A forgotten writer: N. Muthuswamy

Not just a noted playwright but also an exceptional short-story writer

November 09, 2018 01:31 pm | Updated July 06, 2022 12:32 pm IST

We have lost another great Tamil writer, N. Muthuswamy, very soon after Ashokamitran and Gnani. Na. Mu.’s contribution to Tamil theatre, through his folk theatre company Koothu-P-Pattarai, is a significant intervention in the history of the modern Indian theatre movement. But it is not for his theatre that I remember Muthuswamy.

A continuing narrative strand in all his plays was his preoccupation with the urban transformation of the village he came from, Punjai in Thanjavur district. This village and its slow metamorphosis formed the leitmotif of his early works as a short-story writer.

My first introduction to Na. Mu.’s writing was his early collection of stories called Neermai , all centred around an imagination of Punjai, that was published in the 60s. Some of these stories were later translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Retaining the Tamil title for the collection even in a direct translation to English was a striking neologism that I believe was intended to capture the fluid quality of the self in Na. Mu.’s characters, as they traversed the porous boundaries between perception, memory, and reality.

Let me share two examples from the collection to demonstrate Na. Mu.’s subtle engagement with questions of personal memory and the everyday. The first is the eponymous story from the collection Waterness , told from the perspective of a narrator who remembers an old woman from his childhood floating dead on the river “like an aging palmyra fruit.”

The old woman emerged from her father’s house into public view only twice in her lifetime — first, 30 years after she became a child widow, and then decades later to attend her father’s funeral. Yet there is not a day when the narrator does not remember her mute, spectral presence in the village.

Just another day

The old woman embodies the abstraction of an average day in Punjai (she comes to the narrator’s house every day at the same time to buy milk and curd); and also serves to register the urban, demographic transformations of the village. The narrator discovers that time has bypassed the old woman, who can no longer recognise the Punjai of her childhood. And with each passing generation, she is slowly forgotten, or invoked as a temporal absence and presence in the village.

The second example is a story called ‘Time Passing in Punjai’ that again deploys characters who constitute the temporal ambiguity that is central to the everyday.

The story depicts the tedium of rural life from the perspective of a young man visiting Punjai. He hears of Savitri, a girl he knew from childhood, from his mother. She tells him of Savitri’s marriage and children. He is unable to reconcile what he imagines as her transformation with his memory of the young Savitri he once knew.

The repetitive boredom of rural life is interrupted by the calls of the narrator’s buffalo who has to be mated, but the narrator and his childhood friends are unable to domesticate the animal’s demonic energy. The buffalo, like Savitri later, symbolises an untameable feminine force that puts the men to shame. They return defeated.

The narrator then meets Savitri’s lively children and finally Savitri herself, and is amazed to see that her youthful beauty and vitality have not, as he expected, surrendered to the indifference of a happily married woman.

When I went to interview Na. Mu. about his short stories, he said he simply did not remember them at all. He said he had forgotten what he had written; almost as if he had long left behind his life as a writer in order to become a playwright and director.

Perhaps his active engagement with theatre had overtaken his memory of himself as a short-story writer. Or perhaps the fact that he had forgotten his stories was the best answer I could get — that past lives have to be forgotten to forge a new one.

The writer is an assistant professor of English at IIT-Guwahati.

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