The Tamil Story: Through the times, through the tides

Edited by Dilip Kumar

Translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy

Publisher: Tranquebar Press

Pages: 604

Price: Rs 799


Modern prose in Indian literatures is barely a century-and-a-half old. As is well known, the first inheritance from the West was the novel; the short story trotted a little behind. In the initial decades, because of its huge popularity and entertainment value, the novel held sway in Tamil. However, the lengthy, tiresome ramblings of social and moral issues never allowed it to achieve literary compactness or depth (even today the novel remains as deceptive a form as earlier). But with short fiction there was hardly a dull moment. It attained remarkable literary success and maturity no sooner than the form was adopted, with the perfect short story appearing quickly, all its elements intact.

It is perhaps the short story that corresponds to and reflects the Indian perspective of life quite convincingly — the glimpses may look scattered on the surface but are well bound beneath. Only the craft of the short story seems to have the benevolence to accommodate the fragmentary realities and truths of our existence.

In 1999, Manas published the anthology Contemporary Tamil Short Fiction (edited by me and translated by Vasantha Surya), covering three decades between the 1960s and 1980s. The translator of this anthology was the in-house editor at the time. The critical success and the readers’ response to that effort not only made us aware of the need for such a volume, but also goaded us to explore further possibilities in that direction. This comprehensive collection is the pleasant consequence of that understanding and process.

Unlike the earlier volume, which featured only stories that appeared in little magazines, this collection seeks to represent almost all the aesthetic and political perspectives that define and characterise the movement of the short story than the diverse streams that converge towards it. There was a danger that such an inclusiveness might lend a brittleness to the nature of this volume, but a sense of evenness soon played itself out, and the stories, particularly of the popular genre, managed to transcend the literary inequalities by firmly demonstrating the strengths and traits they are known for.

The newness of the genre resulted in a flood of fictional imagination and it was interesting to observe how a society conditioned by various religious, cultural and political influences negotiated the form of the short story to convey its own experiences, ideas and dilemmas. The short story, as well-known Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy once rightly observed, is “the last child of literary creativity”, and Tamil writers — each according to his/her sensibility — constantly attempted to either trespass or conform to this imaginary literary bar. To put it more vividly, the Tamil short story for a brief moment wore the look of a person who had paired a shirt, necktie and coat with a traditional veshti, resulting in an exotic but a truly happy marriage of the New and the Old, (or the East and the West). But when viewed from a historical perspective, the ever-evolving Tamil short story soon outgrew this illusory dichotomy and attained a seamlessness, providing for a wholesome literary experience. These little aberrations were not at all unpardonable.

As we embarked on this very complex task [of compiling this anthology] we set ourselves three vital principles to attain the larger objective of this collection and guide us through the selection. First, apart from all the conventional elements of the short story, we wanted the selected pieces to possess a very strong sense of “story”, so that they would survive the conflict of nuances between languages during the process of translation. Second, we decided to choose stories that reflected diverse geographical, professional and social backdrops that are a composite of Tamil life and ethos. Finally, the commitment of the writer to the form of the short story and to the truthful narration of the depicted experience was crucial. These parameters instilled clarity of vision in the work at hand.

Here, for the first time, the Tamil short story has been studied very carefully from its origins and through all its ascents and descents. This compilation is a result of reading thousands of stories written not only by the authors who are included here but also by those who have not found a place in this collection. There are eighty-eight stories in all in this anthology, spanning nine decades (1913-2000).

It’s almost a century now since the short story made its appearance in Tamil. Contemporary Tamil prose is believed to have evolved from its rich oral tradition of storytelling. But this genre, introduced from the West, was a distinctive, fresh literary form.

Any discussion on the Tamil short story always begins with the three stalwarts — Subramania Bharati, VaVe Su Iyer and Aa Madhavaiah of the 1910s and 1920s, who are considered the chronological pioneers of the Tamil short story. However, during that time many other writers too published stories in magazines and also as anthologies. Hence, we decided to explore a bit beyond the three established names. Following the references made by Tamil critics Chitti and Sivapadasundaram in their book Tamil Sirukadaiyin Varalarum Valarchchiyum and the Tamil short story writer Pudumaippittan’s essay on “Tamil Short Story” we managed to locate three very important stories of that period  —  “Sankalppamum Sambavamum” (1913) by Ammani Ammal, “Subbayyar” (1921) by Selva Kesavarayar and “Moondril Edhu” (1924) by V Visalakshiammal. These stories, thematically interesting and technically superior, are being published in translation for the first time in this anthology.

It is in the short story, undoubtedly the major medium of literary expression in most Indian languages, that the link between modernity and literature best manifests itself. This highly nuanced genre, constantly explored and experimented with, has always provided ample scope for a wholesome literary experience. It convincingly captures a startling range of human responses to the struggles and complexities of modern life. The art of the short story challenges the writer to attain the acme of perfection within a very limited space, at once imposing discipline and granting freedom. The essence lies in its precision and unity, revealing in the process the concerns of the writer and his fidelity to the form. Therefore, a good story — old or new — is always ageless, forever fresh.

It’s almost a century now since the short story made its appearance in Tamil. Contemporary Tamil prose is believed to have evolved from its rich oral tradition of storytelling. But this genre, introduced from the West, was a distinctive, fresh literary form. Unlike the novel, the modern Tamil short story could rely very little on the oral tradition; instead, it had to invent a tenor and sensibility that was compatible with, conducive to and reflective of the grammar of the new genre.

Excerpted, with permission, from the foreword to The Tamil Story, edited by Dilip Kumar, translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy. The book is published by Tranquebar Press


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