For someone who writes poetry to “express things that touched him,” rather than earn fame, Sirpi's works have been much lauded. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2001 for his Tamil translation of Lalithambika Antharjanam's Malayalam novel Agnisakshi .
He has also won several other recognitions across the state, including Kalaimaamani, Tamil Nadu Government's Paavendhar Award and Raja Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar Birthday Commemoration Award. Former president A.P.J Abdul Kalam reads Sirpi regularly. The poet's 75th birthday was recently celebrated in Coimbatore. Speaking on the occasion, Kalam said the poet's book Poojyangalin Sangili actually called out to him. “Pick me up!” it cried out to him from the shelves of his library.
Sirpi has written 85 books, including translations, poems and essay anthologies. He is an executive board member of the Sahitya Akademi and one of the founding members of the Vaanambadi literary movement in the Kongu region. He studied in Kerala and fell irrevocably in love with Tamil literature when he came to Trichy to do his Intermediate Course in 1951. He is still very much in love.
“Those days, I devoured Tamil poems, novels and short stories. I visited bookstores every single day. One evening, I came upon a set of three saffron-coloured books at S. Krishnasamy & Co. They were a collection of Bharathiyar's poems, stories and essays published by Bharathi Prasuralayam.” From the moment he flipped open the book, Sirpi says, he became “a slave to Bharathiyar's works.”
Bharathiyar is his guru, a poet whose words are beyond compare, says Sirpi. “Bharathiyar's style is unique. He has attempted a lot of genres. Apart from poems, he has written short ‘Navathanthira' tales, profound essays, an autobiographical novel, and so on. A journalist himself, he wrote on current affairs and politics, edited several journals including Chakravarthini , a women's journal. He has also written in English. A small volume of his English essays is available even today. Why, he has even contributed letters to The Hindu 's letters to the editor!”
What might have been the Mahakavi's state of mind during the 25 days he spent in a Cuddalore prison? Sirpi wrote an imaginary account in Bharathi Kaithi En 253 . “I wrote continuously for two nights to complete the book,” he says.
Sirpi enjoys science fiction. He says that he has always wanted to translate science-related books into Tamil. “I enjoy reading Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov.”
He suggests science fiction be included in the college curriculum. “If we talk about robots in class, who knows, we could inspire our students to invent one some day,” he smiles. Sirpi says that he plans to write poems and songs for children.
Sirpi's other abiding love is teaching. For 39 years, he taught Tamil to hundreds of students, some of whom became scientists, doctors, engineers and vice-chancellors. He enjoyed the prospect of introducing youngsters to the nuances of Tamil, making them aware of life-skills and seeing them prosper. He was a Tamil professor in NGM College, Pollachi and later served as the head of Bharathiyar University's Tamil Department. “During my classes, students would sit glued to their seats long after the bell went off,” he recalls.
“Writing and teaching are two different worlds,” he says. “Like any writer, I'm a completely different person when I write. Even if I'm in a crowded train, I'm a lonely man when I write. This is not the case with a teacher,” he says. “As a youngster I read writer A.J. Cronin's books with interest. He was a doctor too. His autobiography was called ‘Adventures In Two Worlds.' You know, my life too is an adventure in two worlds.”
Photos (Cover and centre-spread): M.Periasamy
Like any writer, I'm a completely different person when I write. Even if I'm in a crowded train, I'm a lonely man when I write.