Azhagia Periavan (Aravindhan) is one of the young Dalit writers in Tamil who claim attention for their authentic and honest portrayal of the life of the oppressed classes. The portrayal is, on occasions, too real and raw to be art, and a conscious process of transformation of the raw material into finished product might have made the stories richer and given the writer also a kind of training in critical intelligence. One must, however, quickly add that there is critical intelligence in Azhagia Periavan, but deliberation on questions of choice, repetition, and tone would have definitely carried his work beyond doubt into the realm of creative achievement. A good writer is better because of the exercise of his critical powers.
The collection, Theettu (December, 2000), has thirteen stories, seven of which were published in various journals from May 1997 to October 1999. Two of the short novels—Theettu and Kuri—have won awards in the competition conducted by Kanaiyazhi for short novels.
In his commitment to his dalit identity and cause, he exhibits extraordinary sensitivity to life—his early life, as the blurb points out— and language, but dilutes art with open sympathy. In the second story, Poovarasampoo Peepee, Rathinam returns to his native village after many years, as part of a mission to propagate equality and eradicate caste (p. 41) vows retribution in the end, just before he leaves the village (p. 48). Such confrontations, though not contrived, weaken the artistic tension the story has successfully built up. Even without the last nine lines the story would rest on the strength of the authentic recollection of childhood joy, pain, humiliation and helplessness. His readiness to speak through the central character for the dalit cause makes the end of the story loud. Children, with their innocence, dreams are another compelling presence in his stories. Their joys, quarrels and yearnings are set off against the self-seeking exploitation of the dehumanized adult world.
The title story, Theetu, an ambitious and reasonably successful attempt at capturing the eventful but sad life of Kamatchi, who falls (Does it not have the tragic dimension of the fall of a great hero of epic magnitude?) from the already poor life of the wife of a casual labourer to the misery of a resistant, reluctant and unwilling prostitute, and finally a woman soliciting men—for money—and a mad woman, is a compression of a long life. The short novel, loaded with details, one suspects, has material for a novel, but has been condensed into a short novel because of journalistic compulsions. It is not only her misery, but her concern for other young girls that make it a good work, transcending far beyond the prescriptive norms of a dalit work. Instead of a few strokes, he could have taken more space to give a complete picture of the world of sexual, economic abuse. This is one story one will remember long after reading it, due to its characterization, and unmediated exploration of the depth of human misery, which only a writer as creative writer can perceive – not a sociologist, or a researcher; not even leaders of caste organizations; for them human suffering is merely a medium for a self-promoting career.
There is the assurance of observation in his descriptions of the casual manner in which the upper classes treat the oppressed classes. Even a pig entering the fields of the upper classes is provocation for physical violence. In Poovarasampoo Peepee the poor father loses an eye, but the upper class landlord, whose cruelty causes blindness, shows no sign of guilt or remorse. Even cattle or pets in an upper class house would have received better care. The victims remain passive, suffering collective misery, not even feeling the pressure for action. There is no protest, not even a murmur; the humiliation and cruelty are accepted as natural everyday happenings.
The use of spoken idiom in its rich variety, inseparable from life, is a major strength and can be a model for young writers, indicating the possibilities in the creative use of language. At the same time language becomes a trap for Azhagia Periavan, when he wants to reach poetic heights—and he does so often—and such language is out of place and improper in the mouths and minds of his characters. Instead of taking the story forward he indulges in the appeal of his own words; but there is evidence of sensibility to suggest that he would overcome such temptations.
Many stories end on a positive note affirming the author’s faith in life in this world – there is hope, now and here – no nonsense about fate or destiny or divine justice or the next world. That is his vision of life demonstrated by his characters, Chella in Kudai, or Salammal in Vanammal. One feels, after reading the stories in his first collection, that there is promise in Azhagia Periavan’s work—in his perception of the human predicament and its presentation as experience and—expression of anguish that he will seek his real identity as a creative writer, overcoming restrictive challenges.
N.Sivaraman is Reader in English, Thiagarajar College, Madurai.