When you grow up on Sarangapani Swami Sannithi Street in Kumbakonam, your parents expect you to be a mathematician.
“And when you live just across the street from mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujam’s house, there is little you can do to escape the expectation. My father even hired a private tutor to teach me maths. But what I am today is a different story,” laughs Tamil writer and dramatist Indira Parthasarathy, who has won the Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards.
His novel Kuruthipunal, based on the burning of 42 Dalits in Keezhavenmani in East Thanjavur by a landlord, won him the Sahitya Akademi Award. The novel was later made into a film ‘Kan Sivanthaal Mansivakkum.’ Another work Uthciveyil was made into a film ‘Marupakkam,’ by director K.S. Sethumathavan and became the first Tamil film to win a Swarna Kamal award in 1990.
Though some of his novels and many of his short stories are set in and around Kumbakonam and neighbouring areas, one can hardly spot any traces of the temple town in him. He does not chew tobacoo or swear in the typical Kumbakonam dialect.
When I mention this to him, Parthasarathy, now 81, grins, “You will come across plenty of them in my literary works, especially in Kuruthipunal.”
Kumbakonam, like Tirunelveli in the South, has produced some fine writers such as Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan, Karichankunchu, Na. Pitchamurthy, M.V. Venkatraman and T. Janakiraman, who was Parthasarathy’s English teacher in school.
If you imagine his brunch to be crispy rawa dosa and a cup of bitter-sweet Kumbakonam degree coffee, you will be disappointed.
Parthasarathy, clad in a dhoti and T-shirt, serves you porridge with plenty of nuts and raisins.
“One can be alone even in company,” says the writer when asked if he lived alone at this age. “These days, distance is not just geography. It lies within the reach of a text message. I have two children living abroad and one in Chennai,” he says.
Mr Parthasarathy was a green-card holder for more than ten years but surrendered it in 2006. He is ready with an answer even before one can ask him if patriotism prompted the move.
“I want to love and hate one place, and it should be just mine. America was a golden cage. I was averse to the idea of a consumerist society. It made me feel alien. Unfortunately, today we are increasingly imitating the American way of life,” says the writer who was a card-carrying Communist during his student days. And that probably explains his dislike for the capitalist country.
Parthasarathy studied Economics at Kumbakonam Arts College and despite good marks in English, opted for a Masters in Tamil at Annamalai University, when Brahmin boys his age were learning English and science.
“I knew I could always learn English. But I wanted to study Tholkappiam, especially the commentary by Senavarayanar. So I took up Tamil. My teacher Boovaragavan Pillai was a scholar in Tamil grammar and Vaishnavite literature. I never told my father I was studying Tamil until I completed the course,” he says.
After working at the National College in Tiruchi, he joined Delhi University. It was here, on the advice of Professor R.K. Das Gupta, he did a PhD in Vaishnavism with special reference to the 12 Alwars.
Later, as a visiting professor, teaching Tamil at Warsaw University in Poland, he toured several European countries.
While he is widely popular as a modern writer, Parthasarthy’s knowledge of Tamil classics is enviable. The best from the classics and the modern find an expression in his writing. His favourites are Kamban, Elango, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Balzac and Bharati.
“Kamban is a romantic par excellence,” he says, before quoting Milton, “He is like “sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,” to substantiate his point. “Elango’s writing is conscious, deliberate and serious, like that of James Joyce’s or Henry James’,” he says.
In the north, Parthasarathy was better known as a dramatist and his plays Aurangzeb and Nandan Kathai were big hits. The latter was translated and produced in Hindi before being staged in Tamil. He was also the editor of the Tamil literary magazine Kanaiyazhi.
Parthasarathy’s works present a clash between tradition and modernity and more often than not, his characters reflect this. What is his stand today?
Parthasarathy quotes a line from Nammazhawar’s works and follows it up with a Thirukkural couplet. “The more and more you know, you realize the extent of your ignorance. This is also what modern times tell us.”