Tamil writer Su. Venkatesan, who captured 600 years of history of Madurai between 1310 and 1920 in his debut novel Kaaval Kottam, has won the Sahitya Akademi award for the year 2011.

The 1048-page novel begins with the pillage of Madurai, known as Koodal Maanagar by Allauddin Khilji's general Malik Kafur, and the killing of Karuppu, a security guard. Subsequently, it fell into the hands of Vijayanagar kings and the descendants of Karuppu returned to Madurai as security guards, offering a unique security system till the British took over. All these have been dealt with in a gripping narrative.

Tamil film Aravaan, by director Vasantha Balan, is based on one of the sub-plots of the novel.

“The novel has its roots in the research I did on the compulsory settlement camp set up by the British in the Goodalur-Cumbum valley to lodge the security guards of Madurai after their defeat. It took 10 years to complete the novel and it was published in December 2008,” the 41-year-old Venkatesan, hailing from Tiruparankundram near Madurai, told The Hindu.

An active worker of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he was fielded as the party candidate in Tiruparankundram in the 2006 Assembly election. He was elected the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artistes Association this year.

“My close association with the CPI(M) for the last 20 years and my activism could be said to have shaped my novel,” he said.

Asked whether the politician in him did not come in the way of his creativity, he asserted that politics and creative literature were inseparable for anyone who loved society deeply.

Kaaval Kottam is about the security system that prevailed in Madurai Fort. It was unique in the sense that the guards would repay the money or goods if they were not able to prevent the houses from being burgled.

“In every village there are kaavalans (guards) and kallans (burglars). The question was who was great: kaavalan or kallan. But the kallan would not enter into any territory which was under the control of kaavalan from his village,” Mr. Venkatesan explains.

Kannakol poduthal (breaking into a house or palace by making a hole in the wall) is an art perfected by these kallans and one of them could even enter the palace of Thirumalai Nayakar: he decamped with the ring of the king.

In the novel, the people of Thathanoor, a fictitious village, are responsible for the security of Madurai and resist the attempt of the British to demolish the fort for the purpose of expanding the city. After defeating them, the British settle them in camps and declare them as notified communities. They were de-notified only after the country gained independence.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is its strong women characters. Whether it is the wife of Karuppu, a pregnant woman leaving the city in the wake of its defeat to raise a generation of great warriors, or the queens of Vijayanagar or the wives of kallans and kaavalans, they possess in them an extraordinary streak of independence.

Mr. Venkatesan also deals elaborately with the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam in the wake of the Thathu Varucha Pancham (drought) between 1876 and 1877.

“Around 20 per cent of the Madurai population perished in the drought and the commission constituted by the government recommended construction of a dam,” says Mr. Venkatesan, who has published six poetry collections and seven research works.

He is writing another novel based on Tamil tradition.


Guha wins it for narrative history December 21, 2011