Two different voices and settings make compellingly honest reading.
Thomas Hardy chose to open his novel The Return of the Native with an entire chapter describing the broody landscape of Egdon Heath. Many modern day readers must doubtless feel a sense of relief when they get to the second chapter of that novel for that is when they even begin to meet characters in crisis.
Yet, Hardy and many other writers understood well that a thorough sense of place and a careful detailing of spaces could be one of the most effective ways of revealing character. Think of the people of Malgudi, that fictional universe embedded in our literary imagination.
The stories in Shankar Ram’s collection Kaveri’s Children, edited by William Jackson and published by Indian Writing, are an equally fine example of the literature of place. Place seeps into human behaviour in fluid, subtle ways and Shankar Ram, (the pen name of T.L. Natesan) sees this with great clarity.
Shankar Ram’s stories were first published in book form in 1926 (The Children of the Kaveri) and 1932 (Creatures All) by A.N. Purnah of Madras. Their re-discovery is a story that editor William Jackson, who happened upon them while teaching Asian fiction at Indiana University, tells us. Co-incidentally, the Thanjavur district, which forms the backdrop for Shankar Ram’s tales, was a part of South India that Jackson had come to love thanks to his own explorations of the work of the composer Thyagaraja.
The 11 stories in Kaveri’s Children are about life in early 20th century rural Tamil Nadu. Set in the Thanjavur district, the Cauvery landscape, they take us back in time, placing before us quirky characters like Achanna whose long-standing feud with Venkatasawamy ends in surprise; Sooriah, the reclusive mad man who heals animals with medicinal plants; and Narayanan, the young boy with his passion for playing the flute.
Understated and laconic, Shankar Ram is essentially a story-teller. No elaborate literary gimmicks, just pure story which often comes to us O’ Henry-like, with twists and turns. Shankar Ram cares about his characters, their peculiar obsessions, their little eccentricities. Sometimes the sharpness of the twists and turns and the obviousness of the surprise endings are a bit tedious. The stories never slacken in pace though and landscape is really an aid to portraying character, not an end in itself.
The fictional voice of contemporary Tamil writer Vaasanthi is quite different from Shankar Ram’s. There is an urgency in the way Vaasanthi views the world. Hers is a voice that is thoroughly modern. In her novel Yugasandhi or At the Cusp of Ages (translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman), character takes centre stage. Unlike Shankar Ram’s characters who are strongly rooted in a rural landscape, Vaasanthi’s characters are largely urban.
A crisscrossing narrative of many betrayals, At the Cusp of Ages is a family saga that spans three generation of women: Meenakshi, her daughters-in-law Clara and Shakeela, and her grand-daughter Gayatri. Meenakshi has passively accepted her husband’s infidelity because, for her, “food, clothes and a place to stay were highly essential, honour and self-esteem follow way behind”. Clara, Meenakshi’s Polish daughter-in-law, is twice betrayed — first time her husband who leaves her for another woman and the second time by Meenakshi who abandons her and follows her son instead. Gayatri, Clara’s daughter, is a journalist who attempts to make sense of the chaos that follows her father’s infidelity and her mother’s decision to return to Poland. Viewed through a feminist lens, this is another novel in which the personal is really the political.
Much happens in the novel and there is an interesting mix of perspectives, the pace as quick as that of a Dan Brown novel. The occasional slowing down happens when the writer begins to tell and interpret rather than show. There are entire passages, for instance, where a character reflects on what has come to pass. This has the effect not only of suddenly slowing down the narrative, but also of making the narration somewhat self-conscious.
One instance is Gayatri looking back on the break up of her parents’ marriage: “Could there be anything more senseless than what happened to amma? It must have had its beginning at her parent’s very first meeting. Without either of them being aware of it, this seed must have nurtured itself — as Amma had claimed — in the air-conditioned offices of multinational corporations along the main roads of their city and grown to monstrous proportions, before it confronted them one day. When Appa told Amma — like Kulbhushan Kharbanda had announced to Shabana Azmi in the movie, Arth — “We can’t live together anymore”, there was no unreal theatricality in it, as happened in a movie, only a combination of plain cruelty and ruthless arrogance…” (50).
Vaasanthi’s truth is direct, swift and ruthless. It is also a truth which does not allow for grey areas, for the challenge of the unspoken. But as a piece of writing, At the Cusp of Ages is compellingly honest.