Battling Covid-19 at a government hospital in Chennai for several days, veteran Tamil publisher Crea Ramakrishnan was probably haunted by just one concern – the release of the third edition of Cre-A’s contemporary Tamil-Tamil-English dictionary. Ramakrishnan worked hard from his hospital bed to meet the deadline he had set: November 13.

“The work was already done, but Ramakrishnan was keen to get it released as scheduled on November 13,” said a close associate of the publisher’s. “He had announced pre-book plans.” The revised edition of the Cre-A contemporary Tamil dictionary – the only one of its kind – was released as scheduled on November 13. On November 17, Crea Ramakrishnan died, at the age of 75.

“This is probably the first time the dictionary for a contemporary version had been revised in any South Asian language,” the associate said. “Ramakrishnan adhered strictly to the guidelines of lexicography during the process.”

Fostering writers

The contemporary Tamil dictionary is just one of Ramakrishnan’s many contribution to Tamil publishing. Cre-A, started 47 years ago, was among the very few publishing houses in Tamil to introduce the idea of editing early on. Authors who have worked with Ramakrishnan say that he was constantly pushing the boundaries – “gently encouraging them to expand the scope of the work and also bringing in editing to shape it better.” Among those who published with Cre-A were Sundara Ramasamy, Asokamitran, Na Muthusamy, Sa Kandasamy, Imayam, Dileep Kumar and Poomani.

Poomani, whose Sahitya Academy winning Agnaadi was published by Cre-A, recalled the endless conversations he had with Ramakrishnan before the publication of the novel. “He would keep checking on many doubts he had, and wouldn’t let anything go unless he was very convinced. The process really helped.” Agnaadi, touted as a landmark historical novel, went on to win many awards and saw many editions.

“I gave him the manuscript of my novel Koveru Kazhuthaigal in 1991,” said Imayam. “He published it in 1994. I was raw as a writer when I went to Ramakrishnan. He taught me so many things. He introduced me to global literature, especially when he thought it was connected with the text that I was working on. He taught me what literature is, what language is, what their relationship with society is, and more.”

Imayam went on to publish 14 works with Cre-A. In 2019, the 25th year of the publication of Koveru Kazhuthaigal, Ramakrishnan brought out a special edition of the novel, along with paintings and sculptures that depicted the life of the novel. “In 2020, when the world was reeling under a pandemic, he was working on the Tamil dictionary,” said Imayam. “Not just that, in June 2020 he published my new work Vaazhga Vaazhga. He didn’t let Covid stop him. Language and literature were not just a prospect, to him it was a calling.”

‘The living heart of modern Tamil’

Simultaneously with Tamil writers, Cre-A has introduced many international writers into Tamil too, including Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jacques Prévert, Charles Baudelaire and more. “He introduced some of the best minds across the world into Tamil,” said Imayam. “Ramakrishnan worked really hard for this, he let his work speak for him.”

The well-known Tamil translator G Kuppusamy remembers the tenacity with which Ramakrishnan had pursued him for a translation. “We were discussing translating Aldous Huxley, and Ramakrishnan wanted to know if I had read anything besides Brave New World, which we were planning to translate,” said Kuppusamy.

“I told him I had not read much, and he sent me three works of Huxley’s – Island, Doors of Perception and Brave New World Revisited. What he then said will remain with me. He said a translator should be familiar with the entire body of work of the author he is translating. Only then will we be able to comprehend the correct meaning of a word he uses. This might not be necessary for a reader, but as a translator, I think this is the best advice I have ever received.” To Kuppusamy and many other translators, this attention to detail and tenacity defined Ramakrishnan.

Beyond literature, Ramakrishnan also helped run the well-known theatre group Koothu Pattarai, and played an important role in setting up the Roja Muthaiah Research library in Chennai. “Look at the titles he had published, you will realise how wide-ranging it was,” said Imayam. “From the environment to epigraphy, he published on many subjects, not really caring whether they would yield profits. He only cared about bringing into Tamil whatever work he thought was really important.”

It is no surprise that Ramakrishnan’s death leaves a huge void in the view of those who follow Tamil literature closely. Scholar David Shulman, who specialises in South Indian poetics and religion, said: “Every language, and especially an ancient and noble language like Tamil, needs some extraordinary persons to care for it, heal its wounds, and reveal its richness. Ramakrishnan was such a person.”

“For half a century he was the living heart of modern Tamil. He discovered and published the finest writers, meticulously edited their works, published major works of Tamil scholarship, translated foreign classics into Tamil, and also produced the finest dictionary available for any modern South Asian language. He was a man of impeccable taste, one of the rarest of human virtues. He was a great and loving friend. All those who love Tamil will mourn this terrible loss.”