Giving a voice to the oppressed: Why Tamil writer Melanmai Ponnusamy (1951-2017) remained a Leftist

Marginalised people from a marginalised area spoke to people through his works.

Tamil author Melanmai Ponnusamy took particular pride in calling himself a Left-leaning writer. Since the publication of his first short story in Semmalar – a literary magazine from the CPI(M) – in 1972, till his death on October 30 at the age of 66, he steadfastly remained that way.

For someone who had to drop out of school after the fifth standard, Ponnusamy’s deep love for books was almost inexplicable. His father had just died and the responsibility of taking care of the family fell on his young shoulders. Along with his brother, Ponnusamy started his “business” of selling groundnut candies – at the age of 10. From his village Melanmarainaadu (the name was to become a prefix to the writer’s) in Virudhunagar district, Ponnusamy would travel to distant Thanjavur and other places on “business” trips. Many of these journeys were on a cycle. He later started a provisions store in his own village to support his small family.

But, though this period, even though he was away from school, Ponnusamy never kept himself away from books. The more he read, the more he felt the irresistible urge to write.

Son of the soil

Belonging as he did to a semi-arid region – marked by karisal, or black soil Ponnusamy was greatly interested in allowing the ordinary men and women around him to speak though his works. His characters may have never held a red flag aloft, but they encouraged their daughters to go to school. They stood up against caste discrimination in the ways possible for them. Guiding his socially conscious and morally upright characters through the maze of an existence rife with discrimination, the writer sought to build a better world for his readers to experience.

His works were essentially representative of rural life in all its original colours – like in Uyirnilam (The Life of The Land), a novel that revolves around the life of a farmer and his family. In the process, the book elaborates on the disastrous effects of modern farming methods on some of the people. In another novel, Mutrugai (The Siege), Ponnusamy seeks to explore the man-woman relationship in the context of feudal family structures. His Aagaya Siragugal (The Wings of the Sky) is about a woman forced by her husband to attend a party meeting, and finding herself slowly yet decisively drawn to the party’s women’s wing.

Ponnusamy had always maintained that his works about the marginalised and the oppressed were primarily aimed at sensitising the larger middle class to the discriminations they were facing. His characters are rustic, speaking an unalloyed regional dialect and standing up for themselves. Even while being heavily influenced by Soviet literature – for obvious reasons – Ponnusamy took his stories from the life of the poor and downtrodden in the dry, parched land of Southern Tamil Nadu.

He is also credited with bringing the lives of ordinary karisal men and women into mainstream writing, which he did with his fiction in magazines like Kalki and Ananda Vikadan. Characterised by a simplicity of language and a breezy style, Ponnusamy’s works struck an easy chord with readers.

One of his own characters

Ponnusamy was a prolific writer, producing more than 20 collections of short stories, six novels, six novellas and several works of non-fiction. In 2007, Ponnusamy won the Sahitya Academy award for his short story collection Minsara Poo (Electric Flower). He had then called it national recognition for the “small farmers” from his region.

In real life, Ponnusamy was not very different from the characters in his numerous works speaking of the travails of the subaltern. His comrades in the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association – which he founded along with 31 other writers in 1975 – recall how the writer had often taken part in pro-people movements and had even ended up being imprisoned for this.

Ponnusamy was passionate about mainstreaming the oppressed yet little-known lives of men and women in Karisal land. In doing so, he put the relatively obscure area of Melanmarainaadu on the literary map of Tamil Nadu. If not for anything else, he will be remembered for that alone.

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