Sunday, 31 January 2010

What Tamil Writers?

Tamil creative writing in Malaysia, which emerged in the 1930s, was largely confined to trite themes until recently. Uthaya Sankar SB writes.
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ONE can be forgiven if one has never heard of – never mind, read – Malaysian Tamil authors.
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It’s not that they don’t exist. It’s just that they are not known (or made known) to a non-Tamil-speaking audience.
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In fact, Tamil creative writing is nothing new in Malaysia. The first Tamil novel by an author known simply as Vengadaratnam was published in 1917 while the first anthology of Tamil short stories, by one V. Sinniah Pillai, was published 13 years later.
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Since the Fifties, newspapers like Tamil Nesan, Tamil Celvan, Tamil Kodi, Malaysia Nanban, Inba Nilayam, Senthamilcelvi and Tamil Murasu have played an important role for Tamil writers.
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When interviewed recently, Dr Krishanan Maniam, of the Department of Indian Studies, University of Malaya, observed that the first generation of Tamil writers in Malaya were very much tied to their homelands.
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Their stories took place in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, while their themes in general dealt with India’s independence, the caste system and dowries.
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Dr V. Poobalan, a veteran Tamil poet and well-known figure in Malaysian Tamil literature, agrees. “For nearly 30 years, Tamil newspapers in Malaya had to rely on short story writers from Tamil Nadu to fill the pages. And since these writers knew little about Malaya, the country was not reflected in their stories,” he says.
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During the Japanese Occupation in Malaya, the Tamil community was encouraged by the Japanese to publish anti-British newspapers.
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Since Subash Chandra Bose was fighting for the independence of India, the Japanese encouraged Indians in Malaya to join the Indian Independence League and the Indian National Army.
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Three of the most important Tamil newspapers published during the Japanese Occupation were Sutandira India, Sutandirotayam and Yuwa Bharatam – all promoting India’s independence.
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These newspapers published at least 50 short stories in three years. All the stories still dealt with issues in India and used India as its setting.
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“Another interesting fact is that the content (story) is more important than the form (technique) in those stories. What a writer wanted to say was more important than how he or she said it,” Krishanan summarises.
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As for the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka-based theme and setting, things started to change in the Fifties.
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Dr M. Ramaiyah, a writer and critic, observes that as early as 1950, steps were taken to produce Tamil short stories which were “Malayan” in theme and setting.
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“However, magazines and newspapers were still publishing works from Tamil Nadu,” he says. He also points out that a notable exception was Tamil Sudar, a magazine which had a strict policy of publishing only Malayan Tamil writers.
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In 1950, Athi Nagappan, the chief editor of Tamil Nesan, made a statement that would live on in notoriety. He said that none of the writers who were published in the previous year deserved to be called writers. The result was that writers wrote better to prove him wrong.
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Tamil Murasu started a column to help writers improve their skills. Later, published stories were discussed in writers’ groups, again with the aim to improve the quality of local Tamil fiction.
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R. Karthigesu, S. Peer Mohamad, M. Sultan and K. Krishnasamy, who gained prominence in the Fifties and Sixties, are among those who emerged from the above efforts.
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Thus, observes Krishanan, the Tamil short story in Malaya was born in 1930 with the publication of the first anthology of short stories, matured in the Fifties, and developed rapidly in the Sixties.
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Still, the works of Malaysian Tamil writers are not known outside a very tight circle.
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A closer look might reveal why these stories have not been translated to Bahasa Malaysia or English for a wider audience.
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Most of the Malaysian Tamil writers in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties were Tamil-educated. They were mostly teachers in Tamil schools, journalists, Public Works Department workers and government servants. Most of them had not read stories in other languages, their reading material being mainly from Tamil Nadu.
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The result was story after story about love and marriage, poverty, estate life and Tamil education. The writers had ended up “riding their horse in a clay pot” as the Tamil proverb goes.
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“The themes are conventional, and lack conflict and a surprise ending,” says Krishanan, who analysed Malaysian Tamil short stories from 1957 to 1969 for his master’s degree. “If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.”
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Kaathal Vadhu” (“Love’s Scar”) by Ramaiyah tells the story of lovers Kumaran and Vasanthi. No prizes for guessing the end – she leaves him to marry a graduate.
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Kaathal Thiyagam” (“Sacrifice for Love”) by P. Arunasalam deals with the story of a man who sacrifices his love after he finds out that his best friend is also in love with the same woman.
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Stories which centre on family problems tend to end with characters committing suicide, as death seems to be the only answer.
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Krishanan believes that the writers do not try to build strong characters who can become role models for the masses. Tamil stories are also often characterised by melodrama.
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In Arunasalam’s “Uravu” (“Relation”), Megalai indulges in pre-marital sex with Segar and is thus strongly opposed to her father’s plan to marry her off to Kumuthan. Meanwhile, upon knowing he is to become a father, Segar disappears. Megalai’s father kills himself, Kumuthan dies, and – again, no prizes for guessing – Megalai commits suicide.
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Generally speaking, this is the state of the Tamil literary scene in Malaysia. Content takes precedence over form. Even then, one need not have a new story to tell – one can always rehash the same story for the hundredth time. In fact, it seems that as long as you are competent in written Tamil, you can see your story in print.
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Are there any new writers who can make a difference?
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Yes, if given a chance. Unfortunately, many claim that editors prefer to publish conventional stories, saying that that is what Tamil readers have wanted since the Thirties.
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What they don’t seem to realise is that there is a growing group of readers who want something fresh.
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In 1997, writer M. Balachandran compiled Illa Manathin Vergal, an anthology of 12 Tamil short stories by eight young writers.
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Though published under the Department of Media Studies, University of Malaya, I personally financed the cost fully in an attempt to prove that this was also what Tamil readers wanted.
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Illa Manathin Vergal was a sell-out. The entire print run of 3,000 copies sold in a year at a cover price of RM10. [Note: The money and the award for the book went into Balachandran’s pocket.]
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It proved two things: There is a new breed of talented young writers, and readers are ready for their unconventionality.
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“Tamil readers used to have limited resources since they would read mainly Tamil books, magazines and newspapers,” says Vidyasaagar, editor of Thendral.
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Now, however, he says, those who read Tamil stories also read in Bahasa Malaysia and English, so they are in a position to compare and comment.
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These are the new readers whom Tamil writers should address. And hopefully, by the time non-Tamil-speaking readers come to know about Malaysian Tamil writing, there’ll be something really good on offer. - READ A LITTLE BIT MORE HERE
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(Uthaya Sankar SB, “What Tamil Writers?” New Straits Times, 11 February 2004)

1 comment:

  1. I have read and heard a lot about education and literature.

    If both do not provide a common man, the reader self empowerment, leave him slog through out the life bonded by basic economic needs, the are nothing but a hoax.

    Let the writers, thinkers and educationalists start thinking in this direction.

    ReplyDelete

Sila gunakan Bahasa Malaysia atau Bahasa Inggeris yang betul apabila mengemukakan komen. Hanya komen yang menggunakan bahasa yang betul dari segi ejaan, tanda baca dan struktur ayat akan dilayan. Pencemaran bahasa diharamkan!