In the midst of the writing, oratory at local meetings, staging of plays and complete immersion in the Dravidar Kazhagam, Karunanidhi’s family decided that it was time for him to get married. The hunt for a suitable bride began and the family finally settled on Padmavathi from Chidambaram, daughter of the famous singer Sundaranar, and the wedding took place in September 1944 in the Self-Respect style of marriage propagated by the Dravidian movement – a wedding where garlands are exchanged by the bride and groom, without a thaali (mangalsutra), and especially without Brahmin priests officiating.
Karunanidhi appears to have fallen in love with his bride at first sight. In Nenjukku Needhi, he waxes eloquent about her qualities of patience, her love for him, her tolerance and her good- natured affection. He writes of wanting to earn a steady income for the first time in his life, as he wanted to protect and support his lovely wife.
To this end, the twenty-year-old struck a deal with the Dravida Nadigar Kazhagam (Dravidian Actors’ Group) to write scripts for plays promoting the Dravidian ideology that would be staged across the state. The group had an additional request – that Karunanidhi must also act in the plays. He agreed, on the condition that he would only act in the plays that he himself scripted.
Karunanidhi and two of his friends who were also part of the troupe moved to Villupuram for a month to begin preparations for the play to be staged there. All three of them stayed in one room organised by the troupe manager. Karunanidhi describes those days of poverty in great detail.
After finishing our morning ablutions, all of us would assemble at the venue of the drama. We would stand in line and sing a chorus – “Dravidam Dravidam” was the song we sang instead of the traditional salute to the Gods. Then came a meagre breakfast. Once we ate, we would practise the play. It was after that that we could go and bathe.
Bathing was a big problem there. Water was available only in some fields where farmers had installed taps. We had to walk far to find this, bathe quickly and wash our shirts and veshtis (dhotis) with some soap. During those times, the tears that would flow from my eyes and mingle with the water from the tap – only I knew about those.
After bathing we would head home under the fierce sun. The smaller towel tied around our waists, the washed shirt thrown over one shoulder and the freshly cleaned veshti held over our heads as an umbrella, we would walk back. Once the clothes dried we would wear them and head for lunch. After consuming that “punishment” we would rest for a while. Do you really think I would have been able to sleep?
The play, titled Palaniappan, finally opened. It was a flop. The small audience that did come lauded it. But despite advertising, few people came.
Periyar and Anna came to watch the play at different times. The collections were so poor that the owner of the troupe begged for Rs 10 from each of the leaders, who laughingly obliged him.
The owner came up with the idea of renaming the play “Santha”, a woman’s name, in an effort to draw crowds. That did not help either.
Karunanidhi explains what went wrong. In Villupuram in those days a vicious casteist mindset existed, he writes. He recounts conversations held in the streets there at that time.
“A drama company has come from Nagapattinam. There are over forty youngsters in that troupe. All of them are educated ‘parappasanga’. They have named the company after ‘paraiyans’ too.”
“Oh is that so? In that case their own caste fellows should only watch that drama.”
Paraiyar is the name of a scheduled caste in Tamil Nadu. Among the three major sub-castes amongst Dalits in the state – Pallars, Paraiyars and Arundhathiyars – the Paraiyars are predominantly spread across the northern and central belt of Tamil Nadu. The southern region is largely made up of the Pallar caste, while the western belt is home to the Arundhathiyars. Parappasanga, meaning Paraiyar boys, is often used as a derogatory term for Dalit Paraiyars in the state.
The word “Dravida” in those days, writes Karunanidhi, was equated with the scheduled castes. Awareness about the ideology was yet to spread fully. The misconception about “Dravida”, he writes, was the cause for the drama to have flopped miserably.
Having wound up the play in Villupuram, Karunanidhi and the troupe proceeded to Pondicherry. In the little French colony, the play was a resounding success. People began referring to Karunanidhi as Sivaguru, the character he played in the drama.
A lawyer in the town sought out Karunanidhi and asked him to write an article for his magazine Thozhilaalar Mithran (Friend of the Labourers). Karunanidhi wrote a piece titled “That Pen!” It was a critique of Gandhi and the Congress based on a pen that was lost from the Sabarmati Ashram.
Pondicherry’s Congress workers were furious. A second article appeared – “What if Gandhi Became the Viceroy?” A hunt began for Karunanidhi.
The opportunity came in the form of a public meeting organized in Pondicherry in which Periyar, Anna and Pattukottai Azhagirisamy participated. The meeting venue saw a sea of people. Among those were Congressmen shouting, “Dravidian leaders! Go back!”
“’Come!’ is the invitation that is the Tamilian’s culture. What is the reason to say ‘Go’?” – these were the words with which Annadurai began his speech at the meeting. The Dravidar Kazhagam flag was hoisted at the end of the speeches. The minute the flag went up, Congressmen brought the pole down. Chaos descended along with the pole.
The leaders were whisked away by the Kazhagam cadre and hidden in the homes of supporters. Karunanidhi ran, chased by angry Congressmen. Separated from the crowd, he began to search in vain for a home that would offer him shelter. In desperation to escape from the mob, he entered a house outside which two women stood. They offered no objection. Congress workers barged into the house and dragged him out. One after the other, they beat him until he lost consciousness. Thinking that he was dead, they threw his unconscious body into the sewers and left. Two hours later Karunanidhi regained consciousness. An old lady and a young girl were looking upon him with great worry.
“Ayyo, whose child is this? He is lying as if dead,” exclaimed the old woman. She took him to her home, nursed him and helped him with a disguise, procuring a long kurta and skullcap, in order that he may be thought of as a Muslim. With this they called for a rickshaw and sent Karunanidhi on his way to where Periyar was staying.
Though it was late at night, Periyar and Anna had not slept, worrying about the fate of the young Karunanidhi.
“Are you okay?” asked the old man in a trembling voice. He then applied medicine with his own hands to Karunanidhi’s wounds. “Come with me, let us go,” said Periyar.
Thus began his next journey – as an assistant editor with Periyar’s Kudiyarasu magazine in Erode. For a year he worked and wrote for the magazine. From Coimbatore came a request – ASA Saamy of Jupiter Films, a famous production house, sought Karunanidhi out to script films. He was to write the screenplay for the film Rajakumari to be produced by Jupiter Films.
“I told Periyar about the call. He said – ‘Carry on’.”
This would be the next turning point in Karunanidhi’s life – his entry into the world of films and the first encounter with MG Ramachandran, a lifelong friend who would also turn foe.
Excerpted with permission from Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics, Sandhya Ravishankar, Harper Collins India.