‘The voices of progressive forces have been weakened,’ says Tamil author Su Venkatesan in a freewheeling chat.
Su Venkatesan’s debut novel Kaaval Kottam won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2011. As general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ and Artists Association (TNPWAA), he has spearheaded movements on a variety of social issues. A progressive poet, essayist and a fiery orator, Venkatesan has already begun work on his next novel on Tamil spiritual philosophy. He is also working on a collection of essays and a non-fiction work. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your next work.
For the last four years, I have been working on a novel about Tamil philosophy. It requires painstaking research and extensive field work. The novel will be based in Southern Tamil Nadu. This year, I am publishing a collection of essays. I am also working on a non-fiction book from the documents I had gathered for Kaaval Kottam.
Kaaval Kottam was the history of Kallar community through which you also narrated the history of Madurai. What would non-fiction part of Kaaval Kottam deal with?
This account will only have real characters. Also, Kaaval Kottam ends in 1910. This book will begin after 1910, documenting the people’s revolt against the Criminal Tribe Act and running through 1948. This will be a complete historical document on the system, the act and its repercussions in the society.
Why did Kaaval Kottam take you 10 years?
I had already published eight books before Kaaval Kottam happened. When I began working on Kaaval Kottam, I had overcome the desire to get my work published. Also, there was a huge controversy raging over the novel as a literary form in Tamil. I think that was an influencing factor. Kaaval Kottam required me to travel extensively between written history and folklore. I could not have given it any less labour.
You have been a significant arrival in the tradition of Marxist literature in Tamil Nadu.
As a writer and an activist, I think it is a huge strength to be part of both the Marxist and the Tamil tradition. The ideological wisdom of Marxism in Tamil Nadu should be seen in continuance with the cherished progressive tradition of Tamil history. You will never find a text as secular as in the Sangam literature. The 3000-year-old tradition of Sanskrit literature — which celebrates Saraswati as goddess of learning — does not have a single woman writer. Greek literature had only six women poets in the era before Christ. Sangam had about 43 woman poets. The democracy and the secular colour of our language transcended religions.
TNPWAA has always been known as an alternative cultural platform. Are any efforts being taken to make it mainstream?
We take our role as an alternative cultural organisation very seriously. We recently had a conference in Tuticorin where we discussed various issues including the surge in violence against women. We are planning to launch a campaign against marriage within the same community. It is not just irrational but unscientific too. In the course of our work, we realised that we have regressed from where Periyar left us. He spoke about breaking the system of marriage; we have to reduce ourselves to speak against marriage within the same community. In the backdrop of globalisation, strengthening of communal forces and resurgence of chauvinism, I feel the voices of progressive forces have been weakened.
Where do you think we went wrong?
Periyar, Singaravelar and Jeeva came together to form the self-respect movement, but things took a downturn when they parted ways. I think the failure began when the Dravidian parties gave up on Periyar’s basic ideologies. That — along with the failure of the progressive forces, including the Left, to make any significant contribution — has brought us to where we stand. The need for progressive movements can never be felt more deeply than it is now.