Readers of short fiction will be happy to welcome this new anthology. I enjoyed reading the stories as they are well selected and translated. Writers range from the end of the nineteenth (Rajsekhar Basu, 1880) to the middle of the nineteenth century (Suchitra Bhattacharya, 1950) and include some of the best-known artists of the Bangla language. Let me begin by quoting from the two writers I have just mentioned; Chakravarti translates Rajsekhar Basu’s ‘Anandibai’ with utmost ease: Trikramdas Karorhi was a little over fifty with a marital career graph that was strange—to say the least. Like most other men he had had one wife till only two years ago. She had died, suddenly, leaving him inconsolable and encumbered, besides, with the responsibility of half a dozen children.
In the sixties Sunil Gangopadhyay, already a well-known poet, wrote his first two novels: Jubak Jubati and Atma Prakash, spearheading a movement that brought the Bengali novel out of the shadows of romance and cautious social comment to the glare of harsh introspection and relentless probing into the tensions of a post-Independence urban reality. Recording the uncertainties and tribulations of a ‘lonely crowd’ consequent upon the movement of people from one way of life to another, Sunil Gangopadhyay examines states of alienation and exile and analyses the methods that were being employed by the younger generation to overcome them— a generation that he projects as now rebellious, now beaten. The jubak jubati (young men, young women) of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kolkata, driven by negative emotions unknown in their hitherto cloistered, conventional lives, flock the streets. Admittedly the Kolkata of the sixties provided ample material for the writing of ruthlessly realistic fiction. Sunil Gango-padhyay seized the opportunity. The novel, in his hands, became ‘a slice of life’.
Vilas Sarang reminds me of O.V. Vijayan of Malayalam, although, unlike Vijayan, he is a poet, apart from being a fiction writer and critic who writes in Marathi and in English. Vijayan’s stories of the modernist period were mostly allegories, parables, stories with a sort of cast-iron frame into which human situations or predicaments were set, as if following some kind of predestined design. The modernists are well-known for their philosophical predilections, notably confined to certain schools of the West.
Abraham Eraly has selected and transcribed a collection of legends from Kottarathil Sankunni’s Aithihyamala which is an eight volume work published between 1909 and 1934. The translation of the chosen stories is easy and lucid, with no embellishment. Eraly has the confidence of someone who understands the culture and the varieties of communities which integrate in the fabric or canvas of daily interaction. So, essentially, the stories are historical figures, and the legends woven around them. While it is difficult to date these stories, unless one is a Malayali conversant with dating techniques, the stories have a timeless quality about them.
M.Mukundan is the story-teller par excellence in contemporary writing in Malayalam. His texts seldom resist reading like those of Anand or O.V. Vijayan often do. He takes the reader into confidence and easily carries him/her along the narrative. Still he does not repeat himself like many popular authors do: he keeps experimenting both with themes and structures, likes to play with space and time and mix reality and fantasy in different measures. His recent works show post-modernist tendencies, being self-reflexive and meta-fictional. Kesavan’s Lamentations, one of the most discussed novels of the decade in Malayalam, is a good sample of his later fiction that is often a bricolage, a frequency of quotations from different periods and discourses that dissolve the distinctions between biography, fiction and descriptive prose. This is a novel about a novel, both of which break their boundaries and collapse into each other towards the end.
Sivasankari is a well-known Tamil writer who is exceptionally sensitive to the issues that confront contemporary society. Her concerns get reflected in The Betrayal and Other Stories, a collection of dexterously woven tales with universal themes, ordinary characters and everyday incidents. This anthology contains a kuru novel (a short novel/a long story) and fifteen short stories.
This collection of ten stories is a testimony to Bama’s skills and intent as a writer. Anecdotal in nature, the stories take you almost effortlessly into the lived lives of dalit parayars in Tamilnadu. This is a world that is in the process of change, where the dalits are learning to challenge the hegemonic hold of the landowning castes on them. As Masanam Thatha remarks, in the story “those days”, “That’s how it was in those days, can’t be the same today, can it? No.” However, things haven’t changed so much that acts of defiance are not the stuff of heroism (or foolhardiness till proved otherwise!). Life carries on as it has for centuries otherwise. There are landlords, and there are workers who toil day and night in order to eke out a subsistence living that they are trained to think is the result of the grace of their masters. The changed times, education and the awareness of social injustice, brings in a different atmosphere into these rural areas, challenging and disconcerting the landlords. The democracy that frames the feudal order now exerts intense pressure on it and its hegemonic caste equations.
For quite some time now, creative writing in Tamil has been on the high with a vigour and a vibrancy not seen before. The language of Tamil fiction was never more charming; the prose nevermore lilting and rich in vocabulary, or more down-to-earth, assertive and hauntingly aggressive. It is the language of the people, reflected in all its earthy simplicity and glory that brings tears to your eyes. It churns you from inside lighting at once a thousand torches that scorch your conscience and consume you with a sense of guilt. It is like an apparition that overwhelms you as you flip through and then get submerged in the hundreds of pages that are being written and published by new writers, more than a score in number who can easily be spotted as the ones with great promise; extraordinarily talented writers who come from small towns unspoilt by urban ‘sophistication’. Writers, men and women who have had humble beginnings, have had their education entirely in Tamil medium.
When I was told to review Ambai’s short stories I refused. Reviewing is tough for me for I am no verbally confident academic with one or more well-earned degrees and the terminology of criticism properly internalized. So all that I can do is to say whether I liked a book or not; and if I did so, to talk about it with a passion to any willing listener. And when I like it a bit too much I cannot and don’t like to write about it—for it is beyond me to give shape in words to the many thoughts that swirl inside me in the region of the heart and the eyes too mist every now and then. And I like Ambai.
The nineties of the last century saw a second wind of creativity in Tamil writing, particularly fiction. Largely unnoticed by the readers of the pulp magazines that sold in thousands, a new crop of writers were exploring new themes and new areas of experience in little magazines and original work published as books. Apart from the works of already established writers like Jeyamohan, Ramesh Prem, M.G. Suresh and Imaiyam (to mention only a few) who continued to produce significant works, younger writers such as Uma Maheswari, Salma, Joseph produced their first novels that were immediately recognized as important works.
“It took me more than ten years to give shape to this work of fiction ….. The nearest form to this narration (which is somewhat new to Tamil letters) is the novel. It has a hero, a scene of action (United States), a period (1973-74)” says Ashokamitran (AM from now on) in his brief introduction to the Tamil original of this work. Ostensibly a travelogue of his some seven months stay at the University of Iowa as a writer in residence that the US government had sponsored as part of its strategy to win Third World intellectual support for itself in the Cold War days, it defies classification as a genre. How much of the book is factual and how much fictional is left tantalizingly in doubt. Actually, this kind of indeterminate genre is becoming increasingly common these days and there is even a name for it: “Faction”. AM is in good company.
Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, the title of the novel under review, is an exquisite phrase from Kamban’s Ramyanam (circa 12th century CE), which occurs in Kaikeyi’s exhortation to Lord Ram before he is sent away into exile for fourteen years. ‘All of this ocean-ringed earth is Bharathan’s to rule,’ declares Kaikeyi, while Ram must travel into the jungle to undertake ‘intolerably arduous’ penance, live austerely and bathe in the waters off hallowed pilgrimage centres, before returning home in two times seven years. In a contemporary reworking of this metaphor, playing on the multifarious meanings of ‘Ulagu’, the title of this debut novel by Joe D’Cruz, first published in 2004, refers to the Ocean-Ringed World of a community of fishermen in a coastal village south of Tuticorin in southern Tamilnadu.