I always consider myself as an Indian writer, writing in Tamil. I write in Tamil because, this is the only language with which I am historically and culturally connected and a language, which I think I can use reasonably well to express my thoughts and feelings.
Though I have been writing from my school and college days, only during the Delhi phase of my professional career, I got published. I feel this has determined the nature of my writings. Most of my writings centered on only two places, one is Delhi and the other, Kumbakonam, which is my native region. Being away from Tamil Nadu, and being an alien citizen sort of, in Delhi, I had the advantage of being an observer to look at things that were happening at both places objectively.
A Bengali poet once asked me how it was possible for me to be a Tamil writer from Delhi His argument was that a plant can grow only in its own soil.
Maybe, I am not a coconut tree forcibly planted in Delhi. Maybe, I am not an exclusive plant but just one of those common varieties that can grow anywhere, even in a desert! My stories may lack the distinctive ‘soil flavour’ of a specific region in Tamil Nadu, as someone wrote sometime back. But I feel I am in good company. A poet of the Sangam era said; ‘I belong to all regions in the world and all are my kin’.
I have taught Tamil literature for thirty-six years and to be a teacher and also be a modern creative writer as well in that language; seemed to be an apparent contradiction in terms in those days, when I started getting published.
Tamil is an ancient language and its antiquity can be traced to the early centuries before the Common Era. Moreover, it has the longest literary continuity among the spoken languages of this country. This tradition is at once its asset and liability, ‘asset’ in the sense that one can be justifiably proud of one’s heritage; ‘liability’ because a romantic obsession with the past and ‘sentimentalized’ history puts the clock back by several centuries.
The Tamil academics, in those days, lived in the past, most of the values of which were not relevant in the context of contemporary reality. As a creative writer, living in the present, I believe that literature is a living artistic expression of stability and change, continuity and innovation, history and progress. True, there cannot be an instant evolution of any language; it has to have an origin, growth and a long tradition before it reaches the stage of serious adulthood. But this does not mean that the greatness of a language solely depends upon its exclusive past; its maturity is determined only in the context of its contemporary vitality and relevance.
Till the early sixties, a traditional Tamil scholar in the classical mould refused to believe that there was anything good about Tamil contemporary writing. And, at the same time, it was unfortunate that the modern creative writers of that era, although they quoted chapter and verse from Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Kafka, they were blissfully unaware of their own Tamil classical tradition. Happily, things are changing now and many of the young contemporary authors given to serious writing, have realized that there cannot be a present without a past.
Now, coming to the business of writing; why do I write? In a way, I seek my own identity and it is also my responsibility to me and the society. I do not want to use the word ‘commitment’ because I feel this word has been much abused. ‘Commitment’ is identified with ‘ideology’ and ‘ideology’; once it is institutionalized it becomes stagnant. The political intellectuals stick with ‘ideology’ more as a matter of habit than conviction. But, a creative writer does not feel ashamed to accept ‘change‘; when he feels that his god has failed.
This is the reason why I would rather prefer to use the word ‘responsibility’ instead of ‘commitment’. Creative writing is a social act. I know I have to be exceptionally aware of the people around me. This will naturally involve a kind of responsibility, personal, social and moral. It is necessary I must have compassion, involvement, and clarity.
As I already said I write fiction in Tamil. Salmon Rushdie once said that modern Indian literature began to be taken seriously only after the arrival of Indo-Anglian writing. I am happy that I do not write creative fiction in English that might have given me a kind of neurosis that I need explaining myself to a western reader. Or introduce exotic events that may have an instant appeal to a western mind. As an Indian writer writing in my mother tongue, I feel my genetic make-up, my environment, my past, my experiences, my psychology, my responses, all these things are unique to myself as my fingerprints are. I am convinced that if my creative writing comes from my own authentic ‘I’ it will have integrity that really matters.
I feel the necessity for communicating my inner reactions and responses, arising out of my experience with outer reality to others, as a kind of sharing, because of the existence of a common perpetual world with agreed symbols. It is a never-ending dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘you’. I write to communicate. Like the kite that needs the resistance of air to fly, I need a reader.
I do not believe in the technological approach to writing. It is like the story of a girl, who was once told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke. She retorted, ‘how can I know what I think until I see what I say?’ This is true of creative art too. Actual writing alone can answer this question. ‘What is this novel or play that I propose to write? Tolstoy once declared ‘this indeed is one of the significant facts about a true work of art, that its content in its entirety can be expressed by itself’.
Writing a novel or a short story or a play is much more like having a baby than constructing a bridge. An engineer, who is in charge of constructing the bridge, has to equip himself with all the technical data before he starts his work. A young woman need not be an expert on genetics or embryology if she decides to have a baby. Creative work is a spontaneous response to a situation and as such, when one starts writing about his/her experience, it is not essential for him/her with all the theories of literary criticism or to have an academic degree.
Creative imagination functions in the darkness of the mind. Writing is a kind of exploration, an intense, inner odyssey in search of the writer’s own personality, an affirmation of his attitudes towards life and society. It is an adventure into a dark and unpredictable jungle. It is an onward movement through time; it exists in the time dimension, as music does and not in the space dimension as painting and sculpture do. Once the writer is seized with the problem he proposes to deal with in his creative work, he should be least concerned about the plot, incidents and all such trivia. And at the same time, he should be sure that he has something to say worthy of sharing.
My starting point for all my stories are the characters and I strongly believe that if I put them successfully on the stage, their interaction with each other will dictate the plot and the story will write itself! A good novel is not determined by the technical perfection of the plot. ‘Ulysses’ is a good novel and if its plot is boiled down to its synopsis, one will find it a lifeless stuff, a transparent nothing. Yet, the way the novel is written holds the attention of a serious reader; Why? Because of an inevitability in its structure. It could not have been written by anyone else except James Joyce.
The same theme may be handled by two different writers but the end-product would have its own inevitability and character, like the same story of Dr Faustus as immortalized by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe in two different ways or Valmiki’s Ramayana, as rendered by almost all the regional poets in India, each version justifying the culture and genius of the different idioms.
The important thing is style, the truth emerging in a language. Language is the most flexible instrument man has evolved in his struggle with Nature. Hegel describes the word as the most pliable material that directly belongs to the human spirit. Truth is a statement of language. As truth is the product of association, style is an affirmation of a writer’s personality, his ideas, his experience in the world of common people and events, his way of looking at life and his integrated character. ‘Where there is clarity of vision, there is clarity of style’ said MahakaviSubramanyaBharati.
For the first time, in the history of Tamil literature, since the Sangam era, the existence of the common man was recognized, by adopting his spoken language in the works of poetry and fiction. Bharati, as a poet led this movement by rescuing poetry from pedantry and Pudumaipithan, the foremost among modern Tamil short-story writers used the near-poetic dialect of the common man to project his plight under an oppressive economic and social order. He also declared that his stories are not insurance policies guaranteeing prosperity for the future. Both of them can be justifiably held as the ‘Pitamahars’ of modern Tamil writing.
I feel happy that, as of now, the educated classes among the oppressed have risen in revolt to demolish everything that has been held sacred, a true portrayal of the period in which we live. Many of the brilliant writers writing in Tamil today belong to the marginalized sections of the society. They are totally apolitical and amoral because ‘ideology’, stripped of its sacredness, is a dirty word in their dictionary and befittingly so.