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In the commoner's era: A tribute to Jayakanthan

N Kalyan Raman

My first memory of Jayakanthan was reading his 1960 novella, ‘Yarukkaga Azhuthan’ (For whom did he weep), about Joseph, a young orphaned boy working in a cheap eatery, whose already precarious life is threatened when he is accused of theft. The end of the story has the stoic lad weeping inconsolably, just when the emphatic defence by a much older colleague helps him escape the unfair accusation and the attendant cruelty. The story displayed Jayakanthan’s trademark assertion of humanity, especially of those who were defenceless and vulnerable. It also offered a clear-eyed view of Joseph’s tormentors, whose twisted natures were played out in circumstances not of their own making. Joseph’s tears were as much for them as for himself, the reader was led to think.

‘Yarukkaga Azhuthan’ appeared in the popular weekly ‘Ananda Vikatan’ where Jayakanthan’s short fiction would reign supreme for the next decade or so, taking a new generation of young Tamil readers by storm. Who was Jayakanthan, or JK as his admirers came to know him? The legend of JK’s early years is by now well known: The ten-year-old boy who ran away from home to Madras and lived in a workers’ ‘commune’ affiliated to the Communist Party of India; the teenager who spent his days and nights among Chennai’s underclass; the young man who was inspired by Bharathi’s vision of modernity as well as the great tradition of Tamil poetry going back to the sangam period; and the self-made writer who, after small beginnings in party journals, burst into the mainstream with a string of coruscating stories in Ananda Vikatan over a period of several years. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jayakanthan’s beginning was unique in many ways. Although many writers of Tamil fiction before him had grappled with narratives of modernity, Jayakanthan was the first to build an inclusive vision of Tamil society in his work. Slum dwellers, prostitutes, Brahmin priests, ganja-smoking ascetics, middle-aged couples in a strained marriage, blacklegs during a strike, and teenage rape survivors – he covered a very broad range of contemporary situations and characters with a sure hand acquired through first-hand knowledge and keen observation. In his many works of fiction, he examined his characters’ dilemmas and predicaments without compromising their basic dignity in any way. His theme was the struggle for individual freedom and humanity under very real, and trying, circumstances. In the decades immediately after Independence, tradition itself was a daunting circumstance for many. Jayakanthan explored the choices that were available to an individual of any description – young/old, man/woman, parent/child, wife/husband – when beset by tradition, circumstances, society, culture and their own needs; and in the process of exploring those choices imaginatively with his readers, he appeared to create anew the space for those choices.

The pedagogic impact of his work on Tamil readers of the sixties and seventies was immense. It could even be said that by means of his art, he brought a whole new social imagination into being where none had existed before. The writer who had achieved this before him in his poetry was Subramania Bharathi, acknowledged as a mentor and inspiration by JK. But by dint of the breadth and range of his vision, Jayakanthan was the first true ecrivain of modern Tamil letters. Like Bharathi’s, his was a modernity that did not insist on severing itself from its traditional origins. Jayakanthan did not diminish traditional ways of living and thinking, but scrutinized the modes of their existence in a rapidly modernizing world. He acknowledged the past as a source of continuity and nourishment, but never in an unexamined way.

The other great inspiration for his writing was an early engagement with Marxism. The traits fostered by the best in that tradition – humanity, compassion and an unrelenting critical consciousness – stood him in good stead in his life and work. After leaving the party due to internal squabbles, JK found common cause with a Congress then led by Jawaharlal Nehru and later by Indira Gandhi. On the political arena his most significant contribution was his opposition to the Dravidian movement and its virulently anti-brahmin ideology. As a Marxist, Jayakanthan believed in addressing honestly the problems and contradictions of the present rather than harping on the past. The past was to be understood, but holding anyone, leave alone a whole community, accountable for what happened in the past was ‘an obscenity’. He had the intellectual confidence and profound sense of belonging to language and community to reject the Dravidian ideology that he considered sectarian. To generations of Tamil readers and to Tamil society, Jayakanthan will remain a source of inspiration, a colossus who strove valiantly to change the consciousness of his time.

Published in The Times of India (Madras edition) on 10 April 2015


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