meet the poet

‘I believe in being the fringe. It helps keep my poetry alive’: How Naran is redefining Tamil poetry

The award-winning poet believed a writer cannot be apolitical but thinks voting is an exercise in futility.

Like most people with poetry in their heart, Tamil writer Naran is a vagabond. His poetry is as footloose as him and his life could well be one long, poignant poem itself. With three poetry collections and a short story collection to his name, the 36-year-old author says that his writings have travelled with him. “I am defined by what I write; I don’t think you can remove me from my poetry. I will become soulless”

A poet is born

Born into a devout Christian family in Virudhunagar near Madurai, Naran’s first brush with literature came when he picked up a copy of the Bible. “To me, the language was fascinating. It kind of opened new doors to me” Naran said. But the new doors led him to more questions and soon Naran rediscovered Jesus as both an angry and vulnerable human being, far from what was taught to him. “Don’t you see that he is so heart-warmingly human? Look at what he tells Magdalene: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”. He sounds so vulnerable and so endearing.”

But that was just one part of Naran’s transformation by literature. His tough childhood only led him further. “My father passed away when I was six. I had to start working when I was very young. Virudhunagar was populated with grain and oil mills, and a mill owner came forward to fund my education if I would work in his mills in the evening. I had no other choice.” At school and college, teachers who identified Naran’s penchant for reading offered him books. “I remember a professor was a good friend of writer Konangi,” he said. “I went and met him in 2002. That was the first time I heard of serious literature and of little magazines. Konangi gave me a copy of Kal Guthirai (Stone Horse) – a little magazine that he was editing. It opened a new world for me.”

That same year Naran moved from Virudhunagar to Chennai, where his association with writers and film makers widened his literary horizons. “Director Vasantha Balan gave me some poems of Devathachan, that’s when I realised what I am writing is not really poetry,” he recalled. “I was so overwhelmed after reading him that I took a bus to Kovilpatti without even carrying a change of clothes. Devathachan was running a small jewellery shop where we sat from morning through night discussing poetry. The night redefined my poetry.” Moved after reading Manushyaputhiran’s poetry collection, En padukai araiyil yaaro olinthirikiraargal (Somebody’s hiding in my bedroom), Naran went and met him the same night. “It was raining heavily, and all I did was weep when I met him.

New directions for poetry

Starting in 2004, Naran’s poetry was published in almost all the important Tamil literary magazines. In 2010, Kalachuvadu Publications published his first poetry collection Uppu Neer Mudhalai (The Crocodile from the Salt Water). Naran had finally arrived. Even in this first collection, Naran experimented with form and content. His poetry was characterised as much by directness as intricacies of life beyond human comprehension. “The poems of Naran are very fresh and they never stop searching for new directions in 21st century Tamil poetry,” said Indran, senior Tamil poet and critic. “He tries to present the intangible emotional contents as visually depicted images in his works. His poems breath aesthetics of ambivalence when travelling throw various layers of contemporary predicaments. It is hard to see someone with keen perception of human reality in words.”

Arguably Naran was the first poet to experiment with Zen poetry in Tamil.

He helped me with
some rice
bundle of woods
I gave one smile
I could give
just that
Just That

— Translated by Anuradha Anand

But he soon realised Zen poetry was not his cup of tea. “I was going through a tough phase in my life, and had created an artificial peace for myself from where I wrote the Zen poetry,” Naran said. “I soon realised they were fake; the readers might not know it. But I know the truth, and as a writer I need to be honest to myself.”

With Ezham Nootrandin Guthiraigal (The Horses of the Seventh Century), his second poetry collection, published by Kombu Publishers in 2014, Naran found his political voice.

Poems like Shoe which appeared in the collection helped Naran emerge as a singular and assertive political voice in the Tamil literary context.

While leaving home in the morning
I would hold my wife’s lips with mine
And wet her tongue with mine
She would do the same to me.

Every day after coming to office
I would lick my boss’s Lee Cooper shoes clean
The left shoe was cleaned by my wife’s tongue

— Translated by Anuradha Anand

“Between my first and second collection, I had collected various experiences in my life. I was picked up by police twice for no fault of mine, and abused in a police station. I realised it is not my experience alone. It is everybody’s experience that I was forced to suffer. It is everybody’s failed struggle against authority that I was forced to wage. At some point, I realised that for all those living on the margins, this country could well be one large police station. It eventually became my poetry,” he said.

A political voice

In his third poetry collection Lahiri (Intoxicant) self-published recently, Naran gives full expression to his newly found political voice. In poem after poem, Naran exposes the vulnerabilities of the powerless against the might of the powerful. The collection speaks of the societal hypocrisy of celebrating women’s bodies, the dark fears perpetuated in the hearts of minorities and the pains of those who have to give up their lands to the authorities.

Set as a dialogue between a mother and a daughter, the poem “Yellow Teeth” in Lahiri explores this indiscriminate trampling of the lives of the powerless, by those in power.

Mother, did we have a back previously?
Yes my child, but it was straight.
Mother did we have hands?
Yes my child, but they were hanging from our shoulders
not folded across our chests.

Mother did we have bottoms?
Yes my child but there were no whips.

Did we have breasts like this mountain?
Yes my child, but there were no rowdy male hands 
to hold and twist them like rounded door knobs.

Did we have stomachs filled with food or pregnant with children?
Yes my child but they were not filled by strangers or strange crops.

Did we have clothes on our bodies?
Yes my child but they could be removed either through our heads
Or by our sides
Never torn away

Did we have rice in our midst? 
Yes my child but it was not named

Lands? Rivers?
Yes my child but the lands had soil and the rivers, water.

Now we wear our right shoe on our left leg

Sometimes left on both feet
Other times right

Mother did we have a mouth?
Tongue...teeth....did we laugh?
Yes my child
Remove the green husk of the wild corn 
You can still see our old
Yellow teeth.

— Translated by Anuradha Anand

“In Naran’s poems I have always discovered a very soft yet a distinct woman voice,” said writer M Jeyarani. “They don’t just speak the women’s issues. The woman in Naran’s poetry has a strong political voice, it speaks about general issues from a woman’s point of view – something that is hard to find anywhere else in contemporary poetry especially if written by men.”

Naran often faces the question over the appropriateness of it – of allowing a woman’s voice into his poetry. “I am convinced a creative work is beyond age and gender,” he explained. “I grew up with three different kinds of women – my mother was widowed when she was just 26 years old, an elder sister and a younger sister. My younger sister was also autistic. I vividly remember the day when I found my autistic sister soaked in a pool of blood with no one at home. I had returned early. She was going through her menarche. I helped her clean herself. It was literature that perfected me enough to understand and accept my mother for what she is. It would be unjust to deliberately keep their voices out of my works, because they are women and I am not.”

The fringe writer

In his recently published, first short story collection Kesam, Naran experiments with form but the content largely deals with complexities of individual lives and the intricacies of human relationships. The book won four awards including the Ananda Vikatan award for best short story collection.“They were written over a period of time, but I think it is important to keep talking about different facets of human life,” he said of the collection. “At some point, they all gain a political hue.”

Despite his success, the poet considers himself a “fringe element”. “I have never voted all my life because I think it is an exercise in futility,” he said. “The hypocrisy of it is just too tiresome.” He believes in standing with his colleagues on issues but claims he can never become part of a movement or a political party. “I believe in being fringe. It helps keep my poetry alive and free from any kind of sanctity. My poems can never be sacrosanct, in fact far from it” he declared.

Yet Naran firmly believes a writer cannot be apolitical. “You may choose when, but a writer needs to respond to things happening around him or her. I don’t think there is any point in responding to something like the Thoothukudi firing after a few years. In dark times, we need to keep writing about them.”

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