Clash of the titans

May 03, 2015 12:00 am | Updated 02:06 am IST

A.R. Venkatachalapathy recounts Tamil novelist Jayakanthan’s long-term association with Periyar, and the mutual respect they shared.

An incident in a literary conference over half a century ago is etched in Tamil cultural memory. It’s a meeting in which two personalities laid bare the cultural fault lines in Tamil society. On October 15, 1961, the Sixth Conference of the Tamil Writers Association was held in Tiruchi. Narana Duraikkannan, the doyen of Tamil writers; A.V.R. Krishnaswamy Reddiar, the moving spirit behind the literary journals Grama Ooliyan and Shivaji ; and T.M. Narayanaswamy Pillai, former Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University were present. God-fearing men, they sported sacred ash and namam on their foreheads.

Periyar E.V. Ramasamy would have been the most unlikely candidate to inaugurate such a conference. But there he was! With over a half-century of selfless political work in the cause of political and social emancipation behind him, he still continued his relentless rationalist campaign despite being shy of 82. His subversive views on god and religion notwithstanding, Periyar’s challenge to the existing Brahmin-dominated order had won him much support even among the believers. Members of the Dravidar Kazhagam in their trademark black shirts sat in the front. With Periyar being the strongest backer of Chief Minister K. Kamaraj, Congressmen too were present in considerable numbers among the audience in Devar Hall.

Periyar commenced his speech disavowing any literary credentials. He was no ezhuthalan (writer; the one who wields the pen), he insisted, but a karuthalan , one who dealt with ideas — a pregnant neologism coined for the moment. Delivered in the spoken register, shorn of rhetoric, it was a characteristic performance. His critique of caste, religion, Brahmins, god, and their baneful influence on Tamil language and writing was replete with proverbs and spiced with an earthy humour. Without burning the Puranas and epics, he asked, how was Tamil literature to flourish? Was it not the duty of writers to debunk such fanciful writing and lead the people on the path of reason?  

Seated on the dais was Jayakanthan, then the enfant terrible of the Tamil literary world, ready to deliver a special address. Jayakanthan’s grandfather and father had been ardent followers of Periyar and his boyhood friend in his hometown, Cuddalore, was none other than K. Veeramani, soon to become the editor of Periyar’s daily, Viduthalai , and ultimately inherit the party mantle.

But Jayakanthan took a different path. In a remarkable spurt of creativity in the 1950s, he had penned nearly 100 short stories and was quite a literary rage. And he was not yet 28. After his initial grooming in the undivided Communist Party of India, he had more recently distanced himself from the literary pieties of socialist realism, and had taken a neo-Brahmin ideological turn.

As Periyar launched his sharp attack, Jayakanthan could barely conceal his disagreement. A.V.R. Krishnaswamy Reddiar, one of the organisers, sensing that he was spoiling for a fight, sent a quick note pleading with him not to take issue with Periyar. But Jayakanthan would have none of it.

When he rose to speak, Jayakanthan clarified that he had no wish to contest Periyar. But considering that Periyar advocated reason as the touchstone of all thinking and action, and wanted to decimate the ancient wisdom of the Hindus, Jayakanthan declared that he too would employ reason to refute him. Invoking the great Siddha poet Sivavakkiyar, he argued that rationalism could follow not only the atheistic route but take recourse to belief as well. Drawing on pop anthropology, he provided a defence of Hindu Puranas . Rather than blame Brahmins for the ills of Tamil society, Jayakanthan defended the pristine and ancient varnashrama ordering of society, and argued that it was because Brahmins had failed in their duty that India had fallen to its present state! Finally, he declared that, as a writer, he would brook no instruction on what he should or should not write.  

The proceedings were recorded on tape, which unfortunately has not survived. But in recounting this incident at length in his political memoirs (though he gets the date wrong by two years), an unrepentant Jayakanthan recalled that, if all hell did not break loose ‘the only reason’ was Periyar’s presence. “Periyar heard me keenly, his hands cupped around his ears, with acute attention.” Whenever he agreed, or when the audience applauded his words, Periyar enthusiastically tapped his stick on the floor, and even encouraged Jayakanthan when he was vociferously — for Jayakanthan, modelling himself on the Communist leader P. Jeevanandam, was no mean public speaker — criticising him.

When some of his party men later complained to Periyar that they were offended by Jayakanthan, Periyar admonished them: “In public life, one should not take personal offence. He is one young man who has responded to us. We have questioned others on so many occasions. Did we then think of the offence we may have caused?” In keeping with this spirit, the Viduthalai carried a full report of the meeting that included Jayakanthan’s challenge to its undisputed leader.

As Jayakanthan returned to take his seat, Periyar beckoned to him, his hands folded in respectful greeting “like the head of a theistic monastery”. Recounting this event in his political memoirs penned in the fortnightly Tughlaq , and published when Periyar was alive, a moved Jayakanthan observed, “In those days I would never prostrate at anybody’s feet to seek blessings. But to be honest, such a desire welled up in me at that moment.”

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a Tamil writer and historian working on a biography of Periyar.

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