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Master of the short story

The 80th birthday of the writer, Ki Rajanarayanan, was recently celebrated in the city. Ki Ra is known for having created a dialectal oeuvre of what is known as karisal literature.

IN CELEBRATING the 80th birthday of Ki Rajanarayanan in Chennai (August 14), Kavya Shanmugasundaram and Sembulam Thankar Bachaan were paying tribute to a whole genre that had its source and its most abundant flow in the figure who occupied centrestage.

Ki Ra, who twice courted prison sentences for his participation in peasants' struggles, began writing after the age of forty, and created a dialectal oeuvre of what came to be known as karisal (scorched, drought-stricken) literature. His works continue the mode of the tales he had heard from the grandfathers and grandmothers of his village, who had not only the narrative skills that the TV generation has lost, but also the ability to indicate subtle moments of psychological conflict, unknown to the self or hidden from the common view.

That is why poet translator A.K.Ramanujan declared that the Sahitya Akademi's award for Ki Ra was a recognition of the oral tradition.

Though some of his novels have been acclaimed, Ki Ra will be remembered as a pioneer and master of the short story. He is also one of the few who emphasised the role of the epistle as a literary form. He not only wrote long letters to friends but preserved theirs, and could quote from them appreciatively, or to make a point. His voluminous correspondence with fellow writer Ku Azhagirisami from the same karisal region remains a fascinating socio-literary record.

Just as R.K Narayan located all his writings in Malgudi, Ki Ra remained bound to his native village Idaicheval. "Gopalla Gramam" with its less powerful, sporadically structured sequel "Gopallapurathu Makkal" offers a literary history of the place and the people to whom the writer belongs geographically and emotionally. A strength and a weakness. It has stretched him thin. Though he has been a town dweller for decades, city life is overlooked by the writer. More over, the excitement of dialectal writing wears out as the dialects themselves barely survive in contemporary times. A stasis sets in when the language of writing is no longer the living language of speech but of nostalgic recollection.

Ki Ra's only link with formal education was "once sheltering from a downpour in a schoolhouse." But he has the homely wisdom and sagacity of someone who knows people and life in the raw. As a teacher of folklore in Pondicherry University, he published a dictionary of dialectal terms and compilations of folk literature.

Rajanarayanan has been criticised for his forays into mainstream publications, and for peddling explicit sex, a paradox in a writer who had believed in the power of the implied and the suggested. Other charges include his initial short sighted scorn for Pudukavidai (new wave in poetry) and inability to see women as full fledged characters beyond the male gaze of patriarchy.

Among writers deeply influenced by Ki Ra, Poomani (P.Manickavachakam who made the film "Karuvelampookkal") believes that the senior writer's power arises from his emotional approach, rather than the intellectual approach of the mind standardised through the process of formal education. "When I read Ki Ra for the first time I felt an instantaneous affinity. He was a Tirunelveli man like myself, his Idaicheval was close to my own Andipatti. I found his writing both novel and familiar! Or novel because it dealt with familiar surroundings. The voice had a natural ring. Like me, he too `resided' in the city, but `lived' in the village." Poomani does not see this as regression into the past. "He has not exhausted himself, he has more to say about his native region."

Poomani does admit that Ki Ra is unable to transcend the stereotype in his women characters. "While I feel that he has crossed limits that should not have been crossed, I would rather respect him for his best works. He has bridged the gap between speech and writing."

Warmth and generosity of spirit in professional or personal interaction mark Ki Ra. Writer Tiruppur Krishnan recalls how, when Na Parthasarathy wanted to delete a word that he considered unprintable from Ki Ra's contribution to Deepam (of which he was founder editor) Ki Ra not only agreed but accepted the editor's decision happily. "He is a good host, who will feed you well, walk with you to the bus stop and wave till you are out of sight." His raconteuring could reveal his interest in classical music as he shared memories of yesteryear greats such as Rajaratnam Pillai. Both Krishnan and Poomani will tell you how he unfailingly encouraged them and other young writers through his letters.

Krishnan believes that Ki Ra has found a definitive and permanent place among Tamil authors. "He creates characters with flesh and blood, speaking a vibrant language which is as piercing as it is spontaneous. For the first time and by his own skill in handling it, Ki Ra made you realise that dialectal writing has a place on par with any other stream of serious writing. His short fiction like `Kadavu' or `Kidai' set standards hard to replicate. His stories can electrify you when you least expect it. They transcend the moment to reach eternal truths. The fact that he also produced inferior fare in later years is regrettable, but it cannot detract from the impact of his contribution to modern Tamil literature."


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