D. Selvaraj talks about his novel Thol and the compelling story of reality

The story of Thol (Leather) is interspersed with fire spitting episodes, true incidents and twists that narrate sufferings faced by tannery workers from 1930 to 1958, their rise and revolt for freedom.

Oseppu is on the run with a sole aim of escaping the hunt initiated by his employer who had vouched to rip off his skin by tying him to the age-old pillar. Oseppu’s wait in a toilet room in the railway station and his fight with the pig brings the situation so alive that readers inadvertently press their nostrils to escape the stench. The description is gripping. “Thol is a result of 20 years of hard work of meeting people, recording events and episodes,” says the 2012 Sahitya Akademi winner D.Selvaraj. “All characters are real and nothing is imaginary,” adds the 74 years old writer.

With 50 years of experience, Selvaraj has compiled the events in a proper sequence bringing alive the language of the colonies of the outcasts in the much acclaimed book.

“The slums were established in such a way that the wind blowing across these habitations would not touch the town. If the wind flowed from the slum, the air would pollute (theetu) the village where caste people resided,” he says.

Such was the situation when worker’s union member S.A. Thangaraj, invited Selvaraj to come to Dindigul to deal with cases related to the welfare of the tannery workers. These workers slog through the day in calcium-filled pits that slowly eat away their skin and fingers giving a stunted and damaged look like that of those affected by leprosy. Moved by their plight, Selvaraj visited colonies of tannery workers to study their life and family background collecting every detail of atrocities meted out to them.

Thol has 117 characters and the story runs through four chapters in 685 pages. All characters sacrifice their lives with no expectations. Though the protagonist is the ‘Society’ headed by Sankaran, Irudayasamy is one of the important characters who sparks the struggle but does not get due recognition. “Nature and society are not constant. A character may be nascent in the initial chapters but the same character grows to be more assertive and mature in the later chapters. My novel depicts this transformation of a social order,” says Selvaraj, who has also portrayed all his female characters as strong personalities.

Early life

Born in Thenkalam a hamlet in Tirunelveli district, Selvaraj studied in English school at Munnar run by British for the welfare of the estate employees’ children. Later he got his degree in Economics from Tirunelveli MDT Hindu College in 1950.

As a student, he was impressed by progressive writers such as T.M.C. Ragunathan, N. Vanamamalai, and T.K. Shiva Sankaran. In the college library, he read Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Mulkraj Anand, Tagore, Nehru and Sarojini Naidu.

From Tirunelveli he moved to Chennai to pursue a course in Law. He developed contacts in Janasakthi, official organ of the Tamil Nadu unit of the undivided Communist Party of India and the trade union movement. It was through the trade unionist and former Mayor of the then Madras Corporation, S. Krishnamurty, that Selvaraj was exposed to the of problems of tannery workers in Chennai and Dindigul. He started his practice in Dindigul and fought for enhanced wages and better working conditions for the tannery workers. “Though I was always interested in writing, I consciously decided to write for people’s sake and planned to work as a lawyer to eke out a living,” he says.

Literary career

Selvaraj his literary career with short stories. His first short story on problems of Santhals was published in Janasakthi.

“I was born into a family of kanganis who brought labourers from Tamil Nadu to work in the tea estates in Kerala. A percentage of the wage earned by the worker would go to the kangani as commission,” he says. His novel Thaeyneer highlighted the struggle. Yuga Sangamam authored by him has been included in Delhi University syllabus while Nonbu, his first short story collection published in 1965 is part of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University’s curriculum. However, it courted controversy last year. “I portrayed Andal as the daughter of Periyalwar in Nonbu. The controversy was raked up half-a-century later and a political party christened me as Daniel Selvaraj. Earlier I was known as D. Selvaraj.”

Selvaraj says he rewrote Thol which initially ran into 2,000 pages. “It is of the same genre as Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel and Maxim Gorky’s The Mother.” “The characters in Leo Tolstoy’s monumental work War and Peace are the combination of historical figures of the Napoleonic era and the imaginary characters of the ancient Greek poet Homer. I have adopted this technique in my novels. I have used Tamil classic characters. For example Vadivambal is similar to Andal,” he says and adds “Thol is living proof of the relevance of socialist realism that triggers transformation in individuals, society and nature.” The greatness of leaders like A. Balasubramaniam (AB), born into orthodox Brahmin family, but who chose to live with tannery workers and adopted their food habits inspired Selvaraj to etch out the character Sankaran.

Sankaran takes the initiative to tell the tannery workers, “You are also human beings with the right to live with dignity.”

FACT FILE:

Thol was originally titled ‘Panchamar’ the outcast. Later, Prof. Anandakumar changed its name to Thol, which has layers of meaning.

First novel Malarum Sarugum is based on the fight between tenants and landlords. Mooladhanam dealt with disintegration of joint middle class family system and brain drain, Agnikuntam highlighted the problems of judiciary and Nizhal Yudham, is a satire on the hypocrisy of Tamil people.

He has authored biographies of the Communist leader P. Jeevanandam and the Tamil scholar Sami Chidambaranar.

Also written two stage plays, Paattumudiyum Munne and Yuga Sangamam, and more than 30 one-act plays.

As a student he contributed short stories to reputed literary journals like Santhi, Thamarai, Saraswathi, Semmalar, Sigaram, and Sri Lankan Tamil weekly Desabimani.

His role models are Guy de Maupassant, Maxim Gorky and Charles Dickens, Pudumaipithan, Ragunathan, Krishan Chander, Ku.Alagirisamy and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai.

His contemporaries are Sundara Ramaswamy, Jayakanthan and Krishnan Nambi.