C N Annadurai (1909-1969), popularly known as ‘Anna’ (elder brother), is one of Tamil Nadu’s greatest icons. His charisma and ideology resonate in Tamil politics even today. ‘Arignar Anna’ or ‘Perarignar Anna’, meaning ‘Anna, the scholar’ served as the last Chief Minister of Madras State from 1967to 1969, then became the first Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu after the re-naming of the State of Madras.
Anna was also a literary giant who wrote over 100 short stories, in addition to plays, novels and screenplays—a prodigious output, given his active, prominent political life and the role he played in shaping the political scenario in Tamil Nadu. His writings were imbued with his passion for bringing about change, dealing with subjects like poverty and its links with crime and the legal system, widow remarriage, socialism, rationalism, upper caste oppression, and moral and ethical questions.
Help Me with this Tricky Case is a collection of 22 short stories in Tamil written between the years 1934-1965, translated into English by Ramakrishnan V, for whom Anna was the point ‘…at which all the contemporary branches of Dravidian ideology converge’.
This book showcases Anna’s literary legacy, his belief systems, and his thoughts on all aspects of his social and cultural milieu. With irony, humour, and poignancy, these stories present the different social issues he explored.
From a literary viewpoint, the collection displays not just his power over words, but also his understanding of the essence of short-story writing.
Ramakrishnan is to be appreciated for his translation of Anna’s distinctive style, including his iconic rhetoric. The differences in syntax between languages have been bravely and effectively handled. Ramakrishnan modifies certain titles to capture the spirit of the original. ‘Upagari Ulaganathan’ in the original becomes ‘Charitable Chellappa’, and ‘Sumaar Subbaiah’ becomes ‘Approximate Arumugam’–a clever showcasing of the puns and alliterations Anna was famous for. The born-from-this-particular-soil idioms must have been a tough challenge, but Ramakrishnan finds solutions by using words or metaphors that come closest to the original, providing footnotes to explain the ironic play on words in certain places. Some words are transliterated to keep the reader rooted in the ethos of the original stories.
Anna was a rationalist, and this comes through in a very clever way, with the subject being written about used to convey the message within. He questions blind faith in a divinity that seems absent just when it is most needed, the futility of belief systems that do not address abject misery, and a piety that appears to be a product of fear rather than anything deeper.
Gods and deities appear to be as riddled with angst as the living humans they purportedly ‘created’. In the story ‘Karuppanasami Ruminates’, the pantheon of Gods even ends up calling for a conference to air their woes and views.
Holy places are not immune to commerce like housing exhibition halls where devotees show equal enthusiasm for both the sanctum and silk garments being sold by a canny businessman. In ‘The Dodgy Devotee’ the author offers two viewpoints—that of an older person who accepts that even divinity appears to support generous donors, and that of a young passerby who scoffs at manipulations in places of worship being proportionate to donations received. The conventional view is juxtaposed with an emerging vision of the future, demanding change.
Anna’s perceptive, compassionate eye is all too aware of the pitfalls and contradictions so intrinsic to the human condition.
In the eponymous ‘Help Me With This Tricky Case’, a character questions the term ‘honest thief’. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Well, yes, but in real life good and bad are not clearly defined. They coexist, and often it’s circumstances that dictate which quality surfaces.
There is irony in an abjectly poor village calling itself ‘Ponnur’, meaning ‘land of gold’; an overzealous attention to detail can backfire, while inadvertent editorial goofs sometimes reveal the actual facts behind the façade.
Intention and consequences—well-meant and genuine good gestures sometimes turn sour because intent has no power over consequences. In ‘Charubala, the Social Worker’ the author displays the sharpness of his vision, seeing through seemingly genuine work to the emptiness within. Social service is not a game and can lead to grave repercussions if ground realities are ignored.
At times, Anna adopts different styles of narrative. In ‘He Who Alleviates Miseries’ the protagonist speaks directly to the reader, transforming him or her into a silent partner on this particular journey. ‘Income and Expenditure’ is told through hearing one-sided phone conversations in which the reader can only infer the words of the other party.
Every now and then, words like ‘hassle’, ‘couch potato’, ‘trendy’, ‘no way’ and ‘whatever’ (even ‘tricky’ in the title) spring out at you. Are they out of step with the timeline of these stories? Maybe not. And perhaps they come closest to their counterparts in the original stories.
The language is simple, colloquial, with populist, even propagandist overtones woven in, and the author’s single-minded, honest, heartfelt intention to reach everyday people is clearly seen.
All the more commendable then, that the spirit and intent of the work has been so respected by the translator.
This collection introduces Anna the literary icon to the non-Tamil world, providing an in-depth view into the times he lived in, in a country newly come to Independence.
Ranjitha Ashoka is Chennai-based freelance writer, columnist, and regular contributor to Madras Musings. She is the author of A World of Difference: Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children. Her short story collection, titled, Half a Kilo Mixture, was published last year.