Acclaimed Tamil writer Ki Rajanarayanan once famously wrote that he had been to school only to “take shelter from the rains.”
“Even when in the school, I was only looking at the rains,” he said. By the time the 98-year-old award winning writer died in Puducherry on May 17, he had blazed many literary trails. Known as the father of Karisal Ilakkiyam – Black Soil literature from parts of Madurai, Virudhunagar, Thoothukudi, and Tenkasi), Ki Ra, as he was known, brought out the first Black Soil dialectical dictionary in Tamil (Karisal Vattara Vazhakku Agaraathi). He became the first Tamil writer to be cremated with state honours.
Born in Idaiseval near Kovilpatti in 1923, Ki Ra – who did not go beyond the seventh standard in school – moved to Puducherry in 1989 after being appointed honorary professor of folklore in the Tamil department of the University of Pondicherry. He wrote three novels – Gopalla Gramam (The Village of Gopalla), Gopallapurathu Makkal (The People of Gopallapuram), and Andhaman Naickar (Andaman Naickar). Of these, Gopallapurathu Makkal won a Sahitya Academy award.
Considered a pathbreaking work in modern Tamil literature, Ki Ra’s debut Gopalla Gramam is based on the migration of Telugu speaking people to Tamil Nadu, told from the memory of the grand old woman among them – Manga Thayaru. Both Gopallapurathu Makkal and Andhaman Naickar were in some ways sequels to Gopalla Gramam.
In his numerous short stories, Ki Ra unfailingly documented the lives of the people of the Black Soil – their everyday exigencies, travails and cultures. “His Vetti (Dhoti) is a short story on some prominent citizens calling on a freedom fighter, and how he hides his torn dhoti in front of them,” said S Thamizhselvan, a Marxist writer in the Black Soil literary tradition and honorary president of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists association. “It captures the soul of India”
A native of Kovilpatti, Thamizhselvan had the opportunity to interact with Ki Ra from early on in his own life. “All his short stories were centred around the lives of the rural agrarian community,” he said. “I always strongly recommend Ki Ra to comrades working with farmers. His narration and story-telling adds a grace and density to his work.”
Ki Ra took particular pride in calling himself a kathai solli (story-teller). Visitors to his government allotted quarters in Puducherry have always been regaled by his stories. Along with K S Radhakrishnan, a DMK leader and a literary enthusiast, Ki Ra ran a magazine named Kathai Solli after shifting to Puducherry.
One of his most important contributions was lending literary credence to the spoken language. Till the end, Ki Ra held to the belief that spoken language was the correct form for literature. “The pure Tamil movement was very vibrant during his prime years,” said Radhakrishnan. “Yet Ki Ra believed in the importance of spoken language. He would often point out how that was the language of folklore was in a spoken language. His dialectical dictionary was born out of this conviction.”
“The Black Soil dialectical dictionary was in a way a pioneering effort,” said Thamizhselvan. “No government or university had done anyhing like this before Ki Ra. But after him, writer Kanmani Gunasekaran brought out a dialectical dictionary of middle country and Perumal Murugan published Kongu Vattara Sollagarathi (Dialectical Dictionary of the Western Region)”.
To Thamizhselvan, however, Ki Ra’s most significant contribution was the publication of oral folklore. He meticulously chronicled oral folk stories, which were later published as Naatupura Kathai Kalanjiyam (Folklore Anthology) – a collection of over 300 stories. “He was pushed by a sense of urgency about this particular work,” said Thamizhselvan. “He thought it was very important to chronicle everything that existed as oral folklore among the proletariat. Ki Ra once told me that he was putting off writing short stories to do this, because no one else would. It is a deeply political work that did not receive enough recognition.”
Indeed, Ki Ra’s early years were intensely political. “He was arrested in the Kovilpatti conspiracy case but his name was eventually dropped,” said Radhakrishnan. “In the 1960s, he was very deeply involved with the farmers’ agitation and was arrested for it,” he said.
To Thamizhselvan, Ki Ra’s final message to writers like him was this: to write till the end. “When he was 93, he started writing a new column for a Tamil newspaper. At 97, he wrote Andarandaa Patchi (A Mythical Bird), which was circulated as a handwritten manuscript among his friends.”
Early in 2021, Ki Ra finally published Micha Kathaigal (Leftover Tales) – the stories that he had originally not intended to publish. Perhaps he left many more stories unwritten.