(Dandapani Jayakanthan: 1934-2015)

Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury

The veteran Tamil writer with leftist leanings, Dandapani Jayakanthan, known for his thought provoking 200 novels and innumerable short stories, 40 novels, 15 essays, besides some translations, including that of Romain Rolland’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and two autobiographical volumes, besides writing articles and composing poems, lent to the second half of the 20th century, a contemporary blend of cultural and political history of Tamil people, passed away on 8th April. 81 years old modesty personified, Jayakanthan, who had won national and international acclaim, considered as a colossus in Tamil. He was awarded the 38th Jnanpith Award for the year 2002 for his outstanding contribution to the shaping of Indian literature through his authentic and vivid portrayal of Indian reality in the last four decades. Admirers of Jayakanthan say recognition of his talents has been a long time coming and being awarded about 20 years after he stopped writing.

Jayakanthan was a landmark in Tamil proses writing. Wrote about the subjects not explored by others, the whole motto of his writing was to awaken the society to meet the developmental needs of the hour and how relevant it is in the present day context when the nation is endeavouring to unshackle itself from the dormancy which has set in over a period of time. Moving from a political leftist stand to a rightist one like his contemporary Sunder Ramaswamy, Jayakanthan grew into an eminent writer by voracious reading and exposing himself to varied experience.

With little formal schooling, he did not have the benefit of being brought up in an intellectual atmosphere in his early years. He acquired English through the reading of the Discovery of India. Jayakanthan claims that Nehru was his teacher of English and History. A strong follower of the nationalistic ideals of Nehru and Gandhi, he believed that Subramania Bharati’s ideology was closer to that of Nehru and Nehru’s ideas were nearer to Buddha’s. Besides, he was greatly influenced by writers like Puthumaipitha Ku Alagiriswam, Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokov, author of And Quiet Flows the Don. These were the great minds that shaped his intellectual outlook. Jayakanthan, a household name in Tamil Nadu, established his reputation as a realist par excellence with a healthy disregard for the established conventions and taboos of fictional literature. His robust optimism, love of human beings, compassion and crusade against the antihuman institutions made him the best living novelists in Tamil. His humanist philosophy lies in his vision of the goodness of the poor emerging everywhere, be it in a slum or in a palace.

Swaminathan Sankara, in his book Life of Jayakanthan says, “Jayakanthan, probably, is one of the greatest post-Independence Indian intellectuals and creative writers in any Indian languages, and, in my opinion, ranks among the best in the world. His greatest allegiance is the cause of the poorest people and the underprivileged”. Jaykanthan lauded at Madras in 1989 in the ‘Meet the Program’, organized by the Sahitya Akademi, “The world remains divided- between the cheat and the cheated, the exploiters and the exploited, the mighty and the meek, the rich and the poor, the bad and the good… at writings, I felt that in this divided world I was with the underprivileged, the cheated, the exploited and the meek. I thought I should raise my voice against injustice and that was my dharma, sudharma”. He affirmed through his life and writing a broad and noble humanism, deep spirituality, nobility and courage, true patriotism and a fearless pursuit of intellectual values and truth whenever these may lead him…” An inspiration to younger generation of writers, he made his presence felt in Indian literature for more than four decades.

Jayakanthan introduced innovation in Tamil writing that no one else has done so successfully. Though his early writing show, but is now no longer identified with left ideology. Jayakanthan, who acquired a reputation of being the enfant terrible of Tamil literature in the ‘60s and ‘70s’, was loud, serious, and aggressive and wrote voluminously. His language is powerful and themes are as daring as they are loud. Jayakanthan brought out the complexities of human nature through his realistic portrayal of people. The characters of his novels are the dwellers of the street, huts, platform and the bank of Cooum River. He depicted women in different hues, in diverse moods, drawn from many social groups, caught in situations from the mundane to the heroic. He had the rare talent of writing about the contradictions of Vedanta and Marxism in one breath.

His father Mu.Dandapani Pillai was too unrestrained in his habits and there was no love lost between the father and son. As his father abandoned his wife Mahalakshmi Ammal, she was not particularly drawn towards Jayakanthan. Jayakanthan was born on 2 May 1934 in a family of an agriculturist in a small town called Cuddalore, in the North Arcot district of Tamil Nadu. He spent a miserable childhood in his village. Formal schooling does not seem to have agreed well with him, nor Jayakanthan with it. He dropped out of school after the fifth grade, and ran away from home unable to bear the harsh treatment routinely meted out to him. He learnt more about rickshaw pullers, tongawallahs, porters, sweepers, newspaper boys and all types of coolies and working people and developed compassion towards the underdog. Once while writing about his life he confessed, “I count among my close friends rickshaw pullers, prostitutes, rowdies, pocket pickers, and tag-pickers. That is why I never hate them. In fact I have an affinity towards them”.

Traveling without a ticket, at Tambaram railway station, just 18 miles far from Madras, he was caught by the TTE. Fortunately an army man paid his fare and saw him off at Egmore station. Jayakanthan roamed about in the streets and returned to his village unable to bear the pangs of hunger. However, his maternal uncle Purushoththaman, a communist party worker, looked after him and it was from him that Jayakanthan imbibed the communist ideology. He married a Dalit woman and then lived in a slum. The Communist Party became his home as well school, and he came to know about Marxism and got the opportunity to meet many communist leaders. The Party trained him as a compositor, printer, and producer and set him on all kinds of jobs like pasting posters, organizing meetings and rallies. Life in the company of political and social leaders, particularly P. Jeevandam, popularly known as Jeeva, a scholar too, Mohan Kumarangalam, and Baladandayutham gave him a new vision, a new perspective of man and society. His study of Marxism made him a fighter for human justice and took interest in the lives of the downtrodden.

Tamiloli, a highly scholarly fellow worker of Jayakanthan, introduced him to the world of books. He has showered affection and books upon the neophyte and compelled him to study them. Simultaneously Jeeva took him under his wing and Jayakanthan was soon exposed to the world of literature and the party printing press. From around 1953 his writing began appearing in popular magazines like Sowhaghayam, Saraswathi, and Ananda Vikatan. The 1960s could be called the ‘Jayakanthan era’ when he wrote a series of short stories and stormed the popular magazine with his unconventional short stories and novelettes. Shot into fame by writing about slum culture in Chennai in a way that shocked middle class value, somewhere he confessed. He was probably the first Tamil writer to make a living from his writing. His wants were very few. He retained his independence. He never lost his zest for life, nor his critical, but sympathetic views of the downtrodden and the powerless, or his contempt for the phonics in any and all walk of life, nor his dislike for the fascist Kazhkams.

He daringly dealt with the problems of women in many of his works and is a master when it comes to narrating the differences between the rich and the poor. He daringly wrote emotion-stirring sexual novels but explores genuine sexual problems. His novels indicate the clash between tradition and the practical realities of life. Jayakanthan’s views on celibacy, material fidelity, man-woman relationships, etc. are drawn from life. Though his maiden short story was probably Vaikkai Aiaikkiratu (1957), and Kaivilangu (1961), it was Yarukkaka Aiutan (For whom Did He Weep, 1962) and Unnaipol Oruvan (1962), which portrays the helplessness of the poor people, brought him to limelight. These volumes are written in agonistic spirit.

Some of his stories, however, are outrageously ahead of times. One of his early stories, Nandavanathil Oru Andi (A Fakir in the Garden), gave him self-confidence to continue writing. In Naan Irukkiren (I am Alive) he described the mental working of a leper beggar confronted by a deformed and helpless human being. Appreciated by everyone, his Virakti portrays how a person unsuccessful in love is tormented by it throughout his life and turns a misogynist. He joins the army, to forge his love affair, where he faces many trials and tribulations, but is unable to forget his girlfriend. He painted the frustration of a poor young girl in Lullaby who gets married to an aged man and who has to rock his child to sleep on the first night. But in course of time she fulfils herself by gaining ascendancy over him. Another story Iravali portrays the chill penury of an orphan girl and her disappointment even after sacrificing her chastity for money. She is unable to buy anything, with the money she gets, to appease her hunger, for what the man has given her after satisfying his lust turns out to be not half a rupee but a mere quarter of an anna.

However, his short stories, known to weave realistic representation with a magical lyricism of language, have established themselves at the very top of the genre in Tamil literature. R. Kumaraguruparan of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ Association says, “After Pudumiaippithan, it was Jayakanthan who has contributed most to the short story genre in contemporary Tamil literature”. His bold stories on uncommon themes hitherto considered taboo for the Tamil writer. Having shown unusual courage in his stories by dealing realistically with the problems of sex, Jayakanthan became a controversial figure. For example, Agni Parikshai (Ordeal by Fire, 1954), a story of a Brahmin mother, shocked by the rape of her teenage daughter by a stranger. She nevertheless tells her to forget it like a bad dream, and get on with life. The story ends with the mother giving the traumatized daughter an oil bath, a symbolic gesture of purification.

The story created a furor in major Tamil newspapers and shocked the middle class conscience and led him to expand it a full-length novel Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (Some People at Some Time, 1970). The controversial novel, which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1972, deals with the plight of a girl who falls a victim to the unscrupulous elements in society. For its intensity of emotion and vivid characterization, the work has been hailed as an outstanding contribution to contemporary Tamil literature.

The novel stands out mainly on account of the unique character Ganga. The courageous bid by a woman to rediscover her identity, twelve years after an incident in which she had lost her virginity to a stranger, forms the central theme of the novel. Her refusal to accept marriage, unilaterally proposed by her brother, who is anxious to cover up the social stigma attached to the family. The technique of story-telling adopted by the author combines in it all the variety needed to put across a delicate problem affecting people constrained to play roles dictated by circumstances. S. Venkatraman says, “Jayakanthan makes use of the in-depth dialogues, interior monologues and flashback techniques, argumentative style and rich content. All these go to make the novel aesthetically delightful”.

Later, A Bhimsing, the Mogul of Melodrama in the ‘60s, did a volte-face in the ‘70s and thought it fit to film the novel, which won critical acclaim. When it was filmed with his screenplay and lyrics, Jayakanthan won the Best Story Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1978.

Parisukku Po (Go to Paris, 1960), about the cross-cultural pulls, contains the character of a philosophical debate. It is about an aspiring artist who feels he is being told to go the Paris because his own land does not want him. Here he showed the terrible strains that develop between a progressive young man who has mastered western music and many western ways and his conservative father, a reputed vainika who refuses to accommodate and adjust.

A sequel to the above novel a realistic portrayal of man-woman relationship, the author rehabilitated the character Ganga and made her a responsible woman, a good friend of the person who had ruined her life in Gangai Enge Pokiral (Where is Ganga Going). Here he re-explored his own short stories and expanded upon the lives of the protagonists in that tale. In Sundara Kandam, the heroine struggles to free herself from the shackles of economic and social oppression, which won him the prestigious Raja Rajan Award, authored a body of works including Hara, Hara Sankara, on the controversial Sankara cult to which Sankaracharyas, the Hindu religious leaders, belong to. It is a very careful venture in distinguishing the truth of Hindu religion from its prevailing false and degenerate form. In 1986 the novel won him the Best Novel Award from the Government of Tamil Nadu.

In his memorable work Oru Nadigal Nadagam Parkiral (An Actress is Watching a Drama) Jayakanthan contrasted Kalyani, the actress, who looks at the world as it is and loves it. The novel shows how they almost come to a parting of ways before they get firmly united, helped by a terrible disablement suffered by her. This also served as a base for another movie.

Jayakanthan propagated universal humanism in his Oru Manitan, Oru Viyu, Oru Ulakam (A Man, A House and, A World, 1972). The novel, full of admirably etched characters of which Henry and Sabhapathy Pillai stand out, depicts the luminous aspects of life, as Jayakanthan happily asserted. Jayakanthan saw the world in an atomic capsule of a single individual.  In the ‘Preface’ of Oru Manithan… Jayakanthan said, “The world not only were ocean and rivers complete by themselves, but each drop of water was also complete in itself. Hence, the world does not mean continents and countries alone but that each man by himself was a world”. He wrote, ‘I greatly enjoyed writing it. It was for me a very special experience’.

He narrated his experience in the area of politics and arts in two autobiographical volumes. His most acclaimed is Oru Ilakkiyavatinyin Araciyalcintanikal (A Literary Artist’s Political Experience, 1978), an autobiography with difference. The volume is considered his fiercely independent affiliation to communist political philosophy and his commitment as a novelist. Jayakanthan made a polemical and brutally frank analysis of his 40 years of experience in the turbulent politics of Tamil Nadu. His controversial views on the relationship between politics and literary art might appear for many readers, the autobiography is a triumph confessional writing.

His works have gone into many editions in Tamil and translated into major Indian languages and foreign languages – English, Russian, German, Japanese, and Ukrainian. Dissonance (2008), the translation of ten short stories of Jayakanthan, published between ’57-’67, a decade saw him emerge as the undisputed king of short fiction, translated by K S Subramanian, published by Katha, is the representative of the well nuanced and his mastery over the various registers of Tamil unsurpassed. His choice of subjects was vast, with special attention to women characters, drawn from different arena of society, including caste and class intricacies and gender.

As a good orator, in one of his famous speech, he discussed ‘why I am a Brahmin’, though by caste he was not, explaining to his audience why Brahminism was a concept. The speech lasted nearly three hours and became the major event of the Brahmin Youth Conference held at Krishna Gana Sabha. He took the editorship of the daily newspapers like Jayaberikai, Nava Shakti, and literary journals Grantharatham, and Kalpana.

In 1964 he made a few false starts as a playwright and a film scriptwriter, but gave up when realized the state of the entertainment industry. Despite the bitter experience he permitted some of his story to be filmed. The first art film directed and produced by him was Unnaipol Oruvam (Some One like You) fetched the President’s Certificate of Merit and participated in several International Film Festivals. This apart, he directed two other films – ‘Yarukkaga Azhudhan’ (For whom did he weep?) and ‘Pudu Cheruppu Kadikkum’ (New Shoe Pinches). He himself was actively involved in ‘Karunai Ullam’ (Tender Heart), ‘Oru Nadigai Natakam Parkiral’ (An Actress Watches a Play), ‘Kaval Deivam’ (Protector) and ‘Ethanai Konam Ethanai Paarvai’ (Many Angles, Many Views). Some of his works have also been successfully adapted to the little screen. Jayakanthan had also written a handful of film songs, and all of them are memorable.

Though his forays into the film world have been limited, but he has left an indelible mark and brought a refreshing whiff of realism into the melodramatic portals of Kodambakkam. Jayakanthan was a trendsetter in many ways and will forever remain a role model for all future writers. His writings had an authentic truth. He lived among slum dwellers in his early years of struggle when he worked as a compositor in a printing press. As he grew older, he has had time to reflect inward and indulge in philosophical inquiries and to give expression to them in his novels and short stories. Since turned 50 (in 1984) Jayakanthan wrote very little, but ruled over the domain of Tamil fiction for more than 40 years. For his eminence as a fiction writer in Tamil, Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest honour, Fellowship, on him in 1996. His departure created a big vacuum, but to M.S. Venkatramani, who has translated his autobiography into English, “Jayakanthan is a household word whenever Tamilian live. Among contemporary men of Tamil letters, he regards him as a first writer of fiction…”

Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury, a litcritic & postdoctoral scholar, is with India’s National Academy of Letters

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