Author Devan’s stories captured people with their idiosyncrasies.
It was a well attended discourse, and the speaker emphasised the evanescence of fame and popularity, leaving the audience in no doubt, that it was wrong to hanker after fame. At the end of the discourse, he asked me anxiously when a gist of his discourse would be published in the paper, reminding me that the last time he had been published was three weeks ago! I smiled to myself and added one more member to the Brahmasri Govardhana Sroutikal Club. Of course, there is no such club.
Sroutikal is a character in one of Devan’s Thuppariyum Sambu stories. Sroutikal lectures on the dangers of being attached to wealth, and Sambu is deeply impressed. So, when Sambu’s wife Vembu tells him that Sroutikal is distraught because his wife’s necklace is lost, he wonders why Sroutikal, who preaches that material possessions should not be sought after, should worry over the loss of a necklace. Vembu’s reply to her husband is telling and needs no elaboration: “To preach is Sroutikal’s profession. Does that mean he should give away all his possessions?” This is quintessential Devan - just the right amount of irreverence, to make one burst out laughing.
Not that Devan was an atheist. But he recognised that some people are devout, because devoutness has its uses. In Gomatiyin Kadalan, Pranataartihara Iyer’s sister is a frequent visitor to the temple, because she sees it as the ideal place to boast about her brother’s wealth and status. The astrologer in Gomatiyin Kadalan, proves to be nothing more than a clever interrogator, who worms information out of a gullible Kaveri Ammal, and cunningly gives his astrological exercise the colour of prescience.
Devan’s characters are not monochromatic. Santhanam Iyengar, a hard task master, who does not part with his money easily, chides the cook, when Vedantham is served a watery liquid that passes for coffee.
One of the criticisms against Devan is that his stories were ‘Brahmin’ ones, whatever that means. Yes, most of his heroes and heroines were Brahmins. But that does not mean that he portrayed Brahmins in a uniformly good light. For example, Vairam Gopalaswami Iyengar ignores Vedantham, when Vedantham is no longer wealthy. Ranganatham does not hesitate to cheat a poor widow. Pranataartihara Iyer and his family cheat the driver of his salary.
Devan’s Brahmin readers enjoyed Devan’s critiquing of the community, for Devan had a ringside view of its shortcomings, and held up a mirror. In Mister Vedantham, 51-year old Rangoon Chari, who has a 17-year old daughter, does not hesitate to ask for 18-year old Chellam’s hand in marriage. This was a curse of the Brahmin community; parents sometimes married off their daughters to men old enough to be their grandfathers. We are glad when Chellam escapes the clutches of Chari. But in the last chapter, we find that some other hapless girl has fallen victim to her father’s avarice or poverty.
And yet, why is the same reader happy when Sambu’s bachelor days are over, for after all 40-year old Sambu too marries a young Vembu? While Devan’s portrayal of Sambu makes it difficult for anyone to dislike him, the fact also remains that in this marriage there is no element of compulsion. Sambu is also innocent of using money as bait. We do not feel the revulsion we feel in the case of Chari. In later stories, we find delightful romantic exchanges between Vembu and Sambu, and there is never a dull moment in this marriage. Vembu is as happy with Sambu as she might have been with a younger man.
Sambu is one of Devan’s most adorable characters, and we don’t grudge him his success as a detective. C.I.D. Chandru, despite his acute intelligence and Sherlock Holmes like observations, is a cold fish. He is self-possessed and disdainful of others. We are glad Sambu is the more successful of Devan’s two detectives, despite the fact that he is rather intellectually deficient.
Devan’s knowledge of human psychology is evident in all his stories. In CID Chandru, eight-year old Chemba is able to guess that her sister Padma does not like the woman visitor, because the visitor is beautiful!
We all like to be purveyors of bad news, and we derive some kind of ghoulish satisfaction from this. Aravamudu in Gomatiyin Kadalan is no exception. When T.V.S. Iyer warns him not to mention to Gopalan that Rangarajan might have stolen a pair of bangles, Aravumudu resolves that this is the first thing he will talk about when he gets home.
There are some people who love to claim kinship where there is none. Through Kamakshi Ammal, in Mythili, Devan gives us a hilarious example. Kamakshi Ammal says her husband is the once removed cousin of Soorangudi Subbukutti Iyer’s wife’s uncle’s step-mother’s granddaughter’s sister-in-law’s brother-in-law! And so she establishes that she is related to her co-passenger in the train! In one of her letters to Sambu, Vembu says, “My mother had asked you to pick up a cupboard for her some months ago. But you forgot all about it. My mother says I am not to mention it to you again. So I am not mentioning it!”
In Mister Vedantham, three appalams ‘accidentally’ slip from Kausalya’s hands onto Sarangan’s plate, when she asks Sarangan to find her son Venkatachari a job!
Rajiyin Pillai, (Raji was the name of Devan’s first wife, whose death he mourned for 10 years, refusing to marry a second time) is a collection of short stories about a little boy. The child fades away at the end of each story, and the author realises he has been dreaming. The stories are reminiscent of Charles Lamb’s Dream Children - A Reverie. In one story, the child is picked up by Goddess Parvati, and Mother and Son slowly disappear, and we see Devan’s Muruga bhakti and his desire for a child merge. It is a story that tugs at one’s heartstrings. Devan even has a name for this child he aches for - Subrahmanyam, after his favourite deity.
Shades of Wodehouse
Devan was an avid reader and this is evident in his stories. We see shades of Wodehouse in many of his stories. Swamy in Mister Vedantham is clearly inspired by Goldsmith’s Man in Black. What a refreshingly different character Swami is! He has a heart of gold, but dons a cloak of rudeness and hates to be thanked for his help. In life it is common to find men in white, men who have a pleasing demeanour, but whose intentions are malicious. One can’t help wishing there were more ‘Men in Black,’ like Swami, in this world.
Some people criticise Devan for being unduly optimistic and giving all his stories happy endings. Devan, they argue, is therefore predictable, because no matter what vicissitudes the hero and heroine face, they will eventually overcome all their difficulties. Well, so what if he is predictable? Fate drags us towards a future we have no control over. Why shouldn’t a story be different? Why shouldn’t we comfort ourselves with the thought that at least the travails of our hero and heroine will soon be over, because a predictable Devan is in control, and not an inscrutable God, whose ways are a mystery to us?
Honour for Gopulu
The celebration on Sunday has two segments. The morning session organised by Devan Endowments at Smt. Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium, Luz Church Road, Chennai, opens with Sanjay Subramanian’s vocal recital at 9.15 a.m. Gopulu, legendary illustrator and close associate of Devan, will be honoured.
Devan’s biography, authored by Keezhambur Sankarasubramaniam, Editor, Kalaimagal, will be released. The morning session concludes with a symposium on Devan’s works. V. Gangadhar, Ambai and Prof. Pasupathy (Canada) are the speakers.
The venue shifts to C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer Convention Centre, Eldam’s Road, where V. Gangadhar will deliver the Devan Memorial Lecture, ‘Oh, For A Devan Today,’ 7 p.m. Madras Book Club joins hands with Devan Endowments for the event.
Trust’s quiet work
Devan Endowments was founded by Devan’s wife Chellammal Mahadevan, her brother-in-law R. Sundaram and their publisher friend Mr. Venkatraman, around 40 years ago. The aim was to publish the complete works of Devan. This began in a small way and the interest derived from the royalty of the books was used for helping poor families at the time of marriage or illness, buy oil for the lamp for the daily worship of the nearby Vinayaka temple.
Although the aim of the Trust was to popularise Devan’s works, it could not organise lectures on contemporary Tamil literature or promote younger writers with small awards, etc., as it was totally out of touch with the media. However, after the demise of these Trustees one by one, the responsibility of managing the family Trust fell on the shoulders of Chellammal’s younger brother G. Lakshmanan. The new trustees strove vigorously to bring out all the writings of Devan through Alliance Company, Mylapore, Chennai. The main object, therefore, of popularising Devan’s works was achieved and though they were written nearly fifty years ago, the books were lapped up by readers from various parts of the globe.
The Trust has supported projects of artists, education of underprivileged, charity organisations and temple maintenance.
From 1997, Devan Endowments began honouring writers who focused on humour writing and artists who assisted them in the process, as well as, cartoonists.
Writers, illustrators, cartoonists, playwrights and theatre artists who have been honoured with Devan Memorial Medal are – ‘Sujatha’, illustrator ‘Natanam’, V. Gangadhar, C. V. Gopalakrishnan (The Hindu), Ashokamitran, PVR., Lakshmi Venkatraman, V. Krishnamurthy, (former DG of Kerala ), ‘Annam’ Satirist Sathya of ‘Thuglak’, humourists Mukundan, J.S. Raghavan, Thenkachi Swaminathan, ‘Kadugu’, Artist Sarathy, Artist Aras, Artist Jayaraj, Artist Ramu, Cartoonist ‘Keshav’ (The Hindu), Cartoonist ‘Madhi’ (Dinamani), ‘Kathadi’ Ramamurthy, K.S. Nagarajan, ‘Crazy’ Mohan, ‘Railpriya’ Ananthu, Playwrights C.V. Chandramohan, M.B. Moorthy, K.S.N. Sundar, Actor ‘Chandru’ (all from Tamil stage), Writers Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Ranimaindan, Ilakkiyaveedhi Iniyavan, and J.M. Sali.