Monday, August 16, 2010

A Riverbed of Stories

The Tamil language fascinates me by its soft, mellifluous quality. Words roll together into one unbroken sentence, akin to the continuous current of a river. To come across literature by an early 20th century Tamil writer, then, is to stumble upon a brook of writing, a fluidity of words that flow through a reader and leave his fingers wrinkled, wanting more!

KAVERI’S CHILDREN, a collection of short stories by Shankar Ram (pseudonym for T. L. Natesan), meanders along the banks of the South Indian river Kavery and brings to life the farmers, crops, buffaloes and boatsmen who comprise its rural landscape. These stories have been compiled from other works by Ram, written in the 1920s and 1930s, selected and edited by Prof. William Jackson from Purdue University. His choices weave together the ebb and flow of village life, which Ram writes about in English while successfully evoking that characteristic perpetuity of the Tamil language. As Jackson notes in the Foreword, “With the aura of the colonial era, with its innovations and pretences, waxed and waned, and the fashions of modernity and post-modernity also come and go, the Kaveri river, like the Ganges, flows on and on.”

Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil poet from 200 B.C., writes in Thirukural*, his epic treatise on ethics:

They gain the world, who grasp and tell

Of taste, sight, hearing, touch and smell (verse 27)

Indeed, Ram has a firm footing on the banks of the Kaveri and tells of a slew of characters, families, livelihoods, confrontations, confessions and revelations. They taste friendship in hospitable meals and anti-venom treatments, see a family crisis when hunting tigers, hear devotion in a child’s flute, feel the wrath of the Gods upon the river and smell desperation in the barren fields their buffaloes have to graze in. Ram is startlingly descriptive: when a three-day storm ends abruptly, “Nature also woke to life as suddenly—as if she herself had overslept,” and when a crab clamps down on a man’s toe, the latter fears a poisonous snake, and it is “some time before either could realize their mutual mistake.” His English is quaint and smile-inducing, one character exclaims, “ ‘Hark! What is that clamour?’ ” while two others erupt into a “deadly display of fisticuffs” during a fight.

Not only do his stories contain twists and morals, like an Aesop’s Fable or a Tenali Raman tale, but Ram’s stories are prescient of 21st century life, observing the immortal flaws and traits of human nature and invoke Thirukural again:

In spotless mind virtue is found

And not in show and swelling sound (verse 34)

Ram writes of conversations and gossip that falls “into the limbo of forgotten things,” as talk so often does, and is weary of a character who makes “more money than perhaps was good for the soul,” a struggle exacerbated in today’s modern, ultra-urban world. He is eloquently perceptive, defining luck as an “unaccountable coincidence of covetable incidents,” and recognizing that “solitude trained different men differently.” But Ram’s stories are never heavy—they are refreshing, a gush of ideas and events that move steadily from conflict to resolution or, at least, realization. One story ends in a lie, another in a sacrifice and a third in forgiveness. Friendship sprouts like a crop to be carefully tended to, and Ram shrewdly points out two characters who are such dear friends that “such an ideal intimacy could not have existed anywhere among men, and that is why, perhaps, they were born as buffaloes.” Before Panchatantra tales where animals navigate justice, kindness and friendship, there were Ram’s buffaloes!

Happiness and kindness are given time to resonate in his stories, especially poignant after a crisis or tragedy. After all:

Life bereft of love is gloom
Can sapless tree in desert bloom? (verse 78)

Just as the river Kaveri is timeless, alive, and continues to nourish all who encounter it, so do Shankar Ram’s words and images for all of Kaveri’s children—Karupanna, Lakshmi, Chidambaram, Pichai, the Rajah, Narayanan and you, the reader. A must-read, if you can get your hands on the book!

*Translated by Kaviyogi Maharishi Shuddhananda Bharatiar, “Project Madurai,”

Book: KAVERI’S CHILDREN by Shankar Ram (T. L. Natesan), Published by Indian Writing, 2008

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