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Archive for the ‘Tamil literature’ Category

I got into a deep reading slump in the last couple of weeks and so to come out of it I decided to read one of my favourite writers from my early teens, Tamilvanan. The book I read was called ‘Fly With Me‘. I thought I had read it before, but the plot was new to me – it looked like I had confused it with another book.

The story told in ‘Fly With Me‘ goes like this. A mysterious rich man invites one of his young associates one day to his home. This rich man tells his associate that he wants to hire a pilot who can steal a plane from the Airforce airfield and fly it and land it in a forest at a specific location. The associate says that he knows such a pilot but that pilot is in prison right now and he’ll try to get this pilot out. So this associate gets into prison himself and escapes alongwith the pilot. Then these two gentlemen go to the Airforce airfield and the pilot gets into a specific plane and starts it. While he is getting started, a beautiful, young woman jumps into the plane, just before it starts taxiing down the runway. The plane takes off with the pilot and the unknown woman inside it. To find out what happens after that, you have to read the story 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘Fly With Me‘. The first half was fast-paced and gripping with cool, stylish characters, but somewhere in the second half, the story lost steam, and the ending was too rushed and contrived – too many things happen in the last three pages that it feels like the author wanted to complete the story in a rush. The story seems to be inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel and movie ‘Thunderball‘ and one of the characters in the story even refers to it in an indirect way. There is even a Tamil version of Blofeld in the story. He doesn’t have a cat though.

Tamilvanan was probably the first Tamil novelist that I ever read. I read my first Tamilvanan novel when I was twelve and I continued reading him till my late teens. He was probably my most favourite author for a significant part of that time. Tamilvanan mostly wrote crime fiction, murder mysteries, action thrillers and noir fiction. He started his career writing literary fiction, but soon switched to crime fiction. His arrival heralded a breath of fresh air in popular Tamil fiction. He wrote in genres which no other Tamil author had attempted before – like action thrillers and noir fiction. His heroes were handsome, dashing, chivalrous men and his heroines were beautiful, elegant, strong women. Even his villains were cool and stylish. Before his advent, Tamil crime fiction was mostly humorous and cozy, with only a few authors writing in it. Tamilvanan reinvented that genre with his gripping, page-turning, sometimes dark and gritty stories and his cool, stylish characters. I think he can be rightly called the father of modern Tamil crime fiction.

Tamilvanan’s most iconic character was a detective called Sankarlal, who was a combination of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. When he solved murder mysteries he assumed his Sherlock Holmes persona but when he went on international adventures to exotic locales like Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong and Geneva (exotic locales for Tamil readers), to solve international mysteries and catch the bad guys, he assumed his James Bond persona, frequently being involved in car chases and boat chases with typically a beautiful, kick-ass woman accompanying him. At the peak of his popularity, Tamilvanan couldn’t resist a narcissistic streak and introduced a new detective who was a fictional version of himself, had the same name as himself, and who sported a hat and dark sun glasses as the author himself. This new detective was a loner. He was not married or have any family or friends like Sankarlal, he didn’t drink tea or coffee but drank only fruit juice, he lived alone in a big house, and he solved mysteries. Though readers missed the handsome Sankarlal and his family of charming, eccentric characters, they were not complaining. The stories of this new detective were equally gripping and readers loved him.

One of the things that I loved about Tamilvanan was his prose. His prose was spare with short sentences, and he wrote in pure Tamil which was a pleasure to read. Even the conversations in his stories were written in this style, and they had nothing in common with the casual language in which people have conversations in the real world. This made the conversations in the stories so pleasurable to read. Most Tamil writers would use commonly used English words in their stories, but Tamilvanan refused to use even words like tea and coffee and juice in his stories, but used their Tamil equivalents. When I first read his books, I didn’t know the meanings of some of these words, because no one used them in everyday life, and I had to ask my mom what they meant. I still remember encountering the Tamil words for ‘juice’ and ‘file’ for the first time in his books. The characters in his stories also had pure Tamil names, inspired by names from classical Tamil literature, names which were beautiful and always had a meaning attached to them, the kind of names which parents don’t give their kids. His women characters had some of the most beautiful names that I had encountered in Tamil fiction.

Another thing that I loved about Tamilvanan’s stories was the way he reimagined Chennai. His Chennai was not the Chennai of the real world, in which people got up early in the morning and went to sleep early at night and life was simple and nice and boring. Tamilvanan’s Chennai was exciting – in the city depicted in the pages of his books, there were car chases and bike chases, boxing matches and horse races, there were night clubs which had beautiful dancers who had a gun inside their purse, and there were mysterious, powerful men living in dark bungalows in the middle of the city who plotted big crimes. It was a mythical Chennai which was present only in the pages of his books. Readers loved it. Many of them believed that it actually existed. Some of them went in search of these exotic places described in the book. Some of these places were present in the real Chennai, like the racecourse, but others were present only in the pages of his books, like boxing rings and night clubs filled with beautiful dancers. Tamilvanan’s mythical Chennai was a glorious reimagining of this beautiful city, where the imaginary version was more exciting than the real one.

In addition to crime fiction, Tamilvanan also wrote nonfiction. Most of his nonfiction was written for a young audience. He wrote inspiring essays dispensing advice to young people and also wrote books on fitness, health, martial arts, learning new languages and even the occasional biography. His book on Tamil hero Kattabomman was against the grain and controversial and his portrayal of Kattabomman was not at all flattering. Tamilvanan even wrote a sex manual which was popular among young men and women. It was unique in Tamil because it was the first time anyone had written a sex manual in Tamil – Tamil writers shy away from this topic – and it was a pure one-off because no one has written a sex manual in Tamil since. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print now.

By the time he passed away in the late ’70s, when he was in his middle fifties, Tamilvanan was probably the most popular writer in Tamil – he published his own magazine which serialized his stories and essays and he had his own publishing company which published his books. He was like a one-man army. He had inspired a whole generation of young people to become more confident, to read more, to acquire more knowledge, to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of their language, to have an international outlook. There had never been anyone like him before. There has been no one like him since.

Tamilvanan’s sons kept the flame burning and carried forward the family business after him. One of them handled the editorial responsibilities of the magazine he founded and wrote columns in it himself. The second son took care of the publishing company. The writer / editor son tried reviving Tamilvanan’s most famous fictional character Sankarlal and wrote a novel featuring him. It achieved modest success, but not at the same level as his dad’s books. Soon, this son gave up fiction writing and decided to focus on the columns that he wrote in the magazine dispensing inspiration and advice to young people. These columns became famous and the son became a famous writer in his own right. The son also delivered talks on topics which he addressed in his columns and he became famous as an inspiring public speaker who spoke in colleges and universities and on TV channels and who was admired by a young audience. At some point, the fame of the son eclipsed that of his dad and young readers started associating the Tamilvanan name with the son.

Tamilvanan’s novels led to an explosion of the crime fiction genre in Tamil. Many aspiring writers started writing crime fiction including crime fiction legend Rajesh Kumar, who became one of the most prolific writers in the world. It led to new monthly magazines which were exclusively dedicated to crime fiction and some of them were dedicated to just one author. One of these magazines paid homage to Tamilvanan by introducing an annual special issue which carried a Tamilvanan novel, which introduced Tamilvanan’s fiction to a whole new generation of readers. Unfortunately, the genres of action thrillers and noir fiction in Tamil died with Tamilvanan’s passing. Tamil writers were more comfortable writing about the things they knew and they didn’t like doing research and so there was no question of setting an action thriller in a ship or a plane or an exotic foreign locale. Tamil readers mostly like their crime fiction in black-and-white featuring good guys and the bad guys, with the good guys winning in the end, and a noir fiction novel in which everyone looked bad or there were shades of grey made readers uncomfortable. It was amazing that Tamilvanan ignored this and went ahead and wrote noir novels and encouraged readers to step out of their comfort zone. But later novelists decided to play it safe and avoided noir fiction because they didn’t want to antagonize the readers and noir fiction died a quiet death.

When I first moved to Chennai, one of the first things I did was to visit Tamilvanan’s publishing company, Manimekalai Prasuram. I was like a devotee on a pilgrimage visiting a temple for the first time. The office of the publisher was present in a modest building which looked like a house. It was so hard to believe that this was the place which brought out magazines and books which inspired millions of young people. Well, great things happen from modest places. It gave me goosebumps.

In recent years, the publishers decided to revive Tamilvanan’s fictional work and introduce it to a new generation of readers. They brought out beautiful, hardback, omnibus editions of his most famous novels. I went and got some of them at the book fair. It was nice to read them again and experience again the joy I experienced during my teens.

Have you read any of Tamilvanan’s books? What do you think about them?

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I haven’t read a book in my native language Tamil in a while. So I thought that before I forget it completely, I’ll read a book in Tamil  I decided to read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ (Ponni’s Son) by Kalki.

Ponniyin Selvan‘ was first published in the 1950s, when it was serialized in Kalki magazine. It was probably the first (or one of the first) historical novels in Tamil and it got great acclaim and a huge fan following when it first came out. It led to a whole historical-fiction-industry in Tamil, when everyone and their brother and sister started writing historical novels. I think that craze died sometime in the 1990s.

I first read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ when I was in school. It was reissued againΒ  in Kalki magazine. We used to read a couple of chapters every week and then wait for the next week’s issue. The story ran for nearly three years. A few years back, one of the publishers decided to publish the book in the format in which it originally came out in the 1950s, with the same font, and the illustrations by the original artist. When this edition came out, I got it. It was beautiful. That is the one I am reading now. I finished reading the first volume today.

What is the story about? Well, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has a long, epic, rambling plot. It is a historical novel set at around 970 C.E. It is about the Chola king and queens and princes and princesses and their friends and enemies. It has everything that one would expect in a historical novel – many characters, intricate plot, conspiracies, palace intrigues, romance, war, amazing adventures, secrets from the past, charming characters, spies, badass villains, many surprising revelations. The influence of Alexandre Dumas is deeply felt in Kalki’s book – there is a young man, Vandhiyadevan, who looks like D’Artagnan, there is a beautiful woman, Nandini, who looks like Milady de Winter, and there is even a minister like Cardinal Richelieu. Of course, the actual plot and characters are different and fascinating in their own way.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it focuses on the plot and the characters. There is a lot of charming dialogue, but there are no long monologues or boring descriptions. There is rarely a dull moment in the story. Another thing I loved about the book is that, the author gives the required historical background, whenever it is required for a better understanding of the story. He doesn’t push the historical background into the footnotes or into the notes at the back of the book, but provides it in the middle of the story. That way he makes us learn history on the way and I loved that. Another thing I loved about the story is that different characters in the book quote classic Tamil poetry, and they follow it up with a commentary on the poem. Sometimes a poem has mythological allusions which are not readily apparent while reading the poem and the author, through a character’s voice, explains them. It was fascinating to read.

I read the book for the first time when I was fifteen and now when I am reading it again after many years, my reading experience is totally different. For example, when I read it the first time, I unconsciously classified the characters as good and bad, the way we tend to do when we are younger. But reading it now, I realized that the way Kalki has depicted the characters, they are complex and imperfect and fascinating. The bad characters are not really bad, and the good characters are not really perfect. It is fascinating how we see a book with new eyes, when we read it again after many years.

The artwork in the book by Maniom, is very beautiful. It has a classical, vintage feel to it. I’m sharing some of my favourite pictures from the book, below. Hope you like them.

Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Middle : Aazhvarkadiyaan
Left : Nandhini ;
Right : Vandhiyadevan
Palace sculpture
Palace sculpture
Left : Vanathi ;
Right : Kundhavai
Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Right : Kundhavai

Hoping to start the second volume later today 😊

Have you read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘? Do you like re-reading your favourite books? Do you relate to them differently when you read them again?

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