Reading Tamil Paperbacks in New Orleans

The five volumes of epic novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ by ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy.   | Photo Credit: S. Siva Saravanan

If you want to be fluent in a language, experts say, you should relocate, briefly, to a place where that language is spoken exclusively. That will force you to find the words to interact with the locals. Maybe, the reverse is true for reading in your mother tongue. I read my first novel in Tamil, my mother tongue, far from home. I had just moved to the United States to study chemistry.

As a graduate student, I attended classes and taught a lab course during the day. After an early dinner, I would return to the department to do my research work. I’d set up a reaction that would take hours to run and while this was underway, I’d grade lab reports or step into the hallway to chat with students from other labs. Truth is most graduate students, had a life outside the department. Most evenings, the place was empty and silent.

Homesickness hit hard in the first semester though I did not recognize it as such. In the late 1990s, there was no social media, but there were mailing lists. I could connect with college-based acquaintances. Then, I found my friend’s mother online. I knew her during my undergraduate days in Chennai. Now, she lived near Washington D.C. We began exchanging emails. She was an aficionado of popular literature in Tamil. Like many other language orphans in India, I had not learned my mother tongue in school. I could barely read the Tamil script, I told her.

Just before winter break, when the campus turned into a ghost town, she mailed me a Tamil paperback titled “Paalangal,” meaning bridges written by Sivasankari. This family drama featured women of different generations across the 20th century. Its recurring theme was that with age, even brash young women turn into metaphorical “bridges” who would hold the members of a multi-generational family together. The characters spoke like my relatives. Some even had the same old-fashioned nicknames — like etchumi for Lakshmi, sachchu for Saraswathi, and papli for heaven knows what — which made me laugh out loud. When any of these characters started a sentence, I could finish it in my head. Then, I’d read the text to see if I had it right. Thanks to this “auto complete” feature, I finished reading the book a lot faster than I expected. I mailed the book back with gratitude.

The human equivalent of a clever recommendation algorithm, my friend’s mother gave me suggestions. There was the memoir-like book by engineer-author “Sujatha” Rangarajan in which he chronicles growing up in the temple town of Srirangam. I loved reading about that cricket match, thanks to which the cerebral author’s name appeared in the sports pages of The Hindu, for the first and last time. Did he, as a college student, steal the maid’s salary and watch a movie with the money? More importantly, did his grandmother condone the stealing? The book had several interesting characters and remains an all-time favorite.

Ponniyin Selvan book in abridged form.

Ponniyin Selvan book in abridged form.  

Some authors I found on my own. I stumbled upon the black-and-white film based on Jayakanthan’s 1970s novel whose title translates to “Some People in Some Situations.” Its heroine is a poor young ingenue who is seduced by a rich married man. A kindly but lascivious uncle pays for the heroine’s education, and she becomes economically independent, but that incident continues to define her life. While the film gave me the feeling that she may still find happiness, the last chapter of the novel left me with no such illusions.

The book grew from the conservative backlash to Jayakanthan’s story “Agni Pravesham.” He took the vitriol and created an award-winning novel. He placed “Agni Pravesham” at the core of this novel; his alter ego in the book is an amiable writer and librarian at a woman’s college. The complex structure of the novel is a topic for an academic thesis, but the book is not a difficult read, if you can deal with realism. Or watch the movie first. Both are classics.

One day, I was ready to embark on the adventure of reading the multi-volume historical fiction, by “Kalki” Krishnamurthy, featuring the eleventh century emperor Rajaraja Chola I (Ponniyin Selvan). The story was serialized in a magazine in the 1950s, so chapters tended to end with cliff-hangers. Readers from that era recall sitting around on the red-oxide floor of their homes discussing what would happen next in the narrative. Maybe, I was being too ambitious trying to read all this now, I thought. But very soon, I was on horseback, a third rider galloping through the ancient landscape with the protagonists, the prince and his friend. When I finished all five books – over 2000 pages — within a few months, my mother couldn’t have been prouder of me.

What have I achieved with all this desultory reading? Avant-garde writing and ancient poetry in Tamil remain inaccessible to me except in translation. Still, the fragments of Tamil I’ve acquired over the years have added up to something substantial. Words of old prayers now make sense to me as do the lyrics of old film songs, including the verses of revolutionary poet Bharathiyar. There is incantatory power in his words. They enthrall me; they give me strength.

When I was far away from other speakers of Tamil, a paperback novel showed up in the mail. They say you are never alone in the company of books, but, of course, you should be able to read first. I am glad I made the effort to interact with those fictional characters.

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Printable version | Jan 14, 2021 6:04:54 AM |

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