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Stories from the margin: Review of 'Video Mariyamman and other stories'

N Kalyan Raman

Imayam, the author of the book under review, has emerged as an eminent writer of Tamil fiction over the past 30 years. Since the publication of his first novel, Koveru Kazhudaigal in 1994, Imayam has worked steadily to publish a total of six novels and six short-story collections up to now. Throughout his career, Imayam has focussed on telling the stories of the subaltern castes and the urban underclass in the towns and villages of the northern districts of Tamil Nādu. Imayam’s work made visible for the first time the lives of marginalized communities of this region.

After a few pioneering efforts, modernist literature in Tamil began in right earnest in the 1930s with the appearance of the Manikodi group of writers. For the next four decades, modernist literature was dominated by communities with a long experience of literary cultures, namely, the Brahmins and the landowning Vellalas. It was in the seventies that subaltern and Dalit communities that had hitherto not participated in literary production began to tell their own stories. This trend, which encompassed subaltern peasantry, Muslims, women, fishermen, migrants from other languages, has continued well into the present century. The appearance of these new works has expanded not only the scope and diversity of Tamil fiction, but fleshed out social histories and realities not available until now from any source, academic or literary. Imayam’s work is a part of this important development.

The book under review is an anthology of four stories by Imayam, selected from the six collections published over the years. Imayam’s stories illuminate a world of many layers.

Imayam writes poignantly about the hardy life of small peasantry, forever under threat from a modernizing world, its own ambitious offspring, and from that old adversary, the elements. In ‘Life Force’, a middle-aged man holds out against selling his patch of land, his only asset in the world, to a party in the process of acquiring land for a factory. Through a protracted argument with his son, who wants him to sell, the old man articulates what farming means to him: freedom, dignity, a place in the world, and the pleasure of growing things to feed his family and the world. He couldn’t stay alive if he had to give it up. ‘Narumanam’ tells the story of a couple who are left by their children to fend for themselves, looking after a piece of land on the outskirts of a town. They are visited by an engineer from the highway department conducting a land survey for a new road project, with whom they share their backstories. Caught between the greed of children who are struggling to fit into an urban world and the demands of a ruthless society bent on progress, the old couple await their own erasure. ‘The Burden of Soil’ describes in detail the ruin visited upon a hardworking peasant couple’s lives by sudden, unseasonal rains.

The second major theme in this collection is the subjugation and degradation of women, irrespective of community or socio-economic situation. ‘Amma’, ‘The Grace of God’, ‘The Sacrificial Cock’, ‘Food for the Dead’ and ‘Stolen Girl’ describe through their own subjectivities how powerless these women find themselves within their own families and communities, and the ways in which they try to cope with some variant of the same bleak, heart-rending situation that is imposed on them on account of their gender. ‘Stolen Girl’ in which an old woman recounts to a white ethnographer how she was kidnapped by mistake the day she attained puberty and returned to her family a few days later, and how this meaningless incident transformed her status as woman. All attempts to find a groom for her fail because even many years later, the story of the kidnapping would surface, making her ineligible for life as a normal woman. Resigned to her fate, she still has to fend off men who try to take advantage of her situation. Her own family is relentless in using her as a handy servant who is expected to do any and all tasks that may be dumped on her. The whole story is narrated by the woman herself, refracted through her own subjectivity, in the manner of an oral history, and there could be no starker indictment of her family and community, and of the larger world in which they are embedded.

Caste is always an all-pervasive presence in these stories but in ‘Food for the Dead’, ‘The Story of Nanmarankottai’ and ‘Police’, the ramifications of caste are brutal. The first narrates the forlorn search of a mother for her daughter who has run away with a boy to give her the jewellery that belongs to her; if the daughter were to be found by the men in her family, they would kill her at once. So, in her isolation as woman and mother, she goes on a desperate search for a daughter she would like to protect, though she is powerless to protect her child from the Implacable wrath of her own family. In ‘…Nanmarankottai’, a young woman stands with her two young children in the office of the headmaster of the local school requesting that a transfer certificate be issued immediately for her children. Her Dalit husband was killed the previous day by men of the village for a presumed affront to their honour, and now she fears – no, she knows – that she, too, would be killed along with her children because she is a witness to the murder who cannot be allowed to survive. The headmaster, though, belongs to a bureaucracy which has no way of acknowledging and responding to such contingencies, no matter how real they are. The central character in ‘Police’ is a young police constable who was asked to carry the bier of a Dalit across the fields for cremation because the body couldn’t be carried along the main road used by other communities. The event is covered in newspapers with photographs, and the young man feels that he has been humiliated and dishonoured in the course of assisting the state to protect the dignity of a lower-caste person after his demise.

There are other stories that deal with intersection of modernity – from working in modern institutions to using mobile phones, television and computers – with a population that is steeped in a regressive culture and actively subversive of the transformative possibilities of such contexts and technologies.

Imayam is an expert storyteller who has forged a unique style to suit the characters and settings of his stories. There are vivid descriptions of rural landscapes and the minutiae of traditional occupations like farming and religious services. The men and women in his stories speak in their own voice and language, launching into elaborate recounting of their back stories through which we get a vivid portrait of a whole community and its worldview. Most importantly, we are witness to how the individual, isolated and powerless, copes with the endless adversity of social mores and conditions, for, in Imayam’s telling, it is still an ongoing battle. Poomani and Perumal Murugan, to cite two eminent writers of the subaltern life who came before Imayam, were more directly influenced by the mainstream literary culture of their time. While Imayam is heir to both in his vision and concerns, he has shaped himself as a chronicler of the conflicts inherent in subaltern lives, revolving around caste, gender, modernity and urbanization.

This collection, superbly translated by Padma Narayanan, represents Imayam’s short fiction at its best. The translator, who is among our finest, has done a great job of rendering the intensity of Imayam’s narratives using clear accessible English, while preserving the spirit and passion of the characters. I hope that this first collection of Imayam’s stories in English translation will be followed by several more.

Review published in Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature 325, New Delhi, 2022


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