In 2003, writer B. Jeyamohan was travelling by bus when he suddenly remembered Thimmappan. The memory of a dear friend afflicted with leprosy, and of a troubling past that he had consciously repressed, overwhelmed him.
Jeyamohan got off the bus, went home and began typing feverishly. In just seven days, he completed Ezhaam Ulagam, a 287-page gut-wrenching story about a begging cartel.
The novel was published within four days of submission and made its way to a book exhibition the same week. In 2009, Ezhaam Ulagam — praised by some for its unapologetic rawness and criticised by others for an “exaggerated” depiction of violence — was adapted for the screen as Naan Kadavul. The film went on to win two National Film Awards.
Twenty years after that bus journey, and hours before last month’s trailer release of Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan – 2, for which he is a screenplay writer, Jeyamohan, 61, makes the startling admission in an interview with the Magazine that he has never read Ezhaam Ulagam. Nor has he read The Abyss, its deft English translation by Suchitra Ramachandran, due for release on April 10. The memories of the years that inspired the book are too painful, he says. Writing about them was an act of catharsis.
When he was 19, Jeyamohan ran away from home. “All writers have a restlessness from a young age,” he says in a measured tone that belies any sign of a restive mind. “I had that. I left home four to five times. Once, I left because I was devastated by the suicide of a friend. And I lived as a beggar in Kashi, Tiruvannamalai and Palani.”
Exploring the dark underbelly of society
The Abyss is based on his experiences in Palani. There are seven underworlds according to Hindu mythology. The seventh world, or ezhaam ulagam, is inhabited by disabled beggars and characterised by egregious exploitation and cruelty. In Jeyamohan’s work, the beggars seek out the joys of life even as they endure great suffering. It is a deeply intense book that requires, of all things, courage to read.
The protagonist, Pothivelu Pandaram, is a temple worker who trades in physically deformed beggars or “items”. Even though Pandaram treats them as wretched beings and inflicts unimaginable violence upon them, such as forcing them to give birth to deformed babies or stuffing them into vans meant for transporting human waste, he is a protective father at home, desperate to fulfil the wishes of his three daughters.
While at least four characters in the book are inspired by people he has met, Jeyamohan says he did not personally know the man who inspired the character of Pandaram. He had heard of him from a research scholar friend. “There are people like Pandaram in the world,” he says. “They may even kill children, but they go home to their own without guilt. They justify this in many ways. Pandaram doesn’t see his profession as a sin. He thinks he is doing the right thing by at least taking care of those who are orphaned.”
Even in this tale about the dark underbelly of society, Jeyamohan weaves in empathy, tenderness and humour. In one moving instance, the beggars pool the little money they have to ensure that Kuyyan, one of their own, gets a feast that he has been craving for long. “Beggars may live in the abyss of our society, but they are still human beings,” Jeyamohan says. “They show magnanimity, forge friendships, have a social consciousness, and are spiritual.”
The world in the book is far removed from what we know or want to understand. But this world is around us, and “we just choose to ignore it”, says Jeyamohan. Is reality so distressing? He stresses that it is far worse. “This is an artwork, not a documentary. In fact, I have reduced the morbidity considerably. When the Tamil novel came out, there was accusation that it is cruel. But within four weeks, in Chennai, policemen found a team of seven people, including four women, dismembering children and selling them. That is reality.”
Writing for the screen
The conversation returns to his frenzied process of writing. Recently, he wrote 120 pages at a go in about 36 hours, he says. Jeyamohan’s approach is simple, though pretty drastic: “Write for hours. And if you get stuck, simply delete the entire draft.” Not many may ascribe to it.
Jeyamohan has more than The Abyss to look forward to this month. Though a reluctant participant in the promotion of Ponniyin Selvan – 2, he is eagerly awaiting the release of the film, which he describes as Mani Ratnam’s best.
How did he adapt a magnum opus for the screen? “In a book, you have thoughts and eloquence. But in cinema, you can convey all that only through visuals. Aditya Karikalan has many adjectives to his name in the book. In the film, we see him emerging from clouds and smoke. That shot establishes him as a godly figure. Once you understand this grammar, you take from the novel what fits the medium of cinema. I chose the major characters and events,” he says.
Jeyamohan is also happy that director Vetri Maaran’s new film Viduthalai Part 1, based on his short story Thunaivan, is doing well in theatres in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. He is equally excited that some of his other works, such as his memoir Purappadu, are in the process of being translated to English.
His output across mediums is undoubtedly formidable, but Jeyamohan is hungry for more. He says he is nowhere as prolific as Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, Richard Wagner or Friedrich Hegel. But he is not worried about running out of steam. “I have had spells of not writing,” he says. “But ideas... they always eventually come to me.”