Author-diplomat T.S. Tirumurti’s Chennaivaasi is a reminder that this city lets you be

“Did you get a chance to read the book?” asks author-diplomat T.S. Tirumurti, whose second novel Chennaivaasi is now on bookstore displays. Sitting at a window-side table at a café in the city, I tell him that a stranger aged 30-odd, spotting me reading it at the airport had said he bought a copy intrigued by the prologue, and that the novel lived up to that promise. He reacts with diplomatic restraint, but is clearly pleased. “Is that so? What did he like in the story?” he asks softly. A perfect opening for the conversation!

We begin with the setting (1990s) and style. “Some of my heroes are Ernest Hemingway and R.K. Narayan,” he says. They preferred short sentences. The short sentence at the end of chapters maximises the impact. It captures the imagery more than reinforce the image set earlier.

The story happens in a Tamil Brahmin (Tambram) milieu, again. The first book, Clive Avenue (2002) was autobiographical, he says. After the first book, the second was a given, he says. Chennaivasi is more of “what I’ve seen”.

Familiar ground

This is familiar ground, a natural choice when he had another story to tell. It is rich in Tambram idioms and expressions so much a part of our lives but not given much attention. “Couldn’t help including them.” He was struck by the way his grandmother — writing in English and Tamil — replied to letters, and it formed the basis for the letters in the novel.

A strong point in the novel is the direct speeches, I tell him. “I wanted to give each one a voice and stick to it.” These are characters who spoke in Tamil — in words and phrases peculiar to that language. “I had to preserve the charm of the Tamil phrase when the writing is in English. And take care of the Indian hyperbole and the Western understatement.”

We move to the substance. Including references to the anti-Brahmin agitation and the treatment of the Tambram community is a conscious decision, he says. “I have portrayed prejudices and stayed away from making a social commentary.”

The story is about the circumstances behind the break up of a joint family, he argues. “The conflict-resolution, the interaction-reaction will work in any milieu. A dominant father, the mother trying to speak for everyone — all these can happen anywhere, people will empathise with it. In English, I can’t think of too many fiction that bring out the contradictions in the way we live our history.” Chennaivaasi is a look at the evolution of the society with Tambrams as central characters. It’s written with pride, and with the reckoning that there is a slipping of standards. The question is, are we changing in the right direction?

So who is a Chennaivaasi? Anyone in the book, he says tentatively. The Jewish girl who embraces Chennai life qualifies too, albeit as an extreme example.

A Chennaivaasi’s simple-living-high-thinking days are not over, he insists, in defence of the metropolis. “Our level of ostentation is low. This simple way of life has to go with a certain higher way of thinking.”

Chennai is less material, offers innumerable opportunities, lets you lead a life of your own, does not judge you by what you can / cannot buy. We can walk around in everyday chappals, and not worry that people will mistake us, he says.

We are sure that with this book, Tirumurti finds a permanent place in the expanding group of professionals that manages to find the time for creative writing.

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TS Tirumurti has served in Cairo, Geneva, Washington DC, Jakarta and as the Representative of India in Gaza

His writing draws sustenance from Chennai’s distinctive ambience, people and ethos that shaped his childhood

He is currently Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in charge of UN affairs relating to economic and social issues