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Friday, June 17, 2016

Nine decades, eighty-eight stories The Hindu

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Published: June 17, 2016 16:00 IST | Updated: June 17, 2016 16:00 IST  CHENNAI, June 17, 2016

Nine decades, eighty-eight stories

  • Subashree Krishnaswamy and Dilip Kumar Photo: V. Ganesan.
    Subashree Krishnaswamy and Dilip Kumar Photo: V. Ganesan.
  • Cover of The Tamil Story
    Cover of The Tamil Story

The Tamil Story, edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, celebrates regional authors of the short story form

Sometime in 1949, S.V. Vijayaraghavachari, more popularly known to his legion of readers as SVV, wrote about a couple that sits down to calculate the month’s expenditure on milk. They start off having a conversation, bicker, and, finally, the husband walks out in a huff, saying only an accountant would be able to help her. In just about four pages, you get a peek into the life of the man and his wife. The cow and buffalo milk they buy, the people who came visiting, the places they’ve travelled to, what they owe the milkman, their attitude. The story appears on page 81 of the 572-page The Tamil Story — Through the Times, Through the Tides, but you laugh long after you’ve read the tome.
There’s a vein of humour through the book, filled with lovely short stories that have been curated with an affection for the Tamil short story form.
The book follows an earlier attempt (featuring three decades) also edited by Dilip, published in 1999. Its reception made it clear that a book delving into the birth and growth of the form in Tamil would be more than welcome.
Edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, the book is an attempt to encapsulate in these pages, the works of the pioneering stalwarts of the Tamil short story, and those who have kept it alive over the years. It spans nine decades (from 1913-2000), offering the reader a ringside view of what life used to be. Short stories are geographical indicators and historical pointers to the life and times they are set in, and these stories fulfil that task.
The best part is that the book also features authors who we must read today, simply because of their historical significance in the context of the short story. For instance, the very first story, Ammani Ammal’s ‘Expectation and the Event’ (Sankalpamum Sambavamum, 1913) about a tree that is chopped off. There’s hope, yearning, aspiration, and finally philosophical resignation. A tree also appears as the protagonist in Va Ve Su Iyer’s ‘Peepul Tree by the Tank’ (Kulanthangarai Arasamaram), written in 1915. How will a tree react when it sees a child, who’s played in its shade and walked past as a pretty young girl and bride, dead?
Seated in Dilip’s office near Ramakrishna Mutt, Mylapore, he and Subashree discuss the process that went into creating this treatise, over a period of six years. Their smiles reflect the inner joy of people who’ve read sublime prose, re-read it, and presented it to a whole new audience. “This is a very special book — educative, enjoyable, and we are the richer for it,” says Dilip. As for Subashree, the guiding principle was that the book must do justice to the authors and bring them to the spotlight.
“There was joy, but also a great deal of responsibility. I did not want to do anything that would let them down,” she says.
The stories also speak of a time when it was possible to discuss caste divisions and repression with conviction and present varied perspectives. Did they ever wonder how they will go down now?
“Not really. These are stories that have been written and accepted in that time and era. Today, due to the prevailing circumstances, it is difficult to socially place a character. So, we have ended up sanitising stories, and removed them of all nativity. But, it is important to read these stories that show how people sought emancipation, how they put their point across, how cosmopolitan we were,” says Dilip.
The book is scented with Tamil words, and even some colloquial phrases. “That’s because the language is rich and has varied forms of kinship terms; in Tamil, for uncle, you have a mama, chithappa, periyappa… you have to place them in context. Also, you can’t stick to the formal language structure in a story such as ‘Kannan’s Grand Mission’ (Aa Madhavaiah, Kannan Perunthoothu, 1925) about five Brahmin women walking by chatting after a dip in the Tamaraparani. It has to be informal and chatty to convey the jovial nature of the exchange,” says Subashree.
What amazed both Dilip and Subashree during the process of putting together the compilation was how the early writers had adopted and perfected the short story form. “We stopped with translating; nothing has been added or deleted,” she says.
Another aspect the two of them looked for while choosing the stories — and there was a wealth of them — was the universality of the idea. “They had to provide a new dimension to those receiving it, give them something novel to ponder about,” says Dilip.
The stories, a judicious mix of authors and thoughts, draw from everyday motifs to colour your imagination. There’s an interplay of various things — irony, wry wit, philosophy, acceptance, dignity… “Also, they are layered and nuanced,” says Subashree.
The book is a labour of love, and could not have found better people to handhold it. Dilip, a Gujarati, is self-taught and sought refuge in books as a young boy. Today, he’s an expert curator, culling out gems from a sea of hopefuls. Subashree has been editor and translator for long, and that helped the two of them quickly finish processes that might have taken time. “Each story took us about a week to 10 days. By the end of that, Subashree would have a near-final draft,” says Dilip. But for that, the book would have taken longer, he adds.
But what the book surely does is transport you to a Tamil Nadu of yore, and map its progress and concerns. It’s almost like travelling back to understand better where we stand today.
The book, published by Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland, is priced at Rs. 799.