Speaking to the truth: reviews of Jeyamohan’s ‘Stories of the True’ and Sujatha’s ‘Dream Factory’

The works of  Tamil writers  Jeyamohan and Sujatha offer different milieus, but they both speak of the beauty and horror of the human condition

July 29, 2022 10:06 am | Updated August 02, 2022 03:28 pm IST

During my undergraduate days in Madras, I would unfailingly weep every time I read Shakespeare’s King Lear, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and The Letter, a short story in Tamil by Kalki. Given the glut of visual stimulation today, it is easy to forget the silent power of the written word and the stirring beauty of the human experience it can conjure.

So, I felt alive after ages, tearing up while reading the last page of ‘Elephant Doctor’, a short story from the collection Stories of the True (Aram in Tamil) by Jeyamohan, translated ably by Priyamvada Ramkumar. The epiphany is both magical as it is real: a dedicated veterinarian, rejected by a corrupt system of a national award, receives a standing ovation from a herd of elephants as they peal their trumpets in the darkness of the jungle, acknowledging and honouring the doctor’s healing kindness.

Honouring  Dr V Krishnamurthy, the elephant doctor

Honouring  Dr V Krishnamurthy, the elephant doctor | Photo Credit: Illustration: Mu. Ajay Krishna

A slice of life

Jeyamohan is one of contemporary Tamil literature’s significant voices, whose resolute opinions on matters big and small have invoked both conversations and controversies. He does, in his undisputable way, speak truth to power. His cinematic and epic dramas have lent themselves to the melodramatic sweep of Tamil movies too, in the hands of filmmakers such as Mani Ratnam.

Given the salubrious climate for translations in India, it is important that his works reach a wider audience. And there is no better introduction than Stories of the Truth, a collection of stories about 12 extraordinary men. These are tales of real people whose lives could have intersected with the author’s personally or otherwise, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. A glossary at the end tells us the real names of many of the leads, and we glean how the imagined lives of these characters have been deftly woven into fiction.

Also read | Actor Kamal Haasan and writer Jeyamohan discuss world literature, filmmaking and the power of narrative

Jeyamohan’s radical and shifting political beliefs, personal torment (even a suicidal attempt) and spiritual awakening have led him to look at life with optimism, and each of the stories reflect this. Stories of the True stands at the intersection of truth and righteousness, depicting the life of men battling poverty, oppression, messianic zeal, dejection, and death.

Stories of the True
Jeyamohan, trs Priyamvada Ramkumar

There’s the deranged mania of a tribal woman and her bureaucrat son who struggles to find coping mechanisms to combat caste oppression at work. We are witness to the spiritual quest of a famous Tamil dramatist and writer to make sense of his approaching end. We behold the epic heroism of a lawyer who fights caste oppression, and the kindness and compassion of a Christian evangelist, sergeant, and mountaineer, among other remarkable characters.

Ramkumar’s translation maintains the balance between the precise use of language and remaining true to the delicate sensibilities of the stories, making this an absorbing read.

Sujatha was the writer (dialogues) for the Rajinikanth-starrer,  Enthiran

Sujatha was the writer (dialogues) for the Rajinikanth-starrer, Enthiran | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The gilt behind the glamour

It would be unfair to analyse modern Tamil literature without paying homage to its pulp fiction. Leading the genre, marrying true stories to fictional characters, was Sujatha, nom de plume of S. Rangarajan.

Set in the Madras of the 1980s, Dream Factory is a hard gaze at the ugly beauty of the Tamil film industry. It was a world that Sujatha was familiar with, having seen many of his stories turned into movies by top hats such as Kamal Haasan, Mani Ratnam and Rajinikanth.

Dream Factory
Sujatha, trs Madhavan Narayanan
Harper Collins

Dream Factory shows us that the story of movie folks is not pretty or romantic. In this exploitative world, only the crafty and the lucky succeed. Egotistic heroes, sexist filmmakers, cunning producers, miserable lyricists, heartbroken extras, crusty heroines, and the idealist artiste all try their best to win glamour, glory and money. And before readers consign them all to the rogue’s gallery, Sujatha also shows regular middle-class men as being equally cruel and unenlightened, and women clueless about calling out misogyny.

Senior journalist Madhavan Narayanan’s translation deftly captures the snappy style, cheeky asides, and spiffy cadences of Sujatha’s Tamil into English.

The Gurgaon-based journalist is also the author of Temple Tales and translator of Hungry Humans.

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