History & Culture

Stories from the heart

Writer Balakumaran. Photo: K. Pichumani

Writer Balakumaran. Photo: K. Pichumani  

Writer Balakumaran talks to Suganthy Krishnamachari about the diverse subjects of his novels and the joy in capturing human emotions.

Is romantic love about physical attraction, or emotional compatibility? Balakumaran’s ‘Inidu, inidu, kaadal inidu’, a collection of short stories, forces us to recalibrate our view of romantic love. Thirty-six-year-old cook Saraswati is looked after well by the family she works for, but there is a huge void in her life, and so she marries a 56-year-old retiree. Yes, poet Bharati did talk of the charms of solitude, writes Balakumaran, but that is the voice of the gnani, who is curious about everything, including death. And just when you think all Saraswati seeks is security and an emotional bond; you find her blushing when her husband compliments her. So is there more to this marriage than just security?

The innocent teenage love of Naana and Durga ends, when Durga becomes the second wife of Mahalingam. Years later, when Naana happens to meet Durga’s daughter Subhashini, he absentmindedly addresses her as ‘Durga. And the reader is left with many questions — does Naana still nurse a sense of disappointment over what might have been? Has Subhashini, the spitting image of her mother, rekindled feelings Naana thought he’d buried? Many of Balakumaran’s stories end with such teasers. His stories brim with emotion, but are shot through with philosophical thoughts. “I am able to capture human emotions, because I’ve learnt to study people unemotionally,” says Balakumaran, who will turn 70 on July 5.

He owes his interest in literature to his mother, who was a Tamil scholar and a Siromani in Sanskrit. His father was an autocrat and a bully, and when Balakumaran failed in mathematics (which was most of the time), his father would thrash him in full view of the neighbours. But Balakumaran’s mother kept him from becoming dejected. She would recite verses from Sangam literature, even as she cooked, washed clothes and took strolls on the beach with her three children. “She even taught me the lovely Muslim songs of Kunnakudi Masthan. I learnt Vedanayakam Pillai’s compositions set to Mozart’s music in the Christian school in which I studied. “My teacher would admonish me, ‘Rub off your vibhuti before you sing’.”

Balakumaran first tried his hand at poetry, but prose appealed to him more. “Prose has more force, and it helps you control your thought process.” His first stories were published in a literary magazine called ‘ka-ca-da-ta-pa-Ra,’ and later in Kumudam. “I’ll never forget S.A.P Annamalai’s advice to me about what a novel should be like. ‘Like a South Indian thali, it must have a little bit of everything’, he’d say. Balyu, a reporter in Kumudam, also gave me many useful tips.” Balakumaran’s first novel — ‘Mercury Pookaal’ was serialised in Saavi and his second ‘Irumbu Kuthirai’ (Iron horse) was serialised in Kalki. ‘Iron horse’ was Balakumaran’s unique way of describing a truck.

In Balakumaran’s hugely popular ‘Udayar’, the story about Raja Raja the great, the centre of narrative gravity is not the king, but the common man. The story sprawls across a huge canvas, like the Big Temple that inspired it. It’s a story teeming with characters, and presiding over a society simmering with caste tensions, is the titular hero of the book — Raja Raja. Without Balakumaran’s skilful interweaving of the lives of the characters with the history of the time, the book would have ended up as an amorphous narration. Before writing ‘Udayar’, and ‘Gangaikondachozhan’, which is about Rajendra Chola — Raja Raja’s son, Balakumaran visited every place he was going to mention in the books.

In Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, Sembian Madevi is a selfless, pious lady, but in ‘Udayar’, she is a scheming woman, who wants Raja Raja dead. Which is the correct version, I ask Balakumaran. “Although Uthama Chola was king, it was his mother Sembian Madevi who was the de facto ruler. Fertile lands in Veeranarayanapuram were given to those who killed Raja Raja’s brother — Aditya Karikalan. During the 13 years of Uthama’s reign, there is no news about Raja Raja. And Sembian Madevi kept the company of sorcerers. Everything points to her complicity in Aditya Karikalan’s murder.”

Balakumaran was in his car, when he dictated the conclusion to ‘Udayar.’ When he got to the point where Raja Raja dies, he began to cry and felt a searing pain in his chest, sending his wives Kamala and Santha into a tizzy.

Balakumaran had two coronary bypass operations — first in 2000 and again in 2010. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2012, and was given a few months to live. But he came out of it, defying the doctor’s prognosis, and in 30 days he dictated part one of ‘Gangaikondachozhan.’ “Not only did I prove the doctors wrong, I even climbed a hill in Kamakhya, Assam, because Rajendra had been there.” Balakumaran offered libations for Rajendra on the banks of the Ganges. Every year he arranges for annadana on the birthdays of Raja Raja and Rajendra. He offers libations for Raja Raja every year. “I am sure I lived in Raja Raja’s time, and that I was very close to him,” Balakumaran says.

Would he say that books have been the best teachers in his life? “Experience helps me understand books and books help me analyse my experiences. Those who learn neither from books nor from experience are the ones who resort to sloganeering,” replies Balakumaran.

Balakumaran has written the script for many successful films, like ‘Nayakan’, ‘Basha’, ‘Gentleman’, to name a few. But he says he did it for the money. Novels are his love, because he believes films give you a sanitised version of the truth, but novels give you the unvarnished truth.

‘Irumbu Kudirai’ and ‘Mercury Pookkal’ won the Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar Award and Ilakkiya Chinthanai award respectively, and have both crossed 21 editions. Udayar has crossed 12 editions. Balakumaran, who has written 270 books, is currently writing:

* ‘333, Ammaiyappan Colony’, a story set in the 70s. It looks at the influence of Kannadasan’s film songs on people of that period.

* ‘Avani’ - a historical about Raja Raja II.

* Mahabharata and the life of Krishna

* Aanmeega Sinthanai and Idu Podum, both about spirituality

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 9:56:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/Stories-from-the-heart/article14410319.ece

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