KiRa inscribed a new landscape on the literary map

The transformation of Rayangala Srikrishna Rajanarayana Perumal Ramanujam Naicker into the writer Ki. Rajanarayanan (KiRa) followed a most unlikely path. A late bloomer, who did not write much until his late 30s, got the honour of a state funeral, denied even to R.K. Narayan and Jayakanthan and which the government of Tamil Nadu usually reserves for filmstars. Consumptive in his youth, the timely discovery of streptomycin saved him, and KiRa died shy of his centenary, alert in body and mind. He dropped out of school in Class VII, entering a school building only when caught in the rains — in a twist to the Tamil saying, KiRa would add that even then he ended up watching the downpour — but ended up as a university professor. In a notoriously petty literary world, KiRa won universal adulation, respected by fellow writers and celebrated by three generations of readers.

KiRa inscribed a new landscape on the literary map. Deep in the south of Tamil Nadu is a vast tract of black cotton soil, called karisal. Skirted by the Thamirabarani river, the soil, though fertile, is dry. Both monsoons give this region the miss. It was only in the late 16th century, with the arrival of Telugu-speaking peasant castes, that the land came under the plough. This region and its people are the setting for all of KiRa’s works.

KiRa was born in Idaiseval, an islet of red land in a sea of black soil, off the highway between Madurai and Tirunelveli, near Kovilpatti. The prodigious writer, G. Alagirisamy (1923–1970), KiRa’s childhood friend, was his earliest inspiration. Another abiding influence was the connoisseur Rasikamani T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar (1882–1954), whose life’s mission was to downsize pedantry and expose inferior poetry. KiRa joined the Communist Party of India during its radical phase at the time of Independence. Though he distanced himself from the party soon, he was active in peasant politics until the time of C. Narayanaswamy Naidu in the early1980s.

KiRa inscribed a new landscape on the literary map

KiRa’s earliest stories, with themes centring on rural poverty and exploitation were carried by leftist journals such as Saraswathi and Thamarai, and his first book of short stories was published by New Century Book House. The disillusionment following Independence is an underlying thread in these stories.

By the 1960s, KiRa had fashioned a new voice. Tamil has distinct spoken and written registers. While the best of writers reserve the spoken register to capture conversation, KiRa innovatively wove the spoken register into the narrator’s voice. Through a narrative peppered with colourful idioms, phrases, riddles, proverbs, suggestive euphemisms in scare quotes, and even idiosyncratic spellings, he recreated — some would say he romanticised — the karisal world. Rather than experimenting with form like many of his contemporaries, KiRa trusted on the eccentricities of his characters and their offbeat lives. Unlike the peasants of, say, Premchand’s stories, KiRa’s peasants are smart and sharp, using their wit and experience to face the demands of a harsh world.

Recognition came late. Though his landmark first collection, Kathavu, was published in 1965, it was with his first novel, Gopalla Gramam, published in 1976, did he stir a sensation. Overturning conventional narrative forms, this grandfatherly tale of the Telugu-speaking Naicker community’s migration to the deep south to strike root in the karisal takes on Marquezian proportions with its origin myths, branch stories, and oral traditions.

KiRa inscribed a new landscape on the literary map

At this time, the poet Meera (M. Rajendran) had established a niche publishing house, Annam, in out-of-the-way Sivagangai. From as early as 1974, Meera was in conversation with KiRa to publish his work. What followed over the next two decades is the stuff of literary legend. In a moving acknowledgement, KiRa once called Meera ‘that unmai (true) Tamil professor’. Meera created new opportunities for KiRa to expand and vary his output. A particularly daring move was to publish a dictionary of the karisal dialect, when no market for such a book existed. For all the criticism from linguists and lexicographers, the dictionary, a veritable cultural compendium, also affords reading pleasure from flyleaf to flyleaf. In 1984, to mark KiRa’s 60th, Annam published a festschrift — the first ever for a creative writer — as well as an anthology of karisal writers who had followed in KiRa’s footsteps. Anthologies of folk tales and oral lore followed.

For someone with a distaste for classical literature, KiRa was, paradoxically, immersed in Carnatic music. Almost singlehandedly he brought to wider attention regional stalwarts such as Vilathikulam Swamigal and Karukurichi Arunachalam, thus emerging as no less than the chronicler of the karisal region.

Popular Tamil magazines Junior Vikatan and Ananda Vikatan offered KiRa a platform, and he wrote a column ‘Karisal Kattu Kadithasi’, and a novel, Gopallapurathu Makkal, a sequel to Gopalla Gramam. Accompanied by K.M. Adhimoolam’s dazzling ink sketches, KiRa reached a mass audience in the mid-80s. A brilliant judge of popular taste, he plied his readers with what they relished, his interest in salacious stories finding a new platform. Controversies notwithstanding, readers lapped up everything he offered.

Once KiRa shifted base to Pondicherry University, his fans were spared the trouble of reaching remote Idaiseval. A brilliant raconteur and conversationalist, KiRa enthralled visitors with his colourful and risqué tales. Following T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, he was an unflagging correspondent, and his letters were collected and published in book form. As he once said, he yearned for the evening post much like he did a cup of coffee.

KiRa lived a full life. Always one for company, Ki. Rajanarayanan would have preferred a good turnout at his funeral, with friends sipping karuppatti kapi and sharing stories of times past through the night. A state funeral must seem like poor compensation.

The writer is a historian and Tamil author.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 8:06:54 PM |

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