Making history!

At first glance, the 1,000-odd pages may not interest you, and you may put “Kaval Kottam” aside for later. But once you start, it makes for a compelling read. The book begins with the atrocities of Malik Kafur and his army; thanks to sharp prose, you soon begin to smell blood, hear horses' neighs and gallops as the novel races through the battle field.

History is often made by people who think differently; but sometimes, history chooses people. As is clearly the case with Su. Venkatesan, one of the recipients of Sahitya Akademi Award for 2011. And, a first for a debut novel!

Love for the past

Su. Venkatesan's love for history is evident in the paintings and photographs that adorn his room, apart from the numerous books and manuscripts piled on the book shelf. The visibly-elated winner begins his chat with facts about a robust Madurai that's been witness to 2,500 years of history. “Every nook and corner of the place has history embedded in it. The city has seen a glorious past,” he says.

“Usually, if a city gets destroyed, life would come up some place nearby, with a prefix ‘pudhu' (new) to the name of the city. On the contrary, life in Madurai has blossomed at the same place every time it was destructed,” notes Venkatesan.

Besides, he says, the city has inspired every writer since the Sangam Age. Writers have dealt with Madurai's way of life and its society elaborately in Sangam Literature, Bhakthi Literature and so on.

However, when he felt the city's mammoth historicity is missing in modern Tamil literature, Venkatesan decided to make the town the hero of his novel “Kaaval Kottam”, published in 2008. “Madurai is,” he says, “the endless stimulating subject.”

Author of poems and seven research articles, Venkatesan was wondering what genre should he opt to write upon Madurai. Initially, not knowing whether it should be fiction or non-fiction, he travelled the length and breadth of the State and collected materials, records, facts and figures about the city.

After three years, he began writing the book, and a journey to success. After contemplating on the idea, Venkatesan decided to record the untold history of Madurai as a novel. He says: “Poetry is certainly not a perfect medium to bring life in full, and I decided to go for novel.” “Kaaval Kottam” is a product of 10-year labour, and it traces the history of 600 years of Madurai, from 1310; it has about 250 short stories. It presents recorded history and folk history simultaneously. “Generally, history is written by taking inscriptions, copper plates, books of Islamic historians and Jesuit's Father's diaries into consideration. But, there exists a parallel history called the ‘folk history' that has been disseminating facts from memory in the form of stories that never made it to recorded history. There is a wide gap between recorded history and folk history.

Fort demolition

In ‘Kaaval Kottam', I have tried to bring out the subaltern history of Madurai, which was relegated for centuries. In my work, every character is an alpha male and alpha female, apart from the strong women of royal lineage such as Gangadevi, wife of Kumara Kempenna, and Rani Mangammal.”

Though there are many scenes of importance in the novel, Venkatesan highlights the utmost significance of demolition of the Madurai fort — the largest in Southern India then. “The population of the city was 42,000, and the whole city was involved in the demolition. Usually, British rulers demolish forts and walls from outside to conquer the city. But, this fort was demolished from inside, and by the people themselves. People were lured into pulling down the huge wall that protected the city,” he says.

About his research and resources, Venkatesan says that he collected government orders, letters and manuscripts too. In fact, he provides eyewitness accounts for many facts including the ‘policing system'.

Venkatesan describes the life of people, the equipment they used, their ceremonies and religious observances. Interestingly, Venkatesan has given a story to director Vasanthabalan's “Aravaan” — a sub plot in “Kaaval Kottam”.

Forty-one-year-old Venkatesan has loved poetry since school days. And, this love for language and philosophy took him to the Marxist forum. “In those days, Marxism had a charm, and no youth could escape its philosophies,” he says. At 19, he published his poetry collection ‘Ottaiyidaatha Pullaanguzhal”.

Now, this full-time writer is the general secretary of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artistes Association, the art and literary wing of the Communist Party of India. He plans to publish a research work on Criminal Tribes Act in India, and now, he's working for a historical novel on Tamil traditions.

Incidentally, the photo shoot for the story happens at Chettipodavu cave — the very place “where Gangadevi worshipped Mahavir and began her life in Madurai”.


There exists a parallel history called the ‘folk history' that has been disseminating facts from memory in the form of stories that never made it to recorded history

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