Jeyamohan is one of the most important writers in India today. While immensely popular among his Tamil readers, his works are just beginning to be translated into English. His short story collection based on real-world idealists, Stories of the True, was published in 2022, and his first major novel in translation, The Abyss, was published in April 2023. More of his works are under translation, including his historical novel, White Elephant, for which its translator, Priyamvada Ramkumar, has received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant.
Even in Tamil, Jeyamohan is known for his distinctive political views. Often generating controversy, his politics seem to defy any clear boxed definitions. In a day and age where every public figure is seemingly expected to have clear left-or-right political affiliations, Jeyamohan’s stance is unusual. In this interview, his translators Priyamvada Ramkumar and Suchitra Ramachandran attempt to understand the development of his political ideas and the relationship between his politics and literature. Excerpts from the interview:
Suchitra Ramachandran (SR): You often say that your mother was influential in your development as a writer. Could you tell us something about her? She was also a writer, wasn’t she?
My mother KP Visalakshi Amma only studied up to class three. Her second eldest brother, Aryanad Kesava Pillai, was a big influence on her. He was a communist. This was communism of the 1950s in Kerala. It was an intellectual movement then. The party hadn’t been formed yet, it wouldn’t be until 1956, when it entered electoral politics. It was from the old communists of Kerala that Amma learnt to read English. She could also read Tamil and Malayalam fluently. Many of the old communist leaders had studied only up to the fifth or sixth class, but could speak and read in English with ease. The Communist party was like a college then, and Amma was a part of it. That was how she learned to read. She wrote fiction, published a few stories. Her familial circumstances did not allow her to develop as a writer. But she had a good library at home, with books from all over the world. She must have had two to three thousand books at one point. I grew up with that sort of an intellectual culture.
Priyamvada Ramkumar (PR): Did her communism also influence you?
Certainly. I was very much under my mother’s hold and influence when I was young. During the Emergency I was a foot soldier of the Communist party, distributing pamphlets in my village. The Communist leader J Hemachandran Nair was known to me. I used to marvel at him from a distance, he used to address me in familiar terms – vaa da, po da. Stories of the True is dedicated to him.
PR: You even lived in the trade union commune in Kasargod, didn’t you?
Yes, but that was much later, in my twenties.
PR: Before that you were associated with the RSS.
PR: How did that come to be?
It was the spirit of those times. Just after the Emergency, a change came about in the Kanyakumari district. It was already a Christian-majority district – more than 60% of the population was Christian. Particularly the Vilavancode, Kalkulam taluk, where I am, from was full of Christians. The Christians in our district were quite intolerant at that time. Earlier, the relationships between various faiths in the Kanyakumari district was good. But in 1978-79, an event called the Aikkiya Christmas Vizha – United Christmas Celebration – was organised. All the churches in the area got together to celebrate Christmas. Suddenly, Christianity in the Kanyakumari district became very politicised.
It might sound funny to someone from anywhere else in India reading this today, but in those days, there was an unwritten rule in our parts that Hindu temples should refrain from ringing bells as part of their worship. And if they did ring them, the sound should not be heard by people passing on the street. It was the sound of Satan, the Christians claimed. It disturbed their prayers, they said. They didn’t want the Nadaswaram or other musical instruments to be played in the temples. The deity could not be taken out in procession. Back in those days the Hindus used to wrap a cloth around the clappers of their bells to muffle the sound. This was how it was in the Kanyakumari district. These trends had actually started during my own childhood, I had just not noticed it then.
After the Emergency and the emergence of the Aikkiya Christuva Sabhai, these diktats were enforced strongly in the villages. And in villages with a majority Christian population, the rest of the people gave in to these demands at first, they didn’t want to create trouble. But around 1978-79, the feeling that they were overstepping their bounds started to grow. I think it was the spirit of that age, people didn’t want to take any sort of oppression lying down.
In my town, the first mark of protest was simply the ringing of bells in Hindu temples. It was a cultural revolution. You could get beaten up for it. It started creating problems in the area. That was when the RSS stepped in. It’s the right of Hindus to ring bells for their worship, they argued. But even at that point, I was not really a part of it.
Then one day I was passing through a town called Kappukkadu – I was on the way to Nattalam, my mother’s village. There was a temple on the way where I stopped to worship. The priest there gave me sandhanam and vibhooti; I streaked my forehead with both and decided to take a shortcut through a street in the town. It turned out to be a Christian majority street. Suddenly four youths surrounded me. They pulled me away to the precincts of a church nearby. The pastor there – we called him the church father – started hitting me physically. “Satan! Satan!” he yelled. He threw me down, all of them were kicking at me. After going at it for some time, they let me run away. One of the youths suggested they strip me first but mercifully I was spared that. They had kicked me badly on the testes. I had to live with the consequences of that injury for more than ten years. From that day on, I became a dedicated RSS man.
I was not the sort of person to take such a thing lying down. In a few months, I personally saw to it that a branch of the RSS was opened in Kaapukaadu, right there, right in front of the church. I went to the church’s door and hollered. If you have any problem, come out, fight, I challenged. No one came. The old pastor had gone by then, a new man had come in his place. He didn’t stir. Only then did I get over it. I was a first year student in college then. I was instrumental in opening many branches of the RSS in Kanyakumari district at that time. It was a different time, lots of violence. You would find it strange hearing it now perhaps, but we could not go out then without knives, daggers, and hatchets in our belts for protection.
It was a time of immense political agitation. Eventually, a mature leadership emerged among the Christians in Kanyakumari. They saw the need for balance and peaceful coexistence in those parts. They controlled the atrocities in the rural areas and created equilibrium. They wanted to find solutions for people of all faiths to live harmoniously. However by that time all the Hindus in these areas had become RSS and BJP sympathisers. The Communist party’s influence had all but disappeared.
SR: This was well before Ram Janmabhoomi or the Shah Bano case, correct?
Yes, long before that. This was 1978-79. Immediately after the Emergency. I think more than anything else I was gripped by a spirit of adventure then. I could not brook oppression of any kind, from any source. I couldn’t bow to anyone. I think it was also a sense of bravado. I would ask for areas where there was a lot of violence and conflict, I would go there willingly and perform my organisational activities. I hoped someone would kill me for my efforts, and that I would die a martyr to the cause [laughs]. Luckily, no one killed me. But the possibility was always there. I have had many near escapes.
I was also reading a lot in those days. I read RSS literature. Later I became part of its ideological
pool. I started writing for them, for their mouthpiece, Vijayabharatham. I wrote many articles, under
the names Jayan and Rajan.
SR: But eventually you distanced yourself from them.
SR: Why was that?
Well, it wasn’t for any personal reasons. Most of the people I met in the RSS were personally very good human beings. Suryanarayana Rao, Shanmuganadhan – I regard them both with a lot of respect. I didn’t have any quibbles with them or others. It wasn’t anything personal.
My reasons were political and spiritual. The main political reason was the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. I was completely opposed to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was simply intolerant. The religion I know to be Hinduism is not like that. That was the main reason I came out of the RSS. Even when the issue started up in the mid-’80s I started distancing myself mentally. Now the Left takes the issue to the other extreme saying there was no Hindu temple there. I don’t fully agree with them either. But that’s a different matter.
The second reason was, when I was writing for the RSS magazine, they were going to publish a nasty drawing of Christ in one of the issues. I didn’t like that. I stopped that issue from going to print, and my decision generated some heat and debate in the editorial room. It was then I realised that Christ held a very prominent place in my personal spirituality. I had been dragged into a church and beaten black and blue. For more than ten years I had to deal with those injuries. But I could never let go of my Christ. I can certainly not accept Christian fanaticism. But I don’t have a spirituality without Christ. If you ask me to let go of Christ now, I would rather leave the Hindu religion. Not Christ.
SR: Was this because you grew up in the Christian-majority Kanyakumari district?
Yes, I had discovered Christ when I was very young. But I didn’t know Christ just from the churches or the Bible, I also knew him from literature. I was 19 when I read Marie Corelli’s novel The Master Christian. I remember shedding tears when I finished it. I can never let Christ go. I believe a writer should never take a single political or ideological stand. If a writer takes a political stand for any reason, it will corrupt his ethics. Let us say he is oppressed by one party. If he takes refuge with another party then you create another kind of oppression in its place. A writer should not do that.
Second, spiritually, a writer should be free. Unbound by anything. Now I have finished writing
Venmurasu [The White Drum, a series of 26 novels based on the Mahabharata]. As I tell my friends, I can’t give them any guarantee that I wouldn’t write pornography next. I could. If I feel the need to write it, I will. A writer should never entertain any such guarantees. But if you are associated with any political party, by default you give them a guarantee. Spirituality is something that comes about only in complete freedom. That was why I decided to move away from the RSS, from any ideology for that matter. I made the decision in the late ’80s...1987-88. Since then I have not been associated with any political party. As a writer I am apolitical and spiritually free. That is how I would like to retain myself.
I wouldn’t say that everyone has to be like me. The common man needs politics, he should be political. But a writer should not. People with a spiritual quest should also not be a part of any organisation, even religious organisations. Perhaps you may think that you can find answers to your quest in Saiva Siddhantha. But you should not become part of a traditional Saiva monastery. What if you realise your answers don’t lie there after all? You can’t disentangle yourself from the organisation so easily. So it is better to be free.
People always ask me. You have a guru, Nitya Chaitanya Yati [of the Narayana Guru order of sannyasis]. If you feel he is not sufficient, or not competent, what will you do? The answer is simple. If I really feel that way, I will leave immediately. I am here for my quest, not to serve him. He felt right to me, so I associated with him.
PR: Isn’t it a little unusual for a creative writer to have a spiritual guru? You said spirituality is something that comes about only in complete freedom, is that what you are in search of – complete freedom?
I think it is very different in the West. The conditioning of spirituality there is very different. There is a historicity to it. They have a Christian spirituality in the beginning. Like Dante. Then they come to a free Christian spirituality [where they question the faith and come up with their own answers, their own insights]. Tolstoy, Dostoevesky, Emile Zola all belong to that tradition. Jose Saramago and Nikos Kazantzakis were the last of that tradition.
After them, literature in the West took a turn away from Christianity, from spirituality. After the two world wars they lost faith in spirituality. They constantly spoke about freedom, its various versions, possibilities…if there was a spirituality in the works written in the West after the 1960s, it was the notion of freedom. Political freedom, freedom from social dogmas and regulations, freedom from morality, freedom from ethics and so on.
However freedom is not just freedom “from”. It is also freedom “to”. The question is, freedom to – what? This is an important question. What do you do once you are free? Because freedom is loneliness too. The more free you are, the more lonely you are. Should anyone become free just to be alone? I can do whatever I want, you say, and talk about freedom, but what do you do once you become free? I don’t think there is any writing from the West that answers that question. In the early period they posited freedom itself as a great ideal. Social, political, moral freedom. But now I think they feel that that kind of freedom is not enough, it leads to depression. The real question is what do you attain with freedom. Works from the West don’t speak about that. In contrast, Eastern works, Indian works in particular, and my own works, explore the notion of freedom “to”. Freedom to attain. That is what I mean by spiritual freedom.
What is that freedom? What do you attain by that?
Let us say you come out of your social dogmas. Out of the political dogmas. You even reject notions of nationalism. You are free of the strictures of morality and ethics. Are you free then? I would say you are still bonded.
Being self-centric, ego-centric is a great bondage. To just be occupied with one’s own well-being and happiness is to be bonded in it. How can a man be free in that? To have no idea of the totality, seeing everything as piecemeal events, that is a lot of bondage. To feel that events are time-bound instead of seeing how they are a part of the great flow of life and history is to be bonded. This is a philosophical bondage that exists within all of us. Is there a possibility of liberation from that? All the major Eastern writers I have read have the quest for that liberation. You can see it in their writings. Tagore, Bharati, Kuvempu, Kumaran Asan, Vallathol Narayana Menon…among modern writers Shivaram Karanth, Ka Naa Subramanyam…everybody has it. So we all have this quest, these troubles, these preoccupations. If Western writers don’t have it, there are historical reasons for that.
PR: Nitya is a literary personality – you said earlier he’s a writer and a reader. That sounds different from a typical spiritual guru, as we know it. He doesn’t seem particularly religious. Was this side of him important in your development as a writer?
Many writers in India have been drawn to the concept of a guru. There are many who received diksha formally, that is, they were initiated formally by a guru. There are so many scholars like that, though it may not be spoken about in their profiles. For instance, Periyasamy Thooran [Tamil scholar and composer of the first modern Tamil encyclopaedia] was a student of Yogi Ram Surat Kumar in his last days. He has written a lot about him, composed songs on him too. There are many who followed unknown gurus too. It is an Indian tradition.
If you ask why:
a) The writer is in need of a way to look at himself objectively, look at himself from the outside. Otherwise, if he continues to look at himself from the circle of writers or that of literary critics, he will not have a keen judgement of himself. To this end, he needs the company of those better than himself. The company of inferior people will not help him in any way in this pursuit. That is the reason he seeks spiritual people.
b) A writer possesses a certain freedom. Therefore he’s attracted to those who are freer than himself, not to those who are more bonded. The spiritual person has no interest in writing about writers. But writers are crazy about the spiritual because of the free state they are in. [Tamil poet] Pramil says, and I’ve quoted this often, “a creative writer is a spiritual practitioner who can never reach the enlightened state.” [smiles]. That is because he can attain everything, he can go everywhere, but, he has to come back. Staying “there” is not possible for him. He will return. I can go to the state Nitya was in. I have gone, but I come back again to the human wants, desires, grief, sadness and so on. Because of this oscillation, going to that state is very important to me.
Of course, I’ve been a student of great literary masters such as Sundara Ramaswamy and Attoor Ravi Varma. But there came a stage when I felt I had nothing to learn from any other creative writer. I can read them with interest and appreciate their works, but I felt there is nothing to “learn” from the creative work of any scholar, or writer, or creative person. I mean, nothing that I could learn. I felt they were all inferior intellectually. Even Tolstoy, at times, feels inferior. But a spiritual person is of a different kind. The freedom he has, the moments he can attain, they are all very important to me. Bharati shared this idea. He didn’t think highly of any of the Indian poets, but he held Aurobindo in great regard. He has written rather unflatteringly about Tagore. He treats Gandhi like a mere political phenomenon. But Aurobindo was important to him. Sister Nivedita was important to him. He says, I gained wisdom at the feet of Sister Nivedita. This is the extent to which we can explain it.
You mentioned Nitya as a writer. He’s really not written much, perhaps only his lectures have come out as a book. So, the book is not him. You can get to know certain facets of Nitya through it, that’s all. The person – that is what is important. What I see is this: If you look at five-six year old children, they live every moment. They are lively, they are “happening”. You have a son, you’d know. But once they go to school, the repetition, the monotony, starts. They start acquiring a human character. But before they go to school, a child is a wonder that’s reborn in every moment. So was Nitya. Even in his 76th year, he was like that. The ceaseless wonder that such a person offers, their allure, you won’t find in any one else.
PR: You mentioned just now that Bharati did not take Gandhi seriously beyond politics. It is obviously very different in your case, you’ve written extensively about him. Was there an element of your spiritual quest in how you discovered Gandhi? How did you find him?
Like many others, I came to Gandhi through an anti-Gandhi perspective. During my communist training, I was taught that Gandhi is a pacifist who emerged from the oppressors’ side. A power broker whom the capitalists championed to prevent a revolution and make sure that Marxism did not gain ground. This is the lesson that the Marxists taught me. If not for Gandhi, by 1955, there would have been a revolution in India; Gandhi defeated it, they said.
Later, when I went over to the RSS, they said Gandhi stood in the way of Hindu unity and the formation of a Hindu nation. They claimed that the British foregrounded Gandhi as they were scared of the formation of a Hindu nation and that, under the garb of Ramarajyam, Gandhi introduced Western values disguised as Hindu values. He introduced western liberalism and prevented the formation of the Hindu nation.
It is through these two versions that I was first introduced to Gandhi. Then came the time when the Ram Janmabhoomi issue came to the fore. I was in the RSS still. Until then, I had the impression that the RSS was fighting just for Hindu rights. But when it mobilised power, I saw the fanaticism in front of my eyes. It wasn’t something I was told, I saw it with my own eyes. And more importantly, I saw it in myself. I was able to see how easy it was for me to descend into fanaticism. I was quite young, 25 or 26, still there’s an ego, right? I was able to ask myself – is this all I am, such a simple fanatic?
Later, when I was in Kerala, there was a riot. It was a Muslim majority area, and I was staying in the upper storey of a library, which was a sort of a lodge. Hearing some commotion at night, I came out to take a look. There were around 300 boys, each with a weapon in hand. They were heading for an attack of some sort. They were in a state of great ecstasy, singing and dancing with abandon. I felt then that no festival gives this kind of joy, only violence does, and there I was witnessing this celebration.
During that period, perhaps, 20 or 30 days after this incident, I met G Kumara Pillai, an important Malayali poet, a Gandhian and guru of Attoor Ravi Varma. He was a college professor, I met him in Thrissur. He told me something in passing. When the Nuremburg trials took place, though many world leaders were shocked at the details that were being revealed, Gandhi was not. Why? Because he knew it already. It was why he was propounding Ahimsa. He knew that man is innately a violent and cruel animal. He propounded Ahimsa because of his disbelief in man, not his belief. Because he knew that this violence is what is natural. When Kumarapillai told me this, it jolted me. This was my first real introduction to Gandhi.
Later, I discussed Gandhi quite extensively with Kumara Pillai. I spoke to Dr M Gangadharan, to Sundara Ramasamy, and finally M Govindan. M Govindan has written prolifically about Gandhi. I read his essays and went and met him, just to talk about Gandhi. All this happened between 1986 and 1988. That brought me very close to Gandhi. I discovered Gandhi in a new light. This is my relationship with Gandhi.
PR: There is so much literature on Gandhi, what led you to write Indraya Gandhi [Gandhi Today], the book?
From my first brush with Gandhi to now, I keep rediscovering him time and again. Recently, when I re-read My Experiments with Truth, I noticed this incident: Gandhi goes to Dakshineshwar. There, he sees whole herds of goats being taken for slaughtering. He’s troubled by it. There’s a renunciate sitting nearby. Gandhi goes to him and says, can’t you stop them. The renunciate says, bhaiyya, they are going to die anyway, what’s the point of stopping them [smiles]. So there’s this conversation between the renunciate and Gandhi at that point. One man is a humanist, the other is a Vedantin. “They are going to kill the goat and eat it, anyway. What’s your problem if they kill it here? What is your problem, really?” asks the Vedantin.
Suddenly, as I was reading it, it occurred to me: perhaps the Vedantin knew that, 40 years hence, the same Gandhi was destined to witness the greatest massacres in human history. The man who was agitated by the slaughtering of a few goats was going to witness a human sacrifice in the very same Calcutta, wasn’t he? History is like that. So, Gandhi is a phenomenon. A humanist. Someone who has his feet firmly planted on the ground. But another person from afar must have been smiling at him, thinking, poor thing, why is he so agitated, all history is like this. For me, I then want to understand these two extremes. To understand Gandhi on one side, and the renunciate – reclining happily, indifferent to whether men are slaughtered, or goats – on the other. That, I think, is my challenge.
After that, as always, I wrote an essay on my blog about Gandhi. There were numerous rejoinders to it saying, didn’t Gandhi do this, or do that. All of them were accusations I was familiar with, for I had made them too. So I started replying to them. That came out as a book, Indraya Gandhi (Gandhi Today). I can say that it is the most influential book in Gandhian studies, so far as Tamil is concerned. One can say that a new Gandhian wave has risen in Tamil after that book. Gandhi has got many young readers through it today, there is a surge of neo-Gandhians among readers under the age of 40. Now there is whole generation of youngsters who read and write about Gandhi with far greater interest, with far greater zeal than I did.
SR: Talking of zeal, we have often observed that if you are zealous about one thing, it is literature. In that sense, you remind us of Somervell, from your story “The Palm Leaf Cross” who has this missionary zeal. You are engaged in a constant conversation about literature. What do you hope to accomplish through it? Why do you think this is necessary today?
Writers who are known nationally today, all they do is write and market themselves. I would argue that that’s the case even worldwide. You have to write a book and then keep marketing it for two years. It becomes your responsibility to sell the book. You have to do all it takes to sell the book on behalf of the publisher. It’s the same story in India.
But regional literature is not like that. We have a social consciousness. And a mission we have derived from that. I do not promote myself. We’ve been running this organisation called Vishnupuram Literary Circle for 12 or 13 years now, through which, we’ve always spotlighted other writers – both senior writers and young writers. It’s never been a propaganda about myself, I’ve not held even a single session for my writing. Before me, Sundara Ramaswamy did the same. Before him, Ka Naa Su [Ka Naa Subramanyam]. It’s quite possible that I may be the last person in that tradition too. But, we champion literature like a mission. Like a religion. We champion its aesthetics. We think it will bring about a change in a society’s taste, in its sensibilities – that’s our honest belief.
It is an idealism. If you ask me whether this idealism exists anywhere in world literature today, I’d say no. When I go to the West and speak with people there, it feels like such idealism is absent in the writers of today. They create a product and endeavour to sell it. What they want is a reward for it, they don’t think about how their writing will contribute to society. In fact, they don’t hold the belief that it can contribute to society. They try to launch something, in this gameplay, like launching a new brand for Colgate, that’s all.
SR: It was there in the West, wasn’t it? TS Eliot or Ezra Pound had it, for instance.
Yes, it was there in the previous generation. For instance, the Marxists had a leftist ideology and a liberal ideology. Both were idealistic. The renowned writers of the fifties were all idealists. They were ready to go to prison for that, too. The writer who is ready to go to prison for his writing is the idealist. The man who says, I’m ready to die is the idealist. I feel that that brand of idealism was there in America and Europe only until the ’60s. It ended with the Vietnam war. It has disappeared after that. No one possesses that kind of idealism today. They simply create marketable ideas and texts, propagate it, and expect a commensurate reward.
But that is not my mission. Ninety percent of my writing is available for free on the internet. Aram, my collection of short stories has come out in English (Stories of the True). Of course I hope that the publisher who has brought it out will not suffer a loss. But once those who are involved earn their money, like the translator for example, my wish is to make it available for free. After ten years, let’s say, the book is available free – that would give me a lot more satisfaction, because it has to be read by as many people as possible. Aram was not written to promote me or give me some kind of status. Aram spotlights certain values. In this anti-idealistic period we live in, it foregrounds idealism.
To give you an example, in Tamil, the book was published by my friend Bava Chelladurai. He’s a leftist publisher. I gave this book to him at a time when he was suffering losses after having published many leftist books. I told him, let it make up for some of that, and that I don’t want royalty. It went on to become a very successful book, going on to sell nearly one lakh copies. He told me that he’s published several books with just the profits from Aram. Also, the stories “Nooru Narkaligal” (A Hundred Armchairs) and “Yaanai Doctor” (Elephant Doctor) have been published by many social organisations. They did not have to pay anything. In Malayalam too, it’s the same situation with these two stories. They are given for free or sold at a nominal price, say 50 or 100 rupees.
So, my objective is to communicate with a society, and create some impact. That is the aim, not to promote myself, or to create a text, or be a literary success. All writing is like that. It’s an ideology. As far as I’m concerned, literature is an ideology in and of itself. It doesn’t need to depend on an external ideology. When you look outside, you see people giving themselves up to the humdrum of life – to worldly pursuits, to politics. So, the fact that literature provides us an aesthetic, a spiritual content, an alternative way of thought, an alternative way of life – that, in itself, is a great promise. I don’t know how many people partake of it. But I think there has to be such a promise, there has to be space for such a promise. That’s what I believe.
PR: But are there takers for this sort of idealism today?
Sometimes you think that these things are impractical. But it is not like that in reality. Things I believed were never possible when I came on the scene and began to have this conversation have happened now. I never imagined that I could create such a big literary movement. [Writer and translator] Nirmalya wrote about this recently: Nitya, aiming to create a literary change, invited many different people to his gurukula in Ooty, but nothing worked out . Then I met him in 1992. In 1993, he told me, bring writers here, let us try something. I started organising literary meets immediately. When I look back now, I feel I have been able to bring about the change that Nitya had hoped for.
Things such as idealism will always operate at the nucleus, it can never be a major trend. The life of a human being is nothing but a materialistic struggle. That’s how it can be, that’s how it has been. But at the core, there has to be a value-based, intellectual activity. There has to be a spiritual centre which stays active all the time. The sole aim of literary writing, or its idealism, is contained in keeping this core, this nucleus, active.
SR: I feel you’re talking of a value system that’s the exact opposite of what’s suggested by the English language publishing industry the world over, with a focus on marketing and hustle culture.
Yes [laughs]. I know it quite well. I’ve participated in conferences in the West, in Singapore, and here. These conferences are by and large media the writers use to talk about what they’ve written. The popular concept worldwide is that an author is someone who creates a product for a publisher. But I don’t subscribe to that.
But don’t you think this happens also because writing is a means of livelihood. If you have to make money from writing, there is no option but to market it. Writing without caring about the economics of it is rare, isn’t it?
But I think that’s how it should be. You cannot depend on writing for making a living. If you are dependent on writing for the money, there will come a stage when you have to write for money. So you can take up some other job. In my case, for instance, I write for cinema, and before that I was in a government job. If cinema was not there, I’d be doing some other work. Maybe I’d be working with an advertising agency. You need a job that puts food on the table, that’s it, right?
But when you are dependent on writing for the money, this pressure of promotion comes in. Recently, I met someone who kept arguing in favour of his own caste. I asked him, don’t you think god has you trapped in a wasteful activity, like Sisyphus who kept rolling a boulder uphill. If you keep thinking all day about how you can prove that your community is the best, how does it benefit you? Let’s say for a moment, that it is the best, so what? He’s stuck in some maya. If a man lives only to promote his party, his caste, his religion, that is just nonsense. And to promote your own self then, is the same kind of nonsense. Isn’t it stupid and absurd if Jeyamohan lives just to promote himself?
There’s one more thing. Doing so will eventually lead to an emptiness. You keep promoting yourself, you’ll reach a point where you feel no one respects you, that you deserve more credit than you’ve been given, and eventually you’ll start lamenting when you grow old. For me, when I disconnect from a work after having finished it, that’s when I am at peace.
SR: What is your opinion on Indian writing in English today?
I followed Indian writing in English quite closely for some years. These days my focus is on my special interests: Tamil history, Indian history, and philosophy and fiction. Today I neither have the time nor the mindset to read everything that’s published just to know what is being written as I did in my youth. So I don’t think I can say any kind of authentic final statement on Indian writing in English today. However, to the extent that I have read it, I can make some general comments.
First thing, I feel Indian writing in English is very Westernised in its style and sensibility. As if it is written for a western reader. I wonder then, one could just read Western authors, couldn’t one? Why read Indian writing in English? The nativeness I look for when I reach out for a book is not there in the Indian writing in English I have read. We don’t get Indian writing in English of the kind that Ben Okri writes. We only get Chinua Achebe style of Indian writing in English. The popular writers today – Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie and their ilk – are what I would call Chinua Achebe style writers. They take a few cultural elements, cultural units from here, and rewrite it for a Western audience. I don’t find that kind of writing satisfying. It doesn’t interest me.
But novels like Ben Okri’s are seldom written in English in India. They are written in other Indian languages. But those are rarely translated into English. Surprisingly, they are often translated directly into Tamil. Amar Mitra’s Dhrubaputro has been translated into Tamil, as Dhuruvan Magan. I believe that creative writing is essentially an aesthetic and spiritual pursuit. It’s not an expression of contemporary political ideas and political correctness. Political correctness is a great barrier for literature.
Let’s say there is an author. Absolutely on the right wing. Full of nonsensical, outdated political ideas. Can he not be a great writer? Tolstoy or Borges were not progressive individuals. Tolstoy’s ideas on women or Borges’s ideas on democracy were sheer nonsense. But they were truly great writers. Let’s say there is a woman writer who holds sexist, outmoded ideas herself. But if she is able to articulate the depth of a woman’s experience in her fiction, if she is able to say something unprecedented on life and the human condition, then does she have a role in literature? She does, absolutely. In fact, what I have observed is that a significant number of great writers, all over the world, are hidebound, traditional figures, quite suspicious about the progressive ideas of their times. It is quite possible that they are like that.
But in Indian writing in English it seems like the authors are valued for their adherence to ideas of political correctness alone. You rank him high if he has progressive ideas, if he talks about the progress of society, if he is a social reformer. I think this is antithetical to creative literature. It displaces real masters. I think the Kannada writer SL Bhyrappa is a master. I also think his politics is regressive. But so what? This is a criterion created by the media. By journalists. Because they are constantly in a political discourse.
One more thing. Politics is a very small part of creative writing. Creative writing often doesn’t attend to contemporary politics. Can you find any trace of the freedom movement in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali? Does Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay’s Arogya Niketan speak about social reform? No, but that doesn’t take away the fact that they are epic Indian novels.
So judging creative literature with yardsticks like political correctness, whether it depicts contemporary politics or speaks of social reform may lead us to dismiss first-rate works, the real masters of literature, and promote secondary works. There is no consciousness about this in Indian writing in English. Most of the people who review books in English at a pan-India level place a premium on political correctness. This is a wrong yardstick.
The quest of writing is aesthetic and spiritual. We need critics who can identify such works. It is really a problem in English, as far as I can tell from the works that I read, that are celebrated in the media today and reach me. Take Arundhati Roy’s fiction. It has neither psychological nor spiritual insight. It is just a political account. Readers who don’t have any idea about India, who just want to read a few political ideas, may find such novels appealing. That is what I would like to bring our attention to. We have to create a new reading culture in India if we want real Indian writing to be identified and read.