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Posts Tagged ‘Sujatha’

This is my fourth book for Diverse Detectives Month hosted by WOCReads. I read ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ (= Murder Season) by Sujatha, for the first time, when I was a teenager. It was one my favourite detective mysteries then. I had forgotten most of the story since, including who was the bad guy 🙂 So I thought it was a good time to read it again.

The story told in ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ goes like this. Lawyer Ganesh and his assistant Vasanth are hired to look at some estate documents and see whether there are any problems with respect to the title and ownership. The owner of the estate is a young woman called Leena, who is going to turn eighteen. Her parents have passed. Her uncle is her guardian now and has been managing the estate on her behalf. On her eighteenth birthday he will be handing over the estate to her. But when the lawyer duo stay at the estate for a couple days, strange things start happening, voices are heard in unoccupied rooms and there seems to be a ghost near the lake. And there is a legend behind the ghost – she seems to an ancestor of Leena, the young woman who owns the estate – and the legend says that the ghost is out to seek revenge. And before long someone is dead. And the dead person’s body disappears. And both our heroes are beaten up by a probable supernatural being. Is it really a ghost which is doing all these bad things? Or is it some good old plain vanilla human beings who are doing these bad things out of greed? Who will benefit by these strange happenings? Is Leena’s life in danger? Are out lawyer-detectives able to find the mystery behind all this? You have to read the story to find out.

Re-reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ was an enjoyable experience. I had forgotten the story completely and so couldn’t guess the revelation in the end. Sujatha does a Hitchcock and kills the main suspect halfway through the story and after that it is a roller coaster ride and it becomes harder to guess the ending. There are many popcultural and literary references throughout the story – like a quote from an O’Henry story, the Bruce Lee movie ‘The Return of the Dragon’, the Frederick Forsyth novel ‘The Devil’s Alternative’, a description of a plot revelation from a Tamilvanan novel (one of my favourite Tamil crime fiction writers), Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agatha Christie – it was fun to spot all these. I don’t think I spotted or appreciated most of these when I read the book the first time, all those years ago.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ again. It didn’t resonate with me as much as it did to my teenage self, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless. After reading the book I wondered whether I had grown out of Sujatha books. But then I remembered that I read the collected plays of Sujatha sometime back and it deeply resonated with me and I loved it. So there is hope yet.

Have you read Sujatha’sKolaiyudhir Kalam‘? What do you think about it?

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Last week I thought I will read a Tamil book. This book, ‘The Collected Plays of Sujatha‘ leapt at me. I thought I will dip into it and read one or two plays – it is a massive book at around 830 pages – but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I finished reading it yesterday.

Sujatha was one of the great Tamil writers. He is known in some quarters as a science fiction writer – he was probably the first writer to write science fiction in Tamil – but he wrote in nearly every genre – science fiction, thriller, murder mystery, literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, short stories, nonfiction books on science, literary essays, essays on language, music, philosophy, contemporary translations of ancient Tamil classics – he was a true allrounder. I didn’t know that he wrote plays till one of my friends recommended his plays. And yes, that is Sujatha’s picture on the cover. If you are wondering why he is called Sujatha, his actual name was Rangarajan. He used his wife’s name Sujatha as his nom de plume (pen name).

This book has 22 plays – 7 long ones with multiple acts and scenes and 15 short ones, which are all one-act plays. Most of them look at a contemporary social or family situation and depict things in insightful ways and offer commentary on the human condition without being prescriptive. Many of the plays don’t offer the all-loose-ends-tied-up happy ending. Some of the plays are humorous while others are intense. There are three plays which can be classified as science fiction. In one of them, a man from the future comes to the present and stays temporarily with a family and witnesses what can only be called the complex, silly drama of contemporary human times. In another sci-fi play, a scientist brings a robot home to help his wife with household work. This robot looks like a pre-teen boy. Before long, this robot starts thinking like a human and developing feelings. What happens then is the rest of the story. In the third sci-fi play, two people are going on a mission from earth to another planet. At some point, the robot which is with them, takes over the spaceship, lies to them, and tries to change the mission. It also talks to the two humans and tries to turn them against each other. We have seen this kind of stuff in Stanley Kubrick’s2001 : A Space Odyssey‘ and Ridley Scott’sAlien‘, in which the computer starts thinking and refuses to listen to humans. This literary territory has been ploughed enough times by other sci-fi writers. But it was fascinating to read it in Tamil.

I liked nearly all the plays in the book. My most favourites were these :

(1) Adimaigal (Slaves) – This is the first play in the collection and one of the best, in my opinion. The story happens in a big estate. There is a patriarch who owns everything there, he is single, and his relatives live with him and serve him. They take any kind of insult which comes their way, quietly without protest, because they hope that the patriarch will give them his wealth after he passes. But one day a young woman comes to visit the estate and the patriarch is attracted towards her and falls in love with her. Whether the relatives are able to handle this threat to their future and how all the characters react to this situation forms the rest of the story. Most of the characters in the story were imperfect and flawed – in other words, they looked real. I have seen two types of Tamil plays before – one which has a lot of comic situations and comic dialogue and has a happy ending, and the second which offers commentary on a social situation but which also uses the medium of humour or satire to do that. In most of these plays, we could divide things as black-and-white, good-and-bad. But this play was different, because it was complex, the characters were flawed, and it was impossible to do the good-and-bad binary thing here. Sujatha was clearly breaking new ground here, atleast in the Tamil theatre scene. This play reminded me a lot of Lillian Hellman’s play, ‘The Little Foxes‘, which was made into a film starring Bette Davis. It also had complex characters who were flawed and imperfect.

(2) Oonjal (Wooden Swing) – The ‘Oonjal‘ in the title doesn’t refer to the swing which is found in parks where children play, but refers to the wooden swing which is hung from the middle of the hall in traditional south Indian houses. In this story, the main character was a great achiever once upon a time but has fallen into hard times now. He tries to revive his and his family’s fortunes by trying to do something big one last time. But life, people, his family hurtle past him as time flows inexorably in one direction, washing away everything and everyone with it. Sujatha says in his introduction that he wanted to write a play about the tragedy of the common man and this was the one that came out of his pen. It is beautiful, it is tragic, and it broke my heart.

(3) First Play (A Murder) – This is Sujatha’s first ever play. In it, a manager drops one of his younger colleagues, when he is going home in the evening. She invites him inside for a coffee, one thing leads to another, and before we can come up for air, a man is dead, and our main character is accused of murder. How the mystery is resolved forms the rest of the story. I loved the ending of the story – it was beautiful, unexpected, perfect. It gave me goosebumps. This play also reminded me of one of my favourite Martin Scorsese movies, ‘After Hours‘. Sujatha wrote this play forty years back and he hit the ball out of the park in his first play itself.

(4) Krishna! Krishna! – A man works in a toy company. He makes dolls by carving them out of wood. His family has been doing it for generations. One day his boss calls him and tells him that his job is going to get redundant, because they are going to get a machine which is going to do his job, faster and more efficiently. How this man, who is an artist, a sculptor and an artisan, responds to that, forms the rest of the story. A beautiful story about how industrialization and automation can kill art.

(5) Maarudhal (Change) – There is a small theatre which stages plays. A young man walks in to sit on his allotted seat in the front row. There is no one in the theatre yet, as it is early, except an older man, who is sitting in the exact seat that this young man has been allotted. The young man asks the older man to find a different seat, but the older man refuses to budge. While they are waiting for someone to come and resolve the issue, they sit next to each other and have a conversation. It turns out that the young man is the playwright who wrote today’s play. The conversation turns to the theme of the play, and the history of theatre. What shape the conversation takes and how the seating issue is resolved forms the rest of the story. The ending of the play is amazing and mind-blowing – I didn’t see that coming. It was like reading a Borges short story or a ‘Black Mirror‘ episode. So awesome.

(6) Idayan Magal (The Shepherd’s Daughter) – This play is based on a short story by William Saroyan. In the story, a prince falls in love with a shepherd’s daughter. She sets a condition to accept his love. What the prince does about it and the interesting things that happen after that form the rest of the story. Beautiful, heart-warming fable.

(7) Sarala – Two sisters meet. One of them has the traditional life – arranged marriage, husband, kids, homemaker for life. The other one has had an adventurous life – fell in love, fought with parents, walked out of her family, got married to her beloved, travelled to many places, has had many adventures. But the husband of this second sister, suspects her often and beats her up. The two sisters talk about their lives. Incredibly insightful, thought-provoking, eye-opening and even tragic. An amazing commentary on the Indian marriage.

(8) Muyal (Rabbit) – A story inspired by J.P.Miller’s play ‘Rabbit Trap‘. A man works hard for his company. As the popular adage goes, while his smarter colleagues get promotions and pay raises, this man is given more and more work. It is hard for him to even take an annual vacation with his family. Once when he does take a vacation, his boss calls him back after a day. His wife and son are upset and disappointed. This man feels that he is spineless and doesn’t have the guts to confront his boss. He decides to do something about it. What happens next forms the rest of the story.

I loved this collection of Sujatha’s plays. Though the latest plays in the collection are 22 years old and the oldest are 40 years old, they feel fresh and new today. Sujatha was clearly a talented playwright. I loved the fact that he didn’t play to the gallery and write the kind of mainstream plays which were in vogue during his time, but broke new ground and introduced new ideas and new ways of telling a story. I wish he had written more.

Have you read this collection? What do you think about it?

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I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter 😂 I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in India  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil 🙂

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

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I have been feeling for a while that I am ignoring some great literature from my own language, Tamil, and so I thought I will read more Tamil books this year. I also thought that I will read more Indian literature in the original (if I know the language in which it is written) or in translation. Sometime back when I was having a conversation with one of my friends, she said that Sujatha’s ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’ was one of her alltime favourite books. When I had a discussion on this book with another friend of mine, who is a connoisseur of Sujatha books, he told me that it is a wonderful book. After two strong recommendations, I couldn’t resist reading this book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

Before sharing my thoughts on the book, a few words on Sujatha himself. (Yes, it is a ‘he’). Sujatha is one of the leading authors in Tamil. In these days, when writers stick to writing books in one genre, he was a real allrounder. He wrote crime novels, murder mysteries, literary fiction, science fiction, plays, feminist novels, screen plays, historical novels, short stories, essays on diverse topics, nonfiction books on science, modern translations of classical Tamil literature – in other words, the works. He was an inspiration for generations of young men and women. I have read some of his crime novels and murder mysteries and books and essays on science when I was a student. I didn’t know then that his work was so diverse. All thanks to my friend, the Sujatha connoisseur, for introducing me to Sujatha’s diverse works.

 

Now about ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. I am finding it difficult to translate the title precisely – it roughly translates to Magnolias fill the bank’. The story is about a young man named Kalyanaraman who is different from the average young person. While everyone around him is trying to study engineering and medicine and law and get a good job and get married, he studies literature and music. Then he goes to a village to do research on folk music. While in the village he meets a beautiful, dark village belle called Velli, and falls in love with her. Unfortunately, she is engaged to a handsome young man from the village called Marudhamuthu. Kalyanaraman meets children, old women and different kinds of people in the village and he finds poetry in their everyday conversations – the way they use poetic language to describe everyday things fascinates him. When children play hide-and-seek, they use poetry to decide who will hide and who will seek. When gossiping about neighbours and telling old stories, people of the village use poetry. While Kalyanaraman soaks in the atmosphere of the village and its culture and its folk traditions, a new person arrives in the village. She is a beautiful, young city girl called Snehalatha. She says that she is the local Zamindar’s grand daughter. She has come to see her grandfather’s house and stay over for a few days. Kalyanaraman becomes friends with her. But he also discovers that there is more to her than meets the eye. He finds that she is hiding something from him and is also indulging in mysterious activities with Marudhamuthu. An affair seems to be developing between Snehalatha and Marudhamuthu, which gives Velli a lot of anguish. Then Kalyanaraman discovers a secret diary of the dead Zamindar’s dead wife which seems to talk about a secret treasure. Then the annual village festival happens and the ‘Villu Paatu’ concert, which is about an avenging angel, stretches till the middle of the night. Then there is a murder and all hell breaks loose. Who is killed and why and the identity of the murderer and whether the treasure is real and what is the part magnolias play in the story are revealed in the rest of the book.

 

It is difficult to classify ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. From one perspective it is about folk music and village culture and the contrast between the village and the city. From another perspective it is a murder-mystery. I loved the cultural references Sujatha makes in the story and the way he paints a picture of small-town South India of a particular time. For example, in one sentence at the beginning of the book, Sujatha describes how Kalyanaraman pays Velli, for carrying his luggage from the station, ‘without knowing about the local economy’ – in the sense he pays an amount which is not much for him but which is far more than what a village person would expect. In other places, Sujatha describes how a black swallow’s voice seems to be in F-sharp, how all village street dogs are called Mani, how an old village lady’s sharp nose and toothless smile were attractive. There are other such interesting fine observations sprinkled throughout the book which bring joy to someone who has lived in the India of the ‘70s and the ‘80s. The book is also sprinkled throughout with folk songs. Sujatha has done his research and fills the book with actual folk songs, depending on the context. There are songs for every occasion – love, betrayal, revenge, adultery, family life, the harvest season and every other topic under the sun. I wish the publishers had recorded these songs with folk musicians and sold it along with the book. One of the interesting things that I found in the book was the description of the paradoxical sensibilities in villages, how people are conservative and liberal at the same time. For example, how people value money and power and technology a lot, but they are also very superstitious, how they are liberal about man-woman relations but they are also conservative about women’s clothing.

 

I liked ‘Karaiyellaam Senbagapoo’. I liked the first part, which is about folk music, more than the second part, which transforms the story into a murder mystery. But I liked the book overall. I wish I had read this book when it came out in serial form.

 

If you want to buy this book, you can do that here. Unfortunately, it is available only in Tamil.

 

Have you read ‘Karaiyellam Senbagapoo’ or any other books by Sujatha? What do you think about this book or about other Sujatha books?

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