Sahitya Akademi Award winner Su. Venkatesan on his literary journey

At first glance, the 1000-odd pages may not interest you and you may put ‘Kaval Kottam' aside for later reading. But soon, the volume itself becomes a compelling invitation to read. A fleeting look through the first chapter that describes the atrocities of Malik Kafur and his army grips one's attention. The sharp prose activates your ophthalmic and auditory nerves and you soon begin to smell the blood even while hearing horses' neighs and gallops as the novel races through the battle field.

Often history is made by people who think differently; but sometimes, history chooses people for greatness. Latter is clearly the case with Su. Venkatesan, one of the recipients of Sahitya Akademi Award for 2011. This is the first time in the history of the Sahitya Akademi that the prestigious award is being conferred in recognition of a debut novel.

Su. Venkatesan's love for history is evident even in the paintings and photographs that adorn his room apart from numerous books and manuscripts piled in the book rack. The visibly elated winner begins his chat with facts about the robust Madurai that's been a witness to 2500 years of History. “Every nook and corner of the streets and lanes have history embedded in it. The city has seen both a glorious and hoary past,” he says.

“Usually, if a city gets destroyed, life would come up in a nearby place rechristening it with a prefix ‘Pudhu' (new) to the name of the city. On the contrary, life in Madurai blossomed at the same place every time it was destructed,” notes Venkatesan.

Besides, he says, the city has inspired every writer since Sangam Age. Writers have elaborately dealt with Madurai's way of life and society in Sangam Literature, Bhakthi literature and so on. When he felt that the city's mammoth historicity is missing in modern Tamil literature, Venkatesan decided to make the town the hero of his novel – Kaaval Kottam, published in 2008. “Madurai is,” he says, “the endless stimulating subject.”

Already an author of poetry collections and seven research articles, Venkatesan was wondering what genre should he opt to write upon Madurai. Initially, not knowing whether it should be a fiction or non fiction, he traveled the length and breadth of the State and collected materials, records, facts and figures about the city. After three years of collection he sat for writing the book and from then on, the track was destined to reach success.

After contemplating on the idea, Venkatesan decided to record the untold history of Madurai in a novel form. He says: “poetry is certainly not a perfect medium to bring life in full. Hence I decided to go for novel.”

In Kaaval Kottam, the writer presents recorded history and folk history simultaneously. “Generally, history is written by taking inscriptions, copper plates, books of Islamic historians and Jesuit's Father's diaries into consideration. But, there exists a parallel history called ‘folk history' that has been disseminating facts through memories in the form of stories that never made an entry into the recorded history,” he says and adds, “there is a wide gap between the recorded and folk history.”

“In Kaaval Kottam, I have tried to bring out the subaltern history of Madurai, which was relegated for centuries,” he notes, “In my work, every character is an alpha male and alpha female apart from the strong women of royal lineage like Gangadevi, wife of Kumara Kempenna and Rani Mangammal.”

Though there are many scenes of importance in the novel, Venkatesan immediately highlights the utmost significance of demolition of the Madurai fort- the largest in Southern India of that time.

“The population of the city was 42,000 and the whole city was involved in demolition. Usually, British rulers demolish forts and walls from outside to conquer the city. But, this fort was demolished from inside and that too by the people themselves. People were lured to pull down the huge wall that protected the city,” he says.

The fort demolition scene runs into 60 pages picturesquely depicting the fall of the fort and how the British wooed the residents to part with the fort in the name of development.

The next dominant factor of the novel is the Mullai Periyar Dam. In his novel, Venkatesan presents the societal and economic background in which the Mullai Periyar dam was built. It portrays the suffering of people of the then unified district of Madurai and deaths that took place during the construction of the dam.

The novel also elaborates on the local policing system that prevailed in the city especially during Nayak regime before it was wiped out by the British to bring in the modern day judiciary system. It also vividly describes how the British officials crushed the security guards and lodged them in camps after declaring them as notified community under the Criminal Tribes Act.

Talking about his research and resources, Venkatesan says that he collected government orders, letters and manuscripts. In fact, he provides eyewitness descriptions for many facts including the ‘policing system'. Venkatesan also vividly describes the life of people, the equipment they used, their ceremonies and religious observances. He is tremendous at detail and descriptions of everything from the ‘local guards', the way they dressed, to the way they functioned and the way they spoke.

“Even in the language part, I have used varieties. From classic language for royal lineage to colloquial connotations for the laymen,” the author explains and believes that his book is a major contribution to Madurai's folk history.

The novel traces the history of 600 years of Madurai in a winning fashion starting from 1310. ‘Kaaval Kottam' is a product of 10 years of labour and through out these years he has written his manuscript in pencil – a writer's idiosyncrasy.

In total, the novel has about 250 short stories. Venkatesan has also given a story to director Vasanthabalan's ‘Aravaan' – a sub plot in Kaaval Kottam.

Forty-one-year-old Venkatesan loves poetry since his school days. In fact, his love for language earned him about 300 certificates which he had won in speech and verse writing competitions. Out of which, around 50 certificates are for State first prize. He owes his love for language to his Tamil teacher Ilankumaranar.

Under the influence of his parents, Venkatesan joined commerce course. Later, his love for language and philosophy made him join Marxist forum. At 19, as soon as he was out of Mannar Thirumalai Naicker College, he published his poetry collection ‘Ottaiyidatha pullaangulal.' “In those days, Marxism had a charm and no youth could escape its enchanting philosophies,” he says.

In 1997, he became the Taluk secretary for CPM in Thiruparankundram. Now, this full-time writer is the general secretary of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artistes Association, art and literary wing of Communist Party of India.

“Sahitya Akademi for Kaaval Kottam is the recognition for local history written intricately and elaborately,” he says.

He plans to publish a research work on Criminal Tribes Act in India. At present, he is working for a historical novel on Tamil traditions.

And for the photo shoot, Venkatesan takes us to the Chettipodavu cave. “This is the place where Gangadevi worshipped Mahavir statue and began her life in Madurai. And my initial chapter is based on her and her warring skills.”

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