Su Venkatesan wears many hats. The Sahitya Akademi-winning writer is also the president of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’s Association. His second novel Veera Yuga Nayagan Velpari (Velpari – The Valorous Hero) shows the Tamil king in a refreshingly new light. Going beyond the oft-told story of Pari giving his chariot away to a jasmine creeper, Venkatesan’s novel speaks of other aspects of his life, including his valour, kindness and knowledge. Pari was not just one among the seven benevolent kings of the region, but he was also a tribal chieftain who stood up to the might of the powerful trinity – the Cheras, Cholas and Pandiyas.

Serialised in the popular Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, the novel has come to an end after running for over 100 instalments – the first work of fiction in the past four decades to cross that milestone. Velpari pulls out Pari, who put up a fierce fight to protect his territory, from the relegated pages of history. Venkatesan spoke to on Velpari, his discovery of the king, and his travels through Pari’s Parambu Naadu. Excerpts from the interview:

The Velpari you have introduced in your novel is not someone we have always been familiar with.
Many books have been written and lost in Tamil. Kabilam is one of them. Authored by the poet Kabilar – Pari’s dear friend – the book itself could have been an epic on the king. We knew Pari only as one among the seven most benevolent kings of Tamil land. But he was much more than that.

It took the trinity to come together and scheme his defeat. After that, they ruled the Tamil land for centuries. It is possible that any literature on Pari was deliberately done away with in those centuries. A mythological character like Karnan’s stays in our memory only because his story is told over and over again, heard over and over again, and written over and over again. Pari lived and walked on this land, in flesh and blood. His story needs to be told, heard and written powerfully than ever. To me, Velpari was an experiment with myself. I re-imagined Pari the way Kabilar would have possibly done it.

The success of Velpari comes at a time when we thought historical serials have become passé.
Reading is an act of catharsis, an act of reawakening. Of what use it is to tell the same old stories in the same old language? A writer should aspire to play in a new field employing new tools. In a sense, a novel is the art of arranging facts. Sangam literature is the only string of our memories that span over ten thousand years. When you write a novel set against the backdrop of the Sangam period, it is entirely possible to create a structure based only on facts. That is what I have attempted, and I think it has helped break the monotony of serials. It has ushered in a new wave.

So is Velpari a work of fiction or of history?
Velpari was the head of a tribe called Velir in the Sangam period. He was not a figment of the imagination. He was the guardian of Parambu Malai. Poets have sung paeans to his valour and benevolence through several generations. The machinations of the three kings to defeat Pari and the tears shed by his daughters remain deeply etched somewhere in Tamil memory. There is historical evidence of Kabilar’s sacrificing his life for Pari. I have woven all these historical aspects together to bring Pari alive, and yet my Velpari is a work of fiction.

Did Velpari demand as much work and research as your historical novel about Madurai, Kaaval Kottam, did?
Every work demands its own unique research. For Kaval Kottam, I did my research in government archives maintained because it fundamentally dealt with the colonial period. Velpari is based purely on Sangam literature. If for Kaaval Kottam I followed human beings who lived on the plains and constantly migrated from one place to another, for Velpari I travelled into the lives of tribals on the western hills.

Velpari also turns out to be a rich source of information on ethnic Tamil life. An ideal example could be the history of betel leaves.
Sangam literature has references to a particular tribe that originally discovered the betel leaf. How astonishing is that! I wonder if there is any written text anywhere across the world on how an ethnic tribe discovered a plant that they would use widely later in this way. A bird named asunama loves listening to music. Another named chakravaagam survives on rainwater. How can you read these references and let them pass without being astounded by the pure imagination behind them? To me it is the highest point of fiction. It is the highest point of the impossible beauty of imagination. There are many such surprises. All these references lay between two most important things that Sangam literature primarily deals with – love and valour. I wanted to bring them into my work. It was as important for the youth of today to know them as it was personally for me to enhance the technique of narration.

An illustration from the serialised instalments of 'Velpari'

The war sequence in Velpari was one of its most striking elements. You have explained in detail the various techniques employed.
We have been trained to believe that war sequences are mythological or magical in nature. The Tamil land had rich and varied martial arts, but they have not been properly documented. There isn’t sufficient researches on this. Silappathikaram makes a list of the number of traps set in forts and palaces for enemies. If there could be so many traps, imagine the kind of weapons the kings must have had. But we do not have any documentary evidence. Scholars like Sathankulam Raghavan, Pulavar Govindan and Thangam Kandasamy have done some limited work. For Velpari, I read up extensively on the weapons, on techniques for preparing for war, and on our martial arts. The war sequences in the serial are based on this study.

No serialised fiction in last forty years has crossed a hundred instalments.
Over time I have come to realise that Velpari is read keenly both by people who read serials before 1980s and by today’s youth. This is essentially because the period in which the novel is set throws light on our rich culture. A story like Velpari – which comes from deep within our roots – is bound to attract young people.

People talk of the digital age and the need to keep it short. But the success of Velpari has reaffirmed my faith that literature can only be an elevating experience. I doubt if anything can match the kind of magic that literature performs on the human mind. No technology can defeat it, or rob it of that experience.

The challenge however was to appeal to young readers. To someone who has seen all seasons of Game of Thrones, I had to say we have a greater story. I had to say it in a language that excites them. Tamil Nadu, anthropologists say, is a land of ethnographical surprises. We only need to unravel these surprises to make the stories of West lose their sheen. Velpari took on this challenge. I am not surprised that it had a run of over one hundred weeks.

Can you be termed a writer of history?
People call me this because of what I write. But has anybody written ever anything leaving history out? Have you ever come across a writer shorn of history? We have grossly misinterpreted history as something that happened in the past. History is the being.

Being part of a Communist movement, have you ever been criticised for not writing on contemporary issues?
Actually, I have written extensively on contemporary issues. Most of my non-fiction writing is in that area. That does not of course mean my novels do not deal with them. I have written two novels so far – Kaaval Kottam and Velpari. Both are attempts in their own ways to comprehend contemporary society. The roots of Tamil memory run deeper than we can imagine. What I see as today is only a fragment of what had happened yesterday.

Velpari is the original form of conflict between nature and human greed that Tamil society keeps witnessing over and over again in various periods. The novel will remind every reader of the politics of this exploitation. I believe it is the primary duty of any literature to do so. It takes only a moment for a literary work to juxtapose an ethic it holds high with the contemporaneity of a subject.

The world always believes that evil holds the power to eventually defeat itself. Literature preserves the soul of this belief. That is why I believe that literature has the power to reawaken the human mind. It has no past, nor a future. The success of any literary work can only be measured by the impact it leaves on the human mind.