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Wrote to delight

Devan's was a small world. But the appeal of his writings is universal. V. GANGADHAR pays tribute to the novelist, whose characters like `Tupparium Sambu', speak of his desire to entertain.

ON THE evening of Friday, September 8, the audience at Chennai's Bharat Vidya Bhavan hall assembled to pay tribute to 'Devan' (Mahadevan), well-known Tamil novelist on his 87th birth anniversary. In a brief career of 23 years, most of it spent with popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, Devan produced an enviable output of outstanding novels, short stories, essays and travelogues.

In his 'Ten Greatest Novels of the World', Somerset Maugham, himself an outstanding novelist, included both Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' and Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'. The first work was painted on a large canvas, it had an element of universality. Jane Austen, because of her background had to choose a smaller canvas. Yet, 'Pride and Prejudice' which dealt with the happenings and people in a small town turned out be even more popular than 'War and Peace'. Ms. Austen knew her small town and its people. She wrote with felicity, grace and gentle humour and she created unforgettable characters.

That was also the secret of Devan. He was not necessarily hampered by the fact that as a writer in a regional Indian language, his world was somewhat restricted. It consisted of Thiruvidaimarudur, his birthplace, Kumbakonam, where he went to college and Madras, where he worked. He was familiar mostly with the middle class, South Indian way of life. Such was Devan's genius that he made the best use of these 'handicaps'.

How did he do it? Devan made extensive use of his own life and his works are full of the personal element. When we read accounts of the college days of Vedantam, the hero of his novel, 'Mr. Vedantam', we know it is a reproduction of his own college days in Kumbakonam. Despite a series of personal tragedies, early death of his first wife Rajam, the unfulfilled longing for a child, Devan never lost his faith in God. An ardent devotee of Lord Murugan, his novels stressed the fact that faith in God could solve most of our problems. When Varadaraja Pillai, the accused in the famous Nungambakam murder case in the novel 'Justice Jagannathan', was finally acquitted, his wife Jayalakshmi feels that her prayers had been answered. This view was readily shared by her lawyer, Eswaran, who relegated his own brilliant defence to second place. Once the 'Not Guilty' verdict was delivered, they rushed to various temples starting with Vadapalani.

The focus on the personal element was supplemented with a unique power of observation at all levels. While writing, 'Justice Jagannathan', the brilliant account of a court room trial of a murder case, Devan was a regular at several of the city courts. He read extensively on legal issue, frequently met top lawyers and the novel tuned out to be as gripping as the Agatha Christie classic, 'Witness for the Prosecution' or Robert Travers' 'Anatomy of a Murder'. But Devan's power of observation went further when he wrote about characteristics of individual jurors or members of the small groups all over the city who were discussing the case all the time.

One of the major reasons for Devan's popularity was that readers were able to identify themselves with the narrative and the incidents mentioned in his novels. Take 'Shriman Sudarsanam' for instance. Many of us belonging to the lower middle classes would readily understand and sympathise with the hero's financial problems and desire to give his wife, a decent home life. Sudarsanam stole money from his office and was duly punished. The plot followed a logical pattern and the actions were carried out due to motives which we could easily understand. There was nothing improbable in this simple story of temptation, punishment and rehabilitation.

Devan was a widely read person and this is reflected in his books. We can trace the influences of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and P.G.Wodehouse.

Like Dickens ('Pickwick Papers'), Devan excelled in the depiction of minor characters. 'Rajathin Manoradham' (The Will/desire of Rajam) was all about the efforts of a middle class family to build a house and the problems involved therein. Any one of us who had built a house would identify the dozens of characters brilliantly portrayed, the architect, the plumber, electrician, mason, gardener, carpenter and so on. Each of these had only fleeting appearances but provided us with endless delight. Devan used the same technique and tricks to write about groups of women who formed the 'Appalla Kacheri', a typical female domain. Yet his portrayal of the different women at this 'social event' was outstanding.

I think Devan had no desire to 'educate' or reform his audiences. He wrote to delight and entertain. How well he succeeded! For instance, 'Miss Janaki' was a breezy college-based romance which sparkled with wit and humour.

The book makes me feel youthful even now! But for sheer fun, nothing can beat his wonderful, 'Tuppariyum Sambu' which portrayed the adventures of a foolish bank clerk who turned out into a successful private detective. Sambu personified the oft- repeated Tamil saying 'asadukku adhrishtam adikkum' (fortune favours the fool). Only a genius could have been able to link up crime with such a character. No wonder 'Sambu' was a big success on the stage.

Devan was not a writer who was important only during his era. Values have changed since his days, so have techniques in fiction writing. Yet, basics like a credible plot, flowing narrative, wonderful characterisation and a unique sense of humour can survive the onslaught of time. That is why Devan is remembered even today resulting in brisk sale of his books.

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