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The debut of ‘Periyar’, through a story

A portrait of ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy at the T.N. Assembly. Photo courtesy: DIPR, Tamil Nadu

A portrait of ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy at the T.N. Assembly. Photo courtesy: DIPR, Tamil Nadu  

The moniker was first used for the reformer, whose birth anniversary is being observed today, in 1934

The earliest reference in Tamil literature to E.V. Ramasamy as ‘Periyar’ was in Pudumaippithan’s short story, ‘Puthiya Nandan’ (‘The New Nandan’), which appeared in the weekly Manikodi on July 22, 1934. To think of it, it is least surprising that Pudumaippithan was the first writer to refer to the leader as ‘Periyar’, for he was a pioneer modernist, and that the story was carried in Manikodi, the pre-eminent literary journal of the times that provided space for new writing.

‘Puthiya Nandan’ is narrated as a sequel to the well-known story of Nandanar. In the standard version handed down from Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam (12th century) and fleshed out in Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charithira Keerthanai (mid-19th century), Nandan is a Dalit serf bound to a Brahmin landlord. His devotion for Siva impels him to seek darshan in the Chidambaram temple, out of bounds for him due to his caste position. After many travails and a final ordeal by fire, he becomes one with the lord, and is deified as Thirunalaippovar Nayanar.

Serfdom despite salvation

Pudumaippithan begins his story, set in the same Adhanur village, centuries later: “A long time had passed since Nanda Samban had passed through the cleansing fire to become Nanda Nayanar.” The entire story is narrated in such sentences, brimming with irony and sarcasm. The narrative is fast-paced, reaching its denouement in barely six pages. And as the various allusions make it clear, an understanding and enjoyment of the story is predicated on a knowledge of Sekkizhar and Gopalakrishna Bharati. Pudumaippithan creates new characters, among whom Pavadai is central.

Adhanur is now a sleepy place, blissfully unaware of even the advent of British rule. Nandan’s canonisation notwithstanding, the Dalit quarters, the cheri, have still not attained salvation. Brahmins continue to lease out their lands to the Dalits, as before. The inhabitants remain bound to not only the Brahmin landlords but the absentee British sahibs as well.

A descendant of the Brahmin of Periya Puranam times, the landlord Viswanatha Shrauti is also a pensioned sub-registrar, his loyalties torn between the British empire and the eternal sanatana dharma. His only son, Ramanathan, an MA, captivated by Gandhian ideals, has courted arrest during the civil disobedience movement.

In the cheri lives Karuppan, a blind old man. In his youth, he unknowingly stepped into the pond in the agraharam, and gulped some water. Hell broke loose and Viswanatha Shrauti, then a young man, gave Karuppan such a thrashing that he lost his eyesight. But to make amends, he appointed Karuppan to watch his garden, let him build a hut and arranged his marriage. Karuppan’s firstborn Pavadai is of the same age as the landlord’s son and also his boyhood friend.

One day, Rev. John Iyer, a Vellalar Christian pastor, visits the Adhanur cheri to spread the word of god. Impressed by Pavadai’s intellect, he offers incentives for his conversion. Karuppan has always wished for his son to have English education, and therefore, agrees. Pavadai gets enrolled in school by John Iyer and turns out to be a brilliant student, clearing his school final. More success seems to be in store. But the good father in heaven apparently has other ideas.

John Iyer has a daughter, whose friendship with Pavadai turns into romance. Believing in John Iyer’s preaching about Christianity not entertaining the inequities of the Hindu religion, Pavadai, who now goes by the name of Daniel John, proposes marriage. In response, John Iyer, deploying the choicest casteist slurs, throws him out of his house.

A heartbroken Daniel now turns to Catholicism, and spends some years in a seminary. But ‘the unnatural desires’ of the priests and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the church leave him disillusioned.

Joining hands with Periyar

He then quits the church and joins Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement. Now adopting the name of Comrade Narasingam, he becomes its staunch campaigner.

On returning to Adhanur, Narasingam is overwhelmed by the thought of emancipating his village. Meanwhile, Ramanathan, the Brahmin landlord’s son, too has returned home. Much to his father’s chagrin, he is now involved in ‘Harijan uplift’.

On one moonlit night, Ramanathan hears a splash in the well, and jumps in; it is Karuppan’s daughter. Natural instincts take over, and a remorseful Ramanathan later promises to marry her. However, both the girl and her father dismiss the idea as outlandish.

At this time, Gandhi is on his ‘Harijan tour’ with a planned five-minute stopover in Adhanur. Viswanatha Shrauti is ready to refute Gandhi’s thesis that untouchability has no scriptural sanction. His objective is twofold: to defeat Gandhi’s ideas, and to demonstrate the glories of sanatana dharma to his son.

Comrade Narasingam too wants to confront Gandhi, for not going far enough on the ‘untouchability question’. Now in the know of his sister’s affair, he tries to persuade his father to marry her to Ramanathan but is unable to convince him. A furious Narasingam swears to expose the Brahmin’s deviousness.

A huge crowd mills around the stage. The blind Karuppan stumbles on the path, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Mahatma. Ramanathan, who has made the arrangements for Gandhi’s stopover, and Comrade Narasingam also hurry to the event. At that moment, as the Madras Mail speeds past, the two notice that the old man is on its track. As they attempt to save Karuppan, all three are run over, their blood mixed together. Pudumaippithan concludes by asking: Among the three, who is the ‘New Nandan’?

After the Poona Pact

Periyar’s movement at that time was relatively new, and he had only recently returned from a transformative tour of the Soviet Union and Europe. By this time, he had become a strident critic of Gandhi. The Poona Pact was less than two years old, and had accentuated the differences between Periyar, who backed B.R. Ambedkar, and Gandhi, who in response to Ambedkar’s challenge, had started the Harijan campaign. This set the context for ‘Puthiya Nandan’.

While Pudumaippithan’s sympathies are clear — he can only be on the side of the oppressed — he doesn’t take sides in the story and keeps a critical distance while representing all ideological strands fairly. He refers to E.V. Ramasami as ‘Periyar Ramasami’ — a title few at that time granted to the radical. In November 1932, Periyar had given a call to people to drop honorifics and urged the use of ‘Thozhar’ (Comrade), the appellation by which Pudumaippithan refers to the Narasingam in his story. No wonder C. Rajagopalachari, on reading one of Pudumaippithan’s stories, wondered if the author was not a ‘suna-mana’ or ‘a self-respecter’!

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian of the Dravidian movement

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Printable version | Jul 6, 2020 10:53:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-debut-of-periyar-through-a-story/article29433519.ece

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