A Writer's Road - Nandini Krishnan

Fountain Ink பத்திரிகையில் வந்துள்ள எனது நேர்காணல்

Tamil Nadu has prided itself on its language fervently enough and long enough to stop Hindi from being declared the national language, and to set off the trend of renaming cities. Most of its politicians are from the cine industry, and a fair share used to be writers, poets and lyricists. In a state that draws its name from the language, how viable is it to be a writer in that language? Who reads Tamil fiction, and what role has the Sri Lankan Diaspora played in taking it to the world stage? At a time when writers of English literary fiction are given meaty advances, and blitzed around the world on book tours, we take a look at whether a writer of Tamil fiction can get by on the money he makes from his books alone, what affects the sales, how writers have adapted to changes in technology, and what stature this body of literature aspires to.
S Ramakrishnan's Galileo Mandiyidavillai begins: 
Have you ever lain down to sleep by the road? As a youngster, I would often spread out a straw mat on my street, and lie on my back. The wide beyond, the open skies, and the caressing breeze would surrender to the gentle hands of sleep.
To see him in his compact flat, updating his website while his wife fondly scrutinises his literary awards for imaginary specks of dust, one wouldn’t think S Ramakrishnan has slept on railway station platforms and under flyovers. But the 45-year-old writer from Virudhunagar in the South smiles and says, “I came to Chennai 25 years ago, and from the swankiest apartments to the most unimaginable living conditions, I’ve seen everything. I’ve slept under the Kodambakkam Bridge and watched the rain pouring outside, and I’ve lain down on railway platforms as trains hooted their way through. It was a conscious decision to travel, to see life, to study my subjects. You see, I always wanted to be a full-time writer. I’ve never had any other job. But I had to prepare myself, and research the lives and stories I would create. Being a writer is an enormous social responsibility.”

But, is the sense that one is undertaking an ennobling mission enough to fend off questions about how exactly one intends to make a living? What did he tell himself – and family – in the early days?
“I always saw myself as contending with life, and never sought to conquer it,” Ramakrishnan says, “And those days that I lay down on the ground with a book to rest my head on, I didn’t think about how I would be beyond all this one day. It instilled in me a belief that I could deal with life. It gave me a sense of security in my insignificance too. A tree may be uprooted by strong winds, but a blade of grass will simply bend and survive.”
So, how did it feel when his first novel was published? Ramakrishnan is remarkably nonchalant while speaking about the novel it took him four years to write: "I didn't feel a unique sense of accomplishment at seeing my novel published. My work is writing, and I reflected that this was an indication that I had my foot firmly in the door. My first novel Upa Paandavam was about the Mahabharata, and my family praised some parts of it, and disputed my reasoning in others. The reception from my readers was quite spectacular. The novel got me a lot of attention, and was widely reviewed - there were about 15 literary discussions on the novel, and 10 analytical articles. I must have received at least 500 letters from readers!"
Now, he has established himself both as a novelist who subverts acquired, societal notions, and a film scriptwriter. He receives several calls a day from people who want him to speak at events organised by Tamil Sangams across the world.
“But even now, I don’t know for certain what could happen next month. My income’s like a fountain! I’ve been lucky, though. My family never objected when I said I wanted to write full-time. See, my maternal grandfather was an Education Officer in the British era, and so he always had a strong interest in people reading and writing. My paternal grandfather was a Periyaarist, and was into social reform. They were huge influences on my early life, and trained my parents to accept the eccentric decisions I would make,” he laughs. 
“There’s a tradition in my family that no one interferes in three things – what one studies, where one works, and whom one marries," he adds, "I had a love marriage, and my wife was prepared for this uncertain life. In the early days, she would go to work while I would sit down to write all day. Eventually, I began to feel guilty, and took on research projects and writing assignments to supplement my income. But like I said, I can’t live the life of a regular office worker, who sets himself up using EMI schemes. I have some great friends, and the support of my family. My brothers, my sisters, my wife’s brothers all contribute to the running of my household. Many of them work in the US, and to help me out financially is no big deal. If I need to travel someplace to research my novels, someone buys me the ticket. And all of this is because they believe what I do is important.”

He shrugs, as he tries to explain why he dedicates himself to his art and nothing else, “I could get a regular job quite easily as a professor in a college. That was on my radar early on. I told my father before I set out on my travels that if I failed at my calling, I would come back and look for a job. But there’s a lot a full-time writer can do. You’re taking a lot out of people’s lives and experiences and culture, and you’re processing it to give them something. A reader sees a writer as a guide. Things you write affect people. Even if you were to leave aside the lofty ideals, I have a rather long list of things-to-do. My writing straddles several disciplines – fiction, non-fiction, travel. And I have a website to update. I’m also formulating an alternate system of education to reform the manner in which children are taught in schools. In my spare time, I conduct writing workshops, workshops for teachers, and I work with the disabled."
"But in order to have the luxury of doing this, I depend on other people to keep me from worrying about day-to-day problems," he says, "You can’t depend on writing for a living. I start getting royalties for my work only a year after my books are published. I’ve been writing for two and a half decades, and my monthly earnings from writing would be less than the salary of someone who works at the clerical level. But I think of books as something I give society. I don’t expect returns or profits. Writing doesn’t owe me; I owe the word. And the respect I get from people who tell me they were inspired by something I wrote, to do something they’d been mulling over for a while...well, clichéd as it may sound, that’s payment enough.”
Crunching the Numbers
The royalty isn’t much either. S Abdul Hameed, the proprietor of Uyirmmai Publications, and a writer well-known by his pen name ‘Manushyaputhiran’, explains why. “Of the price marked on the books, forty percent goes to the retailer. Thirty percent makes up the production cost. So, we split the rest between ourselves and the writers – fifteen percent each.”

He doesn’t compromise on quality, though. The books are attractive, hard bound with thick jackets, artistic cover designs and creamy pages.
“But I have to be cautious,” he says, “It’s true that readership numbers have gone up, and with new publishing houses coming in, there’s a demand for titles and good quality literature. Getting published is easier these days. But we only bring out 1000 prints in the first edition. That number hasn’t climbed in the last couple of decades. Most of our sales income is from libraries, which place direct orders in bulk. When there are orders for reprints, the production cost is lowered, and so we have a slightly larger margin of profit."

How does the pulp market compare to that of literature, then? "Now, it’s easy for pulp writers who write sensational stories to sell. But the market for high literature hasn’t grown much, and we only get reprint orders for people who have become household names, usually because of their involvement in cinema and other mass media. The books that sell like hot cakes are self-help and functional literature – you know, the type that explain how share markets work and so on – which satisfy an immediate need. For a writer of Tamil fiction, the income from sales and royalty is so minimal that he can’t really live off it.”
R Abilash, a 30-year-old lecturer in the English Department of Guru Nanak College by day, and a writer of Tamil fiction, poetry and analytical articles by night, agrees. “Being a writer of literary fiction is like being in a bomb squad,” he laughs, “I’ve been writing since 2005. And the first time I was paid for my writing was 2011, when I wrote 7 articles for a Deepavali special edition brought out by the Times Group in Tamil. I was paid Rs. 3000. That isn’t much money for an English columnist, but it’s a huge deal for a Tamil writer. And I was paid because Times can afford to. Often, the forums we get are small and middle magazines, which have been started on the editors’ own money, and make hardly any profits."

The reason? "They only have a circulation of 2000-3000, compared to the 3-4 lakh of a weekly like Ananda Vikatan; so they make just about enough money to keep running. And magazines like Ananda Vikatan and Kumudam have shifted their focus from fiction to gossip, interviews, news titbits, colourful photographs. They don’t pay much to writers either. Depending on how well known you are, you’ll probably make between Rs. 300 and Rs. 1000 for a poem or a short story. And to get published, you’ll have to write in a style that accommodates their demands, which would be a compromise. The other option is to write for literary magazines, which don’t have the money to pay you. Once, a famous writer told me how he went to cash a cheque he was sent for the first time by a small weekly, and it was returned because it bounced. But I wouldn’t blame them, really. With the cost of paper and newsprint going up, how will they make money?”
Beaten to a Pulp
A vernacular writer’s first priority is to reach out. And this may tempt him to, well, do a Jo from Little Women, and write the kind of stories that will be lapped up.
Manushyaputhiran says, “Mass magazines want titillating, superficial stories. They want a certain percentage of crime, of sex, of thrill. They’ve trained readers and writers for this. It was a ‘time-pass’ thing, stories with no cultural references and no deep thought. They used to bring out serialised novels, and pocket novels. But the main target audience for this were housewives. And with television serials, the demand for pulp fiction is going down. In fact, many of these writers have migrated to writing for TV, like Indira Soundarajan. And he gets by writing for serials about ghosts and ghouls. Some, such as Rajesh Kumar and Rajendra Kumar, have simply disappeared. In the last 10 years or so, no new pulp fiction writer has been created. Others, such as Suba (the duo Suresh and Balakrishnan) and Pattukottai Prabhakar, have moved into cinema. It’s also important to remember that there’s a distinction between pulp writing and popular writing. People like Bharathiyaar, Kalki, and more recently, Sujatha and Jayakantan are mass writers, but write with literary quality. The only one who has dabbled in every kind of media and written about subjects ranging from crime to science without damaging his style, I think, is Sujatha.”

He adds with a touch of nostalgia, “You know, there used to be an entire genre, of ghost stories, in Tamil. But we don’t have any good writers of those these days. Even pulp writing doesn’t have to be illogical. Writing crime and mystery is challenging. You need to make the implausible seem possible, like Agatha Christie did. I think the problem is that a consumer with the intelligence and logical approach required in order to demand originality and brilliance in pulp genres has been dulled by the mass media. Today’s pulp fiction is the kind you read on a train or bus, and throw out when you get out. That kind of thing can be easily replaced by serials. But real art stays. I’ve turned down several pulp writers because readers are tired of the kind of hackneyed storylines they come up with. I look for people with fresh ideas, with a novel approach.”
Ramakrishnan feels a lot of young writers lack depth in their writing because they isolate themselves from world literature. “I used to be awed by the writers who’d come and gone before me. I used to marvel at their body of work, the subjects they touched upon. But a lot of young writers I meet believe they’re the pioneers. Worse, they believe they don’t need to educate themselves as long as they’re inspired. I met a chap who asked me, ‘Why should I learn Shakespeare? How is he important to me?’ And there was another who topped that with, ‘Has Shakespeare read me?’"

Shaking his head, he says, "I mean, how do you grow as a writer unless you read the masters? Do literary circles discuss who has won the Nobel Prize, or do they rave about who has won some government award in Tamil Nadu? As a writer, one needs to analyse what people all over the world write about, and whether they speak of the same things we do. They may find new angles, they may realise how much ahead of their time certain writers thought, and see that the issues they took up then are contemporary ones. Take Anna Karenina, for instance. The case of a woman torn between a husband and a lover – how many affairs have been busted through Facebook? When you can’t make the connections, your writing is bound to skim the surface.”
The Impact of Technology
Manushyaputhiran says several of his finds have come through blogs, and articles on the internet. “I keep a watch on the media,” he says, “And if I see that someone writes well, I track him or her down, and give him or her an assignment. I run an online magazine too, called Uyirosai, and make it a point to publish these young writers either in that, or in Uyirmmai magazine itself. But the internet also has a downside. There’s a very small market for serious literature, and while the readers have gone up, the buyers haven’t. When so much is available online for free, why would they buy the books?”
However, online book stores have been doing decent business, selling Tamil books. “This boom calls for a lot of innovation on a writer’s part,” Ramakrishnan says, “I make sure I adapt my books to whatever technology comes in. I’ve got several of my books ready in eBook format, and from January, they should be available on iPhone through an app. Within a year, all my books will be available on Google Books. I’m redesigning my website, so people can place orders directly.”
“Tamil writers have been very quick to get online,” Abilash says, “Most of them have their own websites, and the rest blog regularly. You see this a lot less among Hindi and Malayalam writers. All of Charu Nivedita’s articles are up on the internet. And perhaps because of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, you see clicks from various countries for Tamil blogs. The reach has grown tremendously.”
However, he warns that this can spring its own problems. “Earlier, mainstream and literary writing were entirely different. But over the past couple of years, the lines have blurred. People who write literary novels, like S Ramakrishnan and J Mohan, have also begun to write for cinema, and so people who look for entertainment and not erudition are familiar with them; they begin to read them. But these people are not serious readers. They aspire to literature of this kind because it’s of a higher stature, it belongs to a high intelligence and high society. It has clique value. They’re often not prepared for what they find. They make celebrities out of writers, and when they have access to these celebrities, they make demands."
And how do these writers react? "Now, an experienced writer with a level head on his shoulders knows what to accept and what to shrug off. But a more volatile writer may waver. When pulp readers turn to literature, he may want to cater to them. And his reader base may take him by surprise. Suddenly, you find 1000 hits on your blog. You say something controversial, and the number hits 10,000. Sundarramaswamy, a stalwart who died recently, once said it takes 40 years to build a reader base of 10,000. But when it happens overnight, how do you react? You know these people exist, and you don’t know what they want to read. And then, being a celebrity gives you an air of haughtiness, of arrogance. Sometimes, these readers start virtual slugfests. Vituperative commentary and personal attacks have caused rifts between writers. Where they once had ideological differences, some of them now have a certain enmity, because of these fans.”
Abilash, however, says technology has far more benefits than liabilities, though. “I met writer Ashokamitran a while back, and he was speaking about how he finds it hard to cross the road to post his stories. And it made me think about how simple the internet has made things. You shoot off a soft copy through your mail in an instant. You can even type a story out on your mobile phone and send it across.”

He’s excited by the prospects e-publishing has to offer. “Amazon has brought in self-publishing in English. If that were to happen in Tamil, or if eBooks were to be popularised, that would save publishers a lot in terms of printing costs. And if affordable tablets that can support Tamil come in, like Aakash, for example, it gives writers and publishers tremendous scope. Buying capacity goes up, expenditure comes down, and writers will actually get decent royalties. The money that goes into production could be channelled into marketing. The risk of publishing a book becomes nonexistent.”
Abilash says with a smile, “This is wishful thinking for now. But there have been several positive effects already. The internet has given us forums to discuss books, and accessibility to a huge data bank. If someone were to commission an article at 6 pm and ask me to send it in by 9 am, I can put together a scholarly piece in hours. I can do a good deal of research for my novels online. And when your work is up online, people hear of you faster.”
The Publishing Challenge
Both Ramakrishnan and Manushyaputhiran, who have been writing since the eighties, speak with some relief of the change in the publishing industry.
“I brought out the first couple of books I wrote myself,” Ramakrishnan says, “They were about 400 pages long, and no one would print large books. Once I sold 5000-6000 copies, a publisher bought it from me. But it was an uphill struggle.”
“There were very few publishing houses up until about ten years ago,” Manushyaputhiran says, “And they would give priority to commercial books. Serious literature had no takers. Writer Sujatha advised me to start my own publishing company to focus on these books, and that’s what I did. But since 2000, a lot of new publishers have come in. There has been a spate of book fairs in Tamil Nadu, and a literate generation has created more demand for books. Now, publishers want titles, and a moderately good young writer can get published quite easily.”

Abilash recounts a conversation he had with a publisher. “I’d called him to say I’ve finished a book, and was about to say, ‘Sir, please tell me what you think after you read it.’ Before I could say that, he said, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s put it out in December-January.’ Earlier, you’d have to beg people to read your writing, and spend about Rs. 10,000 from your savings to bring out the books, but now, once people know you can write, they’re willing to publish your work.”
He also points out that sometimes, there is a “historical need” for certain kinds of writing. “After 2000, feminism became something of a big deal in this country. Women writers began to write in a new language. There was a special place for writers like Salma, Kutti Revathi and others who consciously adopted a vocabulary that shocked readers, that explored sexism within language and destroyed stereotypes.  Earlier, women would moderate their language, their stories. Publishers began to look for women who could break these shackles, and in a matter of months, these feminist writers and poets became household names. You do need talent and potential, but a gap in the market can come in handy.”
Another case in point is Dalit literature, he says. With a grin, he explains, “Sometimes, you have ‘high-class Dalits’ writing about these issues. People with a Western education, from rich families, having connections, who may have got published anyway. But, more importantly, you have people writing from the grassroots level, and bringing in a political angle, which isn’t too common in Tamil literature.”
Manushyaputhiran says publishing has a long way to go, though. “It’s a dream of mine to bring out children’s books, comics they can actually relate to, not just translations of Superman. But it’s not cost-effective. Attractive colour panels and good quality paper require heavy investment, and huge sales for me to get returns. And parents whose children want Tamil comics won’t spend Rs. 100 on a children’s book.”
Sell Yourself, Sell Your Books
When the publishing industry is burgeoning, and book fairs have cropped up (possibly because of the Dravida parties’ USP being their oft-declared love for Tamil), can marketing activity be far behind? It happens, but not the right way, Ramakrishnan feels.

“People invite me to these forums,” he says, “But they end up holding a felicitation for me instead of a book reading. They call four people up on the dais, who’ll praise me and my contribution to literature. Why talk about me instead of about my books? How does knowing what I did affect the audience? Doesn’t it make more sense for me to read something out, and have an interactive session? When I go to other countries, like Malaysia, I’d like to know how these people live, what they do, how they honour their Tamil heritage. Or, I’d like to hold a discussion on a specific subject, such as indentured labour or Diaspora writing. I’m pushing for interactive sessions with authors at the Chennai Book Fair, and I’m hoping they’ll bring that in.”
Abilash concurs with this view. “There’s no culture of holding book readings in Tamil. They celebrate writers instead. I’ve often thought we should start book clubs, and hold launches where we use an overhead projector to display parts of the book, and get the writer to read out passages. Writers have to organise their own readings in Tamil, and they spend a lot of money on it. Now, if you have speakers who’ve read the book, and who will speak about it, it’s a good investment. But if they say something abstract about the writer, the audience won’t really care to buy the book. You need to introduce the audience to a character, make them want to know his story. And ideally, hold a question-and-answer session like they do at launches of English books. That will also alert the writer to the sensibility of his readers.”
Sadly, the publishing houses don’t have the means to hold glitzy launches, where to walk away without buying a book is frowned upon. “Even debut novels have launch events at five-star hotels,” Abilash says of Indian English Writing. On the contrary, most launches of Tamil books happen in dingy, rented halls, or at the author’s house.
“It’s the duty of a writer to exploit his platforms,” Ramakrishnan says, firmly, “You need to be marketing savvy. And you need to stop being shy. In India, and especially in Tamil Nadu, we have this cultural inhibition that prevents us from speaking about ourselves. We want other people to praise us, while we demur modestly. Why do you think Taj Mahal is better known than  Gangaikondacholapuram ? Marketing, publicity. When I go to these award functions, and meet writers from other languages, they start speaking about the books they’ve written. But Tamil writers hold forth on every subject under the sun, except their own work. So, when I went to receive the Tagore Award, given by the Sahitya Akademi in 2010, I had a short pamphlet made, with a short bio about myself, my books, and an extract translated into English. You need to be aggressive about these things.”
Lost in Translation?
With a renewed interest in translation from the Indian English publishing industry, have vernacular writers become better known, and been showcased to a larger audience?
“I’m not happy with the choice of works that are being translated,” Manushyaputhiran says, “Yes, some classics like Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan have come out. But translating pulp fiction doesn’t sit well with me. To begin with, pulp fiction has lost its place in Tamil to solid literature. At one point, pocket novels used to sell 2 lakh copies, but that audience now sits in front of TV, and that’s where the writers have gone. Today, you have some very good writers and poets, and no one translates them. They write about social issues, political ones, but people who can’t read Tamil have no access. Another thing – and this makes me laugh – is that most Tamil pulp stories have been lifted from English pulp fiction. They read something, shove it into Tamil Nadu, strip it off whatever little logic it has, weaken the storyline and throw in a few thrills and spills. Why translate something that has been pinched from English back into English?!”
Ramakrishnan feels translators face a Catch-22 situation. “The language is 2000 years old, and there’s so much literature. If you begin translating contemporary literature, people will say you’re ignoring classics. If you focus on classics, modern literature has no place. Also, there are very few Tamil speakers in publishing houses, while there are many Malayalam speakers. If an English publishing house wants to bring out a translation, they may not choose a very good book, because they are not aware of what books there are. They don’t know whom to ask either. So, they bring out a bad book, the sales are poor, and they stop experimenting.”
He speaks of the need for an organised forum for translation. “You need a guild where people specialising in translation work together. Now, the author has to pursue translators. In my case, my focus is on writing in Tamil, and I consider other markets ancillary. I’d rather be working on my next book than sitting down with a translator. That said, translation is very important. My favourite writers are Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – I turn to their works every time I’m unsure about how to execute a particular scene, or describe a certain complex emotion – and I would never have read them if they hadn’t been translated into English.”
His book Desanthiri is being translated into Malayalam, Yaamam into Telugu and Hindi, and Urupasi and Thunaiyezhuththu into English.
“A French edition of Urupasi will be out next August,” he says.
French?! Well, that’s courtesy Sri Lankan Tamils, many of whom are trilingual. “It’s also that their own writers tend to write in a nostalgic tone about their villages and towns, and the problems that arose during war time,” he says, “And sometimes, the people need a break from that. They turn to Indian Tamil writing, because it doesn’t have to do with that war, and also because it connects them to their ancient homeland. And they’re the first to honour writers from here. Along with Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils who work abroad, and maybe want to introduce their friends there to writing from their nation, do quite a bit of translation work.”
But Abilash says translation from Indian languages can never have the same market as Indian writing. It’s not just about the language, he says, but milieu, and that can’t be translated. “Our sensibility is different. Indian English writing employs a lot of irony and satirical humour. But Tamil writers tend to be serious, sentimental and poetic. It sounds corny in English. Another important aspect is regional identity. Even if you have a Chennai-based character in an Indian English novel, he becomes an Indian character. It’s a conscious effort by the writer. He wouldn’t give it a Chennai flavour beyond a point, without marrying it to a national flavour. The characters won’t discuss local problems, they discuss national issues. The identity of a Bihari labourer, or a Kannadiga or a Tamilian, is integrated with the national identity. A case in point is Manu Joseph’s Serious Men. The topography of his novel was Mumbai, but it was not so much a story of a Tamil Dalit in Mumbai, as of an Indian Dalit among rich, educated people.”
He points out that you need explanations at every stage. “Take the case of Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake. She describes how Ashima makes chaat. She doesn’t simply say chaat, because international audiences don’t know what chaat is.” He’s right. It would be hard to translate the phrase thanni theriththuvittaan, which literally means “he sprinkled water (on someone)”. Its import is that the person has been disowned, through a ritual that is state-specific. To explain the cultural metaphor would be to rob it of its charm, to say nothing of lengthening the book considerably, and making original contributions to it.
“Language is changing, though,” Abilash says, “We speak in a mix of languages, and maybe a new literature that incorporates all of those will come in.”
Celluloid Comes Calling
Several writers of Tamil literary fiction, such as S Ramakrishnan, Charu Nivedita and J Mohan, and before them, writer Sujatha, shot to fame among the masses after their entry into the film industry. Despite their having established themselves as writers far earlier, their readership went up manifold after famous tongues spouted out their dialogues.
Ramakrishnan has worked on 11 films over the past 12 years. “Well, I didn’t really break in,” he says, smiling as if at a private joke, “You see, all my roommates in my struggle period, in those cramped quarters, are the top directors of today. We’d all meet, and say ‘You know, one day, we should do this’, and we’re doing that now. I don’t think of myself as someone in the cine industry. I’m a writer, who dabbles in various genres of writing. Early on, many of my friends asked me to write for their first films. But I’d say, ‘No, da, let me establish myself as a writer first.’ When director K Balachander’s son, who’s a close friend, returned from America and started production houseMinbimbangal, I thought, well, let’s give this a shot. Directors Jeeva, Lingusamy and Bala were all close friends, and I’ve worked with them often.  Director Vasanthabalan was a junior of mine in college, and asked me to write for a film he was making on Virudhunagar. Rajnikanth read some of my books, and asked me to work on Baba because he said the message of the movie was a particular thing I’d said in my book. So, cinema just happened to me.”
Cinema pays rather well. "Cinema pays about four times as much as my other writing, but well, working in cinema is about ten times as strenuous as working on a novel!" Ramakrishnan laughs.The money may be good, but does it involve a compromise in style? Ramakrishnan does not think you can draw parallels: "I don't think one can compare writing for cinema and writing a novel. You write for cinema with certain stipulations; people get together, discuss your screenplay or script or dialogues, and make corrections. A novel is something that comes from the heart. You work on it alone, and you write it because it occurs to you, not because there's a gap in the market, or any specific reason to get the story out." 
“The senior writers, or people whom the director knows well and respects, have less cause for worry,” Abilash says, “And I think if a director is basing his movie on your novel, you need to give him a free hand. But it can be difficult if you’re working on a screenplay, and you’re a novice who is not on equal footing with the director. You may not have the space or freedom to write your own story, and if the movie turns out to be a bad one, people associate you with it. It happens quite often, but young Tamil writers are desperate enough to take the chance because they need the money, the sustenance.”
Would he compromise? Abilash thinks for a moment and then laughs, “I really don’t know.”
But how about the writers who say they haven’t been paid, or that their scripts have been stolen? “Well, that simply means they don’t know how to handle the industry. First, I think it’s nonsense when unknown writers claim some story published in an obscure journal was stolen by a famous director. It’s a publicity stunt. I suppose it just may be the case, but it’s far more likely that the same idea struck two people. Or someone may have been inspired by a story, but in the making of it, the product changes completely. After reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, I wrote a story where someone listens to The Beatles, because the music haunted me. But does that mean I plagiarised? And even if the case were that a writer or a junior director went to a famous one, who dismissed the story and stole it later, and it became a big hit, well, the person who thought of that story should be able to deliver something of the same quality, right? If he can’t, that means the alleged thief brought in something to it, which its author couldn’t. Also, essentially, there are some staple storylines. The film Mozhi, for example, spoke of a deaf-mute girl, who fell in love with a musician but couldn’t acknowledge it because of her complexes, and eventually overcame them. The plot is a staple, and the new concept is that the girl is deaf-mute. Now, if someone says ‘I wrote a story about a deaf-mute girl, and they stole it from me’, it’s a little silly, right? People who make those allegations are people who’re frustrated at their own inability.”
Manushyaputhiran doesn’t mince his words. “The Tamil cinema industry specialises in plagiarism. If someone says, ‘Oh, this film was new, it was different’, my mind starts ticking immediately, and it doesn’t take me long to figure out which film or story it’s been stolen from. I wish they’d acknowledge that they were impressed or influenced by some film or story, and put in a credit note. No writer is safe from this. Several portions of Sujatha’s novels have been stolen. One particularly brilliant political novel, which speaks about various conspiracies and intrigues, called Padhavikkaaga (For Stature), has had entire chapters lifted for films. This happens because copyright laws are not strong here. And writers don’t have the means or connections to fight through the legal system. Writers of English fiction have agents and attorneys. Here, you have no representation and no money, and the directors have no original ideas. If they can’t find an Iranian or Japanese film to ape scene-by-scene, they copy from novels. The way I see it, there only two types of filmmakers in Tamil cinema – people who steal artfully, and people who steal horrendously. A story discussion is basically a discussion on which story to copy.”
Where Academia Falls Short
Perhaps writers of Tamil, who don’t want to do anything other than craft stories, wouldn’t have to turn to the film industry to bolster their bank accounts if they had other, academic options. However, far from providing them with freelance work, academic circles are rather discouraging.
Manushyaputhiran stresses that there is an urgent need to reform the school education system. “Our education system doesn’t introduce students to good, contemporary literature. I can’t remember when the syllabus was last changed. Our education policy, and the incompetency of teachers, has caused a distancing between students and language. There are times when I do guest lectures in colleges, and there’s one particular school – SRV Matriculation – in Tiruchy, which calls writers every month to conduct workshops for students. But there are very few such institutions, where the Principal or Department Head takes the initiative. There is so much more emphasis on general knowledge than art, literature and language. Why do you need to know the national bird, language and capital of every country, or who invented penicillin, when you have Google, which gives you whatever information you need in whatever language you want? The things that need to be inculcated are understanding capacity, how to communicate, and how to use a language. Now, children are losing touch with language. How often does someone say ‘I’m not able to express what I feel’? That’s why writers are so popular; because they translate your thought into words, and you immediately relate.”
The subject of the contents of school textbooks is a sore point with Manushyaputhiran. “We’ve fought so much at the policy level. When the state brought in Samacheer Kalvi, I spoke to them and asked for a place for modern writing, as a section in literature. But the policymakers are fuddy-duddies who are scared to take a risk. To make children read Sangam literature in the language in which it was written is related to Tamil fanaticism. What you’re actually doing is putting them off Tamil. If you need a dictionary to understand every word, how will you string it together? Why should you mug up poetry you don’t understand? A language class shouldn’t feel like a gym workout! I think the contents of Thirukkural and Sangam era literature are important. But let children learn the gist, and seek out the original if they’re interested. The way these things are taught matter too. If you ask me, Ramayana and Mahabharata are contemporary texts. They address dilemmas and situations we face in life. But you shouldn’t tie them up with religion. Treat them as stories. It’s important to know our tradition, our history, or we’ll be rootless – but this should be communicated in a language that we speak, that we understand. When you foster a hatred for Tamil in kids, they don’t want to study it. In fact, I’ve met several Tamil writers who are engineers or IT specialists by day. They didn’t want to spend years reading text and translation.” He then laughs and says he himself dropped out of school in Class 5, before he could begin to hate Tamil. “I wrote all my exams as a private candidate, right up to the MA level. And then I did a second MA, for the college experience. Maybe that’s why everything I’ve done has to do with Tamil literature – my first poetry collection came out when I was 16, and since then, I’ve been a journalist, writer, and publisher.”
Abilashan chose to study English Literature, rather than Tamil. “I badly wanted to study Tamil,” he says, “And my family was all right with it. But when we’d gone to visit the college and pick up admission forms, they said I should do English. Initially, I was quite miserable. But, after my interaction with Tamil academicians and lecturers, it dawned on me that they were about a 100 years behind in terms of theories. Over the last century, the study of English Literature has allied itself with subjects other than philosophy and theosophy. French and German thinkers have applied theories of science, anthropology, and psychology to literature. Feminism has brought politics into literature. But formal Tamil education ignores these branches, ignores world literature, and only focuses on its own ancient literature – not even its own modern literature. That’s no bad thing, and I would love to have studied Sangam literature, but you shouldn’t study a language in isolation. So, I did my M.Phil. in English, and tried to apply those theories to parallels in Tamil.”
What makes the blinkered perspective of Tamil academia bewildering is the progressiveness of Tamil literary circles. “Senior writers in my hometown, Nagerkoil, would hold discussions on modern literature and critical theories. I was familiar with terms like ‘structuralism’ and ‘post-modernism’ from those times, and only came across them again during my MA,” Abilash says.
Ramakrishnan fears that all these will be lost forever unless a concentrated effort is made at archiving. “We don’t have a search engine that will facilitate a search for Tamil literature, or written accounts of what great Tamil writers discussed. No biographies are written. The speeches made by random Britishers in India during Bharathiyaar’s time were recorded, but not any of the fiery ones he made. We don’t know what our writers looked like, what their handwriting was like, what they sounded like. No one has documented their cultural activity. We don’t even have a year index of all the books published in Tamil, leave alone an index of their content. No one analyses seminal works. We simply read them. When I go on tours of Europe, and see how little things their writers used have been preserved, and how the cultural calendar you pick up at cafés has details of programmes to commemorate them, it strikes me that we have nothing of the sort here.”
The Writer’s Calling
“I think of my time as currency,” Ramakrishnan says, “How much can I do in these 24 hours? What can I give the reader to keep him or her interested? What does he or she want, what does he or she need? People say that reading is on its way out because of mass media. I disagree. I meet a lot of youngsters who read. Their focus has shifted. Let me explain. Now, we say people watch TV. But why do they do that? Everyone at home is busy with their own lives, and they need to hear echoes of their thoughts, and so they turn to television characters, and nod along. Give them those echoes in literature. People don’t want fantasy literature anymore, because it’s too much trouble to imagine these things, when TV spares you the trouble of having to envision things. But people want to read about complications in relationships – not just between partners, but among friends, families. People want to read about moral dilemmas. People want to read about things that are related to their daily lives. About 50 years ago, people looked for the exotic – a man writing about America when so few people went there was exotic. Their lives were boring, and they wanted to escape into literature. Our lives are complicated, and we seek solutions in literature. You need to engage people. A writer can do so much! Why flog the same dead horse over and over?”
Abilash feels writing in Tamil needs to become more politically aware. “All international writers are associated with some movement,” he says, “Look at Marquez and Fidel Castro, American writers and feminism or racism. Even in India, writers from Karnataka played a role in the creation of the state, writers in Kerala are mostly allied with Communism. But we Tamil writers tend to look within, and only within. At the most, if an issue that affects us, such as the shifting of the Anna Centenary Library comes up, we sign petitions. Writing should be politically informed. The problem with this was that a few decades ago, writing of this kind became politicised rather than political. So you have the DMK writers, and the Periyaarists, and they took their agenda into cinema as well as academics. Many of them were professors before they entered cinema (lyricist Vairamuthu included). So people who wrote serious literature distanced themselves from politics. They shunned writing about politics, and would joke about how one must either be a journalist or a DMK man to bring politics into what was considered a higher plane. They didn’t get along with Communists either. So, you often find that among writers from that period, politics is considered cheap, trivial. They feel a writer’s task is to focus on the mind, on spiritual doubts.”
Why is there a shift towards political and social issues now, in Tamil writing? “It’s just getting started,” Abilash says, “One is that a lot of Dalit writing has come in, and their crisis is not spiritual or psychological, but social and political. And the meaning of ‘politics’ has expanded – it’s not about administrative politics or activism alone, but about interaction. How does one engage with a friend, a colleague, a partner, a workplace, society, country, the world? Journalism, politics and writing have become allied fields. J Mohan, who swore he would never speak about politics, wrote a piece on Anna Hazare. You can’t escape that. But the association of writers in Tamil Nadu with politics is not as much as in Kerala, Karnataka and Bengal.”
Abilash feels a writer must look beyond the individual, or at least study the individual in the context of the world. And this is what he does in the novel he is working on, Kaalgal (Legs), which is about a polio-afflicted teenager, and the mutual guilt in her relationship with her parents, and her interactions with society.
Ramakrishnan agrees. “Writers observe life, they look at it with a keen perspective. Einstein once said Dostoevsky gave him more to think about than any scientist has. The reason I like Russian writers so much is that they tore the moral fabric of society and held up the pieces. They questioned, they enquired. Now, our culture is not something we adopted willingly; it was created and imposed on us. We like smoking cigarettes, and we pretend we don’t. We sneak one in when no one’s at home, and gloat at our daring. We like checking women out, but pretend we don’t. Those aspects of our personality remain secret. Being polite and dressing well is a code we conform to, and that makes sense. But what about the silly ones?”
With an amused smile, he says, “There’s one sight I will never forget. Once, at the Palani bus stand at night, there was a family of 5 waiting for a bus – a man, his wife, two teenage daughters and a small child. The wife slept on the floor, and the child cuddled up next to her. These two girls couldn’t lie down and sleep. So, they both leaned against each other and dozed off. Every time they closed their eyes, the father would hit them on the backs and wake them up. Why? Because a girl should not sleep in a public place. There were about 500 people there, activity all night. But, from 12.30 to 4 am, the father kept up this ritual. He’d nod off himself, wake up, see the girls snoozing, and yell. I thought to myself, ‘This Nazi believes himself to be a good father, protecting the reputation of his daughters’.
He continues,   There are so many cultural constructs like that – women can’t go to a tea shop and drink from a glass. They must sip coffee from a steel tumbler. A daughter who is tall is a burden, because no one will marry her. Once, a family from my village came here, and we all went to a movie. The man of the house asked, ‘How does this theatre not have separate sections for men and women, sir? This city has gone to the dogs!’ The writer’s duty is to break this kind of mindset. And it’s not about women’s issues alone. One of my favourite stories by Jayakantan is about a family, where the father is 60, and the son is about to get married. Then, the mother finds out she is pregnant. When everyone’s cursing her for embarrassing the family, the son says, ‘How can we decide that our parents shouldn’t continue to do what they did to give birth to us?’ The story shocked people, because it’s perceived that someone’s sexual life gets over at 40. Writers, especially vernacular writers, should teach people how to realise, appreciate and value their independence.”


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//R Abilash, a 30-year-old lecturer//

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