Book review

With just 11 stories this collection goes to the core of Tamil writer Jayakanthan’s fiction

The collection has been curated and translated by the author’s daughter.

Perhaps no Tamil writer has been as celebrated and as scorned simultaneously as D Jayakanthan – or JK, as he was referred to – was. Either way, he could inspire strongest of emotions in his readers and fellow writers. Jayakanthan started writing in the 1950s, and his works stood out for consistently speaking about the travails of the underclass, including women. Arguably, Jayakanthan was the only writer to explore the feminine mind – if there’s such a thing – through all its layers till Ambai began writing in the late 1960s.

When published in 1966, his short story Agnipravesham (Entering The Fire) – whose female protagonist was “purified” by her mother with an oil bath after being seduced in a car by a stranger – created a stir. In her endearing foreword to The Heroine and Other Stories, a collection of Jayakanthan’s short stories in English translation, Ambai points out that while she, and many like her, were disappointed by “the story falling short of being really radical by the metaphorical purification”, the other kind of responses at the time were largely about punishing the young woman by actually burning her in fire. “…[T]he time had not come for even JK to write that a girl can get furious about seduction but need not be destroyed by it,” she writes.

The Heroine and Other Stories does not include the celebrated Agnipravesham, but still offers many examples of the nature of Jayakanthan’s fiction. Translated by his daughter J Deepalakshmi, the collection ably guides both the initiated and the novice – as far as Jayakanthan’s stories are concerned – though the intricate and beautiful, yet disquieting and haunting, landscape of his world.

Conflicted women

It is a world inhabited by ordinary women living nondescript lives, but suddenly discovering what’s extraordinary about themselves, in an overwhelming moment of crisis. Here seemingly scheming human beings demonstrate a rare strength of character when challenged by their own conscience. It is also a tender world where, for example, two blind people don’t allow life to trample on their newfound love.

While exploring human emotions in both raw and complex forms through divergent characters and circumstances in these stories, Jayakanthan often has his men vacillate between overwhelming authority and overpowering guilt, and women going from unquestioning submission to silent assertion of their rights. In the process, many things change about the people, with the women in particular standing out.

So in “Heroine”, the first short story in the collection, we have Madhuram – the doting, unquestioning wife of the flamboyant, reckless Sitaraman, who only needs to discover her husband’s relationship with a colleague to firmly show him the door. And Kamala, the husband’s lover, who is stunned by an “illiterate” Madhuram’s resolute response also decides to break up with her “selfish” lover.

Kunjammal from “New Horizon” is another quintessential Jayakanthan protagonist. Faced with the tough challenge of having to choose between accepting her daughter’s relationship and family honour, Kunjammal picks the former. Her daughter Indu has been confined to a single room for four years for the sin of “trying to elope”, during which period they have not even spoken. Kunjammal knew that her decision to allow Indu to go with her lover will create turmoil, but she stands her ground. When her husband collapses on hearing this, she tries to comfort her mother-in-law, all the while holding her mangalsutra in silent prayer, as any woman of her generation might have done.

Jayakanthan’s women all display these inherent contradictions – which women often find themselves caught in during changing times. Perhaps his skill lay in identifying and articulating what lies within all humans.

A similar contradiction also manifests itself within young Catherine in “The Crucifixion”. Torn between her commitment to Christ and her feelings for a young man, Catherine confesses that her biggest sin was “growing up as a nun”. In Radha, the protagonist in “The Pervert”, the contradiction is subtle and almost breezy. Having been with “cowardly” men who came at dark and vanished at daybreak, Radha finds the 35-year-old confirmed abstinant, Dr Raghavan, more masculine – in that he can cleanse her soul even while seeking her pardon for inadvertently “awakening futile desires” in her.

Troubled men

Sometimes, Jayakanthan’s men are as vulnerable – like the policeman who struggles to break the news of a child killed on the road, or the character who misses the train that meets with an accident after offering alms to a beggar. In both these stories (“The Pallbearers” and “Beyond Cognisance”), Jayakanthan takes the reader through an intense mental journey, sparking several important questions and thoughts in the process.

Then there are men like Raman in “The Guilty”, who wallows in inexpressible guilt after forcing a young man to move from the house opposite his because he suspects the neighbour of having a lascivious eyes for his young second wife Janaki.

There’s even Veeran (the bold one) – the petty thief in The Masquerade – whose instant willingness to go to jail for a crime committed by his ostensibly well-behaved friend Kumaran makes him an unlikely hero.

When Jayakanthan died in 2015, he left behind a rich literary legacy that included forty novels, about 200 short stories, three autobiographies, and several works of non-fiction. To pick eleven representative stories out of this staggering list of works is a daunting task that Deepalakshmi seemed to have pulled off with the finesse of a translator and affection of a daughter. These stories – all of them written in the 1960s – reinforces Jayakanthan’s relevance in Tamil literature, this time among a different readership.

The Heroine and Other Stories, D Jayakanthan, translated by Deepalakshmi J, Niyogi Books.

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