A Titan in the world of modern Tamil letters – A Student’s Tribute

published on February 9, 2010

Dr. Parthasarathy has been decorated with the title of Padma Sri by the President of India on the eve of this year’s Republic Day on 26 January, 2010. As an outstanding novelist, he has written several novels in TAMIL that have been translated into several Indian and world languages. He has carved a special niche for himself in Tamil literature — his characters, mostly urban intellectuals, speak very openly and analyze deeply what others say. Most of his novels are set in Delhi, where he lived during his working years, from 1955 to 1986 or in Tiruchirappally or Thanjavur District in Tamil Nadu, where he spent his childhood. He has won several awards including the Sangeeth Natak Academy, Sahitya Academy and Saraswathi Samman Award. He is the only Tamil writer to have won both the Sangeeth Natak and Sahitya Academy Award. He won the Sahitya Academy Award as early as 1970. He is now more than 79 years old.

Against this background, I cannot help observing that the title of Padma Sri has come to Dr. Parthasarathy rather late in his life. Too little and too late has been the main plank of the policy of the Government of India in the field of State recognition of outstanding merit in the field of Tamil Literature. Even all the Gods do not know the standards followed by the Government of India for the determination and gradation of excellence in different fields of creative endeavour. Dr. Parthasarathy is the second Tamil writer who has been honoured with the title of Padma Sri. Shri Jayakanthan, another equally outstanding and original Tamil writer, was the first Tamil writer to be decorated with the title of Padma Sri last year. In my view, the Government of India ought to have conferred upon both of them the Award of Padma Vibhushan for their original, rich, magnificent and varied contribution to modern Tamil Literature. The tragedy—and also the comedy—of Indian democracy is that carpenters would be treated as violinists and vice versa with stately aplomb by the Government of India in the matter of grant of Padma Awards.

Indira Parthasarathy (commonly known as Ee. Paa.) is the PEN NAME of R. Parthasarathy (the first name being his wife’s which he uses as his pseudonym) He was born on July 10, 1930 in Chennai in a traditional Iyengar family and brought up in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. After his graduate and post graduate studies at the Annamalai University he did doctoral work in the University of Delhi and obtained his Ph.D. degree on ‘Vaishnavism In Tamil Between Seventh And Ninth Centuries’.

I had the rare privilege and good fortune of learning Tamil at the feet of Dr. Parthasarathy between 1955 and 1958 in the Madrasi Higher Secondary School in New Delhi where he was working as a Tamil teacher. I had just completed 16 years in 1958. As my teacher, he gave me a feel for world literature, which has lasted for a life-time. He often taught by his example. His mastery over Tamil, English and indeed world literature was very evident in the classroom. His intellectual and cultural influence upon me have lasted for a lifetime.

Henry Adams in his famous book The Education of Henry Adams wrote on behalf of teachers like Dr. Parthasarathy: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Goethe had teachers like Dr. Parthasarathy in mind when he said: “A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form”. Virginia Woolf in her explosive book A Room of One’s Own (1929) rightly declared: “The first duty of a lecturer—to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your note-books and keep on the mantelpiece for ever”. Dr. Parthasarathy gave me countless nuggets of truth for three years in the school classroom from 1955 to 1958 which were the most impressionable years of my life.

Later, when I joined the Dyal Singh College in Delhi University as a lecturer in Economics in 1963, Dr. Parthasarathy became my colleague as lecturer in Tamil in the same college. We parted company when I joined the Indian Administrative Service (1965) and moved to Madras. Notwithstanding this I have been in close personal touch with him and his family for nearly half a century. Two days ago when I met him at his residence in Chennai, he gave me the thrilling news that the students of Madrasi School in New Delhi belonging to the 1960 Batch and now living in different parts of the world are going to meet in New Delhi to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of their days in that school and that all of them have extended an invitation to, Dr. Parthasarathy to honour him specially on that nostalgic occasion.

I have always drawn my inspiration from the soaring words of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who painted the relationship between the GURU and his SISHYA in radiant words of everlasting beauty and wisdom: ‘’The GURU must be worshiped as GOD. He is God, nothing less than that. The GURU is the bright mask which God wears in order to come to us. As we look steadily on, gradually the mask falls off and God is revealed. He is the embodiment of the BLISS DIVINE, the personification of the highest knowledge and the giver of the greatest beatitude, who is pure, perfect, one without a second, eternal beyond pleasure and pain, beyond all thought and all qualifications, transcendental. Such is in reality the Guru. No wonder the disciple looks upon him as God himself and trusts him, reveres him, obeys him, follows him unquestioningly. This is the relation between the Guru and the disciple’’. I have always looked upon my Guru Dr. Parthasarathy in this light.

As an academician Dr. Parthasarathy had a distinguished career in Delhi University for nealy 25 years from 1963 and later in the Central Pondicherry University. When Pondicherry University was started in 1985, he organised the School Of Performing Arts and was the Director for Culture in the same University until he retired. He was visiting professor of Tamil Language and Literature from 1981 to 1986 in Warsaw University, Poland, and devised specialised courses for teaching Tamil for the non-Tamils and foreigners. He was a visiting Fellow to various Canadian Universities and gave lectures on Indian philosophy and culture during 1984. He was also a visiting lecturer on Indian Literature at Institute Voortalen, Utrecht, Holland.

As a creative writer, he has carved a niche for himself in Tamil fiction. He has published 16 novels, 4 anthologies in novelettes, 6 anthologies of short stories and eight modern Tamil plays. He won the Sahitya Academy Award for his novel Kurudhi Punal (The River of Blood) in 1977. It focuses on the savage burning of Dalit farm labourers. The novel is outstanding in its realistic portrayal of the rural scenario with all its petty rivalries, casteism and vested interests.

Dr. Parthasarathy is one of the brilliant writers of modern fiction in Tamil. Unconventional in approach, his works deal with different aspects of social existence. I have met people from different cultural backgrounds from different parts of India and the world who have told me about Dr. Parthasarathy’s pervasive cultural influence upon their psyche and consciousness. The value of great fiction is not that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places but also that it helps us to know what we believe in, reinforces the qualities that are noblest in us and leads us to feel uneasy about our failures and limitations.

Literature is the only human activity that makes the fullest and most precise account of the variousness, possibility, complexity, beauty, banality, bestiality, agony, ecstasy and difficulty of human existence. A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in (and observes) changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and having found out what is true, to portray and project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it. Viewed in this light Dr. Parthasarathy has evolved, changed and grown in his own way during the last 50 years. Great literature is an answer to the questions that society asks about itself but this answer is almost always unexpected. The special feature of Dr. Parthasarathy’s creative writing lies in his ability to give unexpected answers to many well known questions. Through his great writings he has consistently shown that literature is not mere juggling of words, what matters is what is left unsaid, or what may be read between the lines.

Some of Dr. Parthasarathy’s novels are:
Kuruthi Punal (Sahitya Academy Award winning novel)
Akaya ThamaraiHelicoptergal Keezhe Irangi Vittana
Mayaman Vettai
Yesuvin Thozharga
‘Krishna Krishna

What is most significant is that Indira Parthasarathy is primarily a theatre-man. He has published eight plays so far: Pasi (Hunger), Mazhai(Rain), Kala lyandirangal (Time Machines), Nandan Kathai (Story of Nandan), Koil (Temple), Porvai Porthiya Udalgal (People with Hidden selves), Aurangazeb and Ramanujar. Some of his earlier dramas were written under the influence of the Absurd Theatre. He got Saraswathi Samman Award for his Ramanujar in the year 2000.

Most of his plays have been translated into English and Hindi. His novelette Ucchi Veyyil (The Noon Sunshine) has been filmed by director K Sethumadavan as Marupakkam, which won the President of India Gold Medal in 1991 as the best feature film. He was the honorary editor of the monthly literary journal Kanaiyazhi and contributed a number of critical essays on modern Tamil literature.

There are two distinct schools of drama — the idealistic and the realistic, the classic and the romantic. It is the object of the ideal and classic school to ennoble and elevate reality upon the stage. It curbs the wilder outbursts of passion; it eliminates the vulgar and the commonplace; it raises life into a serene and lofty region, from which all low, crude, vulgar and unlovely elements are carefully excluded. On the other hand, the natural and romantic school ‘holds the mirror up to nature’. It is satisfied with things as they are. It does not select the beautiful and eliminate the ‘unbeautiful’; it does not fasten on the noble and repudiate the base, but presents both as they are manifested or seen in real life. The discerning student of the drama, at his best, may indeed have a natural preference for one school over the other. I hold that the cultured and appreciative mind will have adequate room for both, and generally recognise the distinctive merits of both. As an avant-garde playwright in Tamil literature, Dr. Prathasarathy belongs to the second category. In my view, he is a conscience-keeper and book-keeper of modern Tamil dramatic art. No one can question his position as a pioneer in the drama of social problems. His plays go straight to the basic questions of human conscience. He has disturbed the accepted concepts of conduct, proposed new moral values, and in his dramas of disaster and defeat, suggested the imperative need as well as the inevitable triumph of truth.

When Dr. Prathasarathy was interviewed some years ago and asked to comment on the early years of his entry into the field of creative Tamil writing, and what makes him write and what are his own favourites, amongst his creations, he replied: “My writing is a reflection of my responses to a specific event. The expression of some responses may turn out better than others, in retrospect. But all of them have sincerity, because they are my true, genuine reactions at that particular moment when I write. So it will be hard for me to pick a favorite among my own works.

“I wrote my very first story “manidha iyandhiram” in 1962/63. This and the next five stories were published by ‘Anandha Vikatan’ as “muthirai kadhaigal”. This was the same time period when Writer Jayakanthan’s short stories also appeared in ‘Anandha Vikatan’ as “muthirai kadhaigal”. This gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to write, and I knew then I was going to be a writer. “Thandhira Bhoomi”, which appeared in Na. Parthasarathy’s ‘Dheepam’ magazine, earned me the credentials as a serious writer. “Kurudhippunal” and “Sudhandhira Bhoomi” both appeared as serials in ‘Kanaiyazhi’, and “Vendhu Thanindha Kadugall” in Kalki. The very first novel I wrote was “Kalavellam”. It was written during my student days but got published much later. It is a romance novel..very different from the rest of my works.”

This is how Dr Parthasarathy talks about his years in New Delhi. “I loved my years in Delhi. At that time ‘Kanaiyazhi’ magazine was run from Delhi; possibly the first time a Thamizh magazine was run from outside Thamizh Nadu. ‘Kanaiyazhi’ was owned & edited by Mr. Kasturirangan who was also a correspondent for ‘The New York Times’ at that time. Thi. Janakiraman, who was also my school teacher, and I had a second connection through that magazine. Writers Ka. Naa. Subramaniam, Athavan, Sujatha and Vaasanthi were in Delhi too, besides Thi. Janakiraman. We all used to get together and have literary discussions every month. I am very happy to have been part of it. At that time I had a distant outsider’s view of Chennai, and everything seemed fine. Once I was in Chennai itself, I felt a small degree of alienation; there is definitely less creative freedom in the Chennai environment. There seems to be a hierarchical system which is non-existent in Delhi. Even though ‘suyamariyaadhai iyakkam’ started in Thamizh Nadu, human dignity seems to have less of a premium in Thamizh Nadu. I think it is basically because of an intrinsic, rigid caste system that existed in the Thamizh society, which the British were able to exploit by dividing the people broadly into Brahmins and non-Brahmins. In the North, the British reinforced the Hindu-Muslim division…all for their own purposes, very clever of them!”

The real glory of Dr. Parthasarathy’s style of Tamil writing lies in its artless simplicity. Whenever I read his writings, I get braced by the breath of invigorating fresh air. In this context the sublime and timeless words of Walt Whitman (1819-1891) are absolutely relevant: “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity: nothing is better than simplicity.”

When a literary correspondent asked Dr. Parthasarathy to comment on his simple style of Tamil writing, he gave this answer: “I believe that when you are sharing your thoughts with people, your goal should be to communicate. As I told you earlier, because of Tamil’s antiquity, the pundit style is to revel in old and archaic language, absolutely they were not bothered about the readers, who are going to be the readers. I was not bothered by it, because my only goal was to communicate. Writing, like theatre, is a social institution. When a kite is flying, you see, it needs an opposition of air to fly. Likewise, I need a reader with whom I want to communicate. That is why, when I write, I am very conscious of the fact that I must write as simple as possible, but not in a simplistic way”. Basically, it is very difficult to adopt a simple style. It is not so easy. When you see a very well-trained musician play an intricate taal, it comes so easy and effortlessly. You would think it is spontaneous. But there would have been a lot of hard work already done, and he would have worked it out in his mind. Same way, you work out a simple style in your mind, constantly thinking of it. I would say that a simple style has its own complexities.

I am only inspired to quote what that great American jurist and shaper of American Law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), had to say about ‘The Secret Isolated Joy Of The Thinker’: ‘No man has earned the right to intellectual ambition until he has learned to lay his course by a star which he has never seen—to dig by the divining rod for springs which he may never reach. In saying this, I point to that which will make your study heroic. For I say unto you in all sadness of conviction, that to think great thoughts you must be heroes as well as idealists. Only when you have worked alone—when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair have trusted to your own unshaken will,—then only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who had never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought,—the subtle rapture of a postponed power, which the world knows not because it has no external trappings, but which to his prophetic vision is more real than that which commands an army. And if this joy should not be yours, still it is only thus that you can know that you have done what lay in you to do,—can say that you have lived and be ready for the end.’

Dr Parthasaraty’s great books have added a new dimension to literature. In an era of lost security they represent a search for certainties. Technically he has explored the limbos of Tamil language which no prose writer before him had ever envisioned. Indeed this writer of creative genius has demonstrated through his creations the fundamental truth that in order to achieve a multi-dimensional effect, you have to use a multi-dimensional language.

Before I conclude, I cannot help striking a personal note as one of his school students in the days of my youth. When I was leaving the Madrasi High School in February 1958, he gave a testimonial to me in long hand, which is still in my treasured possession. My close personal association with him has been steady and continuous for 55 years from 1955 till today.

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