The city's litterateurs felicitated writer Su. Venkatesan, who won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his debut novel, Kaaval Kottam

Madurai was the buzzword that morning. Conversations revolved around goddess Meenakshi and her magnificent temple, the many lanes that zigzagged about the town and the people who lived there. The felicitation function for Madurai-based writer Su.Venkatesan started off with a lilting Tamil folk music concert.

The event, organised by Vijaya Pathipagam, was attended by litterateurs, intellectuals and everyday folk who developed a fascination for Madurai after reading Su. Venkatesan's debut novel Kaaval Kottam. The novel traces 600 years of Madurai's history. It won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2011.

Kaaval Kottam sold like Horlicks did those days — we had to stash away the precious copies,” said M. Velayutham, founder, Vijaya Pathipagam. “Read a few pages and you're inside the book in no time.”

Detailed descriptions

Poet Puviyarasu described the process a book undergoes for award selection, and the politics involved. “The book crossed several circles of scrutiny and emerged successful. This is no ordinary thing,” he said. Puviyarasu read out some ornate lines from the book. “How minute are Venkatesan's descriptions of characters! One can do a 200-page research work on just the first few lines.” The poet said the book effectively described how the Thathu Pancham (drought) affected people.

“Ah, the people inside the 1,000-odd pages of the book…characters such as Rajammal and Kunjarathammal…the award is for them,” said a visibly moved writer M. Natarajan. He described his favourite passages and spoke of being awed by the research put in. “Kaaval Kottam encompasses anthropology, psychology and more. What kind of lives did the people of ancient Madurai lead? What were the traditions they followed? Kaaval Kottam has the answers,” he said.

Kovai Gnani described the impact of the Internet on the book. “Kaaval Kottam triggered a lot of discussions on the Web. Several writers critiqued it — it is doubtful if any other work in Tamil invited as much attention on the Internet.” Gnani appreciated Venkatesan, a Marxist, for “tapping out stories hidden inside the minds of our ancestors.” Gnani said he was fascinated to read of brave women who led battalions.

Even in his short speech, popular stage speaker Madukkur Ramalingam managed to tickle the funny bone. Every nook and cranny of Madurai has a bit of history to it, he said. “There was once a street dedicated to writers — they came there to get their manuscripts copied on palm leaves, free of cost.”

“I don't know if any other place celebrated Kaaval Kottam as Kovai did,” began Venkatesan, much to the delight of the audience. “When it was published three years ago, I got a phone call from a new reader from Kovai every week,” he smiled. He said he planned to write a book on the making of Kaaval Kottam soon.

Venkatesan recalled the day he sent the book's manuscript to publisher Vasanthakumar of Tamizhini Pathipagam. “He sent me an SMS at 4 p.m., saying he was reading it. I waited with bated breath for a response. I got none till 2 a.m. — it was a short SMS that said, ‘Read it. Going to sleep now. Will read the rest in the morning.' It was another nerve-wracking wait. The next day, I got another SMS around 2 p.m. that read “Good.” At 2 a.m. the next day, he messaged again, “Finished it. Will talk in the morning.” When I heard from him that morning, he was heading to Madurai in an unreserved compartment in Vaigai Express!”