Rejecting the Kalaimamani award for its taking-the-artiste-for-granted impersonality, Indira Parthasarathy (16 novels, 10 plays, anthologies of short stories, essays) is the recipient of national recognition including the Saraswati Samman, and the only Tamil writer to be given awards by both Sahitya and Sangeet Natak Akademis. Drawing from his life in hometown Kumbakonam, New Delhi, Warsaw and the U.S., Parthasarathy has established himself as a voice of many tones, adding dimensions to character interplay with the resonance of political issues. Here he reflects on experiences shaping his growth as a writer.
When did you realise you were a writer?
A natural process beginning with voracious reading in childhood. In our Vaishnavite home, the poetry of the Alwars was part of daily ritual. But, I don't know what made me read Balzac and Charles Lamb, or the 2,000-page “Missing Links” about ancient Egypt by Vaduvur Doraiswami Iyengar. The same man who wrote ‘pennythrillers' and ‘shillingshockers' that I read aloud to my grandmother, earning one anna for a book.
I gazed at writers Ku Rajagopalan, Karichan Kunju and Thi Janakiraman (my English teacher) as if they were filmstars… ( smiling ) I began with verse, but had the wisdom to stop when I knew it was not poetry.
You were fascinated by Shelley?
There's something about Shelley that incites you. I imagined I was a great revolutionary, rebelling against agraharam orthodoxy. In college, I became a member of the Communist party, and was suspended briefly for instigating student agitation.
How did the Kumbakonam boy end up in Delhi? How did the location shift work on your sensibilities?
I wanted to get out of Tamil Nadu. My years in Delhi University (1962-88) opened windows to writers from other linguistic groups, their cultures. ‘Manidha Endhiram' emerged out of deep depression. I read it to my hospitalised wife, and sent it to Ananda Vikatan in her name. Two months later, when I'd forgotten it, I saw a poster with the story's title and her name, in a paan shop in Karolbagh. It was stamped as muddirai kathai , a brand of distinction back then.
How often are you satisfied with what you write? What work did you find most challenging, and why?
I am a highly politicised being, and it shows in my work. But ‘Vendhu Tanindha Kaadugal' (Smouldering Forests) is about a man-woman relationship. I liked ‘Ucchi Veyyil' (Midday Heat), filmed as ‘Marupakkam' to win the President's Award.
I find it difficult to fictionalise a real-life happening because you know how it ends. But, I did with controversy-sparking Sahitya Akademi-award winning ‘Kurudipunal', about the massacre of 42 harijans (the term used then). The assassin hides his impotence behind a macho image. The CPM condemned it as a Marxist novel with a Freudian twist.
What was it like to be in Warsaw under martial law as Visiting Professor (1981-86) teaching Tamil and Indian culture?
The Indian ambassador to Poland convinced me it was a golden opportunity for a writer to study first-hand the workers' revolt. He was right. In the nation of curfews and coupons, I saw communism with a human face. A recorded message from the Government warned users to be careful, as the telephone was tapped! Everyone went to the workplace, but did not work. What struck me most was the Government's concern over artistes ceasing to paint, sing, act, write. As Warsaw was recreated after being razed by the Nazis, the communist Government rebuilt St. Peter's Cathedral. I told my Polish friends: ‘Marx and Christ shake hands in your country!' My book ‘Yesuvin Tozhargal' records these experiences.
How strange that your plays should've been first published in English translation and enacted in Hindi!
Watching Ebrahim Alkazi's ‘Andha Yug' and Satyadev Dubey's ‘Hayavadana' made me realise that all along I'd been a playwright. My plays would've have never seen the light of day if friend Rajinder Pal had not published them in ‘Enact'. How ironical that ‘Nandhan Kathai', a typical Tamil work, should've been directed by Tripurari Sharma in nautanki style with B.V. Karanth's music! ‘Aurangzeb' had Raj Babbar as protagonist under M.K. Raina's direction. Vijay Tendulkar had it staged in Marathi. Without this encouragement, I couldn't have kept on.
My first play ‘Mazhai' (1968) has curious sidelights. For its Tamil production, actor Bharatimani asked me to find the woman lead (the lines were too ‘strong' for the troupe's regular actor). That's how writer Ka.Na. Subrahmanyam's daughter became his wife! Balendra (Srilanka) who has been staging ‘Mazhai' for 30 years now, found a wife in his co-actor after the first show. Ramachandran of Madras Players said he stopped production because he got married!
Your response to contemporary Tamil literature?
Not a single major writer has emerged from the rationalist or Dravidian movement. Among serious writers today I'd count S. Ramakrishnan, Jayamohan, Manushyaputran, and Charu Nivedita (despite the tendency to sensationalise). I find an intellectual base among writers of the oppressed classes. They are completely different from the social revolutionaries of the past.
Our best writings match the best in any language. But, politics ensures that those best writings are not projected. Our translators are mostly dry academics, very few translate out of love for both languages.