The two books under review are compilations of letters written by two eminent Tamil authors, Sundara Ramaswamy and Ki. Rajanarayanan, to their respective mentees, Baudha Ayyanar and Bharatha Devi.
Ayyanar, a first generation literate from a small hamlet in southern Tamil Nadu, came into contact, as he says in his introduction, with the right kind of people even while he was young, and that went a long way in promoting his taste for good reading. He met Sundara Ramaswamy (Su. Ra.) when he was 23 as an admirer of his writings, and this created a bond between them, which lasted for more than two decades. They had been in constant correspondence and 200 letters written by Su. Ra. to Ayyanar between 1986 and 2005 are now published.
Bharatha Devi, from one of the small towns in the deep south of Tamil Nadu, was fond of reading books from her childhood and, on reading Gopallapurathu Makkal by Ki. Rajanarayanan (Ki. Ra.), felt overwhelmed with a desire to meet the author, as the novel gave her a totally different kind of reading experience. She found his address in the book and wrote to him expressing her wish to meet him at ‘Idaiseval', the village in which he lived at that time. Soon she got a reply from him inviting her, and what started as an author-reader relationship blossomed into a father-daughter bond. The letters Ki. Ra. wrote to her between 1988 and 2004 constitute the second book.
The genuine affection and concern these two senior authors have for their protégés and the interest they show in promoting them as writers of some substance come off well in these letters. Su. Ra. also seeks Ayyanar's reaction to various literary and social events that happen in Tamil Nadu at the time of his writing a letter, treating him as a peer, so to say. Ki. Ra's letters read more like a loving teacher addressing his favourite pupil but with no less intimacy than found in Su. Ra's letters to Ayyanar.
Ayyanar met Ramaswamy, when he was a young bachelor, at an age when one would tend to look at a literary celebrity with awe and astonishment. From the letters of Su. Ra., one could gather the biographical details of Ayyanar, his evolution as one dedicated to reading and writing, and his emergence as a social activist.
This gives these letters a kind of epistolary flavour in the sense that they indirectly narrate the story of the recipient. It looks like Ayyanar had to face certain challenges in his life, and his mentor's gentle words of advice and comfort helped him overcome them. Nowhere in all his letters Ramaswamy gives the impression of being patronising or overbearing. As one reads these letters, one would know that he had strong and uncompromising views on literature and, as such, the reservations he had about the writings of some of his close, famous fellow-writers may not come as a surprise.
Ki. Ra. is a talented, self-taught man with a staunch rural background. He is one of the early pioneers, who put regional writing on the literary map of Tamil Nadu. No wonder, he was entrusted, by the Pondicherry Central University, with the task of anthologising the traditional oral tales in the spoken dialects of rural Tamil Nadu, reflecting the ancient wisdom of Tamil heritage. Having been in correspondence with Bharatha Devi prior to this assignment, he confidently committed her to helping him in this project. Many of his letters are focussed on spelling out the methodology that needed to be followed in executing this work. His advice to her that she needed reporting the stories in the same colourful idiom as told by the village elders, without any editing or censoring, underlines the literary value he attached to such faithful narrations.
It is refreshing that the letters figuring in the two books were written only with the immediate recipients in view and not impersonally addressed to posterity with a sub-textual intention of having them in the public domain.
SUNDARA RAMASWAMIYIN 200 KADITHANGAL: Meenal Publishing House, 3/363, Bajanai Koil Street, Kelambakkam-603103. Rs. 150.
KI. RAJANARAYANIN KADITHANGAL: Trisakthi Publications, 56/21, I Avenue, Sastri Nagar, Adyar, Chennai-600020. Rs. 150.