In Chellappa’s arena

C.S. Chellappa  

This is a season of centenaries for a number of pioneers of modern Tamil writing. A few of them were loosely grouped as Manikkodi writers and perhaps the last of these to depart was C.S. Chellappa (Sept. 26, 1912 to Dec. 18, 1998.) Of all the Manikkodi writers, he was the least translated into English, or any of the Indian languages. Appropriately, Oxford University Press, Chennai, is releasing a novella of Chellappa’s, titled Vaadivaasal, as part of a series of novellas from a number of Indian languages.

Vaadivaasal is the narrow gate through which bulls are released during Jallikkattu, a rural sport held annually in certain parts of Tamil Nadu. Young men pounce upon the bulls and try to overpower them. Besides the bravado attached to it, the material attraction is the prize money and gold tied to the horns of the animals. There is a national campaign to ban Jallikkattu. Few iterations of this event are without fatalities and hundreds of young men left with injuries of various degrees of severity. In recent years, it is much better organised and the fighters tested for physical fitness. Chellappa’s novella in translation is titled Arena. The translation has been done by the internationally renowned translator N. Kalyan Raman. Jallikkattu may not be as systematised and spectacular as the Spanish bullfight, it depends more on the split-second gut feeling of the fighter. The goal of the fight is not to kill any living being.

Chellappa took part in the non-cooperation movement of 1930’s and underwent imprisonment. The impact of the experience stayed all through his life. He was known as a Gandhian among Gandhians and it is an irony that he should be a creator of a work of fiction of violence, brutality, death and personal vengeance. In Chellappa’s novella, a bull once gores a man to death during a Jallikkattu session. The bull, now known as ‘unconquerable’, is acquired by a local landlord, who flaunts the animal during bull-fight seasons. Years later, the son of the man killed by the animal overpowers it. Normally such a feat should end with the usual reward of money and jewels to the winner. But in Chellappa’s story, the landlord takes the defeat of the animal as a personal affront and shoots the animal dead. Tamil movie-goers will remember the gory incident lifted for a film called Manvasanai.

Vaadivaasal is perhaps the most consummate work of fiction by Chellappa. He published the book himself and gave it as a gift to the subscribers of a monthly journal, Ezhuthu, which he began to edit in 1959. Again, ironically, the identity of Chellapa changed from that day! From being identified as a writer of exquisite short fiction, he came to be known as a literary critic and theorist. In the history of ‘little’ journals in Tamil, Chellappa’s Ezhuthu (meaning, the written word) had an unusually long run of over a dozen years and it opened its pages to literary criticism and poetry from all over Tamil Nadu and abroad. Chellappa continued to write an occasional story and he wrote a long Gandhian poem titled, ‘If Only Your Were Present Today’. He really could not get over his Satyagraha days and kept longing for that Spartan life and selflessness. Once he realised he could no longer continue bringing out Ezhuthu, he began a project of analysing his own stories, similar to Freud’s conducting psychoanalysis of his own mind. When a literary group gave him an award, he did not take the money but paid it towards the cost of production of the book. Then he set about analysing the short stories of B.S. Ramaiah, a fellow Manikkodi writer. Chellappa felt Ramaiah was not given his due for his fiction-writing skill.

The final years of Chellappa were spent in his writing out a sprawling novel of some 2000 pages. Titled Sudanthira Thaagam (Thirst for Freedom) it was again of his Satyagraha days. Friends collected funds and got the book out in four volumes. The work won the Sahitya Akademi Award but by then, Chellappa had passed away.

Vaadivaasal: An excerpt

When the head went up, its left horn moved closer to the hump. The time was right. Picchi reached out and grabbed the horn together with the hump. Feeling the new pressure, the beast tilted its head down and pulled forward. With his body glued to the neck, Picchi jerked the right horn downwards once and then, holding his breath, pressed it down with all his strength. The pressure forced the Kaari to raise its head; its snout turned up to snort towards the sky. Picchi pressed the left horn back, gluing it together with the hump. Making a square with its four feet, the animal contracted its hump, looked up and opened its mouth slightly, struggling to breathe through its mouth.

Although they knew that the last act of the drama remained to be played out, the crowd, in its uncontrollable frenzy of joy, jumped up again and again, shouting:

‘The Vaadipuram bull’s mouth is gaping wide!’

‘The easterner has won!’

‘Look at the way it’s standing, with its tail between its legs, like a scavenger dog!’

Releasing his hold on the right horn, Picchi laid his hand on the bull’s raised forehead, hoved his palm under the strip of scarf that was wound back and forth several times between the two horns and tugged hard once. The silk fabric, along with the chain strung with small pieces of gold jewellery, came away with his hand in a bunch. He held them together between his teeth. Pressing down his feet which had touched the ground by then, he held his breath and gave the bull along with its hump a mighty push towards the opposite side, and leapt backwards.

It was not really a manoeuvre that was impossible to manage.

However, in that final stage, his backward leap turned out to be a little higher than necessary, so he floundered. Unable to steady himself, Picchi had fallen flat on his back. His head slid down at the feet of the crowd in the front row at the edge of the vaadivaasal circle. His teeth’s hold on the booty had come loose. The gold and the scarf lay scattered on the ground.

‘Aiyo, the bull has turned around, da!’

‘He is finished! Drive the bull away!’

‘It’s all over! That bull is going to tear him apart!’

The crowd screamed.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 6:18:22 AM |

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