Indira Parthasarathy will be given the Lifetime Achievement Award this year at Lit for Life

Indira Parthasarathy, who is being given the Lifetime Achievement Award this year at Lit for Life, remains as relevant as ever

Updated - November 28, 2021 08:17 am IST

Published - January 06, 2018 06:00 pm IST

Indira Parthasarathy

Indira Parthasarathy

As a young school student in the 1940s, Indira Parthasarathy would often listen to animated conversations on Tamil literature from a distance at Thondar Kadai — a small stationery shop at Kumbakonam. Stalwarts including Thi. Janakiraman would be part of it. “The shop was run by a young man who was interested in Tamil literature till he got married” quips Parthasarathy.


Decades later, Parthasarathy would join the list of Tamil literary stalwarts. It is difficult to pinpoint what he is best at. He is perhaps the only writer in Tamil to have won both Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. “For those in Delhi (where he spent a good part of his life as teacher), I am only a playwright. People in Tamil Nadu were surprised when they came to know that I also write plays apart from novels and short stories,” he smiles.

A literary ambience

Growing up in Kumbakonam had its own advantages. “It was populated by writers. Several stars of Tamil literature including Ku.Pa.Rajagopalan, Na Pichamurthy and Thi. Janakiraman were from Kumbakonam. Janakiraman was my English teacher for a year when I was in school.” Parthasarathy drew inspiration to write even at home.

“I developed an interest in reading when my grandmother insisted that I read out Tamil stories to her. My tuition teacher Venkatachari had a deep interest in literature and would often give me works of Tolstoy. My elder brother — also Venkatachari — who later became a journalist would bring interesting books home. Kumbakonam had some best libraries which had rare books. In short, the atmosphere was conducive to becoming a writer,” Parthasarathy says.

Like any new writer, Indira Parthasarathy first wrote poems. “I was greatly influenced by Shelley,” he confesses. But the poems never saw the light of the day.

In the 1960s, when he was going through a particularly tough time, he began to write short stories. “My wife was in hospital and I would read out my stories to her. At that point, I thought I should perhaps get my story published and sent it across to Ananda Vikatan , in my wife’s name. They published it as muthirai kathai (story of the week) and gave me a remuneration of ₹ 101, a grand sum back then. I realised that the story was published only when I saw a poster of Vikatan carrying my name in a petty shop. Soon, six of my short stories were published as muthirai kathaigal .” Soon he would begin writing novels too.

When 44 Dalits were killed by a landlord at Keezhvenmani in 1968 , Indira Parthasarathy was compelled to visit the place and write on it.

“These days, they happen all over — atrocities against Dalits. And nobody seems shocked. Back then, we were really shocked. I somehow wanted to write on it — one because it was very close to where I used to live and grow, and two because I firmly believe writing is a social act. Any art work for that matter is.”

Kuruthipunal ( The River of Blood ) was serialised in Kanaiyazhi — a literary magazine of repute — in 1970. The novel triggered widespread debates. “It was a fiction and as a writer I had certain licences. In Kuruthipunal , the landlord was impotent. It need not be true; it was of course a figment of imagination. But I also loved reading Freud, you see. And the landlord had killed 16 women and 23 children.”

The dissident voice

So when the CPI(M) protested against the novel, calling it an attempt to digress from the issue, and burnt copies, the CPI supported it. But the novel fetched him the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Indira Parthasarathy has written innumerable short stories and over 15 novels but for a discerning reader, plays remain his forte. From Aurangzeb to Ramanujar and Nandan Kathai , in play after play, Parthasarathy seeks to conceptualise historical and mythological narratives and in the process gives them a modern political twist.

So even if Aurangzeb was written much ahead of the Emergency, it was stopped from being staged again after it was performed in Hindustani in Delhi in 1976. The Tamil original, initially prescribed as a textbook for CBSC schools, was also withdrawn after protests. “It turned out to be appropriate,” he says with a reluctant smile.

“I write short stories, novels and plays, but I think it largely depends on what I write. I have sometimes started a short story and have felt this has to be a play. Something like Kuruthipunal can only be a novel.”

When Tamil short story celebrates its 100th year, Indira Parthasarathy says that it holds out a lot of promise. “If you would ask me to pick one writer, I would say Imayam. I have great admiration for his short stories.”

Does he think Tamil literature has changed since he started writing, I ask him. “It has to,” he says. “Change is the order of life. So I do see things have changed a lot since I started writing. But the principles of humanism fundamentally remain unchanged. No piece can be literature without that.” That perhaps explains his continuing significance and relevance in the Tamil literary landscape. “I have not stopped writing” the 87-year-old writer declares. “I never will.”

The author is an independent journalist who writes writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.

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