Boats Against the Current

The Kongunadu novels of Perumal Murugan

01 December 2013

THE NOVEL FIRST CAME TO TAMIL, as it did to other Indian languages, in the latter half of the 19th century, when the country was under foreign domination. Its early practitioners belonged to the upper castes and tended to be partial to themes of social reform, such as women’s education, abolition of child marriages and rehabilitation of widows. When the modernist writing movement was kicked off in 1934 by the group of writers associated with the magazine Manikkodi, its central themes were the human condition in the 20th century and the interrogation of traditional values, including belief in the divine. While Tamil society, largely confined to the villages, was organised essentially on pre-modern lines, including the observance of rigid caste divisions, it is interesting to note that its fledgling modern literature came to be shaped by a belief in the universal principles of liberty and progress, and faith in the primacy of a central authority—ideas derived from the colonial administration of that time.

These ideas were also appropriate to the emancipatory thrust of the nationalist movement, which saw its mission in Indian society as one oriented towards progress and moral refinement. Literary works in this period, written chiefly by upper-caste elites, revolved around abstract ideals, philosophies of existence and moral values, all of them pegged on the individual. There was little in them that arose from the actual lives of Tamil Nadu’s villages, inhabited by close-knit communities of long standing, confined to their immediate geographic area. When stories about such communities were written at all, they were hailed for their mann vaasanai (fragrance of the soil) but relegated to the category of vattaara ilakkiyam, or sub-regional literature.

In traditional parlance, a vattaaram or sub-region is a small constituent part of a large geographical area. If, among the people inhabiting a specific area, there are similarities in social customs and regulations, types and availability of land and water resources, and in linguistic and cultural aspects, such a zone can be identified as a vattaaram. Some writers recognised that it was the vattaaram, rather than a more generic unit such as the village or city,that afforded scope for portraying people’s lives under specific socio-economic conditions, in the context of a community co-existing in orderly relationships with other caste groups.

N Kalyan Raman  is a Chennai-based writer and translator. His translation of CS Chellappa’s novel Vaadivaasal (Arena) has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Keywords: caste Tamil literature novel land rights rural India community regional language agriculture