In mainstream Tamil cinema and literature, Madurai has almost always been defined by clichés. It is either the exotic temple city characterised by colourful festivals for each ancient street or the rustic locale that offers a perfect environment for bloody gang wars. Tamil literature owes some of its most-varied depictions of the different facets of Madurai to Syed Hussain Basha, also known as Arshia.

When 59-year-old Arshia died on April 7, he left a vacuum that is hard to fill. He almost singularly put a Madurai that went beyond its stereotypes on the Tamil literary map. In Arshia’s world, Madurai was not just populated by Meenakshi and her devotees, it was also home to a variety of other communities that coexisted in harmony. His oeuvre includes seven novels, two short story collections and an essay collection. A fine translator, Arshia also has six books to his credit as translator.

The variety of life

In Ezharai Pangali Vagaiyara – his first novel – Arshia writes about Ismailpuram – the little-known part of Madurai, populated by Muslims, where he grew up. In Poikaraipatti, Arshia speaks about the onslaught of real estate business on pristine Madurai. Another novel, Abbasbai Thoppu, is again a testimony to the finesse with which Arshia could paint the life of Muslims in Madurai.

Chottangal, Arshia’s last novel, revolves around the life in Goripalayam Dargah. Even if it is not as celebrated as its counterpart Meenakshi Amman temple, the Goripalayam Dargah in Madurai has a life and culture of its own. It is a silent witness to the various unimaginable possibilities of human life – from manipulative politicians to conniving real estate brokers, destitute women, men who fall in love with the wives of others, men who lust after properties that are not theirs. The Goripalayam Dargah sees them all in all their rawness. Through a varied cast of characters, Arshia vividly weaves the history of the thirteenth century dargah. In the process, he brings alive the Madurai that once was – a Madurai that witnessed the bitter rivalry between fans of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, a Madurai that was resilient to a devastating flood in the 1990s.

Political and perceptive

Arshia’s love for Madurai and its various aspects finds their full expression in all his works – his short stories too have consistently documented Muslim life in Madurai, a facet that has hardly found its rightful place in Tamil literature. His words explored a Madurai that not many outsiders knew. “His knowledge of Madurai and its history was astounding. When you read him, it is as if he is holding your hand and leading you across Madurai – rich, haunting, varied and yet largely unknown” said Eniyan, a cultural activist and a friend of Arshia’s.

“Almost all his works had a very sharp political clarity” said N Murugesa Pandiyan, a veteran Tamil critic. “He wrote of harmony among Hindus and Muslims that was not forced, that was very organic. Even now I see burqua-clad women worshipping at the Pandi Muni temple in Madurai and destitute Hindu women seeking refuge in Goripalayam Dargah. Arshia brought them into Tamil literature with such impeccable candour.”

In his foreword to Chottangal, Arshia speaks about how Madurai has transformed. “There used to be (Hindu) festivals and various aspects of it happening almost every day. Every street would have some kind of ritual and every community was part of it. But Madurai has changed in all ways...There are of course festivals happening, richer than before. But they are not the same. Every sub-caste now is readying to have its own festival” he writes. It is perhaps this change and the Madurai that once was that Arshia had sought to relentlessly document in all his works.

A journalist and novelist

Before he became a writer, Arshia was a journalist and had worked with the now-defunct investigative magazines Tharasu and Kazhugu. His experiences as a journalist between 1987 and 1994 will soon be published as a book and his publisher Karthik Pugazhendhi said the work will be as “racy as his fiction”.

Despite being a prolific Arshia was shy of being called one. His Facebook page defines him as a journalist turned agrarian. “The times we are living in made me write. I am a mere instrument in the hands of times. I still cannot introduce myself as a writer anywhere” he once wrote.

But it is as a writer that Arshia will be most missed. As Pandiyan said: “In Tamil literature, he built an honest and sensitive narrative about Muslims that took on the false narratives spun by an irresponsible mainstream media. In the times we are living in, polarised more than ever before, Arshia will be missed more for just that.”