The first time I met Balakumaran was on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when he knocked on the door of my college hostel room in Madras. He had brought along his friend and then constant companion, the writer Subramania Raju. Being young writers who were cutting their teeth in the little magazine movement in Madras, the duo had schlepped it all the way to our remote campus to meet me and express their appreciation for an article I had published a few days earlier. I was deeply embarrassed, of course, but also grateful for the visit and my subsequent friendship with Balakumaran, for it gave me a glimpse into the Tamil literary milieu in which I had only been a remote and ill-informed participant until then.

We met often over the next few months and less often when I went away to Kolkata to attend a post-graduate course. Balakumaran was then a stenographer in a company that manufactured agricultural equipment. He was also a founding member of KaChaTaThaPaRa, a self-anointed militant literary journal that had been launched with a mission to blaze new trails in modernist literature. It had latter day literary giants such as the poet Gnanakoothan, playwright Na Muthuswamy and the distinguished novelist, Sa Kandaswamy at the helm. Since the magazine was a co-operative venture based on the contributions and voluntary efforts of a few literary enthusiasts from the lower middle class, Balakumaran did his bit by way of performing mundane tasks while learning to write poetry. Shunning philosophical musings and abstract imagery altogether, Balakumaran wrote of what came easily to a young man of his time: heartache – his own and of the women he knew or imagined he knew. His poetry, written in the puthukkavidai style, was attractive enough, written in simple, elegant diction.

From poetry to fiction

Though he seemed to be constantly under the spell of poetry, Balakumaran was also alive to the real world around him. He often spoke of the violence unleashed in the factory that employed him, by goons from a political party that was bent on capturing control of the trade union. He was always “reading” people and situations, in a never-ceasing attempt to grasp what was really going on. He did this like a writer with sensibility, not a tinker-toy psychologist. When the shift from writing poetry to fiction arrived, impelled by necessity or instinct, he was ready for it. It was a field he was to make an indelible mark in over the next forty years.

Balakumaran was a writer who believed in himself and his talent. He was ambitious – so rooted in the milieu that he was confident of working his way through it, learning and striving, to a position of fame and honour. With the shift to fiction, he also decided that he would leave his radical friends behind and cater to a different audience: ordinary individuals who struggled with their circumstances, social and personal, and their own nature, in their quest for joy and fulfilment. The short stories in his first collection, Chinna Chinna Vattangal (Tiny, Small Circles), described, in his unique style, incidents and characters from his own world. They were also engaging, well-crafted and easy to read. Balakumaran, the fiction writer, had begun his journey.

A voice for the individual

Starting from the late seventies, Balakumaran wrote a series of highly successful popular novels in which he delineated the conflicts experienced by conventional middle-class adults in a modernising society, and rendered them intelligible as never before. He wrote of the lives of men who worked in factories and small offices; and women who toiled in telephone exchanges and garment companies. His readers across different strata of society recognised themselves in his fiction, learning to think of their own conflicts and struggles within a framework that allowed space for the desires and aspirations of individuals. He was served well in this by the commitment to realism that he had imbibed from the “little magazine” milieu and a sensibility that could focus effectively and evocatively on the individual.

His very first novel, Mercury Pookkal (Mercury Blossoms), a story of illicit love involving a factory worker, was a monster hit. His next, Irumbu Kudiraigal (Iron Horses), again a love story, featuring oil smuggling from the terminals in Madras harbour using a fleet of trucks, proved even more successful. Always a keen observer of the human world, Balakumaran never ran short of stories to tell , eventually establishing himself as a leading purveyor of popular fiction through the next two decades. His fiction was marketed through a range of outlets, from mainstream periodicals like Ananda Vikatan and Kalki to the widely popular imprints of low-priced “pocket” novels.

Balakumaran wrote about women with great empathy. In his stories, women were not merely gendered cardboard cutouts but fully sentient individuals, with bodies, dreams, desires, yearnings and frustrations. This “legitimisation” of female existence earned him succeeding generations of devoted women readers who resonated with the female characters in his fiction. While recognising that Balakumaran’s fiction was not quite literary in terms of the established canon, many critics believed that his fiction was an intermediate stage traversed by some Tamil readers before graduating to serious literary fiction. However, it can’t be denied that the majority of his readers were individuals who had grown more aware of themselves, perhaps, but were, at the same time, more deeply reconciled to a regressive social structure. With his focus on the travails of individuals, so necessary for commercial success, Balakumaran could hardly be the instrument of a social revolution.

A foray into film

As he grew older, the writer became interested in history and tracing his own origins. Appam, Vadai, Thayirsadam was a splendid novel that followed the migration and rise of a poor Brahmin family from the Cauvery delta region through the latter part of British rule and the initial decades of Independence. Udaiyar is a multi-volume historical saga situated in the delta region, that explored the glories and failures of the late Chola period in the format of popular historical fiction.

No account of Balakumaran’s life and career would be complete without a mention of his foray into screenwriting, where he did remarkably well for a brief period. He will be remembered for the dialogue he wrote for critical successes such as Nayakan and Guna as well as for blockbusters hits like Gentleman and Baasha. But his film career was only an interlude, possibly lucrative, in a writing career marked by relentless ambition and hard work.

I am sure that Balakumaran’s fiction will continue to be read in the Tamil country for the foreseeable future, largely because no writer since has surpassed him in the genre of fiction writing that he chose as a young man all those years ago. To have witnessed the self-willed trajectory of that vulnerable young man from the seventies right to the end feels like a privilege. However, considering the nature of his achievement, I am also reminded of what one writer says to another in a story by Nabokov , That in Aleppo Once...: “Yes, this is a most useful universe. We play, we die.”