New Trends in Tamil Reading
by Pa. Raghavan , , pp.,
December 2006, volume 30, No 12

In the recent past there is an appreciable rise in the number of books published in Tamil on national and global issues. That such books have a good market augurs well for the future of Tamil. And who are the readers for these books? The last few decades of the last century found a new class of readership, that was recently empowered by education but still, that lacked an adequate knowledge of English, the language of intellectual dialogue internationally. And yet, these new readers were thirsting for knowledge and wanted to know all that was happening around them near and far. Their expectations were not belied and books dealing with a variety of issues started appearing.

The new readership transcended the caste hierarchy. No longer were reading and writing the monopoly of the upper classes and the new young writers belonging to the oppressed section of the Tamil society wrote books in simple and elegant Tamil, on various subjects to educate and quench their fellowmen’s intellectual thirst. The dalit writers wrote especially about the Afro-American social awakening in America and brought the problem home by comparing their own plight in a caste-ridden society in India.

The stories of the Black Panther movement, Nation of Islam in the US and the dalit awakening in Maharashtra and Karnataka were published in Tamil. Lives and teachings of leaders like Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Pule and the scholarly and indefatigable but nationally not so well-known Tamil Dalit leader Ayodhya Das were retold. It was a revelation for many that this redoubtable eminent scholar, Ayodhya Das had thought far ahead of his times and reflected the problems of dalits in a manner almost in consonance with our contemporary thinking. Dr. Ambedkar’s books were translated and published in Tamil that ran several reprints. This new reading and writing brought a tremendous awareness and robust optimism in the minds of the socially disadvantaged that were never there before.


True, it was Subhramanya Bharati, the father-figure of modern Tamil poetry who initiated this movement of enlightening the not-so-well English educated Tamils about global issues. Unfortunately there are not as many takers for his equally remarkable prose writings as for his brilliant poems. Bharati was a visionary. He welcomed the Russian revolution just after fourteen days of its happening, perhaps, the first Indian writer to have done so. He soon got disenchanted with it as many thousands of people were eliminated in the name of revolution, about which he did not hesitate to express his anguish and sorrow in no uncertain terms. The god had failed for Bharati two years after the revolution which was much earlier than for many of the western liberal intellectuals. He also wrote about the freedom struggle of the Irish people and made an in-depth study of this issue comparing it with our own problems with the British. It was only V.Swaminatha Sarma who after Bharati had such an international vision. He wrote about economics, social history and published in Tamil translations of the philosophical treatizes of Plato and Aristotle. He was discovered during his recent centenary only by many of the Tamils, including the State Government which nationalized his works as a part of the centenary celebrations. Later, it was during the last three decades of the twentieth century that national and international issues are becoming visible thanks to the untiring efforts of the emerging young minds.


It would be a rich and rewarding experience to know what are the types of books published in 2005-‘ 06 to get an idea of this new trend. Non-fiction literature especially covering the field of culture, society and politics is now more in evidence than literary fiction. Biographies of news-making world leaders like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and a host of others get published. An eminently readable book tracing American history, its dominance and arrogance of power in a unipolar world has seen several reprints within a short period. Another book narrating the history of Islam, a refreshing study dispeling many of the popular misconceptions about this religion is one of the bestsellers. Besides these issue-based books, there are many Tamil translations of the world classics in literature and other disciplines.


The conventional publishing houses of pure literary fiction have started bringing out books of non-fiction on subjects of varied interests to meet the demands of the readers. Religious texts are reprinted, not out of any religious fervour but because they provide socio-anthropological clues to studying the past society with historic objectivity. A conventional publisher of prose fiction has recently published a compendium of the four Vedas including the Upanisads told in a very contemporary idiom. It is also a great surprise that these books are not published keeping only the public libraries in mind but it looks like the number of individual buyers of books in Tamilnadu has increased to a great extent. It was not so a few years before, when the publishers often claimed that, by and large, that the Government libraries constituted their clientele. Buying classical Tamil books to maintain a personal library has now become the avowed objective of young readers, a welcome trend these days.


The young forward-looking young publishers are now catering to this new trend. They invite young writers to write on all new subjects that have never been touched upon before and the quality of production of these books is comparable with the best in the country. Among the issue-based books published recently the one that caught the attention of a very large of number of readers, in spite of the fact that it dealt with a complex problem and a voluminous book at that running to 700 pages, was Nilamellam Raththam (‘Bloodied land’ in free translation) written by Pa. Raghavan and published by Kizakku Pathippakam, a new concern that has brought out nearly 200 titles on a variety of subjects within two years of its existence.


The complex problem this book has attempted to study is the Middle East crisis, more specifically, the Palestine issue, its genesis and the contemporary situation. The book addresses a lay Tamil reader who is willing to learn. And for this, complex issues need to be told in the simplest manner possible and to hold the reader’s sustained attention in the subject it should be narrated in the most interesting way and precisely this is what the author has done. Going back in history and pre-history, the narrative starts with the story of Abraham, the common ancestor mentioned in all the three desert religions.


The problem between the Jews and Arabs started with the way Abraham treated his sons Ishmael and Isaac, the former son of Hagar, his second wife and servant and the latter, son of Sara, his first. wife. Ishmael and his mother were thrown out of the house to wander in the in the wild desert while Sara and her son stayed at home. Ishmael was the progenitor of the Arabs and Isaac started the Jewish lineage. Story or history, this could as well be a metaphor to describe the origin of the conflict between the Jews and Muslims.


This is how the author begins to narrate the story. The Palestinian problem cannot be properly put in place unless in the context of the story of these three religions, Judaeism, Christianity and Islam. Raghavan gives a chronological survey of the religions which is as interesting to read as a novel, which, in fact, is his natural territory. The emotional hold of Jerusalem for all of them in the backdrop of history is beautifully brought out by him. No part in the historic details in regard to this sentimental story is left untouched by Ragahavan. Herod’s rebuilding of the temple earlier constructed by Solomon that fell into ruins, the prediction of Jesus that the temple would again be destroyed, the atrocity of the Roman commander Titus in bringing down the temple in a fit of rage, the occupation of Jerusalem by the Muslims during the period of Caliph Umar, its capture by the Christians during the Crusades, its reclaim by Salaludin in the 16th century and its being under Muslim rule for 400 years till the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919 after the First World War—all these events are vividly described by the author.


It is ironic that the Jews in Palestine felt more comfortable under Muslim rule than the Jews in Europe who had migrated there several centuries earlier. But they had always been aspiring for a homeland. The brilliant idea of Theodor Herzi to start a Land Bank exclusively for giving loans to such of those Jews who wanted to buy land for agriculture or settlement worked miraculously. Before the lazy Arabs could understand what it was all about, the Jews in Europe and elsewhere started taking loans from this bank to buy land in Palestine. Without giving a thought to why they were buying arid land, the Arabs sold their land for what they thought brought them huge profit. Soon by the end of the First World War, there was a sizeable number of Jewish population in Palestine owning four and a half per cent of the total area. The Europeans, who did not want a homeland for the Jews in Europe, decided to favour the idea of a separate territory for them in Palestine, which always had been their sentimental home from the days Abraham!


During the First World War came what was known as the Balfur Declaration. Lord Arthur Balfur was the Foreign Secretary in Britain at that time and the Declaration said that ‘His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a Nation Home for the Jewish people.’ It also promised to safeguard ‘the civic and religious rights of the non-Jewish people’ when once the Jewish homeland became a reality. Britain, soon after the war, under whose authority, Palestine lay, did not hesitate to accept all the Jews who migrated there from the world over to play the number game of ethnic majority. Even earlier, the Jews had occupied Palestinian lands under the Theodor Herzi plan. The Balfur Declaration was mischievous in assuring ‘the non-Jewish people’ (in fact it was Arabs who constituted the majority and it was their political right to be in that country) ‘their civic and religious rights’.


After the Second World War, the western powers did not wait for a moment in partitioning Palestine to create a homeland for the Jews, which they called, ‘Israel’. It was not a solution but the beginning of a new crisis with new issues involved leading to a situation when the whole population of Palestinian Arabs were rendered homeless only to become exiles in different countries. It would be interesting to give Gandhiji’s views in this regard, which Raghavan has quoted at length. ‘I have my sympathy for my Jewish brethren, who have enough suffered in history. In Europe for the last several centuries they have been treated in the same manner as we did our own children of God, the untouchables. But I cannot reconcile with their asking for a separate homeland at a place from which they have migrated several centuries earlier. They have settled down in several countries and they are their native countries and they should fight for their political and religious rights to live there and practise their way of living. Palestine belongs to the Arabs undeniably’.


On 29th November The UN cell for Palestine announced its recommendation that Palestine should be divided into regions, one constituting the homeland for the Jews. It also suggested that as Jerusalem was a disputed territory it should be under the UN control. This paved the way for violence in Palestine. On April 9th 1948, at Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem, 254 Arabs were massacred by Jews belonging to two terrorists groups called Irgun-Stern. When things were getting hotter between the Arabs and Jews, the British Government decided to withdraw from Palestine and also announced the birth of a nation called for the Jews as recommended by the UN cell. The US was the first country to recognize Israel. In 1948-49 after the Israel-Palestinian Arabs’ conflict, Israel occupied most of the Palestinian territory, 56 per cent more than what was recommended by the UN cell.


After the Suez war Israel occupied the whole of Gaza. In 1957, Yaasar Arafat founded The Al Fata movement to fight with Israel, which, later came under the umbrella organization called PLO that united all the fighting groups. After the six-day war in 1967, Israel, set up Jewish camps in East Jerusalem and later in 1980, occupied it totally. After a stiff fight in 1988, PLO announced that the West Bank was under its control and and declared an Independent Palestine, which was recognized by 55 countries including Russia and China. Peace talks between Israel and Palestine were initiated by Norway and in 1993 Yaaser Arafat and the Prime Minister of Israel Rabin signed a peace treaty for which they were awarded the Nobel Peace prize later, though it was only a brief cessation of hostilities between these two countries.


The author says that with the death of Arafat in 2004, the Palestinian Arabs are rendered leaderless. History started repeating itself and there is a sense of déjà vu in Israel attacking Lebanon to contain the Arab terrorists. Raghavan has left no detail regarding this issue which looks like it is going to be a permanent conflict with brief intervals of peace. It is an extremely well-written book, marked by a balanced outlook and simple and sharp style that unfolds the problem like a drama, perhaps, a Greek tragedy.


Indira Parthasarathy is a well-known writer and critic.


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