one of disbelief and indignation: not that a teenager should have been recruited into the Waffen SS as Hitler struggled to avoid defeat, but that the country’s most prominent writer should have hidden this while hectoring others for their political and social sins from the comfort of the moral high ground. “I do not understand how someone can elevate himself constantly for 60 years as the nation’s bad conscience, precisely in Nazi questions, and only then admit that he himself was deeply involved,” Joachim Fest, a prominent historian and biographer of Hitler, told the newspaper Bild. “I don’t know how he could play this double role for so long.”

As an outsider, I can feel how big this revelation is. When I was in college, I read parts of The Danzig trilogy, his main body of work. In particular, I managed to labor through his most acclaimed work, The Tin Drum. When he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1999, there was sizeable media coverage about his life, his work as a leading critic of Germany's Nazi past. The Tin Drum was released in 1959. Now, after all these years, he has finally revealed that he too had a secret past. It is a great tragedy.

There is a great novel waiting to be written here. As a boy who grew up in the Nazi regime, was it wrong for Grass to join the Waffen SS? Once he found his conscience, why didn't Grass just admit that he erred when he was a teenager? To have carried his secret for so long must have torn him apart.

There are calls that his Nobel should be rescinded. I think he erred in judgement by not revealing this earlier, but it doesn't make his work and activism null and void. He might not have written all that he wrote, probably if not for this bit of his past. Grass' story is one of a man who probably repented all his life, a Jean valjean of our times. Let us not all be Javerts trying to prosecute him.

- Balaji.

balaji - pencil 03:22:12 - Literature - pencil permalink - [23.08.06 17:43]

Monday, 29.05.06

Mondegreens in a language other than English

Anoop Sarkar, whose blog I follow for his insightful book reviews, is wondering about Mondegreens in languages other than English. He writes:

The only lists of examples I have seen of Mondegreens have been in English. Surely songs in other languages can have lyrics that are commonly misheard. But a cursory web search yielded no such lists in any other language. A note of clarification: I define mondegreens in stricter sense than the definition in wikipedia, which I think is too broad. I consider it to be a mondegreen if it is in the original language itself (i.e. not because of a bad translation) and if it occurs in song lyrics (i.e. no speech recognition or closed captioning errors).

Surely, such a list can be generated in Tamil, for e.g. I will mention a couple from the top of my head.

First, a popular song, goes like this: "Thaaye Yasodha, undhan aayar kulaththudhitha" - "Mother Yashoda, in your Yadava clan (was born Krishna)". Instead, people used to sing it as "Thaaye Yasodha, undhan naayar kulaththudhiththa", making it mean "Mother Yasodha, in your Nayar clan (was born Krishna)". Suddenly, Krishna is recast from a Yadava boy somewhere in the west, to a Nayar (Nair) boy in Kerala!

The second one is more personal. This one is a carnatic song in Tamil, set in raga Abhogi that I’ve heard for ages, and didn’t realize that I was not hearing the correct lyrics, till very recently! It goes like this:
Sabapathikku vEru dheivam samaanamaagumaa
Sabapathikku vEru dheivam samaanamaagumaa
This line poses a qn: Will there be another god like Sabapathy?
Then, a quick "illai" (meaning "No" ) and then the first line again.
So, I always thought the meaning was:
Will there be another god like Sabapathy? No... Will there be another god like Sabapathy? No...

Turns out, the quick word in the middle was not "illai", but "thillai" (meaning Chidambaram - the temple where God Sabapathy - Siva - is).
So, it was actually: Will there be another god like Sabapathy? Will there be another god like Sabapathy of Chidambaram?

I am sure there are more Mondegreens in other languages as well. If you know any, please post in this thread.

- Balaji Srinivasan.


Cinema Virumbi writes:

Politician/ Literary speaker Kumari Ananthan once said:

In the Southern districts, a proverb is common: 'KuruvikkEththa raamEswaram'. Most people use it similar to ' EzhaikkEththa eLLuruNdai' meaning, something (like a laddu made of sesame seeds!) a poor man buys or uses because that is the only thing within his reach! But the proverb is a time - distorted, Mondegreen version of the original: 'kuRi vaikka ERRa Raama saram' i.e. Rama's arrow which is fit to target (any enemy)! (I agree , this phrase , in itself, doesn't qualify as a proverb (unlike the Mondegreen version), as it only says Rama's arrow is great and nothing more!!!!!)

balaji - pencil 10:22:27 - Literature - pencil permalink - [13.06.06 00:58]

Monday, 10.04.06

An interview with Indira Parthasarathy - Part II

Read Part I.

Balaji: Let's talk about the Ramanujar play that is going to be staged this weekend. How did you end up writing this play? What was the element of drama that you found in Ramanujar's life?

I.Paa: Ramanujar's life was full of drama. He was a 12th century saint and he was perhaps the first social revolutionary in tamil religious history. He differed from Sankara. Sankara's god was not a personal god, but Ramanujar explained it in a personal way. Ramanujar felt that a personal god was necessary, like even if there was no god, create him. Every man needs his personal god. At the same time, he did not like the caste hierarchy that existed. He felt that personal salvation was a right for everyone. So, he protested against the caste system. His earliest guru was not a brahmin. Ramanujar was a brahmin, and his guru, Thirukatchi Nambi, was a vysya. He was born an advaitist. He was the first religious teacher to give the management of a temple to the untouchables, as they were called in those days. He called them the 'blessed tribe', in thamizh 'thiruk kulaththaar'. Gandhiji was greatly influenced by Ramanujar. If you study the life of Gandhi, you will find that he followed the entire social engineering structure that Ramanujar followed. Whom Ramanujar called as thiruk kulaththaar, Gandhiji called them Harijans.

Balaji: Do you see Ramanujar more as a philosopher-thinker, or as a social reformer?

I.Paa: Ramanujar was a split personality, I would say, that way. One part was his high philosphical thinking, his commentary (Sri Baashyam), his Vishishtadhwait principles etc. The other part of him was popular social engineering. He adopted Tamil as a vehicle of communication and ensured that in the temples, the chants were not just in Sanskrit, but also in tamil. He wanted to reach a large section of people. He wanted an inclusive society. He adopted the Alwar hymns, written in 7th-9th century AD. Those 4000 hymns (Naalaayira dhivya prabandham), he said were as great as the Upanishads. He called it Dravido Upanishad.

Balaji: You have written another landmark play, Nandan Kathai. In the preface to the play, you wrote that it was Nandan, and not Nandanaar. That 'aar' viguthi, according to you, institutionalized the person. Is the situation different for Ramanujar?

I.Paa: Yes, Ramanujar was a brahmin by birth, he didn't have to be glorified further (by suffixes). Nandan was born an untouchable. By adding this 'aar', they were artificially pushing him up the social hierarchy. Nandan Kathai and Ramanujar are two sides of the same coin. Nandan Kathai was about a person from an oppressed caste coming up. By depicting him as a great man, the higher caste people tried to put an end to whatever social revolution that he might have effected. Anything institutionalized, that is the death of the ideology. That was what happened to Nandan, that was what happened to Ramanujar, and also to Jesus Christ.

Balaji: You have written another play, Aurangazeb. When you write historical plays, do you remain faithful to history, making sure there are no anachronisms involved, or do you take poetic license to write as you wish?

I.Paa: I don't violate historical facts. But without violating historical facts, I try to interpret history the way it can be interpreted. Say for instance, as you said, Aurangazeb. All of us students of Indian history would know that Aurangazeb was a tyrant, he was against music, all fine arts, he suppressed the hindus and so on. But there is another side to Aurangazeb which I could see in the Majumdar's history of Mughals. I found that he was very fond of music earlier. He was fond of writing poetry. What could have made him this kind of person, as a tyrant? How did it happen? I tried to probe into it. I tried to interpret history and tried to analyze his character.

Balaji: And the result was a wonderful play. Let's talk about tamil theatre. We always keep saying, "Iyal, Isai, Naadagam". When did this classification actually occur? What exactly is Naadagath thamizh?

I.Paa: This classification, muththamizh as they call it, I do not know if muththamizh earlier meant "Iyal, Isai, Naadagam" at all. Perhaps the first reference to muththamizh comes in Paripaadal. There, the reference is only to Chera, Chozha, Pandiya kingdoms. Iyal is prose, Isai is music and Naadagam is theatre. The first reference to this muththamizh and to iyal, isai, naadagam is probably much much later, in the 13th-14th centuries. Naadaga means theatre. In the indian view of theatre, music and dance were also included in theatre. A kooththu must tell a story. So, if the story part is included, it becomes Naadagam. That is also the notion of theatre in bharatha sastra. We think that there is only one source of theatre for the entire India. There is no dravidian, or aryan or whatever, they were all integrated in the dim periods of pre-history.

Balaji: We have a rich tradition of kooththu. What kind of experimentations were there in that art form? What was unique to our brand of theatre that the other parts of the world didn't have?

I.Paa: Not only India, but take Eastern/Asian theatre. The audience participation (was the unique thing). The participation of the audience was a new experience for Western theatre. In the west, in music and theatre, they distance themselves from what is going on. But in Indian theatre, the audience also actively collaborates. They know what is going to happen, they are familiar with the stories, like from Mahabharatha. They like to look at how it is being interpreted, and become an intrinsic part of what is happening on the stage.

Balaji: Were they always performing well-known stories, or were there new playwrights coming every now and then with fresh stories?

I.Paa: Mostly, they were staging only well-known puranic legends. No new stories came up. For instance, what Kalidasa wrote, was from Mahabharatha, or from Ramayana.

Balaji: When you write a play, do you think about the feasibility of staging it? Do you write it and leave it to the director to figure out how to stage it?

I.Paa: I write plays only for production. Not that I write production scripts, but I am very conscious of the feasibility of staging it. Any play has to be staged. When I write, I also write some directorial notes. Any western playwright would do the same. It was not so, earlier. But now, the writer has to be conscious of the feasibility of the play being produced.

Balaji: Is that a kind of limitation on what all you want to express on stage? Is that a limitation that the current stage imposes on you?

I.Paa: I don't think of limitations at all. The practical difficulties come up only when it is actually staged. Now the thinking in the theatre world is that the production script is a collective effort between the director and the actors/crew. A playwright can give a skeleton. That skeleton can be worked out into a manageable script to be produced on stage.

Balaji: I was fascinated to read your take on Silappathikaram. Silappathikaram, we've been taught, is an epic. But you write that it is a play written in an epic form. You equate Ilango to the likes of Shakespeare. Can you tell us more about your point of view?

I.Paa: Silappathikaram, it is written in an epic form. In those days, drama had no literary credibility in tamil as it did in Sanskrit. Kalidasa, Bhasa, they all wrote plays in Sanskrit. But how come when you have translated almost every major literary work from Sanskrit to Tamil, epics, upanishads etc, how come no plays of Kalidasa were translated from Sanskrit to Tamil, until the 19th century, when Maraimalai adigaL, who hated Sanskrit, translated Sakunthalam into tamil? This might have happened because earlier there was no literary credibility in writing a play. Read the kaaviyam, Silappathikaram. It has all the dramatic elements. It has the dramatic structure. So, I thought it was basically concieved as a play, written out in epic form.

Balaji: One common thing that is often said is that there are no Greek Tragedies in Indian Literature. But in Silappathikaram, everyone dies. Kovalan dies, the king dies, the queen dies, the city gets burnt.

I.Paa: Silappathikaram is not a tragedy. It doesn't end with Madurai Kaandam. It ends with Vanjik kaandam. Vanjik kaandam is the conquest of Cheran Senguttuvan over the north, and paththini cult. Nobody dies in our tradition. They reach Moksha.

Balaji: That was precisely my question. Was Vanjik kaandam an add-on because a tragedy would not be accepted in the literature?

I.Paa: Could be. There was a time when I thought that Vanjik kaandam was an add-on. Perhaps, looking at the style, it was written by Ilango adigaL alright. At the same time, he might have been conscious of the fact that tragedies were not accepted in the Indian tradition.

Balaji: Does our tradition have Children's theatre in it? Or is it a western concept?

I.Paa: There is, not in a big way. One of my students, Velu Saravanan, is doing Children's theatre in a big way, and is a success. But it is not catching up much. When we think of producing plays for children, we always have adults as the target audience (since they accompany the children). That is the problem. Children's theatre has not existed till now, but thanks to Velu Saravanan, it is catching up.

Balaji: Let's talk about translations. You yourself have translated some of your works into English, and others have translated your works as well. There has been a constant struggle for recognition among authors who are writing in Indian languages, as opposed to writers writing in English. Can the nuances and subtexts of our culture be ever expressed in English?

I.Paa: It doesn't have to be. You see, when Nabokov wrote his Lolita, he said that had he written it in Russian, it would have been much more effective. But, we find that Lolita written in English itself gives us satisfaction. It is true that idioms, nuances and typical cultural things cannot be translated. I can give you an example from my own work. When we refer to a woman as having a right to wear flowers, it is meant that she is not a widow. So, we say she loses her right to wear flowers, implying that she becomes a widow. When you have to translate it into English, it doesn't make much sense. "endhak kadaiyilE poo vaanginaaLO, aduththa maasamE aathukku vandhuttaa" is an expression found in one of my stories. When the story was translated, the translator felt so bad that he can't do this in English. Anyway, it just has to be a workable, serviceable translation. That is necessary. I am satisfied, my Kurudhippunal was translated into English by Ka.Na.Subramaniam. He has done a fairly good job.

Balaji: And, recently, your yEsuvin thOzhargaL was translated as Comrades of Jesus.

I. Paa: Yes, it was done by K.V.Ramanathan. He has also done a good job. yEsuvin thOzhargaL was easy to translate, because it was based on my experiences in Poland. So, probably I had bilingual thinking when I wrote this novel.

Balaji: Do you consider yourself to be a part of a literary tradition, a particular school of writing in tamil?

I.Paa: No. I don't belong to any school. That kind of writing, what you can call as "committed writing" takes a writer nowhere.

Balaji: You had written once that Sanga Ilakkiyam, thirukkuraL and Kamba Ramayanam etc should not be treated as assets of tamils alone, but should be viewed as global assets. Can you explain what we have to do so that others come to know of these rich literary works?

I.Paa: I meant that tamil has a disadvantage of being a classical language and at the same time a modern Indian language. I would say that thirukkuraL, Kamba Ramayanam, Silappathikaram, Sangam works are an intrinsic part of the total Indian tradition, just like Geetha, Ramayana, Mahabharatha. There are two independent things, one is the classical tamil, and the modern tamil (and the need to decouple the two). That classification is very much needed so that others are also aware that they are also a part of that great literary tradition.

Balaji: You had an intricate knowledge of classical tamil literature when you started to write in modern tamil. But the writers nowadays disassociate themselves from the works in the past. Do you think it is a healthy sign that writers are not well-versed in the ancient works?

I.Paa: No. It has not become a part of their system. When I refer to certain things in past works, they are not able to comprehend. So, there is a big dichotomy that is existing between the past and the present. That is what I meant.

Thanks to Prof. Parthasarathy for this interview.

balaji - pencil 14:59:49 - Literature - pencil permalink - [11.04.06 07:15]

An interview with Indira Parthasarathy - Part I

Last Wednesday, I interviewed Prof.Indira Parthasarathy for more than an hour, live on radio. It was a part of a programme called "It's Different", that aired on KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM in the bay area. The audio of the interview can be found at It's Different. I've posted the first part of the interview below. I will post the second part tomorrow. I will also write about the drama workshop that he conducted last week.

Prof.I.Paa needs no introduction. He is one of the finest writers in Tamil literature. He has written several novels, plays and short stories. He has received numerous awards, including the Sahitya Academy award and the Saraswathi Samman for his play, Ramanujar.

The interview was in English due to Stanford radio regulations.

Balaji: Let's get started with your early days as a writer. You started writing in Ananda Vikatan. It should have been an interesting time, in those days, with the likes of you and Jayakanthan writing in Vikatan. Can you tell us more about how you got started, your stint with Ananda Vikatan and its Muththirai kadhaigaL?

I.Paa: I started off writing in fact in the early 60s. At that time, the usual magazines were catering to the middle class brahmin families. But, Ananda Vikatan, at that time started appealing to the serious readers as well, by introducing serious literature by people like Jayakanthan and others. It made me optimistic, I thought I could also write. There was a sentimental part of why I started to write, I don't want to discuss why I started writing at that time. Anyway, when I sent my story and it was accepted, and because I never expected that they were going to publish serious stuff, but (the acceptance) encouraged me to write and it was great fun.

Balaji: So, a chicken and egg question: Did Vikatan start actively pursuing serious literature, or did literary folks like Jayakanthan started to write in Vikatan as well?

I.Paa: Before 1947, most of the mainstream magazines were catering only to middle class brahmin families. But there was new intelligensia, new literate people coming up after independence. The majority of them were not brahmins. So the popular magazines had to cater to the new readers. They invited Jayakanthan to write. At that time, Jayakanthan was only contributing to the literary magazines in the leftist groups. So, they had to start to do these things. I saw that it was a better literary climate (than before) and I started writing. I am not saying that it continued or so, but there was a competition for Ananda Vikatan at that time. Kumudam was started just then. So they had to accomodate serious literature, some low-brow stuff.. I mean, it was a mixed bag. In the 1960s. Kumudam also invited serious writing, one or two stories (per issue).

Balaji: It is amazing to me, as a current generation reader of Ananda Vikatan and Kumudam, that people like you and Jayakanthan actually wrote in these magazines.

I.Paa: Today, it is a different thing. I think magazine readers don't expect stories or any such thing. At that time, there was no TV. For entertainment and education, they solely depended on magazines. But now the situation is different. So, now they have to be more visual in the magazines. Now you find all the tamil magazines very glossy. Magazines in tamil have always been glossy and the color schemes were obscene. I am sorry for saying that, but I had an experience when I was teaching in Delhi University. The then vice-chancellor, C.D.Deshmukh, he sent for me one day. I was in Tamil department in Delhi University at that time. He said, I have a complaing, most tamil magazines are very glossy and very obscene in color, and he put in front of me all these magazines. I told him Ananda Vikatan and others were all respectable and popular. He said, I don't know anything about the content, but the color scheme is so obscene. It was like that. Now, it is still worse. People may disagree with me.. but it is worse, not just in quality. Nowadays, all magazines look alike, whether it is Kumudam or Vikatan, they all look alike.

Balaji: They all resemble tabloids.

I.Paa: Yes, they look like tabloids.

Balaji: Who were the others who started writing in your generation, with you and Jayakanthan?

I.Paa: These are the writers like me, who are now called as senior writers, like Ashokamitran. Ramamirdham (La.Sa.Raa) never contributed in popular magazines, because his kind of writing was totally different. Sujatha also started in that period.

Balaji: You were writing from Delhi, and all the magazines and the literary community were in Chennai. Was that a disadvantage, or was it good to keep distance?

I.Paa: When I started writing, I had one basic disadvantage: One professing in that language and also writing in that language. To profess a language and write in that language is a kind of contradiction in terms. Because the language was old, the tamil scholars were all living in the neverneverland of Dravidian wisdom and all that, and sentimentizing history. So, it was a great disadvantage. But, once when I started writing.. Ananda Vikatan did not know who I was, and I contributed from Delhi. I wrote in the name of Indira Parthasarathy, I don't know whether they thought I was a woman. The first story which was published.. it was in muththirai kadhaigaL. They gave a special award to those stories that appeared as muththirai kadhaigaL, once a month. So, Jayakanthan was writing a story one month, and the next month I used to write and so on. They did not know who I was. They thought I was a captain or a Major in the Army, because I was living in a place in Delhi called Defence Colony! Later on I came to know from Manian, who was the editor, that they thought that I was in the Army. Anyway, it was great fun. In the early days, six stories of mine came in Ananda Vikatan, and then I started contributing to literary magazines like Deepam and also to Kalki. It happened that most of my novels were published in Kalki or Kanaiyaazhi.

Balaji: It is interesting that you talk about the disadvantage of being a professor of a language and writing in that language. But when one looks at your writings, it is very hard to even think that you would be a professor, since your writing style is so simple, lucid and very contemporary. You don't use fancy words and professorial language, though your research was based on Vaishnavite literature. Was that a conscious decision on your part to develop a down to earth style?

I.Paa: I believe that when you are sharing your thoughts with people, your goal should be to communicate. As I told you earlier, because of tamil's antiquity, the pundit style is to revel in old and archaic language, absolutely they were not bothered about the readers, who are going to be the readers. I was not bothered by it, because my only goal was to communicate. Writing, like theatre, is a social institution. When a kite is flying, you see, it needs an opposition of air to fly. Likewise, I need a reader with whom I want to communicate. That is why, when I write, I am very conscious of the fact that I must write as simple as possible, but not in a simplistic way.

Basically, it is very difficult to adopt a simple style. It is not so easy. When you see a very well-trained musician play an intricate taal, it comes so easy and effortlessly. You would think it is spontaneous. But there would have been a lot of hard work already done, and he would have worked it out in his mind. Same way, you work out a simple style in your mind. I've been constantly thinking of that. I would say a simple style has its own complexities.

Srikanth: Is there any writer who inspired you before you started writing?

I.Paa: I was always a great reader. My background is such that my father would have never expected me to study a tamil M.A. My family background is totally different. In the early part of my life, my interest was only in literature, whatever language it was in. I think language is incidental. I am not emotionally involved with tamil because it was my mother tongue and all that. I just find that the only way I can express myself is in my mother tongue tamil because it is the nearest approximation to my thoughts. I've been reading, and the influence is just how you assimilate it.

Balaji: You were a student of Thi.Janakiraman, and you had written that you were influenced by Ku.Pa.Raa, Karichan Kunju and others.

I.Paa: That's right. Janakiraman was my teacher when I was studying in my school, 10th standard, those days it was the school final as they called it. He belonged to Kumbakonam, he was living there. I used to look at him and Ku.Pa.Rajagopalan from a distance. I used to read a magazine called Graama oozhiyan, which was edited by Ku.Pa.Rajagopalan. Janakiraman perhaps wrote his earliest novel in this magazine. At that time, when he was our teacher, he used to write when he gave us exercised to do in the classroom. I read him, but I don't know whether Janakiraman influenced my writing.

Balaji: Your writing styles are very different.

I.Paa: Totally different. There were other people too. At that time, in Kumbakonam, Gopulu, the great artist was also living there. Ki.Ra.Gopalan, who is no more, he won the first prize in Kalki competition, the first short story competition ever held. So, he used to encourage me to write. Janakiraman also encouraged my writing. But I never sent anything for publication till the Delhi phase of my life, that is in the early 60s.

Balaji: Did you also avidly read the literary magazines of that time?

I.Paa: Pudhumaippiththan, one of the greatest writers in the Manikkodi history, I used to read his stories. I used to read the serious writers.

Balaji: You are an avid Shakespeare fan. It comes across in your adaptations (I.Paa adapted King Lear and wrote a play called "Irudhi Aattam") and writings. Did your love for Shakespeare develop after you became a playwright or was it from before?

I.Paa: I had the advantage of having a private teacher when I was young. I never studies elementary school. I was straightaway admitted in sixth grade, because I was having private tuitions before. That teacher was greatly fond of literature and Shakespeare. So, he used to read me out the tales from Shakespeare, compiled by Charles and Mary Lamb. I don't know whether these books are popular right now. Also, 23 tales of Tolstoy and all that. So, may be that was one of the reasons why I got hooked to literature.

Balaji: Let's talk more about literary issues. One thing that is very lacking in the tamil field is rigorous literary criticism. As a reader, I can feel that the tamil works have not been critically analyzed enough, other than by a few writers themselves. As a writer, were you hampered by the lack of literary criticism? There are very few people who are actively critiquing and who follow the techniques used in western criticisms.

I.Paa: Unfortunately, our traditional view on literary criticism is totally different from the western view. For our tamil works, or for Sanskrit works for that matter, those people who wrote commentary were only those who liked what they were writing on. Even if the author slipped, the commentators would make ample amends by explaining it away. Anyway, constructive criticism is only a western view. Literary criticism in English is also not of very early origin. Only since the 17th century, after the likes of Samuel Johnson, Mathew Arnold and others. In tamil, some attempt has been made by Ka.Na.Subramaniam, who was totally impartial. Earlier he was a creative writer. He was greatly influenced by western writing. His criticism was also based on what he liked and what he disliked. It was a purely personal point of view, with no particular yardstick or such thing. That was how Ka.Na.Su did and that school has been rigorously followed by Venkat Swaminathan and others. The academic exercise in literary criticism has been going on. Now, of late, you can't say that there is a total lack of literary criticism. People belong to different schools, like Marxist school, but there has been no literary criticism as such from the literary school!

Balaji: Let's talk about your most popular work, Kurudhippunal, for which you won a Sahitya Academy award. In the novel Kurudhippunal, one could see an anger coming through against unjust incidents. You had mentioned earlier that this was based on an incident in keezh veNmaNi. Does this kind of anger exist today, or have we become very numb to such social atrocities?

I.Paa: It happened in 1969. The irony was, the people who came to power at that time, they swore by the underdogs, the people who were unprivileged. It so happened that the landlord set fire to a hut where 42 harijans were cornered. It was a very tragic incident. At that time, it shook the entire country. No such thing had been reported earlier. It was a human tragedy. That shook me. Later on, it prompted me to go and study what happened, because it happened in my district. Now, in the course of time, you find in Bihar and so many other places, these things are regularly happening. We have become immune to these human tragedies.

Balaji: Is that a big loss to literature, the loss of that anger?

I.Paa: You can call it righteous indignation, not really anger. I feel that no great literary work can be written just at the point of indignation or anger. It has to settle down. You have to assimilate that anger. It took me two years to complete Kurudhippunal. The incident happened in '69, and the novel was written in '71.

Balaji: You are a writer who covered class and communal violence in your works quite effectively. Recently, there has been a wave in literature, trying to classify a work based on caste and class. Like Dalit literature. Do you see this as a good sign that literature is classified as Dalit literture or other such label, or do you think it is unwarranted for?

I.Paa: If somebody has been done wrong, humanity expects him to react. He doesn't have to be a dalit, he doesn't have to be a brahmin. Tragedy is common to anyone. Dalits or oppressed people, what they say is that the plight of the oppressed people can be emotionally better expressed by themselves. Earlier, such things when they were expressed by the underprivileged, they had no education and they had to be written by someone belonging to a higher caste. But now, a powerful literate class is coming up. So, their sufferings and their nuances can be better expressed by those people who are in that plight.

Balaji: So, you do subscribe to the argument that dalit literature can be written only by dalits?

I.Paa: No, I don't subscribe to that. If that is the case, no literature can be ever written. When I wrote about the 42 people who were burnt, they were all dalits. If somebody, say a brahmin is killed, can only a brahmin write about that tragedy? They say that the descriptions of their (dalits') daily sufferings, can be better expressed by those people. It is not like others cannot write.

Balaji: But it looks like a divide is getting created due to these class based differentiations. Do you think it is good for literature in general?

I.Paa: Due to globalization, the world is becoming smaller and smaller. The situation is the same with the blacks as well. The first novel written about the blacks, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was written by a white. Though it is being condemned by the blacks now, at that time, it was a bible for those who were not privileged. Everything has to be viewed only in the background of the particular period or era in which it was written. Current conditions cannot be the yardstick for judging what was written much much earlier. Things are changing. Once when I saw a movie, Guess who comes for dinner. Starring Sidney Poitier. Now, the same picture has been criticized (for softpeddling on issues).

Balaji: You won the Sahitya Academy award for Kurudhippunal. Sahitya Academy awards are usually riddled with controversies. Was it controversy free the year when you won it?

I.Paa: Nobody said that I should not have got it, I was fortunate that way. Invariably, the wrong writer gets award, or the right writer gets award for the wrong book. When I got it, people said it was the right book and the right writer. I was happy about that.

Balaji: Your writings reflected a lot of the Marxist/Communist principles in your age. Is Socialism/Communism still relevant in this day and age?

I.Paa: Marxism is also basically a human reaction to things. You can't have the same timetable theories and all that now. Say for instance, Marx said that revolution will take place only in the highly advanced industrialized country. He wrote it when he was in England. He thought revolution will take place only in a country like Britain. But what happened was, it was the most backward country like Russia where the revolution took place. So, all these timetable theories are not valid. Marx could not have dreamt of these multinationals and corporations. So, situations are totally different now. The bottom line of Marxism is really good, that is the feeling for the suffering of people.

More on I.Paa's plays, theatre, our traditional theatre and more tomorrow.

balaji - pencil 02:37:00 - Literature - pencil permalink - [11.04.06 04:14]

Wednesday, 02.11.05

Literary roundup

* Just how big is Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code"? It is so popular that there is a new book, "Secrets of the Widow's Son : The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to The Da Vinci Code" that speculates on the sequel to the book that Dan Brown is writing. That's right, Dan Brown is apparently writing a book titled "The Solomon Key", dealing with the mysteries of the Freemasons, and this book is speculating about what we can expect in the sequel!

If that is not enough, there is another book in the market, The Solomon Key And Beyond: Unauthorized Dan Brown Update , that promises to give the latest news on Dan Brown's new book. The book's back cover states: Through the magic of print-on-demand technology, this "nimble guide to the works of best-selling author Dan Brown provides the latest news about the author and his works, updated whenever there are significant developments. Unlike a conventional book, for which editions are printed in quantity every couple of years, this "living book" goes throw frequent "mini-editions" and is printed fresh whenever customers place an order. I guess the next step is to have a 24x7 live webcam on Dan Brown's writing desk!

[read more]

balaji - pencil 00:35:09 - Literature - pencil permalink - [05.11.05 13:02]
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