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Earthly Spirit: A review of Apeetha

N Kalyan Raman

Apeetha by La. Sa. Ramamirtham, translated by Padma Narayanan, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014

'Spirituality’ in the Hindu tradition is often taken to mean the experience of ‘oneness’ with God or the cosmic principle, realized at the level of the individual. If all human experience (including memory and imagination) is the subject of literature, then ‘spiritual’ or mystical experiences cannot be excluded from modern literature. However, even a tradition as obsessed with deliverance as ours has not engendered too many literary works in this genre. Spirituality in literature produces disbelief in the modern individual, who is more than ordinarily caught up in the material world. To the more politically conscious who are engaged with changing unjust social and economic arrangements inherited from history, this turning away from our vale of tears might be repugnant. Therefore, it takes an unusually gifted modern writer to dwell on the mysterious aspects of human existence that are as much of this world as we are and yet manage to take us beyond these confines.

Lalgudi Saptarishi Ramamirthan (1916-2007) came of age at a time when the avant garde of modernist Tamil writing – the Manikodi group of writers – was experimenting with new themes and forms. Born in a Brahmin family in Lalgudi, a legendary rural town near Tiruchirappalli, ‘LaSaRaa’ (as he was known) grew up in an envvironment of intense religious belief. After a brief stint as a screenwriter in the then fledgling Tamil film industry, he joined a bank and worked there until retirement. It is also interesting that he started writing originally in English, changing over to Tamil later. LaSaRa began writing in the late thirties, a time when the Manikodi group of writers were exploring the frontiers of modernism in their works. These frontiers varied from a delineation of individual destiny as narrative to social realism. LaSaRa, who was a near contemporary of the Manikodi group, forged an art that was concretely located in the world, but explored the hunger of the individual for the transcendent and the divine. The explorations involved, besides memory and desire, a traditional reverence for the elements, and woman as goddess incarnate. It is through his daring and imaginative exploration of such new territory, creating a world anew, that LaSaRa carved a special place for himself in the history of modern Tamil letters. A prolific writer, he had penned 300 stories, 6 novels and 10 collections of essays by the time he was done with his work.

Apeetha, the novella under review, originally published in 1970, stands out among his six novels because it is here that the protagonist is completely alone in his quest, with no real moorings to steady him. At the beginning of the story, we find Ambi, the middle-aged businessman, with his wife on an evening of torrential rain. Ambi is full of memories and nostalgia. His father disappeared when he was “as yet a wriggle’ inside his mother’s womb, and his mother, unable to bear the endless humiliation that was her lot, killed herself. Orphaned Ambi meets Sakuntalai, the daughter of the priest at the local temple, and they fall in love. Ambi runs away from the village after a fight with his patron uncle, abandoning Sakuntalai to her fate. He is picked up and employed by a businessman in a strange town who eventually gives his daughter, Savitri, in marriage to Ambi. After twenty years of a childless marriage, they have forged a benign but loveless relationship, which leaves Ambi restless and hankering for his origins.

It is in his native village Karadimalai that he meets Apeetha, Sakunthala’s daughter who looks exactly like her. Sakunthala is long dead, and her husband has married again. Apeetha’s resemblance to Sakku, his lost love, sets off a powerful longing in Ambi for the young girl. Being back in the environs of Karadimalai liberates him from the mundane and gives him an elemental sense of being alive.

We search for some imaginary truth calling it by various names like facts, God, freedom, and so on. But we believe in, and live by, habits, images, memories, dreams, and other illusory truths. What wisdom can there be in our ignoring what we have and running after what is beyond our reach?...Suffering amidst the indefinite, illusory shadows, and moving on within these shadows, we live our lives; when we distil some of these shadows to reveal some clarity, we use various terms like mind, emotion, intellect, knowledge, confrontation of Truth, God, liberation, and so on to describe the abstract states we seem to have arrived at through inferences. What certainty is there that the so-called clear consciousness is also not just a clarified shadow and nothing else?

When ambushed by his own desire, Ambi faces it not with the mundane rules of society but with a spiritual commitment not to ignore his own ineffable reality. He revels in the company of Apeetha, roaming with her on the hillside and near the sacred pond of the temple of Thirvuelanathar, the deity of Karadimalai. As his passion grows more intense, he sees his predicament over Apeetha as the result of Sakunthalai’s anger:

In this game she plays, I do not know if Apeetha is my daughter or wife. This does not seem to be under my control. If I can see Sakunthalai in Apeetha, will she not see her Ambi in me? Apeetha in Sakunthalai, Sakunthalai in Apeetha, one for the other, one in another: they are both my curse and redemption.

In LaSaRa’s vision, handling the conflict between the spiritual and the earthly is a matter of “each person’s sensibility and maturity.” Ambi knows that he is hurting his wife with his feelings for Apeetha, but the ‘truth’ of his spirit takes precedence over such considerations.

Though I may be the cause of your anguish the suffering you undergo is entirely yours. Over time, you will find that the responsibility for your sorrow is also yours. For I go seeking my fate.

It is remarkable that in a novel filled with so much inner anguish, we also find vivid portraits of men and women emerging from their social conditions. For the (Brahmin) men, depending on their location, the advent of the modern brings both decline and new possibilities. His depiction of women with all the richness and strength of their personalities in a domestic setting is nothing short of masterly. In this way, the text also offers the reader the possibility of seeing LaSaRa’s vision as the outcome of a particular socio-historical trajectory. For all its fevered imaginings, Apeetha contains within itself a brilliant sense of its own context. LaSaRa’s greatness as a writer comes as much from his intelligent engagement with the earthly as from his poetic and passionate devotion to the spiritual.

LaSaRa’s celebrated prose style and language – innovative, poetic and glowing with conviction – are much in evidence in Apeetha. His complex prose has been translated into English with breathtaking elegance and felicity by Padma Narayanan, an accomplished translator who brings to her task a profound understanding of the cultural milieu of the text.

We stood there silently for what seemed like ages. As if tear drops that had spilt from eternity had split into two, making a cup of the sky that arched over us from above, and the edges of the earth beneath us, enclosing us; we were traces of those tears caught in between.

Apeetha is part of the Oxford Novellas series brought out by Oxford University Press (India) over the past two years. The novella is complemented by an introduction penned by Pa Visalam, a highly regarded writer and social activist, as well as a Translator’s Note. Both serve to introduce the reader to the themes and preoccupations of the writer as well as this particular work. Apeetha is one more addition to the body of excellent literary translations from Indian languages that will, one hopes, get its due attention and acknowledgment in the near future.

Review published in Indian Literature 288, July/August 2015, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi pp 203-06.


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